Blogging, Aging and Maintaining Mental Abilities

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 31, 2014

It’s amazing how some old sayings reflect unfathomably deep wisdom. Two of which that come to mind are “Use it or lose it” and “You don’t know what you’ll miss until it’s gone.” Some of these old sayings don’t become relevant until you’re old, which is a shame, because such knowledge would give the young a savvy advantage. It’s always difficult to predict what to keep using until you need it in the future.

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Take handwriting. Until a few weeks ago when I discovered it was gone and I missed it, I never gave it two thoughts. When I had a pinched nerve in my neck and couldn’t type for a few weeks, I truly missed the ability to write in cursive. Now that I can type again, I’ll probably forget that I really needed to write without a machine. I’m sure one day I’ll again regret the loss of that skill, so I should practice it now. But I won’t, will I?

The trick now is to recognize the skills we do wish to keep, and keep practicing them. Blogging has taught me the value of practicing verbal skills. Both for writing and speaking. If I stop blogging for any length of time I feel my ability to use words begin to fade. It’s subtle, but it’s there. If I go without writing long enough, it’s not even subtle.

When I was younger, and watching my father’s generation of men die off, my uncles and other older guys I knew, seemed to withdraw into themselves as the years passed by, and talked less and less. I know I’m making crude generalizations here, but men, and maybe women, seem to lose their conversational abilities as wrinkles become more numerous. When I was young I assumed aging involved a withdrawal from life, either from boredom, lack of interest, or a diminishing urge for self-expression. Now I wonder if it’s a fading ability to communicate. Either put words together into concise thoughts, or lose the ability.

When I don’t blog my mental muscles to shape paragraphs gets flabby. Since most of my friends are women, I tend to spend most of my time listening. I’ve lost the ability to argue, and my verbal skills of discussing ideas are beginning to fade too. When I do talk to men, our old ability to battle with words has been lost to a détente of friendship.  My old buddies are guys that I agree with, and I’ve given up on confrontational acquaintances. Maybe I should be more aggressive in my blog writing and find some wordy foes to spar with.

If the only thing you do is watch television, then the only skills you’ll have when you get old is sitting and watching. Maybe that’s why all the old men I knew stopped talking?

Every time I write an essay I can feel my brain working out. It’s like being at the gym and pumping iron – I can feel I’m lifting heavier concepts with systematic practice. I doubt blogging is for everyone, but I expect everyone needs some kind of verbal exercise that includes both conversation and writing. And it may even help to learning handwriting again.

JWH – Happy Halloween

Why the Fad to Declutter and Simplify?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 27, 2014

One of the most emailed stories at The New York Times this week was “Kissing Your Socks Goodbye” about a woman in Japan, Marie Kondo, who is famous for extreme tidying up. With shows like Hoarders reaching season 6, it’s obvious that throwing things out is in, and it’s chic to live with less. But why is less more? What’s the virtue of turning all your rooms, closets and drawers into Zen gardens of simplicity? Is it just a fashion, or does it reflect a mental desire for personal change?

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You’d think simplifying one’s life would be as natural as drinking water to quench a thirst. Just give up everything you don’t use regularly, and then keep everything else orderly and tidy. Man, I’ve been trying to do that for most of my life and have always failed. Clutter and kipple are relentless! Is that because my personality is disordered, and my outside reflects my inside? The trouble is, my head is far more cluttered than my closets and drawers. I just got too many things to think about, and I don’t want to throw any of those ideas away. If I wasn’t too lazy to photograph the rooms in my house, I could show you I’m reasonably clean and orderly, and far from being a hoarder, but being moderate is bland. If I could photograph the inside of my brain, it would look like this:

hoarders

By the way, I hope you didn’t find this essay looking for how-to instructions on organizing your life. I’ve got no tips for you. This is a philosophical analysis of why we want to simplify our lives for people who can’t – people like me. Have you ever wondered why an uncluttered life is so prized? Even Henry David Thoreau only lived at Walden Pond for two years, two months and two days, and didn’t spend all his time there even when he implied he was. If we had a completely decluttered home it would be empty. The urge to be Buddha is deceptive, because asceticism is only hiding from the real issues.

