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

Exercising My Attention Span

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, July 23, 2015

Few people can read an entire article on the internet, no matter how short, including this one. I know I can’t.

My attention span has become a 90-pound weakling. I wish my focus was a Olympian weightlifter. I’m quite confident I won’t make such a dramatic transformation at age 63, but I do wonder if mental exercises lead to heavier feats of focus.

Here’s an example of my current ability. I can focus on Sudoku, Crosswords or Chess for maybe five minutes. I can handle maybe ten minutes of Words With Friends. If I’m inspired I can write on a blog for a couple hours, but if I’m not, I peter out in about twenty minutes. I have a hard time sticking with a movie on TV if I’m by myself. If I go out, or have friends over, I have no trouble watching a whole show. But if I’m by myself I might take 2-3 nights to finish a film. A sitcom has to be great for me to stay to the end. I seldom give them a second try. When I was younger I could watch TV for hours and hours.

Sudoku

I have kept my stay-on-task muscles toned for reading. I have read 43 books so far this year, mostly on audio. I listen while I walk, or when I fix food, eat and clean up. I can eyeball read a book if I really like it in about a week, doing 40-60 pages a night. When I was young I could read a book in a day. I have a damn hard time finishing shorter works of fiction, especially novelettes and novellas, which used to be my favorite length.

All of this makes me wonder if the duration of my attention span is related to age. Does getting old mean losing the ability to stay on task? I’m not unhappy with my activities. I just flitter from book to TV to music to computer to magazine. I fill up my days always wishing I had more time. I’m not bored. But I have changed.

Chess

To be honest, I’m 327 words into this essay and I already want to take a nap. Before I retired I could spend hours focused on a programming problem. Now I never program. I can’t tell if it’s because it’s not required, or I don’t have anything fun to automate, or I just can’t keep my mind on the project long enough to get started. I do have programming ambitions.

I knew that getting old meant slowly becoming physically weak. I also knew I’d have trouble with memory, and I do. I didn’t anticipate diminishing ability to concentrate. I always thought being retired meant I had all the time in the world to do what I wanted to do—I’d just do things slowly, hobbled by forgetfulness. I’m paying a lot more attention to old people in movies because they are blazing a trail I’m following. By the way, go see Mr. Holmes.

Crossword

Now I’m not complaining. This condition doesn’t hurt or make me frustrated. It is what it is. I just wonder if I could beef up my attention span to pre-retirement levels because I’ve let my mind get flabby from lack of exercise, or is my decline just a physiological side-effect of aging?

When I woke up this morning I set myself three tasks. First, cook some pinto beans in a crock pot. They are cooking. Second, clean off my two desks. Task not done, but it should happen. Third, start research on an essay I’ve been thinking about for weeks and brainstorm it in X-mind and Evernote. Haven’t even thought about it again until now.

I wonder, as a kind of experiment, if I could train myself to work up to an hour a day on Sudoku puzzles, Crosswords and Chess, if that would strengthen my attention span and allow me to work longer at other mental tasks? Many older people do brain games to exercise their memory and thinking ability. I wonder if brain games will extend my ability to concentrate? Research if iffy on that.

I have stuck with writing this essay for three hours. However, if I came across it while surfing the net I would scan it in twenty seconds and jump on to something else. Maybe I should just practice finish reading essays instead of deducing the positions of numerals in nine 9×9 grids. Marie Kondo has made me change when it comes to tidying up. Maybe other self-help techniques work too.

Further Reading

JWH

Playing Detective to My Own Mysteries

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I’m cleaning out closets in my never-ending quest to follow my tidying-up guru, Marie Kondo. This morning I went though boxes of old family papers that I inherited when my mother died years ago. I had stashed them away to avoid processing them. These include old family letters, orders my father got from the Air Force, ancient report cards, newspaper clippings, birth-marriage-death certificates, and other records with proofs of long forgotten facts.

