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

Can I Defrag My Brain?

Conventional wisdom says we only use ten percent of our brains.  Well, that’s been debunked by scientists in various ways.  There are plenty of articles on the net that explain why this meme is an urban legend.  We don’t have a lot of extra capacity idling under the hood, especially as we get older.  At sixty-two I feel my brain is so chock full of facts that to learn a new phone number requires forgetting another number.  It’s like my brain is a computer hard drive at 99.9% usage.  I need to delete files to make room.  With computer hardware we can defrag ours drives, putting all the fragmented files into continuous order, thus speeding up access to our data, freeing up space, and even discovering bad sectors.

Is it possible to defrag our wetware too?

I need to speed up access to my stored thoughts, fix links to lost facts, delete old memories to have space to learn new things, and make my old brain run more efficiently.  Is that possible?  I’m not sure if our wetware uses linked lists, but it sure does feel like it.  It seems like I recall information by association to related information.  And nowadays I often can’t remember particular tidbits of data because my links are broken.  What I need is to defrag my mind.

This little TED film is very enlightening.  It explains why multitasking is wasteful, and why I can’t think when I’m tired and hungry.  If I’m theorizing I can defrag my brain, I’ll have take energy use into consideration.  This DNews flick below shoots down the ten percent idea too, but it does claim we could do more with our brains if we worked harder.  I’m thinking I need to work more efficiently with the remaining capacity I have, especially since my mental abilities are obviously in decline, and I can’t add new capacity.  I’m not being a defeatist, but accepting the reality that aging involves decay.  I really wished I did have an auxiliary memory though.

One thing that really helps me defrag my brain is blogging.  Struggling to put my thoughts into a coherent essay is almost exactly like taking widely disperse file fragments on a hard drive and putting them in one continuous file.  Not only does writing help me organize my thoughts, but making them coalesce into a unified structure seems to delete smaller thoughts from my brain.  I have no idea if this is true or not, but it feels that way.  Each time I write a good essay I feel like I’ve deleted a bunch of aborted drafts and stacks of 3×5 cards.

Many scientists have describe dreaming as a way the brain cleans up each day’s experiences and throws out the unneeded memories.  This sounds like a kind of defragging of files too.  Often during the day when I’m too tired to write, I’ll take a nap and when I wake up my brain is clear again.  I think partly this is recharging the brain, like recharging a battery, and partly sleep must clean out chemical waste that clogs my neural pathways, but it also feels like my unconscious mind has been processing my thoughts too, like organizing paper files into folders for my conscious mind, because when I wake up my thoughts feel more orderly.

The first film takes exception with multitasking, and I think they’re right.  I find that my brain feels more efficient if I try to do fewer things.  Now that I’m retired I my brain seems freed up to think about new things.  I worry about less crap now, which makes me think the old adage, “Use or lose it” is a kind of mental defragging tool.  Want to erase memories?  Avoid thinking, worrying and studying a subject.

One of my life-long models of behavior comes from the  1950 science fiction film Destination Moon.  When making their initial lunar landing, our fictional astronauts use too much fuel, so they don’t have enough rocket juice to return to Earth.  The solution is to jettison as much mass as possible from the spaceship so the fuel they do have is enough to make it back home.  Many self-help books promote the idea that if you want to succeed with your ambitions its best to have only one goal.  I never could do that, and I’ve never been great at anything in my life.  Now that I’m old I realize the same principle applies to coping with aging.  The older I get, the more I realize I’ve got less fuel to get me through the day.  The key to fighting this problem is to jettison tasks that don’t matter so I have to fuel to to do what matters most.

But I’m learning to do things that the astronauts in Destination Moon didn’t know how to do – make more fuel.  Eating better, exercising, and sleep either give me more fuel, or makes my old brain run more efficiently so I can do more with less.  I’m still on a downward spiral towards an eventual heat death of my universe, but every little bit of order I gather now seems to fight personal entropy.

