Fun With Memory Loss

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Last night I watched Seven Men From Now, a 1956 western with Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher. (I had to look up the year and the spelling of Boetticher’s name in Wikipedia.) It’s a movie I had seen recently. My memory told me it was a few months ago, but it was July of 2012. (I had to check my Amazon Orders history to find out when I bought the DVD.) Last night I started watching the show from a recent DVR over-the-air broadcast recording, before switching to my DVD copy. I was surprise by how little I remembered. In fact, before I watched the film again last night I could not have written down anything about the plot, other that what the title triggered in my memory—Randolph Scott is out to kill seven guys. I didn’t even remember it was revenge for them killing his wife. I’m sure I’ve seen this film other times, but my memory completely fails me. I’ve been addicted to westerns since the 1950s, and every few years I binge on as many 1940s and 1950s westerns I can find.

SevenMenFromNow1956-WB

I’ve been paying attention to how well my short term and long term memory works. I don’t recall hearing the phrase mid term memory, but it feels like I should have that kind of memory too. I know my short term memory is failing because it’s very difficult for me to keep running scores in games, or remember which exercises I’ve done in my morning physical therapy exercises. Obviously, my failure to remember anything from a movie I watched three years ago says something about my long term memory.

What I want to do is write down a list of scenes I remember from last night, and then in a month, make another list of scenes I remember. Then do it again in a year. I’ll have to either update this essay every time I retest, or republish it as new. I’ll leave the DVD somewhere to trigger my memory in a month.

This morning I’m surprised by how much of the film has stuck with me overnight. One reason might be because I was comparing the video quality of the broadcast version against my DVD copy. And throughout the film I consciously admired the scenery.