1959-1960 Report Card Browns Mills New Jersey 400px

I was going to throw the entire box away, or give it to my sister and let it be her problem. Then I started noticing enticing facts here and there, like addresses and dates I’d long forgotten. I grew up always on the move. I have no idea how many houses I lived in before I moved away from home, nor am I sure of all the schools I attended. I remember what states I lived in, but not always sure when. For example, I lived in South Carolina twice, but I can’t place the first in time at all. Some of my faulty memory clues tell me it was after I started school, but I have absolutely no memories of going to school in my very vivid earlier memories of South Carolina. Since we moved a round a lot, it could have only been for a summer, and I’ve even wondered if my parents kept me and my sister out of school. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember it being cold. I figured it was sometime between age 4 and 7.

I’ve always believe the first time I went to a movie theater was when I lived in South Carolina the first time. I later learned that movie, Snowfire, was released May 18, 1958. I would have been six, and I started first grade when I was five. Growing up I vaguely thought I had lived in South Carolina the first time before I started Kindergarten, which I attended in Miami in 1956-57. But Snowfire wouldn’t come out for two years. Both memories can’t be right. I do remember the theater building, which I think was on base, so it could have been in New Jersey in 1959, and we were seeing Snowfire as an older release.

It seems a little anal now to worry about where I used to live almost sixty years ago. I could throw all those papers away, or I could go through them and look for clues. Creating a timeline of when and where I’ve lived might be an interesting mind building exercise. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t be cleaning out my memories like Marie Kondo pushes me to clean out closets. Does it really matter? No one is interested in it but me. My mother saved all this stuff that was important to her, and now that she’s dead, it’s just landfill. The 94-year-old lady living next door recently died, and her family have parked a long dumpster in the back yard to clean out her house. Their family has been living there almost as long as I’ve been alive. The weight of her memories piles high in that container.

1915 - Helen Delaney High School 1200px

I’m also thinking about just scanning all this inherited paperwork. Although I’m not sure how often I would look at it after making such a huge effort. Will this information become more important to me when I’m in my seventies or eighties? Marie Kondo asks me to hold each object I own and ask myself, “Does this bring me joy?” Nostalgia could be a form of joy – maybe? On the other hand, freeing myself from the weight of the past, brings another kind of joy.

My father died when I was 18, and he’s always been a mystery to me. We never had many conversations. My parents were alcoholics. Dad died before I got old enough to be curious about his past, and even though my mother lived to be 91, she chose to forget a lot of her past. I once asked her about our first time living in South Carolina and she couldn’t remember when it was. If I took the trouble to examine this box of documents I might discern some information about my Dad. I’ve even thought of using the freedom of information act to track down information about my father’s Air Force assignments.

I have scanned in most of my family photos that go back to the 1920s, and I’ve been trying to find ways to useful organize and display them. Often I don’t know the exact dates when the photographs were taken. I wished I did. I could name each photograph and scanned document by the date and have a timeline slideshow. I’d have to date them like this: “1930-08-07 Great grandparents.jpg” and “1963-12-25 Report Card Becky.jpg” to sort properly and know what they were.

On the other hand, I could just trash it all. I doubt these odds and ends artifacts have been looked at three times in the past fifty years. One thing I’m learning from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is everything should have a place. As I organize my physical belongings to reside in their unique place in the house, I wonder if I shouldn’t put all my digital belongings in their unique place on Dropbox.

JWH

Why I Wish I Had a Memory Like a Robot

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 4, 2015

Have you ever wished you had a perfect memory? I have.

Have you ever wondered what having a perfect memory would be like? Me too.

Have you ever imagined what your memory would be like if you were a robot? Yeah, I think about such far out ideas too. Future intelligent machines will store memories as digital files, and would only forget if they decide to delete them. Robots will record everything they see, hear, feel, smell and taste. If a robot read a book or watched a movie, they could store the complete work as a file. They’d have perfect recall of whole libraries. When I spend twenty hours reading a nonfiction book full of wonderful information, I might be able to give a vague five minute summary of it two weeks later.  Robots would remember everything, and link everything in the book to everything else they know. Damn, I wish I was a robot.

I hate that I take in so much knowledge and quickly forget it. I hate my memory is so unreliable.

