Why The Selfie Is Significant

I was in the middle of my physical therapy exercises this morning when I realized the significance of the selfie.  Most people think the selfie is silly, and so did I, until I realized how important a form of communication they were.  The selfie has reach the stage of pop-culture success that it’s now the subject of parodies.  It’s quite easy to dismiss the selfie as a narcissistic fad, but a flash of insight tells me that the selfie represents a breakthrough in language.

If you typed a text to a friend that said “I am at the beach” it conveys a certain amount of information.  But if you sent them a selfie of yourself with a beach and ocean in the background you’re sending them many magnitudes more information.  That old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words in quite true, and maybe even an understatement.  But the selfie goes beyond beating a few words with massive amounts of data.

pug at beach

Language is a code.  It’s symbolic.  Pictures are also symbolic.  They give the illusion of reality, but they aren’t.  But they are far closer to modeling reality than words.  And the most important aspect of the selfie is modeling the self – the I.  We all struggle throughout life to express ourselves, and we always fail.  We neither know ourselves, nor can we describe ourselves.  A photo does a pretty good stand-in, much better than words, especially if it also expresses action and place. 

If a photo captures an image of our self doing something in the moment it’s very close to expressing where we’re at.  Sure it’s not as deep as Proust, but it’s far better than the words the average person can express.  Not only does a selfie capture us in the moment, it becomes a much better memory than we can store by chemicals etching our neural pathways.

A selfie of yourself at the beach is proof that you were indeed at the beach, now, to your friends, and to yourself, in the future.

And I think the selfie portends more than that.  The history of the human race is really a history of language and information.  We didn’t become the crown of creation until we acquired language, but no matter how significant that accomplishment was, language has huge limitations as a form of communication.  Think of this way.  Let’s say you were at the beach and wanted to tell your grandmother about the experience.  You could send her a text, write a long email, call her on the phone, send her pictures or send her a videos of several events of your time at the beach.  Which mode of communication gives your granny the best sense of your time at the beach?

What smartphones are doing is allowing us to communicate in two new languages – images and videos.

Sadly, I’m not a smartphone person, or a selfie taker.  I live in the old world of words, and I realize I’m being passed by young people who speak in new languages that I have few skills at using.  Of course there are limits to every language.  Selfies show the outside of things, and even if they can infer a lot about our inner states, they can’t compete with words at expressing our thoughts.  I can’t help but wonder for those people who talk in selfies aren’t outer-world oriented.  One criticism I’ve read of the selfie is young people feel if they don’t have a picture of an experience it didn’t happen, that a selfie is a kind of proof they really did do something.

This is really a weird concept to explore.  It suggests that television and movies have influenced our sense of reality, so that if we aren’t in the picture or the video we’re not there.  It suggests our sense of self is shifting from inside our heads to the pages of Facebook, and that’s quite fascinating.

Some people have already begun to think of the selfie as an art form, but I’m thinking the selfie is a kind of language, one that communicates a sense of self, and says a lot about self image.  I don’t like my physical image, so I use an ugly dog as a stand in.  I see myself in words instead.

JWH – 8/17/14

Finding Vivian Maier–The Emily Dickinson of 20th Century Photography

This afternoon I saw a fantastic documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, about a person I’ve never heard of who deserves widespread fame.  Her name was Vivian Maier, and she was a nanny most of her life, and it wasn’t until she died that John Maloof, a young writer discovered she was also a photographer when he bought a box of her negatives at auction.  Vivian Maier, who was quite secretive about her private life, was not reclusive like Emily Dickinson, but she hide her art away, and the documentary even questions whether or not if Maier would have liked her pictures shown.  Maloof estimates he’s eventually accumulated 150,000 thousands of her negatives.  The documentary ends up being about many things, including Maloof’s tenacity of tracking down Vivian’s legacy and making it known.  He has her photographs on display in galleries around the world, and has published two art books of Maier’s work, with another coming out soon.

Maier died in 2009, and Finding Vivian Maier isn’t even the first documentary about her.  There’s another documentary, Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures, directed by Jill Nicholls for the BBC that was rereleased in the U.S. as The Vivian Maier Mystery.  Maier was also the subject of other short films, and many news reports and essays.  Her story is so great that it’s impossible not to retell.

I don’t think I can tell her story better than these films I’ve found at YouTube.  If you get the chance, see Finding Vivian Maier at the theater, because her photographs are beautiful blown up on the big screen.  Maier mostly took street photos in New York City and Chicago, but did take an eight-month round the world trip by herself.  The bulk of her photographs were taken in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and she captured a unique view of history.  Her photographs are gorgeously composed of daily life on the run.  Probably many of her subjects never knew they were being photographed.