  1. Opens with Randolph Scott walking in the rain at night in what looks like a desert near a rocky outcrop. He’s wearing a grey slicker. 
  2. Scott goes into a cave and sees two men sitting by a fire drinking coffee. They invite him in. Scott tells him his horse was stolen and eaten by Indians.
  3. Several short scenes of them talking about a killing in a nearby town.
  4. Camera jumps to outside the cave where we hear two shots.
  5. Daylight scene of Scott riding a reddish horse with blond mane and holding a line pulling a second horse.
  6. Several scenes of Scott riding across rocky territory and desert. Then he stops because he hears something.
  7. Scott rides over a ridge to see man and woman struggling with wagon and two horses stuck in a muddy pool of water. 
  8. Close up of man and wife, woman falls face first into mud.
  9. Scott rides up but doesn’t say much. Man asks for help. Scott gets off horse and prepares to help without saying anything still.
  10. Man asks if Scott could drive the team. Scott curtly tells him to drive it himself and hooks up his two horses to the team with ropes. They pull the wagon out of the mud hole.
  11. The man and women express their appreciation and ask Scott to come with them. The man is overly talkative, and openly admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Scott says he’s heading south. Man says they are heading south.
  12. Several scenes of them crossing various kinds of country.
  13. Scott stops them when he sees cloud of dust in distance. Tells man to get his gun.
  14. A troop of Calvary soldiers ride up and warns them to turn back. The wagon man says he won’t. They continue.
  15. Scenes of them traveling across more kinds of country, including sandy desert.
  16. They reach an abandon stage station. Scott goes in by himself for closer look and finds an old prospector stealing all the booze. Bottles are stuffed inside his shirt, he clutches others, and bottles stick out of the packs on his mule. He warns Scott to get out of the territory because of the Indians. He’s hurrying off as they talk. 
  17. Old man leaves and the wagon couple ride up just as two cowboys ride up from another direction. One is Lee Marvin and he knows Scott and calls him Sheriff. Can’t remember the other guys name, either character or actor, but he looks sort of like Aldo Ray. 
  18. Scott tells wagon couple what to do as the other two men unsaddle their horses.
  19. Scene switches to dinner inside the station. Marvin is flirting with the woman and insulting the husband. Lots of tension. Scott stays outside. Marvin tells couple that Scott is chasing men who killed his wife in a Wells Fargo holdup.
  20. Scene switches to wife taking coffee out to Scott and tries to get him to talk about his wife. He won’t.
  21. Next morning as they get ready to leave they are scared by band of Indians just appearing next to station house. Scott settles the situation by giving them his second horse, which he knows they want to eat. Indians ride off. 
  22. All five people head out. Again traveling across different terrain. Beautiful fall tree leaves near river beds, dry and sandy in desert stretches, totally rocky near canyon walls.
  23. They come across signs of Indian attack. Then see a man running on foot from Indians. Lee and Scott ride off to rescue him, killing several Indians. When Scott goes to get the man’s horse who was on foot, that man tries to shoot Scott in back but Lee Marvin shoots him in the back. It seems that was number three of seven.
  24. They next stop near a river to water horses and wife does laundry which she hangs out on line. Scott helps her. Lee Marvin tells them they are wasting their time because a storm is coming up. 
  25. Several scenes of traveling and camping. Marvin tells Scott he knows the seven men who stole the Wells Fargo shipment of $20,000, but he and his buddy aren’t part of that group. He’s going to tag long while Scott tracks them down and then take the money, and informs Scott he will kill him if he gets in the way. Scott doesn’t say anything.
  26. Other scenes of traveling, eventually stopping to camp in the rain.  Marvin goes inside wagon for coffee and continues insulting the husband and flirting with the wife. The husband is obviously a coward, and the woman defends him. She also seems to be developing a thing for Scott. Oddly, lots of rain in this desert country just north of Mexico.
  27. Finally Scott runs off Marvin and his buddy for causing trouble.
  28. Sexy scene of Scott bedding down under wagon while it’s raining, and we see wife in her slip in the wagon going to bed. They talk to each other through the floor boards. 
  29. Marvin and buddy head into the town which is the wagon’s destination, and meet up with the last four of the killers. Marvin tells them Scott is coming. They say they are waiting for a wagon. Marvin and buddy realize they’ve been riding with the $20,000 all the time.
  30. The leader of the four send two of his men out to ambush Scott.
  31. Scott leaves the couple to ride into town. Gail Russell tries to kiss him goodbye. We don’t know if she was aiming for his lips or his cheeks because he turns away. 
  32. Several scenes of two riders preparing an ambush and Scott killing them. Scott gets shot in the leg. His horse runs off. He tries to catch one of the killer’s horse, and it drags him along, bashing his head into a rock.
  33. Wagon shows up, finds the unconscious Scott. The couple nurse him and husband tells wife he has what the killer wants. Scott overhears as the husband confesses he’s carrying the strongbox to the town for $500. Scott confronts him and man tells Scott that he didn’t know about the killing. Scott has him throw down the strongbox in the middle of a small canyon and tells the couple there’s a cut-off for California just before getting into town. They leave. Scott waits.
  34. The husband decides he must go into town to tell the sheriff that Scott is in the desert waiting for the last two killers.
  35. The couple arrive in town just as the two killers and Marvin and his buddy are saddling up to go look for the wagon. Husband tells killers Scott took the strongbox and is waiting for them. They go to leave, but the leader of the gang sees the husband is heading towards sheriff’s office and shoots him in the back. Marvin comes over to look at the dead body and tells his buddy that the husband wasn’t a coward after all, knowing the wife holding his body hears. 
  36. The two killers head into the canyon and circle round from two sides. Scott kills one. Marvin and his buddy sneak in and catch the leader alone and kill him. Then Marvin kills his buddy.
  37. Marvin then walks out to middle of canyon and stands near the strong box.
  38. Scott comes out. They talk. Marvin tells Scott to walk away. They have a shoot-out and Scott kills Marvin before he can even pull his guns.
  39. Scene cuts to town and Scott is in clean clothes, but still limping, directing a wagon of Wells Fargo men loading the strongbox.
  40. Wife comes out of hotel all dressed up and gets ready to go on the stage.
  41. Scott tells her he’s going back to his town and he’d see her around. He leaves.
  42. Wife tells stage driver to unload her bags because she isn’t going to California.
  43. The end

Damn, I’m absolutely amazed that I remember this much. I can roughly visualize the scenes I describe. I remember details like Marvin’s long green scarf around his neck, and bright yellow scarf around soldier’s neck. Gail Russell, who I remembered as Gail Davis until I got the poster above has dark hair and is very beautiful. She played the Quaker girl in Angel and the Badman when she was ten years younger. In Seven Men From Now she is described as 25, but you can tell she’s not. I remember her dresses and how tight they were in the waist and chest. They are 1950s fashion of the old west. Everyone in this film was too clean and their clothes too new.

I could probably write down hundreds of details right now. The colors in this film were extremely vivid, especially the fall tree foliage along the riverbeds. I also remember the colors and patterns of the horses. And I remember the coffee pot and tin cups in the early scenes and wondered if they were the same pot and cups in the station and those at the camping in the rain scene.

