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Bellyaching & Whining While Crying in My Metamucil

by James Wallace Harris, 8/4/21

TRIGGER WARNING: Don’t read this if you’re under 65 or prone to depression. I don’t want anyone blowing their brains out because I’ve bummed them out.

This past year I’ve been sitting in countless waiting rooms with other sick souls waiting for the M.D. After our name is called, why do we say “Great” or “Fine” when the nurse asks us how we’re doing? Aren’t we all lying? Are we so overjoyed the waiting is over that we lie? How do we really feel? What if we actually told her.

The next time the nurse is in the doorway and yells “James Harris” and then asks me as I approach her, “How are you doing today?” I’ll give her this blog.

People ask me all the time about how I’m doing. I’m afraid to tell them. Oh, I make up funny anecdotes about the urologist, or laugh about my gallstones, but is it socially acceptable whine about how we really feel?

Lately, I’ve been asking myself, “How do I feel?” Mostly I’m stoic even to myself. I don’t want to admit that life is starting to suck. It’s not all bad, but so many of my organs are breaking down that I want to trade my body in for a 2022 model. I’m retired and have all my time free – which my young friends envy, and I’m not suffering like many folks on the nightly news every evening. But retiring and getting old is nothing like I imagined.

When I was young I thought turning old meant going bald and becoming wrinkled. I figured I could handle that. Then in my forties and fifties I started having various medical “issues.” However, doctors would fix me, and there would be long periods of feeling good. I realize now that getting old is when the periods of feeling good get shorter and shorter. I assume old old is when we give up hoping for symptom-free days.

I haven’t had a day where I felt normal, much less good, in so long I can’t remember. There’s always some body part yelling or kicking about something. Luckily, it’s been mostly little slaps to my innards, but they are starting to get a lot more forceful. I can’t imagine what daily life will be like in ten or twenty years.

And I have no reason to whine. I know people with all kinds of horrible cancers, chronic pains, conditions with scary names, failing body parts needing replacements, mental maladies, or worse. A quarter of the people born the year I was, 1951, are now dead. Of course, I know people my age, even ten and twenty years older, that are still healthy (if they aren’t lying). Aging begins in different decades for different people. And I keep hoping I can get my current broken parts repaired so I can feel normal again – for a while at least. I’d love a whole normal year, or even a couple months. Hell, right now, a week would be wonderful. I’m starting to worry that some of my ailments might be chronic. I’m like an antique car that runs but is always up on the rack.

Aging wisely I suppose, is learning to accept the increasing time required for parts maintenance. I sure it took Sisyphus time to adapt to his task too.

It used to be simple. The head aches, take an aspirin, it stops. My stomach complains, I change my diet, it shuts up. My heart has tachycardia episodes, I get a cardiologist to zap the right spot, it ticks like a clock. That’s what I thought would happen with my pee-pee-peeing problem. I’d see a urologist, have an operation, it would be fixed. That didn’t happen this time. I had an operation. It didn’t fix everything. My doctor is still trying, but things aren’t simple.

Right now my bladder is driving me nuts daily, every few months I have a gallbladder attack, and I’m getting rather gimpy because of my spinal stenosis. For years I’ve had stomach problems, but if I gave up certain foods my tummy would play nice, sometimes for months (until I started sneaking in junk food). I’ve now given up all the fun foods gurus told me were bad, and my stomach still bellyaches. I suppose it’s the gallbladder, but I don’t know. My doctor is wait-and-see watching me. It used to be docs would just rip out the gallbladder but they don’t seem to be so quick with the scalpel anymore. They’ve discovered there are long-term consequences to living without your GB. I’m trying to find if I can live with my gallbladder and stones or need to have that sucker laparoed out, but while I ponder I have indigestion, reflux, and sometimes painful attacks. It’s a quandary. It’s certainly taken the enjoyment out of mealtimes. I never know when I’ll eat a culinary grenade.

I’ve been taking a drug that helps me piss less, but it gives me dry mouth, and nasal congestion. If I stop taking the drug I pee over thirty times a day and have all kind of weird sensations in my bladder, prostate, and penis. Taking the drug quiets all that, but the trade-off is those head symptoms. Right now I’d rather feel bad above the neck than below the bellybutton.

One reason I don’t blog as much is I don’t feel like blogging. But today I’m making myself write because I’m starting to believe that another lesson to getting old is just pushing through, learning to ignore shit.

When I see sick young people, especially tragic ones that have to stay at places like Saint Jude Hospital, I feel how it’s unfair they didn’t get their decades of normal health. I wish I could tell the healthy under forty crowd not to waste or jeopardize their future vitality, because I certainly regret my six bags of M&Ms a day habit now (and all the other tons of junk food I massed consumed).

It’s weird, but I felt my best when I was eating all the things health nuts said things were bad for you, and now that I’m almost vegan, I feel bad all the time.

If you’re healthy, do everything you can to stay healthy. Don’t worry about getting old, worry about wear and tear on your body parts. If I had to spend one day a month when I was a teen feeling like I do now, I would have given up drugs and junk food, and joined a gym in 1964.

JWH

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How I Finally Solved a Mystery of Memory

by James Wallace Harris, 7/27/21

I made a discovery this morning that’s very important to me. One I had to write about. Whether or not you find it worth reading will depend on if you also have memory mysteries that haunt you too.

I lived in South Carolina twice, however I was very young the first time, and for my whole life I’ve tried to figure out when and where I lived the first time. This mystery of memory only began to matter once I got into my forties and I realized my memories were fading. It became a tiny existential ache. I even remember being disappointed at the time when I asked my mother about this and she couldn’t remember either. How could someone not remember when and where they lived when they were an adult? As I catch up to my mother’s age I might be able to answer that too.

Today I was going through a box of old papers, letters, and photos I found at my mother’s house after she died in 2007. I had put them in a drawer in my closet and forgot about them. Going through them today I discovered clues that may answer the South Carolina memory mystery.

The first clue was a “Certificate of Training” from the Department of Air Force given to my dad for completing 88 hours of Apprentice Aircraft Mechanic (Jet Two Engine) at Shaw Air Force Base dated August 15, 1958. Now this isn’t proof I lived in South Carolina at the same time. My dad sometimes went off without us. For example, on the back of this certificate it says he had previously completed 12 weeks of training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas and I have no memory of the family living in Texas.

This 1958 date does jive with the one clue I found after the invention of the search engine. I remembered going to the movie theater for the very first time in my life to see Snow Fire when we lived in South Carolina. Google helped me then by providing the movie release date, May 18, 1958. At the time I thought it was a false clue, or a false memory because that was after I had started going to school and I have no memory of going to school when I lived in South Carolina the first time.

The next clue I found was the report card from the third 1st grade school I attended, Watkins Elementary in Hollywood, Florida. It has me finishing the year dated 6/6/58. I transferred there during the third six-week period in 1957.

So this puts me in Hollywood, Florida for the first half of 1958. That was at the Lake Forest subdivision house that I remember as being the first house my parents bought. That memory of ownership might not be true since its just a childhood impression. Some of my all-time favorite memories come from living at that Lake Forest house. [Here it is. Becky and I are wearing cowboy outfits. I’m guessing Christmas 1958.]

The next report card in the box is from 2nd grade at Lake Forest Elementary putting me back in Hollywood, Florida in the 2nd six-week period.

This accounts for the rest of 1958 from about October or early November on. That means I could have lived in South Carolina during June through October of 1958. But I don’t remember attending school there. I’ve always thought I attended two 2nd grade schools but never could remember the first. I can recall being taken to Lake Forest Elementary and enrolled after the year started. I never could remember the first 2nd grade school, but assumed there was one and I just forgot.

I have a new theory from these clues. My parents bought the house at Lake Forest in late 1957 or early 1958, but during the summer my father was sent off for training in South Carolina, and we went with him. We rented a house out in the country and I have many memories from then. But not of going to school, or of leaving. One thing I recall now is I have no memories of my parents ever telling me and Becky we were going to move. I’m guessing we stayed in South Carolina during the summer and my parents just didn’t send me to school at the beginning of the 2nd grade year. Becky didn’t start the 1st until I started the 3rd.

This kind of boggles my mind that my parents didn’t enroll me in school. I would have missed a whole six-week period and part of another. I do remember always being the new kid. I didn’t know it until I got older, but I was always a year younger than the other kids. I started 1st grade at age 5, and didn’t turn six until November 25th. I really should have been held back a year. This might also explain why my grades in elementary school were so poor, and my teacher comments were always about how little Jimmy needs to work harder.

I hope I’ve finally solved the mystery of when and where I lived in South Carolina the first time. I’ve thought we had lived in a city that started with a C, either Columbus or Charleston. Shaw Air Force Base is near Sumter, but Columbus isn’t that far away.

I was six years old that summer, which explains why I had no memory of when and where I lived. At six I didn’t know such things. I don’t think it was until 1959 that I knew about years. But I do have many major memories from that summer of 1958. And that’s another validation. I have no memory of it ever being cold. Some of those vivid memories include:

  • The house we rented had a large wooden porch on three sides of the house. I loved that house.
  • The house we rented had a second floor that wasn’t part of what we rented but me and my sister would go up the stairs to where all this old stuff was stored. I specifically remember stacks of old magazines as high as Becky who I now know was four, and strange old-timey furniture. We never turned on the lights up there so it was always spooky. For years after this I would have reoccurring scary dreams, and the scary place would always be this floor at the top of the stairs.
  • My father put up two homemade swings in the trees outside. I remember him throwing ropes over very high limbs. We could swing almost as high as those limbs. I also remember those trees had long strands of moss hanging from them.
  • We lived out in the country with no paved roads, and those roads went through hills that had been cut away, leaving large sides of exposed dirt that was very red/orange.
  • We had a henhouse and my mother bought 24 chickens and 2 ducklings. Wild dogs that I called wolves would come run off with them and my father shot at the dogs with a .22 he said his grandfather gave him and he would give me when I grew up. After we moved back to Lake Forest I would sneak the gun out to play with on the street and neighbors complained. It disappeared and I never saw it again.
  • The dogs eventually got both ducks and some of the chicks. I remember trying to get the chicks to fly by throwing them up in the air. (Feel bad about that now.)
  • My job was to carry the garbage out back to a pit. My mother promised to buy me a real pig if I did that. In my fifties she finally bought me a concrete pig to keep in the flowerbed because I kept telling her she never paid me.
  • This was the first time I learned about black people. Becky and I played with two kids from a farm nearby. We thought they were rich because they had giant hogs that I wanted. One day my mom told us to go out and play with our little black friends. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I thought black was the color of cars and she had to explain that she meant our friends who were only brown, and I hadn’t even noticed that since we were brown too. My father then told us to always be nice to black kids when this happened. Decades later I learned the Air Force had integrated in the 1950s and my father worshiped the Air Force, so anything they commanded was how we were going to act. I see that as the seed of my liberal philosophy.
  • I’ve already mentioned going to a movie theater for the first time and seeing Snow Fire, but one of my most cherished memories is waking up in the middle of the night and my dad letting me stay up with him to watch the all-night movies. The movie we saw was High Barbaree, which I didn’t know then, but realized later when I was in the 6th grade and saw it again and remember the previous time. I’ve written about this memory many times. The reason why the movie was so important to me was it featured two kids that got separated when the girl’s parents had to move away for a job. I had already been the kid to move away several times in my life by then, and had lost many friends. That scene really resonated with me.
  • I had my first nightmare about dinosaurs at that house that has reoccurred many times over the decades. One of my most popular blog posts is about dinosaur dreams.

I have many other memories from this time period, and that amazes me when I now realize I was only six years old. That’s why for decades I’ve wanted to know when and where all this took place. I’m glad I didn’t throw all this stuff away. And it looks like I will find other clues to memory mysteries in this box too. So be forewarned.

I believe this is what I looked like in 1958.

JWH

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I Actually Had Fun at the Urologist (Despite the Pain)

Yesterday I had a urodynamics test. I had been dreading it for weeks because the brochure had forewarned they’d be inserting tubes and detectors up my two lower exit holes. From previous experiences I knew what that was like. However, yesterday’s actual experience was nothing like any of my fantasizing scenarios. It never is. That’s a good philosophical lesson. Don’t ruin your days with worry.

Getting old is full of new experiences, especially relating to medical exams. Often these experiences aren’t very nice, but sometimes they’re interesting, and occasionally they’re fun if you have the right doctor or technician. I like talking with people, and I love technology, but I ain’t too keen when the people I’m talking to are shoving technology into my orifices. Yet, sometimes the overall experience can be fun.

One of the ways you know you’re getting old is when the number of prescriptions and doctor visits start increasing. There’s a feeling of being trapped. You just don’t want to be experiencing what you’re experiencing, but there is no escape. Well, I try to find the humor in such situations, and maybe even a story for my blog.

It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself when your body starts breaking down and you have to do things you really don’t want to do. I’ve found a number of ways to avoid self-pity. Whenever I’m in a waiting room I look around at the other people. Often it makes me feel like the luckiest person in the room. Yesterday while I waited for the urodynamics test the guy on my right was passing kidney stones while crying softly and groaning. The woman on my left came in with a half full urine bag strapped to her left. It filled as we waited. I know what a full bag feels like. I was the lucky one.

As you get older many of your friends will have medical problems too. Another reason I can’t feel sorry for myself is I’m not sure I’d trade my problems for any of the medical problems my friends have, even though some of my friends tell me how much they pity me.

Anyway, I was in the urology waiting room watching the staff come and go from the door that leads back to the testing rooms. I was evaluating each person by whether or not I wanted them to be the person to see me naked and insert catheters up my Johnson. I didn’t want anyone too young because I feel sorry for young people having to see old naked bodies. I didn’t care if they were male or female. I figure I’m a dog at the vet to them. Actually, I’m partial to older nurses who have some experience and compassion. I did see one really good looking blonde and hoped it wasn’t her. It was. At least she was middle aged.

My nurse took me into a room with a very weird looking chair with a giant funnel and bucket in front of it. Next to the chair was a fancy tech desk with two giant monitors hooked to a computer. To the right was a cart with catheters hanging down its side in plastic sleeves, and everywhere was stacks of pads, and small towels.

The nurse was very friendly telling me about how she’d been reviewing my records, so I felt she already knew me. She said she’d step out of the room to give me some privacy. I was to take off my pants and shoes but leave on my socks and shirts, get into that weird chair, and drape little blanket across my lap. I told her I didn’t have any modesty left, meaning she didn’t need to leave, but she did. I always feel weird waiting naked in strange rooms. I wonder why stripping is still considered a part of modesty when they do the things they do to you.

When she returned she showed me the catheters she was going to put up my urethra – I wasn’t sure if it was one double one, or two separate ones – and the flexible computer sensor which I assumed was some kind of ultrasound probe that was going in my ass. Of course, she said rectum, which I think is a gross word, but the socially acceptable term for these gettogethers.

I told her how relieved I was to see how small her tubes were because my other doctors had been shoving much larger ones up the same small holes.

She then activated a switch that raised my chair up in the air. That startled me being up so high. However, it made sense. I was being put up on a rack like a car at Firestone because my nurse needed to get at my undercarriage. I pictured thousands of people she had to look at from that angle and said, “You really have a very strange job.” She laughed.

The purpose of the test was to fill my bladder with water and then drain it, monitoring the flow, amount, and I guess electrical activity.

I won’t try to describe the weird sensations and discomfort the insertions caused. They weren’t too hard to endure, and once they were in I didn’t feel too much. Then she started clipping leads to a EKG like machine to taped on sensors around my lower extremities. This let the computer monitor my electrical activity. It would also show on the screen how many milliliters went in and how many came out, but I wasn’t sure how it did that. Maybe a very sensitive scale under my pee pot.

The nurse then warned me she was going to start pumping water into my bladder. As she did this she told me to imagine I was driving on a highway and I should tell her how desperate I felt to find a pitstop to pee. So I said things like, “I feel the need to pee, so I would be looking for a place.” Or, “I’d be most anxious by now.” Or, “I wish I had an empty bottle.”

91ml in, and 90ml out, way below the normal 400-500ml. She told me I wasn’t like the typical person who has an overactive bladder. They go 12-15 times a day. I was going 28-33 times. But the revelation was my bladder was completely emptying. Up till now all the doctors had told me I wasn’t emptying my bladder.

The nurse said I probably had something different and the doctor would talk about it when I saw him next Friday. But she did say I had probably conditioned myself to pee too often. The nurse said I also didn’t have other indicators of an overactive bladder. That my bladder wasn’t showing spasms. I had been reading about this. Something like a tenth of the U.S., 37.5 million people, have an overactive bladder. Strangely, I had recently read an article on Flipboard about how it was bad to always pee before you leave the house or office, which is something I’ve always done.

What I learned was really good news for me. Although, the doctor might tell me something different, but I’m thinking if I conditioned my bladder to pee too often I could retrain it to pee less. The nurse did say there were some treatments they could do to expand my bladder, but I want to hold off until I see if I can change things myself. Besides, being knocked out and having them stretch my bladder with hundreds of milliliters of water sounds awful.

While all this was going on I chatted with the nurse about her equipment and details of urological problems. She showed me a bag of water and said that was the amount a typical bladder could hold. I told her I didn’t think I ever peed that much. A bottle of store bought water is often 500ml, which is about that size. I got to spend over an hour with this nice nurse, so I grilled her for information. I only see the doctor for minutes, so I’m always left with lists of unanswered questions, and I was overjoyed to talk shop with her.

In other words, I had been dreading yesterday for weeks, but when it finally happened, I was very happy with the results and even considered the experience interesting and fun (although a bit weird and painful.)

I do try to find my inner Pollyanna in these kinds of situations. It really helps when people are snaking tubes up my little Willie.

JWH

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I Can’t Take It With Me?

by James Wallace Harris, 7/3/21

That old saying warns us we can’t take it with us, but where does our stuff go when we say goodbye to this plane of existence? If I go first, Susan will just haul all my crap down to Goodwill. If she goes first, I’ll do the same for her. But if Susan goes first, who will process all my cherished possessions?

Before my mom died, she gave some of her stuff as little personal gifts to people she knew at church, or in the neighborhood, or relations. And the stuff she didn’t give away, she assumed either I or my sister would take after she died and cherish for the rest of our lives. We didn’t tell her we had other plans. After my mom died I went through her house looking for sentimental things like photographs, letters, and a few books. My sister wanted more of the knicknacks. My mom’s closets and extra bedrooms were jammed with things she’d had been saving since the 1945 when she married my dad. I told the ladies we had hired to sit with my mother when I was at work that they could have anything they wanted in the house except the stove and refrigerator. The house was clean enough to sell when I came back.

If I was kind and considerate, I’d get rid of my junk now. I’ve been getting rid of stuff for years, but there’s enough left to fill the pickup several times over. When I was young I thought I wanted a smaller house for when I was older, but now that I’m older, I don’t want that at all. This house has become the perfect size for our junk. Susan and I have divided our home into our individual territories. I junk up the den, two bedrooms, and one hall closet. Susan fills up the living, dining room, one bedroom, and the other hall closet. We both encourage the other to get rid of their stuff, but we don’t.

I’m not religious, but what if there was a heaven, and what if we could take it with us? What if St. Peter allowed everyone to bring one U-Haul trailer full of Earthly possessions to heaven, what would you take? Imagine everyone getting a luxury two-bedroom condo in paradise, how would you decorate it? (I wonder if they have the internet up there?)

My friend Connell has been moving out of his house where he’s lived since the 1980s and into a two-bedroom condo. He’s been selling his stuff on Craigslist. I wonder if I should set up an eBay account and sell off my stuff too? But it would be so much easier and put it off until I die and let Susan deal with it. Now I know why I always planned to go first.

JWH

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Don’t Let Apple Lossless Music Confuse You

by James Wallace Harris, 6/19/21

I’m afraid I totally confused my friend Annie when she asked me to help her upgrade her music system to play her iTunes playlists simultaneously in multiple rooms. I made the mistake of excitedly telling her about Apple’s new Lossless Music. Explaining Hi-Res Music to your friends won’t be easy. Later, I realized I had forced poor Annie down a rabbit hole of abstraction and technology standards she really didn’t want to know.

All Annie wanted was to buy speakers that would work in a whole house configuration, and she thought she wanted them made by Bose. The speaker she loved was a Bose dock for her first iPhone. Regrettably, it became useless a few years ago when she upgraded her iPhone with a lightning connector. She still laments its loss. Her son bought her a bluetooth soundbar. It actually sounds better than her old Bose dock, but connecting to it hasn’t always been smooth. She had seen an ad for Bose speakers that could be bought for each room of the house and would play in unison, which became her dream music goal.

I should have said, “Sure, go get those Bose 300 or 500 speakers.” Instead I told her they wouldn’t work with Apple’s new Lossless Music. “Why is that?” she ask. I tried to tell her. I even demoed bluetooth, AirPlay, Spotify Connect, and Tidal Connect to illustrate the different ways to stream music and how they would be used. I also demoed compressed, lossless, and Hi-Res music. She was impressed with what she heard, and said she wanted to get a whole house speaker system that could do Hi-Res.

I really should have said right then, forget Hi-Res Music and just buy the Bose or Sonos speakers. Her son recommended Sonos. I like Bose and have a pair of 301s for my computer room, and Rtings.com gives the Bose 300 a slight edge over the Sonos One. See their recommendations for all home speakers. In this group they prefer the Sonos Move first, and Bose 500 second.

That’s when we fell into Alice’s Wonderland of configuring a Lossless system that she could play from her iPhone. I had to explain why bluetooth was out, and at a minimum she’d need equipment that supports AirPlay2, and even then it would only be CD quality at best, that the higher levels of Hi-Res and Dolby Atmos wouldn’t be possible with Bose or Sonos currently.

I also realized I might have falsely advertised what she could hear when I demoed everything on my Bluesound Powernode 2i and Klipsch floorstanding speakers. So I got my Amazon Echo Studio from my bedroom to show how it compared to the Klipsch/Bluesound performance. The Sonos One and Echo Studio are roughly comparable, although most reviewers rate the Sonos better. I bought the Echo Studio to try out Hi-Res and 3D music. I told Annie the Echo Studio with Amazon Music HD could play Hi-Res and 3D spatial music if she subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited ($7.99 since she’s a Prime Member), and it would work in a whole house configuration with other Echo speakers. But again, this might be a distraction.