One thing I’m learning lately is being a news addict is counter productive.  More news means less news remembered.  I love reading the “news” on the internet about all kinds of subjects, watching news shows and documentaries on television, and reading as many books as I can, but I’m discovering it’s better to take in fewer stories and concentrate more on one idea at a time.  This is very hard to do, because so much is going on in the world and it feels like I’m missing out if I don’t pay attention to everything.  Not watching the NBC Nightly News feels like I missed out on what went on around the world that day.  But you know what?  I’ve watched thousands of episodes of the nightly news and I can’t remember 99.9999% of what I’ve seen.  I record the news on my computer’s DVR, and I’m learning to skip through certain kinds of stories.  This has a defragging effect on my brain.  Eventually I might stop watching the news altogether, but right now I can’t break that habit.

I’m finding it more satisfying to read a whole bunch about one interesting topic than learn a little about a hundred different of subjects.   I think either way I’m going to forget most everything I learn, but it’s more satisfying to gorge on one subject than graze on a thousand.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll retain a little more of that one subject. 

This is analogous to a computer’s CPUs and multitasking.  Our brain’s main loop can time slice many subprograms, but the more we have going, the slower our brain runs.  Having fewer interests and worries speeds up processing on the functions we do keep running.

I don’t know if it’s scientifically possible to defrag my brain, but I sure am trying.

JWH – 7/9/14

Do Our Souls Evolve?–A Thought Experiment

My wife’s uncle is family famous for saying in his eighties “I feel like I’m nineteen but something is horribly wrong with my body.”   

If you are under 40 you probably won’t understand this essay.  People over 40, as they begin to feel older, often report that although their bodies are aging, their minds feel no different than when they were teenagers.  And I too, at sixty-two, feel like I’m the same person in all my memories, even the oldest.  But is that really true?  Are we mentally the same our whole life?  Do our bodies age, but not our organ of self-awareness?  Can we stay young at heart even after we start falling apart?   I’m already having memory problems I never had as a kid, but I feel like I’m that same kid, just with a flaky memory.

I am intrigued by this organ of awareness that thinks it’s always young.  Is that our brain?  Our soul?  Our identity?

We feel like we’re looking out our eyes, hearing through our ears, touching with our fingers, tasting with our tongue and smelling with our nose, but we know that if we lost our eyes, ears, fingers, tongue and nose we’d still exist inside our head as long as our body could keep our brain alive.  Oliver Sacks writing in The Mind’s Eye, tells stories about blind people who continue to see by living in a virtual reality inside of their head.

For convenience’s sake, I’d like to call that organ of awareness in our head, the soul, even though I’m an atheist.  It’s such a lovely word – the soul.  Our sense of identity resides in our soul.  We know we can shut the soul off with sleep or drugs, or distort it’s working ability with disease, drugs, stress, and injury to the brain.  But for most of our lives, if we’re lucky, our soul feels unchanging.

Is our sense of identity unchanging?  And what is identity?  We all feel like a little being riding around in the head of a body, sitting just behind the eyes, looking out, and steering our body through life.  I’m reminded of a bunch of old sayings:

  • Inside I feel just like I did when I was young
  • If I knew then what I know now
  • If I had to do it again I wouldn’t change a thing
  • If I had to do it again I’d do everything different
  • Youth is wasted on the young 

I think we do change, and I offer one bit of evidence and a thought experiment to explore this question.  Back in September 1966, The Monkees premiered on television and my sister and I absolutely loved that show.  Now in 2013, The Monkees are in reruns and when I catch an episode I’m horrified that I could have ever admired that show, much less watch it for more than ten seconds.  How can the Me I remember feeling just like the Me of today love a show then that I hate now?  The only way to explain that would be to say neither the body or the mind are part of our soul or identity.  Since I’m an atheist I don’t believe in souls that survive the death of the body, or move between bodies in reincarnation, but I’m willing to call that feature of our being that feels self-aware consciousness the soul.  But are souls unchanging?

To answer this question I’ll offer a thought experiment.  Imagine you could send your soul back in time to replace the soul of your younger self, would your older soul follow the same path as the younger soul first took?  Pick a month in your past and use the Internet and your memories to recreate everything you can about that month, all the personal encounters, all the activities, all the pop culture pleasures, and imagine whether or not you would have followed the same path or diverged.

Popular-Science-Jan-1967

September, 1966

Life and Family and Friends

I was fourteen and my sister twelve, when my mother took us to live in Charleston, Mississippi at the end of summer 1966, just before school started.  Aunt Let and Uncle Russell lived outside of Charleston, in the country.  I don’t know why my mother moved us there.  I remember my parents fighting all the time, but I don’t remember them talking divorce, but that might have been the case.  We had been moving around so much all my life that it was just another move.  By the end of March, 1967, we moved back to Miami, reuniting with my Dad.  He died in May of 1970, and those last years were miserable for all us when it came to family relations.

