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My Father Would Have Been 100 Today

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 12, 2020

It’s been over fifty years since my father, George Delaney Harris, died on May 3, 1970. He was just 49. I was 18. To be honest, I don’t remember my father very well. Partly because he died when I was young, but also because he wasn’t around much, nor was he much of a talker. I can remember damn few conversations I had with my dad. For most of my life I’ve been trying to puzzle out who he was and what he liked from a few clues and a lot of deduction. My mother never talked about him much after he died. My sister Becky and I have traded some memories over the years.

I wrote about my mother on her would-be 100th birthday four years ago. Now it’s my dad’s turn. I am not a religious man, so I don’t expect to see my folks again in an afterlife. All I have are fading memories. My parents exist as long as Becky and I remember them. How many years will that be, probably not many. My memories of my father have lived longer than he did. My mother was a religious woman, and she hoped to see her folks after she died. But mom wasn’t anxious to see dad again. I remember before she died, I kidded her that she’d soon be in heaven reunited with daddy for all of eternity. I think that pissed her off. Their last years together were not happy ones.

The photo at the top of the page is my father, mother, and me. It is the last good photo I have of my father, probably taken in 1952. It’s rather telling that I have no photo of my dad with his wife and children. I have several from when he was growing up, but only one more photo taken before he died. It was Thanksgiving, 1968. That shot was an accident, taken before rewinding the film. I can barely, make him out. That’s dad at the head of the table with a shiny spot on his bald head. He was actually sitting by my mom. I was talking the photo. All the other family photos he took, which wasn’t many, but explains why he wasn’t in any of them. Most of my memories of my father are like this photo, blurry, out of focus, and hard to make out any details. I believe only my cousin Alana from this photo, is still alive. Becky wasn’t in this picture.

The oldest memory I have of my father is probably from around 1955, when I was 3 or 4. He was playing me, chasing me around the yard and letting me chase him. We tried playing with my plastic cowboys and indians together. I was wanting him to pretend the horses were galloping, and he would just slide them quietly along the floor. I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t communicate with him that he should make galloping noises like I heard in the cartoons. To be fair, I also remember having problems communicating with my mother too at this time. I guess my father died before I learned how to communicate well.

My next memory was at our house on 68th Court in Miami, probably 1955 or 1956. I was four, and he was teaching me to ride my little bike after removing the training wheels. I got the knack of it immediately and he went back in the house. I road up and down the driveway by myself. I have a few other vague memories of my dad from this period. I seldom remember him being home, but sometimes he would take me and my sister riding in the car, a 1955 Pontiac, to the 7-11 to get a coke. (Remember when they came in small bottles?) Becky and I would stand in the front seat and sometimes we were thrown against the dash. This was when I first discovered music, on that car radio. My father didn’t like me changing the station, but I loved pushing the buttons looking for music.

I can’t even remember him at the next house, where I started first grade at age 5 at Flagami Elementary. Or the following house. I can remember my mother being there. I can even remember my grandmother visiting and staying several weeks. And I remember Becky. I just don’t remember dad being there. Maybe he was stationed elsewhere.

One possible reason why my father is missing from my memories is in the evenings Becky and I always sat in front of the TV on the floor, and my parents sat on the furniture behind us. I certainly have more memories of watching television than of them.

I have several memories of dad from the 1958, when I was six. We had moved to South Carolina, and lived in a big old house out in the country. My mother had bought two dozen chicks to raise chickens, and two ducklings. Becky and I loved them. My father made us swings on tree limbs that were very high, which meant we could swing very high. Stray dogs which I called wolves kept trying to eat the chicks. My dad had a small .22 rifle his father had given him, and he used to try to shoot the dogs. I was always disappointed he missed. I remember he promised me a pig for taking out the garbage. I never got it.

Two of my best memories of my dad come from this period. The Air Force was my father’s real family and religion. And they taught him not to be prejudiced against black people. One day he tried to teach Becky and I that. He told us never to mistreat the black kids we played with. I couldn’t comprehend what he was talking about. It turned out our playmates were black and I didn’t know it.

While we lived in South Carolina, my dad took us out to the movies for the first time. It was a theater on base, and we saw Snowfire. But also, one night I got and my dad was up watching the all night movies on TV. He let me stay up with him. I didn’t really know what movies were, or who actors were, but I later learned the movie was High Barbaree with Van Johnson and June Allyson. Watching that film made a lifelong impression on me that I’ve written about many times. I just wish I could remember if me and dad talked about anything.

Our next house was in the Lake Forest subdivision near Hollywood, Florida. It is the first house I remember my dad buying. This was probably Fall 1958, and I turned 7 at the end of the year. I have one memory of him driving me to school and he saw the American flag flying upside down. He told me that was the signal for trouble, so he stopped a cop and told them.

In 1959 my dad got stationed in Canada, and my mother got TB and was sent to stay at Valley Forge, PA. My father’s mother, whom Becky and I called Ma, took care of us for six months. We’d get letters from my father. Then he came and got us and we drove to pick up my mother. At first we lived in Philadelphia, but then moved to Browns Mill, NJ, and then New Egypt, NJ. This was 1959 and 1960. I really have to struggle to remember my dad though. I do remember Christmas 1959 was a good one. I got two electric trains and a leather jacket with three stars on the shoulders. I remember my dad saluting me, and helping me set up the electric trains. The only other memory I can dredge up was when Becky and I went hiking through the woods for miles and miles, and found ourselves in Browns Mills just as my dad was driving home from work. I was in the 3rd grade and my sister the 1st. I think he was shocked we had wandered so far from home, but I don’t remember him yelling at us – my mother would have. Of course, we did that all the time. Times were different then. It was like in Peanuts. We lived in Kidsworld and never saw parents much, or let them know what we were doing.

I don’t know if my parents separate or what. But my mother took me and my sister to live in Marks, MS in 1960 for the rest of the school year and maybe the start of the fourth grade. My mom’s oldest sister lived there. Evidently, things got patched up, because we moved back to Lake Forest in Hollywood, FL. This was my favorite childhood home. This was around the end of 1960 and early 1961. I don’t have any memories of my father from this period. Although I do think he was home in the evenings. I believe he worked at Opa Locka Airport at the time.

Later in 1961 he got transferred to Homestead, AFB. We moved to Maine Avenue, and lived on base from 1961-1963. Becky and I loved it there. My father was around a lot then, and 1962 was our best Christmas ever. I have a vague memory of him watching the first episode of The Beverly Hillbillies with us. Still I can’t remember any conversations with my dad from this period. I just don’t think he was that talkative, although he loved bartending, so I bet he was. My theory was he just didn’t know how to talk to kids.

Towards the end of 1963, just before JFK was killed, we moved back Hollywood, FL. We drove to South Carolina the day after the assassination. My parents rented another house out in the country, which Becky and I loved, but I don’t think my father was home much. My mother had started drinking in a bad way, and they fought a lot. My father had his first heart attack there. He received a medical discharge from the Air Force, after serving 20+ years. From 1964 to 1970 he had another heart attack and a stroke. But he never stopped drinking and smoking. He could smoke several packs of Camels and drink a bottle of Seagram 7 in a day. Dad would get Becky or I to fix his drink. He liked a glass of ice with a dash of Canada Dry soda water, a full jigger of Seagram 7, and then fill the rest of the glass up with Canada Dry ginger ale.

These were the bad years. My dad would recover enough to get a job, and then end up in the hospital again. My parents fought all the time, even separating several times. I think I don’t remember my dad much because I hated seeing him drunk. And often he was just passed out. That made me afraid to bring friends home, so I often stayed away from home.

I do remember three conversations from this period. Around 1967 he went to a trade school to learn computers. One day he came home and taught me about punch cards and what the holes meant. This was significant because in 1971 after he died I enrolled in a trade school to study computers.

Another time we were having breakfast together – which was very odd. My mother and sister were already gone. The Today Show was on and there was a piece about J. R. R. Tolkien. My father said, “They’re talking about Bilbo Baggins.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but years later I remember he said it. I’ve always wondered if he had read The Hobbit? It was published in 1937. What else had he read growing up? I wished I had asked him. I wish I had asked him many things. Part of the problem I think was the chain of communication was one way. My parents told Becky and I what to do. They often said don’t talk back, go do your homework, go outside and play, go do your chores. We were rambunctious, and it was a never ending job to quiet us.

The last conversation I remember having with my dad was just weeks before he died. I believe now he knew he was dying, but I didn’t know it then. He was drunk, and told me that he loved Becky and I, and even my mother. That felt odd him saying that. It made me worry about him but I had to leave. So I snuck into my parents’ room and took two loaded revolvers out of his sock drawer and carried them around all evening. (I don’t know how people carry guns, it was very inconvenient.) When I came home he was passed out. A few weeks later he was found dead in a hotel room. He had left us again. Another heart attack, but his autopsy showed a variety of internal problems that would have killed him eventually too.

My childhood was all about the failure to communicate. It’s like watching old movies today. So many plots would have been ruined if they had had cell phones in those days. I believe my dad, mom, Becky, and I could have been happier if we could have communicated. But that’s just a theory I fantasize about now.

I was born on my parents sixth wedding anniversary. They had been informed they couldn’t have children. My uncle Bob told me in my teens that my mother refused to believe she was pregnant for a long time. My mother was 35 and my father 31 when I was born. Another of my many theories, maybe a fantasy, is that my parents were happy before they had me and Becky, because they looked happy in all their photos. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and my parents got married in 1945. Before we showed up they had been stationed in Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. While growing up they often mentioned how happy they had been in those two places. Here they are in Puerto Rico before I was born. My mother kept a bunch of mementos from Puerto Rico for the rest of her life.

My father was a restless man. He loved being in the Air Force but we moved so much that I believe he put in for transfers. He also worked two and three jobs while in the service. He loved working at the NCO club or a VFW club as a bartender after his regular duties. I assumed because we needed the money, but as I’ve said, I have theories. One theory is working nights kept him from having to come home. I’m not sure my father knew what do with kids. I also assumed he had a full life away from us. At least I hoped he did.

And the reason why I theorize my parents were happier before Becky and I were born is because most of my memories of them were when they were fighting. For mom and dad, good times always seemed in the past. But I’m sure this is a distortion of what actually existed. If I try hard I can remember family get togethers where they might have been happy. And as a kid I sometimes heard them having sex, so maybe they were happy then too. They often retreated to the bedroom and let me and Becky have the living room with the TV. Maybe they had happy times talking together when they could get away from us. At least I hope they did.

My mother was high strung, and I probably bipolar. Becky and I were too much for her. All my early memories of my mom are of being screeched at. She constantly yelled at us to behave, often going into a rage and switching us. Now I don’t blame her. She was raised with the idea that children should be polite and well behaved. We were wild and energetic. She fought an endless battle to control us. We consistently rebelled. We couldn’t be tamed. So she yelled and yelled. Which made my father stay away. Which made her bitch at him. Both my parents became alcoholics, and I never knew who succumbed first.

My father grew up in an alcoholic family. His father and brothers drank. I think he was disappointed I didn’t start drinking as a young teenager. He hated that Becky and I preferred marijuana instead of booze. Of course, this was the sixties and we were part of the generation gap. My dad was always a steady drinker and could handle it until he started having heart attacks in 1964. My mother was a quiet drinker, and couldn’t handle it. She’d lose her shit. I think she used booze as an antidepressant not knowing it increased her unhappiness. A vicious cycle. But as a kid I didn’t understand any of this. All I knew was my parents often got into big fights. I can remember back then always wondering: Was my dad a drunk because my mother was a bitch, or was my mother a bitch because my dad was a drunk.

However, this is enough of remembering their shortcomings. I don’t blame my parents for anything. They tried as hard as they could. I just don’t think they were cut out to be parents, and I wasn’t much of a son. I was great at surviving them, but it required being selfish and self-centered, and I got good at that.

I’ve always wanted to imagine what my dad was like as a person. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like if he had lived and we had finally gotten to talk. I have very little to go on. His favorite TV shows where The Fugitive and Bonanza. He liked Mickey Spillane books and adventure magazines for men like Argosy. He hated rock music. Obviously, he loved to drink. He had a whole world of drinking buddies, and maybe women. He liked fishing, and sometimes took our family fishing out on a rented boat, or me and my male cousins. He talked about how much fishing he’d do when he retired, but after he was forced to retire he did damn little fishing.

I remember my dad taking me to several significant events in my life. But we didn’t go alone together, he would take me and my friends, and he didn’t talk. Or I don’t remember him talking. He took Connell, George, and I to see the liftoff of Apollo 8. That’s a fantastic memory. George kidded me later about how much my dad drank during the trip. He also took the three of us to see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes. Both were road shows where I had to buy tickets ahead of time. He took me and my cousins camping in the Keys. Bobby, Timmy, and I slept on the beach on a blanket, and he stayed in the car drinking. One of the high points of my life was waking up in the middle of the night to see the Milky Way floating overhead. A majestic memory. My dad was there, but not part of the experience.

I do have memories of him talking about his parents and grandparents. Dad liked the old days, and didn’t like the Sixties. He was born in Nebraska in 1920 but moved to Miami around 1924 I believe. He sometimes talked about the big hurricane of 1926. He once told me a story about how Nebraskan farmers killed jack rabbits. But he was too little to remember that, and I sometimes wonder if he got it in a newsreel. After he died I saw an old newsreel about Nebraskan farmers killing jack rabbits, and it was just like his story.

Going through what few things he left after dying I found a couple newspaper clippings, letters, and photos. I still have them. There’s just not much evidence. I really wanted to know what he dreamed about becoming when he grew up. Of course, his teen years were the depression, so it was probably a job. One newspaper clipping told about how he and some classmates interned at the Miami Herald and learned about composing ads. In high school he delivered telegrams for Western Union on a bicycle, but I only know that because of a photograph. I wish I had Henry Louis Gates to help me decipher my past.

I was a disappointment to my father. He wanted me to go to college, take ROTC and become an officer in the Air Force. Of course, my high school years, 1966-1969 was during the Vietnam War. I had long hair and was against the war. A couple times he called me a long hair commie pinko. I wasn’t, but he couldn’t understand. I was too immature to try to explain things to him, and evidently he wasn’t mature enough to deal with a son who didn’t fit his expectations.

The long hair really bothered him. I think he even worried I was gay. I remember when I was 16 he was so overjoyed that I wanted to borrow the car to go on a date that he lent me his car and gave me his drinking money. Another time he tried to show me a Playboy – now that was embarrassing. I didn’t want to tell him about my stash of girlie mags and didn’t want to think about what he did with his.

I do have a memory of a conversation my mother and father had in bed one night when they thought Becky and I were asleep. They were worried we were doing drugs. We were. They considered calling the cops on us. But they finally agreed that as long as we weren’t doing heroin they wouldn’t turn us in. I was proud of them for that. They were no angels as teenagers. My mother had run off and married a bootlegger (her first husband). I’m sure my dad drank as a teen. Oh, we knew kids doing heroin, but Becky and I didn’t. The closest I ever came was smoking opium with some Navy guys coming back from Morocco – but that was after he died. I remember the first time I got falling down drunk all I could think about was how could my parents stand years of drinking. I considered alcohol an inferior drug.

I did drugs for a few years when I was young, but eventually I realized I had an addictive personality like my father and quit. The lessons of seeing him saved me I guess. He saved me one more time for sure. When it was time to be drafted I was informed I was exempt for being the sole surviving son of a veteran.

Still, I wonder what he dreamed. What did he hope to get out of life? There were many parallels between my father and Jack Kerouac. Both were born around the same time and died around the same time. Alcoholism killed both of them. After my dad died I read a lot of books by Kerouac and about him. Because Kerouac wrote about the times my father lived through I imagined Kerouac thought and did things my father had done too. I saw them as tragic brothers. Both were restless men who compulsively traveled, roaming the United States and never finding what they needed. My father once told me he had been to all 48 states (this being before Alaska and Hawaii joined the union). I figured dad had done some hitchhiking. I did a little myself.

My dad’s father was on the right, one of four boys, and his grandparents were out front. My dad was one of three brothers. My mom was one of five sisters.

My dad as a baby

My dad with a friend in June of 1923. Probably still Nebraska.

My dad on right and his first brother Jack in 1929, now in Miami for sure.

Jack and my dad visiting their grandfather in Nebraska in 1929.

Dad in 1936. Doesn’t he look like someone in a Kerouac novel?

Dad as telegraph delivery boy also from 1936.

Graduating high school in 1938 and then a year later in 1939.

Some photos during the war. He was a drill sergeant.

After the war.

Don’t my mom and dad look happy here?

George Delaney Harris 10/12/1920-10/12/2020

Happy Birthday, Dad.

JWH

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Albums You Can’t Play on Spotify

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 2, 2020

Most of the streaming music services have tens of millions of songs, or millions of albums. That should be plenty enough music for anyone, especially at the bargain price of $10 a month. It’s actually a better deal than Netflix because usually only one music service is all you need. I subscribe to two at the moment. Spotify because it’s the best, easiest to use, and works on the most devices with its Spotify Connect system. And I’m subscribing to Amazon Music HD because I’m testing out high definition music to see if it is worth a few extra dollars a month, plus I have three Amazon Echo devices. (Spotify plays through Echos too, so don’t think owning Echos means having to get Amazon Music.)

If music services offered every album ever produced I’d give up both CDs and LPs. Streaming music just too damn convenient. The Rolling Stone new list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” just came out and I bet most of them are on Spotify. There’s already a playlist created for it with 7,557 songs requiring over 471 hours to hear. (Although, I prefer to play albums one at a time.)

I keep trying to give up LPs, but some aren’t even on CD, much less streaming music. I’m neither enamored with LP’s sound, or nostalgic for the format. I’ve given all my LPs away more than once, but once again I got a hankering to hear some favorite albums and I bought four of them as used LPs. Also my Friends of the Library Bookstore sells LPs for 50 cents a disc, so it’s kind of fun to buy them based on the covers.

But, I really would give up my LPs and CDs, and my turntable and CD drive if I could get everything on Spotify. The future is almost here. The only downside to streaming music is they don’t pay the artists fairly. I hope that will change too.

I assume some albums aren’t available on Spotify for legal reason, otherwise why would all of Nanci Griffith’s albums be available but not Once in a Very Blue Moon – my favorite. There’s always a possibility that Spotify just wants to annoy the crap out of me personally. I’m hoping it will show up one day.

I just notice another album I’ve been waiting for years has appeared on Spotify, Willis Alan Ramsey self-titled debut album, and as far as I know his only album.

Sometimes early albums are left off of Spotify while later albums from the same group are available. I assume they are from different publishers or because of legal squabbles between band members. For example the group Cock Robin. Their early albums aren’t on Spotify, but Spotify offers to link you to places where you can buy them CDs. I recently bought a used LP to hear After Here Through Midland (1987).

Another old favorite album I can’t get on CD or Spotify is Never Goin’ Back to Georgia (1969) by The Blues Magoos. Again, some of their albums are available on Spotify, the early ones, but not the later albums.

An LP I’ve bought three times over the last forty years is Which Way to Main Street (1982) by Wendy Waldman. Some of her albums are on Spotify, but not all, and not this one. Some of her other albums are on Amazon Music, but not this one. This album is her only album from Epic Records, so that might explain why it’s not on streaming music services. Which Way to Main Street is available at Waldman’s website on CD, but I’m trying very hard not to buy any more CDs. I’ve started a tiny collection of used records that aren’t on Spotify. I hope that collection never grows very big because I’m over physical media.

There are groups that have no albums on Spotify. It’s like time just swallowed them up, or maybe they were bands I heard in my dreams. For example the debut double album by Gypsy called Gypsy. They have produced several albums but you wouldn’t know it from streaming music.

Interestingly, they do survive on YouTube. In fact, many of these ghost albums haunt that service. I don’t know if it’s legal or not, but it’s how they live on in our pop culture hivemind. By the way, listen to this album. I think it’s great.

I do like looking through the record bin at the Friends of the Library Bookstore. For fifty cents it’s kind of fun to try something that just looks interesting, for example this Peter Nero album, Tender is the Night. It’s not on Spotify. Most of the albums available on Spotify for Nero are compilations. For a lot of old artists, especially ones that were never big sellers, their individual albums aren’t available.

There is one whole class of albums that are often missing from Spotify and other streaming music services, and that’s soundtracks. I can listen to zillions of Ricky Nelson albums, but not this one:

But even this is changing. I’ve waited years for the GATTACA soundtrack to show up, and I see that it has. (Update – I was wrong, only a playlist that tries to recreate the soundtrack from other Michael Nyman albums.)

I’m still waiting for The Ipcress File. I have a copy on an imported CD, but I want it on Spotify. In the early days of Spotify I hope to hear the early James Bond movie soundtracks but they weren’t available but eventually they showed up. I’m hoping the same thing happens with The Ipcress File. Over the years more and more John Barry albums have shown up.

You might have noticed something by now. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of any of these albums. There’s a good chance you could subscribe to Spotify and never search for an album you can’t find.

If you’re a music nut like me, there will be albums you hanker to hear but can’t. And patience pays off. My small list of albums not on Spotify seems to be shrinking. Please Mr. Spotify, if you are reading this, put these albums on your service, especially the Nanci Griffith and Wendy Waldman.

JWH

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Collecting v. Accumulating v. Hoarding

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 27, 2020

Last night I had an epiphany while watching this YouTube video (starting at 6:18):

Seeing how well that CD/LP collection was organized I realized there was nothing wrong with collecting huge quantities of anything if you maintained an organization. I realized there was a difference between collecting and hoarding. And with a quick bit of naval gazing, I realized I was neither a collector nor a hoarder. I was something in between.

I believe I’m a clutterer or accumulator. I haven’t decided which is the better term. I acquire a lot of stuff I like, but I don’t maintain it in a tidy organized fashion, so I’m not really a collector. But then, I’m not traumatized by giving away stuff, I can shed possessions quite easily, so I’m not a hoarder either. This is a nice bit of self-realization.

A real collector will never consider Marie Kondo’s philosophy if their collection is beautifully organized. Hoarders will never give her a second thought either. It’s us clutterers and accumulators that feel Kondo is talking to us.

My problem is I collect stuff half-ass, that I’m a crappy collector. For example, I intentionally collect best-of-the-year science fiction anthologies, and I’m probably approaching 85% of what’s been published. But I don’t shelve my collection properly, I don’t index them, I don’t maintain them in Goodreads, I don’t make them look impressive in nice bookcases. I just acquired them. Some anthologies are in the designated anthology bookcases in a haphazard order, other anthologies are lying around, or stuck in convenient empty places in other bookshelves away from their brethren.

I’ve watched several of those Channel 33RPM videos that showcase people’s LP collections and listening rooms and it’s made me feel guilty about how badly I maintain my collections. I have other smaller collections that I also half-ass maintain. My man cave has no decor appeal at all, it’s just a comfy hovel. When things pile up too uncomfortable levels, I tidy it up, swearing I’ll never let it get untidy again, but weeks later, everything is in piles again.

I’m definitely not a hoarder. Sometimes when I tidy I do it by giving away stuff. It’s easier than making a place for everything and putting everything in its place. And it’s quicker than asking each object if it sparks joy.