Actually, I was surprised by how well the Echo Studio sounded in my den. In my bedroom it sounds pretty good, especially paired with a second Echo Studio, but not nearly as great as a single Echo Studio in the den. Evidently, the den has great acoustics. Annie was very impressed with the Echo Studio.

It was here that I tried to explain that speakers sound different according to placement. And there’s a good chance she and I (we both turn 70 this year) won’t be able to hear the difference between MP3, CD, and Hi-Res music files. I, myself, have been chasing the Hi-Res dream for years, always thinking I’d find that Nirvana where Hi-Res music sounded as different as night and day over CD sound quality. I’ve never found this audio El Dorado. There have been times when I listened very intently and thought I was hearing things on SACD or with MQA that I hadn’t heard before, but I’ve never been sure if I wasn’t just hearing things I never previously heard because I hadn’t paid attention to it before.

I’m trying to convince Annie that the things that count are subscribing to a streaming music service, getting good speakers, finding the best place to put them, and playing music loud enough to hear the details. I believe Spotify is a better deal right now than Apple Music, Tidal, or Amazon HD because it’s interface is better, because of Spotify Connect, and Spotify is used so widely that articles about music often link to Spotify playlists. Plus selfishly, I want my friends to have Spotify so we can share our playlists. Spotify Connect support is almost universal, and that does away with the whole iPhone to music system connecting protocols like bluetooth and AirPlay. I have three streaming music systems in my house, and all three work with Spotify Connect. Only two work with AirPlay, and just one with MQA.

On the other hand, Annie has many years of songs purchased on iTunes. To switch to Spotify would require rebuilding all her playlists, and committing to $9.99 a month. I pointed out that the Amazon Echo Studios would work with Spotify, or if she wanted get Amazon Music Unlimited for $7.99 a month. However, iTunes doesn’t work with the Echo Studio.

Probably, the best thing for Annie would be the Bose 300 or 500 like she thought she wanted at first, or the Sonos. Then if she wanted now or later, subscribe to Apple Music for $9.99 a month. I’m guessing Apple will eventually offer something like Apple Connect, or AirPlay Connect and Sonos and other speaker makers will support Apple Lossless, but that means waiting to buy future products, or replacing her sound system again. And I think that’s probably a chimera now and in the future.

Apple Lossless Music is a great deal since it’s free with Apple Music, but only for people who have the DACs to support it. For most people, buying a portable DAC like a Audioquest Dragonfly or Helm Bolt DAC/AMP and a pair of good open back headphones would be the cheapest route to testing Hi-Res music. Many audiophiles already have this equipment, but for newbies, moving to Hi-Res Music will require a lot effort and money, and I’m not sure it’s worth it.

[Sorry, Annie, for all the confusion I caused.]

JWH

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Why Am I Peeing 30 Times a Day and Other Mysteries of Getting Older?

by James Wallace Harris

I am being forced to become a detective, but the mystery I must solve is not one of who did it, but why is my body out to get me. Sometime in the future we will all die, but before we’re done in we’ll fear many possible assassins. For most of us, our murderer will be a natural cause, but which one? Our last years will be spent running away from various suspects, always looking for clues to who our real killer will be. But the older we get, the more suspects show up, complicating the mystery.

All my friends in my age group suffer from something, many have dodged several bullets, and a few haven’t. Like all the machines we’ve owned over our lifetime, our bodies will wear out, part by part, until they can’t be fixed anymore. Unfortunately, being a machine that’s breaking down is not a fun experience. Like an old car, we never know which part will need repairing next. And continuing this metaphor, most of us aren’t skilled repairmen. We can only guess about what’s causing our breakdowns, and even when we do hire an expert, we never know if we’re getting the right repairs.

I’m currently dealing with two medical mysteries. The primary one is why do I pee thirty times a day. I went to a urologist and had a Urolift assuming it was a common male problem of an enlarged prostate. Although the Urolift improved flow, the procedure failed to stop my excessive peeing. Evidently, I had two problems.

Before the Urolift I had hoped the procedure would fix me and I’d be back to normal. However, I’m learning in old age we seldom get back to what we once were. Atul Gawande analyzes that hope of returning to normal in his book Being Mortal. We all believe doctors can fix us, but that isn’t always true, especially the older we get. That’s when we try to fix ourselves with sleuthing our own medical mysteries.

I’ve been watching many videos on YouTube about the causes and cures of frequent urination. I feel myself grasping at straws hoping to find any help. For example, Dr. Oz recommends consuming ground flax seeds to calm an overactive bladder, and Dr. Berg recommends following a keto diet to reduce insulin resistance that can cause frequent urination. My own urologist has prescribed Myrbetriq to relax my bladder muscles but it made my prostate/bladder ache, and my urges to pee stronger and somewhat painful. Katy Butler warned in her book The Art of Dying Well against anticholinergics, the common medicine prescribed for overactive bladders, because of their dangerous side effects. My own internist is against them too. Evidently, a large number of older people have overactive bladders and we’re all looking to solve the mystery of why it’s happening to us and how to fix it.

I’ve taken a different approach. I had hoped the Urolift would have left me peeing like a teenager again, which the sale testimonials promise, but when I informed my urologist that magic hadn’t happened, he said it took months and years for my bladder to learn its current habits, so it might take just as long to break them. I went home feeling relieved with this bit of hope. In fact, for several days after that office visit I only peed 24 times a day. But then the frequency went back up.

I wondered if that was a clue. Could that sense of relief brought on by hope have relaxed my bladder, even just a bit? Could I consciously try relaxing my bladder through stress reduction or meditation? I bought a chem flask with a milliliter gauge and have started measuring my output, along with logging my frequency. A healthy person will pee 250-400 ml when they go and maybe up to 800 ml when they really hold it, but I only produce 50-70 ml during my frequent visits to the bathroom, and even less when my bladder is having fits.

From what I’ve learned people of all ages can have urine retention, but it’s more common in oldsters. I already know that several of my organs are wearing out, so why not the bladder? But if it’s a matter of muscles, either for contraction or relaxing, can I make changes with exercise, diet, or mind control?

By the way, those are some of the many approaches we take when trying to solve our own medical mysteries. There’s several, often approached in this order:

  • Time will make it go away
  • Prayer will heal it
  • Diet will help it
  • Exercise will overcome it
  • Pills will cure it
  • Surgery can repair it
  • Meditation can relax it
  • Alternative medicine might fight it

When you have a medical mystery you keep trying to solve it like a complex Sudoku puzzle. We always want to believe we can fix something and return to normal, but part of aging is the realization that some things are out of our control.

But what’s particularly frustrating is assuming something can be fixed if only we can find the right evidence and clues. The trouble with medical problems is all the variables and interactions. It’s almost impossible to get a definitive answer.

While working on my pee problem my gallbladder said, “Hey, pay attention to me!” Turns out I have gallstones. I’ve had a couple minor gallbladder attacks, but since I’ve seen someone with a major attack I’m positive I don’t one the kind requiring an ambulance. At first, I thought, let the doctors rip out my gallbladder because I’ve known a number of people that’s had that procedure. Then I started learning about possible consequences of living without a gallbladder. After ultrasounds, bloodwork, and a CT scan, my doctor has recommended a wait and see attitude. While doing all that poking around though, they also found fatty deposits and a cyst on my liver. So I feel like a ticking time bomb. But these new issues only adds to the list of my failing parts and systems.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m boo-hooing in my blog. I’m just reporting on a mental process I find interesting about getting older. And like I said, I know so many people with all kinds of medical problems, nearly all of them worse than mine. In fact, I can’t think of anyone my age or older I’d trade bodies with.

I’ve just reached an age where stoicism is the only practical philosophy. I know one of my organs will fail, and murder me, but not which one. But does it matter? It will be out of my control. The frustrating thing is thinking we can control things, and we can to a very limited degree. But evidently, part of aging is learning when we can’t.

JWH

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I Marie Kondoed a Whole Building

by James Wallace Harris, 5/27/21

Well, to be honest, I didn’t hold everything that was in our old workshop and ask if it sparked joy, or even sort the building components into separate piles for reallocation considerations. I just asked the contractor if he could demolish the entire building and take it and its contents away. And they did.

But what a relief! What a weight off my shoulders! After Susan’s parents died she wanted to buy the house she grew up in, and I reluctantly agreed. Well, it made her happy. I did think it was neat the house came with a workshop full of woodworking tools and a small greenhouse. I imagined building and growing things. The house also came fully furnished with every closet stuffed with marvelous treasures her mother found at yard sales. Her dad hadn’t used the workshop in years and it had become their mini-storage unit. That was a dozen years ago and we’re almost through getting rid of their junk – and ours.

About seven years ago I decided neither Susan or I would ever do any woodworking or gardening and hired 1-800-Got-Junk to remove the now broken down greenhouse and clear out the workshop of ancient rusting woodworking machines and boxes of once cherished possessions. It took three of their trucks and a big check. But it felt great. My soul felt immensely lighter.

Then we started using the workshop for our overflow junk. A few years later I had the walls of the workshop replaced and painted because I feared our junk would go bad from neglect. That was even more money. Then this year I realized the roof was leaking and contracted to have it replaced. I also worried about the workshop all the time because a neighbor’s tree is dying, and it leans over both the power lines and our workshop. What a psychic burden.

I knew the plywood decking of the roof would need replacing along with the shingles, but when they started on the first sheet, the roofer called me out to show how the 2×6 rafters were so rotten they couldn’t nail the plywood to them. They offered to replace or brace the 2×6 beams, at even more expensive.

That’s when I knew there was no chance of that building ever bringing me joy. By the way, joy was defined as possible home resale value. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that we’ll probably die in this house and resale joy was a fading fantasy anyway. So I asked the roofer if they also demoed buildings and he said yes. I said, “Let me save a couple of things, and then I want you to take the building and everything in it away.” I kept two ladders, a push broom, a rake, a shovel, a pair of hedge clippers, and a couple cans of old house paint. (I’ll probably get rid of them too.) I told the roofer workers they could have anything they wanted. Susan told a neighbor.

Even though the value of our house went down, I felt wonderful seeing the finished job. Not only did I get rid of tons of possessions and responsibilities, but I no longer have a place to put all our extra crap. That’s quite freeing. And now I don’t have to worry about my neighbor’s tree falling on the workshop. Oh, it will take out the power lines and probably pull down a couple power poles, but I’m trying hard not worry about that.

Susan saved one four-foot long wooden level of her dad’s. She figured her brother might want it for sentimental reasons, and I overheard her talking to Johnny telling him she’d try and keep me from throwing it away. I’ll try hard, but Johnny better come soon. I’m already looking for more things in the house to throw away. I’m making Susan nervous eyeing the attic. Boxes have been going up there for a dozen years, but they never come down. Why?

I fantasize about a completely empty attic. Wouldn’t it feel so good?

JWH

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How Will We Remember the 1960s?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/21

Anyone who knows me, or reads my blog, knows I’m obsessed with memory. Even before my memory access speeds began declining I’ve always felt a desperation to hang onto what I learned even though I know most of it slips naturally away. I guess all those tests in school gave me a complex about poor recall.

Memory has many fascinating aspects, especially all the ways our memories fool us. We believe things are true because our memories tell us they’re true. Even when confronted with conclusive evidence, we often prefer what our memories tell us to external facts. All through my sixties I’ve been examining what I thought I remembered from growing up in the 1960s. Too often, the impressions I’ve maintained have proved wrong.

Because of an online discussion about science fiction in the 1960s my instant recall told me there must have been several hundred great science fiction novels published during that decade. However, as the discussion progressed my memory had trouble dredging up all those great titles.

My memory gave me the illusion there were enough wonderful science fiction novels published in the 1960s to fill a huge bookcase. Where did that impression come from? I assumed because my memories told me I read hundreds of science fiction novels I loved while growing up. Were those memories true? Thinking about it now I realized there are a number of ways to double check my brain’s records:

  • Look up the actual number of successful SF books published in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the books I remember reading in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the SF books from the 1960s I read in later decades
  • Research the memories of my contemporizes about what they read
  • Find out what books young science fiction fans read today from the 1960s
  • Read what literary scholars studying the 1960s consider the best SF books

I realized that my initial reaction to the online discussion was I wanted young people to replicated what I found great in the 1960s. That’s a typical old person hope, but it’s completely unrealistic. Newer generations are busy consuming all the books coming out in their own decade. What they read from past decades is always very minimal.

In other words, younger generations and scholars get a distillation of the past. Not only that, but they are going to interpret the past by current day mindsets. The chances of them experiencing what I remember is very small. So why do geezers want their cherished past persevered? Is it to validate their own memories? Is it the hope of keeping the things they loved alive across time?

For whatever reason, I want the essential aspects of the 1960s remembered accurately by history. The trouble is I’m not sure I correctly remember the 1960s myself. I’m probably not. Maybe what I’m doing is trying to write my own correct history now that I’m older and working on my wisdom skills.

For the purpose of this essay I’m using science fiction novels as one tiny test case of remembering the 1960s. I have a model in my head built from memories of what the 1960s were like. I’m interested in the mental models people are constructing today about that decade. Even focusing on this one microscopic piece of pop culture leaves many problems regarding memory to consider.

Is my white male American viewpoint of the 1960s science fiction too limiting? Do my contemporaries who were women and minorities remember 1960s science fiction differently? Bookworms growing up in Russia, China, Brazil, Vietnam, etc. will have experienced a much different decade than I did. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll focus on the U.S., however Great Britain plays a large role in my memory too. I also read fanzines back then where readers from around the world, including countries where English wasn’t the standard language, reviewed books. But this only provided hints of what science fiction was being published in foreign countries.

The online discussion I mentioned above got started because we read a link to “An Uneven Showcase of 1960s SF,” a 2019 review from The Los Angeles Review of Books covering The Library of America’s two volume set American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s, which remembers these eight novels:

  • Poul Anderson, The High Crusade (1960)
  • Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)
  • Roger Zelazny, … And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal) (1965)
  • Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966)
  • R. A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)
  • Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise (1968)
  • Samuel R. Delany, Nova (1968)
  • Jack Vance, Emphyrio (1969)

Our group was asking: Are these books really how literary history will remember 1960s science fiction? Personally, I don’t believe any of them will make it to the long term pop culture memory of 2050. However, Library of America does give us a clue with their other published science fiction books. That’s because their famous uniform volumes focus on authors and not works. So far they have published sets on these SF writers:

PKD also produced significant work in the 1950s and 1970s, but it seems his 1960s novels are the most remembered. Le Guin’s career covered decades but her most famous science fiction came out in the 1960s and 1970s. Vonnegut is also mostly remembered for his 1960s novels. Bradbury was mainly famous for his work in the 1950s, and Butler for work in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Library of America will not be the sole arbiter of who remembers science fiction from the 1960s, but I do believe they have made good guesses so far, at least for American Sci-Fi. But using Library of America and the SF authors they favor, are these then the science fiction novels future readers will remember 1960s science fiction by:

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick
  • A Wrinkle in Time (1962) Madeleine L’Engle
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Martian Time-Slip (1964) by Philip K. Dick
  • Rocannon’s World (1966) Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick
  • Planet of Exile (1966) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • City of Illusions (1967) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick

Of course this leaves out works by the most famous science fiction writers working in the 1960s, the so called Big Three of SF:

  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Fantastic Voyage (1966) by Isaac Asimov
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke

Actually, The Big Three of SF writers were more famous for their work in the 1950s. Probably the single most remembered work of science fiction from the 1960s is Dune by Frank Herbert, and that’s because of all the movie versions. But growing up in the 1960s the two most famous new writers were Delany and Zelazny. Will any of their most famous novels be remembered? They each got an entry in the LoA set, but what about their other 1960s novels?

  • The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny
  • Empire Star (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Babel-17 (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Lord of Light (1967) by Roger Zelazny
  • Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

There were many novels I loved or remember reading great reviews from back in the 1960s that were missed by the Library of America set. I’m not sure how famous they are today, or if they are still worthy of reading:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  • Flesh (1960) by Philip Jose Farmer
  • Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys
  • Venus Plus X (1960) by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Catseye (1961) by Andre Norton
  • Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) by Clifford Simak
  • Little Fuzzy (1962) by H. Beam Piper
  • The Dragon Masters (1963) by Jack Vance
  • Lords of the Psychon (1963) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis
  • Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
  • Simulacron-3 (1964) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber
  • All Flesh is Grass (1965) by Clifford Simak
  • Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965) by Harry Harrison
  • Destination: Void (1965) by Frank Herbert
  • The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch
  • The Age of the Pussyfoot (1966) by Frederik Pohl
  • Earthblood (1966) by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown
  • Make Room, Make Room (1966) by Harry Harrison
  • Mindswap (1966) by Robert Sheckley
  • The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
  • The World of the Ptavvs (1966) by Larry Niven
  • The Butterfly Kid (1967) by Chester Anderson
  • Camp Concentration (1967) by Thomas M. Disch
  • Chthon (1967) by Piers Anthony
  • Lords of the Starship (1967) by Mark S. Geston
  • Restoree (1967) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Soldier, Ask Not (1967) by Gordon R. Dickson
  • Those Who Watch (1967) by Robert Silverberg
  • Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967) by Clifford Simak
  • Dimension of Miracles (1968) by Robert Sheckley
  • Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Hawksbill Station (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • The Last Starship From Earth (1968) by John Boyd
  • The Masks of Time (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • Of Men and Monsters (1968) by William Tenn
  • Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin
  • The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton
  • Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
  • Fourth Mansions (1969) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony
  • The Pollinators of Eden (1969) by John Boyd
  • The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey
  • A Specter is Haunting Texas (1969) by Fritz Leiber
  • Up the Line (1969) by Robert Silverberg

And what about British invasion SF writers who made such a big impact on the genre in the 1960s:

  • The Trouble with Lichen (1960) by John Wyndham
  • The Wind from Nowhere (1961) by J. G. Ballard
  • A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
  • The Drowned World (1962) by J. G. Ballard
  • Hothouse (1962) by Brian Aldiss
  • Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Dark Light Years (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Whole Man (1964) by John Brunner
  • The Squares of the City (1965) by John Brunner
  • Colossus (1966) D. F. Jones
  • The Crystal World (1966) by J. G. Ballard
  • Earthworks (1966) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Watch Below (1966) by James White
  • Chocky (1968) by John Wyndham
  • The Final Programme (1968) by Michael Moorcock
  • Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts
  • Report on Probability A (1968) by Brian Aldiss
  • Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner
  • Barefoot in the Head (1969) by Brian Aldiss
  • Behold the Man (1969) Michael Morecock
  • The Jagged Orbit (1969) by John Brunner

Or from the rest of the world

  • Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem
  • Planet of the Apes (1963) by Pierre Boulle
  • Hard to Be a God (1964) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  • The Second Invasion from Mars (1967) by Arkady and Boris Strgatsky
  • His Master’s Voice (1968) by Stanislaw Lem

If you were born after the 1960s, especially after the year 2000, how many of these novels have you read, or have even heard about? Years ago, I wrote an essay about what I thought might be the defining science fiction novels of the 1960s. At the time I guessed these dozen would be remembered:

  1. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961)
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
  3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
  5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963)
  6. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
  7. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
  8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (1966)
  9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
  10. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968)
  11. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1969)
  12. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

I stand by these twelve for now, but I believe in the long run, only a few, if any, will be remembered by the reading public in the 2060s. Dune has the best chance of being remembered, but will it really go the distance? It was #35 on PBS’s The Great American Read, the only 1960s SF novel on the list, so that’s one indicator.

Do we remember the pop culture of the past because of the artists or their works? We remember books by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen from the 1800s, but did their stories stick to us first, or was it something about Dickens and Austen that make us read their work? I believe “Eleanor Rigby” survives because we can’t forget The Beatles. That Baby Boomers love of The Beatles was passed on to their children and grand children.

Even with one hit wonders like Little Women (#8 on the PBS list), I believe Louisa May Alcott is why we remember her book. Somehow her powerful personality anchored her in time. Ditto for literature of the 1920s. Don’t we really remember the novels of the 1920s because of our fascination with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence, and Joyce? Or do their biographical reputations grow as more readers consume their books?

My guess is the current public’s sense of 1960s science fiction comes down to Philip K. Dick and all the biographical attention he’s getting, and because so many of his stories have been filmed. Back in the 1960s, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were the Big Three of SF, mainly because of their successes in the 1950s. Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are still remembered today, getting special editions and new readers, but my hunch is Heinlein’s appeal is fading, and as a teenager in the 1960s he was my J. K. Rowling. In other words, my cherish memories will not be how literary historians remembers science fiction the 1960s.

I just don’t see modern bookworms hanging onto to most 1960s SF writers today. In terms of literary cults, I’d say Ray Bradbury might be next after PKD, and possibly Ursula K. Le Guin. Dune is the major SF novel from the 1960s, but there seems to be little interest in Frank Herbert. Look how Tolkien has become legendary as a figure of literary interest. I consider that a clue to future literary remembrances. If the public doesn’t also take an interest in an author, I think it’s less likely their books will be remembered.

At the last World Con a Hugo award was given to a speech that’s erasing John W. Campbell’s reputation. Will Heinlein and Asimov be next? As much as my memories tell me that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were great, I’m not sure the collective pop culture memory feels the same way. This makes me sad, but I’ve got to come to terms with it.

When I take the time to think about what I actually remember, and compare those memories to external data, I realized I did read hundreds of SF during the 1960s, but the vast majority of them were first published in the 1950s. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club in March of 1967 and often got its two main selections. At best that could have been 60 new titles, but sometimes the main selections were 1950s reprints, so I figure the number was smaller, and I didn’t read every book. Thinking about things, I read many 1960s SF novels after the 1960s, in fact I’m still reading for the first time SF books from the 1960s. But even with all them, I could not assemble a list of hundreds of great SF books from the 1960s.