We all want to have full lives, not empty ones. We are limited by space and time, but the goal isn’t empty rooms and blank calendars when we seek to simplify. And we don’t want sparse lives. We want maximum use of our time and space. Can you imagine living in the Zen living room above? It conveys serenity, but no action. I am anal enough to keep my books orderly. Here’s a fairly recent photo of my shelves. I can’t photograph my Kindle and Audible books though, but Amazon keeps them reasonably tidy.

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My problem is not really clutter, but lack of focus. I want to do too many things, and I have the possessions for lifetimes of activities if I ever made use of all my stuff. But isn’t that what hoarders say about pieces of tinfoil – that they might find a use for it, so why throw it out? I have well over a thousand unread books, and I buy twice as many books each year than I read. I have more hobbies waiting to be started than I have likely years left in my life. My clutter is mental, rather than physical. It’s a time management conundrum, rather than a space management failure.

Last night I watched Print the Legend, a film about the 3D printer movement, especially about Makerbot founder Bre Pettis. Like Steve Jobs, Pettis is driven to build a tech empire. I have no desire to be like that, but I admire the hell out of the people who can focus on one goal and make something happen. I don’t want to clean out all my drawers and closets, I want to clean out my head. Marie Kondo’s advice is to throw away everything that doesn’t thrill you. My problem is I’m thrilled by a very long queue of ideas in my head. To be a person that makes things requires picking one idea and ignoring the rest. I use to think that was writing a novel, and I even still do, but I just can’t throw out all the other stuff piled up in my brain.

I probably could clean up my house so it looked very Zen, but it wouldn’t make me serene. Organizing the words in this essay does. Maybe what cleans up my mind is sweeping out all the thoughts about a particular subject into a nice tidy pile of words.

If I could be the person I dream of being, I’d need to pick one project and work on it till it’s accomplished. I can throw stuff away all day long from my house, I just can’t throw out the piles of junk in my head. But that’s what I need to do. I used to think if I threw out all my physical possessions I’d have a Zen mind. I don’t think that’s true anymore. I do wonder if I could achieve a Zen mind, would my house end up empty?

JWH

The Job of Blogging

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blogging is an interesting hobby, but strange in some ways.  Most blogs are like diaries, yet before the Internet most folks would be horrified to have their diaries read before they died.  Blogging is a bit like writing papers for school, and most students absolutely hated writing research papers and book reports. Blogging has an element of journalism, so maybe its popularity reflects a strong desire for bloggers to be reporters. However, there’s tens of millions of blogs, most going unread, as are most daily newspapers. If I really wanted to be read I should try and write stuff for popular web sites, that’s where the readers are going. Writing for professional sites should be my ambition, but its easier to just to be my own editor.

In some ways blogging is confessional, and that doesn’t require readers. Writing is therapeutic. But I don’t think I’d take all this time to write if I didn’t think I had readers. The urge to write encompasses the urge to inform and entertain. I’m not sure how entertaining and informative I am, but I keep trying. Before I changed my domain name, I was getting 200-400 hits a day, with occasional spikes.  My best day ever was 4,521. Evidently switching names has screwed up things with Google, because now I only get 100-150 hits a day. Most of those lost hits were for product review pages. And that tells me something – web surfers mostly want information from the Internet. And that’s reasonable. Most of the pages I still get hits on deal with science fiction. When I write about me I get no hits.

The common advice to bloggers from successful bloggers is to publish regularly.  At least once a week. That means writing 52 read-worthy essays a year. Most popular bloggers publish several times a week, but often, they are the subject of their writing. My life is not as entertaining as The Bloggess. Even if I was more fascinating, I doubt I could handle the stress of making myself more interesting. Besides I love writing about interesting things that aren’t me.  For instance, last night on PBS I started watching a new series, How We Got to Now.  The first episode was called “Clean” and it was about how America started cleaning up its act. It featured a fascinating segment about how Chicago first built sewers.  They actually raised up the buildings to make space. Now that grabbed my attention!