I’ve been thinking if I really want to keep all the books I buy, I should have some bookcases built into some rooms. My friends Mike and Betsy did that and it looks great. Susan says we’ll probably stay in this house until we die, so it won’t matter if I ruin its sales appeal by having wall-to-wall bookshelves built.

On the other hand, if I had beautiful bookshelves I’d also feel the need to create an organized library of books, and that would be work. I realize that I’m an accumulator because I’m too lazy to collect properly. A good collector knows their collection, curates it properly, and showcases it in a beautiful presentation.

On Facebook I often see people post photos of their libraries. Some people are like me – they have a bunch of books. Others have made beautiful displays of their book, and I can see they are carefully organized. I can also see they spend more for their books because they get beautiful editions. I do love artistic dust jackets, and I’m willing to spend a little more, but I buy the best quality I can get for the least money, so my shelves mix pedigrees side-by-side with mutts.

Susan and I are well matched when it comes to house decorating — we both prefer being lazy. I’m a bit different because I feel guilty that I don’t make more of an effort. We have friends who make their houses look like creative representations of their personality. And you see that in the video above.

At 68, it’s probably too late to organize my spots. On one paw, I crave to be a minimalist. I’d love to decorate my den with just a large screen TV, great speakers, a network streamer, and two La-Z-Boys. I’d have no videos or albums, just stream everything. For my man cave/library/office I’d have a desk, chair, couch, reading chair, tablet, and computer. My library of books, audiobooks, and magazines would all be digital. On the other paw, I fantasize about creating rooms like the people in the videos, fill them with the physical objects I love, and decorate the walls to reflect what I collected.

The real me learns about a book, album, movie, TV show I want to consume and I order it. I spend my time enjoying creative works – I’m just not creative about collecting them. When I’m finished with one, I get another. And their physical containers just pile up. I accumulate. That causes clutter and I think about Marie Kondo just enough to feel guilty every once in a while. When I write these posts.

JWH

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Hoarding Creative Works

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 26, 2020

A hoarder of creative work is called a collector, and a collection of creative works is called a library. That’s if we’re using polite terminology. I have stacks and shelves of books, music, TV shows, and movies that I hoard. I don’t know if I’m a librarian of my collections, or a hoarder of my crap.

It’s a strange kind of possessiveness. My problem is I don’t have enough shelves for all my libraries, so me and my piles of stuff is looking a lot more like your garden variety hoarder of junk.

The other day I decided to reduce the number of DVD/BD discs that Susan and I own down to what would fit into the bookcase we designated as our TV/Movie Library. It was either that or buy another bookcase, and getting another bookcase would mean taking wallspace from something else in our junked up house, and that would only cause anguish over giving something else away.

I figure it’s time to be practical about my hoard of creative works. I’ve got too many books, magazines, LPs, CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs. And that’s not even considering the thousands of digital items I own. I know that. I’ve always known that – but why can’t I remember that? Especially like this Tuesday when I was at the used bookstore buying seven large hardbacks I felt for sure I must read but know I never will. Jesus, I’m crazy, or what?

What psychological programming makes me want to possess (collect) so much? Many of my friends when they got a Kindle gave their books to the Friends of the Library. And when they embraced iTunes or Spotify gave away their albums to their kids. And when Netflix came along donated their VHS tapes and DVDs to Goodwill. I didn’t. I went to the Friends of Library book sales and Goodwill and bought all their crap.

We often blame our present hangups on our upbringing, and I guess there might be a case for that here too. When I grew up you got two chances at seeing a TV show. When it premiered in the main season and then again as a rerun in the summer. Evidently the trauma of believing I’d never again see a favorite episode again burned something deep inside of me. That childhood trauma caused me to mass consume VHS tapes and DVDs when they were invented.

Movies used come to town, and if you missed them you’d have to wait years to catch it on TV. Music was on the radio and you had to wait a couple hours for that catchy tune come around again. It’s probably why they only had 40 songs in rotation. It was agony on Golden Oldie Weekends hoping to hear an ancient rock ‘n’ roll hit from the 1950s. Books were something you got at the library that you took back in seven days, and magazines were something you threw away on cleaning day. Creative works were fleeting back then.

When I started earning money I bought my favorite books and albums. At first it wasn’t many. When the VCR came on the market it became possible to save TV shows or buy movies. Susan and I spent $800 on our first video recorder at a time when that was way more money than we could afford. Then came DVDs, and even better, Blu-ray discs. For years Blockbuster Video filled that need to watch what we wanted when we wanted – unless it was checked out. Then we realized we had to own our favorite flicks in case the pressure to see a movie immediately took ahold of us. (Actually, I can’t ever remember that happening.)

Over the decades it became possible to own all the creative works I loved. However, it’s taken me decades to realize that the desire to consume creative works immediately is an unhealthy trait I should try to control.

And even owning some creative works would have been fine if I had been selective about what I acquired. A carefully curated collection of all-time best loved works of art that I was most identified with would have been manageable. It wouldn’t be hoarding, just defining my identity. But something inside me wants to keep every creative work I ever had a momentary infatuation. (I think that might be related to my obsession with memory too. It bugs the crap out of me that I forget anything, and owning a creative work is like a physical memory.)

I guess I feel a need to own everything I love in case I want to relive that initial encounter – but is that true? Because of the internet, there’s been a new paradigm of instant access to creative works online. When I was cleaning out my DVDs yesterday I realized that many of the movies I owned are always available, either from a streaming service like Netflix, or by renting them for far less than the cost of buying (even if I rented them 2-4 times). And since I mostly watched old movies on TCM because I actually prefer the randomness of it’s offering, many of my most loved old movies do appear one or more times during the year, giving me plenty of times to re-watch a film. For those movies I don’t have instant access through checking Just Watch, with a little patience they would show up again on TCM.

I was able to cull over a hundred discs I could part with without too much anguish. However, I still had hundreds that I felt the need to own. Where does that psychological drive come from? What kind of anxiety do I have if I’m afraid I won’t be able to see a TV show or movie when get the urge?

Years ago I calculated I’d save tons of money if I bought books at full price on Amazon whenever I actually was ready to read them over the cost of collecting books at bargain prices thinking I’d read them someday. I’ve bought thousands of books I’ve never read simply because I believed I’d read them someday. Some of those books have been waiting forty years to get the attention of my eyes.

I’ve written essays like this one before trying to talk myself out of hoarding creative works. I shouldn’t need a psychiatrist to figure out I have a hoarding gene that I need to manage. At least my bedroom doesn’t look like this:

Luckily I have another gene that battles with my hoarding gene, a Marie Kondo gene. I also like to declutter and give away junk. If I still owned every creative work I once bought everyone room of my house would look like the photo above. I’m not exaggerating.

I have a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality but it’s a battle between my KonMari/Hoarders natural tendencies. I never can come to terms that my need to read books has no relationship to my need to buy books. I write these essays time and time again hoping they will reprogram my brain. They are my way of psychoanalyzing myself but I never get to a behavioral breakthrough. I’m a crappy at self-shrinking, or would that be an auto-analyst?

JWH

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Spielberg Should Make a Movie About Them

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 20, 2020

Most of our fiction when it’s not about romance or comedy is about heroes. Whether in books, television shows, movies, or video games we usually identify with a hero. Quite often the hero must confront conflict with violence, but generally the violence is over-the-top and the heroes’ abilities are unbelievable. Far too often fiction promotes the cult of the gun. But what about real heroes? Heroes are individuals who will sacrifice themselves for others. Why don’t we see more real life heroes in our fiction?

I just finished reading chapter 17 of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson about Allison and Elizabeth Stubbs Davis, two black anthropologists who were training in Germany when the Nazis came into power. This was 1933, and they decided to flee the fascists and go to Natchez, Mississippi to study class, caste, and race. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. This was the heart of the Jim Crow south well become the civil rights era and Freedom Riders. According to Wilkerson a black person was being lynched every four days. She also reported that Nazis had studied Jim Crow laws for inspiration on how to fashion their laws to oppress the Jews, and in some instances the Nazis thought the Americans went too far. By the way, I highly recommend Caste.

Allison and Elizabeth were part of a team, with white anthropologists Burleigh and Mary Gardner, but interestingly for the time, Allison was the team leader. Wilkerson’s book up till chapter 17 showed her readers just how dangerous it was for the two couples, especially for Allison and Elizabeth to work in the 1930s deep south. Their scientific undercover work meant taking potentially lethal risks day after day for years.

These scientists were real life heroes putting their lives on the line to make a better world for us. We need to see more movies about this kind of heroism. Are you brave enough to attempt anything like their quest? I certainly am not. In modern fiction the hero usually get to load up on weapons before confronting the enemy. Would you volunteer to spy on a hostile society with only Gandhi’s armament?

Their story would make a great movie. After reading this chapter I really wanted to know more about these four scientists, especially Allison and Elizabeth. However, I can’t find out much about them and their time in Mississippi. Allison went on to become the first black professor to get tenured at a predominantly white university (The University of Chicago, 1947). but with complications. David A. Varel wrote a whole book devoted to Allison Davis, The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (2018).

According to Wilkerson the Davis and Gardner couples started their research earlier and stayed longer, but other anthropologists came after them, spent less time embedded in the culture, and published sooner. Davis and the Gardners published Deep South: A Study of Social Class and Color Caste in a Southern City (1941), but it was upstaged by Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) by John Dollard and After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (1939) by Hortense Powdermaker. Dollard and Powdermaker gained the academic fame, and it’s why Wilkerson said in a New York Times interview that Deep South was the book she admired most that no one reads.

I’d love to read Deep South but finding a copy is turning out to be hard. It’s not in print at Amazon, and used copies run hundreds of dollars. I hope Wilkerson’s book inspires a reprinting, at least a Kindle edition. According to WorldCat it is available in some of my local university libraries, so I will try them. Still, I’d like to see their story on the big screen.

I know Hollywood distorts history badly, but while reading Wilkerson I could vaguely imagine the intense drama of their story, I’d like it visualized for me with all the vivid details movie makers can muster. I’m burned out on modern movies. I’m no longer hooked on their fantasy violence. I crave quiet realism. I understand our world and its history is full of violence, but surely it can’t be as much as our fiction implies. I’m tired of heroes with big guns. I’m tired of cartoon combat. I read the other day that the Wild West was never as violent as westerns, not even close. We need more movies about people who save the world without shooting it up because obviously too many people are thinking that’s what the world needs now the most.

JWH

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Music – Hear More With Less Equipment

by James Wallace Harris,

Weeks ago I got annoyed with my 5.1 surround sound system connected to my television, so I gave it away. Whenever I had a problem I had to fight the complicated configuration menus in the Denon AV receiver and Sony TV, and I was tired of screwing around with them. Plus, my old body has gotten too wimpy for wrestling big and heavy equipment.

For a couple weeks I researched soundbars. They promised to be the ultimate easy-to-use replacement. However, I kept worry about playing music through them. Would they sound good with Spotify? Then I watched “Escape the ‘world of crazy’ with the Bluesound Powernode 2i” on John Darko’s YouTube channel.

The view behind Darko’s stereo rack was just like mine used to be behind my entertainment center. I was sold on the Powernode 2i but spent a week watching more review videos and reading online reviews. I already had simplified my home office/library with a Yamaha WXA-50 and Bose 301 series V speakers and was very happy with its ease of use and sound. The Powernode 2i seemed to offer even more but at twice the price. I took a chance and bought it.

For the past year I’ve been watching speaker reviews on YouTube and have been hankering to try a pair of Klipsch RP-600Ms. I went back and rewatched the reviews and when I saw Steve Guttenberg’s video where he said if you want the RP-600Ms but want a bit more bass get the RP-5000F, and so I did.

Pairing the Powernode 2i with the Klipsch RP-5000F sounded great. I’m very happy. I now understand what all those reviews talked about when they said Klipsch has their own unique sound with their horn tweeters. I was afraid they might be too bright for me, but weren’t. They sound especially wonderful for vocals and orchestra music. The only problem I had with this setup was the HDMI ARC connection to my Sony TV wouldn’t work. I don’t know if I needed a better cable or not, but the HDMI ARC configuration was the source of my configuration problem with the old AV receiver. It had worked for years, and then started acting weird.

I quickly solved the problem with the Powernode 2i by using an optical cable instead and it worked great. However, sound level has to be controlled by the BluOS app, rather than my Sony TV remote which is a feature of HDMI ARC. I might order a HDMI 2.1 cable to see if that fixes the problem, but I’m in no hurry. I’m good to go.

I can call up Spotify or Amazon Music HD on my iPhone and can play whatever I want. Streaming music servers connected to 2.0 speaker setup is all I need. I miss the feel of surround sound some, but both the Klipsch and Bose fill their rooms nicely. By the way, I’m becoming less tempted to chase after audiophile quality gear and High Res music – I’m just not sure my old ears can tell the difference.

That left the bedroom. I have an Audio-Technica AT-LP60 turntable connected to Creative Reference CR-4 active speakers. It’s a nice low-end setup. I really don’t like records much anymore, but all those audiophile guys make me feel nostalgic and guilty for not playing them. Changing records is a pain in the ass, but the act of playing records does bring back wonderful memories. So I’m torn.

Then I watched John Darko’s video about using a Raspberry Pi as a network streamer. Since I had an old Raspberry Pi 3B I got it out and installed the raspotify on it. Darko was right, the Pi by itself doesn’t sound so good. I had unplugged my turntable from the speakers and plugged the Pi instead. Playing music from my iPhone was so much easier. I could imagine laying in my bed at night picking out different albums. With the turntable I’d have to get up twice for each LP.

So I looked at his video about using an ALLO hat for the Pi to get better sound. I just wanted to use RCA connectors out, so I could get by with the ALLO Boss and a case, still a bit less than $100. Not bad.

I was thinking of ordering one when I decided to Google low cost streamers. Several very interesting options came up, including the Amazon Echo Dot. I already had a second generation Echo Dot in my bedroom, so I unplugged the speakers from the Raspberry Pi and plugged them into the Echo Dot.

BAM! The music sounded tremendously better than Raspberry Pi. I tried both Spotify and Amazon Music HD. The good thing about using Amazon Music HD was I could control the volume with the Amazon Music app, but couldn’t with Spotify app. Wow, this was ease-of-use to the max.

Could anything be simpler? What if powered speakers came with Amazon Alexa or Spotify Connect built in? What if they they didn’t need a wire running between the right and left speaker. It would be one cord, two speakers. That’s as minimalistic as I can imagine. Should I give up my turntable and go three for three with streamers?

I suppose I could get some new active speakers with multiple inputs and keep both. I do keep an CD/SACD player hooked up to my Yamaha WXA-50 for playing discs in my man cave. I could designate the bedroom as an LP playing site.

I’ve been doing my testing with Sara Watkins album young in all the wrong ways. I have it on LP. To me it sounds equally great on LP, Spotify, and Amazon HD. It’s a wonderful album I play over and over again.

I feel I hear more with less equipment. Playing music is not about technology, but listening to albums. Now that I have selected my minimalistic equipment I can spend even more time listening to music. I’m tired of messing with technology. I’m tired of worrying if I’m hearing the best audiophile sound quality. I’m almost over messing with CDs and LPs, but not quite. But I’m moving in that direction.

For younger people thinking about trying LPs, don’t get too hung up on the equipment. Most audiophile turntables are manual. I hate them. I spent $300 on one and ended up giving it away. If you want to get into records, get an automatic turntable and powered (active) speakers. They are a very simple to set up. Research getting a turntable that’s mostly configured and adjusted at the factory. That is, unless you’ve been infected with the audiophile virus.

JWH

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When We Played Albums

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 10, 2020

Early in my life I listened to songs. Then there was a period of years when I played whole albums. After that, in the 1980s I switched from buying LPs to CDs, which made listening to individual songs practical again. MP3 and streaming music services further conditioned me to focus my time exclusively on songs. Maybe that was bad.

Recently, for some unknown urge, I started playing whole albums again. Album listening is very different from song listening. For a decade now I’ve mainly played my favorite tunes via a Spotify playlist, becoming my own DJ who constantly spun a lifetime of Top 800 hits in random mode. That put me out of the habit of playing albums. Oh, I’d occasionally try a new album as they come out, to see if there was a hit-worthy song to add to my ultimate playlist, but after one play I’d forget all about the album. This went beyond seeking immediate gratification to always wanting to hear songs that tune my emotional settings to 11.

Some fluke of fate I don’t understand has made me tired of my Top 800 playlist. I’ve gone back to playing whole albums after lunch. I’ve wondered if this is an aging thing, or if I finally just worn out all my favorite songs after playing them constantly for years.

The albums I’ve turned to are mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. Because I don’t know the hits of those decades I need to listen to the entire album. This has put me in album mode again. Is this why so many young people have resurrected the LP from extinction? Have they discovered album mode listening? (By the way, it horrifies me they are paying $20-50 for new albums, but it’s reassuring to know that albums are making a comeback.)

In 2019 a total of 18.84 million vinyl LPs were sold. Back in the 1970s some hit albums sold almost that many copies alone. I’m not sure if it’s a significant revival movement. Since the pandemic sales have fallen off — with some people claiming it’s the economic downturn, and others wondering if it’s due to rising costs of new LPs, but I’m curious if album mode listening is also wearing off.

Most of my friends dwell in song play mode, listening to their lifetime of favorite tunes on their phones. It’s possible to create playlists of whole albums on streaming services, but if you listen in random play mode, it ruins the song order, destroying any sense of an album. I think most Baby Boomers I know lost their album mode listening abilities too. I guess we all just got too impatient.

I wonder how many people today call up an album on Spotify, Amazon Music, Qobuz, Tidal, or Apple Music, and let it play through? (And you don’t hit the skip button.) This got me to thinking about how at different times in my life I listened to songs, and other times albums.

Back in the 1950s while riding in a 1955 Pontiac I discovered pop music. I was maybe six, and I had no idea what music was, but certain songs enchanted my little mind. Oh, I’m sure I heard music on television, in the background, but it was the rock ‘n’ roll songs on the car AM radio that caught my attention. My father hated that music though, and seldom let me stay on those stations.

Christmas 1962 was probably the best Christmas ever for me. That’s when I got a AM clock radio and my sister Becky got a small portable record player. We lived on Homestead Air Force Base. Around that time an airman asked my father to keep his console stereo and record collection while he was stationed overseas. So I was introduced to Top 40 hits, 45s, and LPs all at the same time. From 1962 until the beginning of 1966 my main source of music was Top 40 songs from WQAM and WFUN Miami. I was too young to have money to buy my own 45s and LPs.

That was the era of song mode. 1960s hits are burned into my brain. As I got older, started mowing lawns, throwing papers, and babysitting for money, I began buying my albums. That’s when I joined record clubs to get a dozen albums at once. That’s when I progressed from song mode to album mode.

It’s possible to play just one song off an LP, and I did, but it’s much easier to play whole sides at a time. And usually, if you played side A, flipping the disc over to play side B was a habit. Listening to whole albums involves listening to songs you don’t always like on first listening. But eventually, an album becomes an holistic experience, a whole work of art, and I became conditioned to expect each song in its order, even learning to like the minor cuts. Album mode requires a whole different head space to appreciate. It represents a kind of patience, a kind of open state of mind, a kind of willingness to go with the flow.

When CDs came out it became easy to play specific songs from an album, and even program favorite cuts to repeat. CDs allowed me to be impatient with songs that didn’t push my “It’s a Hit” button immediately. I eventually bought a couple thousand CDs. Then several years ago, when I thinned out my collection, I found for many albums, I only remembered one or two songs. I reduced my collection down to about five hundred CDs, keeping only those that had more than a few remembered songs.

After switching to streaming music I seldom played even those CDs, or played whole albums on Spotify. This changed this past couple of weeks when I started playing albums by Doris Day, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker. Yesterday I jumped forward in time to play albums by Bette Midler and Michael Murphy, and liked them. Right now I’m listening to After Bathing at Baxter’s by The Jefferson Airplane.

What has given me the patience to go back to album mode? I found it relaxing to just listen to whatever came up. That’s a very different listening experience than what I’ve grown accustomed to in recent decades. Am I experiencing a paradigm shift, or is this only a momentary fling?

For a while, I called my main Spotify playing “Songs Rated 10.” I could play it in random mode and always intensely love every song. I think that ruined me for album listening. Yet, somehow, I’ve broken out of that habit and fell into album mode again. Cool. I’m really digging it for now. I’m avoiding my playlists. I crave albums. It’s disappointing that a lot of early albums no longer exist on Spotify because they’ve been replaced by retrospective compilations.

I’ve also discovered that I like reading about old albums or remembering an old favorite album, and then putting them on. But it depresses me when I discover they no longer exist to play online. I guess that’s why some folks collect old LPs. An example of this is The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink, my favorite album by Janis Ian. It’s included in Society’s Child: The Verve Recordings which I have on CD and can play through Spotify, but psychologically I want it as a separate album.

If you really get into album mode you get accustomed to it being a specific set of songs in an exact order. I still haven’t lost my conditioning to the American versions of the Beatles albums, but the only way to relive those albums would be to buy old copies of the American releases. Luckily, I’m not that anal for recreating all my music memories – yet. It also annoys me that some CDs didn’t perfectly recreate the LP album, either from reordering songs, adding new tunes, dropping cuts, or even including different versions of songs. Extreme audiophiles even get annoyed at reissues that sound different because of new pressings, production runs, or remastering.

I’ve become curious about why I’ve returned to album mode listening. I thought writing this essay might reveal why, but it hasn’t. It all started with Doris Day. I played her first LP from 1949, You’re My Thrill, which Spotify considers an 8-song EP. The whole album was pleasant. I then began playing other albums from the late 1940s and early 1950s and they were all pleasant to just put on and let play. I had no expectations. I knew no cuts to feature. I didn’t favor any style of singing or song over any other. It was a completely new era of music for me, so I just went along for the ride. I found that exceedingly pleasant.

After several days of playing albums from that era I jumped forward to the 1966-1985 years when I played whole albums before and tried some of them. It was still very pleasant to stay in album mode. So it wasn’t just for unknown music.

I don’t know how long I’ll stay in album mode listening, but I’m really digging it at the moment. Eventually, I think I’ll like to try some 21st-century albums. I have a very hard time getting into contemporary music, but maybe being in album mode again will give me more patience to try today’s unknown artists and styles.

JWH

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What Was the First Album Cover with Art?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September, 5, 2020

Visually, the world changes very slowly. If you’re young it will appear to have always looked roughly the same. It’s only when you get older that changes are noticeable, even disturbing. Over the decades, the look of homes, neighborhoods, shopping centers, and business districts begin to alter their appearance. The inside look of homes and stores change too. My mother, born 1916, grew up in rural Mississippi, so her childhood looked much different what the world looked like at the time of her death in 2007. My father, born 1920, saw much different world growing up in Miami in the 1920s and 1930s, than that much changed Miami looked when he died 1971.

