Tidying Up My Music Collection Using the KonMari Method

Marie Kondo, the guru of tidy, preaches, “Discard anything that doesn’t spark joy.” I’ve been buying music CDs for over thirty years and my collection is a huge mess. I definitely don’t love all the albums I own. There’s always the conflict between collecting and playing. Like all hoarders, I tell myself that one day I will want to play this album. Well, I have albums I haven’t played for a quarter century. I bought Marie Kondo’s the life-changing magic of tidying up because she talks about sorting through books. I figured the same approach applied to albums. This issue is further complicated by the fact that nine-five percent of the time when I play music, it’s via Spotify.

Six key issues to consider:

  • Does owning compact discs spark great joy?
  • Do I find great joy in the high fidelity of compact discs?
  • Do I find great joy in the album or the song?
  • What sparks the deepest joy in collecting albums?
  • How does digital libraries affect the philosophy of tidying up?
  • How many albums is too many?

 

Exif JPEG

 

Does owning compact discs spark great joy?

Streaming music services like Spotify offer gigantic music libraries for a low monthly subscription. Why bother keeping my thousand albums when I have instant access to millions? Kondo says we should only own things that bring us joy. Is the physical container of music something that brings us joy? Even though I’ve put the price of a SUV into my music collection, is it still worth keeping? Does the whole collection have sentimental value, or just parts of it?

Kondo tells us “The criterion is, of course, whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it.” Does a CD have some kind of emotional physical value? Is a favorite song less meaningful to my life if it streams through my Roku rather than plays on my CD player? To be honest, I don’t have any physical attraction to my CDs. I was quite sentimental over my LPs when I bought them back in the 1960s and 1970s, but when I started buying CDs in the 1980s, they never acquired that aura of emotional objects.

If I knew I could always have access to the same music I own through renting I’d get rid of all my CDs. Because I don’t have that assurance, I want to keep all my albums that I treasure. Yet, what do I treasure when its not the physical object? Is it all the songs on an album, or just special ones?

Some albums bring me great joy. Some albums are keys to memories. I need to save those keys.

Compact discs were always too small to enjoy visually, and their booklets were always too hard to read. They succeeded because of convenience and sound quality. Streaming music is even more convenient, but the sound quality isn’t quite the same.

 

The Allman Brothers Band At Filmore East

 

Do I Find Great Joy in the High Fidelity of Compact Discs?

One of the main reasons to keep compact discs is their high fidelity. This only matters when I’m sitting in my den and I’m listening to music in the same way I concentrate on a movie at the theater. Otherwise, 320kbps streaming files are fine. However, there are times when I want as much sonic detail as I can get. The other day I read One Way Out,  a history of the Allman Brothers. It inspired me to get out my Allman Brothers albums that I haven’t played in a decade. Once again I was back to listening so intently just to distinguish Duane from Dicky.  Listening with intense concentration to  every instrument begs to have the fidelity to create a large soundstage that showcases every musician’s performance.

Until Tidal, all subscription services used highly compressed files that have less fidelity than compact discs. And there are other digital formats that offer great fidelity than CDs. Unfortunately they involve buying digital files I’d have to maintain, and that’s a kind of clutter that’s more difficult to manage than physical clutter.

When it comes right down to it, the essential reason to own a compact disc is because I want to have it forever. I don’t want to ever lose access to some songs. Second in importance is to have the highest fidelity possible. I’m going to assume that future streaming will involve higher fidelity. But I can’t assume Spotify or its competitors will always have a license to stream my most cherished memories.

 

Blonde on Blonde - Bob Dylan

 

Do I Find Great Joy in the Album or the Song?

Most of the albums I bought in my life were because of one song. Few albums spark joy in their entirety. Blonde on Blonde, even though it’s a double album, in one I embrace in its wholeness. It’s a complete work of art. As I study what Kondo is trying to teach me, a philosophy of how to live with objects and always keep them in their place, I push myself to understand why I love certain things. When dealing with albums and books, I’m really judging them as containers of art. The art is priceless, but the containers are just that.

Compact discs are storage bins for music. Spotify is another kind of storage bin. Contemplating this tidying-up issue, I realize there are two kinds of music containers – one which I never want to lose no matter what. That involves keeping the album. Songs, on the other hand, which appear in various other kinds of containers – best of albums, anthologies, singles, soundtracks, etc, are much easier to rent through Spotify.

I’ve always loved the 1965 hit single “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire. Yet, I’ve never been without a copy. I’ve had it on 45, LP and CD in various collections. Now I stream it. And I believe it will always be on streaming. I recently owned the original LP album it appeared on, but it was an old beat up copy I got for 50 cents. When I cleaned out all my LPs I gave it to the library because it was the only song on the album I liked. There was no sentimental reason to be attached to the LP.