How much will I remember in a month, or three months, or next year? I know most of it will disappear. This web site, which ironically I named “Auxiliary Memory” will have these details for me to recall later, outperforming my wetware. Eventually, I will write down a new list of scenes remembered before I look at them again, to compare how much I remember and forget.

pickup_on_south_street_ver3

People who regularly read my blog must realize I’m becoming rather obsessed with my memory. I’m learning I must take care of my memory like I’m taking care of my general health, my back, teeth and other parts of me that are starting to wear out. Youth and vitality lets us ignore how our mind and body work. I figure the older I get, the more I’ll have to consciously study at keeping things going.

We have memory loss at all times in our life. Maybe it’s a little more scary when we get older because it happens more, but how much more? The night before I watched Pickup on South Street, a gritty film noir from 1953 about a pickpocket accidently stealing microfilm from commie spies in New York City. I don’t think I can remember it like I did the western above, since two days causes a fair amount of memory erosion. However, I might remember fifty to seven-five percent of what I remembered from last night’s flick. It was a gripping film, with lots of good emotional tension. Richard Widmark was amazing as a cold, calculating hustler. It was so riveting I stayed up well past my bedtime.

Our brains are somewhat like hard drives—they fill up. Unless there’s some kind of metaphysical networking to mystical cloud storage, we have limited space in our brains. Obviously, forgetting is essential. Imagine if we were robots that had to consciously decide what to erase each day. Lucky for us that chore is handled by our unconscious minds, yet it is amusing to consciously observe how pieces of ourselves disappear.

My fantasy analogy for getting older is to visualize a B-17 flying back to England that’s been all shot up over Germany in WWII. Aging is like the plane slowly coming apart over the English channel as more gauges and controls fail. We’re still flying, but we’re coming apart in the sky, losing altitude. We do what we can to keep flying, and as we run out of fuel, we even toss equipment out the hatch to save weight and gain a little height. We always know we’ll crash into the Cliffs of Dover, but we keep flying anyway.

I like to imagine myself as the pilot of that plane, doing everything I can to keep flying, but still laughing at the absurd existential situation I’m in.

JWH

Adding Literary Realism to Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My favorite reading genre is science fiction, but my favorite books are usually literary novels. I often think about what makes a literary novel great and wonder why those elements aren’t usually found in science fiction.

A Town Like Alice, a 1950 novel by Nevil Shute, has been made into a movie (1956), television mini-series (1981) and radio drama (1997). Shute’s story obviously has lasting appeal, perfect for would-be writers to study. I’m 65 years late discovering this novel, yet it was gripping as any current bestseller. Why? To answer that is a writing lesson and not a review. If you haven’t read this novel go away and come back when you’re done, because to dissect this book will give away spoilers. There’s a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon. Make sure you get the full version, not one of the shorter editions. The audio edition narrated by Robin Bailey is wonderful.

a town like alice

A Town Without Alice is a love story related through a lawyer. Jean Paget, an Englishwoman, gets caught up in World War II while living in British Malaya, becoming a prisoner of war. She has a brief encounter with Joe Harman, an Australian, also a prisoner. Years after the war she inherits money that allows her to return to Malaya to track down Joe. The narrator of the story is Noel Strachen, a widowed lawyer in his seventies, in charge of Jean’s trust fund in England.

Noel can’t know everything that goes on in this story, but Nevil Shute has him tell the tale. Jean either relates her adventures in person, or via letters, but it’s still not enough for Noel to know everything. So why does Shute have this old solicitor be the storyteller? I think it’s key to why the novel succeeds.

We generally read novels that are in the first or third person. First person novels are very intimate, but have limitations. Third person POV allows writers the most latitude for giving reader information, but it adds an impersonal distance from the character. That’s why many modern writers often use a very close third person. It lets the author convey details the main character won’t know, yet stay close enough to let readers feel intimate with their protagonists.

Nevil Shute knew Jean and Joe could not be writers, and he wants the reader to think this is a true story. By having Jean’s solicitor tell the story in first person, it makes the story feel very true. An “as told by” kind of narrative. A Town Like Alice is based on two real events, but greatly changed for the novel. But it’s also part speculation, about how to revitalize a dying town in the Australian outback. Shute had immigrated to Australia after the war and he obviously loved the frontier life and people. Some of this story feels journalistic with vivid details that Shute must have experienced first hand. Science fiction writers must invent all their details, which puts a burden on realism.

Yet, it’s the accumulation of significant details that make great prose.

My reading experience has taught me stories that feel real often become classics, even if they are entirely made up. One reason why Jodi Picoult novels are so popular is because she starts with headline news and then creates a fictional tale that riffs on reality. Her stories feel real. Genre readers gorge on mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and romances, but genre fiction seldom feels like true stories. Most literary novels seem like thinly disguised real events, or excellent forgeries of reality. A Town Like Alice grips us like a memoir or travelogue rather than a novel.