The Miami I saw growing up in the 1950s and 1960s looked like another world from the photos I saw of my dad’s youth, even though it was just a couple decades later. I moved away from Miami in 1971, but returned periodically, each time to be disturbed by the visual change. I remember coming back one time to find tall Norfolk Island pines filling the sky, something that was empty in my childhood. Another time I was shocked by flocks of loud screeching parakeets careening in the air alienating old memories. The last time I returned, after Hurricane Andrew, all the Norfolk Island pines had been knocked down and the skyline was big and empty again, like I remembered from the 1960s.

I get the weirdest urges to see things that require research to sooth a kind of visual angst. I’ve been going further and further back in time looking for albums to play on Spotify. I know the LP first came out in the late 1940s, and before that music was sold on 78s. The trouble is I’ve seen very few 78 records, and they rarely had covers. Most were just in paper sleeves. I’ve seen a few 78 albums that had a cover with several pages of paper record sleeves, but I think those came out in the 1950s after LPs but before the demise of the 78. This has made me wonder, when did cover art come to albums?

Record stores in the 1960s and 1970s had their look, as did the LP covers, then CDs came in and records stores and album covers morphed into a different look. Then record stores disappeared and I forgot about them for years, and now they are coming back, with LPs again, so now in my 60s record stories look like they did in the 60s. That’s a weird sensation that I don’t often get to feel.

For some reason I ache to see what records stores looked like in the 1940s and early 1950s, and maybe the 1930s. I listen to music from that era on Spotify, but I have no idea what it would have looked like to shop for those songs and albums when they came out. I wish I had thought to ask my parents before they died.

If I collected old records, that might quinch some of my visual thirst, but not completely. I’ve reached an age where I want to downsize everything. I still love exploring old music, which I do with Spotify, but I don’t want to collect old records. Spotify does little to let me virtually visualize collecting records from the past, and I dislike that. It’s one thing to recreate the music digitally, but there was so much more to music than just the music.

I’ve seen photographs of old guys with their 78 collections, with shelves and shelves of discs in boring brown paper covers. I suppose that’s why I generally only see the round record labels in histories of music before the LP. It must have been pretty dull shopping for music back when my parents were growing up in the 1920s and 1930s.

I’m not sure my parents were into music. We never had a radio or record player before Becky and I got one for Christmas in 1962. The only time I heard music before that was when I rode in the car. My father did all the driving and he hated when I’d messed with the radio, but I loved listening to rock n’ roll in the late 1950s. I didn’t even know what music was, but it intrigued me in big way. My parents did like crooners on TV. My father favored Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and my mother dug Nat King Cole and Perry Como, but they never bothered to buy their records.

Still, as I play the early albums of Sinatra, King Cole Trio, Doris Day, I wonder what it would have been like to shop for their music in the 1940s, in those years before I was born in 1951. My earliest memories of Miami 1955-1960 looked different from Miami of 1960-1965. Partly, because we moved around, partly because the cars and clothes changed enough to really notice, and partly because Miami began to grow — fast. I’ve seen old movies that were set in Miami. I don’t know if they were staged in Hollywood, or actually used exterior shots. But I never saw any films, and few photos of people in record shops. What I have seen suggests people didn’t flip through bins of albums. However, I expected 1945-1955 Miami to have looked very different. I hunger to see that too, like I hunger to see old record stores and albums.

Today and yesterday I’ve been playing Doris Day and King Cole Trio from the late 1940s and early 1950s. I know some of the songs were first published on 78s, but so far I don’t think Spotify presents 78-album collections. What I’m finding are early LPs repacking of 78 recordings. It’s like I’ve reached a geologic layer in music history. Spotify recreates the era of LPs but not the earlier era of 78-albums. As far as I know, Spotify doesn’t try to recreate 78 (or 45?) singles (A-side and B-side) either, but it does have some EP collections.

ca. 1950s, USA — Record Store — Image by © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis

What Spotify presents is pretty much what’s been sold as CDs for the past several decades. For the most part, all those songs from earlier LPs and 78s have been reissued, remastered or repackaged over and over again.

Sometime in the 1940s, I’m guessing, record companies started adding cover art to albums. This essay was my quest to find out. I assume single discs (singles?) still came in brown paper sleeves. Then in 1948 Columbia introduced the LP, and in 1949 RCA Victor released the 7″ 45 rpm single. Evidently, that was when cover art finally began to catch on in a big way. For some reissues on Spotify, I see the original LP art. Like I said, some 78 rpm albums had cover art, but evidently not many, and I haven’t encountered it on Spotify.

For example, this is Doris Day’s first LP album from 1949, but her discography shows she had many hits before then. Her 1945 breakthrough song was “Sentimental Journey” with Les Brown and His Band of Renown. The flip side was “Twilight Time” and it was on a 78. What did that record look like? All I can find is this:

I’m sure 78 record collectors have a special fondness for labels and see great diversity and beauty in them, but they don’t visually thrill me like 12″ LP covers. I can’t imagine the act of record shopping in that era had the same visual impact I had during all those years of pawing through bins of LPs.

The King Cole Trio 78 album from 1944 had four 10″ discs and did have a cover with art. This proves some 78 records came with covers, but how many? When did the process start?

I’ve tried to find more examples, but it’s work. It’s disappointing that Spotify doesn’t recreate 78 records and albums, and show their original artwork, or a brown sleeve and disc label. I can simulate a 78 album by making a playlist, checking Discogs for the original track listing, and then assembling the songs. A lot of old songs are repackaged over and over again into various LPs collections. It would help if Spotify had a column for date released.

For example, Spotify doesn’t offer The King Cole Trio album above, which was the first Billboard #1 album. There were three followup albums #2-4. It appears Spotify offers some or all of their songs on The Nat King Cole Trio – Complete Capitol Transcription Sessions. So I can enjoy that music from the 1940s, but not in the order it appeared on the four album sets.

I did find The Great 78 Project at Archive.org. And it has The King Cole Trio albums, but with way too many tracks. Mostly different versions with different recording settings, but that confuses the feel of listening to how the album’s songs would have been originally arranged/ordered on the discs.

In my research to find covers from 78 albums I did find Guity Novin’s A History of Graphic Design: The Online Textbook with “Chapter 72: A History of Record Covers.” Novis claims Alex Steinweiss produced the first album cover in 1939 for Columbia Records. From that clue I found, “Alex Steinweiss and the World’s First Record Cover.” And that led me to this:

Persistence pays off. From that article there are numerous clues to pursue to continue my research. There’s even a whole art book devoted to Alex Steinweiss. But this essay is getting too long, so I shall continue it some other time in some other way.

JWH

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Escaping into Artificial Realities

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 3, 2020

Is it possible to escape reality? We talk of escapist books, movies, and television shows, but aren’t they part of reality too? I’ve been a lifelong science fiction fan, and isn’t that another kind of escapism? Or is my reality one of music, books, movies, and television? Maybe art is artificial reality. Maybe we create art to fashion the reality we prefer over the reality we have? Or maybe we create art because we don’t want to face real reality?

Since I’ve retired I’ve retreated more and more into artificial realities inside my house rather than dealing with the reality outside my house. That’s even accelerated with the pandemic. Yesterday I started reading The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols for a nonfiction book club. Nichols reports on how the Dunning-Kruger effect has taken over society, and everyone wants to achieve political equality for their dumbass POV, no matter how uneducated and stupid that point of view turns out.

Evidently, not only do we seek to escape reality, but reject it too. I found Nichol’s introduction compelling and frightening. I think he’s right that everyone wants to reject experts, to reject science, and assume a view of reality based on their on their own personal narrative fallacy. I don’t know if I’ll find any hope by finishing this book, but it so depressed me that I retreated into The Wham of Sam a 1961 LP from Sammy Davis Jr. — leaping into a reality of an thrilling big orchestra, hip lyrics, and jazzy singing. Then I jumped further back into time, to 1957 to listen to Dream Street by Peggy Lee.

Her band was smaller, the music more relaxed, the mood more dreamy, and I found this reality an alluring call of Sirens. I spent most of the day researching stereo equipment to perfectly recreate that old sound. I want to arrange a room that’s perfect for music but I don’t want to mess with a lot of gear. In other words I want to escape the reality of wires, complicated equipment, or collecting LPs or CDs. I just want to stream high-definition music to great speakers. Right now I’m looking at a Bluesound Powernode 2i with some Kiptsph RP-5000F speakers.

The problem is I don’t have the perfect room for my new escape pod. My wife has the living room and I have the den (we each have our own favorite forms of escapism). The living room is better shaped for music, and I tried to get Susan to trade with me but she wouldn’t. The den is full of windows on three walls, so reality is glaringly obvious. She also didn’t like what I wanted to do to the living room, by covering the windows with soundproofing. Basically, I wanted my TV and stereo at one end, my bookcases on the side walls, and my La-Z-Boy in the middle of the room. It would be my spaceship for exploring artificial realities. But Susan nixed that idea. I thought about buying an extra house, but that would involve too much hassle with the real reality. I could rearrange my current man cave (library/office/extra room) but that would involve getting rid too much of my cherish crap.

I’ve also started noticing some correlations between my chosen escapist worlds. See if you recognize them.

There’s a clue if you compare these photos with the album covers. I have Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, but I spend nearly all my TV viewing watching DVDs of old TV shows. My favorite TV network would be MeTV if it wasn’t for all the damn commercials.

Yes, I’m stuck in the past. Currently, I’ve zeroed in on 1955-1975 for finding my escapist artificial realities. Most of the television shows, movies, music, and reading I like fit in that time span. The obvious thing to think is I’m being nostalgic, but I really didn’t watch those shows or listen to that music growing up. In fact, I hated Frank Sinatra type music, and shows like Perry Mason — those were escapes my parents preferred.

It’s not nostalgia but pleasantness I’m seeking. Modern shows are full of unpleasant aspects of reality. Modern shows have too many guns and killing. Hell, I’m even getting sick of Matt Dillon shooting so many people.

I haven’t completely rejected current reality. I watch the news, and read several articles a day about current events. I’m also reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson because I’m very worried about inequality. Black lives do matter. If we don’t solve injustice, corruption, inequality, and institutional racism, we won’t solve any of our other problems. We all need to work together. United we survive, divided we won’t.

Donald Trump is trying to make the 2020 election a referendum on law and order. He claims he’ll be the law and order president if elected. But why believe that, he’s been the break the laws and create disorder president since 2016. I believe 2020 will be a referendum on consensus. Do we want to work together as a united people and collectively solve our problems or not?

And that brings us back to the Tom Nichols book. If we can’t agree on the facts, if we can’t achieve a consensus view on objective reality, we’re all doomed to retreating into our subjective realities. I’m getting old, and I don’t think society will crumble before I die. It’s practical for me to hide out in the past listening to old music, watching old TV shows, and reading science fiction about futures that will never happen. I’m safe if I don’t live too long.

But if you’re younger than me, or have children, escaping reality is not an option. You better elect a president that has some experience. You better vote for people who will use experts. Vote for people who will work to solve problems for everyone and not pander to crazy folks Dunning-Kruger fantasies.

I’m all for equality, for equality of rights, of equality of economics, of equality of justice, but Nichols is right, we are not equal in knowledge. You wouldn’t want Joe Blow doing your brain surgery. So why elect politicians that know nothing about politics?

Nichols says Americans have rejected experts, and I think that’s true. We all want to think for ourselves, and that’s admirable, but unfortunately, we don’t all have the education and experience to make the right decisions. If Nichols is right about the trends he sees, my guess is there’s no hope for the future. But then I’m not an expert.

Science fiction is about speculating on extrapolations. Unless there’s a paradigm shift, unless there’s a big fucking positive Black Swan just around the corner, all my speculation sees is apocalyptic collapses in the future. Admiring Mary Tyler Moore in old TV shows and listening to Peggy Lee sing is merely enjoying myself on the Titanic while waiting for the iceberg.

We all know we’re heading toward an iceberg. We all know we could even do something. We all know there are people who know what to do. We just don’t want to listen to them.

JWH

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Playing All The Albums I Never Bought

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 27, 2020

A subscription to Spotify allows me to play all the albums I never purchased. For example, I called up “The 100 Best Albums of the 1970s” from Pitchfork and saw that back in the day I had bought 37 albums on their list — meaning I missed 63 great LPs.

That includes their #1 pick, Low by David Bowie from 1977. Over the years I have bought several David Bowie albums but somehow I completely missed that one. Not only did Pitchfork think Low the best David Bowie album of the era, but the best album by anybody for the decade. So I played it this afternoon, and their #4 pick There’s A Riot Goin’ On by Sly and the Family Stone.

I liked both of those albums. I’ll probably play them again, but I bet I would have liked them more if I had bought them when they came out. Music is a product of the times, so my first listening of these old albums is more like time traveling than listening to new music, especially when I read about them now. It’s like studying art history.

Paste Magazine had a whole different take on “The 70 Best Albums of the 1970s.” Low by David Bowie came in at #34. Their #1 pick was Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, which I did buy back then (and later on CD, and finally on SACD). Blood on the Tracks was and is a fantastic album for any decade.

I had owned 42 of the 70 albums on the Paste Magazine list. Probably, that’s due to buying popular albums. I’m sure hundreds of albums, if not thousands came out during the 1970s. I wonder how many I could play now that I’ve never heard and they would be as good or better than those I bought and loved back in the 1970s? In fact, could I have hated albums back then that I would love now?

If you look at the Best Ever Albums site for the 1970s, which appears to rank albums by sales and weeks on charts, you see a whole different view of the decade. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd comes in at #1, and of course, it’s one of the best selling albums of all time. Like Blood on the Tracks I bought it on first on LP, then CD, and finally SACD. Now I just stream it when I think about hearing it.

Low came in at #16 on this list. Pitchfork and Paste Magazine lists have a lot of overlap, but each found favorites the other didn’t. I wonder if I took the time to listen to a few hundred albums from the 1970s, what would my Top 100 be?

My actual favorite albums of the 1970s was, and still is, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. It came in at #20 on the Best Ever Albums list.

Looking at all three lists shows many popular albums I missed discovering back then, and never stumbled upon in the following decades. Oh, there were many albums, such as those by Genesis or The Clash that I missed when they first came out but I eventually bought in later decades. Overall, I missed stacks and stacks of supposedly great albums.

We never absorb all of pop culture. Narrow tastes and limited opportunity keep us from experiencing the complete spectrum of art in its time. Streaming music lets us rectify those limitations if we want. I shunned Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday as a teen for being too the 1960s, but now that I’m old, they are wonderfully timeless.

With Spotify I can now play almost everything from these three lists. Yet, I wonder if my current reaction would be anything like my 1970s response? Every week I’d spend hours in record stores flipping through bins of albums looking for just the right ones to buy. My financial situation limited me to one or two a week, although if I was without a girlfriend or dope I’d sometimes buy three or four. I frequently joined and quit record clubs to game their system and periodically acquire shipments of a dozen new albums. And I often bought or traded albums with friends. So for some peak months, I might hear 30-40 albums.

I used to have this fantasy about burglarizing a big record store and taking one of every albums. Try imagining the logistics of such a heist. With Spotify I don’t have to daydream about stealing albums, although it looks like the system of streaming music is now doing the thieving.

It’s a shame recording artists aren’t paid properly for us to legally listening to those millions of albums. I feel guilty I get so much pleasure for my $10 a month, and all the artists don’t get to become rich stars like they hope and dream. I’m not going to quit Spotify, but I do wish the system could be changed so music creators could their fair share.

Artists now get a tiny sliver of a penny for each time we play one of their songs. I can’t believe they don’t even get a whole goddamn cent. I believe the streaming services should charge us $2.99 a month for accessing their service, and then charge us a penny a song that would completely go to the artists, musicians, and publishers. I believe the split should be one-third to the composers, one-third to the performers, and one-third to the publishers. And the new deal should supercede any previous contracts. I hate that all those great session musicians of the past aren’t earning income from the music I play every day.

JWH

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Dang! I Wore Myself Out

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2020

At 68, I can still grab a 52-pound speaker and hauled it all the way from the den to the back bedroom. I was impressed with myself. I even did it again with the left channel speaker. No big deal. Then I started noticing how my old body was beginning to whine. Was I wimping out? Hell, maybe I should have gotten the dolly. And I had the two rear channel Infinity Alpha-50 speakers to go. I plopped down in my old worn La-Z-Boy to rethink my plans.

Was I too old for my stereo system?

I was setting up my Denon system in the bedroom because yesterday I got totally frustrated with reconfiguring once again for my TV surround sound system. I was trying to get 4 HDMI devices inputted into to the AV receiver to automatically switch via the ARC HDMI to the TV and switch with just the TV’s remote. I had three HDMI inputs working for a year, but for some reason adding a fourth HDMI input annoyed the receiver. The video was switching fine, but the sound worked erratically. Modern electronics can be a pain in the posterior, and I knew it was time to get out the manual and study the labyrinth of settings carefully.

However, I’ve reached an age where I just don’t want to fuck with stuff anymore. (I know, I should have said tinker, but I’m getting crotchety too.) It’s like Dirty Harry said, “A dude must know just how much shit he can handle.”

As I approach 70 I feel like I’m riding a horse that’s too old to carry me. Sure I can I grab a big bulky 23.5kg speaker and lug it briskly across the den, up some stairs, through the kitchen, down the hall, to the back bedroom, while almost believing the lies I tell myself I’m still young enough to do it.

An emotional insight from deep inside me yelled, “Act your age — get a smaller stereo system you putz.” So I called my neighbor Paul who was looking for a stereo for his son and gave it to him. They came over and hauled it away in two car trips. (Hey, his son was young and strong, he can handle it.) But that’s 300 pounds of gear I don’t have to ever worry about again. Yet, two days ago I would have been horrified at giving my stereo system away — I love having a big sound system. I’m shocked and impressed I made such a quick decision. Usually, I’m insanely Hamlet for weeks.

Reality kicked hours later. This evening I couldn’t carry a 5-pound speaker to the bedroom. You should see me walking hunched over. I feel ninety-eight. I’m contemplating going to bed early with painkillers and heating pad. I wonder if I’ll ever stand up straight again?

People often talk about downsizing in their retirement years, but I’m learning that means more than buying a smaller house. Today I realized my tiny Yamaha WXA-50 streaming amplifier and bookshelf speakers I use in my computer room is an age-appropriate size and weight for a 68-year guy who is a worn out pug dog. The big 5.1 sound system I gave away is going to be replaced by a single soundbar for my den TV. I don’t even want to mess with rear speakers or a subwoofer. I’ve been studying soundbars and the idea of hooking one up with a single HDMI cable thrills me almost as much as when I was a teen studying Playboy. As an extra bonus, the den will have 5 less speakers cluttering up the floor. No more goddamn speaker wire. And my TV stand will have a nice empty shelf.

Not only do I want smaller things, I want simpler things. Years ago I replaced my huge tower computer with a tiny Intel NUC. I’ve been thinking about going back to a big tower computer again, but my back just screamed, “Don’t do it you crazy old dog. Sit. Act your age!”

Marie Kondo tells us we should ask if our possessions spark joy. My back pain is now advising I ask my stuff if they’re too complicated or too heavy for my declining mind and body.

JWH

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How Good a Reader Are You If You Compared Your Reading Skills to Playing a Piano?

James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Most people assume if you can read you can read. But what if reading was a skill like playing the piano and most readers are no better at reading than an eleven-year old with a year of piano lessons. (I’m expecting you to hear a badly played tune in your head.)

What if you could read like Glenn Gould playing Bach? Can you even imagine what that could be like? It would be like having Broadway actors performing in your head. It would be like having the professors from The Great Courses whispering you the annotations. It would be like James Joyce reading Ulysses to himself.

Well, I don’t read anything like that. My inner reading voice is a tone deaf monotone, and my annotations come from a lifetime of half-ass autodidactism.

Growing up I read nearly a thousand books. Because I read so much, I assumed I was a great reader. Beginning in 2002 when I joined Audible.com I often selected audiobooks I had read and loved way back then — when every book I read was great, even those by E. E. “Doc” Smith. Hearing all my childhood favorite books read by skilled readers has shown me just how bad a reader I was when I was growing up and thought I was so great.

And it’s not just comparing my wimpy inner reading voice to professional narrators, or the fact that I was young and wasn’t mature enough to understand everything in what I was reading. I am including my college years in that youthful period, when my mind was at its peak performance, and being crammed with a variety of diverse knowledge.

Listening to audiobooks taught me that I read too fast growing up. That I paid attention to the action and dialog but skimmed over any long passages of dense narrative details. But I also missed the emotional cues, and I didn’t spend enough time picturing the scenes and settings. More than that, I didn’t dwell on the implications of what was being expressed fictionally.

Every so often a friend will say they love the sentences in the books they are reading. I don’t think I ever stopped to admire a sentence.

By the way, I don’t mean to imply that my reading skills have vastly improved over the years. They are a good deal better, but I am no concert pianist at reading. In fact, I have a hard time gauging my skills against others.

Growing up I assumed everyone saw the world in the same way, that our brains and senses were similar. I’ve since learned that our perceptions of reality vary so greatly that if two people standing next to each other watching the same event will interpret it in two distinctly different ways. Since discovering that I’ve paid attention to whenever people describe how they read, and I’ve learned that decoding words produces a wide range of cognitive results.

You can test this observation by asking your friends about what they experience when they read. I’ve been doing this for years and discovered some of my friends have amazing mental abilities that make me green with envy.

Have you ever loved a book and urged a best friend to read it and then been let down when they didn’t respond to it like you did? Have you ever read a classic novel or bestseller and wondered what all the fuss was about? Have you ever read a book about your favorite subject and found it boring?

Part of reading is decoding words in the way the author intended. Part of reading is being on the same wavelength as the writer. Learning to be a skill reader involves words, sentences, and paragraphs, but it’s also involves reassembling the vision the author constructed in their mind that they wanted you to see, and triggering the emotions and philosophical insights they felt.

What if readers could be ranked like chess players using their Elo ranking system? Would I be an 800 or 1200? I’m quite confident I’m nowhere near a master rating. I wish I could be a grand master of reading but I know that’s impossible. We all wish we could be rock stars at our chosen ambitions but we’re not. But just how much can we improve? Can advance reading skills be taught? Can advance reading skills be assessed? I wonder what I’m missing.

My SF anthology reading group on Facebook is reading two stories this week, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster from 1909, and “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe from 1972. I might have tried to read both when I was young because I had anthologies they were in, but I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have liked either. I just don’t remember. The writing style of the Forster was too quaint, and Wolfe’s prose was much too dense.

Reading these two stories in 2020 is dazzling my reading mind, but I hunger to know just how much I’m comprehending, just how much of their totality I’m experiencing with my current reading skills.

I’m reading these stories with my eyes (Kindle) and my ears (Audible) concurrently. I’m doing everything I can to read them with all the possible reading skill I can muster, but I have no idea how skilled that effort is. Am I 50% efficient at getting what Forster and Wolfe intended? Or even 75%, or just 30%? It’s my third reading for Forster and my second reading of Wolfe in recent years. I’ve also read about both stories, and I’m constantly encountering insights into them I missed or didn’t draw the implications the reviewers did.

