Time traveler

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May 10, 2004 // UPDATED 1:31 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Michael Metzger
Michael Metzger

A Downtown worker spends four months in 1628 America -- well, TV's version -- and returns to tell the tale

Jeff Lin is a time-traveler. The software engineer lives in 2004 with the rest of us, but he's also spent time in 1628, when European settlers struggled to survive in the New World -- and he wasn't thrilled to return.

Lin, who works Downtown and lives Uptown, is part of the upcoming PBS series "Colonial House," which debuts Monday, May 17 at 7 p.m.

The "experimental history" series follows in the time-warping traditions of "Frontier House," "Manor House" and the Peabody Award-winning "The 1900 House." This time, 26 people from Britain and the U.S., including Lin, were plopped into a remote section of coastal Maine to see how 21st-century people cope living lives similar to those of America's earliest settlers.

Lin was there from July to October of last year.

"I hated coming back," he said over the commotion of a Nicollet Mall coffeeshop near his office. "A few of us talked about staying if the producers said, 'We want to extend the project throughout the winter, do you want to stay?' In a second. In a heartbeat, I would've stayed.

"There was this amazing feeling of community that none of us had ever had in our 21st-century lives, and we wanted to keep it going. I had 100 percent confidence in the people there. If we were to go through the winter, we would've survived. Every one of us would've survived."

As he spoke, a coffee-grinder revved to life, buses groaned and sighed outside, and detailed orders for customized latt/s bounced off the interior walls -- normal sounds in that setting, but ones that can jump out at someone who has appreciated the absence of urban noise.

"You want to find a silent place for this interview?" Lin asked. "It's not going to happen. You're not going to find a quiet place, not a completely quiet place.

"The silence there was amazing, and I really miss it."

Low-tech

The "colonists" were relegated to using the tools and technologies of the 17th Century -- no cellphones, laptops, TV, power tools or dishwashers, of course. No hot showers. No grocery stores. No pizza delivery. For many of us, that's a good working definition of torture.

For Lin, the prospect of joining the televised experiment offered the chance to answer a question he'd often pondered: "It's a philosophical question of whether a 21st-century person can give up technology. Is it possible for us to just screw everything, quit our jobs, sustain ourselves in the woods for the rest of our lives?"

Life in the colony began every day at dawn with a bowl of oats with some blueberries. The workday was an arduous one of physical labor -- colonists raised animals, crops and built a house -- that came to a close with candlelit conversation among cast members.

Lin learned how to use woodworking tools, how to raise and eventually slaughter a sheep, and most important, he thinks, how to better interact with people after his months of close contact with the colonists.

He has fond memories of the group sitting around at night, after a long day's hard work, their faces lit by a single candle, and talking about the day, their lives, the project and more. They learned out of necessity to be more tolerant of others, though he said there were disagreements, including a few between a couple of men who nearly came to blows.

Those tense moments were the exception, however. The rule was cooperation and communication in a world without electronic stimuli or even so much as a book to read. "The only thing that you could do in your free time was be by yourself or interact, engage with a human being," Lin said.

"Every night was like a Rembrandt painting," he remembered. "Sitting around, smoking pipes, sipping on the ration of alcohol that we had and connecting with the people.

"Almost everyone would comment on how every single day felt like a week. When we'd think about how much we did, from sun-up to sundown; it was phenomenal."

Best, worst, forever

Lin said one of the best moments in his stay in 1628 was when the producers allowed him a violin. The reintroduction of music into the colonists' lives produced "this amazing creative burst of energy. Just hearing music, creating music, was for me, and for a lot of other people, a psychological relief."

The worst moment, he said, came right after he killed and butchered a sheep he had fed and kept. A wave of remorse swept over him, he said. Not for the killing itself, but for the waste.

"After helping raise and kill and butcher the sheep, after it was all cooked up and I had my one slab of meat, I realized how much work goes into raising an animal, how much natural resources; water, grain and time; for what? For one lambchop. It's absolutely ridiculous.

"I felt like I had wasted this animal's life," he said.

Lin said he's continued to be a carnivore after his return to the present. "Maybe I'm a hypocrite," he said ruefully, though he said he's considering giving up meat at some point.

Rocking in the role

Some human beings had more value than others in 1628. Though enslavement of Africans hadn't yet begun in America, the Puritans and others who created the first colonies carried the seeds of intolerance that would lead to slavery a few years later.

Women, too, were less than full citizens in the New World, as was true of just about everyone but white, male Europeans.

Some of the modern Americans and Brits taking part in "Colonial House" had problems with the racism and sexism built into their 17th-century roles. Lin, an Asian American, counts himself among them.

The American-born son of two Taiwanese immigrants said "Colonial House" is "about my country's history, but had nothing to do with my people's past.

"When I say 'my people,' I mean people of Chinese descent, Asian descent. They were nowhere to be found on the East Coast at that time."

The producers decided that if they included an historical Asian, he would have to be an indentured servant to the fictional English company that had invested the venture capital to start the settlement.

Lin thought the decision made no sense. "My first reaction was, 'How's this going to look on 21st-century TV?' Do the producers, who are British, understand American race relations? My guess was no. Do they understand what it means to put a minority in this subservient role? My guess was no. And so I made a big stink on-camera.

"I said, 'I don't see how you can take somebody from modern America, as a minority, in this role of a servant. You're going to get a lot of backlash from political activists when the show comes out. I'm warning you right now: you better make me a free person -- the governor of the colony.'

"But eventually, I kind of let that go and justified it by saying the young people [in the show] were the servants. I was 28. The free men were in their 30s and 40s; made sense to make me a servant, I guess."

It also helped that the role didn't require any acting -- he was simply himself, as were the other cast members. No one gave up their identities, even as they worked within the confines of their assigned roles. Men did the construction work, for instance, while women cooked.

"Most of us just wanted to embrace the project and kind of live it as close to accurate as possible. So if we were told to do something and we didn't want to do it, technically, we could've said, 'No, I don't want to do this.'

"But we took on the role and said 'Fine, we'll do it. It sucks.'

"They asked on-camera how we felt and we told them. That's part of the experiment; to see how someone with 21st-century freedoms reacts when they have to give it up."

Lessons

After Lin's adventure in the past, he knows that he can live without today's technology for months at a time but isn't sure that he could do it for the rest of his life.

"We all kind of know that we live in a country of excess. But we don't really know. You don't really understand how much excess we have until you give it up. And you realize how healthy and pure and happy your life can be with just these possessions. I just had, what, 15 things, and my life was good.

"And I come back and I've got a TV, a DVD player, a car, a computer, a high-paying job, I've got all this shit and my life's not better than it was in the colony.

"Too many people in modern life need to be stimulated all the time, and if they're not stimulated, they're bored. If they're bored, they're annoyed. If they're annoyed, they're grumpy.

"I think you've got to appreciate every single moment, no matter whether you're up against a deadline at work or sipping a Corona on the beach.

"Time is time."

"Colonial House" airs on Monday, May 17 at 7 p.m. and again at 9 p.m. on Channel 2; Tuesday May 18 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.; Saturday, May 22 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.; May 24 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.; May 25 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.; May 29 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.