Bad Lands

Movie watching is a great example of my frustration with my limits of memorization. For example, last night I watched Bad Lands, an old western from 1939. I’m quite positive I’ve seen it before. I am also quite positive that I’ve experienced the same plot used in another movie. If I had a perfect memory I wouldn’t need to watch a movie again. If I had a perfect memory, I’d remember where and when I saw Bad Lands the first time. If I had a perfect memory I’d know what movie Bad Lands ripped off. If I had a perfect memory I’d know what other movies the actors from Bad Lands had been in. I’d also remember when and where I had seen those movies too. A perfect memory would mean knowing a vast web of interrelationships – much like the internet.

With the help of Wikipedia, I figured out this western was inspired by The Lost Patrol, from 1934, which I also have vague memories of seeing. And by jumping over to IMDb, I could follow the links to see what other movies all the actors from Bad Lands played in too. Robert Barrat (1889-1970) who played the sheriff, has 161 movie and television acting credits at IMDb. Some shows I remember seeing, and many more I could have seen – but alas I don’t remember Barrat in any of them, nor did my memory feel any recognition  when I saw him last night in Bad Lands. I did recognize Noah Beery, Jr. and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, from movie memories which I can’t recall their titles. I did think Guinn Williams had been a side-kick in some Errol Flynn movies, and IMDb validated those hunches. I even felt Beery and Williams had been in other movies together, but so far the internet hasn’t helped me prove that whiff of intuition.

If I was a robot, I’d be a western movie guru.

another-dawn-1937

What’s spooky is last night was the second night in a row of picking out an old movie to watch, thinking they were new to me, and realizing in a déjà vu manner, I had seen them before. The previous night I had seen Another Dawn, a 1937 flick with Kay Francis and Errol Flynn. It didn’t take long to feel I’d seen it before, but for the life of me I couldn’t summarize the plot. I enjoyed both movies because I didn’t remember enough to know how’d they turn out. I either faintly remembered the ending of Another Dawn, or guessed it, and I guessed wrong about the last man standing in Bad Lands. Being human means seeing a movie again can be fun. Would anyone with a robotic memory ever watch a film twice?

The Big TrailStagecoach

I want to remember everything. I wrote about Kay Francis last week, and listed her top films according to IMDb, but some people wanted to know which of her films were my favorites. I’ve seen many, but can only name a couple off the top of my head. I know there are others I really loved when I saw them, but can’t remember the titles, or even what they were about. Isn’t that a pisser? My memory has never been very good, and now that I’m getting older, it’s getting downright untrustworthy – even flaky.

My unfaithful memory is painful. I’d love to have the kind of memory were I could say, “These are my favorite 10 westerns of the 1930s,” and then tick them off in a flash. I can remember I love The Big Trail for 1930 and Stagecoach from 1939, but can’t remember anything in between.

One reason I called this blog Auxiliary Memory is because when I do write an essay about my favorite westerns, it will be in a memory I can recall. When I’m watching TV with Janis or Susan, I often ask them, “Where have we seen her before?” Susan is surprisingly good at remembering, and Janis is almost as good. Both are far better than me. But I think it pains Janis most when she can’t remember. We’ll often be in the middle of a really engaging show and she’ll have to pull out her iPhone to track down an actor or title. I’ll have to pause the TV, because nothing will stop her until she’s tracked down her fact. Janis is like a bloodhound on a scent when chasing an elusive memory.

I like to contemplate what life would be like if we all had perfect memories. But would we have as much to talk about if we all remembered everything? Would I turn to Janis to say, “We saw this actor back in August 4, 2003 when we saw The Ideal Husband,” knowing she already knew that? And Susan would not enjoy making fun of my poor memory, nor I get to praise her for having such a good one.

Even though we might have less to talk and joke about, wouldn’t it be great to have perfect memories? Everyone would have gotten 100s on all their school exams, and we’d have no need to take the written test at the DMV. And think how much easier it would be to write a PhD thesis having memorized all the research? And after we watched a wonderful film, we could play it over in our head whenever we wanted. Parties would be so much less stressful when we could remember everyone’s name.

Probably there’s some huge downsides to having a memory like a robot.  Although, couldn’t we just delete the bad memories? Or would we?