Downward_to_the_Earth

I recently read Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, a 1970 science fiction novel that was obviously inspired by The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The reason why I felt Silverberg’s novel is better than the average science fiction novel is because he created that sense of literary realism, even in a fantastic setting. I wonder why more science fiction writers don’t use this technique? Too often I feel genre writers imitate movies and television shows which seldom seem lifelike. We’re given thrills to replace believability.

I’ve written several drafts of science fiction novels over the years and have never liked what I’ve written. I think my failure is because I’ve modeled my stories on science fiction novels. The lesson I learned from reading A Town Like Alice and Downward to the Earth is I should model my science fiction on literary novels. I’m surprised more science fiction writers haven’t created stories inspired by literary classics like Silverberg did with Downward to the Earth.

Look how successful Andy Weir did with The Martian, which descends from Robinson Crusoe. And isn’t it particularly strange that we never see epic love stories in science fiction? I can’t think of any SF story that comes close to Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice. I believe the huge success of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was due to it feeling like Graham Greene wrote a science fiction novel, and the reason why I like The Water Knife less is because it feels like a movie thriller.

Can science fiction writers set a story on the Moon, Mars or some distant planet in another star system and make readers feel like they’re reading a true life story? When Robinson Crusoe came out in 1719 readers thought it was a memoir from a real castaway. I’m tempted to write a science fiction novel inspired by Dickens’ Great Expectation, and model the characters on people I know. I lived many Pip like experiences I could use.

JWH

A Reading Plan For An Aging Brain

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 24, 2015

I no longer read to kill time because I’m running out of time to kill.

This essay is for bookworms who are getting older. I’m not sure younger readers will appreciate what I’m going to write about unless they are trying to anticipate getting older like I am now. I’m discovering in my sixties that things are changing once again, adding to that illusion that every decade of life is different.

Getting old is fascinating. You expect your attitude towards life in your autumn years to feel the same as it did in your middle years when you planned your retirement. It hasn’t worked that way for me. Even my relationship with books has changed. I assumed I’d get to read more books when I retired, but I’ve discovered I should intentionally read less. I want to read more, the hunger is there, but the urge to read parallels my sex drive; my mind is still horny but my body has lost it’s enthusiasm. My motto for aging is, “Do more with less.”

The-Signature-of-All-Things

I wish I could read a book a day like super-bookworms Liberty Hardy and Eva at A Striped Armchair, but I can’t. Those women are in their twenties. There were a couple phases in my life when I read a book a day, but reading was about all I did. Now, that I’m 63 and retired, I have plenty of time to read, yet I find I can only read so much before my brain gets mushy. Don’t get me wrong, I can still read all day long and finish a book in a day, but I must tune into a reading mode where words flash by mind like a ticker tape—I’m entertained but I remember little. Imagine a diet of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for every meal and snack. Such fare will keep you filled up but will it give you any lasting nutritional value?

I’ve read 49 books so far this year. I was on a two books a week pace until July. If I hustled, I could speed back up and finish 102 books in 2015 if I wanted. I still have the vitality to do that, but something has changed. Knocking back book after book just doesn’t feel right. I can’t imagine reading 300-400 books a year like Liberty Hardy. Here’s the rub, now that I’m starting to age, what I want from books is changing. The thrill of quantity is flagging. When you’re young, you want to do it all, and you’re sure you can. Now I’m starting to understand bucket lists. I don’t think I’ll be kicking a bucket anytime soon, but who knows? Youth is full of infinities, I’m learning getting old is all about finite mathematics.

When I go to bookstores, or the library, or read book reviews and book blogs, I encounter hundreds of books I want to read. I ache to be immortal and read them all. I’m giving up my New Year’s goal to read 100 books this year. Just reading a book is no longer enough. It’s like watching television, seeing one show after another in the evening, and realizing the next morning you’ve already forgotten what they were. Realizing that I’m forgetting more and more inspires me to hang on harder and harder. Learning what’s important involves the mathematics of limitations.

Don’t think I’m depressed, or let these thoughts depress you. It’s just a new game, with new rules to make life interesting. Limits have their own pleasures.

Instead of rushing to page one of the next book after reading “The End” of the last book, I want time to think about what I’ve read, to put my impressions into writing, and chat up the book with my bookworm friends. Slowing down my reading pace helps remember. I’m tired of reading only to forget. If reading slower with fewer books means I can retain more, then that’s my new reading plan.