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[Click to enlarge]

If I could, I’d want to write nonfiction books on science and history, but I’m not that disciplined and dedicated. Thus, blogging for me is a way to write tiny reports about the books I read, the documentaries I see, and the web pages I discover, that are worthy of wider attention. People do the exact same thing on Facebook and Twitter.  Blogging is just more verbose. Blogging gives me more time to make my case.

Few writers write original content. They report on people, places and events. Most journalism is a kind of history. Reviewers report on other content creators. For example, the raising of Chicago’s buildings is something I could research and write about, but why should I compete with what Wikipedia has published, or PBS? Blogging is more liked linked lists in computer programming. If you read other web sites about the topic, for instance Gizmodo, you’ll see no one writes much on the Internet about any particular subject, and they often share the same facts, links and images. The image above is at every site I visited. If you follow the links, you will get more information, but not much. Following several links give a bigger picture. If you want true in-depth reporting, you have to read books.

A great blogger will consolidate a greater amount of information, closer to magazine pieces in size. Open Culture and Brain Pickings are my favorite examples. Open Culture just provided me with a wonderful piece about Alice Guy-Blaché, a women director also mentioned in last week’s Makers on PBS that I wanted to research. I wonder if Jonathan Crow was inspired to write his piece because of Makers? Or was it an interesting coincidence.

As a bookworm and documentary junky, I’m constantly finding new facts that startle me. For example, the other night I watched The Galapagos Affair, about a tiny historical incidence from the 1930s, involving a German couple moving to an uninhabited island in the Galapagos. Their letters home made them world famous as a modern day Adam and Eve. Eventually five more people join them, and two were murdered, leaving an interesting mystery. I found this bizarre history riveting, and highly recommend the documentary that’s available on Netflix Streaming.

eve and adam

If I was a better journalist, say up to Maria Popova’s standards, I’d go research to see if more people in history have tried to play Adam and Eve. If Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter got the idea, so must have others. As a kid I was always fascinated with Swiss Family Robinson type stories. As a blogger, that should be my job, to track down more information. But to be honest, that requires a lot of work, and I don’t know if I’m up to it. I’m now working in a space beyond Twitter and Facebook, but not yet a full article.

That’s what this essay is about. Even though I’m not being paid, I feel blogging is a kind of job, and comes with responsibilities. While I have been nattering about blogging, I hope I’ve provided some useful information, and maybe turned you onto some interesting reading. Is that enough though?  How much information do I have to provide to make it worth your time to read what I write?

JWH

Are We Becoming Cyborgs?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 9, 2014

Because of a pinched nerve I’m having difficulty typing.  Because I want to write, I’m seeking alternatives to a keyboard and computer screen.  This failure to type is revealing something about my current state of being.  My mind and body have adapted to the computer.  When I can’t use the computer, or the Internet is down, I’m anxious, and feel physical withdrawal.  I hate this feeling.  Even though my arm hurts more as I type, I keep typing.  Sort of crazy, isn’t it?

handwriting

I’ve tried dictating, and I’ve tried hand writing, and I’ve discovered I’m lousy at both.  When I was young I could write longhand for hours.  Now I can barely scratch out a few minutes of a childish looking print.  Fifty years of typewriters and word processors have ruined me for that ancient tool – the pen. 

The net is full of stories about the death of penmanship.  I used to think, “So what, we’ve got computers.”  Now I regret those thoughtless words.  My left arm burns, throbs and stings as I type, and I feel like banging on it like  Dr. Strangelove.  

I’ve become a cyborg.  The transformation has snuck up me.  If you think you’re still 100% human, try going without your smartphone for a week.

I realize now I shouldn’t have let myself become so adapted to one way of writing.  My body has integrated with cyberspace, and now I feel handicapped when when I can jack in.  Yet, I know fully well that writers were immensely productive before the 20th century with just pen and paper.  Helen Keller wrote inspiringly without seeing or hearing.

Even if I can get my doctors to fix my neck and arm, I think I need to relearn handwriting and pick up the skill of dictation.  I’ve read about a number of authors who write by talking and they claim its immensely productive.  My ability to speak is better than my handwriting, but not by much. Both are so linear.  My thinking depends on word processing features, spelling checkers, and referencing Wikipedia and Google. I now need the Internet to complete my sentences.