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

Did The First Movie You Ever See Haunt You For The Rest Of Your Life?

In 1947 MGM released High Barbaree, a film based on the 1945 novel High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.  The book is long out of print,  mostly forgotten, and memorable because its authors wrote Mutiny on the Bounty.  For decades the movie rarely showed up on TV.  TCM eventually started showing it now and then.  And finally, after 67 years I can own a copy on DVD.  It’s also playing on Warner Archive, the great streaming alternative to TCM.   One reviewer at Amazon.com said they had been looking for this movie for thirty years – well, I’ve been searching for it for over fifty years, ever since I saw it as a very young kid, the first movie I ever remember seeing.

high-barbaree-movie

Most movie buffs will not know about this film, and would probably only consider it a slight piece of nostalgic fluff.  For me, it’s burned into my deepest memories, one of the few important remembrances  I have of my father, but it also has heavy psychological history for me, and I would eventually learn for James Normal Hall  as well, who did all the writing for the novel.  High Barbaree is important to me because when and how I saw it, and not because of the film itself, although there were events in the film that resonate with my own life.   The film featured Van Johnson and June Allyson, and was one of six pictures they acted in together the 1940s and 1950s, all of them slight and mostly forgotten, except for folks like me, where the film got stuck in our memories of growing up.  High Barbaree the book is about dying and aging memories of youth, especially last memories.

High Barbaree is a recursive art form for me, because it’s a story about memories that I use to think about remembering.

High Barbaree

Can you remember the very first movie you ever seen?  I think I can, but I’m not sure.  Memory is a funny thing, especially when you remember something on the edge of that time between when you were too young to remember anything, and the time when you first start becoming a person.  I have some vague memories when I think I was three, and quite a few more memories when I was four and five.  When I first saw High Barbaree I must have been around four, but I can’t pinpoint my age for sure.  We were living in South Carolina for the first time, out in the country.  One night I got up in the middle of the night and walked out into the living room.  My dad was up watching the all-night movies.  He let me stay up with him, and I caught High Barbaree for the first time.  That’s the earliest movie I remember ever seeing.  I’m pretty sure as an even younger kid I must have sat with my parents watching movies on TV, but I don’t remember any of them.

I don’t remember much from when I saw High Barbaree the first time.  I believe I remember four vivid scenes or images, but I can’t be sure because I confuse my first memories of seeing the movie with my second time seeing it, about 7-8 years later, when I was around 12.  The four scenes that stuck in my mind were two small kids climbing an old wooden water tower, of the boy saying good-bye to the girl who is in the back of a truck driving away, a PBY amphibian plane floating on the water, and the old South Sea islander welcoming the grown up boy to the island.   From seeing it the first time in 1955, I certainly didn’t learn the actors names, or even that it was about WWII.  The story was about life-long friends, Alec and Nancy, who grew up as kids in Iowa, but were separated when Nancy’s parents moved the family to Montana.  I’m sure I didn’t understand that at age four.  Even at that young age I had moved enough to know the loss of friends, so that movie touched me emotionally even though my mind was extremely immature.  

Around the summer of 1963 I caught the film again, also in the middle of the night.  My sister and I loved old movies and in the summer time my mother would let us stay up all night watching them.  It meant we slept during the day and didn’t drive her crazy.  This is where I first memorized the actors and plot of the show.  I probably don’t have any real film memories from 1955 other than the deep psychological impressions.  In fact, I didn’t know I had seen the film before until we got to the scenes of the kids climbing the water tower.  I also remember the scenes of the kids departing, the PB-Y floating on the ocean and the sequence with the island. 

At my second viewing of High Barbaree I knew I had seen this film before and that it was from a powerful memory.  It stuck with me and over the years as I grew up I ached to see the film again.  My father died when I was 18, and I have very few memories of him, especially ones of us doing something together.  He usually worked two or three jobs and was seldom home.  Often he was stationed away from home.  This memory of him letting me sit up with him and watch High Barbaree in the middle of the night is a special memory.