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” is about an old man telling about his childhood, and the audiobook I have has an old man with a pompous or posh English voice reading it. You can listen here:

The setting feels like the French Quarter of a 19th-century New Orleans but it’s actually set on another planet in the far future. Wolfe writes in a baroque style about two boys growing up in a brothel during a decadent era, being educated by a robotic tutor, and slowly learning their bizarre origins. The story is dense, and I’m not sure if I read it ten times that I would find every treasure Wolfe buried away in “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.”

“The Machine Stops” is about an agoraphobic woman blogger who Zooms with all her friends in a country completely controlled by an AI machine. Well, not exactly since it was written in 1909. But when you read it, you’ll wonder if E. M. Forster ever hitched a ride on H. G. Wells’ time machine. Again, there is so much in this story that I can’t tell if I’m little Becky playing her first recital at church or Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff in Russia. My hope is I’m at least Becky as a sophomore majoring in music at college.

I just wished I had some kind of assessment tool to help me evaluate my abilities and progress. I suppose I could go back to college and take literature courses, but I’d prefer something more scientific, something more quantitative, something involving computers and brain scans.

Anyone who has read the works of Oliver Sacks knows how different humans minds can function. Reading isn’t just reading. Our ability to process words into mind movies varies so greatly that it’s impossible to comprehend. Every cognitive ability you can possibly envy in another person goes into the infinite ways in which we process books. Because we can’t see what other people experience when reading we assume it’s like our own reading experience. But it’s not.

In my last third of life I’m struggling to read with greater skill. With fiction, I’ve mostly shifted to reading short stories. Novels take up too much of my precious time, and they are also too indulgent. Short stories, novelettes, and novellas are compact, intense, and offer more variety of reading experiences. I’d like to think I’m an old dog that can still learn new tricks. I know I’ll never read like a pianist performing at Carnegie Hall, or even at a high school auditorium.

I intuit this from listening to the best audiobook narrators or from watching lectures on The Great Courses Plus. But I have acquired the awareness of my progress and that’s something. It’s a shame we haven’t emphasized the details of reading skills. Oh sure, schools constantly grade kids on reading ability, but we never get enough feedback as to what those abilities truly are.

All I can guess is what you experience in your head when reading is much different from what I experience. I just wonder if there is any way to compare experiences? I participate in a number of reading groups, but the best we seem capable of is expressing if we like or dislike what we read. We know how much a musician knows because they perform and their performances can be evaluated and compared.

I suppose the real GRE for evaluating reading is writing. By that measure, I also come up short. I struggle to write fiction like a drowning person flails in the ocean.

JWH

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Browsing My Bookshelves When My Favorite Used Bookstore is Closed

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 17, 2020

Since I can’t go book shopping, I’ve decided to browse my own bookshelves instead. I’m amazed by what interesting books I find there.

It’s been months since I’ve shopped at my favorite used bookstore, Second Editions. I use to visit it at least once a week. I certainly don’t need any more books, there are already thousands on my to be read pile. Over the years I’ve discovered that my reading habit is entirely separate from my book-buying habit. I love to read and I love to shop for books — I just don’t always read the books I buy.

The other day I browsed through my entire Audible.com library of 1426 audiobooks looking for all that contained short stories. Time and again I was amazed by what I owned that I hadn’t listened to yet (I can’t resist a good sale). Once again, I told myself I needed to stop buying new books and read or listen to what I already own. But I love going to Second Editions, the used bookstore run by our Friends of the Library.

I never know what I’ll find. Sometimes it’s an old book I’ve been hoping to find again, or it’s a book I never knew I wanted but had to buy, or it was a hardback copy of a book that just came out that I was thinking of paying full price — that’s how I got Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson for $5.

I’ve only got five six-shelf bookshelves to browse — but I’m overwhelmed by how many books I find that I want to read. Strangely, it’s 100%. Well, maybe not so strange. Because of my limited shelf space, I tend to donate books back to the Friends of the Library of those I’ve read or decided I’m not going to read. My self-imposed rule is I can’t own any more books than I have bookshelves. I’ve technically broken this rule because I’m currently allowing myself a legal loophole by shelving some books at the top of my clothes closet. Those three six-foot-wide shelves really do look like bookshelves. (But don’t tell my wife!)

Second Editions bookstore is closed for the duration of the pandemic. I know everyone is missing their favorite places to hang out, so I shouldn’t whine about missing mine. However, I do miss it. And browsing my own bookshelves looking through the books I often bought at Second Editions does help a little, but not much. It does help me empathize with young people who can’t resist gathering in public places during a pandemic.

I wonder if I pulled out a few books, and gave myself a twenty if the experience would feel more like visiting Second Editions? Maybe Susan could pretend to be the clerk at the cash register and we could chat a bit about books?

JWH

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Do People Still Read Short Stories?

Yesterday I read, “43 of the Most Iconic Short Stories in the English Language” by Emily Temple over at Literary Hub. Her essay begins 

Last year, I put together this list of the most iconic poems in the English language; it’s high time to do the same for short stories. But before we go any further, you may be asking: What does “iconic” mean in this context? Can a short story really be iconic in the way of a poem, or a painting, or Elvis?

Well, who knows, but for our purposes, “iconic” means that the story has somehow wormed its way into the general cultural consciousness—a list of the best short stories in the English language would look quite different than the one below.

I was able to look up her 43 titles on the internet and found most of them available to read online. I assume that’s because those stories are taught in schools and colleges and teachers have put them online as pdf files so their students can read them for an assignment. I doubt that’s legal, but it’s convenient for me.

Are these stories iconic because a captive audience has been made to study them? Does forced cultural literary constitute a kind of fandom? I’m sure Emily Temple and I are the kind of book nerds that love these stories, but just how many other people do?

I went to Amazon looking for anthologies that might contain these stories. I assumed if they were iconic then they’d be readily available, but they weren’t. The only anthology I found that had more than a couple of these stories is an old one I already owned. It had 7 of the 43, which is pretty good. That volume, The Art of the Short Story edited by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn is probably a textbook, but it seems to be out-of-print. I found a few other textbooks that had some of the 43 stories, but at most three. However, the same authors are anthologized over and over again, so there seems to be disagreement as to what their best stories might be.

This still leaves me thinking Emily Temple’s 43 iconic stories aren’t that iconic outside of hardcore bookworms. These stories definitely aren’t iconic like Classic Rock albums or the old TV shows that rerun on MeTV or TVLand which have tens of millions of fans across generations.

I added the 43 stories to a Google Sheet and put in links to where I found the stories online. I plan to read them all. I also plan to add other lists of “iconic” short stories to this spreadsheet, and read them too.

Last night I read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. It was a bit of horror fluff that didn’t have much to say philosophically, nor did it reveal anything about life in 1843 America. I can’t believe we make children read it. There’s got to be better Poe to force onto younsters. 

On the other hand, rereading “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omeleas” by Ursula K. Le Guin is intensely philosophical and I imagine an excellent story to trick teens into thinking about deep concepts.

How many people still read short stories after they leave school? Probably damn few. That isn’t to say that Edgar Allan Poe or Eudora Welty don’t have their fans, but are their followers a large enough crowd to swing over the needle of a pop culture meter when mentioned on Jeopardy? Well, some Jeopardy contestants would be the kind of folks to read short stories.

More and more, I’m getting into short stories. I’m reading over three hunded of them a year. But it also feels like I’m withdrawing from reality. My friends want to talk about novels, or movies, or TV shows — and I can’t. And they aren’t interested in discussing short stories.

I imagine kids when assigned to read short stories today feel about the same way as we did when forced to do quardratic equations back in our school days. No, I don’t think the word iconic applies to Emily Temple’s list of old short stories. But what’s the right word?

I wonder if that word is in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? I wish I knew Greek and Latin so I could make up a word for loving art forms going extinct. Or a word for cherishing fadding pop culture successes of the past. Anachronostalgia? 

It has been said that writers write to become immortal, but that immortality only lasts as long as people continue to read what they wrote. What’s a word for keeping old works of art alive? It’s kind of a good deed, don’t you think? Of course, not as good as helping a real person in need, but it’s still a kindly thing to do.

JWH

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Can I Discipline Myself to Be More Disciplined?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 3, 2020

The older I get the more undisciplined I get, but it’s an age when I need to be the most disciplined in life. As anyone who is getting older knows, the body begins to fall apart and the mind unravels. One way to counter this natural tendency is to get disciplined. But there’s a Catch-22. There’s also a growing impulse with aging to not give a fuck.

It’s taken me years to give up junk food — well, mostly. But I’m not sure if it’s being disciplined. If I indulge my body finds various ways to beat me up. So I’ve learned to mostly not do the things that cause immediate suffering. However, I can’t seem to learn to do the things that will improve my health or allow me to do more. I feel like I’m in a never ending trench war — I can’t take any new territory, and for the moment, I’m barely holding what territory I’ve have. Aging means losing territory. Discipline determines how fast.

I know defeat is the ultimate outcome. Death will eventually be the light at the end of the damn tunnel. But until then I have a finite number of days and I’m positive if I was more disciplined I could get greater use out of those days. The trouble is, when you’re old you just want to relax and take it easy, to float downstream. To get more out of life has always required paddling upstream against the current. That requires discipline.

For example I want to lose weight. I’ve been fighting the Battles of the Bulge for decades. I should just give up. I know plenty of people who have. But I have health problems and I know if I can lose weight it will counteract those health issues to a degree, or help delay them getting worse. For the past two years I’ve been doing the 16:8 intermittent fasting. Years ago I lost 30 pounds by going vegan, but I just couldn’t maintain that diet. When I went back to just being vegetarian I started gaining my weight back. When I saw that happening I switched to the 16:8 intermittent fasting, and stopped gaining weight. But I had already gained back 25 pounds. 16:8 means I eat 8 hours during the day and fast 16. If I do it without eating junk food I’ll even lose about 1 pound a month. However, I usually can’t avoid completely junk food, so I don’t lose that pound.

I’ve recently started throwing in a whole fasting day, and I’ve fought my way back down the scales by 7-8 pounds in a couple months. That’s very encouraging. If I can maintain that discipline I might be able to fight my way back down to my previous low, and even lose more weight. That could help a lot. But to go that day (actually 40 hours) without eating takes so much effort. I’m writing this today to help me get through not eating until tomorrow. (By the way, fasting actually makes me feel better in many ways — except for the not eating part.)

I’m fighting several other battles that require greater discipline. I’ve had a dream of getting a science fiction story published almost my whole life. The odds of succeeding at my age are extremely tiny, but I haven’t let the dream die yet. I know what’s required to do the work. It’s the discipline to stick to writing. Writing fiction is hard. I can write blog essays all day long with no trouble, but then I’ve put in my ten thousand hours. I’ve only logged several hundred hours writing fiction, and I need to put in several thousand more to take off. That will require developing a routine like I have with intermittent fasting.

The last thing I’ll mention, because I don’t want this essay to go on forever, is the idea of disciplined learning. I’ve written before how I’m a news junky, but I realize that’s not getting me where I want to go. A steady diet of constantly changing news items is a wasteful way of using my time. I do learn stuff, and I’m better informed than when not reading the news, but it’s like eating potato chips, not very nutritious.

I’ve been developing a new theory about news and learning. Instead of trying to cover any topic that comes along, I should pick just the topics I want to get know better. For example, I’m reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, a well-written, carefully thought out book about a specific subject. What’s impressive about Oluo’s book is she set out to write something useful and worked to clearly define the problem of race. Her book made me realize I should focus on specific topics, such as Black Lives Matter, but go deeper than reading daily news reports.

I need to pick the newsworthy subjects I want to embrace and focus on them, while ignoring the firehose of all the rest. Logically, I know I neither have the time or energy to study many subjects. Since I realized that I’ve been paying attention to the news items I read each day. Most are quickly forgotten. Most are not worth my time on in the first place — they are like the evil calories of junk food. But disciplining my news intake is a lot like dieting — I need to give up junk news. That’s going to be hard. I have no practice at that, and I know from dieting that it takes a lot of failures before I can develop any discipline momentum.

It would be so much easier to kick back in my La-Z-Boy, eat oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from the deli at Sprouts, and watch old episodes of Gunsmoke. It’s pleasant, it’s enjoyable, it’s fun. But what does it get me beyond that? There are still things I want out of life, and to get them I must start paddling upstream against the current again.

[This is for my wife Susan, who I think needs to get back to paddling too.]

JWH

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Will Americans Ever Be United?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 30, 2020

We might be the United States, but we’re hardly a united people. Hasn’t the melting pot of the world produced a particularly unhomogenized population?

If you pick any year in our history and study it, divisiveness is the norm. This has got me to wondering, are there topics of agreement that we mostly share?

For example, if we pass a law that means we want 100% of the people to abide by the law. Yet, a law can be passed by only a fraction of the population. Does it really make sense for 50% of the people to say how 100% of the people should act? But we’ll probably never get 100% agreement on anything. So, shouldn’t we think harder about what percentage of the vote equals a proper majority?

Would it be fair to require an 80% majority? That would still mean 20% of the population would oppose the law and would probably be unhappy. But it would also mean 80% of the population would be happy.

What we have is a happiness v. unhappiness ratio. Right now, we have a 50/50 ratio, which explains why our society is so polarized. Wouldn’t America be somewhat happier with a 60/40 ratio? And even happier with a 75/25 ratio?

We’re never going to have a 100% happy society. But shouldn’t we try to reduce the unhappy portion of the equation? My guess if we agreed to make 60% the required majority to win any vote, we’d see a shift in the contentment of the nation.

Ideally though, we’d eventually need to increase that to 75%, but right now that would be an impossibility. Just developing a 60% consensus would take a tremendous effort, mainly in learning how to make compromises.

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Is It Time To Ditch News Feed Apps?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 25, 2020

The sad truth is I’m a Flipboard addict. And if I’m really jonesing for news, I’ll also check Apple News and Google News. I compulsively tap my iPhone several times a day for more new news, speed reading through dozens of digital essays and news stories every day. But Flipboard is starting to irritate me with all its ads, and more than that, my comprehension skills are deteriorating.

Although the internet is instant, smartphones are convenient, and news feed apps are comprehensive, I’m not sure they are the best conduits of news. Oh, they definitely get me more news from a greater variety of sources updated by the second, but I’m not sure its the best way to stay informed. And I’m not sure if it’s not becoming abusive to my neurons.

People often say less is more. News feed apps work on the principle of sending you news customized for your interests. Often content is barely more than blurbs with ads, and generally the same information is repeated or restated by countless news outlets, sources, and publishers. There is lots of substantial content, but lately, more than not, it’s behind a paywall.

I’m reading in a hyperactive mental state, gobbling down facts in a frantic effort stay informed. But am I? I’m starting to wonder if I read less if I’d be more informed?

Could carefully choosing my own news sources be the wiser path? Could a couple of newspapers and a handful of magazines, digital or print, offer a better news experience than a news feed service? I don’t know, but I’m thinking about trying the route. I just don’t know if I can break the news feed app habit.

I’m also tempted to go back to printed magazines and newspapers for some of that reading. The cost of printing tends to control what is printed. And I’m also wondering if reading less from a slower source might be advantageous. I really have no answers right now, but my hunch at the moment is pushing me to read less news on my iPhone. However, I’m not sure I can give up that much convenience.

It occurs to me now that I actually enjoyed TV more when there were only three networks. And music was more fun when I could only afford to buy one new album a week. Maybe there’s a downside to convenient abundance.

JWH

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There’s No Modesty at the Urologist

James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 15, 2020

I awoke from the anesthesia with a tremendous urge to pee. I might have already been telling the nurse that before I was conscious because she was holding a plastic bottle up to my penis. I was trying to get up and she was urging me to lie back. I was in the middle of the action and not remembering why. Then I recalled I had been put under general anesthesia for a biopsy on my bladder. The last thing I remember was the oxygen mask.

I desperately wanted to pee, but the only thing going into the bottle was thick blood. My mind was clearing fast and I realized my hope of getting home quickly wasn’t going to happen. We had arrived at the clinic at six for a seven o’clock procedure. The clock now said eight. Susan and I had talked about how great it would be if we could have gotten home by nine.

That wasn’t going to happen. Something had gone wrong. All I could think was “I wish I wasn’t here” but I knew my wishing was wasted thinking. I wanted to pray, “God, get me out of this” but I’m atheist and I knew my prayers wouldn’t be answered even if I was a believer. I had to deal with things as they were.

I could not escape my situation and I knew how I handled it depended entirely on controlling my thoughts. Pain is so focusing. It was unreal waking up in this bizarre situation. I told myself this was just a bad trip I had to ride out and what I was experiencing was nothing compared to all the thousands of Covid patients were experiencing, much less people having cancer or heart attacks. Don’t whine, deal.

Still, I was doubling up in pain telling the nurse I had to go. She kept saying, use the urinal (which was only a plastic bottle). I told her it might help if I could sit on a toilet. I was in a recovery area with four or five bays behind curtains where patients were either being prepped for surgery or recovering. I thought for a second about modesty and then didn’t care. The nurse help wrap me up in my hospital gown and walked me to the bathroom. She put a plastic catcher over the rim of the commode before putting down the seat. She told me to pee into it because the doctor would want to see the results.

It was somewhat calming to be sitting in the bathroom by myself. I kept hoping pee would flush out all the blood, but it didn’t. All I could produce was blood as thick as Campbell’s soup just out of the can. And no matter how much blood I produced didn’t relieve the overwhelming urge to pee. I knew I needed a catheter and that’s something I’ve always dreaded. Again, it was all too obvious that what I wanted and what would happen was two different things.

I knocked on the door to get the nurse and told her it was no luck. She took me back to my bed and I begged for a catheter, but she already knew what I would want and need and had one ready. She asked if I wanted to be numbed first, I told her no, just do it, that I was dying to pee. So, she did. Six hours later, after flushing three bags of water through my system to clear out the blood I was able to go home with a catheter still in me. Unfortunately, this was Thursday and it was a three-day weekend because of the 4th of July. I’d had to live with the catheter until Monday.

Those four days were very educational. Pain is the perfect Zen Master. When a student’s mind wanders the Zen Master will whack their shoulders with a bamboo cane. The tube up my urethra would zap me with pain if I didn’t pay perfect attention. Luckily, the bladder spasms would only last five to ten seconds. I’d have to clutch something and kick the floor until they stopped.

My purpose here is not to bellyache about my pain, I know too many people who suffer far greater. No, I bring up this yucky incident to show how it affected my thought processes. The first title I had for this essay was “Thinking Clearly.” But I decided it was too boring to catch people’s attention. Then I thought of using “Pain is the Zen Master” but doubted it would attract much attention either. Then “There’s No Modesty at the Urologist” came to me and knew it was the kind of title that some people would click on. One of my most popular posts was “Losing My Modesty” about when three women holding me down to cut off a skin growth near my genitals.

I realized while in recovery that I needed to think clearly. Panic, fear, self-pity, anger, bargaining would not get me out of the situation. But neither would magical thinking of wishing or praying. And I realize that many of my thoughts were delusional or led to false assumptions. Making imaginary bargains, extrapolating from poor data, or speculating about the possibilities just generated endless possibilities that would never happen.

Let me give you one concrete example. Because I had a pain spasm every time my catheter was pulled or pushed I imagined that it was stuck to wounds within my urethra where healing and scabbing was taking place. I worried that pulling it out would be immensely painful, reopening the healing sites. I feared I’d need another catheter put right back in. I worried and thought about this for three days. Then Monday, the doctor pulled it right out with no pain, no fuss, and no bleeding. In other words, I worried for nothing.

In three days I theorized about endless possibilities — both positive and negative. Most of those thoughts was wasted thinking. As I wrote about earlier in “Expecting the Unexpected” I can’t predict the future. We can observe data to a small degree and act on it in small ways, but not in significant ways. For example, as my urine bag filled up I’d feel the need to pee. It would wake me up in the night just like when my bladder fills up. But I knew when I opened the tap on the urine bag the draining out of the urine would make a suction that caused a pain spasm. I deduced if I disconnected the bag’s hose to the catheter first that suction action wouldn’t affect me. That’s how far I could predict the future. Not much, huh?

Another example, I went back to the urologist on the 13th to hear the results of the biopsy. Of course, even though I’m not superstitious, I worried that might be a bad day to hear the report.

When the doctor told me I needed a biopsy weeks ago I realized that any speculation would be meaningless until I got the results. The answer would be like Schrodinger’s Cat — unknowable until I opened it. On the 13th the doctor told me the biopsy was clear. That was a huge relief. I can’t say I didn’t worry, but not much, most I spent a lot of time trying to imagine what I would do if the lab report had been positive.

We all think too much. We have so little control. We want to believe we have magical powers to control reality with our wishes, but we don’t. I know this, but I still wasted a lot of time on endless useless thinking. Another example, while waiting for my results I craved sweets, but I was afraid to eat them because I thought it would cause the biopsy to come back positive. When I saw the floor was dirty I thought if I don’t sweep it immediately my biopsy will come back positive. I know such thinking is crazy, yet knowing that doesn’t stop such thoughts.

We live in a highly deterministic reality even though we want to believe that mind over matter works. Religious people use the word faith but it’s use is not exclusive to theology. Throughout this whole process I kept trying to outthink my doctor even though I know nothing of urology. The reality is I have to put faith in modern medicine. I can’t think my way around it. I don’t have any alternatives. I’d love if prayer work and a personal God was taking care of me like my nurse, but there’s just no evidence for that. I’d love if I had great mental powers so my will could alter reality to my whims, but there is no evidence for that either.

Even the simple desire for modesty was beyond my control. My nurse saved me that day. She attended to all my needs while also helping others. She rushed from bay to bay but was always there when I needed help, which was often. She didn’t always close the curtain and I thought about saying something, but I realized it was too petty, too nothing. It was only my thoughts that made me worry about modesty. So I let it go. If people walking by wanted to look at me I didn’t care. Actually, I felt sorry for them having to see a old guy with a bloody tube coming out of his dick. That must have been revolting.

When it was all over I understood it was just a big painful inconvenience, the pain had been bearable. I could survive because I did. At the time I told myself I never wanted this to happen again. I still need my prostate trimmed, so I need to go through this all over again. And I will.

I don’t know if I can apply the lessons I’ve learned to the next time. I might still worry needlessly, still try to bargain, pray, read omens, and act on superstitions. The reality is we might never be able to control our thoughts even when we know they are wasted thoughts. Can we ever just accept reality?

This Covid crisis is a parallel example. Too many people want to reject reality and act on magical thinking. I keep hoping our whole society will become rational and think clearly, but isn’t that wishful thinking too? Especially, if I can’t think clearly myself.

JWH

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Do Your Possessions Reflect Your Personality?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 1, 2020

I love to peer at what’s behind people in Zoom and Facetime calls. This is true for the people I know, as well as famous people on TV. I wonder if what they own and how they decorate reflects much about their personality? I know I instantly like people who have shelves of books behind them, but then that’s what I have. Of course, now that Covid-19 has pushed so many people to appear from home I assume more and more people stage their background. I even see articles about how to look more professional on Zoom. And I know YouTubers carefully construct a set to present a creative image for their viewers.