Because I’ve thoroughly aggravated my arm, I need to go rest it a couple hours.

JWH

A New Look

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If you are a regular reader of Auxiliary Memory you’ve notice that things look different.  The URL has been changed to be easier to remember – http://auxiliarymemory.com.  The purpose of the new layout is to make online reading more pleasant, and to simplify the look on smartphones or tablets.  There is one simple menu at the top of the page under the three horizontal line symbol.

My new goal is to write more enjoyable essays to read.  Essays with more content and structure.  This will involve more research and study.  Most readers come to this site because Google directs them here, but I do have a few friends who are regular readers.  Readers from Google are researching a topic.  Now that I’m retired I have more time to study, and this gives me an opportunity prowl the web for fascinating subjects to write about.  This exercises my aging mind and improves my writing skills.  Writing has become my main retirement hobby.

I’ll continue to write biographical pieces, but I want to write less about me.  As I’ve worked to research new subjects I’ve learned that journalism is  stimulating and challenging.  My hit statistics show certain kinds of essays get no hits.  There are many reasons for this.  First, the essay is blather about nothing, so there is nothing for Google to index.  Second, many other people have written about the topic better and Google points to their essays.  Or third, I’ve written about something that no one even bothers to query Google.

Yes, I do have friends and a few subscribers that read whatever I write, and I’m grateful for their encouragement.  To replay their kindness I feel inspired to work harder.  I must write about things that interest me, but the challenge of being a writer requires I be more interesting to others.  The simplicity of my new layout is intended to keep my focus on words and sentences worth reading.

JWH – 9/20/14  

What it Takes Personally to Write My Novel

I woke up early this morning and started fantasizing scenes from the story I hope to make into a novel.  I’ve been writing novels in my head for most of my life, but except for when I’m taking writing courses (with deadlines), I just don’t write fiction.  I should be honest with myself and admit I’m never going to write that novel.

But I can’t.

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All my work life I dreamed of having time to work on my novel, and now that I’m retired and have that time, I don’t.  That should emphatically tell me something too.

But I’m not listening.  I keep thinking I’ll change.  And herein lies the rub.  I need to change!  But can I change?  It will require a metamorphosis not as extreme as Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, but pretty close.  I don’t need to become a six foot bug, but I do need to become something that’s not like me at all.

And the willpower for this change will be greater than even losing the weight to have a healthy body mass index – and I’ve never been able to lose weight either.

I know, I’ve whined about this many times before.  I’m sure I’m boring what few regular readers I have for this blog.  But I keep thinking, this time will be different.  This time I can write something that will convince myself to change.

Do you believe me?  I wouldn’t either.  But should I give up?

After breakfast I sat on my couch and thought about this.  What would it take for me to change?  Without being drastic, without going overboard, I figured all I need to do is alter some of my habits but keep most of them so I won’t freak out.   Currently, I like to write a blog post every morning, and that averages about a 1,000 words.  I’m usually through by noon.

Step one.  From now on I can only write fiction before noon.  I can do anything I want after noon, even write blogs, but before noon, I can only write fiction.  That should give me plenty of time to pursue all my favorite time-wasting activities, so I won’t feel deprived, but enough time to get some novel writing done.

Step two.  I spend most of my reading time reading off the web with Zite, News360 and Flipboard, or reading nonfiction books, or nonfiction from magazines.  All of this nonfiction inspires me to write nonfiction blogs.  I need to read more short stories and novels.  I don’t think I can kick this nonfiction reading habit, but I’ll try to never read nonfiction before 3pm, and spend time after lunch reading and studying fiction.

Step three.  I should only read fiction that I wished I had written.  I need both inspiration and models.  I need to study what I like and figure out how it works.

Step four.  Let’s see if I can stick to these three baby steps until June 1st and see what happens.

p.s.  This means I might be posting fewer blogs.

JWH – 4/26/14

Focus–Finding My Flow

I’ve always been too lazy to be successful.  My ambitions have always been greater than my ability to focus, so I’ve lived a life of quiet desperation (for those of you who remember your Thoreau).  The constant rationalization throughout my adult life was I had to work and thus didn’t have the time and energy to pursue those ambitions.  Of course that’s bullshit.  Successful people always find the time to pursue their dreams no matter what situation they find themselves.  And now that I’m retired and have all my time free, I have no rationalization to protect myself from my own crapola.