Remember the ending to Fahrenheit 451? Where all the book people are living in the forest. Each person has chosen a book to memorize. I don’t picture myself doing that, but I can picture myself learning to know a finite number of books very well. I expect my sixties to be a decade where I define a set of my favorite books I want to study. Sure, I’ll keep reading new ones, but because of my memory problems I feel compelled to gather books I want to remember. I’m sure as my memories fade, this list will dwindle. It will become a tontine, and one book will be the last to leave my thoughts.

I’ve been a bookworm all my life, and proud of the vast number of books I’ve read, but I now question that sense of pride. It’s probably great to be a voracious reader in the first half of life, but in my waning years becoming a selective reader is becoming necessary. I won’t stop reading new books, because discovering a great new book is one of the better thrills of life. However, my willingness to give them the hook is going to seem downright cruel.

Back in 2002 I had a reading renaissance when I discovered audio books. Reading books with my ears was much slower than reading with my eyes, and I learned to appreciate savoring words rather than speeding past them. It’s time for another reading revolution. I need to change things up again. Here’s the thing, my mind is still pretty sharp, but I can tell it’s in decline. My short term memory is beginning to flake out, and my long term memory feels overstuffed—like I have to erase memories to make room for a new ones.

Reading just to be reading means most of what I take in leaks out of my short term memory before I can use it. And I worry reading new books might be erasing memories of old books. It’s time I defrag my brain and run a disk cleanup. One way I’ve found to preserve old memories is to reread books. Another way is by making lists, writing blogs, talking to friends.

The first stage of my reading plan is to review my books read log and create a list of books I want to get to know intimately. I want stay with these books so they stay in my memory. I’m still anxious to read new books, especially nonfiction, but I’m going to be more selective. It distresses me that I spend so much time taking in new information only to forget it.

Where learning to read slower was the key to my first reading renaissance, learning to take notes will be essential to my second. If a book isn’t worth studying like one in a college course then it isn’t worth my reading time. If the book isn’t a 9 or 10 on a ten point scale, it won’t be reading worthy. Now this might sound too monkish, but there’s a method in my madness. I’m a book junky, an old and jaded one, and if my fix doesn’t have the purity of Walter White’s blue meth, then the high I get won’t feel worthy of the brain cells I sacrifice. After a lifetime of reading, I crave intensity.

I want to read books where the names of the characters stick with me like the names of old friends. I want to read books where writers explore themes with the insight of great philosophers. I want to read books where the prose inspires me to write. I want to read books where the settings feels as vivid as my memories of all the places I lived. I want to read books where the characters struggle to map uncharted reality so well I could follow their trail. I want to read books that show me how other people think and feel that’s both different from the way I feel and think. I want to read books that make me feel I’m seeing more of the world than even the most hardened world travelers. I want to read books that take me up and down the centuries just like I had a time machine. I want to read books that make me feel overwhelming emotions like my favorite music. I want to read books that let me know what it’s like to be people not like me.

And I want to remember those books…

Fifty Novels To Remember

I’ve probably read more than two thousand books, but this short list are the ones that haunt me. I’ve read hundreds more that wowed me at the time, but I’m not sure how well they will linger in my memories. This is my tentative list to work with at the moment. If I reread one book a month, I could reread a list of sixty books every five years. I will need to rethink this list because I only have six women writers—but I have ten slots to fill if I stretch it to sixty books. And I cheated with the Robert J. Sawyer books, which were published as a trilogy, but I consider them one story.

I think these books have stuck with me for philosophical reasons. For some reason they resonate with my unconscious mind.

  1. 1719 – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  2. 1813 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. 1861 – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  4. 1868 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  5. 1871 – Middlemarch by George Elliot
  6. 1875 – The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  7. 1877 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  8. 1883 – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  9. 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  10. 1900 – Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  11. 1902 – The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  12. 1905 – The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  13. 1912 – Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
  14. 1913 – The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  15. 1920 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  16. 1926 – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. 1928 – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
  18. 1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
  19. 1945 – High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
  20. 1949 – Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  21. 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  22. 1949 – The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
  23. 1951 – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  24. 1952 – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  25. 1953 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  26. 1955 – Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  27. 1956 – Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
  28. 1957 – On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  29. 1958 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  30. 1958 – Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  31. 1959 – Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
  32. 1960 – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  33. 1961 – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  34. 1962 – Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
  35. 1962 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  36. 1966 – Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
  37. 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  38. 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  39. 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  40. 1974 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  41. 1980 – Timescape by Gregory Benford
  42. 1986 – Replay by Ken Grimwood
  43. 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  44. 1996 – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  45. 2001 – The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  46. 2009 – Wake/Watch/Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer
  47. 2009 – The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  48. 2011 – The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
  49. 2012 – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  50. 2013 – The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By the way, I cheated with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is a memoir, but it feels like a novel to me.