Back in the 1960s, there was a slogan, you are what you eat. Odd, I’ve forgotten why we said that. In the 1970s I learned the term GIGO in computer school, an acronym for Garbage In Garbage Out. Now I wonder if we are what we own? Yet, how much can we guess about a person by looking over their shoulders in a Zoom video? Does this fall under psychological analysis, archeology/anthropology, art criticism, or tea leaf reading?

What do our possessions say about us? Are they like Rorschach images that reveal something about our personalities? The other day I was FaceTiming with my friend Janis who lives in Mexico. She’s only been in her current house a couple of months but she has it fixed up elegantly despite having to bring her possessions there one suitcase at a time. She was giving me a video tour and I looked for indications of her personality in the objects I could see. My first reaction was to think she had nothing personal on display, that it was all decoration because I was only seeing the artwork on the wall and crafts on the flat surfaces. Some were new, and some were from her old house I used to visit.

I then realized my initial thoughts were lame — I wasn’t looking deep enough. It occurred to me that Janis’ personality is reflected in the art objects she buys. She’s a lifelong traveler and all those things I first thought of as decorations were really her art collection from her travels. Each one meant something to her and had a story. For example, the picture at the top of the page. I asked her for its story and she replied:

I found this picture of a girl on a skateboard at an artists’ market in a Mexico City neighborhood sometime around 2003. I had worked for several months in 2001 as a flight attendant with Northwest Airlines but was furloughed after 9/11. As a laid-off employee I had flight benefits with Northwest for almost three years so I traveled to Mexico City several times during long holiday weekends. One weekend at the Bazar Sabado I found this framed painting and talked with the artist, from whom I had bought previously. In the airport the following day, I sat at the departure lounge with this 27” x 31” piece of art, made larger by a hotel bellman who had carefully wrapped it, wondering what would become of the girl in pink since the picture was way too big to bring aboard a plane, but since I was a furloughed flight attendant, the crew greeted me warmly and the pilots offered to store the piece in the cockpit.

Does everything we own have a wonderful story like this? Looking around my office here I see that I could probably tell a tale about everything in it. But to be honest, I’m not sure everything reflects my personality — at least not directly. For example, I have a picture of an old man praying. I am not religious, but my mother was, and this picture is something that used to belong to her. And that triggered another line of thinking. Whatever it meant to my mother is something different than what it reveals about me. But whatever anyone else sees into that picture can be completely different again.

Years before my mother died she started talking about how she wanted people to have certain belongings of hers. I’ve known many old people who have done this. I realize now that their possessions were an extension of their personality and they hoped to be remembered by them. Sadly, and I’m not sure I should admit it, but I didn’t keep most of the things my mom left. First of all, she left a whole house full of stuff. My sister and I took what meant something to each of us, but we gave most everything else away. Of my mother’s things I loved the photographs most. Becky, my sister seemed to be partial to mementos more. For many of the possessions my mother left, whatever they meant to her did not come through to me. She collected them before I was born, or after I left home. I didn’t have their story. I kept things like the quilts she made me because I knew their story. And my Mom wasn’t that sentimental sometimes, I once found Becky’s and my Baby Books in my Mom’s garbage can. I kidded her about that.

I’ve always worked at a different level. I don’t care much for things. But I do think photographs are very personal. I think the photographs we keep reveal a lot about us. Susan (my wife) and I have lots of family pictures on our walls, but we don’t collect artwork like Janis. I found seeing these two photos from Janis’ house far more revealing than her artwork.

Janis Mom and Dad

This is the story that goes with it:

These are my favorite photos of my parents. When my dad retired thirty years ago, he and my mother spent five weeks in London in a flat overlooking St. James Park where they could see the Royal Guards pass on the way to Buckingham Palace. This picture was taken in a Turkish restaurant where they ate often during their stay. This photo of my mother was taken when she was 18 years old and was singing with a band in Evansville, Indiana.

Janis has often told me many stories about her Mom and Dad, especially how her Mom used to be a singer and acted in the local theater until late in life. But maybe I’m being too basic in equating pictures of people as being more personal than the objects we own. It’s logical to think family is an extension of someone’s personality, it’s harder to think of the artwork they love as having a deeper personal meaning. Once I started thinking about Janis and how travel is the real love of her life, the artwork she picked up from around the world probably resonates deeply with her personality. But how much could I understand about Janis from just looking at her artwork? Don’t I also need the story?

I realize my casual efforts to decipher people by what they own were much too superficial, but it was educational. I then decided I need to reverse engineer the thought and ask: “Do things I own say anything about my personality?”

Of all my possessions, these are what I relate to the deepest way:

Books April 2020 cropped

Other than judging me a bookworm I’m not sure people can make much from seeing my books. Even though this collection has been curated from decades of experience and distilled down from thousands of other books, I’m not sure what anyone would learn about me by reading their titles or even reading their content. Like the art on Janis’ wall, they need a story. I used to believe the stories in the books reveal something about me, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. First, there are too many.

This gave me an idea for another project. List the exact short stories that would reveal the most about how I felt about this life. Here are three, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, and “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.

Before everything went digital I loved judging people by their books, albums, and movies they owned. I remember once going to William Faulkner’s house and looking at all his books, and I imagined a chunk of his personality was left in those bookcases. Like my Mom, this is how I used to want to be remembered after I died — even though I’m quite confident that a few weeks after my passing Susan would call up Salvation Army and have them haul it all away. And that’s the right thing to do.

By the way, this is how I remembered my mother on what would have been her 100th birthday. My father would have turned 100 in October and I plan to write my memories of him then. In both cases, I’m not sure I can ever know who my parents were. The possessions they left gave no real clues, and I now imagine they could be misleading in countless ways. It’s a shame they weren’t bloggers. That’s about the best way I could imagine for knowing who they were after they died. I wish all my friends were bloggers. They could at least post photos of what they own and give their stories.

I should give up guessing about people from their possessions (but I probably won’t). However, I am going to ask for more stories.

JWH

 

 

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Expecting the Unexpected

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 23, 2020

“The future is everything I never imagined” is a saying I created for my personal philosophy long ago. That doesn’t stop me from trying to predict what will happen. For example, Friday I have to go to my urologist about my prostate. I keep imagining all kinds of scenarios. By Thursday night I’ll have imagined dozens. After I leave his office on Friday it will be obvious that every situation I fantasized beforehand was a waste of time.

Before I retired in 2013 I imagined all kinds of goals to accomplished with my free time. None of them have been achieved. I have pursued a lot of activities, but none that I imagined before retiring. Isn’t that weird?

Fantasizing about the future comes in two kinds. Daydreaming of things you want to happen, and nightmaring things that will. The Covid-19 pandemic is nothing I ever expected or imagined, and I’ve read dozens of books about plagues. But then why would anyone picture a pandemic where everyone has to stay inside, with millions losing their jobs, and the economy going into a tailspin? All those consequences are so obvious with hindsight.

I do have a microscopic ability to predict a tiny way into the future. Whenever I have to go anyplace new I look it up on Google Maps and plan my route. Sometimes I even use Streetview to see how things will look. This generally works out and I easily get to my destination. I like how I feel when my effort to plan a small event works. I’m also pretty good about imagining what I want to buy at the grocery store. I even picture contingencies where one store won’t have something and where to go next to find it. Like I said, my ability to predict or plan the future is teeny-weenie, but it does feel good. I can also imagine writing a blog and then writing it.

This implies the near future can be imagined to a limited degree. What’s really hard is expecting the unexpected — like Covid-19. But would we even want this power?

I’ve found it philosophically amusing that I didn’t expect all the psychological changes I’ve undergone since I retired. I assumed my non-working years would be rather static and stable. And yes, day-to-day life is rather routine with a great deal of sameness. I even delight in my rut and habits. But I have to laugh at myself for the mental changes I’ve undergone in the last seven years.

What was unexpected is how much I would change in how I felt about things. I figured after a lifetime of being me, that I’d continued being me with boring consistency. And for the most part that’s true. The unexpected changes have been subtle, and very hard to explain. But aren’t emotions and feelings always ineffable? Maybe one way to explain this is to say I thought I was an 8-color box of Crayolas, and then I discovered I really had 16-colors. I should expect the unexpected and wonder if I’ll eventually be 32-colors. But I just can’t imagine that.

It’s obvious now, that I wouldn’t do what I imagined doing seven years ago. That should have been expected, but it wasn’t. I should have expected the unexpected since that’s what experience has always taught me all along.

I have just over a year left in my sixties. I shouldn’t even try to imagine my seventies or eighties. Death is always unexpected, even though it’s certain. I’m always observing older folks trying to get hints about the future, but I realize now that I can’t extrapolate how they feel from how they look. Whatever being 75 or 85 feels like is nothing I can ever imagine. It will be as unexpected as Covid-19.

JWH

 

 

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What If You Could Be Young Again for One Day?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, June 12, 2020

What if you could be young again for one day? What would you do with that day? Bloom a 2019-2020 television series from Australia on Hulu explores that very question. Bloom has two seasons of six episodes each.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but the show is about a small town in Australia where a few people discover the magical properties of a strange plant. They become young again. The rules of this fountain of youth are not explicitly explained in the story, but whatever they were in season one changes again significantly for the second season.

Think about what you would do if you could take a magic potion and have your body transformed into your younger self. Picture a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation, but instead of becoming a hairy monster, you become wrinkle-free and beautiful. In Bloom, most of the characters’ first impulse is to have sex. That reminds me of the science fiction novel, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi where the characters undergo another kind of rejuvenation process and immediately get horny. Is procreation our strongest urge? Wasn’t that also true in the old 1985 film Cocoon?

I was never that lucky at getting laid when I was young, thin, and had hair, so I have hard time believing these characters hook up so quickly. Other than that doubt, and finding the basic premise unbelievable, Bloom is quite compelling and even grittily realistic.

Ray Reed (Bryan Brown) has been married to Gwen Reed (Jacki Weaver/Phoebe Tonkin) for over fifty years, but for the last four years, Ray only knows Gwen’s body, because her mind has left them. We see the two Gwens in the photo above. Their story is the major thread, but there are several other old/young characters we follow too, including a criminal who befriends a young boy in an effort to be the father he regrets never being to his own son.

I binge-watched the six episodes of the first season over two nights because I found the story quite addictive. I’ve slowed down in the second season, where the setup has changed significantly. Season one ends with everything wrapped up, and season two begins by unwrapping everything. I assume because the original idea was used up and they needed to rethink their concept after getting the go-ahead for a second season.

But let’s get back to the philosophical question; What would you do with a second youth? The characters in the show are driven by physical impulses and regrets, but is that all that drives us? And if regained youth is only for a short period, I imagined food and sex are great short term pursuits, but how else could those few magical hours be spent. You certainly wouldn’t waste them on television. (So why do we watch so much television when we’re young?)

How could I make the most of that regained vitality if I had the chance?. I believe the writers struggled with that question too. That’s why the second season seems to be more about how to extend that time in paradise regained. Being young seems to be its own goal.

I can’t answer the title question, but it does make me ask another question: What does it mean to get old? Aging is more than getting wrinkled, hair loss, and having the Johnson quit saluting. There is an ineffable change of consciousness. Because we’re watching a TV show we focus only on the changes we can see, but suddenly being young again would be like snorting coke or dropping acid — it must ignite the brain. They used to have a silly phrase, “high on life” that I think applies here. There are moments in the show where that comes across, especially in the first episode where Sam runs down the main street shedding his clothes.

But there’s a Catch-22 problem. Evidently, it’s always young and foolish, or old and wise.

JWH

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Why Do We Love Television So Much?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 7, 2020

This post is going to be way longer than I ever imagined. My first title was “Do You Use Old TV Shows as Anchors for Old Memories?” I wanted to write about using memories of watching television as a mnemonic device to trigger connecting memories of real life. Well, this worked too well – it opened a floodgate of images from the past. That in turn, made me ask myself the following questions:

  • Can I remember what it felt like to be me at different ages?
  • Why were certain shows my favorites each year?
  • Can I remember when, where, and who I watched those shows with?
  • Can I remember the house, room, and TV set?
  • What else was going on in my life?
  • What was my psychological state-of-mind at the time?
  • Would life be better without TV?

Before I started this project, I had assumptions about my past that on reflection I no longer believe are true. Before this essay, I would have told people that when I grew up, I watched television every night for all three hours of prime time. I remember loving the Fall Preview issue of TV Guide so much that I studied it like a textbook before a test. That I gave all the new shows at least one try. That I watched so much TV that I knew what every show was about even if I wasn’t a fan. That as a kid I was a walking TV Guide.

Then I watched a series of YouTube videos about the new shows that premiered every year from 1957-1968. Those assumptions are a delusion. I was astounded by the number of shows that were complete blanks in my memory. I was also amazed by the memories triggered by clips of shows I had seen. That tidal wave of memories brought back details that when I pieced together made me realize I hadn’t watched nearly as much television as I believed. My past was far fuller with other interests and loves. What had happened, I realized, I was remembering television shows, books, movies, and music better than my actual life. Why is that?

I have a tremendous nostalgia for the television I watched growing up, but that nostalgia distorted my sense of who I was. It’s kind of disturbing how much we depend on TV to fill up our evenings, and for some people, their days too. Was it worth it? Is it worth it? Television is a lot of make-believe for children, make-believe that influenced our psyches. Yet, haven’t we as adults logged even more hours in TV Fantasyland? Even today, television is seemingly important to me and my friends, and often television watching is the subject of our conversations and the shared interest that binds us.

Television and I grew up together in the 1950s. All this navel-gazing on my past showed how television shows were weaved into my formative years, and how recalling specific TV shows help date events in my past. It’s kind of weird when you think about it, that we have such an intimate relationship with an electronic box. They say your life will flash in front of your eyes when you die – if that is true, I will see huge swaths of my life in front of a television (or computer screen).

The result of unearthing all these TV memories is it pulls up related memories too. As long-forgotten memories bubble up into consciousness, some of which I don’t ever recall remembering before and others I haven’t thought about in years, it’s making me reevaluate who I was. Remembering TV shows triggered memories about my past habits, traits, interests, friendships, relationships, and even sexual desires. Other memories allowed me to make logical deductions about dates and places. But I can’t be sure if these are real memories or false memories because some memories also created logical conflicts too.

My family moved a lot when I was growing up because my father was in the Air Force, but I think we moved even more frequently than normal service people. I’ve always had the feeling my father was restless and put in for transfers. Living at different houses and dating specific TV shows gives me a grid to plot my memories. By researching TV seasons online and connecting them with the houses I lived at during those seasons, I was able to anchor past events on a crude timeline. From this, I was able to deduce facts, some of which conflicted with other memories, revealing some of my memories can’t possibly be true.

One of the biggest revelations I made was I stopped watching television in the 1967/68 season. That’s because I got an after-school job where I worked 25-33 hours a week. I didn’t start back watching TV until Susan and I got married in 1978. Thus, I missed the 1967/68 through 1977/78 seasons. Oh, there were a couple shows I tried to watch if I had a moment, but I usually didn’t. It why friends are baffled that I’ve never seen The Brady Bunch or The Waltons. This was starkly revealed when I was watching YouTube videos about the shows from those 1968-1978 years. I drew complete blanks from most of the clips I saw. The only time I can remember watching TV during those years was when I was hanging out with friends, and we were usually getting high and talking over the shows.

My memory of television during my childhood mainly runs from the 1957/58 season to the 1966/67 season. This is my Classic TV Era, and it roughly coincides from when I was from six to sixteen. It sure would have been convenient if my birthday, school grade, and TV season all started on January 1st or September 1st. Luckily, school and Fall TV started around the same time in September, unfortunately, my birthday was three months later. I’m going to give my age that I was for three-fourths of the year. For example, I started first grade at age 5, but I’m going to list it as 6, even though I was 5 for a third of the school year.

Age Grade TV Season Location
6 1st 1957/58 Miami, Hollywood (FL) – 3 houses and 3 schools
7 2nd 1958/59 Miami, Hollywood (FL)
8 3rd 1959/60 Browns Mills, New Egypt (NJ)
9 4th 1960/61 Marks (MS), Hollywood (FL)
10 5th 1961/62 Hollywood (FL), Homestead (FL)
11 6th 1962/63 Homestead (FL)
12 7th 1963/64 Homestead, Hollywood (FL), New Ellenton (SC)
13 8th 1964/65 New Ellenton (SC), Homestead (FL)
14 9th 1965/66 Cutler Ridge (FL)
15 10th 1966/67 Charleston (MS), Coconut Grove (FL)

Before Starting School (11/25/1951-1955)

I can remember living in three places before starting school although I know I lived in at least three others. I have no memories of a TV set or watching TV. I can’t say we didn’t have a TV either. Both my parents loved television. I have vague memories of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie (1947), Howdy Doody (1947),  Romper Room (1953), The Mickey Mouse Club (1955), Captain Kangaroo (1955), and other children’s TV shows, but I can’t connect any with a house, which means I can’t date them. And those vague earlier memories are confused by later memories of seeing those shows while flipping channels when I was too old to be watching kiddie shows.

Kindergarten and 1st Grade (TV seasons 1956/57, 1957/58)

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly my earliest memories of television because the house we lived in was the one where I attended Kindergarten and the first of the three first grades schools I attended. Actually, I was 4 and 5 at this house and didn’t turn 6 until after we moved. I can’t say if my earliest TV memories are from when I was 4 or 5, but I’m going to assume 5.

I’ve been trying very hard to imagine what it feels like to be a 5-year-old person. I don’t think its a highly sentient state. I’m not sure if it’s not closer to a smart dog than to an adult person. I had an extremely limited vocabulary and practically no concepts about how the world work. I was full of wants and desires. Frustration would make me cry, excitement would make me laugh and shout. I don’t think I understood TV but was mesmerized by it.

The illusion of our conscious mind is we have always been the same person. That every day we wake up the same being we were the day before. But really, am I the same person I was at 5, 10, or 15 years old? I cannot comprehend being enthralled with Captain Kangaroo, but I probably was back then. At age 5 I possessed only a tiny fraction of the vocabulary, experience, and knowledge that I have now. At what point do we become fully conscious of a fixed identity? It has occurred to me that my memories of watching television reveal clues about who I was psychologically at different ages.

It was during this year I have my earliest memories of watching television, although I have no memories of Sputnik or other news events. I did not know the president was Dwight Eisenhower. Until I started first grade, I did not know the alphabet and couldn’t count. I don’t think I could tell time, or even recite our phone number or address. I was a dumb little guy who liked to play with toy cars and trucks, pretend with plastic army men, cowboys, Indians, horses, and eat my baloney sandwiches. That was about the extent of my personality. I could watch Topper but I don’t think I knew what being a ghost meant.

I remember in my forties going back to the house I lived during this period and standing on the sidewalk in front of that house. I was with my high school friend Connell and told him it felt like I was standing on the Big Bang of my universe.

I can recall quite a few things from that year, but they as just brief flashes. I remember climbing several trees and falling out of one, going to kindergarten on a bus, my first friend who lived down the street named Petey, the day Petey’s father came home from California, and brought toys from Disneyland, including an arrow through the head trick. I remember my sister and I playing with an old wooden box and painting it with a watercolor set.

And I remember watching Topper (1953) and Gunsmoke (1955). In fact, it was while watching Gunsmoke that the idea of death came to me. I realized the actors were pretending to die, but it was implied they would never get up again. That insight was quite profound for my little mind. For all I know, it might be my first abstract concept.

Looking at the schedule for the 1957-58 television season I see several shows I remember from childhood, but I don’t have memories of them from when I was five. Topper wasn’t even on the schedule. It was probably a rerun during the day for kids. I have vague memories of shows that began in earlier seasons like I Love Lucy, Make Room for Daddy, and Ozzie and Harriet.

The TV we watched is pictured at the top of this essay. I believe that photo is from the house I lived in when I was five. Do I look five and my sister three? The clips in these YouTube videos look much worse than how I remember seeing TV. TV images back then were bad, but they were more snowy than blurry. They were black and white, and if you looked close, you could see the scan lines. I assume many of the clips in the YouTube videos below were from kinescopes. TV in the past looked better, but not much better.

From watching this video I recall seeing many of these shows that premiered in the 1957/58 season, but I can’t pin them to a certain house and date. Wow, there were a lot of westerns.

These are the new shows I remember watching. Either by myself, with my sister, or with the whole family. This will be true from now on when I list the shows after the film clip(s).

  • Have Gun-Will Travel
  • Maverick
  • Wagon Train
  • Zorro
  • The Real McCoys
  • Leave it to Beaver
  • Bachelor Father
  • Perry Mason
  • American Bandstand

Now I have lots of memories of these shows, of watching them with my family and watching them for years, but I just don’t have a specific memory of where I lived when I first saw them. But this was a great season to start watching TV! I loved these shows enough to watch them in reruns over the years, and I’ve bought DVD sets of Have Gun-Will Travel, Maverick, and Perry Mason. What’s hilarious is I was bored to death by Perry Mason as a kid, but get a big nostalgic kick out of it now.

2nd Grade (TV season 1958/59)

One of my earliest memories, and one I’ve cherished my whole life, is waking up in the middle of the night when I was six or seven and going out into the living room where my dad was watching a movie. I have damn few memories of spending time with my dad. I’ve always felt it was in the middle of the night, but it could have been just ten o’clock. He was alone and let me stay up with him. The film was High Barbaree with Van Johnson and June Allyson, but I didn’t know that at the time. I’m not sure I even knew what a movie was at this age. But one early scene had a little boy and girl being separated because her family moved away. That I knew about. I had already moved several times and left my little friends.

I remember living in South Carolina when I was very little, but I’ve never been able to date when. Even before my mother died, she couldn’t remember. I have the above memory about High Barbaree, and I believe my dad took us to see a movie called Snowfire that came out in May of 1958. Using the chart below I developed for this project, I’m now going to guess we only lived in South Carolina the first time during the summer of 1958, after the first grade, and that I started the second grade late by a few weeks.

Here’s me about a year later I in Hollywood, Florida. My sister Becky is the redhead, with her friend Patty, and a little girl whose name I’ve forgotten.

1958 Becky_Me

My parents bought this house, located in a subdivision called Lake Forest. We lived there for second grade, fourth grade, and a couple months during seventh grade. Some of my best memories of childhood are from this house, and I’m very nostalgic about this era of my life. For decades I would have reoccurring dreams of trying to find my way back to this home.

However, I have very few specific memories of watching television at this house. One of my fondest memories was about how we watched our favorite shows on Saturdays from early morning until noon. Becky and I liked to build a tent over the TV with army blankets and lie on the floor inside the dark tent to watch our cartoons. Florida has a bright sun and the TV was next to the sliding glass door to the back yard. We watched Mighty Mouse, Sky King, My Friend Flicka, and so many other shows. I’ve always assumed we did this every Saturday but I now wonder if it was just a few times.

That’s the thing about these memories. Often recalled memories are about one time or two times, but in my mind, I assumed it was for many times or all times. A TV show back then often ran for 36 episodes in a season. Before writing this if I remembered watching a show I assumed I watched every episode. After spending a lot of time with these memories I now doubt that. There’s a good chance I only saw a handful of episodes, even for my very favorite shows. But then we forget so much, so I can’t be sure.