I highly recommend watching these YouTube clips full screen.  Be sure and set the resolution to 1080p or 720p.  Maier also took many 8mm films.  These are interesting, but not beautiful like her black and white photos taken with a mid-format Rolleiflex camera.  Her Rollei photographs blow up on the big theater screens magnificently.  Maier also took color 35mm pictures too, but I like the black and white pictures best.  The film also shows huge crowds flocking to her exhibits.  I’ve love to go see them.  I’m surprised I’m so late discovering her, but then I think most people haven’t yet either.

Just look at the many images here.  The number of pictures taken is tremendous, and the variety of subjects is astounding.

Watching Finding Vivian Maier evokes all kinds of philosophical questions about art and life.  Why did she take so many photographs and not print or try to get them exhibited?  Like one documentary commentator said, for many of her images, the only time she saw them was when she pressed the shutter release, and even then she was probably looking at the scene and not the composing screen.

Maier is like the existential God who created the universe and then walks away from his creation.  Despite all the mystery surrounding Maier, it finally comes down to the art standing on its own.  Her images are captivating, haunting, riveting, compelling, and all the words you can imagine that say they make you want to look and look and look.


JWH – 5/13/14

Are Young Women More Artistically Beautiful Than Other People?

If we were robots, with video camera eyes, everything in our visual field would be of equal value.  So, why do our brains light up when we see flowers, sunsets and young women?  Will we ever be able to program a robot to have a sense of beauty?

And if biology is the basis of beauty, why isn’t food and potential mates the only things we see as beautiful?  How did a sense of beauty evolve in our minds?  Does it serve a purpose?  Isn’t a sense of beauty one of our most motivating qualities?

I love looking at photographs.  I have a dual monitor setup and use John’s Background Switcher to display 8 photos on my desktops every 10 seconds, chosen from sites like 500px, Flickr and others.  This way I see scenes from all over the world, nature, animals, forests, oceans, lakes, mountains, stars,  buildings, bridges, and sometimes people.  What’s strange is for some sites, when they show people, 95% of the time it’s a young woman, probably age 18-25.  Now these are supposed to be art photos, not sex photos.  Why are young women more artistically appealing than other people?  Is there a reason other than sex?

Photographers do like taking pictures of other kinds of people, but even then the range is limited.  It’s cute kids, or very old people with tons of wrinkles.  (I assume wrinkles are very artistically inspiring, especially in black and white.)  But statistically, young women are the dominate subjects for photographs of humans.  Why do young women trigger the neurons that define beauty in our brains – more than any other object in reality?  I don’t know how woman and gay men rate the beauty of young women, but I often hear them talk about beautiful women, so it isn’t just us guys brainwashed into seeking sex objects.

It’s not news that young women appeal to photographers, but I’m wondering why.  Is it just sex, or are young women more aesthetically pleasing than other types of people, or even natural objects?  Can we ever see young women without our brain being distorted by sexual programming?  Aren’t flowers, sunsets, old cars, dogs and cats just as beautiful?  And if artistic photographs were mainly about sex, why aren’t women photographers uploading pictures of young men in equal numbers?  And what explains heterosexual women preferring to look at young women?  Why aren’t women’s magazines, and their ads, showing an equal distribution of women of all ages and sizes?

If you follow photography you eventually realize certain subjects are more popular than others.  Today’s amateur photographers are just amazing, equal to the best professionals just decades ago.  Just look at a site like 500px.com.

The annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue just came out, and it gets a lots of attention.  Why does it only show young women in swimsuits?  Why not older women, or men?  Sure sex sells, but why don’t we have a wider range of sexual stimulation.  It’s often said we are a youth oriented culture – is that because we define beauty by being young?  Is it possible to culturally reprogram ourselves so old men and women in skimpy bathing suits would be beautiful?

I think the photo above of Anna Bella is beautiful because of the woman, and because of the photographic composition, but could not a sixty-something woman have posed for the picture and the photo been just as beautiful if the picture had been composed for artistic reasons?  Or is lustrous hair and fair skill absolute aspects of beauty?

I think the picture of the pug dog below is beautiful.  I have no sexual attraction for dogs, and think pug dogs are ugly, but I think this photo is artistically beautiful.  However, most of the photos I think of as stunningly beautiful at 500px either have gorgeous nature scenes, or they are of young women.  However, if I put the picture of the woman above on the wall, my wife will think I’m a dirty old man, but think nothing if I put up a picture of a pug.