In September of 1966 I was a fourteen year old kid who survived by hiding out in science fiction books, AM Top 40 rock music, and watching television.  I quickly made two friends, Ben White and Mack Peters.  I had crushes on several girls I was afraid to talk to but who lived constantly in my fantasies.  I remember those eight months – August through March – very fondly, but I had a well honed coping mechanism.  If my 62 year old self had to live those same eight months he (it?) would have reacted much differently.

The 2013-me would have loved and sympathized with my parents far more than the 1966-me, but wouldn’t have put up with their bullshit.  I hid from their emotional hurricane when I was young.  If my current soul could have seen their suffering I’m positive I would have reacted completely different.  I’m pretty sure I would have been far more empathetic to their lives, but I also would have told them everything they never wanted to hear from a fourteen year old son.  It wouldn’t have been nice.  I would have told them to get their shit together, or get a divorce, and either way, I wanted the bus fare back to Miami so I could go live with my grandmother.  Over the years I realized that if I knew then what I know now I would have divorced my parents at age twelve.  Even now, I’m not sure what would have been best for Becky, my sister.

Do our souls change with experience and knowledge?  Are our souls the knowledge and experience we collect?  Then why don’t we feel like we’re aging on the inside?  Or are our souls the organ of awareness that just surveys knowledge and experience and that’s why we don’t feel it aging?

When it comes to friends, I’m pretty sure my present self could not have been friends with any of the people I remembered.  At fourteen I was already an atheist and liberal, and the racism of the small town Mississippi life revolted me, but I was too chicken back then to be confrontational.  I was already reading about LSD and was looking forward to when I could try it.  I remember a January, 1967 issue of Popular Science magazine that had an article about a guy trying LSD in a clinical situation that changed my attitude about drugs.  My time in Mississippi was just before the Summer of Love, and I was already reading everything I could in Time, Newsweek and Life about the counter-culture.  My 14 year-old self kept quiet then, but my 62 year-old self wouldn’t.

If for some Peggy Sue Got Married reason I found myself back in the past I would have done everything different.  But then, does doing things different, and thinking different, really mean my soul was different?  If our soul is only a mechanism of perception that feels the body, and listens to what the brain thinks, it still might change – and even evolve over time.  Hinduism teaches we are here lifetime after lifetime to educate our immortal soul.  Lovely concept, but I don’t believe it – but can we educate our mortal soul?  Or is it merely a viewing mechanism?

There are things that shuts the soul off.  It happens every time we fall asleep, or pass out drunk, or go unconscious because of sickness or drugs – or death.  Our souls can break down because of stress and torture, or come apart because of disease or drugs.  So why shouldn’t they change because of new learning experiences?  

Television

September 1966, the month The Monkees premiered, many other famous television shows premiered too: The Smother’s Brothers Show, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., The Invaders, ABC Stage 67, The Dating Game, That Girl, Star Trek, The Time Tunnel, Tarzan, The Newlywed Game, and Mission: Impossible.  I also watched, sometimes with my family, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Bonanza, The Ed Sullivan Show, Candid Camera, What’s My Line, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Combat, The Fugitive, The Red Skelton Hour, Petticoat Junction, Lost in Space, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Gomer Pyle, The Virginian, I Spy, F Troop, My Three Sons, Daniel Boone, Hogan’s Heroes, Twelve O’clock High, The Avengers, The Jackie Gleason, Flipper, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Get Smart, Gunsmoke and Saturday Night at the Movies

I’ve always considered the 1966/1967 television season one of the best ever, if not the best.  Many of my cherish memories of growing up come from watching those shows.  Yet, I find them all painful to watch today.  If somehow I could go back in time I wouldn’t watch 1966 TV at all.  That would have disconnected me from family and friends.  My whole timeline, life and personality would have changed.