I also loved playing outside. Becky and I made our first best friends here, Michael Kevin Ralph and Patty Paquette. The neighborhood were full of Baby Boomer kids — it was childhood Nirvana. Another factor, which just occurred to me, was Becky and I had bedtimes. In Florida, prime-time ran from 8 till 11, and I think we had to get to be by 9pm. If I work at it, I can recall more memories of us playing inside and outside of the house rather than watching TV.

I also remember discovering Tarzan and Jungle Jim movies at this house, and old science fiction movies from the 1950s. This was probably my first exposure to science fiction.

Watching this clip reminded me of that I had seen many of these shows, meaning I probably watched a lot more TV, but only a few were family favorites.

  • The Donna Reed Show (with my Mom and Becky)
  • The Rifleman
  • Wanted Dead or Alive
  • 77 Sunset Strip (with Dad)
  • The Jackie Gleason Show (with parents)

3rd Grade (TV season 1959/60)

While I was in the second grade my mother got TB and was sent to stay in a sanatorium in Valley Forge, PA. My father was stationed in Canada. My father’s mother, whom we called Ma, took care of me at Becky and lived with us at the Lake Forest house. During the summer by dad came home and drove us up north to pick up my mother. We lived in Philadelphia for a while, before school started.

I can’t remember the TV there, but I do remember seeing one TV show that was science-fictional and made with an odd kind of animation. I’ve never been able to find out what it was.

Then we moved to Browns Mills, New Jersey, where I started the third grade, but then to New Egypt, New Jersey in the town, and then out in the country. I have no memory whatsoever of watching TV during the third grade. In Browns Mills, there was a big forest to play in just across the street. And when we lived out and the country we played in the forest, across cattle fields, farms, on hills covered with gopher holes, and in streams with snakes and turtles. I believe we had our first dog there, Mike, named after Michael Kevin Ralph.

I built a soapbox racer out of an army trunk and baby buggy wheels and made it a hardtop with old cabinet doors. And I did this all by myself, other than my mother buying me the old baby buggy to tear apart. So TV just wasn’t that interesting that year. I can’t even remember a TV being in any of the three houses we lived in while we lived in New Jersey. Nor do I remember most of these shows in the clips below. My family started watching some of them like The Untouchables, Laramie, Bonanza when we move to Mississippi or back to Florida, and even then I don’t remember any kid-friendly shows at all. What’s funny, I have practically no memories of the insides of our houses in New Jersey, but I have lots of memory of being outside.

However, here’s what premiered in 1959:

But after seeing the second clip I do remember seeing Denise the Menace, and I thought from the first episode. And I loved Dobie Gillis. So maybe I did watch TV in New Jersey and just don’t remember it. It’s funny how unreliable our memories can be. And of course, who could forget The Twilight Zone? But my first memories of it are from Mississippi, where we moved next. Maybe we didn’t even have a TV in New Jersey.

4th Grade (TV season 1960/61)

We moved to Marks, Mississippi in 1960. My mother’s family is from Mississippi and her oldest sister Belle lived there. I think my father got stationed elsewhere because I don’t remember him being there, maybe in Texas. Years later I found a letter about his training as a mechanic on F-106s. Marks was a very small town, and we had lots of kids to play with. We only lived in Marks part of the summer of 1960, and for the first two six-week periods of school, then we moved back to Hollywood for the rest of the school year.

This was when I first remember having a president, and the presidential race between Kennedy and Nixon. I remember getting in a fight at school because I was for Kennedy and another boy was for Nixon. I doubt either of us knew anything about politics.

I remember watching TV in Marks, specifically The Twilight Zone which I thought was very scary and the very last episode of Howdy Doody.

New shows that I remember watching with my family, but maybe not specifically in this year were:

  • Route 66
  • The Andy Griffith Show
  • My Three Sons
  • Candid Camera
  • The Bugs Bunny Show
  • The Flintstones
  • Surfside 6

5th Grade (TV season 1961/62)

I began the 5th grade living in Hollywood, Florida but we moved to Homestead Air Force Base in Homestead, Florida. This was one of the longest stretches of living in one place of my childhood. It covered the second part of 5th grade, all of the 6th grade, and the first six-weeks of 7th grade. That was a special time for me in other ways too. I got my first radio there and began to follow Top 40 music. And I became a bookworm while living on Maine Avenue. So TV had some competition. We still played outside all the time it was light, and sometimes in the dark. Becky and I had best friends Alice and Arthur Mitchell that kept us busy.

During the summers Becky and I would stay up late watching the all-night movies. That’s where I learned to love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s. It’s also where I saw High Barbaree again and remembered seeing it before. Becky and I also loved game shows.

  • Mister Ed
  • Hazel
  • Car 54 Where Are You?
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Ben Casey
  • Kildare
  • Saturday Night at the Movies

6th Grade (TV season 1962/63)

6th grade was special to me. My teacher Mrs. Saunders would read books to us after lunch, and that greatly influenced my evolution as a bookworm. Christmas 1962 was my favorite Christmas ever, and my family was at its happiest. I can remember us watching more TV together than at any other time. My father was seldom at home when I was growing up. He often worked one or two part-time jobs after his Air Force duties. I never questioned it then, but I assume now that he didn’t really like being a father. Becky and I drove both our parents crazy. Neither were really suited to handle children. My mother would work 2 to 10 at Sears as a telephone operator. So Becky and I often had the run of the house. Because our parents worked so much I don’t have a lot of memories watching TV with them, but some. Usually on the weekends.

Mainly I remember Becky and I playing with our best friends Alice and Arthur. And we had our black and white collie named Tippy, and our cats Blacky and Mitsy.

Both my parents loved television and I believe they had a life watching TV when Becky and I went to bed. Us kids totally hogged the TV set and my father and mother would fight us to see their favorite shows. Sometimes they won and we’d watch the adult shows with them. Often we won, but I’m not sure they always stayed around to watch our shows. In the summertime, our parents would let Becky and I stay up all night watching television and playing board and card games. Later on, I figure out they did this because they could retreat to the bedroom to escape us and we’d sleep late, and that gave my mother time to herself the next day.

  • Combat (Me and Dad)
  • McHale’s Navy (Dad’s favorite)
  • The Beverly Hillbillies (Me and Becky, but sometimes the folks)
  • The Lucy Show
  • The Jetsons
  • The Virginian (Mom’s favorite)

7th Grade (TV season 1963/64)

I lived in three houses in two states and attended three different junior high schools for 7th grade. This year was significant for TV in another way, first for the coverage of John Kennedy’s assassination in November, and the arrival of The Beatles in America in February.

We lived out in the country, in a small subdivision of five houses on a dirt road that had six kids who hung out together. Our best friends were Jerry and Chucky Johnson. It was a great year. We had a thirty-five-mile commute to school. The school bus driver was a beautiful 18-year-old high school girl named Frankie. We were a wild bunch of kids on that bus, often playing games and talking about the TV shows we watched the night before. We spent a lot of time playing outdoors, so I remember watching TV less. And I was slowly becoming a science fiction bookworm. I spent a lot of time reading and listening to AM radio. This was the beginning of the time when my parents started fighting and our family fell apart.

  • The Outer Limits (me)
  • The Fugitive (Dad’s favorite)
  • Novak
  • My Favorite Martian
  • Petticoat Junction
  • The Patty Duke Show
  • The Farmer’s Daughter

8th Grade (TV season 1964/65)

I started the 8th grade in South Carolina. My dad had a heart attack at 42 and received a medical discharge from the Air Force, retiring with 20+ years of service. We moved back to Miami, in a place called Leisure City and I attended Homestead Jr. High. This was a bad year for my parents. They tried opening a restaurant that failed, they fought and separated a couple of times, and they were both becoming bad alcoholics. I used science fiction and television to escape their battles. This was the year I separated from my family by spending more time alone reading and listening to music. I think this was the year I became who I am. I remember struggling with so many ideas. I became an atheist, and I started watching the news. It’s probably when I became a liberal too, and I really embraced rock music. I became a big fan of The Byrds which led to Bob Dylan.

  • Shindig!
  • Hullabaloo
  • The Addams Family
  • The Munsters
  • Bewitched
  • My Living Doll
  • Gilligan’s Island
  • Gomer Pyle-USMC
  • Daniel Boone
  • 12 O’clock High
  • Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
  • The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
  • Flipper

9th Grade (TV season 1965/66)

The 9th grade was one of the few school years that I only went to one school for the entire year. We lived in Cutler Ridge, Florida. It was a better year for my parents, until the end when they split up. It was the year my dad bought us a color television set. This was also the year I started going to used bookstores on my own. I had a paper route, babysat, and mowed lawns. I started buying records. I went everywhere on my bike. And we had Chief the dog. Becky was going her own way too.

  • F-Troop
  • Hogan’s Heroes
  • Get Smart
  • Green Acres
  • My Mother the Car
  • I Dream of Jeannie
  • The Dean Martin Show (Dad’s favorite)
  • The Wild Wild West
  • The Big Valley
  • Lost in Space
  • I Spy (My favorite)

10th Grade (TV season 1966/67)

At the end of the summer of 1966 my parents split up, and my sister and I moved with my mother to Charleston, Mississippi where I started the 10th grade. I remember watching a lot of TV in Charleston. I also remember the TV set its location in the room. It was the first time we had cable TV. The 1966/67 season was my all-time favorite TV season, mostly because of Star Trek. That summer I had spent time in Key West with my father. He was mostly gone from our motel room, either at work or the motel bar. During the days I’d walk around Key West or sit in the motel watching TV. I kept seeing previews for this show called Star Trek and I couldn’t wait. Strangely, I would see the first episode in Mississippi. I made friends in Charleston, had a paper route, and was even in the Science Club at school. But I don’t remember seeing my mother or sister much. I think it’s because I was watching a lot of television they didn’t like, such as Star Trek, The Time Tunnel, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., Tarzan, and many more. I now wish I hadn’t watched all that TV and had gotten more involved with the local townspeople back then.

In March, my parents decided to get back together, and we moved back to Miami and lived in Coconut Grove, Florida, where I finished the 10th grade. I loved Coconut Grove. I met my lifelong friend Jim Connell there. I attended Coral Gables High School, where the rich kids went to school, but we were poor. It would embarrass me when dad would drive me to school in his beat-up old car, so I started walking miles to school. I’d ride the city bus all over Miami, and loved the freedom of being on my own. I also started taking astronomy classes at the Science Museum with Mr. Sullivan.

I can’t remember the TV set we had at the house on W. Trade Street in Coconut Grove, which implies I didn’t watch it much, or at all. I do remember my sister fighting with my dad to watch The Monkees.

  • That Girl
  • The Monkees
  • Family Affair
  • Stage 67
  • Tarzan
  • Star Trek
  • The Time Tunnel
  • The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
  • Mission Impossible

11th Grade (1967/68 season but I stopped watching television)

My mother told me when I started the eleventh grade that I had to have a job by the time I turned 16 on November 25th. But I don’t remember even trying to watch TV at the beginning of the Fall season. My parents were fighting, my sister was fighting with my parents, and I just stayed out on the back screened-in porch where I made my bedroom. I did get a job and worked every day after school and on Saturday.

We then moved to South Miami Heights in March 1968, and I had to change schools to Miami-Killian Senior High. It was hard getting back to the Kwik-Chek in the Grove, which was about a thirty-minute drive. My father wasn’t working, and then not living with us, but he let me use his car. All I did was go to school and work. I just don’t remember TV at all.

Even though I loved Star Trek I never watched season two and three. My life changed quite a lot in 1968 and 1969. Besides working, I started dating. That began the era when I began going to rock concerts, live theater, restaurants, movies, and driving around town by myself. I stayed away from home as much as possible. I loved the Coconut Grove Library and the main Miami library downtown. I start junior college in the fall of 1969, the weekend after Woodstock.

In May 1970, my dad died, and things changed again. I moved to Memphis, and my mother and sister decided to too. I developed a whole new life, new friends, and I just don’t remember television being part of it. Oh, I tried to watch Then Came Bronson or Kung Fu when I could, but I can’t even remember the TV sets I watched them on.

When I got married in 1978 I did go back to TV and Susan and I found a lot of shows to watch together. We loved TV and still do. But that’s another story.

But to answer the title question, I think I love TV because it offers an escape from real life, and quite often we’re more entertained by pretend-life. I now watch TV when I’m too tired to do anything else. But growing up, I found a great deal of happiness watching TV. First, because it was delightful and entertaining, and second, when life got stressful, it was a great tranquilizer and anti-depressant. More than that, I loved TV when I could watch it with other people, either my family or friends. I loved to go to school and find friends who had watched the same shows the night before. So TV was a social outlet for me. I watched it with my family. Often I would have friends over to watch TV with me or go to their house to watch TV. Even today I love TV shows that I share with friends.

For most of the 20th century, I didn’t think much about how TV was made. Since the turn of the century, I’ve thought of TV as an art form. Current TV shows I watch are light-years beyond the shows I loved in the 1950s and 1960s in artistic quality and technical production.

However, even though TV has constantly gotten better, and thus more seductive, I wonder why we spend so much time watching. Why do we spend hours on end staring at a screen? Isn’t that odd? Now that I’m old and more inactive, it makes more sense, so why did I waste so much of my youth being so inactive?

Yes, isn’t it weird we get so caught up in flickering colored light on a big rectangle?

JWH

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If I Had Free Will, I’d …

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 24, 2020

After watching the TV show Devs, I’ve been thinking about free will and determinism.

If I had free will, I’d:

  • Do what I decide to do
  • Keep my house clean and orderly
  • Eat only healthy food
  • Exercise just the right amount
  • Weigh sixty pounds less
  • Own only what sparked joy
  • Finish every writing idea
  • Complete my To-Do list daily
  • Open my mail and not let it pile up
  • Master a few hobbies
  • Remember all the important details
  • Be kind, generous, charitable, and helpful
  • Not waste time on useless fantasies
  • Be more active

I have to assume because I can’t achieve any of these goals that I lack free will. But is free will only about self-control? Did I choose to write this essay or did I write out of determinism? I think of having free will as being disciplined, but does that mean that people who are discipline have free will? What if being lazy and undiscipline is what I chose with my free will?

Other people think that free will as being able to choose between right and wrong. It seems much easier to not kill someone than it does to vacuum the house. It takes no effort not to lie, but a lot of effort to be creative. Maybe there are levels of free will, and I’ve got enough free will to not steal, but not enough to lose weight.

I once read that success in life was getting to be sixty-five without becoming a drunkard or living in a mental institution. I think James Mitchner said that. Maybe free will isn’t more than not giving up?

p.s.

My wife Susan says I just don’t have any will power.

JWH

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Restless in an Age of Anxiety

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 18, 2020

To paraphrase Rodney King, “Why can’t we all be normal?”

Usually, I’m a very laid back guy, but a slow restlessness is building up in me. It could be the weeks of confinement, but I doubt it. I’m retired and seldom went out before the pandemic. The U.S. is closing in on 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 and millions want to get out again. That makes me nervous, but I’m not sure if it explains my uneasy sense of restlessness. What makes me more nervous is millions of people want to believe the pandemic won’t get them. That might be part of it. Some people want to deny the coronavirus like they deny climate change, but I’ve been living with deniers for decades, so that might not be it either.

They interviewed a scientist on 60 Minutes yesterday and he said people need to recognize the certainty of physics, chemistry, and biology. Reality doesn’t give a damn about what we believe. It’s foolish to believe in mind over matter. And that makes me restless when I realize the inevitability of the objective reality. I’ve always wanted to believe I could outwit determinism.

I might also be feeling restless now because I need prostate surgery for my BPH. I’m scheduled to see a urologist and expect to have some kind of surgical procedure done. Peeing all the time isn’t normal, so maybe I’ll find peace if they can fix me. I’m hoping it’s like my two heart procedures. I had a heart arrhythmia for years and they went in and zapped something inside my heart and I was normal again. Anxiety was deferred. Another time, I was having chest pains and breathing problems, and they went in a stuck in a stent, and I was normal again, bringing another kind of peace. I know the urologist will rotor-rooter my you-know-what, and hopefully, I’ll be normal again. I also know until I’m physically normal again, I’ll worry about the possible complications and side-effects, and that’s a source of the restlessness too.

However, I don’t think my current restlessness is completely anxiety over having surgery. I wish politics could return to some kind of normalcy. I’m tired of having a crazy incompetent megalomaniacal crook being a rampaging bull in the White House. I want some dull-ass politico that just works at bi-partisan politics, statesmanship, foreign affairs, and leadership the heals the nation. It sure would ease my nerves if I didn’t feel our capital was Clowntown.

It also makes me nervous when protestors bring their guns into capitol buildings. Protesting is an honest outlet in a democracy. And I accept that people have the right to own guns, I just don’t want to see them. Seeing them at protest rallies makes me nervous. How do you tell a second amendment rights protester from a mass shooter? They all look like crazy angry white guys with guns. Don’t get me wrong, I like guns. But I don’t like seeing them out in public unless they are being carried by a person in uniform — either the police or military. It makes me nervous seeing guys with guns on their belt at concerts and other social gatherings. I don’t think they will protect us from bad guys, and seeing their guns make me think of beserk killers. At least armed women keep their guns hidden in their purses. Part of the problem with the protesters with assault rifles is they look like people cosplaying their favorite action heroes, but that’s unnerving because it also looks like they’re grown men playing acting with real guns. I’m all for people owning guns, but I only want to see civilians with guns in their homes, at the shooting range, or out hunting. Otherwise, I’ll think they’re a crazed shooter of school children or concert goers.

Another thing that’s gnawing at my sense of normalcy if the economic meltdown. The United States has a tremendous economic engine, but it’s taking a massive hit right now. It’s unsettling to think of how many tens of millions don’t have jobs, that millions of companies might go under, and that a whole generation is being delayed from starting their chosen careers. This is a time we should all stay calm and find a way to work together, but instead, everyone is arguing. Without wise leaders in times of crisis, incompetent leaders create the feeling we’ve all shipped out on the Titanic. We need a Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Churchill, not the Great Tweeter.

Living through a world-wide crisis in the middle of a polarizing political conflict is the wrong time to make decisions based on party affiliation. Taking sides because of single-issue positions is insane right now. We need to create comprehensive solutions that work holistically for every citizen. Politics based on greed and self-interest is going to undermine everything. It’s time to remember old adages like “United we stand, divided we fall.”

I want the pandemic to go away so life can go back to normal. But physics, chemistry, and biology will not allow that. Reality has thrown us a curve that demands we think differently, far outside any box we’ve ever known. Instead, we’re being drowned in insane conspiracy theories.

My friend Connell said he thought the internet would bring enlightenment by spreading knowledge faster and wider. Instead, the net spreads chaos and ignorance. Maybe the world would feel less crazy if I unplugged? The trouble is technology offers us the ability to form a hive mind, one with seven billion concurrent parallel processors, but instead of being seven billion times wiser, collectively we’re acting like the biggest single asshole with the worse case of Dunning-Kruger ever.

If would make me less restless if the country was run by leaders who were experts in their fields rather than yahoos who just think they are. We need to set job requirements for our politicians, ones that show they have the experience needed to do the exact tasks of their titles.

I have no idea how we find our way back to normal. That old curse, “May you live in interesting times” is one vicious curse. I wish we all had duller lives at the moment.

There is one last thing I’m considering. I’m wondering if I’m getting restless from getting older. I’ve never really worried about aging before. But then I never felt getting old before. I have felt my body failing before. Having my heart flake out is very educational about dying. And chronic pain is also instructive. But what’s more insidious, is diminishing vitality. I logically knew getting old meant slowing down and I accepted that cognitively. But I didn’t know what it felt like. I didn’t know what having a slow leak in my mental drive feels like. I think that’s making me restless. It’s not depressing me — yet, but it is nagging me in an interesting way. I realize I don’t have the psychic energy to do the things I want, which tells me to conserve my psychic energy. In other words, it’s time to seriously Marie Kondo my desires and ambitions, and that also creates a sense of restlessness.

That explains another reason why I want to get back to normal. I don’t want to waste my dwindling supply of motivating energy worrying about the pandemic or politics or crazy guys with guns. Writing this essay reveals that I need to let such things go, but I’m not sure I can. And letting things go also creates a sense of restlessness. It’s hard to come up with the right combination of attitudes to preserve my dwindling psychic drive.

JWH

 

 

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Have You had BPH Surgery?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, May 16, 2020

I need BPH surgery and have been researching TURP and Urolift procedures. I’d prefer to have the Urolift since it’s less drastic, but I’m not sure if it’s a long-term solution. It’s only been available since 2013. TURP is considered the gold standard procedure, but it has several potential nasty side-effects.

If anyone had either procedure and willing to share their experience or advice, please leave a comment.

JWH

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What Is Your Specialty in Life?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Do you have a specialty in life? (Doesn’t everyone?) A subject you love more than anything else. A topic you want to share with others. An area of interest you always think about? I tend to believe everyone has one, but they don’t always reveal it. I’m not sure we know what interests our family and friends, what warms their heart of hearts. I don’t talk about my specialty with most of my friends because I know it will bore the crap out of them.

And of course, our specialty changes all the time. What fascinates us in our teenage years might be completely forgotten by our thirties. Or what we dwell on during work hours might be ignored nights and weekends. Or even what we think about waking up might not be what we dwell on before bed.

I know during my middle years I was obsessed with computers. I began computer school in 1971 with mainframes. They were interesting but not exciting. Then in 1978, I got obsessed with microcomputers, and until I retired in 2013 I spent most of my time at work and at home thinking about PCs and what they could do. I spent decades programming dBASE, FoxPro, HTML/ASP/SQL Server. I thought after I retired I would continue to program, but I haven’t. I planned to get into Python and artificial intelligence as a hobby. I keep thinking I will still, but it hasn’t happened in six years.

I’ve often wanted my specialty to be something other than what it actually was. I don’t think we have any free will over what fascinates our minds. I’m not even sure we can explain where our specialties originate. For some reason, our neurons are drawn to highly specific aspects of reality. Often, with no rhyme or reason.

Being retired is somewhat like living in limbo before dying. I love being retired, but it’s not like growing up when we were expected to study, or the work years, when we were expected to be productive. I suppose retired people are expected to have a good time in their waning years, and I do, but they are lacking in future goal thinking. When we were little, we prepared to grow up and become what we thought we wanted to be. When we worked, we prepared for the freedom of retiring and doing exactly what we really dreamed of doing when we were kids. What’s our real future goal now? Preparing to die? I guess if you’re Christian you can plan your heavenly years in eternity.

It really helps to have a specialty in retirement. The only thing is I never imagined the specialty I’d end up having in my retirement years. My current specialty is science fiction anthologies. My dream before retiring was to write science fiction, but I can’t make myself do that. If I had free will, if I had mastery over my domain, I’d be writing science fiction. I have all the time in the world to write science fiction, I just don’t.

What I currently like doing and thinking about doing is collecting and reading science fiction anthologies. I’m even in a Facebook group of 187 people that share the same specialty. Although there are only three of us that seem to have this as our major, the other 184 people probably only pursue it as a minor. Still, my specialty is what gets me up in the morning, and keeps me working all day long. When I’m too tired to do anything else, I try to watch TV at night, but I’m finding that hard. I can’t really focus on the shows. I wish I had the mental energy to keep reading science fiction anthologies or writing about them. I have to accept that specialty.