My memory was mostly wrong. I was able to find just under a hundred titles for this essay. I’d bet that between 1,000-2,000 SF novels were published during the 1960s, which sounds like an impossible lot, but it takes only two years nowadays to publish that many SF titles.

Memory has always been a distillation process. Each night we forget most of what happened the previous day. I don’t think the Library of America picked the most memorable eight SF novels to remember the 1960s. But then every science fiction fan who lived through the sixties will recall a different eight titles. And it would be unfair for me to want my eight favorites to be the ones remembered. However, I’d really love to know what eight SF novels from the 1960s will be remembered and read in the 2060s. Who will be the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells of the 20th century?

Update: 5/25/21

Because of a comment below by my old friend Jim Connell I realized asking a 15-year-old SF fan today about 1960s is like asking me back in 1965 what I thought about science fiction from the 1910s. At the time I had not even read A Princess of Mars or Tarzan of the Apes, or even The Skylark of Space. Over the next fifty-five years I would eventually read several novels, both literary and science fiction from the 1910s, but I can’t say I’m intimate with the pop culture of that decade. I’ve read 9 of the 70 books listed here for the 1910s, and know of several more from movies and reading about them.

Thus my memory of science fiction from the 1910s gives me roughly an idea of what younger people might know about science fiction from the 1960s.

JWH

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Cat v Man @ 3:55 a.m.

by James Wallace Harris, May 10, 2021

Ozzy has developed a very annoying habit. We used to feed Ozzy and Lily their wet food at 6:30 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. Then after the time change, Ozzy started wanting his morning meal at 5:30 a.m. I kept telling him to learn to tell time and pointed to the digital clock with the large readout. He just ignored that. Instead, he started scratching at the covers pulling them down urging me to get out of bed. He also paws at my head and sniffs my mouth just like the cat in this video. (I couldn’t convince Susan to get up in the middle of the night to actually film Ozzy, so this video will have to do.)

Now I have to get up frequently at night because of prostrate troubles, often 7-8 times to pee, so Ozzy knows getting up is no big deal for me. I had the Urolift surgery in April but so far it hasn’t been a miracle. My doctor tells me it might take months for my bladder to break out of its bad habits. I am slowly peeing less often but I still get up at least once an hour, and Ozzy is convinced they are good times to be fed.

He’s demanding food earlier and earlier. At first I acquiesced to 5:30 a.m., but then the little fuzzy bastard got pushy, pestering me at 4:30 a.m. I realized he wouldn’t stop until I got up and gave him what he wanted.

Ozzy and Lilly like sleeping with me. Usually they come to bed after 2 a.m. when they’ve finished their routine late night rowdy romping, in that dark house time after Susan has gone to bed. Ozzy used to sleep soundly until morning, but evidently my frequent rising has altered his sleep patterns.

I tried tossing both of them outside the bedroom and closing the door, but they’ll make a terrible racket to get back in. When I saw this video about how a cat reacts when their human leave home it made me more considerate towards how a cat feels. I stopped closing them out before I went to sleep.

But Ozzy kept pestering me to feed him, earlier and earlier. This morning it was 3:55 a.m. I’ve learned that I can close the door to the bedroom after I feed them and they don’t complain. I find them sleeping soundly in the den after I get up for real.

It really annoys me when Ozzy wakes me up. I’ve tried scolding him, and pushing him off the nightstand, but he just returns and wakes me up again. I wish I could reason with Ozzy. I keep seeing these videos of dogs talking to their humans with buttons. I wonder if cats could do that too?

If I could talk to Ozzy I wonder if I could reason with him? We didn’t know dogs could talk until we gave them buttons, so maybe cats can too, and if they can communicate, maybe they can be reasoned with.

As of now, I’ve lost the war. But we’ve reached a détente. I refuse to feed them before 3:30 a.m. I did this by just laying there no matter what even though it will set off a night of insomnia. And when it is past 3:30 a.m. I’ve learned to quickly get up, find my way to the kitchen in the dark, only turn on the small light in the washer room next to the kitchen, open a can of Fancy Feast, give them exactly one half of the can, chop it up fine, put their plate down, stick the rest of the can in a plastic container, turn off the light, and put it in the fridge, and go back to bed.

I can usually get back to sleep instantly if I stay calm and don’t get annoyed at Ozzy.

JWH

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How to Flourish and Avoid Languishing in Retirement and Old Age?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/5/21

Languishing and flourishing are two words that have been banging around in my consciousness since reading two essays in The New York Times: “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing” and “The Other Side of Languishing Is Flourishing.”

The first article was geared to people suffering a sense of stagnation, emptiness, and muddling through caused by the pandemic. Adam Grant says languishing is the state of mental health between depression and flourishing and explores the emotion in detail, along with advice on how to beat languishing. The second article, by Dani Blum gives us seven ways to promote flourishing.

I immediately resonated with the word languishing, but not because of pandemic confinement. I realized languishing is a state I have fallen into because of retirement and aging. I am not depressed, but often I am not flourishing either.

What I realized was the confining lifestyle required to avoid Covid-19 was similar to the lifestyle of being retired. Both involve spending most of our time at home. Both involve seeing fewer people. Both involve limiting what we can choose to do. Sheltering at home from Covid-19 was no great effort for me because I was retired. I no longer needed to go to work or school, and my social life shrank drastically after I stopped working. I felt sorry for the millions that had to put their careers, businesses, and education on hold. But what I understood now, being retired had put my future on hold too. That’s where the sense of languishing grabs us.

On the front side of life, when we are young, the future is full possibilities. We flourish by chasing all our wants.

But on the back side of life, possibilities dwindle, and opportunities disappear. After retirement our wants become fewer. As our health fades away, so do the desires that drive us. We begin to languish.

I believe wanting people, places, possessions, and proficiencies make us flourish. But how do we thrive with vanishing vitality and dissipating desires?

I need to think about this. I do know when my health fails, I languish, and when my wellbeing returns, I start flourishing again. Unfortunately, the frequency of poor health episodes are increasing.

The answer to the title question needs two approaches. One for retirement, one for aging. Retirement gives us more time but less of other things. Aging is a diminishing of being, a natural state of not flourishing. Yet, I hope to find ways to flourish right up until I’m dying. Is that even realistic? Or some Pollyannaish belief?

I could speculate now and make this essay much longer, but I believe I need to contemplate the problem deeper before philosophizing further.

JWH

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Using an Amazon Echo Dot 4th Generation as a Music Streamer

by James Wallace Harris, May 2, 2021

As I explained earlier, lightning killed my computer and TV, and zapped the ethernet/Wi-Fi circuits on my Yamaha WXA-50 integrated amp/music streamer. The amp portion continues to work with the optical and RCA inputs, just the streaming feature died. The Yamaha WXA-50 was my second favorite source of music, used in my computer room with Bose 301 Series V speakers. I know audiophiles sneer at Bose, but I loved the sound of these 301s in this room. I think they were just right for the room’s acoustics and being required to sit on the top of my bookshelves.

My main music system in the den is a Bluesound Powernode 2i paired with Klipsch RP-5000F speakers. The Yamaha WXA-50/Bose 301 sounded almost as good as the Bluesound/Klipsh system so I mourn its loss.

Instead of buying another Yamaha WXA-50 I thought I’d try getting a low cost streamer to see how it worked with the still functioning Yamaha amp. I had an old first generation Amazon Echo Dot that I tried, but it didn’t sound anything like the Yamaha streamer. I was about to order a Arylic S10 ($80) or a Arylic S50 Pro+ ($220), but Amazon diverted me with an Echo Dot 4th generation on sale for $29.95.

The 4th generation Dot does sound better than the first gen, but it’s still not as good as the Yamaha streamer. It’s pretty good when played loud, and it might be good enough for now. Describing how different music streamers compare is difficult. I don’t envy professional audiophile reviewers. The best I can do is say the Echo Dot 4th gen sounds a bit thinner, less rich, less detailed. The Yamaha often dazzled me. Sometimes I even preferred the Yamaha/Bose over the Bluesound/Klipsh, but it was really a choice between two very good sounds. Actually, it was a matter of mood. The room acoustics also influenced my listening mood too. I’m much too old to claim I can hear audiophile distinctions, it’s down to what I prefer when comparing two systems. I could even be fooling myself about the memories of what I used to hear on my Yamaha.

I’ve watched many John Darko videos about using a Raspberry Pi as a music server. I have an extra Pi which I’ve set it up before with Spotify Connect and already know it sounds crappy. As Darko points out, you need an extra third-party hat to clean up the signal/sound. Such a hat would cost as much as the Arylic S10. Maybe I’ll research Raspberry Pi v. Arylic, but my guess is both gadgets are probably closer to the Echo Dot, than the Yamaha WXA-50. But if anyone reading this knows, leave a comment.

If you’re new to music streaming through your stereo’s amp with a streaming server, it’s different from streaming with AirPlay or Bluetooth from your phone. If you aren’t picky about sound quality, it won’t matter. When you use AirPlay or Bluetooth the music is playing on your phone, but when you use a music streamer that has Spotify Connect or Tidal Connect that device is playing the music and your phone is merely the remote. It can make a big difference in sound quality.

For now, the Amazon Echo Dot 4th generation will allow me to listen to music in my computer room, it just doesn’t thrill me like the Yamaha did. It’s good enough, but not as pleasing. Probably most music fans won’t care. The Amazon Dot Echo 4th generation is a nice low-cost Spotify Connect music streamer, especially if you can get it for $29.95 on sale.

I’ve come to prefer integrated amps with streamers like the Bluesound or Yamaha. I’d probably love speakers with integrated amps and streamers like the Kef LS50 Wireless II speakers, but I’m too tight with my money to spend $2500. I love both the Yamaha WXA-50 and Powernode 2i streamers, but they aren’t perfect either. I’m addicted to Spotify Connect which allows me to use the native Spotify app to control these devices, including the Echo Dot. However, with all three devices, the app sometimes loses access and I have to quickly reload it to automatically reconnect. What I really wanted was Amazon HD music to have a Connect version like Spotify Connect so I could use the Amazon Music HD app to control the devices. It does for it’s own equipment, but not for the Yamaha or Bluesound. Each has their own Amazon Music controls built into their apps and both are pitiful.

I love using my phone to control my music. It’s a remote control for three different music systems in my house. I gave up on Amazon HD and Tidal, so I only use Spotify Connect. I love its simplicity and the Spotify app is near great.

After lightning killed me toys I’m a lot less inclined to spring for more expensive gear. Of course, it was a once-in-70-year-event for me. Still, I’m now surge shy. In the future I think I’ll aim for integrated amp/streamers in the $300-500 range matched with similar priced speakers. I’m just not going to go full audiophile. But if you already have a stereo system adding music streaming with the Amazon Echo Dot is a cheap enough experiment. I wish John Darko and Steven Guttenberg would test and rate it.

I still have a turntable and CD/SACD player but I don’t really care for them anymore. I’ve been spoiled by streaming music. It would be nice to know I was streaming everything in CD quality at a minimum. That’s why I played around with Amazon HD and Tidal. I’ve heard that Spotify will be moving to high definition music soon, so I’ve standardize on Spotify Connect, but like I said, my old ears might not be good enough to discern the extra data.

JWH

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Understanding Uncertainty

by James Wallace Harris, 5/1/21

Most people are binary in their thinking. They don’t like juggling shades of gray. We want to know yes or no, it is, or it isn’t, is it good or bad, friend or foe, us versus them, and so on. For several decades now science has been under attack because it confuses people with complicated and even contradictory results.

Reality is not simple. It contains infinite variables working through infinite combinations. Science is about statistics. It looks for patterns, making hunches to test. And the results are never absolute. Last night I came across a film that visually illustrates this better than anything I’ve seen before.

This video is well worth 25 minutes it takes to watch. Actually, it’s worth watching over and over again. Don’t be put off because the film uses climate change as a teaching example if you’re burned out on the topic. Just watch it for how science works.

Digesting the daily news has become a survivalist skill. That skill should be combined with reading, writing, and arithmetic as part of every K-12 curriculum. Even though we’ve all had a lifetime of practice consuming new information, most of us would fail this subject, even the most studious would only be getting Ds and Cs. I’m no exception, failing most tests.

It’s not a matter of knowing the right answers, but learning to live with uncertainty. It’s developing an intuition for data, both numerical and narrative. We need to consume our daily information like Sherlock Holmes, always looking for clues. In the old days, teachers would talk about developing a rule of thumb for rough guessing. Other people talk about bullshit detectors. The trouble is humans aren’t rational, but rationalizing creatures. We constantly fool ourselves with false assumptions. We feel we’re being logical, and sometimes we are, but all too often we’ve started our chain of logic after making a bad initial assumption. If you’ve ever played the game MasterMind, you’ll understand this basic trait.

Learning to think clearly is unnatural for human beings because we tend to make up our minds quickly and stick to our decisions. We decide in childhood, when we’re uneducated, on many beliefs we choose to defend for the rest of our lives. Science is all about constantly reevaluating data, and that goes against common human habits. Humans aren’t Vulcans, but we all need to think like Mr. Spock, but that requires constant effort, constant vigilance. Always learning new insights feels like we’re always swimming against the current, when the urge is to relax and to drift with the current. That’s as natural as entropy. But understanding reality is anti-entropic, it is swimming against the current.

JWH

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Sometimes We Really Do Want More Government Regulations

by James Wallace Harris, 4/27/21

Please watch this fifteen minute video from NBC News. It is the most insightful news story I’ve encountered this year because it encapsulates many of the essential issues about the future.

This video illustrates why lack of regulations and resource management leads to ordinary citizens and the environment losing to big business. Corporations and people with money wanting to make more money are searching the globe for places where they can get any kind of competitive edge with their investments. Basically, big business and rich individuals will gentrify every last acre on the planet, pricing ordinary people off their land.

Southeast Arizona has very little surface water and rainfall. For decades homeowners, family owned farms and ranches, and towns have been sipping off the top of their aquifer. As long as rains replenish that aquifer, life in the desert is sustainable. However, global corporations have discovered this Arizona land is essentially unregulated and the water is there for the the price of sinking deeper wells. This makes it profitable for corporations from around the world to exploit this area. Raising hamburgers and cattle feed in the desert seems insane until you realize the real value of water.

Water is the new gold rush, and some locales are trading their water for jobs and investments. However, once that water is gone, that locale, that environment will die. Keep an eye on this trend. You’ll see it everywhere once you start looking.

As the corporations put millions into exploiting this land, drilling ever deeper into the aquifer, they have gained control of the land because ordinary people can’t afford to extend their wells deeper, and are thus force to sell out and move. Local control over land is going to disappear.

A kind of corruption is taking place. Politicians back the corporations because they follow the money. Notice how toady the politician is in this video. People who don’t own land and just want jobs align themselves with the corporations. And even though the corporations claim they are there for the long haul, the reality is they are there as long as they can make a profit. Once they suck the aquifer dry or it becomes too costly to pump that water out of the ground, they will leave.

This is happening all over the world. The long term results is the total land area that is sustainable for life on Earth is shrinking. The dynamics of what’s happening here also reveals various kinds of inequality in action. Ordinary people can’t compete. Neither can nature. Basically, outsiders with money have all the power. If the local government had regulations about land and water use they could preserve their old way of life. They could build a sustainable society. Corporations have played the democratic system to get what they want. Read Dark Money by Jane Meyer or Evil Geniuses by Kurt Anderson for fuller explanations.

Right now we have an exploitation society. The rules are simple. Anything you can do that others can’t stop you from doing, you can do. Individuals can’t compete against corporations. And since corporations are rigging the laws, there’s little people can do – unless people take back their democracy. But it might be too late. There is little demand for sustainability. Corporations want to make money, and individuals want jobs. Unless people can create jobs that coexist with sustainable economies, things won’t change.

When you watch this video think about the two opposing groups. On one hand, you have the global demand for meat and dairy, which includes all of us, and a few individuals who have been living in southeast Arizona for decades. Corporations just fulfill the global demand. But what if the global demand becomes greater for sustainability and the environment? We all have to want it, or it won’t happen.

JWH

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Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.

JWH

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Lightning Killed More Than My Hardware

by James Wallace Harris, 4/17/21

Lightning zapped my Sony TV, NUC computer, Yamaha music streamer, and AT&T internet box. It was six days before we were back on the internet, but I still haven’t replaced the other equipment. I’ve been thinking about what I had and what I want.

The lightning strike has indirectly killed my interest in Linux. I’ve been playing with Linux ever since the early 1990s when I downloaded floppy disc images off Usenet. Each time I installed it I realized I couldn’t use it for my daily computing, but over the years Linux got better and better. I thought Linux terribly neat and always wondered if there would come a day I could use it for my regular computing tasks. When lightning struck I switched to using my Linux machine. I found programs to do nearly everything I did under Windows and figured that day had finally come. Then I needed to print. HP even offers support for different Linux distributions, but the HP software I downloaded wouldn’t install. It almost did, but it was missing a handful of dependencies, just some Python files, and I just didn’t want to go looking for them. So I finally gave up on Linux. I needed to print a letter to my doctor and couldn’t. I realized that if I made a big effort I could. I might even get my flatbed scanner to work too, but it would take a lot of fiddling, and I realized I’ve just gotten too old for fiddling with computers that don’t work.

I got out my copy of Windows 10. It installed within minutes. It automatically recognized the HP printer and downloaded the drivers. My letter printed. I’ve decided my backup computer will be a Windows machine from now on too. I’m just getting too old to keep up with two operating systems. And I was thinking about getting a Mac Mini too, one of the new M1 machines. I’ve dreamed of owning a Mac for decades. Well, lightning has killed that desire too. The side effect of losing my Windows machine has made me realize I want to simplify my computer usage, and Windows only is the way to go.

I haven’t replace my TV yet because I wasn’t sure what kind of TV I wanted next. I spent years selecting the Sony. I had known I wanted a 65″ TV, but there was so many other technical considerations. Since my TV died I’ve been watching my wife’s 55″ TCL Series 5 TV and realized it’s almost as good for 1/3 to 1/4th the price. I just didn’t miss all those superior technical features Rtings.com claimed the Sony had, and the simplicity of the TCL’s built in Roku interface turns out to be the real deciding factor. I still want a 65″ TV, but I’m going to buy a 55″. The larger TV weighs more than I can handle. Over the past few years I’ve been learning that weight matters too in factoring in convenience.

Evidently, lightning also killed my desire for high tech toys. When I replace my computer, I’m going to get an Intel i5 chip instead of the i7 that got zapped. Using my old machine with an i5 has shown me it’s fast enough. Even before the crash I was thinking about a new computer. I was hankering for a tower unit with a fast graphic card. But after the lightning strike I’ve decided to stay with the small NUC form factor.

I haven’t decided what to do about my Yamaha music streamer. The lightning killed the ethernet and wireless circuits, so I can’t stream music, but the amp still works, so I can play CDs and LPs. Maybe that’s good enough. However, in my evolution towards a simplified lifestyle I’ve been considering giving up CDs and LPs. Maybe I can find a small streamer to play through the amp. All it needs is Spotify connect. I bet an Echo Dot would do. I’ve already given up on streaming high definition music. It was just too much trouble for something I wasn’t sure I could hear.

It’s odd to think about how a lightning killed my desire for newer technology, but it has. I was already downsizing because of aging, so I no longer believed bigger was better, but I still had faith that the latest technology was better, and now I don’t. A burst of lightning has shown me that I reached good enough tech years ago. I don’t need cutting edge computing equipment, or audiophile stereo equipment, or even a television that Rtings.com rates the best.

When lightning killed my toys I was annoyed, but only mildly so because of the inconvenience. It was just after several towns in Alabama were hit by tornadoes and many people lost their entire homes. I considered myself lucky to lose so little. But in a way, I was doubly lucky because what I lost has taught me what I don’t need, and that will save me a lot of time and money in the future.

JWH

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Lessons Learn from Lightning Killing My Computer, TV, and Internet Box

by James Wallace Harris, 4/1/21

Around 4:30 am last Friday lightning struck near my house. I was up peeing when a tremendous flash and boom occurred just outside the bathroom window, stunning my eyes and ears. I didn’t think much about it and went back to bed. When I got up I turned on my computer to check my email it wouldn’t come on. It was as dead as a dried up cockroach. Oddly, my nice APC UPS was still functioning. And my monitor worked. Huh, wondered what all that meant? I was heartsick my computer died but not too worried, I believe I had everything on Dropbox.

I went around the house checking things and discovered my 18-month old 65” Sony TV was dead as the computer. That was a shocker, but then I thought about all the folks in Alabama who had their houses blown to bits by tornadoes. R.I.P. my Sony, but I can buy another.

Finally, I realized I was getting no WiFi in the house, and discovered the internet router was a goner too. Now I was worried, feeling the growing anxiety I feel when I’m not connected. Dang, I hate that feeling.

The TV was on a brand new surge protector that seemed to be in fine working order too. My current theory is lightning zapped everything through the Ethernet cabling. So much for trusting UPS boxes and surge protectors. I did some research and lightning can be destructive in mysterious ways. It doesn’t have to make a direct strike, or come through the house wiring. My neighbor to the north lost his cable TV box and my neighbor to the south had to reset all the breakers in his house.

So my first lesson is to unplug electronic devices from both power, Ethernet, and outside antennas when I get a severe storm warning. But that was only the beginning of my education from this event. We’ve been without the internet and WiFi for almost six days now. That’s taught Susan and I just how addicted we’ve become to the global net. It’s also shown us just how many of our daily activities depend on WiFi and networking.

Without the internet some of the things I missed were:

  • Streaming TV
  • Streaming music
  • Streaming audiobooks
  • Streaming Kindle books
  • Talking to Alexa
  • House phone
  • WordPress blogging
  • Groups.io clubs
  • Social Media
  • Zooming
  • Browsing the web
  • YouTube

Our smartphones were working, but we only get one bar of AT&T service in the house. That meant we weren’t totally cut off. We had our little handheld lifeboats. Our weak broadband was good enough for email, light Facebook use, reading simple web pages, or watching short video clips. Just enough to keep us connected with people and information, but no massive multimedia consumption.