Does this mean that my soul has changed over the years, or have I just gotten used to more sophisticated TV?  I still love TV. I love binge TV watching, so I’ve not become an intellectual snob.  In 1966 I loved those television shows.  They were highly addictive, but when I catch reruns of them today their stories seem way too slow, simple and obvious.  I sometimes feel a twinge of nostalgia, but I’m way to impatient to watch them.  And many of them, like The Monkees, F Troop, Gilligan’s Island, etc. horrify me.  I can’t believe I ever had a mind that could like them, much less love them.  Star Trek stands out as being among the most intellectually ambitious of the bunch, but it’s absolutely painful to watch today.

I really don’t think I’m the same soul.  Maybe I have an old body, an older mind, and an older soul?

We like to think of ourselves as being the same person our whole life, but this thought experiment makes me doubt that.  I once read that it takes about seven years for all the cells in our body to change out.  If everything physical is new every few years how can we be mentally or spiritual the same?  Could our soul be like a computer program that can be replicated, but also patched and rewritten?

Books

It’s much harder to pinpoint the books I read in September of 1966.  I was limited to my school library, and a tiny, two room Charleston, Mississippi town library.  I didn’t get to buy books.  I’d join the Science Fiction Book Club in early 1967, but at this time, I was limited to libraries.  I loved Robert A. Heinlein, and would read whatever I could find.  I brought a few paperbacks with me from Miami, Florida.  I can remember one author I discovered at the Charleston Library, George Adamski, and I’m terribly embarrassed to admit it.  I was reading books about flying saucers.  I also was reading about cryogenics, but remember no specific books.  I joined the science club at school and I proposed two experiments.  One was to get a weather balloon and launch it with lights and see how many people reported it as a flying saucer, and two, get some liquid nitrogen to freeze frogs and see if we could revive them.  The big lumbering husky 4H boys in their bib overalls probably thought I was one whacked out puny four-eyed city kid.

Of the writers that existed back then that I’ve come to love since, like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, George Elliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald – if I had tried to read any of them I would have failed to enjoy them.  But is that really true?  Two years later, in the 12th grade, I read and loved Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The Stranger by Camus and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  And a year after that I was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

Could it be our minds, our souls, reflect the pop culture we consume?  To be the soul that loves 1966 television meant I couldn’t be a soul that loved classic American and English literature!

If I could have given my 12 year old self novels to prepare him for girls, I wished I had discovered Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Middlemarch and The Way We Live Now.  They would have been far more useful than the science fiction I was reading to prepare me for the future.

Music

Music is the monkey wrench in my theory.  I routinely play the music I listened to in 1966 today.  It still resonates with me at a very deep level.  I have learned to love many other kinds of music since, and I do believe if I could send my 1966 soul Miles Davis or Mahler he too would have loved their music.  Music is where the past me and the current me overlap the most.  That’s hard to explain.

Movies

Living in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966, a small town with no theater, took me out of the movie world for nine months.  In fact, the television was so exciting that season that I don’t remember watching many old movies, or even newer movies on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies.  I remember my cousin Robert and his wife Charlotte let me stay with them in Memphis for my 15th birthday that November and they took me to see Fantastic Voyage at the drive-in in their 1962 Chevy Corvair.  I had seen Our Man Flint in Miami at the beginning of 1966, and it was one of my favorites for the year.  Most of the other movies for 1966 I saw years later on TV.  If my present day self was stuck in 1966 I would have wanted to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Sand Pebbles, A Man for All Seasons and Blow Up – all flicks my younger self wouldn’t have liked.

Results of the Experiment

The next time I feel the urge to tell a young person I feel the exact way I did in my head at 16 that I do now, I’m going to pause, and try to stop myself.  Yes, I do feel that way, but only if I don’t analyze the details.  I think if I could be magically thrown back into the head of my younger self it would feel like an intense drug trip.  The restless energy, emotions, hormones, fears, pleasures, would overwhelm me.  Getting an erection countless times a day at the slightest thought or sight of anything female would drive 2013-me insane.  I’m not sure about this, but I get the feeling I must have had more thoughts per minute than I do now – so switching bodies would feel like doing speed.  I think the combination of a racing mind and constant horniness would short our my present soul if it was plugged into my younger body.

I don’t like that my body is getting old and failing, but on the other hand, I quite enjoy where my soul is at.  Having my soul travel back in time would be uncomfortable, like time traveling to a time before air conditioning, the Internet, indoor plumbing and antibiotics.

No, I don’t feel like I did when I was young.  I do, but it’s an illusion.  So why do we fool ourselves?  I don’t know, but I might explore the idea in the future.