JWH

My LDL Drop to 92 on a Plant Based Diet

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Back in May when visiting my doctor for my quarterly cholesterol checkup and she was writing out another prescription to fight my cholesterol, I asked her if there wasn’t a way to lower cholesterol without drugs. She told me to lose weight. She’s told me that for years and I never have. But I was sick of trying new drugs. It’s taken me years to learn I can only handle 10mg of a statin, but no more, without getting side-effects.

I drove home seriously thinking about how to fight cholesterol. I got on Amazon and ordered the book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., and I also discovered that night on Netflix, Forks Over Knives, a documentary that featured Dr. Esselstyn.

Forks_Over_Knives

I followed this plant based diet for three months and it worked. My August check-up showed I had dropped from 232 pounds to 211. My overall cholesterol went from 187 to 152, my LDL from 130 to 92, but sadly my good cholesterol dropped from 40 to 38.

The plant base diet is hard, but not that hard. No animal products of any kind, and no oils, not even olive oil, which everyone believes is good for your heart. I did cheat a little bit though. I ate peanut butter. I found if I could have one peanut butter sandwich a day I didn’t crave all my other favorite foods. I eat healthy cereal and almond milk for breakfast, and then a lot of salads, veggies, fruits, soups, and especially various rice and bean dishes. The worst thing about the diet was the gas, but over time my gut got better at processing so much roughage.

Now that I know this diet works I’m going to stick to it. Getting below 100 with my LDL amazed my doctor. She was so happy for me, and I don’t want to let her down. This is the first time in decades I’ve been below 230 pounds. I began 2015 at 242, and struggled for five months to lose 10 pounds. Then went on the plant based diet and lost 20 more in three months. The speed of losing weight has tapered off, but I’m going to struggle to lose more.

widowmaker

Another documentary, The Widowmaker, which I recently found on Netflix, also inspires me to keep on the plant based diet. That show claims heart disease is preventable. Forks Over Knives claims a plant based diet is the key to stopping heart disease. I guess I’m one statistic proving it works.

JWH

Can We Build Nature Proof Houses?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 10, 2015

Is it a possible to design houses that can withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, fires and even earthquakes? Is it possible to design homes like the internet where each node is protected from failures in other nodes? Is it possible to design dwellings that last thousands of years that can be continuously modernized?

tornado proof house

Every evening on the nightly news we see natural disasters destroying homes, towns and even cities. It’s completely obvious to all but a few that climate change is happening. Is it possible to create a way of life that is hardened against most of what mother nature can throw at us?

When I grew up in Miami back in the 1950s and 1960s we lived in concrete block houses built on top of poured terrazzo foundations, with roofs made with another poured material that had pebbles embedded in it. No wolf could blow it down. After a hurricane we’d go outside and see knocked down trees, small manufactured stuff blown about, and some houses might have a window bashed in, but the little concrete block houses stood like bunkers.

disaster-proof-arch-dome-house-florida

Is it time to stop building wood frame homes? Is it time to stop building roofs that need to be replaced every twenty years or blow off in a big wind? Isn’t it time we build electrical power grids with independent home energy systems with backups? Last week 67,842 homes lost power here from a so-so storm system. My power was off for a few hours, but I knew people who lost it for a day or two, and read about others having to wait 4-5 days.

If houses had battery systems like Tesla is designing, they could handle short power outages. Throw in generators that can kick in based on natural gas, and homes can withstand long outages. But the real long-term solution is to build homes with solar/wind generators so every dwelling is part of the energy grid. If we put all power lines under ground that would further secure the power system. Can you imagine cities without power poles? For years new neighborhoods have done this, but we should retrofit older subdivisions. The reason most of those homes lost power here last week was because of downed lines from falling branches and trees.

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What if we designed homes to be continuously in-place upgradable? Could we design a house that can withstand anything nature can throw at it, be useable for a thousand years, and still be adaptable to new technology as its invented? Are single homes on small plots the most efficient design for maximum human happiness? What if four homes were push together but the families shared one big yard? Homes that can withstand natural disasters can also be very soundproof. They can also be made burglar proof too. If they shared some infrastructure such designs could save on building costs. If land use was optimized, shared gardens, swimming pools, and playgrounds would be more practical.

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We could design dwellings that could withstand extreme temperatures that used little central power, and could survive for time periods without taking power from the grid.