When I ask myself if a CD/LP sparks joy, it can’t be just for one song – unless that song is nowhere else. “Song for Our Ancestors” by the Steve Miller Band, off their Sailor album, is the only song that sparks Kondo joy. Actually, it’s the only Steve Miller Band song that unlocks a memory. It’s not available on streaming. I have to save that CD if I want to always have access to “Song for Our Ancestors.” If that song had been on a Best of Steve Miller Band album, I wouldn’t save Sailor.

This also makes me ask: Should I save Best Of albums? Hits are the one type of song I can depend on Spotify to always have. Hit songs are constantly repackaged, anthologized and put on soundtracks. Hits are frequently heard on radio and Pandora.

 

Sailor---Steve-Miller-Band

 

What Is The Deepest Joy In Collecting Albums?

I love to visit someone’s home and look through their shelves of books, music and movies. When we collect, we create the fingerprint of our pop culture soul. The albums I want to save are the ones that define me. Not because I want my friends to see them, even thought I dig when they do, but because I want to define myself to me. My shelves of books, movies and albums should be a mirror for self-examination. Growing up, I tried to define myself by the size of my library, but now the only thing that matters is what each work of art reveals about myself. When I play an album I love it’s an act of meditation.

 

After Bathing at Baxters - Jefferson Airplane

 

How Does Digital Libraries Affect Tidying Up?

It’s quite easy to part with albums that I know are on Spotify. Do I learn the same lesson from giving them away if I knew I couldn’t listen to them again online? Because of Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Audible, Kindle and Scribd I now buy fewer books, albums and movies. My pile of digital clutter grows and grows, but it’s out of sight. Can I still derive the psychological rewards of being tidy that Kondo promises if I have an invisible pile of possession in the cloud?

If every book, movie and album was on Scribd, Netflix and Spotify, I could just own nothing, and just think of all those works in someone else’s library. Then it would be Scribd, Netflix and Spotify’s problem for keeping things tidy. I could reduce my home library to a chair and iPad for Zen like simplicity. I could paint the walls white, wear white clothes, and sit in my room reading and listening to music in my tidy personal Shangri-La.

 

Horses - Patti Smith

 

How Many Albums Is Too Many?

After a lifetime of buying thousands of albums, I realized I no longer listen to most of them. When I retired I had about 1,600 CDs and hundreds of LPs. Two years of culling and I’m down to about 900 CDs and 50 LPs. Soon, I’ll be down to less than 500 CDs and no LPs. Yet, I expect my collection to keep shrinking. 500 is still too many. Kondo tells her clients to have a goal in mind. My goal is to have a library of albums I absolutely adore. I can’t even remember what I own. That’s not special. It’s like having more children than you can remember their names.

When I first retired, I realized I could have become a record collector because I was buying used LPs and CDs five or ten at a time. However, the convenience of Spotify has spoiled me. I only get out a CD when I’m in the mood to thoroughly focus on the music. And that tends to be for albums I really love – the ones I want to play straight through. What I’ve learned from fifty years of buying music is most of what I bought hasn’t been memorable.

I had a friend, John Williamson, who died back in the 1990s. John was crazy about music. Before he died, he told me he had gotten down to listening to just Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. My sphere of music is shrinking too. To maintain a vitality for life you have to maintain as many interests as you can. Yet, getting old means learning to live with less, and as we age, the amount we can handle dwindles. Two years from now I might still love 300 albums. If I live to 80, I might just cherish a 100. I believe John died young because he got down to only two musicians. I wonder who he was hearing when he left this world? Benny or Duane.

I’ve been playing Blonde on Blonde for half a century. Will it be playing when I fade out of existence?

Some of my younger friends fear this trend. They see losing interest in things once loved as a bad sign, but I see a positive angle in my declining years. As my record collection shrinks I get to know what’s left better. It’s a musical tontine.

Music is like a drug that energizes me. If I’m feeling down, music can lift me up. Music hyperlinks me to people and events. Music anchors my memories. It’s terribly sad when I play an album I bought long ago and can’t remember why, when or where I bought it, nor remember any of the songs. That’s an area of my garden I neglected and now it’s patchy with dirt and weeds. What’s best is to let another album expand into that space. I think shrinking my collection as pruning.

 

The Body Wins - Sarah Jaffe

Using Spotify has taken away the incentive to buy new CDs, but I do on rare occasions. I still discover new artists on Spotify, and when I find one I want to keep forever, I buy their CD. For instance I’ve bought the last three CDs of Sarah Jaffe. I don’t think I will ever get so old that I’ll stop adding albums to the library of music that defines me.