You’d think it would be no big deal to go without the internet because most of our lives we didn’t have it. But I realized now I’ve been using the internet daily for more than a quarter century and wasn’t aware of just how integrated it’s become to my daily routines. And I’m not even one of those guys who’s automated their house with intelligent control and security features. Think about the direction society is heading by connecting everything.

At first I only missed little things, but they added up. For example, I needed to fill out registration forms for an upcoming surgery, but filling in the forms were impractical on the phone. I had to go to a neighbor’s house and borrow their computer to complete that task.

We gave up cable years ago, so all our TV comes to us via streaming. Susan made do by watching over-the-air TV, and I got by with Gunsmoke season 2 DVDs. Using that old tech has an old timey feel. That should have been retro trendy, but it wasn’t cool, reminding us it obvious why everyone prefers streaming.

I stream all my music, newspapers, and magazines too, and about half my books. While we were off the net I read physical books. It seemed very quiet. I’ve always been a bookworm, and I have enough printed books to keep me in reading for the rest of my life, so why did I feel anxious about not having my digital books and magazines? Was it just new habits are comfortable and old lost habits are odd?

Staying home for over a year because of the pandemic has made me very depended on the internet for socializing. Since retiring in 2013 many of my hobbies have become internet related. During the last power outage some people in my groups even wondered if something had happened to me. (It’s not uncommon on listserv book clubs for someone to die and leave folks wondering about those people who never post again.)

Internet friends aren’t the same as real life friends, but I’ve come to value them in my daily digital life in a big way. Are we slowly becoming adapted to hive socializing? I do feel sorry for people who aren’t internet savvy. More and more, daily business is conducted over the internet, from getting vaccine appointments to replying to jury summons. When my doctors come into the exam room they bring their laptops and they expect me to join their portals. I haven’t written a letter or sent a postcard in years. I keep up with family and friends on Facebook. Most of my shopping is online. I have several friends that I talk with on the phone and we each use the speakerphone so we can look up stuff we can’t remember on Google and Wikipedia while we chat. Increasingly, I have running texting sessions with friends I used to visit because we no longer want to use up all that real time getting together in person. The interest is my auxiliary memory, my second brain.

You’d think one thing I learned this week is to value analog living, but I was too anxious to get back to the digital world. Once the router came in this afternoon I jumped back on the net. Susan immediately cranked up the streaming TV, and I started researching how to avoid an internet outage again.

My first idea is to switch to using WiFi all around the house. I have Ethernet cables running everywhere because I want Ethernet speeds and hate putting in WiFi passwords. I started researching buying a WiFi mesh system but realized I’d have to tinker a fair amount with my AT&T router’s setting. So I ordered one WiFi range extender that AT&T pushes. If it works, I’ll get another. It will be much cheaper than buying a mesh system. If the AT&T extender works I can give up several cables stretches, a switch, many patch cables to devices, and two Ethernet over 110 wiring hubs. I’m also going to research what it takes to get a broadband WiFi hotspot. At minimum I could get a tablet with broadband and a keyboard.

On the other hand I feel guilty. I feel I should be visiting friends (this goddamn Covid), watching television as God and Philo Farnsworth intended via over-the-air broadcasts, and reading books in the Gutenberg form factor. Have you tried local television lately? Susan found four stations that ran old television shows we watched growing up until cable TV and the internet intervened. It was like time traveling all day long.

This week we were reminded of the old reality. Given a few weeks I believe I could have overcome the withdrawal symptoms of internet addiction. Thomas Wolfe said we can’t go home again, and maybe that’s true, and maybe it’s not. Did he try hard enough?

I could use the internet less, but I couldn’t do without computers. I’d never want to return to the typewriter after knowing the wonders of the word processor. I could give up Facebook but not email. I could even learn to shop in stores again, but will we? We’re all rushing into the future and do we ever consider slowing down that stampede, or even turning around?

JWH

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Which Came First – the Emotion or the Hormone?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/26/21

This essay began when I asked myself: Do emotional states stimulate hormone production or do hormones flowing first cause us to experience an emotional state? Does happiness increase energy, or does energy increase happiness? Our mental, emotional, and physical states are all interconnected. As I get older I’m trying to figure out how to increase all three even though aging seems to be reducing them equally. I’m wondering if working on any of the three will cause a corresponding increase in the others.

Eventually, we all go looking for the Fountain of Youth. Some want to look younger, others like myself, want to feel younger. I quit believing in magic when I was a kid, so whatever is the source of vitality it should be discoverable by scientific observation. My current amateur theory is youth and vitality come from chemistry, but I also assume aging affects the efficiency of the chemical processes in our bodies.

Most people want to believe in mind over matter, but is there any evidence to support that belief? Can positive thinking overcome entropy? Or do positive thoughts come from robust chemistry? We all know hyperactive oldsters, but does their energy come from force of will or thriving endocrinology? If we’re low energy beings because of our wimpy hormonal system, can we fertilize them with right thinking, positive emotions, or good eating?

I’m pushing myself to write this essay. The whole time while I’m writing part me is begging to be allowed to go eat and watch television. But I’m still writing. Is that because willpower has empowered by want, or is it because I stoked my chemical furnace with good food and a nap this afternoon?

Does our state of mind set hormones in action that create our feelings, or do hormones generate our feelings which dictate our state of minds? Lately, I’ve been trying to observe my feelings and mental states. I’ve even wondered if changes in my brain chemistry in the past year is making me more aware of my feelings and thoughts. Other reasons for increased contemplation is I’m feeling old, tired, and worn out, so I’m spending more time just relaxing, and that’s leading to increase cogitation and self awareness, but not productivity.

What I want is to be more active. I can’t tell if that’s wishful thinking since I’m turning seventy this year and decrease activity is natural with aging, or if I could be more active if I thought the right thoughts, or felt the right emotions.

Has the stress of living a year in pandemic isolation drained my vitality or is my diminished energy just coinciding with normal aging? Life is complicated. There are no quick and easy answers. However, I’m not ready to give up. I’ve been retired from work since 2013 and easy living might also be a factor in my decline. Of course, we do have to be logical. How many aging people gain youthful vitality as they progress in years? How many retired people start doing more?

I’ve never thought of myself as an emotional person. Whenever I’ve seen people getting wildly excited at parties, sporting events, and rock concerts I wondered why I wasn’t jumping up and down and yelling too. I’ve always considered myself a happy person because I don’t get depressed. But then I don’t get exuberant either. If I was more emotional would that give me more energy?

I can energize myself somewhat by artificial means. I gave up drugs a half century ago. I’m slightly tempted again because old age seems like the perfect time for uppers and cocaine, but I know that would only accelerate my decline. I also gave up caffeine decades ago for mental clarity. And in recent months I’ve given up refined sugar, which might explain my current low mental states. But I’m also feeling better physically since I gave up sugar, and I’m losing weight, so I hope in the long run eating healthier will translate into more mental energy.

When I said I could energize myself artificially, I meant with music, books, movies, and television shows. Sometimes a nap and some good music leads to gung-ho thinking that inspires actual activity. Or has my lunch digested while I slept stimulating hormone flow leading to roused thoughts and finally feeling inspired to get up and do something? It’s a subtle distinction.

Whatever refuels my tank doesn’t do it for long.

For example, when I play “Here Comes the Dawn Again” by Billy Vera and the Beaters real loud, I feel physically stimulated. That also turns up the flow of emotions.Then my thinking speeds up. After that I feel like getting up and doing something. Has music increased hormone activity? Or did music increase my thinking which increased hormone activity? Is this a bit of evidence for the power of positive thinking?

Writing this essay is energizing me – to a degree. I can’t quite call it a jolt of youthfulness. I also feel myself draining my battery as I write. I wish drugs weren’t so self-destructive because I feel like doing a Kerouac and chewing benzedrine cotton from a broken inhaler to write more.

Now that I’m older I feel more emotional, but still not highly exaggerated emotions like I see in other people. We all have different levels of energy and emotions. Are highly emotional people more active people? I have observed that some of the most emotional people I know are also the most active.

Instead of mind over matter, could it be emotions over matter? Or is there a direct relationship, more emotions means more mental activity? If that’s so I’ll have to find a way to increase both. However, I’m still trying to decide if more mental activity increases emotions, or if more emotions increase mental activity.

JWH

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Imagine Living Only in the Real World and Rejecting All Screens

by James Wallace Harris, 3/18/21

I grew up in the 1950s with the television screen. In the 1980s I became addicted to the computer screen. In the 2010s I started looking at the smartphone screen all the time. After having someone impersonate me with a fake Instagram account on Facebook last night I got disgusted with the internet I wondered if I shouldn’t abandon the online world. Then I thought, what would it be like to live just in the real world, without any screens, not even the TV screen? Much of what I find disturbing about the world comes through screens.

That’s a scary thought, giving up screens. I spend hours every day staring at them. My favorite past time right now is discussing science fiction short stories with folks on Facebook. If I didn’t use screens I could still read books but I couldn’t connect with the other people who love to read the same kind of things I do. Of course, what if we considered book pages to be like screens and abandoned them too?

Before screens there were books, newspapers, and magazines. I can imagine giving up screens, even giving up watching television, but I can’t imagine giving up the printed page. Isn’t that weird?

I’m trying to imagine life without screens or pages. It kind of blows my mind. My world would get very small. I’d probably keep up the house and yard way better than I do now. I’d probably get into gardening, cooking, and making things. I’d want to spend more time with people face-to-face. I assume life would slow way down. I guess I’d crave hearing about the world beyond my little place in it by talking to people and listening to their stories about events beyond my sight.

Without pages from books, magazines, and newspapers I’d be a lot more ignorant. Pages and screens inform us, connect us to the wider world. I can see now thinking about this, that screens really are an extension of pages. Screens add movement to the static type, illustrations and photos in printed matter.

When I watch YouTube videos created by amateurs I realize they are sending a highly constructed recorded speech with visuals which is more evolved than the printed essay, and an essay is more evolved than a lecture, and a lecture is more evolved than conversation.

The real world is nature. Plants and animals, earth and sky. Pages and screens are our way of communicating about nature. But hasn’t the abstraction of our communication moved us away from nature?

As much as I find nature beautiful and fascinating, I’m far more wrapped up in pages and screens, which if you think about it, is our way of reacting to nature. So what if we gave up abstraction and just dwelled in the natural world? (It might feel like living in a Ursula K. Le Guin novel. Even her futuristic human societies dwelling on far away worlds seem like medieval times on Earth.)

To be honest, it’s too late for me. I’m far too addicted to abstraction. I much prefer the fantasy of fiction on the page or screen to living actively in the real world. I much prefer the abstraction of nonfiction, news programs, and documentaries to studying reality first hand.

Should I feel guilty about that?

JWH

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Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human

James Wallace Harris, 3/13/21

Androids that can pass for humans have become very popular characters in books, movies, and television shows. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro is the second novel I’ve read by a literary writer to explore this theme, the first being Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. I reviewed it back in 2019. I have to admit that literary writer do a better job at characterization than science fiction writers. Klara is a fully realized being that we come to know from a first person perspective.

And I was impressed with Ishiguro’s science fictional speculation. He develops Klara with a distinctive speech pattern and we learn about Klara’s way of perceiving the world through Klara’s narration. Klara is designed to be a girl robot, an artificial friend, and androids like Klara are referred to as AFs in the book. Other than looks, Klara’s personality has little to identify as female. Klara is a being with growing awareness and Klara’s consciousness grows by observations. We never know exactly what Klara looks like, but since Klara is supposed to be a companion for a teenage girl we have to assume it looks like one.

However, one of my greatest objections to stories about androids passing as humans is giving them gender. For some reason creators of such stories believe AI minds will have gender and that’s illogical. AI minds, no matter what their outer casing looks like will not have gender because they will not be based on biology. Nor will they have human emotions. All of our emotions are tied to our biological subsystems. Writers of these stories seem to assume people will want to buy machines just like themselves. That might be true, but it won’t happen.

Klara starts out life in a store waiting to be bought. I imagined an upscale Apple Store. We slowly learn how Klara thinks about things from its observations. Klara’s vision is broken down into a grid system. Sometimes this appears to help Klara with perspective, sometimes with identifying objects, and sometimes with analysis of the details of specific aspects of what’s Klara sees. If you remember Deckard using the machine to analyze a photograph in Blade Runner, that’s how I envisioned Klara’s visual field. I thought this clever of Ishiguro.

Klara is eventually bought to be the companion for Josie, a young teenage girl around fourteen who suffers from an unnamed medical condition. Josie’s sister died from a similar condition. One of the mysteries of the novel is what they suffer from.

Ishiguro fleshes out this story with many other current science fictional speculations. Some kids, like Josie have been genetically altered (think Gattaca) while others haven’t. Josie’s closest childhood friend Rick hasn’t. The society of this world has also put many people out of work while elevated other humans with high status jobs. In this story, Josie’s mom has such a valuable job, but her divorced dad doesn’t.

Another fascinating theme introduced by Ishiguro is theology. Klara is a Sun worshipper, which is logical since Klara runs on solar power. However, Klara’s simple-minded beliefs are hard to accept. Ishiguro makes his AFs childlike in their thinking. If we ever create AI minds with general knowledge, including a chip with all of human knowledge would probably only add a buck to the cost. AI minds will know all human languages, all of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, all of history, literature, and the arts, all of philosophy, religion, and psychology.

But Klara and the Sun is a story, and for this story, Klara has an innocent faith in the Sun. Giving theology to robots is what made Battlestar Galactica great, and has the same effect here.

Klara and the Sun is really about human relationships, and all the plot complications deal with Josie and her family. Without spoiling the story, it’s what the humans want and fear from machines that make the novel philosophically interesting. Ultimately, I believe Ishiguro rejects our sillier desires for androids that pass for humans such as creating them to satisfy our sexual urges, but even the ones he does suggest seem tied to our basic instincts.

Overall, Klara and the Sun is an enjoyable story, but more and more I’m getting disappointed that writers can’t picture realistic AI beings, or imagine such realistic AI beings’ impact on our society. There are no real reasons to create robots that look like us. There’s no reason to think they will think or feel like we do. And they will certainly have immense intelligences that will dwarf ours. We will probably anthropomorphize them even when real AI beings with general intelligence emerge because that’s our hangup.

But how will AI minds see us? Our behaviors will be inscrutable to them. They won’t be able to imagine love, hate, pain, lust, anxiety, humor, greed, jealousy, pride, and all our other emotions. AI minds will understand us like biologists study all nonhuman living organisms. AI minds will see us through their statistical studies of our behavior and by theorizing on how our behavior coincides with our languages. But could you imagine love, hate, or pain if you’ve never felt them?

Klara believes Josie was helped by the theology Klara imagined, but there is no real reason to believe this is true. If you read this novel, pay attention to Klara’s usefulness throughout the story. Does Ishiguro ever suggest that an AF would be an actual useful companion for teenagers? Or is Klara no more than a sentimental toy?

How will humanity be helped or hurt by AI minds? I think such novels are waiting to be written. So far all the ones about computer overlords or humans passing for human are based on our most basic emotions. Writers need to think outside our brain box we can’t seem to escape.

I actually thoroughly enjoyed reading Klara and the Sun despite my nitpicking about how writers want us to believe we can create androids that will pass as humans.

JWH

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REWATCHING: Strange Cargo (1940) and Papillon (1973)

by James Wallace Harris, 3/9/21

Movies often appear to teach us about history, unfortunately, we tend to remember their lies rather than their facts. Why do we prefer movie history over scholarly history? Why do we love glamourize characterizations of real people with fudged biographies? Yet, don’t we also relish that statement “Based on a true story” when the film starts rolling? Are believable lies more entertaining than historical facts? The easy answer is most moviegoers couldn’t care less about real history, they just want to react emotionally to a good story.

Until today, my only source of knowledge about the penal colonies in French Guiana came from fiction. In popular culture the French penal system in Guiana is remembered as Devil’s Island, but from Wikipedia I learned the penal colony of Cayenne was based on three islands off French Guiana and three locations on the mainland. The actual Devil’s Island only held about a dozen prisoners at any time, and maybe no more than 50 over its history according to one source. The Wikipedia entry was far more fascinating than anything I learned from watching any of the films about Devil’s Island I’ve seen.

The evolution of the French prison system would take many books to explain why France created the horrors of its Gulag in the New World. These terrors are painted with impressionistic cliches in movies because what moviegoers want is the thrills of prison escapes. The actual history of injustice is of little interest to mass audiences. Whereas the reasons why an enlightened nation would kill tens of thousands of its citizens with brutal torture should interest us far more than why a few men make an exciting escape.

My knowledge, like most people’s comes from a handful of books and movies. The most famous of which is the 1973 film Papillon based on the 1969 autobiography of Henri Charrière of the same title. Charrière claimed his book was 75% true, but researchers over the years have found more and more evidence to suggest it was mostly fiction, if not all. However, just the merest whiffs of the fading myths from Devil’s Island is enough to inspire writers and screenwriters, while they ignore volumes of meaty history. Aren’t we accepting the smell of the cooking over the meal?

I first watched Papillon as a movie rental in the late 1970s or early 1980s on VHS tape on a TV with a 25″ screen. I was in my late twenties. I regretted then not having caught it at the movies when it came out in 1973 because it was cinematically beautiful. It was also tremendously exciting. I liked both Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman performances. I had also loved Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963), one of the most exciting movies of my childhood. With both films I read the book based on them immediately after seeing the movie. Both films were about escaping prison. At the time I wondered if Steve McQueen had been typecast as a great escape artist. Papillon, like The Great Escape, impressed me by what the men endured in prison, and the efforts they made to escape. Looking back I realized that in the sixties when watching The Great Escape I wanted to escape my childhood, and fifteen years later when I saw Papillon I wanted to escape my job.

When I watched Papillon this week I wasn’t really interested in the Steve McQueen character at all, but sympathized with Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). At 69 I realize there are no escapes from life, but it must be endured to the end. The final scenes with Dega working his gardens and tending his pigs on Devil’s Island was something I could completely understand and relate. I do admit that visually the recreations of the prisons and Devil’s Island in Papillon look very much like the photos I’ve seen of the real places. The film and film locations are stunningly beautiful, and feel historical.

This time while watching Papillon I wondered about why the prison existed, why the cruelty, why the extreme inhumanity? How could they keep men in solitary for five years. How could any human survive that? I wanted to know the reality and history of this penal system. This time I knew the film was a caricature sketch based on a complex lie Henri Charrière sold the world based on his hyper realistic life experiences. Movies goers were only getting a few parts per billion of the real facts.

The first time I watched Strange Cargo (1940) was probably in the 1990s on Turner Classic Movies. It made an odd impression on me, but then Strange Cargo was an odd film for its time, an MGM’s take spirituality. The story is about Verne (Clark Gable) who escapes from the French penal system in Guiana with Julie (Joan Crawford), Moll (Albert Dekker) and other hardened criminals along with a strange Christlike figure named Cambreau (Ian Hunter). Cambreau is both mystical and supernatural.

These escapees weren’t on Devil’s Island, but one of the larger prison islands that had a civilian population – which is how a woman is included in party. Like in Papillon, the goal is to acquire a boat via bribery and make for the mainland. Both stories involve treacherous travel through a jungle and then an arduous sea voyage with minor characters dying along the way. In Strange Cargo, Cambreau helps each character who dies with a spiritual awakening. Both Verne and Julie resist Cambreau powers until they very end of the story by being hard independent individuals.

The first time I watch Strange Cargo I was more caught up with the escape story, and felt the mystical side of the tale to be a bit sappy. I was happily married, and worked in a university library. I liked my job and the people I worked with, but still I felt trapped by having to put in my 9-to-5 hours. Again, the theme of escape was the overriding motif that moved the story along.

Decades later, retired and freed from my sentence of work, I am much closer to death, and the mystical angle of Strange Cargo was far more appealing to me this time, even though I’m an atheist. And this time around I was far more sympathetic to M’sieu Pig (Peter Lorre), a pathetic creature so desperate for Julie to love him. Pig is a snitch, small and ugly, completely loathsome to Julie no matter how nice or helpful he is to her. Pig is the only character that Cambreau can’t help.

Strange Cargo doesn’t try to us teach history, and I think it’s a more successful because of it. Yet, Strange Cargo does preach another kind of truth, which I don’t believe, yet admired. Some of the greatest spiritual works of history have come from souls enduring prison and finding enlightenment. Strange Cargo is almost surreal in its black and white beauty.

Papillon gives us a story of survival, but Strange Cargo is about transcendence. Both are classic inspirations for stories, but like I said, when I was young I wanted escape, but at this end of my life I’m more interested in transcendence. As an atheist, I believe transcendence is only found on this side of death, and I could read that in Strange Cargo better than Papillon even though it was simplistic and heavy handed. However, this time I thought the spiritual thread of Strange Cargo was artistic, and moving.

Further Reading:

JWH

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REWATCHING: The Birds (1963)

James Wallace Harris

It’s funny, but we rely on our memories for everything, but studying the functionality of our memory system shows they’re completely unreliable. When I started this rewatching project I intended to explore how I was a different person from the first time I saw a movie and who I am now when I just rewatched a film. I figured by comparing my current experience to my memories I could unearth the differences between myself then and now.

Rewatching The Birds has caused a lot of confusion. I only have vague memories of seeing the movie the first time, and I am not even sure when that first time was. Before I started writing this essay I assumed it was in the 1960s, and it may well have been. I thought that because my memory of seeing The Birds the first time are memories of talking about the horrifying bits with my friends at school. All of us were excited by the bird attacks, and none of us talked about the actors or the story.

The Birds came out in 1963. I was in the sixth grade during the first half of the year, and the seventh grade for the second half. However, I also thought I saw it on TV first, but The Birds didn’t have it’s U.S. television premiere until 1968. By then I was in high school and working five nights a week at a grocery store, so I don’t believe it was then. During 1962-1963 we lived on base at Homestead Air Force Base, and I often went to the base theater, even by myself. It was just fifteen cents for kids. I even remember seeing adult films like Town Without Pity (1961), The War Lover (1962), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The first two I saw by myself and actually liked them (sex and B-17s), but the third I saw with my mom and sister and was bored (politics). So it’s possible I saw The Birds there. I do know in the 6th and 7th grades it became common to stand around with buddies on the playground and discuss the movies and TV shows we had seen the night or weekend before.