JWH – 12/27/13

Homestead Air Force Base Library (1962-1963)–Aching for Photos

If you have photographs of the old library at Homestead Air Force Base before it was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew, please send them to me ( jameswallaceharris symbol outlook point com ).

My friend Linda and I had breakfast last Monday and somehow we got on the topic of the first books we remembered.  We were both born in 1951, but she grew up in Memphis, and I grew up in Miami.  Neither one of us could remember the first actual book we owned, but Linda remembered discovering libraries in the third grade, and I remember finding them in the fourth. 

We both figured we had children’s books when we were little, but we can’t remember them, but it was discovering libraries that turned us into bookworms.

I have vague memories of school libraries before discovering the Homestead AFB Library in 1962, when I was ten.  And I have fleeting memories of one other base library, but I can’t remember where it was.  Maybe New Jersey.  My father was stationed at Homestead Air Force Base in 1962 and 1963, and then after he retired, we returned to live near Homestead, so I got to use the base library again, while in the  8th grade. 

I still remember so many books I found at the Homestead AFB library.  I have many memories roving up and down the bookshelves, but what I would really love is photographs from inside and outside of that library.  My mind aches for some kind of validation to those memories.  I have no idea what the outside of the building looked like, and I’m guessing it was pretty small.  The check-out desk was in the middle of the building, just as you came in the door.  Going right led to a small wing holding the kids and young adult books.  Going left held the adult books and a small nonfiction section.  If memory serves, going left from the entrance, and then turning right just as you went into the room, was the science fiction section, which I didn’t know about in elementary school, but was a major discovery in junior high!

Straining my brain I’d guess that the science fiction section might have had no more than 6-8 shelves of books.  It wasn’t huge, but it was gigantic to my impressionable mind.  Going left, rather than right led to several sections of metal shelves in the middle of the room that held the nonfiction books.  I loved looking for books about space travel, fighter jets, astronomy, oceanography, maps, etc.  I loved this library.  It depresses me to think all of this was destroyed by a hurricane.

For a long time now I’ve had this fantasy that someone would create a database of all the photographs in the world so people could share them.  I envision going to the site and putting in a location and date, and seeing all the pictures taken that was closest to that date and location.

Did anyone ever take pictures of the library at Homestead Air Force Base?  They could be lying around in drawers, totally neglected, or even been thrown away, now decomposing in a dump.  How many photos were ever taken at the base in 1962 or 1963?  And how many people like me wish they could see them now?  Am I the only one?

Google and Bing found me a few photographs, but I’ve got to say their search capabilities stink to high heaven.  No matter how I phrased the search I’d always get photographs from other air bases, or even totally unrelated images.  But I was able to dredge up a few photos that validate some of my wispy memories.

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Homestead Air Force Base was a rather compact site.  The flight line was is the major feature of the bottom right quadrant.  My father worked on the eastern end.  I remember hearing there were twelve B-52s stationed at the base at the time, with almost a hundred fighter planes.  At the far eastern end of the flight line they had a couple each of F-102s, F-104s, and F-106s.  Most of the planes were F-100s.  I remember seeing one F-51 on the field, and heard Airmen saying it belong to a doctor.

I believe the library and the base theater were on a road that paralleled the flight line.  For all I know, I was riding my bike somewhere in that photo.  I road my bike all over the base during those years, going to the library, theater, base exchange, or along the road near the flight line.  Hearing the B-52s rev up to fly was powerful.

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Our base house on Maine Avenue didn’t look as fancy as this one, but it was the same design.  A duplex with a doubled shared carport in the middle.  Housing on the base was by rank, and my father was a NCO.  Kids of officers lived in nicer houses closer to the center of the base.  But I loved our house, and have many fond memories living there.

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In October of 1962, President Kennedy came to visit the base, just after the Cuban missile crisis.  If my memory serves me, the Homestead Air Base Elementary let us kids off the the afternoon to go see the President, but me and my friends skipped JFK and went fishing at the rock pit, which I believe is the dark rectangle at the upper right quadrant of the aerial view above.  I’ve always regretted that I didn’t go see the President, but hell, I was ten, and waiting for some old guy to drive by in a big car didn’t sound like fun.  Going fish did.  I’m sure many of my classmates are in the photo above.