Nor, have I found all the replacement CDs from the past LPs I loved. The last LP replacement I bought was Shady Grove by Quicksilver Messenger Service – an album I’ve been waiting for a decade to come to subscription music. I finally gave up and bought it. I bought it the first time in 1970 as an LP. It had just one song I loved, “Edward, (The Mad Shirt Grinder)” I couldn’t get on Spotify.

Another positive purpose in culling albums is it gives me purposeful activity. Being retired, and having all my time free, requires a knack for keeping busy. I should be outside tending to a real garden, but I’m not that kind of guy. I’d rather tend a sound garden, or make up metaphors about one.

Shady Grove - Quicksilver Messenger Service

Since 1965 I figured I’ve bought between 2,500 and 3000 albums in my life. That’s about 2,600 weeks ago, so call it an album a week on average. Although for many years, I averaged four albums a week. I started out with LPs and 45s, but eventually bought mostly CDs. The way music is delivered has changed a lot in my lifetime. I mainly skipped the cassette and 8-track phase, but I did dip into SACDs and iTunes singles. I pretty much went from CDs to streaming music, which is where I’m at now. I could go to Spotify for all my listening, but I still want to own a album collection. I’ve had one since I was thirteen, so I can’t stop now.

In the heart of Marie Kondo’s book is the lesson to save what you cherish. I’m on a journey to discovery those albums I truly love most – and defining that library sparks joy.

JWH

The Delicate Chemical Balance of Health and Consciousness

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What if how we feel and think is determined by what we eat?

Human beings are fleshy bags of water and chemicals. Lots of chemicals. Our minds work because of countless chemical reactions. I say countless, because their number is beyond my comprehension, but I suppose scientists might have an exact list somewhere. Both our physical and mental health depend on walking a razor’s edge chemical balance. Every time we eat something we change that balance. Taking medicine also stirs up our chemicals. And drink and drugs do who knows what. And as we age, maintaining that chemical balance becomes trickier.

We’re all used to taking a Tylenol when we get a headache. A fraction of a gram of a single chemical makes our headache go away. But what caused the headache in the first place? Other chemical reactions set off pain receptors. And pain receptors, again work through chemistry, causes our consciousness to experience pain.

colorsjuicing-rainbow

I’ve been experimenting with juicing because I saw Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, and Joe Cross claims it will make me feel great.  Last night I made a concoction called a Mean Green that was quite stimulating, even though it tasted god awful. It didn’t quite make me high, but did made me more alert, energetic and I think speeded up my heart a bit. This morning, after a good night’s sleep, my mind is back to its more sedate steady state. However, on average lately, I’ve been rather lethargic, thus the impetus to try juicing.  Does drinking vegetables and fruits juices make my overall balance of chemicals better, or just give me a temporary micronutrient boost? Is better health a different blend of chemicals?

When studying the pros and cons of a juicing diet I came across an interesting YouTube video by Matt Monarch warning about raw food diets. The interesting aspect of the video was it was from a pro raw food site. Here was a prophet warning people against his own message. Monarch warns eating extremely healthy is hard, and going back to do your old diet would have consequences. He placed a raw food diet at one end of a spectrum, with whole food eating in the middle, and the average American diet at the other end. He didn’t focus on health per se, but how you’d feel on each diet.

If all you know is the normal American diet, then what you feel is normal. And what you feel might be your baseline for what you think of as a health reality. What if eating whole foods creates a different state of mind, and eating raw foods creates even another state of mind? Monarch says there’s a danger to switching to healthier states of mind. This suggests we may prefer our junk food state of mind over health food state of mind. This guy is warning people that the healthy state of mind is different, and if you get used to it, or even addicted to it, he says it might be too much work to maintain, and going back to even the whole foods stage will have consequences.

In Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead 2 Joe Cross deals with falling off the juice diet and what it means. Even he can’t always maintain the discipline.

In the last few years I’ve been eating healthier, and every time I fall off the wagon the effects of eating junk food hit me harder. My junk food binges are also getting shorter because they make me sicker quicker. I’m not sure I can go back to the junk food diet. And now I’m worried about playing around with juicing and raw foods. What if feels bad to return to just eating whole foods? Is Monarch warning us that we can’t return from extreme health once we find it? Or is his extreme health some kind of altered consciousness caused by an extreme diet?

We like to assume that health is like inner vitality. We like to think health is a reservoir of energy that slowly drains away as we get older.  You either have it or you don’t. What if health is like juggling balls – the more you can keep in the air the better you feel. If optimal health requires effort and skill, then being lazy or unskilled means losing health or never gaining higher levels of wellbeing. What if mastering ten balls in the air feels really good, does juggling just five seem unhealthy, even if it’s whole foods? Can we all be Jack LaLane, or should we aim to just be Dr. Joel Fuhrman?