One reason why my memory of The Birds is iffy is because up until very recently I never really liked Alfred Hitchcock films. I liked his TV show back in the 1950s, but the tension and intrigued he developed in his films didn’t appeal to the younger me. My friends and I were thought the bird attacks and their creepy gatherings were uber-cool, but that’s my only lasting impression. When I rewatched The Birds the other night, all the attack scenes felt very familiar, and all the scenes of characters relating to each other didn’t.

This time I was amazed by how gorgeous the cinematography looked. I also spent a lot of time amused by Melanie (Tippi Hedren) having to wear the same light green suit for most of the flick (she didn’t bring a change of clothes when she went to Bodega Bay and ended up staying the weekend, a weekend from hell). This time around I was caught up in the interplay between Mitch (Rod Taylor) and Melanie, between Melanie and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), between Melanie and Mitch’s mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and between Melanie and Mitch’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Melanie had a weird personality, almost off putting, but as she adjusted to each person she met becoming a better person for it. All that personality meshing was something that was invisible to me as a kid.

When I talked to my old buddy Connell about this movie today, he said he spent a lot of time as a kid studying people trying to figure them out. He was mystified by other people’s behaviors and struggled to understand the world by understanding why people did what they did. I don’t remember doing that at all. I was very self centered and mainly concerned with what amused me, and what I wanted. I was closer in age to Veronica Cartwright when I saw the film and probably would have reacted to the bird attacks pretty much like her character did in the movie. She was mostly frightened but did stay focused on her new pet lovebirds. I was mostly frightened of the world around me but ignored unpleasantness by staying focused on pleasures and desires.

In 2021 The Birds was an impressive film. A few weeks ago I watched Vertigo and I’m changing my mind about Hitchcock. I plan to rewatch Rear Window soon. This time around I didn’t find the birds particularly interesting, instead I admired the sets, costumes, cinematography, but most of all the characters. All aspects I ignored as a kid.

The main problem I had with the film this time was with the birds themselves, they had no motive or justification for doing what they did. Hitchcock said later that the birds represented nature turning against us, but even that seems too vague. In Daphne du Maurier’s original short story, “The Birds,” her isolated English village eventually learns the birds were attacking everywhere. I wished Hitchcock had featured that in his version of the story. It would have satisfied my science fictional sense of things.

I now feel like I’m a whole person, although if I live to be ninety, I might disavow that when watching The Birds again. I believe the first time I saw The Birds I was a very incomplete person, even though I smuggly felt like a little knowitall.

When do we become a whole person? I’ve always assumed I was unformed and only vaguely a person before age four and five, which is when my memories start filling in. But I also felt I ran on instinct rather than awareness until about age twelve or thirteen when I started thinking about things. I was probably eleven when I first say The Birds.

I saw a lot of movies from age five to twelve, mostly those made in the 1930s and 1940s, with some 1950s B-features. During the 1950s and 1960s, old movies ran on television during the afternoon after school, on the weekends, and at night after primetime. Becky, my younger sister, and I loved to stay up and watch all-night movies during summer vacations. I think my mom let us because we’d sleep till noon and stay out of her hair, and then play outside until it got dark. Like I said, I started going to the movies on my own when I was ten and in the fifth and sixth grade. The base theater played several a week, it was cheap, and only a bike ride away. I’ve seen thousands of film, and I wonder now just how much they shaped my personality, and my evolving personality judged them.

I know all those old 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s movies imprinted on me, especially the ones most suited for kids, like the Tarzan movies, westerns, and science fiction. But I also loved old 1930s black and white flicks from MGM and Warner Brothers. Maybe those movies from simpler times worked well with my simple mind. Many of my friends my age tell me they can’t watch old movies. Hell, I know a lot of people who think old movies means those from the 1980s and 1990s. I love films all the way back to the 1890s.

Even though I admired The Birds this time, it wasn’t really aimed at who I am at this stage of life. Nor did I particularly enjoy it. I enjoyed watching myself watch it, which is why I’m writing about the experience. Most movies and television shows seemed aimed at a young audience. There’s a fair amount of content suitable for middle-aged folks, but I don’t find much storytelling for young geezers like myself in their last third of life. I can pretend to be a kid again, or remember adult issues from middle life while enjoying movies aimed at those audiences, but they’re starting to get harder to watch, even tedious.

It’s much harder to find shows that I love. Three that come to mind are Black Sails, Belgravia, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Strangely, all deal with history. Links are to my reviews. I find it odd now that I never wrote about my enchantment with Mrs. Maisel. I’m not sure if there are any overlapping aspects to these show that reveal why they appeal to my late sixties mind. A few months ago I wrote about three film comedies that grabbed my attention (Genevieve, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Bachelor in Paradise). Beside trying to understand who I was when I was younger by the films I watch, I realize I’m also trying to figure out who I am now by what I like to watch.

Cognitively I can analyze what I must have been like as a kid. I was poorly educated. I was sensitive to the suffering of others but I was burdened by prejudices. I feel I spent most of my K-12 and college years deprogramming my original upbringing. At eleven, I hadn’t started watching the news or reading newspapers, so my worldview was based on fiction I saw on television, at the movies, or read in books. Most of that fiction was not very sophisticated. I believe The Birds was a sophisticated horror film that was over my head in 1963.

The Birds is now considered a cinematic masterpiece, and I might have agreed with that during my middle years if I had seen it again then, but now it’s mostly an artistic curiosity, appealing for what it teaches me about time and my changing personality. My favorite character was Annie, who had to watch Mitch, the guy she loved, fall for Melanie. My feelings for her were so much stronger than my feelings for a story about creepy birds.

JWH

p.s. Sorry to be pounding out so many posts so quickly, but I’ve been laid up with a bad leg and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to write when I felt like sitting at a computer again.

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31 Lessons to Save the World

James Wallace Harris, 3/4/21

Reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) by Yuval Noah Harari and Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World (2020) by Fareed Zakaria made it all too obvious that everyone needs to get to work together to save the world. But will we? Harari and Zakaria are two tiptop brains who have been thinking mighty hard on what needs to be done and have come up with a total of 31 useful insights. However, while reading these books I kept wondering if humanity will do what it takes to save itself.

Of course, both books carefully assess the major governments around the world and generalize on the psychological abilities of their citizens. Harari focuses more on people, while Zakaria deals more with governments. Harari is an international philosopher from Israel, while Zakaria is a savvy political commentator on CNN. Harari’s lessons focus on how people think and his main advice advocates freeing oneself from all the bullshit that confuse our thinking. Because our modern world lays a lot of crap on us, Harari offers a great number of lessons to free ourselves. Zakaria asks us to focus on what is good government and how can we build them. Since the United States has been sinking deeper and deeper into bad governmental practices for decades Zakaria suggests a lot of changes too.

Can individuals and humanity as a whole make all the needed transformations before our problems reach a perfect storm of self-destruction? One of the lessons Harari covers is how people live by the stories they tell themselves. He makes a case that people generally don’t think for themselves, but buy into group thinking. Psychologically, it’s beneficial and easier to accept a story from a group than invent your own. That’s why people embrace religion, nationalism, and political parties – they give meaning to their lives, a satisfying sense of purpose and understanding, and a story to embrace and share.

At first, you’d think Yuval Noah Harari is a liberal, but as he recounts the history of various philosophies, dismissing each, he comes to liberalism and says its dead too, and keeps on going. That made me question my own stories I got from hanging with the liberals. It made me ask: What story do I live by? Well, here’s my story abbreviated as much as possible:

I don't use the word universe to mean everything anymore after science started speculating about multiverses. I use the word reality. From all my studying of science there appears to be no limits to be discovered from exploring larger and larger realms, or by delving into smaller and smaller pieces. Evidently reality is infinite in all directions in both time, space, and any other possible dimension or existence. Earth is an insignificant portion of reality. But in the domain of human life, this planet is all that matters because it sustains our existence. I am an accidental byproduct of reality churning through all the infinities of infinite possibilities. I am a bubble of consciousness that has a beginning and end. I coexist on a planet with other similar consciousnesses, as well as a spectrum of other living beings with their own versions consciousness. Life on planet Earth has the potential to exist here for billions of years, but it appears our species is about to destroy its current level of civilization, if not commit species suicide, or even wipe out all life. We can all continue to live pursuing our own stories ignoring their cumulative effect on the planet, or we can collectively decide to protect the planet.

You can see why these books appeal to me.

To cooperate means everyone working from the same pages. I’m not sure that’s possible, but these two books describe what some of those pages should look like. As long as we selfishly pursue the individual stories we currently live by, cooperation can not happen.

I cannot bet we’ll cooperate because the odds are so impossible. But I am quite confident that we’re quickly approaching an endpoint to our current civilization. All the odds are just too high for that. If you haven’t read Collapsed by Jared Diamond, you might consider doing so. It’s about all the civilizations before our current ones, they all failed. But just pay attention to all the trends you encounter. They all seem to be aiming at a near future omega endpoint bullseye.

To solve our problems requires everyone becoming a global citizen. We must all put the security of the Earth before our own goals. That involves learning a new story. But as Harari points out, most people don’t switch stories once they’ve found one that gives their life meaning, even if it has no connection to reality whatsoever.

We live in a era where people are embracing nationalism over globalism. This is Zakaria’s territory. Not only must individuals must change, but nations need to change too. Zakaria covers how some nations are succeeding and others are not.

In the story I live by as described above, I know my place and limitations. I’m a single consciousness that will endure for a few more years. Basically, I putter about in my tiny portion of this planet, pursuing things that interest me. I enjoy what I can, and try to limit my suffering as much as possible. I am quite thankful for having this experience of existing in reality. Maybe it is too much to hope that we could collectively control our environment and the fate of our species. Reality is all about creation and destruction, roiling through all the Yin-Yang possibilities. Maybe in some locations in reality the inhabitants do work together to shape their existence, and theoretically this could be such a location, but I doubt it.

I told my friend Linda the other day, to save the world will require everyone reading a certain number of books to understand what needs to be done. I’m not sure how many books would be required, but I’m pretty sure they won’t get the readers needed. That’s why my most popular essay is “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive,” getting tens of thousands of hits. And most of the people who leave comments are quite cynical about our odds too. I really need to update that essay with current examples, but I could call this essay reason #51.

JWH

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REWATCHING: The Graduate (1967)

James Wallace Harris, 3/3/21

I’ve heard older folks often say, “I’m the same person I was at 19 on the inside.” My wife has a family story about an uncle in his eighties who said, “I feel just like I did at 19, but something is terribly wrong with my body.” I’ve always taken it for granted I’ve been the same person my whole life, but is that true? The other night while watching The Graduate, a film I hadn’t seen since I was sixteen back in 1967, I began to doubt that. The movie was exactly the same, but who I was at sixteen and who I am at sixty-nine are two different people.

I’ve decided to watch and review a series of films I’ve seen before to help me remember who I was at different times in my life. We all experience the illusion that we’re the center of the universe and find it hard to empathize with all the people around us. We forget they see reality from an entirely different perspective, one where we aren’t the center, but they are.

There is a word, “sonder” in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows that I find most useful right now, so much so I believe I should quote it’s definition here:

sonder
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Most folks at a certain age have the revelation of sonder, where they realize the human beings around them live in their own fully realized universe that doesn’t include us. Our own lives are so complicated that we struggle to imagine the complications that others endure. It helps to stop and contemplate what people around you are feeling, seeing, thinking, and all the background details that went into developing their unique perspective. Watching The Graduate I sondered my younger self. I also sondered that every character in the film should have a fully developed backstory if their characterization was to be realistic.

Here’s the thing, who I was at sixteen was a different Jim Harris, or a subset of who I am at sixty-nine, because those intervening fifty-three years changed me drastically. However, the characters Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross) should be exactly the same. Because I reacted to them differently at sixteen and sixty-nine reveals I’m different. Partly, that’s due to how I sondered those characters at sixteen and sixty-nine. We can never know what it’s like to be another person because telepathy doesn’t exist. Our best effort is to always extrapolate and speculate on what other people are like from our own experiences, which may never be equal to what others experience.

I still have vivid memories of the first time I saw The Graduate back in 1967 when I was in the eleventh grade. Debbie Hall, a cute dark-haired girl who was my chemistry lab partner, had told me all about the movie with such excitement that I felt I had to go see it. And I wanted to impress her. I attended Coral Gables High School, but I wasn’t like most of the students there who were from rich families like the Braddocks and Robinsons. We lived in a poorer section of Coconut Grove, before it became chic. I went to the school library and read about The Graduate in Time Magazine. The article treated the film as some kind of phenomenon. That really made me want to see it. The buzz was the The Graduate was the first movie aimed at the Baby Boomer generation

Even though I was sixteen and could drive, and worked at a grocery store making my own money, I didn’t have a car yet. This was a particularly poor time for my family, and we only had one old car, a beat up old clunker from the previous decade. I was embarrassed to be seen in that old car. I told my dad I had to see The Graduate for school and he drove me over to the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables and dropped me off at a theater there. I was glad then he didn’t want to come in. I was also embarrassed to be seen with my dad too. But now I wish he had because I’ve spend most of my life since he died when I was eighteen trying to figure out who he was. But dad drove off to go to the Grove VFW Club to drink.

Over a half-century later I watched The Graduate again, this time on a 65 inch 4K TV that I couldn’t have imagined back in 1967 even though science fiction was all I read. In the 21st century, the experience of watching The Graduate was much different from when I first saw it as a high school kid in the 20th century.

Back then I thought Benjamin Braddock’s parents (William Daniels, Elizabeth Wilson) were pushy, smothering, meddling, and oppressive – the bad guys of the show who wanted to convert Benjamin into a sellout robot. This time, I saw them as good natured folks who wanted their son to get on with his life and make something of himself. Young people today probably won’t understand this, but a common phrase from back in the 1960s was “The Generation Gap.” We told ourselves never trust anyone over thirty, and we felt the older generations wanted us to conform to their way of thinking. We feared that as much as they feared communism. To my generation, our parents kept trying to get us to sleep with a pod (see Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the reference.)

Benjamin was like my snooty Coral Gables High School classmates who lorded their fancy clothes and new cars over my poor attire and carless condition. One of the reasons I liked Debbie Hall so much is because she defended me from Bruce, a rich kid who sat behind us in chemistry. Bruce berated me for not wearing the right clothes. Obviously, he was trying to impress Debbie and I was a zero in his universe. But I liked how Debbie was aware of the class distinctions and put him down. Bruce had obviously already fallen asleep with a pod in his room.

Benjamin, a recent college graduate, was right on the cusp of becoming adultified. That was why he was so surly and angry. Being seduced by Mrs. Robinson meant more than just getting laid. At the time I had only been on a handful of dates and had been too shy to even try to kiss a girl, so sex with any female, even an older mom thrilled me to the bone.

But that’s the thing I realized at sixty-nine about myself at sixteen. I didn’t try to sonder Benjamin, Mrs. Robinson, or Elaine in that Coral Gables theater over a half-century ago. I didn’t try to imagine their backstories or perspectives on reality.

In 1967 The Graduate was tremendously exciting, but my younger self was only unconsciously reacting to various elements in the movie. The sex excited him. The beautiful Katharine Ross excited him. The red Alfa Romeo 1600 Spider excited him. The Simon and Garfunkel songs excited him. The abundance of jokes made him happy. And I left the theater pumped with a sense of rebellion. Even though Benjamin didn’t have long hair, The Graduate felt like it was counter-culture anthem, giving the finger to the over thirty generations.

In 2021 I saw The Graduate as a very different person. The whole time I was watching the movie I kept trying to sonder the characters, but all I could extrapolate was insane contradictions. Good fiction is due to writers creating fully realized characters that are believable. It’s as if they sondered real people and used enough details from their lives to let the audience also imagine being those fictional people.

In 2021 I could see that Benjamin and Elaine were from well-to-do families that had controlled their lives. That both of them had little experience thinking for themselves and as new adults were confused by what they should do. However, beyond that, there were few clues about them in which to speculate.

There is nothing about Mrs. Robinson that makes sense. There is no reason to believe she’d want to have sex with Benjamin. Both dads were little more than comic pawns in the plot. And once Elaine knows that Benjamin has been sleeping with her mom, there’s little reason to believe she’d want to have anything to do with him. Even without knowing Benjamin had been humping her mom, I never saw any reason for Elaine to be attracted to Ben. And when Benjamin tells his parents he’s going to marry Elaine and then admits that Elaine knows nothing of his plans and that she hates him, we know Benjamin is a clueless unrealistic fool. As an adult viewer, The Graduate falls apart. I now see it as a series of unrelated gags that don’t make a coherent whole.

Except for the ending. After Benjamin and Elaine find their seat on the back of the bus and we look into their eyes for many moments, I saw something I don’t remember seeing at sixteen. In their eyes we could hear them think: “What the fuck have I done! What am I supposed to do now?” It’s obvious why I didn’t see that doubt in their expressions in 1967 when I was sixteen – I didn’t want to. I wanted to believe there was an escape from growing up.

In 2021, at age sixty-nine, seeing that last scene, I suddenly sonder the writers of The Graduate. They wanted a hit movie, to capitalize on the Baby Boomer generation, but they knew their revolutionary rhetoric was just to make a buck, so they gave us wink-wink at the end, saying, you can rebel against the status quo kid, but you’re ain’t going to get away with it.

We didn’t, did we?

JWH

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To The Bearers of False Witness Against Our Democracy

by James Wallace Harris, 2/23/21

When I was in school back in the 1950s and 1960s we were taught that America was the best example of democracy, and it was our most valuable export. The history I was taught, also claimed we inspired a slow worldwide conversion to democracy since the founding of America. Those lessons were something we took very seriously, and for most Americans it was politically sacred. We looked down on those corrupt government and leaders in other countries that undermined democracy as barbarians. And most of all, we believed America was impervious to any such corruption.

Well, we were wrong. Conservatives have taken up the weapon of denialism, first wielding it against science, then journalism, and now democracy. Denialism is a weapon of mass destruction. Donald Trump spent months carpet bombing America with denialism against democracy, claiming our system of voting is corrupt and full of fraud. It was Trump’s backup plan in case he lost the election, and his followers embraced that plan wholeheartedly. Even now the Republican party is doing everything it can to undermine democracy so they can win back power in 2022.

There was no significant voter fraud in 2020, even the conservative judges Donald Trump appointed affirmed that. Anyone who knows anything about our voting systems knows it’s well monitored. But even more important armies of Americans volunteer to support our voting system each election, and to claim it is corrupt and fraudulent is to insult their dedication. That’s goes beyond anything I can imagine to undermine our national unity.

Donald Trump shat all over American democracy and his followers have embraced his acts as the way to get what they want. The only systemic fraud in American democracy are the efforts by Republicans to disenfranchise people of color and immigrants, and to undermine our voting systems. This is down to Earth evil. If you follow the news, it is quite obvious that the Republicans have decided their #1 tool for winning elections in the future is by controlling them.

I just read this quote in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari:

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda maestro and perhaps the most accomplished media-wizard of the modern age, allegedly explained his method succinctly: “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”

Donald Trump told his lie about election fraud so many times that it has become true to millions of people. Those lies are bearing false witness against democracy. By Republicans playing this one trump card over and over is causing their party members to believe it too. Harari went on to say:

In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote, “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly — it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Can any present-day fake-news peddler improve on that?

I definitely do not mean to imply any connection between Trump and the Nazis. It’s just that the Nazis wrote the manual on public manipulation. Anybody who manipulates other people use a fraction of the techniques the Nazis perfected. We all need to study those techniques to become aware of how we’re being manipulated, either by politicians, corporations, or even by our coworkers, family, and friends.

Harari in an earlier chapter worked to understand why people believe what they do. He said as a species we’re not rational, but depend on myths and group thinking to understand reality. Most Americans don’t understand our democracy and voting systems so it’s easier to sway their opinion with disinformation. Trump treats his followers not as individuals but as a group mind. This comes from from the same book:

Not only rationality, but individuality too is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups. Just as it takes a tribe to raise a child, it also takes a tribe to invent a tool, solve a conflict, or cure a disease. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb, or an aircraft. What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.

The Republican Party has learned the power of group thinking. That’s why they are so passionate about party loyalty. Unity consistently achieves success and they know it. The trouble is people who do think for themselves can break up groups, and the group is all important to Republicans. What’s amusing is individual Republicans who do think for themselves are always jockeying for control of the party, but it seems that it was Trump who rolled out the attack on democracy and the others had to fall in line. It’s another reason why so many Republicans want to retain Trump as a leader, his successes worked, so why rock the boat.

Harari went on to say:

Yet like many other human traits that made sense in past ages but cause trouble in the modern age, the knowledge illusion has its downside. The world is becoming ever more complex, and people fail to realize just how ignorant they are of what’s going on. Consequently, some people who know next to nothing about meteorology or biology nevertheless propose policies regarding climate change and genetically modified crops, while others hold extremely strong views about what should be done in Iraq or Ukraine without being able to locate these countries on a map. People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming news feeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.

Conservatives, like any group seeking power, have used techniques and insights into how people form opinions to shape party member’s opinions. It’s how they get their coalition to do their bidding. Harari also noted that once people form opinions they seldom change them. Once the denialism of democracy bomb was dropped there was no going back. The rank and file had to follow. This is destroying our democracy with lies and even false witnessing in courts of law and the courts of public opinion.

Even some Republicans realized this is going too far. It’s like dismantling a passenger jet in flight. We all depend on our democracy for security and happiness, even the people who no longer believe in it. I plead with all rational Republicans to stop denying democracy. Stop undermining our way of life.

I have never believed in hell because I could never imagine any compassionate God would condemn any human soul to it for eternity. Christianity teaches forgiveness, and I can forgive the people who can’t think for themselves and spread lies about democracy. They don’t know any better. But I don’t have enough forgiveness to forgive those who are capable of thinking, who know what they are doing, and who bear false witness against democracy. They can go to hell – forever.