For some reason post-apocalyptic stories are very popular today at the movies, on television and in books. We could design energy self-sufficient housing that can withstand nature and the collapse of civilization. With better land utilization, and advanced techniques for gardening and animal husbandry, it would also be possible to make for self-sufficient neighborhoods. If we combined the philosophy of Mother Earth News, Make Magazine and Wired Magazine, we could reinvent the subdivision to combine the past and future into a more secure way of life.

In recent times many people have become preppers, hoarding food, water and AR-15s to prepare for the collapse of civilization. In all their scenarios the strong kill the weak to survive. We know what happens when civilization disappears—just watch the news covering Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Survivors tend to be refuges, not preppers. Wouldn’t it be better if we design a more sturdy civilization. Does anyone want live under rule by AR-15/AK-47 owners?

If you search the internet on this topic you’ll find lots of sites describing people already working on inventing what I’m speculating. During the 2016 presidential elections we need to stop dwelling on how to return to the past, but think about how to design the future. Demanding a smaller government, less taxes and an every man for themselves way of life isn’t very imaginative—or positive.

JWH

Are Quickly Written Books Worth Reading?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, August 9, 2015

One of the most impressive books I’ve ever read is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson—she interviewed 1,200 people and spent ten years writing a history of African-Americans migrating out of the south from WWI to the 1970s. One of the most impressive novels I’ve ever read, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert took her five years traveling the globe to research and write. Harper Lee spent three years working with an editor after she submitted Go Set a Watchman and before it become To Kill A Mockingbird.

Should we trust authors that write and publish several books a year? I know writers write to make a living, but when I reread my favorite novels that were hastily written back in the 1960s I often wish today they had gotten a few more drafts. They aren’t holding up because not enough time and thought was spent on them.

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I just read Phoenix Rising by William W. Johnstone (with J. A. Johnstone) which came out in 2011. The trouble is William W. Johnstone died in 2004. J. A. is William W.’s nephew and carefully groomed writing assistant. Phoenix Rising is a breezy, easy read, but on the thin side. It was obviously quickly written, first of a trilogy so far, meant to hook readers to sell future installments. Since I’ve found several books published in 2011 with J. A. Johnstone name on the title page, I assume Johnstone is a novel writing factory. (I even have to wonder if he sub-contracts with ghost writers.) Both Johnstones were incredibly prolific, keeping a number of series going concurrently. Firebase Freedom (2012) and Day of Judgment (2013) are sequels to Phoenix Rising.

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Now I’m not against Mr. Johnstone making a living as a prolific writer, but as a hardcore book lover I’ve got to protest. I don’t like the practice of using a dead writer’s name as a logo to sell books. Nor do I like the idea of reading books by ghostwriters who crank them out for hire. And I really hate, and this is the most important point of all, of buying a book that sets me up to buy another. This modern trend of producing trilogies and endless series is bad for the art of the novel.

Now I admit I have many bookworm friends who love continuing stories and buying books by commodity authors. If you’re reading to kill time does quality matter if you keep turning the pages? But, if you read books to experience the human heart in conflict with itself, then you should worry about how much time it took to write a book. I read Phoenix Rising because the sub-sub-genre of survival fiction, which is part of the sub-genre of apocalyptic novels, which falls under science fiction, a topic I’m addictive to reading.

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I’m not sure I would have realized just how thin Phoenix Rising is if I hadn’t also been listening to Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In one standalone volume, Niven/Pournelle gives readers far greater depth than a shelf of quickie prepper paperbacks.

Since I’ve been studying survival novels I know they have key aspects that define their appeal. First, is the cause of the catastrophe. Johnstone comes up with a horrendously unbelievable reason for civilization collapsing. One only Fox News fanatics could believe. Second, and more importantly, is how do the survivors survive. The more practical details the better. Johnstone’s not too believable here either; everything happens too easily without much drama. Finally, readers want hope. No matter how bleak the collapse, they want believable theories how humans could rebuild. What holds a survival story together is its characters. Readers want sympathetic characters to vicariously experience “how would I do it myself” situations. I think Johnstone has fans that find his type of characters appealing. They are likable good people, but the dramatic experiences their creator provide for them is flimsy, rushed and unsatisfying. Johnstone does offers hope for the future but I’d have to buy two more novels to find it, and I won’t.

I consider Earth Abides by George R. Stewart the gold standard of a survivor story. Isherwood Williams is a character that I can identify with as he experiences a series of enlightening conflicts that force readers into thinking about the mortality of our species. Earth Abides inspired Stephen King’s The Stand and many other end-of-civilization novels. We’re currently experiencing a flood of cozy catastrophes where a handful of people must survive the immediate months after the collapse of civilization.