I’m lazy. I just want to feel healthy without any effort. But what I’ve learned from eating a lifetime of junk food is I have an unhealthy consciousness. That the balance of chemicals I call normal is really not what I’d like to be feeling all the time. I think some health is youthful vitality. And when we’re young we have an abundance of wellbeing because our chemical systems are all running in an optimal fashion. It’s robust and its momentum is hard to alter. Part of the bad feeling is getting old could be due to a lifetime of imbibing chemicals that abuse our system, or not eating the right chemicals to maintain it.

At 63 I’m struggling to find the right list of chemicals to add to my body each day. But the complexity of our system is hard to understand. Between my normal chemical processes I’m having to add chemicals my doctors tell me I need, but they have side effects. Whenever I change my diet, hopefully for the better, it has side effects too. At 63 I’m suddenly realizing I’m juggling a whole lot of balls – more than I can count. If I mess up, and they all fall to the ground, I get sick. After being sick, it gets harder to get those all those balls juggling again.

When I was growing up, DuPont had an advertising slogan, “Better living through chemistry.” In the 1960s hippies coopted it as their slogan for getting high. Now in the 21st century, the phrase takes on another new meaning. We used to worry about a small list of chemicals that aided health – vitamins and minerals. The macronutrients. Now with whole foods we worry about hundreds, if not thousands of chemicals called micronutrients. It’s impossible to know which recipe of chemicals creates the perfect state of mind.

It’s a shame I didn’t understand the importance of body chemistry when I was a child, and worked to eat healthy right from the start. I’ve waited to when I got on the home stretch of life to study chemistry. Now that my arteries are clogged and my bones are growing arthritis deposits, I’m suddenly needing a PhD in bio-molecular interactions.

JWH

Retirement 2.0

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 22, 2015

Now that I’ve been retired for a year and a half, I see that I need to rethink my retirement plans and habits. Living without the structure of work is changing my psychology. Unlimited free time is like living land of the Lotus Eaters. Doing whatever I want, when I want, is like a habit forming drug. Want to kick back and listen to Van Morrison for two hours – cool. Want to watch the Oklahoma Kid, a western from 1939, sure, why not.  Want to put off lunch until 2:30 to keep reading my science fiction novel, that’s a-okay. I go to bed when I’m tired of doing things, and get up when I’m tired of not doing anything. I’m like a dog that takes a nap whenever and wherever it damn well feels like it.

pugs-cropped

Now this might sound like paradise to my hardworking friends who toil away at their nine to five grind. And it pretty much is. I’m not really complaining, but I sort of am, a kind of worry that I have too much of a good thing. My mom used to always ration cookies to me and my sister, Becky, so when I got my first apartment, I would buy a bag of Chips Ahoy! and eat the whole damn thing. Retirement is overindulging in free time.

I need to make Retirement 2.0 more disciplined. Maybe I need to schedule my fun, so I’d feel more productive about doing nothing.

The trouble is, I’m writing less, letting the house go, ignoring things on my to-do list, and losing all sense of discipline. I don’t know if this is because I’ve gone eighteen months without working, or because I gave up junk food January 1st, and don’t have enough brain fuel to keep me energized. However, I don’t want to get a job just to force a routine on myself.

I started writing this essay last week. I wrote the title, thought about it, and then went and fixed myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and went back to reading The Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Writing takes work. Writing takes sticking to the project for hours. And since I’ve been retired, I realize that it’s much too easy to skip working at things. I’ve talk with some of my other retired friends, and they also talk about losing their discipline. We can’t decide if it’s a matter of just getting old, or not having a routine forced on us. Evidently, what they told us in school was true, work builds character.

At work, if I got assigned a big project, knowing it was due in two months, and I’d project manage myself and get it done. Now if I want to do something, it’s whenever I feel like doing it, and that tends to promote a lackadaisical mindset. If I have to do things by a date, like a doctor’s visit, or help a friend move a tree, I get it done on time. Which makes me think I should assign myself tasks and deadlines, even if it’s fun, like promising to go a movie with a friend next Sunday afternoon.

Now I’m sure BillyPilgrim is going to suggest I’m depressed, but I’m not. I’m writing this essay to think about the nature of my situation, and figure out solutions. I should plan each blog post as a specific job with a deadline, and divide up the work like a project manager.

I’m fascinated that we all go through various phases in our life. My friend Connell, who retired ahead of me, warned me about this phase. I didn’t understand. I wonder how many more phases I will experience before I die? Could older people warn me about future life phases of retirement years? Would I comprehend what they tell me. Could I use the knowledge to my advantage? I don’t know, but I’m going to research into this.

[p.s. I scheduled writing this essay in my Outlook Tasks, and I’m finishing on time. And I’ve just scheduled a much bigger writing project that’s due March 31st.]