JWH

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Book vs. Movie

Horseman, Pass By, a beautiful coming-of-age first novel by Larry McMurtry was immediately made into a big Hollywood film starring Paul Newman and renamed Hud. The film was huge validation for a freshman novelist, and got Larry McMurtry’s writing career going with a bang, but I wondered how McMurtry felt having his sensitive literary hero pushed aside to focus on the novel’s most insensitive, and rather minor character. Horseman, Pass By made me think of a rural version of The Catcher in the Rye. Hud feels more akin to Midnight Cowboy. Don’t get me wrong, Hud is a good movie, it’s just not Horseman, Pass By even though they keep much of the basic plot.

The novel is about 17-year-old Lonnie Bannon’s emotional life in the summer of 1954 where he lives on his grandfather’s east Texas ranch with several other significant people. One of those people is Scott “Hud” Bannon, his uncle. In the book we seldom see Hud, and usually only when he’s at his nastiest. For the movie, Hud is elevated to the main character, and Lonnie’s story becomes secondary to Hud’s. Instead of being an empathetic story about a boy learning about life through relationships, the movie gives us sympathetic story about the nastiness of an asshole. Unfortunately, that asshole is so well played by charming Paul Newman, that he becomes an anti-hero, and upstages all the other characters. In the book, Hud deserved to put down with a 30-30 like one of the hoof and mouth infected heffers, in the film he’s not quite as bad, but still deserves some jail time. In both stories he gets off scott free.

Actually, we know what McMurtry thought about Hud since he wrote Hollywood: A Third Memoir about his books being turned into film. He was overjoyed to get the money because it freed him from a life in academia. His only disappoints were he didn’t get to meet Patricia Neal on the set and the screenwriters didn’t fix the ending, the scene with Homer Bannon dying. McMurtry thought it was weak, and one forced on him by his publishers. McMurtry’s general attitude toward Hollywood was take the money. Oddly, though, the pictured Hollywood made from his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, retitled Lovin’ Molly so outraged him that he wrote a protest article for New York magazine. So, I guess he really didn’t care about the changes made to his first novel with Hud.

But I did. I cared a lot. Horseman, Pass By is a great novel. It deserves more attention, and it deserves not to be remembered as Hud. Besides not focusing on Lonnie, the movie leaves out one great character, and chickenshitly changes another.

The Halmea character played by white Patricia Neal in the film was an African-American woman in the novel. She is a sympathetic and fully realized black character in a 1961 southern novel, making her very important indeed. Hollywood just couldn’t handle that. If 1961 Horseman, Pass By had been filmed as it was, it would have been very close to 1960’s To Kill a Mockingbird in sentiment. And to say a sensitive inner-voice novel can’t be put on screen is to ignore the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Horton Foote did the screenplay for that book, so I wonder what he could have done for Horseman, Pass By.

Hud also leaves out Jesse, an aging cowboy who Lonnie admires. Jesse is a far more important character than Hud. The real story is Lonnie’s relationships with Homer, his grandfather, Halmea who mothers him, but who Lonnie is sexual attracted, and Jesse, who is a kind of cowboy Socrates to the boy. In the novel, Lonnie is trying to figure out how to live through the people he admires. Hud is not one of them.

Hud is an excellent film if you ignore the book it’s based on. I’ve watched it three times over my lifetime. I just wished they had filmed Horseman, Pass By as it was written. This is my second reading of Horseman, Pass By, and that’s what I want to stick with me.

JWH

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Cracks in My Comfort Zone

James Wallace Harris, 2/18/21

I can’t believe it’s been a whole week since we lost power for 32 hours in the ice storm last week. We lost power three times during that week and I’ve been living with constant anxiety we’d lose it again, especially when it got down to one degree and some of our pipes began to freeze. The inside temp got down to 44 degree during the ice storm outage when it was still in the upper twenties outside. It scares me to think what living in this house would be like if it was near zero outside. That was before the snow, when I was thinking of draining the pipes, putting the cats in carriers, and convincing Susan we need to drive to a hotel. She didn’t want to abandon ship though. Her parents survived a week in this house without power back in the big ice storm of 1994. We bought this house in 2008 after they died. They had used the gas fireplace to stay warm then. Susan was afraid it might blow up if I tried to light it this week since it probably hasn’t been used since that 1994 ice storm.

Looking over the top of my monitor through the big window behind it I see our backyard covered with snow, and giant icicles hanging from the roof. It’s now a much warmer outside today, 24 degrees, but I’m still anxious. (And I’m overjoyed it’s going to get to 27 degrees today.) I’m so looking forward to next week when promised temps rise above freezing. All this frigid weather and power outages have made me very contemplative about the future. I turn 70 this year. This little neighborhood blackout has shown me how dependent we are on certain needs and comforts.

If you don’t feel like you’re getting old, or worried about being set in your ways, you probably don’t need to read this essay. Even though the power has been back on for days, I’m still chilled to the bone, still wearing three layers of clothes. Growing old means growing wimpier. Living in a rich technological society has made us addicted to utilities, and without them I go through terrible withdrawal. At least I’m not living in Texas at the moment or North Dakota.

Susan and I were able to survive by bundling up but it made me fussy and grumpy. I know that’s sounding weak and whiny because folks all over the world live without the environmental control us luckier Earthlings take for granted. We live in an old neighborhood with millions of trees and zillions of squirrels and the power goes out fairly often. Susan and I once went without power in the middle of summer for thirteen days in our previous old neighborhood, and I’ve been without power in the winter two times for three days in this house when Susan was working in Birmingham. So 32 hours wasn’t that much, but it was the coldest, when I was the oldest, and that got to me. Age matters.

I don’t want to do it again. So while I hunkered down in the dark trying to stay warm I fantasized about all the ways we could protect ourselves in the future. My first thought was to move to Florida. Isn’t Florida where old people go to die like the legendary elephant’s graveyard in Tarzan movies? However, Susan nixed that idea. Since we bought her parents house Susan assumes we’ll die here too. I just don’t want it to be by freezing to death – or by overheating in August.

I figure after we get our Covid shots we’ll get someone to check out the gas fireplace. Maybe even see if there’s a superior way to get heat from the living room fireplace. Susan’s parents survived a week closed up in that room with that gas fireplace during the 1994 ice storm power outage. I might also see about adding a gas heater in the master bedroom.

The funny thing is, beside warmth, we missed the internet the next most, even more than hot food. Our phones quickly ran out of juice. We had to recharge them by sitting in the car. So I’m going to buy a Jackery portable power station. A small model claims it can recharge a phone 24 times.

Susan thinks my next idea is going overboard, but I want to research getting a natural gas generator. We have lots of neighbors with gasoline generators. When the power goes off we can hear them all around us. I don’t like their noise, or messing with extension cables, or constantly filling up the tank. A natural gas generator is quiet, turns on as soon as the power fails, and feeds off the house’s natural gas line. I’ve done a bit of research and found a Generac for $4000 with an estimated installation of $2000. But I need to do more research. I’m scared of using natural gas, plus it contributes to global warming, and I need to find out how long such a device will last and what kind of maintenance it needs before committing to the idea.

I also need to research getting a camping stove or gas grill. Susan wishes we’d retrofit the kitchen for gas stove and over. The first night we ordered pizza to have something warm to eat, but once we were snowed in I doubt take-out delivery will be practical. I need to think about the right kind of food to have on hand for when the power goes out. By the way, I put our frozen food in my truck.

Because of previous outages I already own a bunch of battery power LED lanterns, but I need to get more. I want to research all the little gadgets to have that will make surviving power failures better.

When the water line to one of the toilets froze I took several old cat litter jugs and filled them with water. One jug could do one flush. Then I heard in Texas they were telling people to boil their water, so I thought I should also get up a supply of clean drinking water. That was the first thing my friend Mike did when his pipe burst and he had to shut off the water to the house – he drove off in the snow to get bottled water.

I’m sure in the weeks to come I’ll think of more things. Another idea I’ve had is to hire a house inspector, the kind people use when selling and buying a house, to give this place a check over to see how we can retrofit it for reliability, durability, and energy conservation. I need to learn what to do when the power goes off in the winter for a long time, especially to keep the pipes from freezing. I do have a T-wrench to shut off the water, and I could drain the water from the house, but what do I do about the hot water heater? It’s gas powered and keeps running without electricity. We could have taken hot showers if we were willing to shuck off all those layers of clothing.

I feel I need to adapt to adapting. As I’ve aged I’ve become rigid in my ways, and I’ve learned to control the crap out of my life by making everything perfectly comfortable. I’ve spent decades learning how to weed out all the little annoyances, so I’m poorly conditioned for abrupt changes to my habits. That means when things derail I get thrown out of my comfort zone. I believe I adapted fairly well to losing power this time, at least being stoic, but I could have handled it much better. We didn’t do much but play on our phones and slept a lot under lots of covers.

We’re usually unaware of our true selves until we’re forced out of our routines, and then we realize who we are by what we miss. My comfort zone totally depends on controlled temperature, electricity, and the internet. As I laid under blankets dressed in multiple layers of clothes trying to enjoy life at 44 degrees F, I just gave up to inactivity. I need to find ways to stay active and enjoy life without power.

I did do a lot of contemplating. I thought about Louisa May Alcott. I imagined she and her sisters spending long New England winters living in much colder rooms. I bet they found plenty to do to occupy themselves during the day. I wondered if I could adapt to reading physical books and writing with pen and paper in very cold rooms? People in the 19th century kept active in extreme cold and heat. Hell, so do most people around this 21st century world who live with HVACs?

The photo above was taken just before the power returned around 3pm Friday. It was 44 degrees inside and 29 outside. Luckily the power came back before it went down to 1 degree. My two cats were sleeping between my legs, but ran off before they could get photographed. You should have seen us at night lit only by flashlight. At least I didn’t have to go outside to an outhouse.

Here’s our rescuers working on a power pole in our backyard with their truck in my neighbor’s yard. It’s hard to see, but everything is covered with ice. That was last Friday. The power went off again for a few hours on Saturday when a tree branch fell on a powerline around the corner.

Now I understand why my mother would do anything to go stay with my sister in Florida during the wintertime. She was driving down there by herself even in her eighties. Boy, I wish I was living in Florida right now.

JWH

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Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/21

Rereading the 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy unearthed long suppressed feelings and ambitions that first emerged in my personality back in the 1960s and 1970s. When I first read Hackers in 1985 it rekindled those formative emotions and desires then as well. I’ll start my seventies this year and I have to wonder when do hopes that I formed in my teens finally fade away? When can I just give up and be here now? When do I stop trying to constantly be who I was? Why don’t hopes have expirations dates? Why are these books so exciting after all these years?

I remember four years ago triggering these same emotions and ambitions when I reread The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I tried to write about what I felt, but those words don’t capture what I’m trying to say now. One thing about growing older, at least for me, is seeking clarity about my time in reality. Before I die, or my mind fades away, I want eliminate all the bullshit barnacles that encrusts my soul.

My current theory is we acquire our personal dreams and desires from pop culture and subcultures. During my lifetime I’ve belonged to many subcultures, but the two I loved most are science fiction and computers. Both current forms of those subcultures have long past me by, but their initial seduction have left subprograms running within my mind that never stop. Why was I able to deprogram myself of childhood religious programming, but I’ve never been able to escape that cultural programming acquired from age 12-22?

You’d think we’d forget old beliefs as we acquired new insights. Of course, I’m generalizing, assuming all people are the same. Maybe other people do that, but I don’t. Why can’t we emotionally be like historians who rewrite history with new discovers. For example, after rereading Hackers I read A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018) by Joy Lisi Rankin. Basically, Rankin is saying, hold on there Steven Levy, your history of computer pioneers from MIT and Silicon Valley leave out a lot of middle America computer pioneers. Her book is reshaping my sense of computer history I got from Hackers. Why don’t I do the same things with my personal history?

This is not the book review I sat down to write. I might try again, but let’s go with the flow. These books hit the bullseye of my old computer ambitions. Over the past year I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about 8-bit computers, especially those from The 8-Bit Guy. David Murray essentially has traveled back in time to work on computers at the point where Hackers ends in 1984. Many other YouTubers have done this too. I’ve wondered if the solution to my problem with all these old hopes and desires is to return to a past point in time and start over. I realize at this moment, that’s exactly what I’ve done with science fiction. I’m reading and collecting what I loved best from 1965-1975. That’s kind of weird when you think about it. But maybe it’s a natural aspect of aging too.

However, I also tell myself I should jettison my past like they were my first and second rocket stages and seek orbit for what I could be in 2021. But could that be me bullshitting myself that I’m not too old to learn new tricks. Of course, maybe one way not to stir up old emotions and desires is to stop consuming old pop culture. Does my library of old books, magazines, movies, and TV shows keep those old subprograms going? Actually, yes.

I have a friend, Anne, who lives so in the present that she hates the past, and even throws away old photographs and mementos when she finds them. I also live in the present by reading books published in 2020 and magazines that are February 2021 current. If I tossed out my old library and read only new books and magazines I would become a different person. I could become a fast nimble speedboat. But because I loved old pop culture, and can’t let go of old ambitions, magazines, and books, I feel the past I carry around has grown to the size of the Titanic. (I wish I had a photo of a guy in a rowboat towing the Titanic on a rope to put right here.)

The current nonfiction books and science fiction magazines I’m reading are about politics, climate change, and all the other dark clouds the horizon of this century. (No wonder I want to return to last century.) If I only read new books and magazines I’d completely reshape my present personality. Reading these three computer histories rekindles the futures I wanted back in the 1970s and 1980s, and they were tremendously more appealing than the futures I envision now. The people profiled in those books had such wonderful dreams about what computers would bring to the 21st century. And their dreams came true beyond anything they imagined or hoped. Yet, I wonder if they could see the downside of their creations, would they have done anything different? And isn’t that what I’m doing now by rereading these old books, second guessing my past decisions?

One of the reasons I can’t let the past go is it feels unfinished. I didn’t get to consume all the pop culture I wanted back then, satisfy all my wants, or achieve all my ambitions. But having lived in the future, it also feels like we took so many wrong turns. I can’t help but want to go back and finish what I started and even try different paths.

There is a whole lot more I want to say about Hackers, but this essay has already gotten too long for chiseling on this stone. Hopefully to be continued on another rock.

JWH

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How to Save The World by Reading Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/21

Many people have the inner confidence that the world will always muddle through. That we’ll solve our problems naturally through the unfolding of uncontrolled events. Other people believe as the population of humans grow, we’ll eventually reach a breaking point and things will fall apart. If you read Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you know the history of the world is a history of failed civilizations. Whatever goes up must come down, and if you’re the kind of person that uses numbers and graphs to anticipate the future, it doesn’t look good.

Kim Stanley Robinson has written a science fiction “novel” where he imagines humanity intentionally solving our big problems. The book is called The Ministry for the Future. It’s hard to recommend this book because people who expect a novel to work in a certain way could have difficulty reading it. I’ve already written about how The Ministry for the Future isn’t structured like a typical novel so you might want to read that essay before buying it.

The Ministry for the Future imagines how humanity could save itself. It’s just one possible scenario, but it does offer more hope than I’ve seen elsewhere. Now, it’s not entirely Pollyannaish, because it also assumes a massive economic depression and worldwide acts of terrorism will force us to change at times too, warning us there are no easy solutions, and to expect a bumpy ride.

The chief task to saving our planet is reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Robinson suggests this can mainly be done by inventing a new worldwide currency he calls the carbon coin. Like the gold standard, this currency will be based on carbon kept out of the atmosphere. Once worldwide financial institutions back the carbon coin, and people and corporations realize future wealth depends on it, there will be an incentive to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. At one point, Robinson says we’ll pay Saudi Arabia to keep its oil in the ground and that will create more worldwide wealth. That’s hard to believe, especially if you watch this film. (Really, watch this film.)

Robinson also imagines many giant geoengineering projects, including pumping water out from under glaciers to slow their pace into the oceans. He also assumes we’ll pursue different kinds of carbon sequestering combined with switching to renewable energy sources. These are all technical solutions that we’re considering today, but Robinson also has several chapters about why many of our current big ideas will fail.

The whole goal is to get CO2 back down to 350 ppm. Near the end of the novel, which spans many decades, CO2 peaks at 475 ppm. Robinson promotes the success of the real 350.org movement in the book. Last month we were averaging 413.95 ppm of CO2, so we’re currently about half-way to Robinson’s future in real life. To get back to 350 ppm we’ll have to stop using all fossil fuels and retrieve a lot of CO2 already in the atmosphere and put it away somewhere safe. Generally, that’s into trees, or sequestered. So, Robinson imagines the world reforesting on a vast level. But can you really imagine that we’ll stop taking oil, gas, and coal out of the ground? That’s trillions of dollars in wealth that people have invested trillions of dollars to own.

Concurrent with the CO2 problem is the extinction problem. Robinson also embraces Half-Earth Project to give half the Earth back to wildlife based on E. O. Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Within Robinson’s novel, huge tracts land are purchased to create wildlife corridors to connect the larger national parks around the world. This is a beautiful vision that I hope comes true. But to achieve it would require buying up small towns and destroying roads on a vast scale. That adds another giant expenditure for saving the world. Robinson claims this will add jobs and eventually grow the economy, but will people see saving animals as an investment?

Robinson foresees two horrible sources of good for the earth that are evils for people. A giant worldwide depression will slow the release of CO2, and he imagines vast networks of ecoterrorists that will stop air and sea travel by any machines that run on fossil fuel. Robinson pictures us returning to clipper ships and dirigibles, as well as new kinds of electric planes and ships that use renewable resources.

In this book Robinson doesn’t dwell on rising seas and other natural disasters like he has in her earlier novels, but he does focus on the refugee problems. He imagines we’ll eventually develop a global citizenship status that will allow us to fairly resettle the millions of refugees. Will we be that wise and kind?

All of this is just a tip of the iceberg among Robinson’s speculations. Overall, The Ministry for the Future is a very hopeful story, but you must read between the lines to account for all the horrors. However, his first chapter is an extremely dramatic scene of one terrifying ecocatastrophe, and I can’t recommend reading it highly enough. It’s available online to read.

After finishing The Ministry for the Future, I keep asking myself: Will we really save ourselves? Robinson believes we’ll more than muddle through, and even find triumph in our achievements. Robinson is almost gung-ho for the future. Americans can’t even pull together in a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, so why expect us to pull together at far greater challenges? Will we muddle through despite ourselves? I don’t think so. Humans have always muddled through in the past because there were always been an abundance of options and resources. Solving climate change is where the Ponzi scheme of Capitalism finally comes due. Saving ourselves will require moving to a new paradigm for the politicaleconomy. I’m not sure that will happen. In fact, I seriously doubt it. Why? Because it will require humans to work together at a level of cooperation that we’ve never shown in the past.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an optimist. I’m a pessimist looking for hope. I believe it’s important to read science fiction novels like The Ministry for the Future because we need to all ask ourselves if such dreams are possible. Are we capable of making these kinds of changes in our lives? My hope says its theoretically possible. My pessimism says no.

If you haven’t really thought about how we’ll save ourselves in the future, then you might want to read The Ministry for the Future. It’s not a fun page turner, but I believe it covers most of what you’ll need to consider.

JWH

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The Future Is About Jobs

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, 1/16/21

Most people assume the best possible society will be one where everyone has a good job and can be self reliant along with the freedom to make what they want out of their life. That was the direction America was taking until a revolution in the 1970s, when a few people had a new vision of the future. Since then the best possible society was decided in favor of the wellbeing of corporations over a the last five decades. Unfortunately, corporate success depends on having fewer employees. They have chosen profits and automation over people. The citizens of America want jobs, but the citizens of corporations want profits. Whose future will win out?

If you put your faith in politicians and think they will bring happiness to Americans with more jobs then you are deluded. The past four years were Trump feeding his massive ego which distracted us from the real issues. But electing Biden is not going to save us either. Arguing over partisan politics is like brawling in the ballroom of the Titanic an hour before hitting the iceberg.

If we stay on our present course America will collapse economically before climate change can do us in. If we want to avoid both hells then we must decide on a better final destination. It will require cooperation. It will also require knowledge, but not the kind of knowledge you can get off the internet or cable news. The amount of knowledge needed will require studying books, lots of books, and not books written by egomaniacs trying to become rich.

The problems we’re facing and will face are so enormous that it will take a significant percentage of the population working together to solve them. If we want that future where everyone has a good job it will require a new kind of education. We used to believe higher education guaranteed a successful future. But the kind of education I’m talking about is not technical job training or academic enrichment. What we need is to educate ourselves about a holistic understanding of our present reality. However, most citizens of this society have chosen to deny reality, or accept it and just enjoy themselves as much as possible before the apocalypse.

Remember in The Matrix when Neo was told he’d need a lot of guns to overthrow the machines, and rows and rows or armaments sped past him? Yeah, well we need to read lots of books, rows and rows of bookcases. At a guess, a good portion of the voting population needs to start reading one important nonfiction book a month to alter our path and avoid the twin icebergs of climate change and wealth inequality. Will that happen? I doubt it.

We’re now more polarized politically than anytime in my lifetime. The country is almost perfectly divided into two opposing philosophies. The conservatives want free market capitalism with winners take all. The liberals want capitalism supplemented with socialism to protect the losers. Strangely, I see it as the Darwinians v. Christians, even though the conservatives see themselves as Christian, I see them as advocates of survival of the fittest, while liberals want to follow the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, yet expect the Darwinians to pay for the sick, lame, and homeless.

If we continue on the current path blazed by libertarian free-market true believers, all the wealth will be sucked out of the middle and lower classes, and probably even from the lower upper classes. The future promises a small wealthy class with their robots and corporations, and a vast lower class, struggling to survive off a small basic income. If you believe in trickle down economics then why are the richest cities in America being overrun by homeless encampments and decay? If you don’t believe me watch these videos about L.A., San Francisco, and Miami.