I didn’t catch High Barbaree again until I was in my late twenties or early thirties, after I had gotten married, and Susan and I caught it on cable TV, sometime before TCM.  I was working at library then, and it was then that it first occurred to me that the movie might be based on a book.  Indeed it was.  This was back in the early 1980s, before we had a VCR.  I would have loved to have owned a copy of the film, but couldn’t.  So I went searching for the book.  No luck.  Years later, in the 1990s, I caught High Barbaree again on TV, on TCM this time, and I thought about finding the book again.  This time I had the internet, and I was able to buy a copy through ABE Books.

Reading the book gave me a completely different spin on the story.  James Norman Hall was nearing the end of his life – he would die in 1951, the year I was born.  Even though High Barbaree was about a young Navy flier, it was autobiographical, about Hall’s own life growing up in Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, remembering his mother and father, and his home town.  I learned that after I discovered In Search of Paradise by Paul L. Briand, Jr., a biography of Nordhoff and Hall.

You might not want to read the next sentence because it contains a spoiler for both the movie and the book.  In the movie Alec is rescued and lives, and his story is only a dream, but in the book, Alec dies, and his story is his dying thoughts.  Hall had lived through two world worlds and was old enough to be thinking about death himself.  He had a daughter named Nancy he knew he’d loose when he passed on, and I assumed that fear was the basis for his novel.  High Barbaree is his fantasy of a mystical island where he might meet her again.  The movie makers took his somber little tale with thoughts of dying and made it into a romantic war adventure with a happy ending.

As a four-year-old kid I picked up on the story of separation and dying, and the mysticism and hope of fantasies.  I don’t know if High Barbaree caused this, but for my whole life I’ve been fascinated by stories of people stranded on islands or lost at sea.  Years later when I caught Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable on the all-night movies I loved it.  I also loved the Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson versions too.

In 1971 I started studying computer programming and I’ve often thought about how our brains are programmed by pop culture influences.  I’ve seen High Barbaree six times over almost six decades.  Each time I saw it, I saw something else because I was a different age and person, but the impact of seeing it at age four made some kind of life-long impression, some kind of deep programming sub-routine in my brain.  I’ve seen thousands of movies, most of which I’ve completely forgotten.  If anyone reading this finds a copy of High Barbaree to watch they will probably not find much in it.  When I saw it again the other night it seemed very slight.  However, it did trigger emotional waves deep within my own memories, and from my knowledge of James Norman Hall and why he wrote in the book, that I can see that the filmmakers meant it to be much more than what it became.  I think the filmmakers also had an emotional response to the book and hoped to convey that in the movie. 

I’m not sure the emotions are there unless you can bring your own deep experiences to the film.  I wish I could see High Barbaree without all my psychological baggage that comes with me to know if there’s a deserved reason why the film has been forgotten.  I wonder how many young kids happens to catch High Barbaree back in the 1950s and now feel nostalgic for it after all these years.

This makes me wonder if any film can truly stand alone, or requires the fertile minds of the audience to make them succeed?

JWH – 7/15/14

“Who Knows Where The Times Goes” at 4am

The older I get, the more I think about time.   Maybe that’s because I’m running out of time, or maybe time is just how we link our memories.

Now that I’m retired my sleep patterns are changing.  I guess work made me a solid sleeper.  Now I sleep whenever I feel like it, and more and more I find myself waking up in the middle of the night.  I’ve discovered 4am is a great time to listen to music on the headphones.  This morning’s random play started with “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” sung by Judy Collins.

One reason 4am is a great time to listen to music is because my mind exists in a disassociated dream-state.  Music and lyrics trigger images and thoughts that don’t surface during the daylight hours.  Since I also have a bit of a cold, my mind was even more weird.  Colds make me nostalgic, and listening to a song about where did the time go really pushed that button.  I even played it twice.

I do not fear the time

Who knows how my love grows

Who knows where the time goes

Me and my friends are getting older and we often talk about where does the time go, and lament that time is running out.  If I live an average lifetime, I only have about as many years as I did from 2000 till now.  That’s both a lot of time, and not very much.  I already know many from my generation that have passed on, and the people I spend time with are becoming old friends in both age and the length of time I’ve known them.