JWH

Asking Who, What, When, Where, Why and How About Ourselves

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, February 5, 2015

Most people are too busy with life for self-examination. In youth we have family and school, in adolescence and our twenties we have the biological imperative to get laid and complete a bachelor’s degree, then comes jobs, marriage and kids. Often, it’s not until we retire that we have the time to think about who and what we are, when and where were going, and why and how. Now that I’ve been retired over a year, and have had the time to contemplate these questions, I’m starting to see things differently.

Quite often in life when we meet a new person, we’re asked what we do. I always said programmer. It was an easy answer. Now that I’m retired I can’t say that anymore. I now tell people I’m retired. That’s an easy answer too, but not a good one. When we’re young we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up. When we’re in college we’re asked about our major. But once we get a job, our work defines who we are for decades. Our job description answers who, what, when, where, why and how. But it’s not a good answer.

earth-in-space

Some people like to define who they are by their philosophy. They will say they are Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Republican, Liberal, Vegan, and so on. And like our job label, this is an easy pigeonhole to categorize oneself for others. Yet, when you have all your time free, with no external agency defining who you are, it gets a lot more difficult to answer who, what, when, where, why and how about our personal identity

If you study reality enough you’ll learn that no God defines our purpose , and the multiverse is indifferent to what we choose to be. We literally have the free will to do what we want – if we can throw off our biological impulses. Most of us follow those inner urges to find companionship, sex, social relationships, food, conflict, pleasure, and other bodily cravings. If you can step back from those bio-programs you’ll see your bigger potential. The trouble most people face is the angst of deciding. It’s much easier to hide out from fulfilling our potential by watching television, reading books or eating Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk.

At a very basic level, what we do every day answers who, what, when, where, why and how. At the moment I can say I am a blogger, that is writing this essay at 7:41am CST, 2/5/15  in Memphis, Tennessee, USA, North America, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, Universe, Multiverse that’s about the philosophical anxiety I’m feeling over what to do with my free time, using Windows Live Writer for WordPress.

Generally we consume our time with family, friends and routines of life, so we don’t think about our existential opportunities. We’re like the animals – amoeba, penguins, rattlesnakes, naked mole rats, bonobos – and focus on business at hand. Our activities keep us from  noticing the huge reality we live in. It’s only when we stop the routines that we notice how far out things truly are. Sometimes visionary writers and artists will remind us, but not that often.

Being self-aware in this vast reality is a tremendous piece of luck. The odds are beyond winning a thousand $300 million sweepstake tickets in a row. It’s a tragedy that we ignore reality. On the other hand, paying attention is the hardest thing we can do.

JWH

Leaving the 20th Century Behind

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 29, 2014

I assume anyone choosing to read this essay remembers the 20th century, and that young people aren’t my targeted audience. Gen X (1965-1979) and Millennials (1980-2000) can remember last century, and I’m sure they have their own objects of nostalgia, although I find it hard to picture people in their forties getting all weepy over punk tunes, claiming, “Hey, they’re playing our song!” Gen X’ers and Y’ers are closer to their past, but it’s quickly becoming old like mine.

Forbidden Planet

The other night I was checking out TCM and Warner Archive Instant, and realized I was prowling through the same old decades, looking for the same old favorites movies and movie stars, and wondered if it wasn’t time I got back to the 21st century. Trying to find a great Pre-Code flick or a gritty 1950s western that I haven’t seen is getting harder and harder. What I’ve discovered in my late night TV watching is I can choose to dig around the 20th century, or I can look for something new.

When I go the new route I’m often uplifted by an influx of current data about reality. I know I’m addicted to the past, yet I also know I get the best intellectual rushes from taking in reports from the event horizons of things going on now. I’m both a news junky, and a nostalgia addict, but I’m slowly discovering that keeping up with what’s new is healthier for my aging brain.

If you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s like I did, 2015 sounds like the far future. Most of my fellow baby boomers (1946-1964) identify more with the 20th century than the 21st. I’m not sure that’s good. We’re well into the 21st century now, and I think it’s time we leave the 20th century behind. Few people actually live in the pop culture moment. The old live in the past, and the young have so many choices that they experience the moment in an asynchronous consumption that is so diverse that it’s hard to imagine them identifying themselves as any particular generation. I guess they are the Net generation – because of Internet and Broadband networks – but the net connects them to everything. They can call up a 1965 TV show as easily as a 2014 show, which gives their pop culture content a timeless quality.

Back in my youth, baby boomers tended to watch the same few TV channels live, and listened to the same AM radio stations, and went to the same movies. This synced us up in ways that young people growing up today can’t understand. Boomers in the now tune into classic rock, watch nostalgia TV and collect DVDs of all our old favorite movies and television shows. For Christmas I got my wife a subscription to Spotify, and she immediately made playlists of her favorite 1960s and 1970s music.