These are just a few images that show the result of our present economic policies. They are like the early signs of climate change that everyone wants to ignore. I’m old enough to look back over 50-60 years of history and change. Most people believe things stay the same. They don’t. The societal erosion you see in these films will spread like kudzu unless we change course. But how?

In physics we’ve learned that space and time are really one thing and we should refer to it as spacetime. And we’ve also learned that the mind and body are not separate and should refer to it as the mindbody. Well, the same is true for politics and economy, it’s really the politicaleconomy. When new concepts emerge they go through a phase first as two words, then as two-words, and finally as oneword. We’re still thinking in the political economy phase, but after reading Evil Geniuses by Kurt Andersen I’m going to think of it as the politicaleconomy, and even bypass the hyphen phase.

If you only see politics in terms of liberal and conservative, or Democrats and Republicans then you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. If you only look at the economy in terms of gains and losses then you’re not even seeing the tip. Evil Geniuses will not give you a complete holistic view of current politicaleconomic reality, but it will hint at it. Andersen is a synthesizer who has written a history of the politicaleconomy beginning in the late 1950s to show how our present state of the politicaleconomy evolved. It’s very complicated, and like Einstein working to develop a Grand Unified Theory Andersen does not succeed.

It comes down to simplex, complex, and multiplex. Most humans want simplex answers to explain reality. The more we study reality, the more complex reality appears. Focusing on single systems causing complexity in our minds. It’s only until we try to see how multiple systems work together that we develop multiplexity of thinking.

Personally, I’m smart enough to see complexity and intuit a bit of multiplexity. I believe Andersen is able to mentally juggle several complexities and visualize a certain level of multiplexity to be able to write about it. I envy him that ability. I envy that because simplex thinking is very satisfying. Complex thinking is stressful, even painful and discordant. It’s only until we get into the multiplexity stage do things become calm again, and we hear the harmony of relationships between system interactions.

Reading Evil Geniuses and exploring the individual observations Andersen makes has reduced some of the political anxiety I acquired from 2016-2020. Donald Trump wasn’t the real issue even though we’ve agonized over his impact for years. He was just a rash and not the underlying disease. Most Americans are riled up politically but are looking for answers in all the wrong places. We keep trying to cure symptoms and not the disease. Until we think of the politicaleconomy as one holistic system that includes all life on Earth we’re going to stay the course towards extinction. We need to be working towards a new word, the politicaleconomybiosphere.

I cannot properly review this book without restating almost everything that’s in it, and Kurt Andersen has already done that, so just read it. Don’t expect to accept everything he says. I haven’t yet. But if you’re like me, do expect to want to read his sources, or at least other books about the issues covered. For example, I bought a Milton Friedman book to understand the other side of things. One book ain’t going to cut it. If you’ve ever gotten fascinated by a subject and had to read everything you can about it, that’s how I feel now about the politicaleconomy.

Reading Evil Geniuses made me realize I wasn’t paying proper attention to the history of the last fifty years. Andersen chronicles no secret cabal of conspirators, all those evil geniuses were working completely out in the open. Another realization I take away from the book is don’t assume the nightly news will tell us what we need to know. Following the sensational stories on TV and the internet is watching the delusional argue over how many angels fit on the head of a pin.

Understanding comes from longer essays, like those in The Atlantic or The Economist, or from good solidly researched books. And that reading never ends, because there’s always need for deeper insights. For example, I think I need to read The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon to understand the history before the history outlined in Evil Geniuses and Dark Money by Jane Mayer. But it’s also important to read opposing views, like Age of Discovery by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna.

That’s a lot of relentless reading. Is it practical to imagine that a significant portion of the voting public will do this kind of reading? No, not really. That’s why the movers and shakers of the economic right were able to achieve their goals. They used their knowledge to change just a few institutions and people to alter the course of history. Can liberals make such surgical decisions to reflate the wealth of the middle and lower classes? I won’t know until I read a lot more. If you know of any books that offer such insights, let me know.

JWH

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Finding Laughter in Interesting Times

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, 1/14/21

Last night I laughed out loud several times while watching a little British film from 1953 called Genevieve. My friends Mike and Betsy had discovered it on Amazon Prime. They have a knack for mining old movie gold there. It also appears to be on YouTube.

The older I get the less I laugh out loud, so I have to appreciate it when I do. The famous Chinese curse is to wish your enemies lived in interesting times. I don’t know who cursed who, but we definitely need comedies in these times.

I had never even heard of Genevieve before, and neither had Mike and Betsy. Wikipedia has quite a write-up about it. Evidently, this comedy found a bit of success back in 1953, winning awards in England, and even garnered couple Oscar nominations over here. Rather sad how good pop culture fades – don’t you think? Genevieve even has a slight connection to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, another film I had found funny this summer that made me laugh out loud countless times. Quite a few people still remember that one and still watch it.

It’s hard to laugh when thousands are dying every day and we have a president that’s shitting all over our democracy. On the other hand, spending all my time worrying about the decline of America isn’t good for my health. I’m reminded of the film Sullivan’s Travels, about a Hollywood director wanting to make a serious film about the depression during the depression. Through a series of misadventures, Sullivan, the director, ends up on a chain gang in the deep south and discovers what people in the depression really wanted – laughter.

During 2020 the sophistication of what tickles my funny bone has taken a hard hit. I can’t handle Saturday Night Live, or other contemporary satire, but linger on scenes from The Three Stooges, Bob Hope, and Jerry Lewis movies while clicking around the streaming services. My favorite comedy during 2020 was Bachelor in Paradise.

I used to hate slapstick and other lower forms of comedy because I saw myself more sophisticated than that. I once took a graduate course in humor and know what I should be watching, but high level humor doesn’t always soothe the soul in stressful times. I’m younger than that now.

Actually, Genevieve had most of the levels above, but It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World stayed pretty close to the bottom of the pyramid. I loved it. And I loved Genevieve, staying up way past my bedtime to finish it.

I was surprised that this 1953 British film seemed a good deal more sophisticated about sex than American films during the 1950s. The story is about two guys who take their wife and girlfriend on an annual antique car rally from London to Brighton. At one point actor Kenneth More laments that every year he brings a new girlfriend on this trip hoping to have an emotional experience but something always gets in the way. Not quite how they express things today, but funnier I think.

Tonight after my dose of the nightly news, I’m going to step out of reality and watch The Nutty Professor. I used to wince at comedy routines of Jerry Lewis. Now I marvel at tiny bits of cleverness. For example, Jerry sits in a chair where he sinks deep down into the cushions about a foot. He gets up and takes a small pamphlet off the desk and lays it across the chair seat cushion, and then sits down again. It holds him up. That was enough to make me happy.

JWH

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The Mystery of the Aching Leg

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, 1/11/21

After years of controlling pains in my back and leg with exercise and diet I’ve had a relapse. What have I done wrong? It took me years of learning about many good and bad habits to get that pain under control. What have I done to screw things up? It’s a mystery that I’m trying to solve but complicated by the many different factors involved.

Many years ago, I was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. I had gone to orthopedic doctors because I thought my hip was going out, but the pain went all the way down to my foot. After an MRI the showed my hip was okay, but I likely had stenosis I was sent to a pain management doctor. He told me to avoid surgery unless things got unbearable, set me up with a physical therapist, and prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs.

I quickly learned that sleeping flat on a bed aggravated my condition and switched to sleeping in a recliner. That dramatically reduced my pain. I also learned my 3 mile a day walks were annoying the hell out of my leg, so I stopped walking as much. That reduced the pain, numbness, aching, tingling, etc. a good deal more.

Also, during the time period, I had to have a stent put in my heart and I lost about thirty pounds trying to help that problem. I assume losing that weight might have helped my leg, but both my regular doctor and back doctor were doubtful.

Concurrent with those lessons I also learned my stomach couldn’t handle NSAIDS anti-inflammation drugs, but the physical therapy exercises paid off big time. Before I gave up on the drugs, I became aware of what it felt like to have lower inflammation. Because of that I became aware of which foods set off inflammation – mostly fun foods. So, I began avoiding them. That helped too.

Eventually I supplemented the PT exercises with exercises by Miranda Esmonde-White that I discovered on PBS TV. They helped a lot! Even better than the PT exercises.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been doing intermittent fasting, and that seems to have helped with inflammation, but I’m not sure.

All these efforts got things mostly under control, and the pain and numbness almost went away. It became low level enough to ignore, and I was good for a few years.

However, things have gotten bad again. Not as bad as when I first started going to the back doctor, but it’s heading that way. Over the years I’ve had flareups and could fix them by being more diligent about my exercise and diet, but these quick tweaks aren’t working.

I assume my present flareup is because I’ve gotten lax about my exercising and intermittent fasting. Over the holidays I’ve indulged in some fun foods and gained five pounds and might have increased inflammation. But there’s one new factor that’s bothering me. At my annual checkup in November my doctor told me I my legs showed signs of poor circulation, and some of my aching legs symptoms could be that. She wants me to have tests done but not until after I get the Covid-19 vaccine. A stent in my leg might fix things, but I won’t know for a while.

Because my doctor scared me about the poor circulation in my legs I went back to walking regularly. I tried walking 1 mile twice a day. At first that seemed to help, but then my leg got bad again. I had been walking 1 mile several times a week. It makes my back and leg hurt for an hour or two, but that kind of exercise helps my heart, so I figured the short-term pain was worth it. But that extra walking is another clue to the leg flare up.

I also remembered that statins caused my legs to ache. Over the last twenty years my doctor has been having me take different statins and dosages trying to find the right combination that don’t produce side effects, which were pains in the legs. I was on 5mg every other day, but in November she had me go to every day, and even wanted to bump up the dosage to 10mg. So that might be another factor.

Now I have the mystery of the aching leg and wondering what’s causing it. My doctors have always told me things could get worse, but I’ve had so much success controlling pain with lifestyle changes that I don’t want to believe they’ve stopped working now.

I wish we had a little computer to plug into my brain and read body health like those car code readers decipher automobile problems. It sure would simplify things.

Did that extra walking caused this flare up? The gaining of weight? Enjoying a bit of cheese danish every day? Too many meals with cheese? Switching to statins daily? Skipping my exercises too often? Or is it hardening of the arteries in my legs? Do I need to go back to my 16:8 intermittent fasting? I just remembered I had to give up my protein drinks because they were driving my bladder crazy. That’s 30mg less of protein. I switched to eggs and yogurt, which may or may not affect my clogged arteries.

I know two types of people. Those that eat anything they want and don’t exercise and seem to do fine, and those with growing ailments that are constantly trying to find solutions that involve just the right combination exercise and diet.

Unfortunately, I’m in the group that always has a health mystery to solve. Sorry to bore you by complaining about my ailments, but writing these blogs are my way of thinking things through. This essay has helped me, but not to come up with a specific answer. I’m going to eat better, do more good exercising, walk less, take less statins, watch my posture, and try to lose weight. I hope that helps, but it won’t solve the mystery of what actually caused my leg to get worse.

JWH

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The Psyche of Blind Faith

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, January 9, 2021

This essay is not about Donald Trump or politics, but I’m going to use the January 6th riot at the Capitol as an example of blind faith. In the days following the riot several news reports have appeared where followers of Donald Trump have denied he was the instigator of the riot, and in some cases, that the rioters were not the real followers of Donald Trump.

The evidence for Trump instigating the riot is overwhelming, and growing, as law enforcement and the media assemble a timetable of events and clues. I can easily see January 6th becoming the subject of future congressional hearings like those covering the JFK assassination where we heard weeks and months of testimony. In the end, most people will believe that Trump was the inciter-in-chief in the same way the congressional investigations concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. But like lone gunman deniers, there will always be deniers to Trump’s guilt.

This kind of denial comes from a psychology of blind faith. I find that psychology fascinating. We see blind faith everywhere. What allows some people the ability to tune out aspects of reality to maintain their faith in a particular belief? One good example is the free-market capitalists whose faith keeps them from seeing pollution, climate change, wealth inequality or any other negatives to capitalism. They must deny all evidence to the contrary to maintain their faith in the purity of Milton Friedman’s teachings.

The ultimate example of blind faith came just after the crucifixion of Jesus. The followers of Jesus saw that he was dead. However, they couldn’t accept that death, so they invented a faith to prove he still lived. Their blind faith created a new view of reality that they see but others don’t.

The only way to maintain blind faith is through denial. I now see denialism everywhere, which implies blind faith is everywhere.

Donald Trump inspires blind faith in his followers. What causes that? How does it work? Why him? It’s obvious that no amount of evidence can penetrate such faith. It’s a survival mechanism. Believers obviously benefit from other positive mental states once they let go and accept a faith. Once a faith is accepted any threat to that faith is also a threat to the new sense of wellbeing.

This blind faith is why I’ve given up talking with my conservative friends about Trump. The wall between us is impenetrable. To talk with them feels just like being John Cleese trying to convince Michael Palin the parrot is dead.

The inspiration for this essay.

JWH

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Do You Read Just One Book at a Time?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, 1/1/21

For some reason I can’t read just one book at a time. Well, I actually do read just one book at a time if we’re talking about the singular now. But if we stretch the definition of time to mean a more generous sense of the now, then I’m always reading several books at once.

The eight books pictured above are the main ones I’m concurrently reading in that bigger definition of now.

I switched between reading and listening to Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America by Kurt Andersen, and discussing it with my friend Linda who is also reading it. I call this my two-person book club. Andersen chronicles how conservatives began manipulating law schools and the judicial system back in the 1970s to reduce personal and corporate taxes and fight regulation. This essentially covers the rise of the libertarian movement. Evil Geniuses plows similar ground to Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer which Linda and I read years ago. I also bought Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman and 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang to supplement our reading of Evil Geniuses. In this one case, you can see how one book pushes me to read multiple volumes. Kurt Andersen is a great synthesizer.

I’m also listening to The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson because it’s probably the most important science fiction novel since Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Like Zanzibar, it’s told in a nontraditional narrative style, which will probably annoy some readers, but then so did Zanzibar. The story narrative is frequently interrupted by monologues and dialogues that lecture the reader. However, I don’t mind. The opening chapter was one of the most dramatic and scary visions of a climate change future that I’ve ever read. I highly recommend following the link to read it. Science fiction is seldom this serious.

And I’m listening to Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy because I was reorganizing my bookcases and it caught my eye. It was originally published in 1984, and I believe I read it back then. I’m listening because when I found the old paperback I checked to see if there was an Audible edition and discovered I already owned 25th anniversary edition on Audible. My two favorite subcultures grew out of science fiction and computers, and I’ve always loved reading history books about their early pioneers. For years I’ve been wanting to do a blog post that covered all my favorite computer history books in a useful timeline.

I’m reading The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction Third Series edited by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas because I’ve been collecting old copies of F&SF and have been feeling very nostalgic about them. My online friend George Kelley plans to read and review the entire F&SF annual anthology series this year starting this month. Unfortunately I don’t have the first and second series. They are very rare and when they do come up for sale very expensive. However, I do have all the original issues from the early years those first two anthologies cover.

I’m reading Year’s Best SF edited by David G. Hartwell because I’m leading an online discussion of it on Facebook. That group keeps me busy because we keep two anthologies under concurrent discussion. We just finished 50 Short Science Fiction Tales edited by Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin, and are about to start Orbit 1 edited by Damon Knight. I’m having big reading fun gorging on old science fiction short stories, but it takes up a lot of reading time.

I need to get back to my Best American Short Stories 2020 project (BASS 2020). I’m on story #9 of 20. This reading is taking me out of my science fiction obsession and reminding me what the literary world is writing.

A couple weeks ago I was at the used bookstore and spoted Is That All There Is: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin. I’ve been listening to Peggy Lee and other female vocalists from the 1950s so I grabbed it up. I was reading on it hot and heavy when I decided I need to finish War and Peace before 2020 ended. Now I’m anxious to get back to it.

Finally, a guilty pleasure, The Deviates by Raymond F. Jones. I started reading it because of the lurid cover. I read two of Jones’ Winston Science Fiction juveniles last year. He also wrote This Island Earth which was made into a fabulous 1950s Sci-Fi flick. Jones is not a well-remembered science fiction writer, but his books dwells in that territory that sets off my 1950s science fiction nostalgia.

As you can see, my mind is not focused. I actually have a few more books lying around with bookmarks in them, and my iPhone has some more titles loaded that I’ve started but not finished, and my Kindle has several books that when you click on them take you to the middle of things. And my Scribd has some audiobooks and ebooks I haven’t finished yet either. But I didn’t want to list all of those books I’m trying to read because I don’t want to come across as completely scatterbrained.

I’m just wondering how many bookworms are like me, and how many of you are more focused?

JWH

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2020 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 31, 2020

Since 2008 on December 31st I blog about my year in reading. I used to list all the books I read during the year, but since last year I’ve been using Goodreads to track my reading. If anyone is interested go see the 2020 titles there. I only finished 45 books, down from 48 in 2019. My goal was 52. However, I did read over 400 short stories in 2020. That’s kind of impressive, but wait until you read why.

The books I recommend most this year are (links to my reviews):

I’ve got to admit I read damn few novels while making another orbit of the Sun. Instead, I was gorging on classic Sci-Fi short stories. I’ve become obsessed with old science fiction. This is partly due to belonging to the Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction where we group read old SF anthologies. It’s a lot of nostalgic fun. Membership is currently at 322, and most of the members are old guys like myself who grew up reading short fiction the science fiction magazines.

However, switching to reading short stories is also due to a change in my reading habits. I just hate committing to a long book, even one that’s only a couple hundred pages. It’s amazing I finished War and Peace this year because my mind now craves short fiction. And it’s not because of the pandemic. I started this shift in 2018. Maybe it’s age related and I’m just losing my patience with fiction. That’s also true with movies and television shows. I now prefer spending my TV time on YouTube videos or documentaries.

I’m not sure how to explain this mental shift away from the longer fiction of novels, movies, and TV series. Only a few years ago I was binge watching TV shows and mass consuming novels and movies. I can’t decide if I’m just tired of fiction, or just tired of padded stories. Or maybe I’m just jaded with certain kinds of plots. Even my new passion for old science fiction short stories is wearing out. Of course, after sixty years, it might just be I’m having trouble finding something new and novel to entertain my old mind.

For example, I’ve been trying to get into Bridgerton, the new Netflix series. I love Jane Austen, I love historical stories from the 19th century, and I love movies and TV shows with beautiful period costumes and sets. However, a tale about young Regency ladies hunting rich aristocratic husbands has grown stale, even with the added bonus of graphic sex. Bridgerton is no Belgravia, and a far cry from War and Peace. At best, it’s Jane Austen let’s pretend. And let’s face it, without their costumes, those naked bodies seem way too 21st century.

I’m even starting to get testy with the old science fiction short stories too. That worries me. I’m scared I’m developing a tolerance to my last favorite kind of fiction. Oddly, enough, it was my first type of favorite fiction. Is that a sign of regression?

I worry because I’m constantly searching for more potent SF stories to read. I crave great stories, but I mostly find lame tales that were crude and silly even back when they were first published. The more I read, the fewer jewels I discover. And for some reason, the more stories I read the more I feel the total number of jewels I thought I discovered dwindles. It’s become a process of reading distillation. I used to think there were hundreds of great SF short stories, now I wonder if I can find 100. As I get closer to the end of my life, will it be just 50, or 25? Or will the wonder of them finally disappear?

I wish I had kept a reading diary of the short stories I read this year to chronicle their highs and lows. I started one for The Best American Short Stories 2020 but I didn’t finish it. The reviews I did write go a long way to explaining my changing reading interests and abilities. I only read and reviewed 8 of the 20 stories, but I still hope to finish all of them before the 2021 edition comes out next October.

I also wrote “I’m Having a Problem With Science Fiction – And It’s Due to Getting Older” for my Classics of Science Fiction blog that explains some of my reading problems with science fiction. That site is where I review the science fiction I read. I’ve morphed into reviewing individual short stories there instead of novels and whole anthologies. And I wrote “What I Love Best About SF Short Stories” that explains my current infatuation with SF short stories if anyone is interested.

I actually getting more excited about the nonfiction I’m reading or watching. For example I read Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner about startups in Silicon Valley in the 2010s. That bit of reality was actually more thrilling than most old fantasies about space travel. I also read Bart D. Ehrman older book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Again, that history trumped most of the science fiction in far out ideas. I’m currently reading Evil Geniuses by Kurt Anderson and it’s inspiring me to do tons of research. However, I mostly fall back to reading old science fiction short stories.

I hate to say this, but I think aging is playing a role. It takes a lot of mental effort to read a big novel or nonfiction book. It takes even more effort to read the supplemental material to research those books and write about them. So, I’ve fallen into the trap of seeking the path of least resistance. I just grab another SF short story or watch a YouTube video.

That’s starting to bother me. I wonder where my reading in 2021 will take me. I’m going to stop making predictions and plans because they never come true or get accomplished.

JWH

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Finally Finished War and Peace – But Do I Recommend It?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 28, 2020

I began reading War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy back in April after watching and reviewing a recent 6-part BBC miniseries (2016) based on the book. I finished about forty percent of the novel and then stopped reading it in early summer. Then a couple weeks ago I decided I needed to finish it before the year was out. Every year I read one literary classic, and I had promised myself that War and Peace was going to be my 2020 read. War and Peace is currently #7 on The Greatest Books list. It did make an excellent companion to 2020, and illuminated the present with the past.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, War and Peace reminds me of Jane Austen because it’s set from 1805-1812 (plus epilogue 1813-1820), which was around the time Jane Austen was writing her famous novels. War and Peace has always been intimidating for his size – 55 hours and 30 minutes on audio, and 1,300+ pages in teeny tiny print. That’s almost like listening/reading all six of Jane Austen’s novels together. The plot and characterizations of War and Peace is about as complicated as reading all the Austen novels by round robin her novels chapter by chater.

That wouldn’t bother some readers, however, War and Peace mixes in countless pages of Tolstoy pontificating about war, power, military command, freedom, history, free will, leadership, etc., and I’m afraid that could turn them off. Thus it makes for a hard novel to recommend emphatically.