A song to play in background while reading this essay.

What’s required to be successful at any goal is focus.  People who can concentrate to the point of getting into the zone and finding their flow have a much better chance at being successful.  However, relentless focus isn’t the only answer, many people on the autistic spectrum can focus obsessively, and just ordinary people with decent hobbies can find flow for escaping reality.  Success is focus, 10,000 hours of practice, and a creative awareness of the past with the ability to imagine something new and different.  Of these three qualities, I believe I have little of the first, a fair amount of the second, and quite a bit of the third. 

My will is flabby, but my ego is buffed.  (I’m sure all us Walter Mittys can say the same.)

An astrologer once told me that there are two kinds of people – those who create and those who consume.  I’ve spent my life consuming thousands and thousands of books, documentaries, essays, stories, songs, movies, television shows, and so on.  This is my 765th essay for this WordPress blog.  In my life I’m sure I’ve written over a thousand essays.  That’s a long way towards my ten thousand hours of practice.  I’ve been working on both fiction and nonfiction books, but I can’t focus enough to stick with them.  I can write these little short blog essays, but that’s about as far as my mind can focus.  To break through my concentration barrier will require changing myself quite a bit.  I don’t even know if that’s possible.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I’ve written this essay before.  I write essays like this one to talk myself into changing, but I never do.  At age 62, change does not come easy.  I’m a man who loves his rut, so it’s odd for me to even desire change.  But I’ve known all my life that if I want to succeed with my writing goals I have to change.  I assume I never will, because I never have, but the desire to write a book never changes either.  It’s an odd Catch-22.  And the funny thing is I know exactly what I must do.  I must give up all my distractions and focus on a single goal.

Like many times before, I have to tell about the parable of Destination Moon, a movie made in 1950 about the first trip to the Moon.  Like Neil Armstrong nineteen years later, these movie astronauts had to do some last minute maneuvering when they went to land, but unfortunately they used too much of their fuel.  They landed okay, but didn’t have enough propellant to take off.  Eventually one of the scientists figures out if they jettison enough weight they’d have enough fuel for the return trip.  They had to throw out all their collected samples, their scientific equipment, their radio, all the unnecessary rocket control instruments, even their space suits.  Getting back to Earth was an all or nothing gamble.  That’s how it is with ambition – you have to jettison all the extra weight to be light enough to take off.

There are writers who published bestsellers by getting up two hours early and writing before they have to hit their nine-to-five job.  I never could do that.  I never could eat just two cookies.  It was always all or nothing with me.  When I read books like The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin that took seven years to write, or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson which took ten, I realize what it means to be a writer, you have to be dedicated in a way that most normal people never can be.  Wilkerson interviewed 1,200 people.  And the source material Goodwin had to read would have taken me more than seven years just to read.

It’s easy to fantasize about doing something, it’s hard to actually do it.  That’s because success takes unswerving focus.  Last night instead of watching Nature, Survivor, Nova, Nashville and part of The Glass Bottom Boat with Doris Day, I should have been writing, or at least researching.  Yesterday afternoon instead of reading News360 and listening to music, I should have been writing.  Instead of reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, I should have been researching.

Sometimes I wish I could just commit to four hours of dedicated work, say from 9am to 1pm.  But I can point to two of my recent blog posts that show you how distracted I am:  “Reading: A Compulsion, An Addiction, Or Obsession?” and  “Too Many Distractions While Running in a Thousand Different Directions.”

Now that I’m retired, and have all my time free, it’s all too obvious just how little discipline I have.  The momentum of my life feels like I’m the Titanic and I see the iceberg, but to change course with all this momentum behind me is impossible.  If I could ever write my first book in my sixties, I’d be the poster geezer for late bloomers.  I still have hope though.  Even the tiniest course changes can affect the destination of a big ship hundreds of miles out.

I  figure if I keep writing these essays nagging myself to change, I just might.

[By the way, did you get the ironic humor of the song?]

JWH – 3/27/14