Even though I think pugs are butt-ugly, I think they are beautiful to look at.  What explains that?  Is cuteness an aspect of beauty?  It would explain all the pictures of puppies, kittens and kids.  How do we explain sunsets and flowers twisting our beauty sensors to 11?  How much do bright colors figure in our sense of beauty.  Think of fall trees.

Photography sites have billions of images of animals we find beautiful.  What makes them beautiful?  Not all animals are beautiful either.  Puppies are cute, but a mangy dirty puppy isn’t.   What makes one tiger stand out over another?  Why are flowers so beautiful, or rolling hills?  I’m sure there are thousands of books devoted to defining the philosophy of beauty, but shouldn’t it be obvious?  Can beauty be scientifically determined?  Or is it always something in the eye of the beholder?  How many things do we find beautiful?  Is it endless?

What moves us?  That tree on the bare hill has impact, especially against the spectacular sky.  What about the women below?  The picture is beautiful, but there’s something beautiful about the woman too, as if her rich life experience shines out.

Photograph Wharf Lady by James Nielsen on 500px

I’d like to know about the science of beauty.  If we ever built robots with artificial intelligence that were self-aware, and conscious beings like ourselves, will they have a sense of beauty?  And if they do, will what we think as beautiful overlap?  Has there been any studies trying to find out if animals have a sense of beauty?  Do dogs looking at people think some people are more beautiful than others?  Are their favorites young women?

And is beauty just visual?  Aren’t some smells wonderful, and others stinky?  Are some sounds lovely and others ugly?  Even textures and tastes have their aesthetics.

I keep an extra monitor going, not to have room for work windows, but to be constantly stimulated by beautiful scenes.  Every ten second I see four more images on my left that inspire me about this world and reality.  Lately, I’ve been most inspired by pug dogs.  I’m not a dog person, I’m a cat person.  But these weird little pugs have caught my attention.  By the way, I like the gray woman below not because she’s beautiful, but because her grayness contrasts beautiful with the dirt and rocks.  How can we possible explain why black and white is often more beautiful than color?  Whatever beauty is I haven’t a clue to explain it.

left screen1

JWH – 3/7/14

John’s Background Switcher 4.8

I love photos.  I also love making my computer desktop into a photo gallery.  I hate icons on my desktop – I want all the space for photos.  Over the years I’ve tried various desktop background switchers, but the one I’ve stuck to because I love it best is John’s Background Switcher.   Last month John Conners released version 4.8 which added two nifty features, Dropbox support and collages.

If you want to see photos from your collection on a regular basis, then I highly recommend John’s Background Switcher.

This is what my desktop looks like as I write this – my blog editor and the photos around it.


Normally I have John’s Background Switcher pick just one photo at the time, but I’m enchanted by the new collage feature and will stick with it for a while.  By the way, it’s teaching me I need to edit my collection better, and make sure all photos are turned properly.  And it mixes in family photos, with photos I collect and use for this blog.  That makes for some odd combinations.  And it also shows that some photos should be culled from the collection because they’re bad photos.  I have a nasty habit of keeping all shots because I think of them as history, but I need to think of photos as art instead.

This constant bombardment of the senses can be distracting, so sometimes I hide the photos by opening browser windows.  Or it’s easy to turn off JBS.  But usually I love being surprised and reminded by scenes of the past.  It’s like having floating memories on my desktop.  And I have it set to change every minute.  It’s amazing how many faces I recognize, and from any age in people’s lives.


What’s even more fun is setting this up with two monitors.  Sometimes I run the second monitor just for the photos.  The surprise of seeing certain photos can inspire my writing, or remind me I need to reconnect with people, and since I collect historical photos, it reminds me of other times and places.

One of my many retirement projects is organizing my photo collection.  Susan and I inherited her family photos and my family photos when our parents died years ago.  Plus I love to collect photos.  When I see a cool pic on the net, I snag it, and add it to a file called “Wallpapers” – which has sub-folders for many types of images.  I also like to collect images of book and album covers, and I’ve started collecting art pictures too, especially from  Colossal.  I’ll be writing more about my photo organization project in the near future.  I just wanted to promote the new version of John’s Background Switcher for now.

The program is only for Windows – although John has promised a Mac version,  and I’d actually like to see it on Linux too.  The advantage of John’s Background Switcher, besides it’s many configuration features, is it lets you link to many popular photo sites to get random images from other people.  These include Flickr, 500px, Instagram, Facebook, Vladstudio, SmugMug, Picasa, etc.  This is great because there are so many amazing amateur photographers out there.  However, I must warn you, if you use this feature at work, sometimes photos will pop up that might be embarrassing – like some beach babe when the boss is in your office to give you a new task.  People often came to my office would stare at my monitor, and not look at me when they were talking.

JWH – 1/13/14

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.