What’s yours?

JWH

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Devs – Turn On, Tune In, Psyche Out

Devs is a new eight-part science fiction miniseries on FX on Hulu. Physics and philosophy dominate this story but in a bogus way. Quantum computers are used to do things quantum computer will never do. The plot is driven by cliché thriller violence, while the characters are motivated by emotional reactions taken to absurd lengths. I should have hated this TV show, but I loved it. I’m even thinking about watching it again already.

Why, if the parts are so bad, can the whole be so good? The Matrix also abused physics, philosophy, computers, and succeeded in being wildly entertaining too. I’m trying very hard not to tell anything specific about Devs — I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. Reading the reviews, my guess is about 20-30% of viewers won’t like this show, but the rest might. Especially, if you love science fiction. If you’ve ever said, “Far fucking out, this is blowing my mind, man” (or its Millennial equivalent) while stoned then this show is for you.

Science fiction often tortures science to convey a sense of wonder — and some of the best science fiction goes beyond science to remind us of the limits of reality. Devs has the kind of physics and philosophy that potheads and science fiction nerds love to use to mess with each other’s heads. We should be reading Plato and Penrose but it’s more amusing to psych ourselves out by watching philosophy-fiction. (Phi-Fic?)

Quantum physics has become the LSD of science fiction. Einstein hated its spooky strangeness.  In the absence of a general theory of everything its possible to imply anything, and Devs takes us to some gnarly places. I wish Devs hadn’t felt the need for building its plot on a murder — and instead based it on philosophical concepts duking it out on a peaceful personal level.

The show seems to have paid off free-will to throw the fight in favor of determinism. I’m grateful they didn’t bring in good and evil, although in such a knockdown brawl of ontologies, tag-teaming the theory of God for a few rounds could have been even more consciousness-expanding.

I don’t believe in any of the theories or inventions Devs proposes, but I can’t mention them without spoiling your potential fun. What Alex Garland does is take some fascinating speculations and extrapolate them to their limits, creating some groovy PKDian science fiction.

Worth Reading:

devs-stewart

JWH

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Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 30, 2020

Anyone who loved Downton Abbey should also love the new miniseries Belgravia. Episodes are now appearing weekly on Epix. In the U.S. only three of the six episodes have been shown. However, after the second episode I was so anxious to know more I bought the audiobook of the novel Belgravia by Julian Fellowes and listened to it. I’m glad I did. The novel is beautifully written, feeling equal to reading Austen or Dickens. The first TV episodes follow the novel so closely that I imagine the rest will follow just as closely. I feel like I’ve watched the entire series with my ears, and now I will see it with my eyes.

The plot is deliciously tangled by those Victorian manners and customs I’ve previously encountered by reading 19th-century novels, but with a bit more grit, a good deal more sex, and from a darker perspective. The story follows two families sharing one tragedy, revealing class conflicts between those with aristocratic old wealth and social-climbing tradesmen with new money. Both primogeniture and men and women in service play an integral role in Belgravia. I’ve seldom encountered such a well-crafted plot — addictively complicated but not overly too much.

tamsin-greig-anne-trenchard

There’s one mystery that still intrigues me. Why does the original novel follow the miniseries so closely? It was published in 2016, years before the show. Did Julian Fellowes write the novel with a screenwriter’s skill? Did he work out the screenplay first and then wrote the novel?

I often get the feeling when reading some modern novels that their authors visualized them as movies in their heads. I don’t know if this is a good trend. I expect novels to offer content that could never be filmed. Novels are their own art form, not screenplays. And there are a few novelistic features in Belgravia the book. Even though the story moves as fast as a blockbuster movie, the third-person narrator does offer some backstory tidbits that’s not in the series. It also reveals some of the inner thoughts going on in the characters’ heads. I watched the first two episodes before reading the book, and I felt Tamsin Greig had already expressed those thoughts in her performance of Anne Trenchard, my favorite character.

I’m surprised Belgravia the miniseries didn’t appear on PBS Masterpiece, but then, it did get me to subscribe to Epix. I figure at $5.99 a month it will cost me at most $11.98 to watch the entire series — unless I get hooked on another Epix series. I already binge-watched a previous series, The War of the Worlds during a free 30-day free trial. If Epix can keep them coming I’ll keep letting them have $5.99 each month.

Epix

JWH

 

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War and Peace – Book v. TV

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Last night I binged watch the first four episodes of the 8-part mini-series War & Peace put out by the BBC in 2016. This is notable, at least for me. In the past year, I’ve been having a terrible time focusing on TV. Every evening I try out several TV series and movies hoping to find something to hook me. I rarely succeed. I quit most shows after just a few minutes, even the ones I feel are high-quality and interesting. I don’t know if my mind is deteriorating, or I’ve just become jaded with TV. I wrote about it here.

Now, and then, I do find a show my mind will latch onto, and War & Peace was one. Strangely, the other two that I can remember at the moment were Sanditon and Black Sails. This makes me wonder if my mind has a thing for literary-historical stories. But don’t think my taste is all high-brow, I also got hooked by Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein not long ago, and it’s quite low-brow. I never can predict what my mind will settle on.

It’s funny, but while watching War & Peace last night I thought Tolstoy might be the Jane Austen of Russia, even though he was a contemporary of Dickens. Austen’s stories often referred to the Napoleanic Wars, and since watching War & Peace involves a lot of scenes with fancy dress balls, whispered marriage intrigue, socializing by candlelight in manor houses, servants in elaborate outfits, and riding around in elegant coaches during those war years with Napolean, watching War and Peace feels very much like watching Jane Austen.

I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I’ve read Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich but have been intimidated by its size and reputation. I’ve probably read less than twenty foreign-language translated novels in my life, sticking primarily to books from the English speaking world. For the last couple of decades, I’ve tried to read one 19th literary classic each year, and every once in a while throw in a European classic. Mostly, these reads have been from England. Seeing War & Peace offered on Hulu last night tempted me. I figured it might get me interested in reading the novel, and it did, but for a strange reason.

As I watched, I kept thinking to myself, “How can a six-hour TV production do justice to a novel that runs 55-74 hours on various audiobook editions?” After finishing the second episode, I was so curious to know that got up and bought an ebook and audiobook edition of War and Peace to compare. Luckily, Amazon offered a deal I couldn’t resist, buy the 99 cent ebook edition, and they would sell me an audiobook edition for $1.99.

I didn’t immediately jump on the offer. I’m very picky about audiobook narrators and book translators. I went to Audible and tried the samples from four different versions of the novel, and the Amazons Classic edition on sale did indeed have the narrator I liked best. I then found and read “What’s the best translation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy?” The translation for the Amazons Classic edition was by Aylmer and Louise Maude, and it came in number two on their list. Their number one choice was by Anthony Briggs but it didn’t seem to be available at Audible. So I bought the deal. I figure if I fall in love with the book I’ll eventually buy the Briggs translation.

Before I started episode three, I listened to the chapters of the novel that covered the first episode, especially Anna Pavlovna’s party. The show had tried to cover much of what was in the novel, at least in introducing the characters, setting, action, plot, and relationships. Sure it conveyed the essence of the story, but was it really Tolstoy’s story? It left out all the background information, and the actors sometimes didn’t match the descriptions of the characters they played. Is it important for actors to look like their literary descriptions?

Tolstoy’s omniscient point-of-view gives us so much about the characters’ motivations, but the television show just ignores that content. On the other hand, the show gave me gorgeous visuals, ones my mind’s eye would never imagine. And that brings up other things to ponder. Did all the clothing, uniforms, hairstyles, furniture, table settings, houses, etc. all actually look like their early 19th-century Russian counterparts? But then book readers, what do book readers imagine in their heads? Is it anything like Tolstoy imagined when writing his story?

Wikipedia has several helpful guides, including: “War and Peace characters order by appearance” — an invaluable cheat-sheet of who’s who as they show up in the story, with links to entries for the historical characters, often with photos or paintings. There is also an entry listing characters alphabetically. And, this Google search by image provides many valuable links. I wish this War and Peace family tree was in English.

War and Peace family tree

Watching War & Peace has convinced me to read War and Peace. It’s also making me want to look at other movie and television versions, as well as try reading different translations into English. I consider visual presentations to be another kind of literary translation. I also thought this when I read Anna Karenina and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, researching both their novel translations and their various visual presentations.

It looks like War and Peace will be my classic novel for 2020. Well, what the heck, the pandemic is giving us all plenty of time to try those big novels we’ve always meant to read.

JWH

 

 

 

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When Will This Be Over?

by James Wallace Harris

All my friends bring up the same topic: When will this be over? It’s also a popular topic on social media, for newspaper columnists, and talking heads on television. Of course, no one knows the future, but we all want too.

Since the pandemic began I’ve become a news junky, compulsive reading dozens of Flipboard articles each day, The New York Times, even adding new TV sources like local news which I’ve avoided for decades, and on some occasions even checking to see what’s being reported from the Bizarro World of Fox News.

Everyone is betting all their hope on a vaccine, and the consensus seems to be it won’t be available for 12-18 months. However, I have read reports that throw doubt on that. First, we might not be able to develop a vaccine for coronaviruses like we do for influenza viruses — remember, we don’t have vaccines for colds (rhinovirus). That’s pretty scary, but dozens of research sites around the world are working on a vaccine, some even claiming they will have a vaccine ready by this September. However, I have also read that a vaccine for SARS turned out to have harmful side-effects. I’m quite anxious to get vaccinated. I get the flu shot every year and let my doctor load me up with any other vaccine she thinks I should have. But in this case, I might keep sheltering in place and following social distancing until I read they have done extensive testing on a coronavirus vaccine.

To further cloud the vaccine hope, I read the fastest they ever developed a new vaccine was four years, and usually takes 10-20 years. However, we might be seeing a Battle of Dunkirk miracle because over 70 research sites are working on a vaccine to rescue us, and that might produce extremely fast results.

I’m not a scientist so it’s hard to completely understand all the news stories I’m reading. But I have read that SARS-Cov-2/Covid-19 is already mutating into different strains. And I keep reading about people who have experienced the disease, recovered, and then tested positive for a second time. WTF! But remember we sometimes get multiple strains of flu each year, and flu shots are sometimes aimed at multiple strains. It’s a real crapshoot. What if they develop a Covid-19 vaccine, everyone feels safe, starts socializing, return to work and school, and then catches a new strain? That’s going to be depressing. Then there’s all that talk about a Second Wave.

Now that coronaviruses are in the human population, will we have to worry about new strains every year like the flu and colds? If only China could have eradicated Covid-19 like they did SARS. Now it’s probably permanently in the human population. Like the flu, every strain of coronavirus will be different. SARS was deadlier but didn’t spread as easily as Covid-19. What if the new normal is always having to worry about the latest strain of a coronavirus? The cold/flu/coronavirus season might become the norm.

Scientists don’t know if coronaviruses will be seasonal, or even if it is affected by hot weather. It was spreading to countries in the southern hemisphere this winter. There are plenty of diseases that always exist in the human population that aren’t seasonal.

I read another article, which I fear to mention because it might inspire reckless action. There are people who have gotten and recovered from Covid-19 who are already back to work and are socializing. Some have even said they feel guilty because they can go out, but they also said they feel invincible. As more people get the disease and go back to work and socializing, I worry many people will be tempted to just catch the disease hoping to gain natural immunity. But that’s playing Russian Roulette. Too many young healthy people are dying.

Until we know how long immunity lasts and how often new strains will pop up, depending on natural immunity is not yet practical. It could take years for humans and coronaviruses to adapt to each other and we have an understandable relationship with the coronavirus like we do colds and flues.

My worry is this won’t ever be over. Not in the sense we can go back to the way things were. My guess is we’ll develop a new normal. We’ll start getting tested all the time, we’ll develop high-tech infection tracking after hashing out privacy issues, and hopefully, we’ll have a variety of vaccines to take each year. But wearing masks might become standard, and people at risk will become extremely wary of socializing. We might completely revamp society to avoid all kinds of diseases. We should not forget that global warming is causing tropical diseases to move north. And many drugs are becoming impotent at curing old diseases we once controlled.

We may find massive travel and massive social events to be impractical. We might have to move away from the trend of massive urbanization. Human societies are becoming the perfect culture for diseases. We need to solve the problems of global warming, pollution, and overpopulation. They all interact with each other to create a lethal environment for humans. What if the next outbreak of SARS or Ebola isn’t contained and spreads like SARS-Cov-2? What if HIV/AIDS had been airborne infectious? What if Zika spreads worldwide? We might want universal healthcare to maximize the health security of everyone. Ultimately, there won’t be any place the .1 percent can fly or sail to avoid the contagious.

We need to consider if this current pandemic might be a wake-up call that normal is no longer practical.

JWH

 

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Emotional Reactions to Pandemic Times

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 27, 2020

Psychically, our nation, our world, has made an abrupt U-turn. The stock market was soaring, unemployment was at an all-time low, and everyone was running around the planet doing everything they dreamed. We thought we had a handle on the future. Then BAM! Now we’re all huddled in our homes fearing the grim reaper and hoarding ass-wipes. (Of course, this ignores all the other forms of endless suffering so many humans were already combatting.)

We all want to get back to those tomorrows we were planning just a few weeks ago. I imagine the emotional reactions to the pandemic vary greatly, especially by age. I am 68, going to turn 69 this year, and I was already feeling oddly emotional about getting close to my seventies. The growing aches and pains of aging, as well as the deterioration of my various organs and digestive system, was already leading me into gloomy thoughts about the future. Running out of time has become more and more inspirational, but when the plague hit, that emotion went into hyperdrive.

We are experiencing something very new and different. It’s not that humans haven’t been on the brink before, or that we don’t think about it often, but we’re getting to feel it for ourselves in a very intimate way. Last night I watched the first episode of The War of the Worlds on Epix, where billions of humans are wiped out by invading aliens. I’ve read books and seen shows about apocalyptic events countless times in my life, but watching this one last night felt more realistic than ever before. The worse this pandemic gets the harder it will be to vicariously enjoy fictional apocalypses in years to come. The Great Depression and WWII inspired a lot of fluffy fun films in the 1930s and 1940s.

We still don’t know what this plague will bring. It could be over in weeks, months, or years. We don’t know how many lives it will terminate, how it will change the economy, or how it will alter our future daily outlooks. Essentially, it’s fucking with our sense of the future. What I love, and I imagine most of my fellow humans do too, is normalcy. We want orderly lives that we can control and predict. Remember, “May you live in interesting times” is a curse. Sure, there is a percentage of the population that are thrill-seekers, but most of us are not.

I was already stressed out for political reasons. The plague has both trumped Trump and swept away the 2020 election. I realize if I had the psychic energy I would ignore both and get on with my plans. I can pursue all my old ambitions at home while sheltering in place. But the dark clouds of rapidly shifting futures disrupt my thoughts. I assume they do you too.

If I was Yoda I suppose I could separate thinking from my emotions, but I’m not. The fear of being put on a ventilator keeps me from mentally seeing straight. And the fear of Donald Trump being elected a second term still eats away at my sense of wellbeing. If I had Zen Master mind-control I’d phase out these psychic ripples caused Covid-19 and Trump and get on with business. Unlike Trump, I don’t think we should all plan to go out by Easter. On the other hand, until the virus grabs me, I don’t think I should sit around and wait for it either.

The reality is I’ve already got other age-related health problems. Worries about the pandemic just exacerbate them. My health is easily disturbed by disruptions in my diet, exercise, sleep, and thinking. That wasn’t true, or not apparently so when I was younger. All of this leads to the realization that controlling my emotional reactions to the daily news is vital to my health. At 68, staying positive is critical. Fearing the future is just as dangerous as actual viruses. What we want is to act on the now to bring about desired futures, rather than wait in the now for scary futures.

When I was young I used to tell people I never worried about getting old because I didn’t fear wrinkles and going bald. I thought being old was all on the outside. I never imagined the psychic components of aging. What getting old is teaching me is the breakdown of consciousness is scarier than the breakdown of the body. Of course, they go hand-in-hand, but ultimately we need to fight for mind over matter.

What the plague is teaching me is how positive emotions are tied to our planning. And experiencing a plague later in life combines two very similar storms of emotions. I used to think I was like Mr. Spock, all intellect and no emotion. That delusion was possible when I was young, healthy, and society was stable. But looking back, I realize society was seldom stable.

I have a hard time imagining how the young are reacting to the pandemic mentally and emotionally. Do their youth overpower their fears, or do their fears undermine their youth? I am too distant from them psychically to empathize. I assume it’s quite a trip being laid on them.

I live in the American South and all the reports tell us we’re next in line for major pandemic growth. Ignoring that is hard. The older I get the more I envy robots. Being a conscious mind on top of a soup of chemical and biological reactions is a razor’s edge of a tightrope to walk. The idea of just having discrete circuits and powerful fast emotion-free thinking is so damn appealing.

The reality is I’m not a robot, nor am I Yoda, and I’m definitely not a Zen Master, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it so. I also feel sorry for all the people who have faith in prayer or Donald Trump’s reality avoidance systems. Our emotions have a hard time when hard reality canes us viciously about the head and shoulders.

JWH

 

 

 

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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Last night I watched Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché on TCM — it is one of the most creative documentaries I’ve ever seen. I’ve been having trouble focusing on television lately, and this show not only grabbed my attention but energized my brain. The film is available to rent or buy at Amazon and other outlets. I bought a copy because I want to study how the documentary was made and to be sure I have a copy for the future.

Now I know most people won’t be interested in silent movies, or even a history of silent movies, but if you are interested in the history of film, storytelling, creativity, women’s rights, memory, unearthing history, or how to make a powerful documentary, then you will be interested in Alice Guy-Blaché.

Not only is Alice Guy-Blaché as important to the early cinema as better known filmmakers like D. W. Griffith but her career began right after the Lumière brothers gave their first presentation in 1895. Most of the creative people from the silent film era are forgotten, as are the films they produced. Be Natural is about how history forgets and remembers. Be Natural is also about how we tragically ignore women. Be Natural inspires viewers by reconstructing Alice Guy-Blaché’s reputation. On another level, I also enjoyed seeing how such historical sleuthing is persued. (It’s important we save everything.)

One of my hobbies is scanning old magazines, and the value of old magazines turned up in this film. Alice Guy-Blaché’s work was often written about while she was making her movies, so old magazines offer proof of what she accomplished. Even the early historians of the cinema overlooked these sources when they were writing the first books about the silent era. They interviewed men, and many, if not most of those men conveniently forgot the contributions of women. Those early histories of the silent film often attributed male directors to Alice’s films. Just imagine how pained Alice would have been when her own husband started grabbing her credit after they divorced.

Even if you don’t care about feminism, history, or movies, you should still consider watching this documentary. Modern documentaries have become very sophisticated in recent years, especially after Ken Burns. Quality documentaries often seem to follow the same techniques with emerging filmmakers trying to add a few new creative touches.

I felt Be Natural extended documentary techniques in several ways, and I think that’s partly due to the growing success of documentaries and even YouTube. Within the documentary, they pointed out that in the early days of cinema everyone was amateurs trying to figure out how to use the new invention, the movie camera, and today, YouTube is full of amateurs trying to figure out that new medium. This causes people to experiment, inspire, and even steal from each other, so we’re seeing a perfect storm of creativity.

Cheap technology allows bold individuals to compete with industry professionals. There’s all kinds of innovations going on in documentaries today. Be Natural has Hollywood support and is a slick production, yet it tells a very personal story on two levels. Upfront is the mystery of Alice Guy-Blaché, but behind the scenes is the story of how Pamela B. Green and Joan Simon track down her story. Their historical detective work is compelling and inspirational, and they include some of the details of how it was done, which I loved. Watching this film made me wish I had a subject I loved so much as they did.

I highly recommend Be Natural. “Be Natural” is a sign that Alice Guy-Blaché posted in her studio to inspire her actors. If you know anything about silent films then you’ll know that was one way she set herself apart.

Jim

 

 

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Playing Six Degrees of Separation with SARS-CoV-2

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 22, 2020

This morning I got up and decided to think positive about our situation.  First, we have to consider the numbers. I like to use rules of thumb to make easy comparisons, so here’s a table based on a world population of 7 billion. (It’s really 7.7, but I’m making it easier on myself mathematically.)

Population Percent
7,000,000,000 100%
700,000,000 10%
70,000,000 1%
7,000,000 .1%
700,000 .01%
70,000 .001%
7,000 .0001%
700 .00001%
70 .000001%
7 .0000001%

I feel looking at the math should reduce our fears — at least for now. Using nCoV2019.live for my stats, worldwide there are 323,117 confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 this morning. That’s about .005% of the population. 13,848 have died, or about .0002%. Now, I no longer trust my math skills, but I believe that’s 1 in 505,488 for dying, and 1 in 21,664 for being infected. Those numbers make me feel better.

Of course, that’s using the total population of the world. If you live in Italy or New York City, your chances are much greater at being infected or dying. The U.S. has roughly 327 million citizens, meaning if we only consider it, which has 27,684 infected people with 354 deaths as of 3/22/20, then there’s a 1 in 11,812 chance of being infected, and 1 in 923,728 of dying. Still not bad. However, the population of NYC is 8,623,000, and if all 12,683 infected cases from New York state were in the city, that’s only 1 chance in 680. Now, they are starting to get scary.

Depending on where you live, you might feel your odds are pretty good.

During the initial stages of a worldwide pandemic, your chances of being infected increases by how many people you know who travel. Remember the Six Degrees of Separation game? Right now, most people outside of Wuhan who have caught SARS-CoV-2 were just one or two degrees away from meeting someone who recently flew. At first, it was people who traveled from China, but now it’s more about people coming from Seattle or New York City, but eventually, it will be about the people who drive around your city.

I don’t know anyone who has the disease. It takes One Degree of Separation to catch Covid-19. I don’t know how close the plague is, it could be two, three, or even four degrees away. Things will get much more frightening when we know people who know infected people — two degrees away. So far, I don’t know any two-degree people or even heard of any three-degree people.

The reason why China has been able to contain the disease is that it tracked every connection. The U.S. has allowed the disease to get out of control, which means they can’t track the various degrees of separation. However, by getting everyone to shelter in place they could get the pandemic under control again and then start tracing the infections.

Some states and smaller cities might be able to track all the cases of infection and keep things under control. But that won’t work unless people stop moving around. The reason why the game Six Degrees of Separation actually works is humans love to travel. It’s why the pandemic spread so quickly.

I wonder what we will learn from this lesson. When a pandemic breaks out, we should stop all air travel immediately. That means travelers will get stuck in foreign cities for the duration. We won’t know how far we’re willing to go until this pandemic is over and see its total cost. Besides killing a lot of people, it will probably devastate the world economies. That might make us savvier about the next time.

It’s been about a century since the last terrible pandemic. It would be comforting to think another horrible pandemic won’t come around for another century. However, humans are increasingly doing things to up our chances of another pandemic. We could be more careful if we wanted. It’s a matter of science, education, and statistics.