Isn’t it time we left the 20th century behind? I don’t know about you, but nostalgia starting to run thin.

Among friends my age, the closest we sync with the present pop culture is with movies. Many of my friends go to one or two movies a week, and this gives us something to share. When it comes to music, we’re all living in our own isolated headphone space. There is some sharing of TV, but it’s few and far between. Sports is the one pop culture experience where millions focus on the same event at the same time, young and old. Unfortunately, for me, I’m not a sport fan, so I feel out of the loop there.

As a TV watcher, I stick primarily to PBS for live shows, and that syncs me mostly to my fellow baby boomers. I have a lot of friends who love NPR, and of all my friends who still watch the nightly news, we’re to a person watching NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Of course, the conservative people I know, stick to Fox News. As a group, baby boomers, whether liberal or conservative, are not that adventuresome when it comes to taking in new data. Neither NBC, PBS or Fox is cutting edge 21st century.

It’s only when I read new books and magazines do I get a feeling I’m living in the 21st century. When I’m reading about attacks on string theory, news of exoplanet discoveries, or the politics of wealth inequality, do I feel like I’m close to current. Reading the news feeds of Zite, Flipboard and News360, as well as digital magazines on Next Issue and Zinio, makes me feel like I’m actually keeping up with the present. And it’s documentaries on PBS and Netflix streaming that give me a sense of what’s really happening around the world now. Nightly news shows relentlessly show the same type of news stories so over the long haul of time nothing really feels new. Politics and weather disasters never seem to change, they’re so 20th century.  It’s only stories about science and technology breakthroughs do I feel I’m actually hearing about current news, and feel I’m in the 21st century. Hell, the details from the Middle East seem like the same stories I read in The Bible.

When I buy used books, I ignore any nonfiction before the year 2000, and I’m getting to I don’t like anything published before 2010. And in some ways, I feel the same about fiction. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s loving the old movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and for many years I loved film history up until the year 2000. More and more I want to see movies that are less than a year old. I was an English major in college, and have always loved books from 1800-1950, but even that taste is changing. I still love the 19th century, but now I often prefer it seen through 21st century eyes, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

In other words, if I look at the past, I want to be with a fresh perspective, with modern eyes.  We can’t escape the legacy of the past, but we can avoid rigidly being frozen in old perspectives of reality. The 21st century is upon us, and I believe we need to pay attention.

JWH

What I Learned From My First Year of Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 11, 2014

Now that I’ve been retired for over a year, I realized I’ve learned something about being retired. Ever since I retired, the most common greeting I get is, “How’s retired life?” I don’t know if folks are curious about retirement, or if it’s just their way of asking what’s new. Anyway, here’s my answer.

RetirementArrow

Money

When people bring up retirement, most of my unretired friends lament they can’t afford to retire. I have many friends that have retired and many that haven’t. It’s like the story about ants and grasshoppers. Some creatures hoard for the future, and some just hop around having fun. If you want to retire you have to transform from a hopper to a hoarder. I did that by spending less years before I retired. I just stopped buying shit.  If you want to know what retired life is like, live off 50% of your present income each month and save the rest for three years.

Now that I am retired I don’t seem to have any money problems – yet.  This morning when a guy was blowing leaves off my roof, I wondered how much it would cost me if he fell and sued.  Or could I pay for that kind of cancer drug that cost $80,000 a year? Or something bad happens that insurance doesn’t cover. We’re all one random catastrophe away from being ruined. Even though I’ve arranged to afford retirement, there’s always money problems to consider. As I tell my unretired grasshopper friends, every dollar you spend now is one you’ll want in old age.

I’ve got my finances in order, and hope the money lasts the lifetime I have left. But on a day-to-day level, being retired means watching pennies. If you’re the kind of person who has fun without looking at the bill, then I would recommend working as long as you can. In the past year I’ve been called cheap or tight a few times, and that bugs me. That’s not something I was ever called while working. But I realized, part of being retired is learning to live cheaper and hanging onto money.

The stereotype thing to say is “I’m living on a fixed budget” but that’s bullshit. Most people live on a paycheck that’s the same every month, so a “fixed budget” doesn’t really convey the point. Being retired means learning to live on a reduced budget. There won’t be any merit raises or jumps to jobs with higher salaries. So no more fantasies for fancy cars, bigger houses and vacation adventures, and that affects you psychologically. Middle life is about expanding and upsizing. Retirement is about shrinking and downsizing.  But don’t get me wrong, it’s not depressing. Once you start living efficiently, you realize how wasteful living used to be.

As of now I don’t worry about money.

Do I Miss Work?