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.


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.



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  

Reality is Not About Us–Philosophy in a Photograph

Sometimes I get very philosophically excited by a picture, but I find it very hard to put my reaction to it into words.  The whole picture is equal to a thousand words kind of thing, but for me, some pictures could generate a hundred thousand words, or even millions. 

Here’s a photo I found and sent to several of my friends.  It’s a dragonfly covered in dew.  Philosophically, I’m fascinated by the idea this reality wasn’t meant just for humans, and reality is experienced by an infinity of minds perceiving it in infinite ways.  This is one of the many reasons why I don’t believe in God.  God is too small of a concept to encompass all of reality.  God is too anthropomorphic, to human self-centered, to be a meaningful hypothesis when you study all of reality.  The reason why I embrace science is because science is a better tool for understanding the truth about reality, even though I know that even science is too puny to do the job completely.  Science just handles big numbers far better than theology.


Our human senses are so limited when it comes to looking at reality.  For example, look at this second photograph of the same image, taken from the photographer’s web site.  This is from Martin Amm Photography, and is color corrected differently.  The first picture had been color saturated to make it more intense.


Now don’t get the idea that the second photograph is the way the dragonfly really looked at the moment the camera snapped the picture.  First off everyone sees things differently, and everyone’s monitor color calibrates differently.  But even back in the reality from which the photo was taken the photographer saw the dragonfly differently from what he photographed, and the birds nearby waiting to eat the dragonfly saw it differently too.  And the insects on the same branch saw the dragonfly completely different too.  There is one huge reality, but all the beings in it see it differently, in an infinite number of ways.

To begin to understand how complex seeing is, and I mean beyond just the tiny window of visual light that humans use, we have to study the electromagnet spectrum.  On a recent PBS NOVA, “Earth From Space” they had a scientist report that if the electromagnet spectrum was measured from New York to Los Angeles, then the part the human eye sees with would be the size of a dime.

Size matters.  Our view of reality is distorted by our size and the size of our senses.  When humans invented the concept of God, our awareness of reality was much smaller, and we pictured God as being the biggest thing we could imagine.  All our cherished concepts, God, heaven, hell, love, hate, justice, good, evil are measured by human scale senses.  As human minds progressed beyond theology into philosophy and then into science, we saw the reality around us expand further and further.  At one time God was the biggest thing we could imagine, and then science gave us the universe, an object whose size is beyond our best imaginations to fathom, but it can be measured.

I use the word “reality” to label everything rather than the word “universe” because scientists are now speculating that our universe might only be one of an infinite number of universes.  When I say “reality” I mean the whole she-bang, and not just the big bang.  When I say the word “God” isn’t a big enough concept to convey reality I’m  not just being an atheist, but I’m making a philosophical statement about numbers, size and reality.

Humans generate ideas constantly, but most of our concepts don’t hold up against reality.  Take the concept of heaven.  Many people believe when they die they will go somewhere else, somewhere beyond reality.  Where is heaven?  How big is it?  How far do we have to go to get there?  How many people are there?  How many animals?  What about plants and insects?  What about intelligent beings from other worlds?  Does the dragonfly above deserve everlasting life too?  Reality is huge, but how big must heaven be?  If everything in this reality gets to live again, how big must heaven be?

By one estimate, over 107 billion people have lived on Earth, and that doesn’t count Neanderthals and earlier forms of hominids.   Is heaven and hell crowded now with all those people?  What about their favorite pets? What about all the billions to come?  Just how big is heaven?  Heaven is described in The Book of Revelation and even given with measurements.  Depending on we interpret the ancient measure, heaven could a large shopping mall about the size of Australia.  Did you know the Bible describes heaven as a building, and living in heaven would be indoors?

See what I mean when I say our concepts about reality are too puny to be realistic.  People who study Zen Buddhism are taught to look at reality without using all their bullshit concepts.  If they say something stupid they are caned about the head and shoulders.  If we had a Zen master walking behind us all day, we’d get whacked in the head constantly.  We’re always bullshitting ourselves.

It’s very hard to use words precisely.  We have so many bogus words.  We have too many words that distort our view of reality because of their anthropomorphism.   I find it helpful to stare at photographs and try to forget the words.  Or just stare at reality and try not to explain what I’m seeing.  But that’s a failure too.  You see, we do have a sixth sense, one that the dragonfly doesn’t have, and that’s language.  We see with words.  Learning to use the correct words, without distorted concepts, is a way to focus our inner sight on reality.  We can see reality, in our limited fashion, but we must wash the bullshit off our eyes first.