Getting old sucks, but what can you do about it?  I have a philosophical bent that lets me enjoy my decay, but my friends think I’m morbid.

There’s a weird dichotomy between the people I knew before thirty, and those after forty.  Some of my “new” friends I’ve known for twenty years, yet sometimes when I’m hanging out with them I feel like I’m with strangers.  Maybe blood kinship only feel tighter because those are the people we’ve known since the beginning of our personal time, and everyone we met after we’ve adultified still feel like strangers.

Since my playlist was on random, it was rather serendipitous that the next song was “Old Friends” by Simon and Garfunkel.  It was a song written back in the 1960s imagining being old at seventy  I realized that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are now in their seventies.

Can you imagine us years from today

Sharing a park bench quietly

How terribly strange to be seventy

Old friends

There are damn few people I knew growing up that I’m still in contact with now.  What’s funny is I used to wonder back in the 1960s what all those rock stars I admired then would be like in their seventies.  Now I know.  It’s so fucking weird to see Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones on TV.  I’m still playing albums those guys made back when, picturing them from their classic covers, but seeing wrinkled old coots on my TV screen.

In the darkness, half asleep, I think about how Susan and I are getting old, and so are all our friends, and how we’re all worrying about becoming feeble or demented.  I seem to worry about different things things than my lady friends.  They hate so much not being young, but they seem to have their health.  My friend Connell and I, worry more about our failing bodies.  We don’t mind the wrinkles, but know our bodies aren’t going to hold out like the ladies, who will probably all last until their nineties.  Connell and I think we’ll fade away before our eighties.  I’ve known Connell since 1966, so we’ll be old friends in our seventies.  Some of my lady friends might have as many years ahead as they’ve had since 1980.

While listening to “Old Friends” in a dreamy state, half in, and half out, of consciousness, I had many revelations about time, things that seemed so insightful in the four o’clock hour of the morning, but now lost in the light of day.  I wish I could recapture the brilliance of my visions, but I can’t.  I live a strange life now by not working, spending most of my time processing the past.  I still do things in the now with friends, but my nine-to-five time is mostly spent in the profession of studying the relics of time.  I am a temporal archeologist.

I graze on time.  I study science that chronicles billions of years. I read histories that span  thousands of years.  I read novels from the past three centuries.   I watch movies that span nine decades.  I listen to popular music that span the same nine decades.  I read biographies that take me up and down the past.  I study 3,000 year old religions and philosophy that are distilled from 300,000 years of ancient thoughts.  I graze on time while my own dwindling 4D space is being consumed.

The next song that came on was “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis.

Hello stranger

It seems so good to see you back again

How long has it been

Seems like a mighty long time

How very strange, because it feels like I’m constantly reacquainting myself with old friends.

Wow, three songs in a row about time, what a coincidence.  Maybe fate is telling me something.  Or maybe time is very essential to song writing.  I wonder if I went through my playlist of All Time Favorites at Spotify, how many songs will I find about time?

Laying in the 4:14 am dark, with my eyes closed, in a serene state of floating consciousness, listening to my Spotify playlist through an old pair of Sony Walkman headphones attached to my iPod touch, I realized just how much time I spend consuming the past.  I study cosmology about things billions of years old, and evolution about things millions of years old, and history of things thousands of years old, and pop culture that spans hundreds of years, and my parent’s life since 1916, and old movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and my life since 1951, and rock music and science fiction since the 1960s,  and computers since the 1970s, and computer networks since the 1980s, and the internet since the 1990s, and all the great TV shows since the turn of the century.

I could restate that list over and over again with different examples.

I now like to think of my memory as a timeline, and my life in retirement is about moving up and down that timeline learning new stuff to fill in the ticks of time.  Laying in the dark I think of all the people I’ve known, many of which are dead, or I’ve lost contact with, who exist along my timeline since 1951.  Interspersed between the memory of people on the timeline are songs, and next to the songs are books I read while listening to music.  Or maybe television shows I watched with different people, or places I visited with other people.   It does seem like a mighty long time.

Time is the thread that ties everything together, and who knows where it goes.

JWH – 7/13/14