No. Not in the least. Work did provide a structure, filled up my time, and gave me a sense of purpose and value, but after 35 years at the same workplace, I was done. It’s extremely nice to have all my time free to do what I want.

However, I don’t know if I’m typical. I do know some retired people who are restless not working. I never use the word bored about myself, but if you’ve ever claimed to be bored, I’d be wary of retirement. Every night I go to sleep lamenting I didn’t have enough time. If I have any complaint about retirement, it’s because I still don’t have enough time. Having all your time free does not mean endless time, but for some people, it’s way too much time.

I worked at a university and helped a lot of people, so I got a certain sense of satisfaction from work, plus I felt like my efforts went to a good cause. Now that I’m not working I feel selfish, and that I’m not contributing to society. But that doesn’t bother me. I did my time, I’m retired. However, if you need constant proof of self-worth, you might not want to retire.

Am I Doing What I Dreamed of Doing?

I thought I’d write a novel after I retired. I always imagined if I had the time I would write a novel. I didn’t. Now I see that writing is a novel is something you have to do no matter how much time you have. I don’t have that drive. But this also taught me who I was before retirement is the same person afterwards. I don’t know if this applies to other people or not, but I’m guessing if you’re retiring so you can be a different person, it might not work out.

I haven’t given up on writing fiction, but I’m becoming more aware of what’s involved. It’s real work – like a job. It takes discipline and dedication.  Right now I’m enjoying not working and just puttering around with my hobbies. Some people continue to work after they retire, and some don’t. I haven’t decided. I feel no need to work. I wanted to write novels because I think I have some good stories to tell, but I’m not motivated by money or success, so it’s hard to push myself to work hard again at something with no immediate rewards. But that’s another aspect to retirement.  Retiring is a kind of letting go. Picking an age to retire is picking an age to let go. You’re letting go of work and ambitions of success.

Live With Less

Disregarding the issue of money, retiring means living with less – unless you’re a natural born hoarder. You start thinking, “Do I need this big house?”  “Do I need all these clothes?” “Do I need all these books?” “What am I saving all this junk for?” and often the answer is no. I guess hoarders always answer yes.

Giving up cable was great for me.  Susan works out of town M-F and has cable at her apartment. When she retires we’ll get cable again because she’d go crazy without it. But for me, having fewer channels sharpened my sense of self.  I’m pretty much down to Netflix streaming, PBS, and the NBC Nightly News. And I’m good. I’m very good. I have more great shows than time to watch.

Now here’s the danger of this trend. I had a friend, John Williamson, who before he died, had gotten down to only liking two things in all of reality – the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. When it comes to pop culture I’m still expanding my interests, but I can foresee a time when I’ll contract. I don’t know if I’ll jettison as much as Williamson, but I can sense the beginning of that urge. One to withdraw into stuff I love and forget everything else. Well, as they say, you can’t take it with you.

There’s something appealing about living with less. It’s a feeling of streamlining. Of scraping the barnacles, packing to travel light, of seeking Zen simplicity.  My guess is getting old causes two extremes.  You become a hoarder or monk. I’m on the monkish side.

Fewer Friends

Working at the same university for thirty-five years made me feel I knew a lot of people, and I did. But work friendships really don’t transfer to retired friendships. Some did, most didn’t. I tried to keep in touch with some people. I called them three times. If they never initiated a call back, I gave up. The job place is a powerful source of social contacts. The friends I see now are mostly the same people I saw before I after work before I retired.

If you love a lot of casual friendships keep working and don’t retire. If you’re not your own best company, think real hard about retiring. Luckily, hanging around the house is no punishment for me.

Happiness

If you aren’t happy at your job, you might not be happy retired. Scientific research has found most people are happier at work than in their leisure. People generally find happiness when doing things, and for most people, work is where they often get things done. Now that I’m retired I’ve also learned that I’m happiest when I have things to do.  At the end of the day, I feel best when I can remember several things I did that day. It doesn’t take much though – finishing a book, cooking a pot of soup, publishing a blog, cleaning off a desk, watching a documentary, doing something with a friend. People who get bored are people who don’t know what to do.

It’s also rewarding to think of two or three small tasks each morning, and actually get them done before the day is over. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have to be much – order new underwear, pay a bill, visit the library, clean out a drawer, zero out my email inbox. My days are happily filled by with little pursuits.

Now that I’ve been retired over a year, and I’m getting into my new routines and habits, I’m starting to discover new things about myself. Work filled so much of my time that it distorted my view of life. Now that I have all my time free I’m seeing myself differently. Who I planned to be in retirement is much different than who I’ve become. But then, fantasies are always different from reality.