These four photos are a pretty skimpy haul for trying to recreate the past.  For all I know, the library might be in one of the two pictures of JFK, but the only landmark I really remember is the red and white checkered water tower.  How many people in these two photographs were holding cameras that day and snapping pictures?  How many people took family pictures in their base homes?  How many people took pictures at work with their friends?

Nowadays reality is so well recorded because everyone carries a camera built in their cell phones, but back in 1962 people only took photos on special occasions.  My family had a camera, but we could take a year or two to use up a 12 picture role of film.

If by chance, you’re an old Air Force brat and have some photos of Homestead AFB, please contact me at ( jameswallaceharris symbol outlook point com ).

JWH – 9/19/13  

What’s the Relationship Between Memory and Profession?

I’m wondering if how much we can remember is related to what we become in life.  Generally we think the careers we pursue are selected by interest, the ability to conceptualize the work, and talent.  But what role does memory play?  Does the ability to remember details accurately influence what we choose to do in life?  Could engineers, surgeons, mathematicians, composers, physicists, become who they are without good memories?  Could actors and singers work without the abilities to remember lines and songs?  Could salesmen and politicians succeed without remembering people’s names.  How well could people in law enforcement do their jobs without a knack for remembering faces and cases?  Isn’t becoming a lawyer all about memorizing precedents and laws?  Well, what about absent minded professors?  Maybe to remember all the important facts of their discipline it’s vital to forget all the piddling practical things?

I can remember all the things I wanted to be as a kid, and looking back I can see I never had the memory skills to do those things.  I became a programmer when I failed at being a scientist.  And I’m only a so-so programmer.  I have a certain knack for programming, but that’s because I can remember commands and algorithms to a degree.  If I could have mastered mathematics I would have liked to have been an astronomer, or robot designer.  My fantasy careers were to be another Robert A. Heinlein or Bob Dylan.  I have great difficulty holding plot ideas in memory, and the only song I can remember is Happy Birthday, and I usually flub the 4th line.

Our whole K-12 educational philosophy is to prepare individual children to know everything that an ideal adult should know – as if everyone should be the same.  We expect kids to memorize a body of knowledge we consider essential for a well rounded citizen, when in fact, everyone specializes, and everyone has varying levels of brain processing powers.  Some people are Intel i7s, while others are Motorola 6502s.

The hot topic in education right now is the Common Core State Standards.  The initiative’s mission statement says:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

Currently, the Common Core standards focus on mathematics and English language arts, which is also what the national standardized tests cover.  In other words, this initiative is a massive effort in coordinated memorization.  By focusing on the Common Core standards we can evaluate students, teachers and schools through comparisons.  The assumption being if kids in school A rank higher than kids in school B, then teachers and administrators are doing a better job in school A.  But what if everyone learns the same standards equally well, but one school does better than another?  How much education comes from outside of the school?  Does growing up in a well-to-do family confer more opportunity to learn?  Or what if some kids have better parents or mentors that push practice and memorization?  Education isn’t just about the particularly facts we learn.

There are only so many facts we can stuff into our brains.  We grind through our school years cramming for tests, but how much of this essential knowledge is really essential later in life?  In last month’s Harper’s Magazine Nicholson Baker wrote “Wrong Answer: The case against Algebra II” – not available online, but nice summarized at Popular Science as “Should Math Really Be A Required Subject?”  Baker pleads for us to abolish the Common Core State Standards for Algebra II because few people use it later in life, and many students suffer from studying it.  But isn’t that true of most of what we studied in school?

What if pushing memory skills helps with careers?  Advance math requires remembering years of previous mathematical techniques.  Most of what you learn in school can be studied days before the test, but not advanced math.  Passing Algebra II reflects great memory skills.

How successful in life we become is determined by how much we can remember.  Kids who master Algebra II go on to become scientists, engineers, economists, doctors, lawyers – whether or not they actually need advance mathematics or not.  The ability to remember and process complex concepts correlates well with success in many fields – and I think it’s because it reflect memory skills.

Also in the news was the Bullitt County 1912 Eighth Grade exam, that made 2013 smart people feel stupid.  Not only could I not pass this 1912 test, but I doubt I could pass any 2013 Common Core tests.  I read lots of books and consider myself reasonably educated, but if I had to rate my intelligence by tests then I’m a dummy.  I love pop culture, but do miserably at trivia games.  Facts just don’t stay in my head, and I think that’s true of a lot of people.