I wonder if this pandemic will teach us the value of science. Too many people dismiss science because it reveals unpleasant statistics. I found this cartoon on Facebook that should remind everyone of the true value of science. It got only one like by my friends when I reposted it.

science

JWH

 

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Lessons From Black Swans

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 18, 2020

We always learn something from black swan events, such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial collapse. First, we’re always shocked by changes that many predicted and see the obvious warnings in hindsight. With the current pandemic, we’re now realizing just how many books and movies imagined an event like this one, and we asked ourselves “Why weren’t we prepared?” There were those who warned us about terrorist attacks and economic bubbles but we didn’t listen to them either.

Basically, people are hopeful. Or at least, they need to turn a blind eye to fear of the future. After the black swan lands, we become so fearful of another similar landing that we become paranoid for decades. We’ve spent trillions on worrying about terrorism since 9/11, and whenever Wall Street got the sniffles we’ve freaked out worrying about another giant economic downturn. Singapore was better prepared for COVID-19 because it had already experienced a SARS outbreak. We do learn, it just takes a big kick in the head first. On the other hand, some groups like Boomers and the Faithful are still living in denial about the current black swan. And preppers are having a big “I told you so” moment.

It now looks like this pandemic will hurt more Americans than terrorisms and wars, and damage the economy far more than any shenanigans of big business. We hope the coronavirus will clear up in weeks, but it could change the country for decades, just like other black swans. Events like this pandemic will also identify the grasshoppers and ants in society. Aesop’s fable told us not to always party and put away for tomorrow. This plague is going to sicken more people financially than medically. Far from everyone heeded the advice to set aside six months of living expenses, but really, how many ever imagined they would be told to stay home for months? I expect the lessons learned from surviving this pandemic will affect how people live for decades to come. And that too could affect the long term economic outlook. And I bet getting vaccinated for everything offered will become a lot more popular.

You’d think we’d start learning how to handle black swans. We’ve known for a very long time that if some people eat bats in China or monkeys in Africa diseases that previously only existed in animal reservoirs would jump the dam to dwell in us. We’ve had decades of experience containing these pathogen breakouts, knocking them back, and knowing if we failed the disease would become part of our regular lives. Every year cold and flu viruses flare up and travel around the world because so viruses are entrenched in us. If we don’t contain the coronavirus it could house itself permanently in Homo sapiens and either become an annual flareup or a chronic problem like TB. We don’t know enough yet, to say which.

For the year 2017, the CDC said these were the leading causes of deaths in the U.S.:

  • Heart disease: 647,457
  • Cancer: 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404
  • Diabetes: 83,564
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 55,672
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,633
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 47,173

If the coronavirus isn’t contained, and it looks like it won’t be, it could become another regular item on this list. The $64,000 question is where it will rank. Until we develop herd immunity and the experience of many years of living with mutated versions of the SARS/coronavirus, we won’t know. Eventually, it might become no more deadly than the other annual influenzas. But if it is truly ten times more deadly than the flu, it will come in at #3 behind heart disease and cancer. To handle that will require a complete transformation of our medical system. My guess is coronaviruses won’t be that deadly once humans develop natural and vaccinated immunities, but it will rank above Influenza and Pneumonia, or it will expand that category greatly.

What we have to do now is learn how to avoid COVID-19 until a vaccine can be developed. That means avoiding people for the next one to two years. I’m not sure we’re prepared to do that. But it also means learning to live in a new way — a much more germ conscious way. Should we allow so much airline travel if it confers such potential danger? So many economies depend on tourism. China has already announced bans on eating wild animals, but can they make hundreds of millions of people give up a multi-billion dollar industry that people have relished for centuries?

Can we invent personal bunny suits that protect us from diseases? Ones that are reusable, machine washable, and even fashionable? Can we invent vaccines that anticipate new diseases? Do we really need to congregate by the thousands? Will we just accept a certain level of death in society for the activities we love? We embrace cars knowing that 1.25 million people are killed by them every year — so maybe we’ll embrace gathering in sports arenas for ball games and rock concerts and just accept the related fatalities. Who knows what we will decide.

At first, I thought we were overreacting to the coronavirus. Everything is shutting down in my city which has only two infected people. I worried that thousands of people will be crushed financially. But the more I read about how European hospitals are being overrun by pandemic patients, and what it’s like to need a respirator to survive, that I now worry that we’re not panicking enough. I also assume if political leaders are freaked out enough to do all the things they are doing, then it’s probably going to be much worse than I feared. Political leaders aren’t known for quick action.

The die has been cast. Our society has committed to sheltering in place. Some people are thinking it will be for three weeks, but I don’t see how that’s possible. If the disease disappears with summer, I can see us getting a reprieve until next winter, but that means we need to hunker down for three months. Then we can run around for four months before taking shelter again. The goal is to wait it out until a vaccine is tested and distributed. Can we shelter in place for that long?

What if vaccines aren’t ready until Fall 2021? It means we have to learn a new way to live. How do we do our food shopping? How do people work and get paid? How do you go to the dentist or get your car repaired in the middle of a pandemic? If you need non-critical cataract or prostate surgery do you still go? It’s not going to be as bad as living through the Blitz in London or surviving Stalingrad, but it might be as challenging and inconvenient as living in America during WWII.

That’s the shocking thing about black swans — normalcy is suddenly disrupted — but we adapt. At least the people in history have. I’m already skilled at staying home for days at a time, so I don’t see learning to do it for weeks or months being a problem. But I do know most people might go crazy with cabin fever. And I worry about all my single friends. Sheltering at home for long periods by yourself might be deeply psychologically damaging. Many of my single friends also sneer at Facebook, but it might be a great social outlet during the plague months.

I’m lucky Susan moved back home last year after working a decade out of town. I’m also lucky that I have a wide-ranging set of internet friendships to keep me socially active. And I’m further lucky in that I have a long list of things I’ve been meaning to do. I generally ignore my to-do lists in favor of socializing, so maybe I’ll actually get some of the things done from those lists.

The most fascinating thing is we don’t know how this will change us. It’s another black swan about to land.

JWH

 

 

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Abandon Ship (1957)

 

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 15, 2020

Last week I was lamenting I couldn’t find any shows to watch because my mind wouldn’t stick with anything for more than five minutes. Well, right after writing that I discovered a movie that grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go — Abandon Ship! — a British film from 1957 originally entitled Saven Waves Away. I love movies about sinking ships, or people trapped on lifeboats or stranded on deserted islands. And Abandon Ship! is a humdinger.

I caught Abandon Ship! on Turner Classic Movies. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale, rent, or to stream. If you have YouTube TV it’s still available on video on demand until 3/18, and if you have TCM Watch, it might be available there. There is a low resolution (240p) version on YouTube to watch. It’s a shame such a great flick isn’t widely available — I’d love to own a Blu-ray copy and have friends over for a two-film festival with the other classic film about shipwreck survivors, Alfred Hitchcock 1944 film, Lifeboat. That’s an old favorite of mine. But then, maybe the lack of availability for Abandon Ship! is telling me something about my taste in films.

Abandon Ship! is a gripping tale of a luxury liner striking an old mine and quickly sinking. The ship began with 1,157 passengers and crew, but only twenty-seven people survive. With only one lifeboat afloat, the captain’s launch, there’s only room for twelve to survive. Many of the survivors must cling to the side of the lifeboat in shark-infested waters. Tyrone Power plays Alec Holmes, the ship’s executive officer. Before the captain dies he tells Alec to save as many people as he can but warns he won’t be able to save them all. As the reality of their situation unfolds, Alec realizes he will have to condemn many to die, and does. The others consider his action murder even though they survive.

At the end of the film, the voiceover informs us that this film was inspired by a real event, and the man whose character Alec Holmes was based was convicted of murder but only received a minimum sentence of six months. This made me want to find out more. It turns out the story was based on the 1841 sinking of the William Brown. However, none of the details were the same. Abandon Ship! is all fiction, and so is the first film based on the same William Brown incident, Souls at Sea. It’s another hard-to-find film in a lo-rez video available on YouTube. Unfortunately, that film focuses mostly on the trial, with only a few minutes devoted to the horrors of the lifeboat. Plus it invented a whole storyline making Holmes another kind of hero.

The William Brown also inspired a third film, the 1975 TV movie, The Last Survivors, again only available on YouTube in low resolution. This version of the story is modernized, and not really a historical account. I haven’t watched all of this film, but it involves both scenes at sea and the trial.

It’s kind of amazing that one historical incident inspired three movies and none of them even attempted at being historically accurate. The key point retained is a crew member kills some survivors of a shipwreck to save others. I guess that ethical conundrum is what really fascinates us. Coincidentally, the day after the movie, I began reading a science fiction novel One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh about a man who gets to pick ten people in his small town of three thousand to survive the end of the world. In this case, Earth is the sinking ship, and a spaceship is their lifeboat. Having one person decide who lives or dies in a critical situation is an engrossing plot device.

All of this makes me wonder why these stories grabbed my attention when so many others didn’t. Do I need such extreme situations to focus my mind? Do I abandon so many other shows because their ethical issues feel too lightweight? Or do I need plots that are rarely filmed?

I also admired these stories because there was a limited number of characters trapped in an extreme situation. This is a challenge for writers. They are generally forced to make do with caricatures of types, rather than real individuals. It’s fascinating to compare the types in Abandon Ship! to Lifeboat and One in Three Hundred. For example, women get divided into three types. The useful woman (nurse, teacher, mother), the innocent demure good young woman, and the experienced aggressive older sexy woman. There’s always a working stiff guy, an intellectual (sometimes effete and sleight-of-build), and a heavy (mobster-like guy with a weapon), plus there’s always a demanding older male who expects to be the leader that no one likes. Lifeboat stood out by having a Nazi superman that challenged the all-Americans.

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh

As much as I was thrilled with Abandon Ship!, it could have been even better. I would have enjoyed another 20-30 minutes of story complications, with more ethical issues. It hints at some at the end, but just barely. And it forgets several people trapped on a raft from the very beginning of the film. Were they saved? There a fuzzy out-of-focus hallucination that may have told us, but I’m not sure. I liked this movie so much I’m even thinking about watching it again before YouTube TV dismisses it from its VOD.

JWH

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I’ve Lost My Addiction for TV and I Want it Back

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 8, 2020

As a life-long TV addict, I’m going through a bizarre phase where I can’t get into watching TV. I’ve started asking myself: “Why do I watch TV?” I theorize if I can figure out the specific aspects that currently make me love a rare TV story now it might help me find new shows that will hook me in the future. I don’t know if other people have this problem or not. Leave a comment if you do.

Right now the number one factor in me finishing a TV show is whether or not I’m watching it with someone else. Currently, I’m watching Star Trek: Picard on Thursdays with my friend Annie. I watch Jeopardy M-F with my wife Susan. We also watch Survivor together on Wednesday night. For ten years I watched a lot of TV with my friend Janis, but she moved to Mexico. In the year since I’ve only rarely gotten hooked on a series that I’ll watch by myself. My fallback on these restless nights is to put on a Perry Mason episode or graze on YouTube videos. But this week, I’m even having trouble finishing even ten minute YouTube video.

Every night I try three or four new shows hoping to find something I’ll want to binge-watch. And I do find things that just a couple of years ago would have glued me to the set. But for some unknown reason, I lose interest after about 5-10 minutes. That’s even when I’m thinking, “Hey, this is a good story” to myself. It’s an odd sensation to consider a show interesting but then feel “I’m tired of watching” after a few minutes.

I could do other things, but this is my TV time and I don’t want to give it up. If I have enough energy in the late evenings I do switch to reading.

The last two nights I’ve tried Taboo and Ripper Street — shows set in 19th-century England, a favorite time period of mine. Even though I marveled at the historical sets and staging, I couldn’t get into them. A few weeks back I did binge-watch 8 episodes of Sanditon. That makes me wonder if I now prefer polite society to the scum-of-the-Earth strata. I loved watching Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul with Janis, but on my own, I can’t stick with the newer seasons of Better Call Saul.

Thinking about that I do remember I was able to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Crown by myself. They were nonviolent. However, I loved Black Sails and quickly binged through four seasons, and it was very brutal. Maybe I don’t mind certain bloodthirsty characters. Maybe violence isn’t a factor at all.

What are the elements of a story that draw us in? What makes us watch a screen for hours and hours? Don’t you think it’s rather strange that we spend so much time mesmerized by our television sets? I’ve watched a lot of television in my life — more than most, but less than some. Remember that old meme about your life flashing in front of your eyes when you die? Well, if that happened to me, a third of that vision will be me lying down asleep, and another huge chunk will be me sitting in front of a TV screen. Television must be very appealing since we willingly devote so much of our free time to it. But why?

I recently wrote “What Happened To Science Fiction?” trying to understand how science fiction had changed from Star Trek in 1966, to Star Trek: Picard in 2020. I realized back in 1966 what I loved about science fiction was the ideas in the story. But in 2020, what I loved about Picard was the characters. And in between most SF fans have switched from loving ideas to loving the storytelling. In other words, I felt there were at least three types of appealing qualities to science fiction (which can apply to any kind of fiction:)

  • Ideas/Information
  • Storytelling/Plot
  • Character/People

I still mostly admire fiction for ideas. I love storytelling and characters, but not as much as I love information and details. Picard is interesting because of the character Picard, but also because of Patrick Stewart. Back in 1966, I believe Star Trek acquired a lot of fans for Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, etc., but I liked it for individual episodes with cool science fictional themes. Television used to be very episodic. Now a TV show often has an arc covering a whole season or even multiple seasons. Its appeal is the storytelling and plot. But pure storytelling doesn’t addict me.

We used to be mesmerized by 30 or 60-minute tales. That appeal of television was like enjoying short stories. In fact, 1950s television killed off the pulps and short story magazines. Modern TV, with binge-watching whole seasons, is like reading a novel. We now commit to ten to thirteen hours. Part of my problem might be commitment issues. It used to be committing to a 90-minute movie or 10-hour season was no big deal. Mentally, it is now.

We tend to use television to kill time, to fill up our lives. That suggests we don’t have anything better to do, but I also feel that TV is an art form we admire. That we devote so much time to TV because it is something of quality, and is worthy of our attention. It could be 10-15 minutes is all I’ve got for admiring TV at age 68. And the reason why I can watch for longer periods with other people is I consider it socializing.

I used to watch several hours of TV a day, even by myself, but in my old age, that seems to be a declining skill. Is anyone else having this problem? Since retiring I want to watch a couple hours of TV at the end of the day before going to sleep, but I’m having trouble filling those hours. Last night I tried a half-dozen YouTube videos, fifteen minutes of Ripper Street, and about five minutes of five movies from the TCM on-demand collection. I’ve always had a powerful addiction for old movies, and I went ten years without access to TCM and hungered for it terribly. I recently got TCM again when we subscribed to YouTube TV, but old movies don’t thrill me like before.

Is something wrong with me mentally? Have I just become jaded because of decades of TV consumption. Has a decade of binge-watching multi-season shows worn me out? I feel like a heroin addict who has lost the high but still wants to shoot up. I miss having a TV show I’m dying to get back to watching.

I always thought one of the benefits of old age was getting to watch TV guilt-free. I figured I’d be too decrepit to do much else and assumed my declining health years would be filled with the quiet life of books and TV. Man, I’m going to be up Schitt’s Creek if I can’t watch TV. I need to figure out exactly what turns me on about TV shows so I can find something to watch. Hundreds of scripted series are created each year. There’s bound to be more for me to watch.

I absolutely loved Black Sails because it was a prequel to Treasure Island, and the entire four seasons led up to that story I’ve loved since childhood. I wonder if there are other TV shows based on books I loved. Looking at Ranker’s “The Best TV Shows Based On Books” it’s going to be tricker than I thought. Most of them are based on books I haven’t read, and many of the ones based on books I have read aren’t shows I’ve liked. There must be another psychological element I haven’t considered.

I also loved watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and I think it’s because it’s about a time period I remember. I recall the 1970s too, but The Deuce isn’t that appealing. I’ve been meaning to try some of the shows set in the recent past. I’m looking forward to watching Mrs. America on Hulu, about the second wave feminists. Maybe biographical historical shows set during my lifetime is a noteworthy factor. That might be why I like The Crown so much. And it might explain why I also enjoyed documentaries on Miles Davis and John Coltrane recently.

And thinking about it though, the setting has to be more than just contemporary history. There are lots of shows set in the recent past that don’t work. Evidently, history needs a connection.

Genre shows have also petered out for me. Shows built on mystery or romance no longer work, and even though I still love reading science fiction, TV science fiction has no appeal anymore. Without Annie, I wouldn’t be watching Star Trek. She also got me to stick with The Game of Thrones.

All I know, is every once in a while I do find a show that absolutely addicts me. I just wish I knew what drug it contained that’s addictive.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 7, 2020

There are two meanings we can apply when we see the word mundane. One implies the boringness of everyday things and events. But there is another way to approach the word, to think of the mundane as the real world, the solid beauty of ordinary reality. Margaret Renkl writes about mundane subjects – children, parents, grandparents, animals, birds, dogs, butterflies, gardening, being born and dying – yet she elevates them into deeply felt poignant insights that impress you with her economy with words.

Renkl is a columnist for The New York Times. You can sample her writing here. If you want to quick rundown about her and her book, read this piece in the Alabama Newscenter or the one at The Rumpus.

Late Migrations is a collection of 112 of her pieces.

All of her essays are short, and it’s hard to say what’s typical. But here is one of three I found at the Oxford American that tickled me when I read it in Late Migrations. It is completely atypical, yet riffs on her favorite themes.

THE IMPERFECT-FAMILY BEATITUDES
BIRMINGHAM, 1972

Blessed is the weary mother who rises before daybreak for no project or prayer book, for no reason but the solace of a sleeping house and a tepid cup of instant coffee and a fat dog curled on her lap. Hers is the fleeting kingdom of heaven.

Blessed is the suburban father whose camping gear includes two hundred yards of orange extension cord and a box fan, a pancake griddle, a weather radio, a miniature grainy-screened TV with full-sized rabbit ears, and another box fan. He shall keep peace in the menopausal marriage.

Blessed is the farm-born mother, gripped by a longing for homegrown tomatoes, who nails old roller skates to the bottom of a wooden pallet, installs barrels of soil and seeds on top, and twice a day tows it through the grass to the bright spots, following slivers of sun across the shady yard. She shall taste God.

Blessed is the fatherless father who surrenders his Saturdays to papier-mâché models of the Saturn V rocket or sugar-cube igloos or Popsicle-stick replicas of Fort Ticonderoga, and always to scale. In comforting he shall be comforted.

Blessed is the mother whose laugh is a carillon, a choir, an intoxication filling every room in the house and every dollar-movie theater and every school-play performance, even when no one else gets the joke. She will be called a child of God.

Blessed is the winking father who each day delivers his children to Catholic school with a kiss and the same advice: “Give ’em hell!” He will be summoned to few teacher conferences.

Blessed is the braless mother who arrives at the school pickup line wearing pink plastic curlers and stained house shoes, and who won’t hesitate to get out of the car if she must. She will never be kept waiting.

Blessed are the parents whose final words on leaving—the house, the car, the least consequential phone call—are always “I love you.” They will leave behind children who are lost and still found, broken and, somehow, still whole.

You can follow Renkl on Facebook.

JWH

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What Were The Harry Potter Books of Your Childhood?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The phenomenon of the Harry Potter books in recent years was quite astounding. It’s hard to comprehend one book series resonating with so many people. I’m sure every would-be author’s dream to be as successful as J. K. Rowling. And it must be significant to grow up in a cohort generation that has such a common touchstone. In the years to come, will remembering Harry Potter books bond that generation like my generation psychically shares Classic Rock? Looking back it’s amazing how much The Beatles brought us together.

In a way, I feel deprived that Baby Boomers don’t have a childhood book series that tie us together in the same way we remember television from the 1960s. Were there any wildly popular book series for kids in the 1950s and 1960s? I remember The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, but just how popular were they? And both of those series started in the 1930s. The first book series I discovered were the Oz books, but that was an oddity. The Oz books were a children’s fad in the first decades of the 20th-century.

The series that made the biggest impact on me were the twelve Heinlein juveniles. Over the years I’ve found plenty of other bookworms who discovered them too, but overall, we’re not a huge group. I also loved the Winston Science Fiction series, but it was never popular either, even though I sometimes meet fans of that series on Facebook. At most, in terms of reading, I’d say Baby Boomers shared a love of science fiction and fantasy.

Wikipedia has a list of children’s book series, but I just don’t see any that came out in the 1950s and 1960s that was even one percent as popular as the Harry Potter books. I guess the success of the Harry Potter books was a freak of pop culture in the same was The Beatles were. Such universal appeal evidently, is extremely rare.

However, is there a children’s book series that has stuck with you you’re whole life?

JWH

 

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How To Prepare for the Pandemic

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 28, 2020

I’m getting more worried about the coming coronavirus pandemic and have been meditating on what we need to do. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and it looks like they won’t be able to contain it. It also looks like they won’t have a vaccine for another year or two. That means we have to dodge the disease, minimize the effects of getting infected, but ultimately be prepared by finding the best way to handle getting the infection.

The death rates for the coronavirus varies with age. It appears children under 10 aren’t usually dying, but older people are. The overall average for all infected people is 2-2.5 percent dying. That’s much higher than the annual flu but far less scary than things like Ebola. However, that rate rises to 8-10% for elderly people or people with compromised lungs. From what I’ve read, the disease is harder on men and smokers. Women have a more active immune system, but they are also more prone to autoimmune diseases. Smokers have compromised their lungs.

Most countries have been having people stay home in areas where they’ve found an infected individual. That works to a degree. However, the coronavirus can be infectious before symptoms show. Most people get a mild cold-like infection which tends to help spread the disease because people don’t think they are infected with the coronavirus.

I’m sure everyone knows about how not to spread germs – thoroughly washing hands, not touching your face, sneezing into your elbow, and staying away from other people. But if the pandemic arrives will we all stay home until it disappears? How long can you last in your house without needing to go out for supplies? How long can you not go to work?

Getting the virus probably means acquiring a natural immunity if you survive. However, there have been some rare reports of recovered people getting the disease again, or it flaring up for a second time. Now that’s scary.

Healthy people probably have much less to worry about. However, if you’re old, or have any kind of problems with your lungs, it’s time to worry. This population often ends up hospitalized. If you’re part of this group you need to make sure you can get emergency care quickly. But your first line of defense is to avoid getting infected until they come up with a vaccine. That means staying isolated when the infection hits your town. We also need to learn how to go to the hospital when we do think we’re infected.

There’s is hope the coronavirus will die down in the warm months like the flu, or even die out on its own. But if it spreads in the Southern hemisphere now that won’t be a good sign.

I’m hoping the people in charge of every nation will come up with practical solutions to keep people off the streets during breakouts. Fighting the pandemic will depend on both good government and good citizens. It might be possible to avoid getting infected with some proper planning now. Being able to stay at home for long periods will help a whole lot. Sequestering older folks away from younger people will be vital. This year might not be a good time to travel — unless you have a deserted hideaway in the mountains or the desert.

JWH