Surviving the apocalypse is an extremely complex event. It’s all too easy to turn it into a cartoonish cliché. And I think any book written in a couple of months can’t do the subject justice.

For people who haven’t read the classics of this sub-sub-genre, Johnstone’s story is probably intriguing enough. Especially for people who think surviving is a matter of having a gun and a will to use it. Maybe Johnstone’s characters get deeper in the second and third book, but I won’t be reading them to find out. To many better books give me everything I need in one volume.

Johnstone covers all the basics, but with no finesse and style, and no insight other than conservative philosophy that’s failing to help civilization now. Because Johnstone’s premise for the collapse of the United States is so thoroughly anti-liberal using absurd extremist logic it’s hard to take the rest of his insights seriously. His story could have been far more powerful if he had put his novel through several drafts and made his premise chillingly realistic. His attack on Obama is juvenile. If liberal ideas can destroy the country like conservatives believe, then the extrapolation of how that works needs believability that would convince liberals and moderates too. Obviously Johnstone is selling to a ready-made audience of true believers. Phoenix Rising might make some bucks off of naïve readers, but it fails at creating a memorable storytelling experience.

Here’s a way to compare a great novel to hack series. A great novel has the philosophical impact of a single A-Bomb that we never forget, while hack writing gives us faked movie explosions with each volume that are momentarily thrilling, but easily forgotten. Series novels are a marketing decision, not an artistic endeavor. If you bought this novel to read on the plane it’s probably entertaining enough.

I’m not saying some stories don’t deserve the trilogy treatment, although even the best trilogies I can think of would have been artistically superior as a single large novel. Writers must love trilogies because they can sell one story three times. It also means they don’t have to edit and distill their meandering narrative into a coherent whole. And how often have you been wowed by the first book of the trilogy only to be disappointed in the next two volumes? Hack writers find it much easier to write three or more so-so novels than one great story.

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And when we think about great literary novels of history, how many of them are series? Would Trollope and Proust be more read today if they had written stand-alone novels like Austen and Dickens?

Many bookworms are like addicts. They consume books. The William W. Johnstone brand appeals to their hunger, and his books are a quick fiction fix. But his books will not be remembered. They might be a commercial success now, which is fine for the writers and publishers. But they get so little enthusiasm from fans that they don’t have entries in Wikipedia. That’s quite telling.

Millions of people want to be writers, and many of those would-be writers see developing continuing character stories as key to making a living. I can’t blame them for that. But what they crank out is fast food. If you’re a bookworm that craves novels that expand your map of reality then I’d avoid books with sequels.

My protest of the Phoenix Rising series is not because it’s bad, but thin, hastily written, with stretched out stories without the fully developed elements of a satisfying novel. If readers want a powerful trilogy on the survivor theme they should read:

  1. Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart
  2. Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank
  3. Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I know I’m going to come across as a nut here because trilogies and continuing character series are almost the norm now.

JWH

Pressing Against My Bowl

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 3, 2015

Creative success mostly happens to the young. Desiring to write a first novel after retiring is to sail against statistical odds so strong it feels like tilting at windmills. Despite increase exercise, switching to a plant based diet that gives me more energy, losing thirty pounds, and feeling better than I have in years, I realize I can’t make my mind young again. Aging lets me caress my limitations. Like being a goldfish exploring the boundaries of my bowl.

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The trick now is to squeeze more efficiency out of my old brain. Whether I write a novel or not is no longer the goal. What’s important now is to keep trying. Concentrating on putting sentences into a coherent structures exercises something in me that I can’t name. Some days it feels like I’ve done more reps than usual, or pressed more weight than ever before. It gives the illusion that I’m swimming in a larger bowl.

I’ve never been a hard worker, but when I was young I had a natural vitality that kept me going. My mind is still active, but easily wimps out. I get appealing ideas all day long that I entertain in my head for hours. I will read and research for days. My unconscious mind digests these thoughts until I’m ready to sit down to write. Sometimes something comes together in a couple of hours, but because I’m tired, I’ll often hit the publish button to be free. Other times, I’ll set the piece aside to try again tomorrow. However, if I can’t bring an essay to completion in two-three tries I give up.

A person with youth and talent can rewrite an essay a dozen times, spending weeks and even months to get things just right. I’m pushing to write something now that is demanding more than I usually give. I push myself to stay with it. When I’ve got energy I want to keep working, when I’m tired I want to quit. My meaning is life always changing. Currently, it’s sticking to a task.

It’s no longer what I do, but finding something inside me to keep exploring the boundaries of my little universe. I’m learning that aging shrinks my ability to write, but wisdom expands what I want to say.

JWH