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I’ve read dozens of books on the history of physics and cosmology, yet I doubt I could talk about this topic in anything but the vaguest way. I often write blog posts stuffed with facts that I hope to retain by writing about them, but never do.  Some bits of information do stick, but I have no control over what facts get filed in permanent memory and what don’t, and whether or not I can recall the stored facts in a timely manner.

What I do is consume knowledge and shit out the solid facts, maybe digesting a bit of their nutriments, and I hope I become a bit wiser overall.  My opinions will change but I can’t substantiate my beliefs with regurgitated references.  My love of information is more akin to binging on sweets.

Knowing this makes me wonder why we spend so much money and effort forcing children to pass tests regarding knowledge they don’t retain.  Obviously, a good education leaves a lot of knowledge sticking to the ribs of their brains, but a surprising amount gets immediately discarded.  I do remember a fair amount of arithmetic but damn little algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics and calculus.  My guess is the old adage, “use it or loose it” applies.  So anything I learned fifty years ago that’s still in my head is there because I’ve had to use it.  So why not build an education system focused more on doing and less on testing?

Now that I’m retiring next month, I hope to study math again.  I’ve always regretted not working harder at learning math, and I’m wondering if I use it again, will some forgotten aspects magically come back, or will I have to memorize the old facts all over again?  My guess if I work at it for a year I’ll develop some skills I currently don’t have, but if I stop working at it, those same skills will quickly disappear.  Whether or not I’ll find some hobbies that actually need math skills is another matter.  I’ve always wanted to program some computer animation and that does take math.  If I apply the math, I might remember more, and for longer.

Sure, I might discover I hit a math barrier quickly.  I might not have the memory skills to go very far this second time around, but I am going to take a different approach.  It won’t be to pass tests.

Are our minds more like a hard drive where we store files, or like a computer program where we load information into memory to process?  We generally think of memory and mind as one, but what if that’s not true?  Is my personality reflected in how I react to experiences, or how I remember them?  Recently I fell in love with the song “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” sung by Joan Osborne.  Do I love that song because of who I am, or because of the 1966 Jimmy Ruffin version of the song imprinted on my brain for life as a mood memory and listening to the new one stimulates that old memory?

Even after playing this song over a hundred times recently, I can’t remember the words, nor could I hum the melody.  However, something has been recorded in my brain that remembers the mood of the original song.  Hearing the Joan Osborne version pushes the same button in a deeply emotional satisfying way.

What’s weird, I’m obsessed with the song right now, but in a few weeks I’ll have completely forgotten it – until the next time I hear the music.  Even when I want to preserve a memory, to hang onto a cherish feeling, I can’t.  I supposed if I sang the song myself every day it would eventually become a part of me.  And that might explain why I forget so much – I’m constantly consuming new songs, new books, new movies, new television shows.

There are limits to memory I can’t overcome, but I could master more facts if I was willing to narrow my consumption of new data.  I’m a hummingbird flitting from one flower to the next, with no memories of the last.  Maybe if I tasted fewer flowers I’d remember more of them?

If humans were robots and we stored our memories in mechanical devices, we’d still have limitations, even if we could consciously control what we retained.  I’ve always read about people with eidetic memories in awe.  In my mind, they must be a superior species.  Obviously, we’re all different when it comes to how many facts we can maintain at our fingertips.  We’ll never be robots, and most of us will never have photographic memories, but who we are is defined by our limitations of memory, and not what we remember.

I believe my hobby is blogging now because of the limitations of my memory.  I can look up facts and quotes on the internet as needed.  If I could remember lyrics, chords, notes and melodies, I’d be playing music as my hobby.  If I could hold a lot of entangled concepts in my mind, I’d probably be writing novels.  If I was good with trivia I’d spend more time with my wife going to trivia games.  If I had a great memory, I’d probably be programming with languages that have large libraries of powerful functions.  I’m really amazed at the synergy between my poor memory and using Google with writing blog posts.  Even the length of the post is hitting the wall with how much I can conceptually handle at once.

I believe our memory abilities define what we choose to do.  But I also believe that the limitations of my memory confines me in explaining this.  I hope my memory power at least hints at what I want to say.

JWH – 9/17/13