Does this begin to show you why I got excited by seeing the photograph of the dragonfly?  I’ve written about a thousand words now.  Tomorrow I could write a different thousand words on meditating on the same photograph.

JWH – 6/27/13

Throwing Away the Past

Have you ever found a pair of ticket stubs to a concert you went to a quarter-century ago when cleaning out an old drawer?  You hold in your hand proof that you were somewhere in the past at a certain time, and even what building, row and seat, and what you heard for a few hours.  Do you save the ticket stubs or toss them?  Maybe you could jot the info down in a journal, or make an entry into Facebook Timeline.  If you don’t, you’re throwing the past away.

I often throw my past away, and sometimes I regret it.  Saving the past takes work.  I turned 60 last year and my memory is in decline, so I often wish I had validation for lost memories.  But saving the past often feels like hoarding, and hoarding scares me because the weight of past can become paralyzing.  Some folks bury themselves in the past long before they die.

1939-05 - Dad at Homestead FL

Most people don’t have eidetic memories.  Have you ever wondered how biographers could write gigantic biographies of people who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago?  George Washington and Abraham Lincoln left big historical trails to follow, but most people leave few clues to piece together.  My father died when I was 19 and it took me years to realize that I knew nothing about him.  I had memories and a handful of photos, which I thought was all I needed, but when I finally got around to examining those memories I realized I had zip, nada, nothing.  I have no idea what was going on inside his head.  Like, what was he thinking on his graduation day in the photo above?  What did he hope to get out of life?

Recently I threw out decades of credit card bills, medical statements, receipts on big purchases, bank statements.  I knew if I wanted to I could recreate at least my spending and medical history with those clues, but in the end, I chose to throw them all away.

Who are we?  Are we what we think?  Are we what we own?  Are we what we did?  Are we what we love?  Are we what we hate?  I’m not a believer in the afterlife, but I wonder what it would be like, because if we went some place new do we throw out who we were on Earth?  Memories of my Dad are defined by Camel cigarettes and Seagram 7 bottles.  If my Dad can’t have his cigs and booze, can he be my Dad in heaven?  Or do they have bars and ashtrays on the other side?

And is that how the young man in the photo above expected to be remembered?  By his bad dying habits?

There was a period in my life where I fanatically collect LPs.  I had over a thousand of them.  Collecting and listening to music is what made my life good and meaningful.  I eventually sold or gave them all alway.  I only have one LP now.  Last year I had a fit of nostalgia for an album I heard in 1971 called Never Going Back to Georgia by The Blues Magoos.  It was never reprinted on CD.  I ordered a used copy off the internet and a friend gave me a turntable and I played that album a couple of times.   What I heard was not what I remembered from forty years ago.

It takes a great effort to recapture the past once you throw it away.  I know many people who never throw anything a way.  I knew a guy who claimed he had every book he ever bought and read.  I know that’s not true because he lent me a book and I never gave it back, and I’m sure I’m not the first.  I have a piece of his past – sorry about that Bob.  But is it a piece that matters?  And which pieces do?

Does the past matter?  I can go long periods of time without thinking about the past, but boy do I hate it when a memory pops up and I can’t place when and where I was.  It bums me out that I can’t remember one face or name from kindergarten through third grade.  I do remember returning to Lake Forest Elementary in my fourth grade year and meeting a girl name Helen and how it upset her that I didn’t remember knowing her from when we went to second grade together.  I can remember a few people from 5th and 6th grade.  That’s pitiful, ain’t it?  In all my K-12 years I can barely remember and name more than a dozen classmates.  Where did all those people go, I spent years with them.

Religious people agonize over being reborn after death – they just don’t want to let go, they’re just afraid of dying.  But I think we die every day, every moment, I think we’re constantly throwing away the past.  We’re new people every day.  We go to sleep every night and our brains housecleans the day’s memories and throws out most of them.  If we kept all our memories we’d be like hoarders buried under piles of useless crap.

But each night, and maybe not every night, the old noggin decides to keep a few bits of the past, so there’s a precedence for keeping some stuff.  I wish I had kept a diary and took more photographs throughout my life.  A case could be made that we should each be our own biographer, and maybe that’s the right amount of past to keep, what we could keep in one big book.  Our brains aren’t very good with details, so we should jot the important ones down and take a few snaps to document our lives.

Now here’s my wish.  I wish The Library of Congress would create a national digital archive where we could store our memoires, like a permanent blogging site that historians can depend on for mining memories about all of us.  I know most of our autobiographies will go unread, but they’d be there.  I’d love to read my father’s thoughts, and his father’s, and his father’s father, and so on.

There are things we do want to remember.  Most of the past we throw away, but maybe we should start throwing away a little less.

JWH – 3/16/12