Before I retired I imagined filling my time on big projects, but I’ve discovered that it’s more about the little projects that count. Big projects take weeks, months and even years to accomplished. For day-to-day happiness, it’s all about how many little things I can do in a day. Before I retired I thought being free from 9-to-5 work meant I could finally write that novel. And that still might happen, but writing a novel takes a very long time, and if I had to wait until one was published, it might be years before I found the satisfaction of accomplishment.

Becoming Different

Even though I’m the same person as I was in youth and middle age, I’m also becoming different. I’m not really old at 63, I’m sort of like an infant elderly person, just learning to crawl. From this vantage point I can see becoming old is transformative. I have no idea what it will be like. But I feel like I’m in a marathon and I’d better pace myself.

JWH

Alive Inside: The Most Inspiring, Emotional and Scariest Movie I’ve Seen in Years

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 24, 2014

At the end of the classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, when Big Brother wants Winston Smith to confess his thought crimes and betray his lover, they tell him that every person has one thing they fear more than anything else, and that fear can be used to break a person. Over the years, I’ve noticed that my friends each have something they fear to see in movies. That there is a subject they can not bear to see, and will always avoid films that have scenes that trigger those fears. Often that fear is to see cruelty to animals or children, or realistic violence. I have met people who claim they can watch movies about the most horrible monsters that can be imagined so long as they are make-believe, but any movie about a realistic monster, whether serial killer or cancer, is something that’s too frightening for them to handle. It makes them run away. What makes you run away?

In recent years I’ve noticed that the deepest fear some of my friends have is of getting old, and they can’t handle any portrayal of elder years. The sight of the aged, especially in a nursing home, is enough to put them into a deep existential panic. And stories about Alzheimer’s or dementia, is their trigger that Big Brother was talking about when they spoke to Winston Smith.

So, it’s going to be a hard sell for me to recommend Alive Inside, a documentary about how music brings memories and self-awareness back to aging souls slumped in wheelchairs and warehoused in nursing homes. This film shows us humans deformed by age and memory loss, some that can no longer respond to any verbal commands. Then Dan Cohen puts a pair of Koss headphones on their time-ravaged heads and presses play on an iPod shuffle, and we see their souls return. It’s like in the book/movie Awakenings, about real life Rip Van Wrinkes who had gone to sleep in the 1920s because of side-effects of the 1918 influenza and given L-DOPA and reawaken in the 1960s. The effects of music on releasing lost memories was dramatic like that in Alive Inside. It’s as if music can reanimate long dead personalities and bring them back to the awareness after leaving reality for years.

I found Alive Inside profound. It made my spirit soar, and my body cry. Alive Inside has a simple message: we can help millions of people that we’ve hidden away in nursing homes. The film also asks why did we lock up all those old people in the first place.

Even though I’m promising people a peak emotional experience, I’m guessing many of my friends will quickly put this movie recommendation out of their minds. I am often accused of being morbid because I like to dwell on depressing subjects. I never feel depressed by facing reality. It’s quite the opposite. I was feeling lonely last night, and watching this documentary exhilarated me, and filled me with positive energy. I woke up at 4:30 this morning thinking about it, and got up at 5:30 to write about it.

Yet, there’s still the problem of getting my baby boomer friends to share this experience. Sooner or later we must face getting old. We must accept that our bodies are going to morph into the scary figures we see hunched down in wheelchairs in Alive Inside. The only way to escape this fate is to die, and the fact that millions of people are living in nursing homes tells us death won’t rescue us all.

You can contribute or volunteer at Music and Memory. Remember, Christmas is coming up. And they take used iPods too.

If our fate is to grow very old, then we need to start preparing our psyches for it now, and that brings me to another documentary we saw Friday night that tells another story about getting old, Advanced Style. This film was about older women living in New York City that use fashion to keep their hearts young. It’s message is to keep trucking in style until you die. The film was based on a book and blog of the same name.

The old people in Advanced Style are much easier to watch if you’re age-phobic, because the women are outrageously charming characters, independent and not living in nursing homes. So Advanced Style might be the first to see of these two if you are a baby boomer afraid of dementia and wrinkles.  Alive Inside is far more powerful, but to be honest, it’s not for the faint of heart. I do think both films are great strengtheners for our hearts – but sometimes its hard to look into the face of the future. I recommend Nietzsche’s advice, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Watch Alive Inside even if you are very afraid of getting old and losing your mind, it will make you stronger.

See, here’s the thing I see in films like these. We all die, but some of us die a long time before our bodies go. What we want is for the mind and body to go together. Sometimes that’s beyond our control, but sometime it is something we can control. Alive Inside hints that even when it looks like our minds have been flushed down the toilet, we’re still here, hiding behind the neurons. Both movies offer hope that if we keep trying we can survive until we die.

Alive Inside and Advanced Style are available on Netflix streaming, and the usually sites to buy.

JWH