War and Peace wasn’t hard to read. Many people have asked me about that. Yes, the Russian names are problematic, but I think it helped that I watched the BBC series first, and watched the Russian language Mosfilm version that was released as four films over two years (1966-1967) while I was reading the book. Those four films of War and Peace are currently available on HBO Max.

My friends also ask me if War and Peace is worth all the trouble to read. When I’ve mentioned to folks that I was reading it, many reacted like I was doing something yucky. It’s actually a wonderful novel, quite philosophical, but mainly about romances within large aristocratic families during the Napoleonic Wars. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey or Jane Austen, just imagine that kind of story on a much bigger scale with two epic battles, and the downfall of an emperor thrown in. I enjoyed the war parts, but I’m not sure if most readers will.

Again, I’m reminded of Jane Austen. Much of the book is about life and love among the aristocratic which is very similar to Austen. However, in Austen, the men go off to the Napoleonic wars but we’re never told of their experiences. In Tolstoy we are, and it’s important. The men are shaped by their experiences in battle, and two of them have intense spiritual conversions. War and Peace gives us the men’s view of the age, whereas Austen gave us the women’s.

I’ve never really understood Napoleon before. While reading this novel I went and read the entry at Wikipedia about Napoleon, which was very informative. But I actually believe Tolstoy gives a much better picture of this historical figure, even though Tolstoy obviously wanted to write his novel to give a revisionist assessment of Napoleon. I still don’t know enough history to know if Tolstoy is accurate or not, or even if he’s doing hatchet job on the man.

I have to admit that I wished that Tolstoy had published his soapboxing as a separate nonfiction supplement to his novel. It’s quite fascinating to hear Tolstoy’s 1860s knowledge of the sciences, including the new ideas about evolution, applied to events and people. Tolstoy is impressive in his insights, even by 21st century standards. I even used some of them to see Donald Trump in a new light. By the way, I was completely surprised by how important the French language was to Russian aristocrats at the time. I’ve always imagined Russia being very isolated from the rest of Europe.

On the other hand, I was always anxious to get back to the story, and I always wanted to know more about the characters, of which there were too many to chronicle here. Pierre was my favorite, but then he is much like Levin from Anna Karenina, my favorite character in that novel. In both cases, I wondered if those characters were stand ins for Tolstoy himself?

Still, do I recommend this monster of a novel? I am very glad I read War and Peace, and I found it very compelling, but it requires a tremendous commitment. I’m not sure I will ever try to reread it, but I think I will dip into every now and then. Some scenes and chapters are exquisite.

I can recommend reading War and Peace to anyone who loves 19th literature, to anyone who dreams of becoming a writer, or to anyone to enjoys finding philosophy entwined with fiction.

By the way, it’s quite cheap to try War and Peace since it’s in the public domain. Get a free Kindle copy. If you get hooked keep reading. I enjoyed reading it and listening to it on audio. My Kindle edition let me switch back and forth instantly.

JWH

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You Can’t Criticize Hamlet Because You Don’t Believe in Ghosts

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 27, 2020

My friend Mike sent me an email yesterday that’s got me to thinking. Instead of paraphrasing what he said, I got his permission to reprint it:

We always talk about the best science fiction stories, but I was thinking that as an intellectual exercise it would be fun to nominate stories that we think should be in the running as the best science fiction story, full stop.

You have written many times about the need to read a story numerous times to truly understand it. I just reread "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin for the third time. I originally thought that the story was too implausible, but I've changed my mind.

An author creates a framework for a story, and the plot unwinds within that framework. It's not intellectually honest to complain that you don't like the framework.

For example, in Have Space Suit - Will Travel, Heinlein creates a scenario where Kip manages to refurbish a used space suit and use it to communicate with a space craft. Heinlein sets the tableau and we enter into that world. It is what it is. Any complaints about the story are dishonest because Heinlein can paint whatever picture he wants. He is the creator and sets the parameters.

In other words, to dismiss "The Cold Equations" because you don't like the premise is like saying you don't like Hamlet because King Hamlet is a ghost and you don't believe in ghosts. You are missing the point. The author is asking you to consider the life and death struggle taking place inside the conscribed plot.

So I nominate "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin as the best science fiction story. In very few pages, Godwin presents us with a drama of immense consequence. A Greek tragedy unfolds. Barton desperately seeks a way to change Marilyn's fate, but her fate is sealed. Godwin handles their interaction with a stark and beautiful sadness. When Barton contacts his superiors, they respond like a Greek chorus, confirming the inexorable outcome. A beautiful story, timeless and universal.

This struck a chord with me on many levels. First off, I’m guilty of criticizing stories by disbelieving in their ghosts. I never hated Hamlet because I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I have attacked stories because of their ghosts. Why am I so inconsistent?

I have read over 400 short stories in 2020. I read over 300 short stories each year in 2019 and 2018, meaning I’ve read over a 1,000 short stories in the last few years. That reading experience is compelling me to find aesthetic yardsticks to measure the quality of short stories, but developing that sense of judgment has been bumbling at best. It’s like I’ve been made a judge at an Olympic sport but haven’t yet learned what to score and how.

At my science fiction blog I’ve been struggle to review short stories as I read them, but I’m still fumbling with how to go about it. For example, here’s my review of “Think Like a Dinosaur” which was inspired by “The Cold Equations,” the story Mike nominates. I admire both of those stories, and I’m more than willing to suspend my sense of disbelief to let them work. On the other hand, I’m often critical of science fiction stories where I can’t believe in their premise. Am I criticizing some science fiction because I don’t believe in their version of Hamlet’s ghost?

I have a split personality when it comes to science fiction. If I love the story, I ignore judging it’s science. If I don’t like the story, I use science as a form of literary criticism. Mike has convinced me I need to stop doing that. I need to forget that science is part of the genre label for science fiction, that’s it’s irrelevant.

I recently wrote a piece called “Faith in Science Fiction” about how science fiction inspires some people to believe in crazy ideas. I still believe that’s true, but I realize now because of Mike’s email, that it isn’t a fair criticism of science fiction. Novels have inspired all kinds of craziness in people, but is it fair to judge literary merit by what readers do with the stories? Should Atlas Shrugged be judged by the politics of libertarians?

I called Mike and said my ideal science fiction story is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, which I’ve written about. Mike questioned if it was a short story since it’s so long. That’s true, I told him it’s a novella. So I offered him “An Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss which is a short story, and I’ve also written about.

What’s ironic is these stories trigger synapses that fire when encountering unscientific ideas, but just as intensely light up other regions of my brain that recognize wonderful stories.

I would love to develop a taxonomy of short story elements to judge. To list all the possible storytelling virtues to consider. I’m not sure if realism or scientific validity should or shouldn’t be a consideration. I guess if that’s a goal of the story, then it should be, but it shouldn’t be if it’s not really a factor in the story’s original blueprints.

For example, I recently read “The Monster-God of Mamurth,” the first published story of Edmond Hamilton from 1926. It’s not a great story – I don’t think, but can’t say for sure. Judging by how I felt, I did sense several appealing elements. Some of those elements were common techniques used in stories of the past that are shunned today. Should we judge stories by today’s standards or the standards of when they were written?

Over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations we’ve been discussing Hamilton’s story, “What’s It Like Out There?” Edmond Hamilton was once a very popular science fiction writer, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. But unfortunately his fading reputation barely remembers his World-Wrecking space operas or Captain Future stories for kids much less his best short stories. We’re all surprised and even blown away by reading “What’s It Like Out There?” because it was so damn good!

At least it felt good. What exact elements made “What’s It Like Out There” so impressive? It was originally written in the 1930s but rejected by all the publications that took Hamilton’s stories back then for being too bleak. “What’s It Like Out There?” was rewritten and accepted in the 1950s, and became Hamilton’s most famous short story. Many readers recognize it’s greatness, but who can explain the mechanisms that make it work?

We all wondered how Hamilton wrote that one outstanding story. So I bought The Best of Edmond Hamilton and started reading. That’s when Mike’s email came in. The first story was “The Monster-God of Mamurth” from the August 1926 issue of Weird Tales. The story is about two men finding a dying man in an African desert who tells them a fantastic tale before he dies. The man, an archeologist found an inscription on an Egyptian monument in hieroglyphics about a lost civilization and an ancient god, which he went searching for alone. He found a dead city but a living god.

Now this is completely unbelievable by today’s knowledge, yet the story works pretty well. It reminded me of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones from “The Call of Cthulhu” or the Elder Gods as August Derleth called them. But Hamilton’s story seems to predate the Cthulhu Mythos. It also reminded me of the Ancient Astronaut craze. Fantasy writers love the idea of old gods continuing to live on, and other fans loves the idea that alien visitors were gods to ancient humans.

How long have writers been telling such tales about ancient deities and lost civilizations? How should we judge this particular theme? Did people once believe these ideas could be true? Did people actually believe Bible stories in Biblical times? Does it matter to the story? Is how the idea is developed what matters artistically?

Of course, ancient gods is nonsense, but Edmond Hamilton created a pretty good first story about one. In developing my taxonomy of creative writing elements, how would I judge this particular story? This post has gotten too long to answer that here, but it sets up my problem.

By what yardsticks do we measure short stories? Especially stories with crazy ideas. And is how well we’re fooled by foolish ideas an aesthetic consideration? Is how the idea has been evolved from earlier versions of the idea another consideration? Is even deconstructing stories to identify their artistic gears and wheels even a worthwhile pursuit?

Do we really need to know why we like or hate a story? It only seems important if we want to understand ourselves, or talk about a story with other people. And it really only becomes important when we try to identify the very best stories. And that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned from reading over a thousand stories in the past three years – some work extremely well on my unconscious mind, and most don’t. Why? How?

JWH

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Not Quite a Pink Light From VALIS

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 14, 2020

Yesterday I needed to do laundry and I put on an old pair of overalls. As I was storing away my wallet and other items I was annoyed they didn’t have back pockets, or a front pocket on the bib, and that the shoulder straps were permanently attached to the bib. I remember thinking what kind of overall have straps sewn on? Eventually, I took them off, throwing them on the bed, and put on sweatpants when I discovered they were too much trouble in the bathroom. I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t remember buying any overalls like those.

Then this morning when I went to hang them back up in the closet they had back pockets, a front pocket on the bib, and the shoulder straps had hooks.

?!?!

Was Susan gaslighting me? WTF? I looked all over for the overalls I put on yesterday but couldn’t find them.

Not quite a pink light from VALIS but it sure is weirding me out.

I just put the overalls back on to see if the perspective of wearing them hid the bib fasteners and the front pocket, and maybe I just didn’t feel the back pockets. But they were all clearly there.

These have to be the same overalls because I left my wallet and other things in them. It was when I was trying to stow all my stuff that I couldn’t find the pockets I wanted.

I’m pretty sure God isn’t screwing around with me, and this is a brain fart, but it’s fucking weirding me out.

I distinctly remember looking for a front pocket on the bib and even pulling at seams thinking it was just hidden. But this morning there was clearly one pocket with a zipper, and even more obvious a second pocket with a flap and snap. Too obvious to miss – so how could I have missed them? My spare keys were still in a lower side pocket by my knee where I had put them when I couldn’t find a pocket on the bib. So I didn’t dream that.

I also distinctly remember thinking how hard it was to deal with the overalls in the bathroom because the straps were sewn on. Clearly they aren’t. And I distinctly remember trying to put my wallet in a back pocket and not finding one, so I put it in a front pocket.

Now I understand how Philip K. Dick could get so obsessed thinking he saw a pink light, even inspiring him to write three novels. The mind is a weird thing, but even then I don’t want to lose it.

JWH

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BASS2020: “This Is Pleasure” by Mary Gaitskill

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 5, 2020

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

This Is Pleasure” by Mary Gaitskill is the kind of cutting edge short story I expected to find in The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS2020). It is the longest story in the anthology by audiobook time. The New Yorker called it a novella for its online publication.

“This is Pleasure” are twin monologues by M and Q which switch back and forth to provide a kind of trial on sexual misconduct. Q is Quin, or Quinlan M. Saunders a middle-aged senior book editor accused of sexual misconduct by a number of women who have forced him out of his successful profession. M is Margot a close woman friend who believes Quin’s words and actions were stupid, but not evil enough to ruin his career.

Mary Gaitskill sets up the story so we can judge Quin for ourselves and she presents a fascinating conundrum of a case. Probably all men are on the #MeToo spectrum, but at what points along that spectrum do men deserve increasing levels punishments? Our legal system decides if a person should go to jail, but it’s the court of public opinion that often creates other kinds of punishments. And in this story Gaitskill suggests that every woman must judge Quin for themselves.

Quin is an interesting character of contrasts. He’s happily married, and doesn’t want to upset his wife. Quin is entirely open to everyone about how he likes to flirt, which his wife either endures, excuses, or ignores. Quin has countless women friends, who put up with different levels of his shenanigans. He offers unlimited support, sympathy, encouragement, and is willing to listen to anything a woman friend needs to talk about no matter what time of day or night. Quin craves intimate information, loves to tease, flirt, flit around sexual issues, while trying to cop whatever feels he can get away with. Yet, Quin is always adamant that he’s not after an affair or real sex, or at least that’s what he tells everyone. Most women consider him creepy but some also consider him well-meaning, even supportive and caring.

However, Quin does cross lines. He believes he always stops if told to do so, and always respects whatever boundaries the women set. But does he? He’s hyper-aware of women needing friendship and freely provides whatever emotional support that’s needed, but he also thrives on crumbs of sexual titillation. Some women don’t begrudge him those crumbs, but others do. So how should we judge Quin. How does society solve a problem that walks the razor’s edge of ethicality?

The only actual solution I can think for cases like Quin, is for them to have a Creepy Friend Agreement for women to sign when they first meet. Sure, this is a Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory solution, and probably absurd. But this story seems to ask how Quin could have protected himself legally and still be himself. In the end, Quin hopes he can defend himself in court, desperately believing he can provide proof that his accusers consented to their strange relationships. From the corroborative evidence Margot presents, we don’t know if this is true or not. She thinks it might be, but it’s doubtful courts will. More than likely Quin is delusional, even with all his skills for reading women, it doubtful he can read them all.

“This is Pleasure” is short story writing at its best.

Other Reviews:

Karen Carlson concluded:

It’s a perplexing story, kind of frustrating, but compelling. It’s long – it’s being sold as a 96-page novella – but reads quickly, if emotionally. I was a bit nervous coming into this story, since Gaitskill has scared me in the past, and not in a fun way. But this was excellent, the kind of story that doesn’t change your life, doesn’t even clarify your thinking, but helps you outline some of the problems a little bit better. Uncertainty can be a good thing, if only because it gives you some breathing room while you’re looking for certainty.

Jake Weber spent a good deal of time evaluating the ethical problems brought up by the story, and admiring fiction for letting him do that:

Is it too didactic of me to turn literary analysis into rules for flirting in 2020? Is that too narrow a purpose, too pedestrian a use to make of art? I'd argue no, that in fact, one of literature's best uses is that it allows us to look at a difficult issue from the outside and analyze it. The best proof of this story's artfulness is how easily it can be turned to a non-artful use.  
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Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 4, 2020

I have never been to San Francisco but over my lifetime I’ve read many books about social movements that city produced. They include the Beats (1950s), Rock (1960s), Gay Liberation (1970s), and Silicon Valley (1970s, 1980s). Anna Wiener’s 2020 book Uncanny Valley is about San Francisco of the 2010s, although I’d say mainly about from 2013 to 2016 when Trump is elected president with a bit of updating to 2018. Anna Wiener was on the peripheral of several interesting news events of the decade, so even though this is a personal memoir, she had a stadium seat to some significant social upheavals that affected more than just San Francisco. This is probably why The New York Times chose Uncanny Valley as one of the “Ten Best Books of 2020.” It was also on these best of the year lists from Esquire, NPR, and Parade. Bookmarks which tracks links to reviews found mostly rave reviews.

Describing what Uncanny Valley is about will be hard. Wiener, graduated from college in 2009 and went to work for publishers in New York, and then at age 25 moved to San Francisco to work at a succession of three internet startups, the most famous of which was GitHub. I’m a computer guy who loves books about the history of computers and computing. I was hoping Uncanny Valley would be another The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It wasn’t. Anna Wiener wasn’t a programmer or computer engineer, and her memoir is not really about computers even though it focuses on people who passionately are.

Wiener’s role in her story was much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, as a commentator on the main characters, or like Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wiener was an observer of a social revolution, not a revolutionary herself. Wiener gets to know the revolutionaries, their causes, their ambitions, their faults, their crimes, their successes and anguishes. Wiener tries to understand the philosophical implications of this revolution but it’s too complex.

The young millenials who become millionaires and billionaires creating tech startups in San Francisco have a lot of overlap with the counterculture revolutionaries of the 1960s. They imagine reshaping society with similar utopian ideals, justifying their hubris with similar sounding pop philosophies, they indulge in drugs, alternative lifestyles, leftover New Age faiths, wild conspiracy theories, and silly science fictional schemes that have echos in previous cultural revolutions. They even contemplate engineering cities from scratch like hippies use to dream about communes. But this time around they are capitalists and they all want to get mega rich.

Silicon Valley and San Francisco are not everyday America, but they impact it in a way we can’t escape. Most of us live at least part-time on the net, joining the hivemind subculture Silicon Valley created. Anna Wiener lived in the eye of the hurricane collecting data readings she hoped would reveal meaning. I’m not sure anyone can make sense of that era. She felt bad and blamed herself for failing, but that’s silly. What she has done is taken excellent notes about her experiences and impressions.

Uncanny Valley could be a textbook supplement for a graduate course on current issues in business and business ethics. It could also be a meditation guide for young people who contemplate their own participation in society. Like the Beats in the 1950s, and the Hippies in the 1960s, and the New Agers in the 1970s, the millenials are struggling to make sense of life and find a righteous path for living in a corrupt world of commerce. Like every generation, they’re looking for meaning in a meaningless reality. In some ways, Uncanny Valley reminds me of The Making of a Counter Culture by Theodore Roszaks – but who remembers that 1969 book?

Throughout this memoir I kept feeling the people Wiener described were going through many of the same psychological struggles I did in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a chronicle of typical youth angst. Of course, that left me wondering if we can ever solve the problems we all rail against early in life, but which we eventually forget when we co-opt ordinariness.

The only thing unique about Wiener’s generation is how some of them got so damn rich. Part of Uncanny Valley deals with the problems of chasing those billions, and soul changing of catching mountains of money, or the agony of failing to become wealthy.

Even though this is a short book, there’s a great deal to it, really too much to digest, including many ethical issues created by the business models of these new tech industries. Often Wiener would be working on software that got into the news for its evil side effects. Or that same software would empower legions of formerly powerless people to do evil. She often worried about the degree of guilt that belong to her.

Ultimately, Uncanny Valley becomes a must read book because Anna Wiener just happened to be in the right place at the right time to glimpse at generation changing events. Nearly everything she writes about has been well documented in news stories over the last decade. If you’ve been paying attention, a lot of it will be familiar. Weiner got closer than most reporters. However, she obscures the names of everything. I found this very annoying, but finally accepted it as a quirky writing affectation. In one review I read, it was suggested she Wiener had to sign so many non-disclosure agreements she’s become shy of using real names for anything. Of course, Wiener might have thought it funny to make us guess.

I don’t know how often I convince blog readers here to read what I review. Uncanny Valley could bore the crap out of most of my friends, or it could dazzle them. If you like nonfiction and memoirs, and interested in issues dealing with current events, profiles of younger generations, sexism, privilege, technological change, politics, economic equality, ecology, homelessness, gentrification, capitalism, and contemporary ethical issues, then this book might be for you. If reality overwhelms you, you should avoid it like the Covid.

Additional Reading:

JWH

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Their Wonderful Lives

by James Wallace Harris

Do you look back over your life tallying a long list of regrets? Do you fantasize about taking roads not taken? Are there people you wished you had thanked, or expressed your love, or just gotten to know? Do you remember saying things you wished you hadn’t? Are there ambitions you regret not chasing? Are you the kind of person that wishes they had some do-overs? Well, I have a book for you – The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It belongs to a group of books and movies that represent a tiny subgenre of fantasy about living life over:

The Midnight Library is a current bestseller that came out in August. It’s attracting bookworms like crazy for its feel-good inspirations. The Midnight Library offers the same kind of life lessons found in It’s A Wonderful Life, Replay, and Groundhog Day. Evidently, if we’re allowed to live our lives over, we would all learn similar insights. Could that be true? Can we learn just as much by consuming stories about characters with life do-overs?

In The Midnight Library Nora Seed is a 35-year-old woman full of regrets who commits suicide but finds herself not in heaven or hell, but a library. Nora lived in the small town of Bedford, England. Remember, George Bailey lived in the small New England town of Bedford Falls. Unlike George, Nora doesn’t get to see what Bedford would have been without her, instead, she gets to relive her life in countless ways based on taking different forks in her past. That’s somewhat like what Jeff Winston gets to do in the novel Replay who lives his whole life over and over trying different paths each time, and a little bit like Phil Connors experiences in Groundhog Day.

The creator of these stories teach us a kind of philosophy by showing us lives lived over, or even over and over. I do not want to spoil The Midnight Library for you, so I won’t go into its unique plot details or metaphysical conjectures. Let’s just say I found it a very compelling idea for a fantasy pick-me-up.

Have you ever pictured yourself dying and instead of being reborn into any of the traditional religious destinations, imagine yourself coming to in some higher dimension with the true meaning of existence coming back to you? Sort of the ultimate V-8 head slapping moment where you exclaim, “Oh, that’s what life was all about! Now I remember.” Something impossible to comprehend or predict in this life.

I have often wondered that. It’s not what Nora Seed experiences in The Midnight Library, but her story offers an interesting alternative like that. If I had to place a bet, I’d bet that death is oblivion. But it sure would be nice if after dying we found ourselves in some kind of logical reality where all of our existence on Earth made good sense.

Fantasies like The Midnight Library, Replay, Groundhog Day and It’s A Wonderful Life offer a kind of existential hope, a fairytale for adults. The Midnight Library was one of the few bright spots of 2020.

JWH

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Memory Management in Humans 1.0

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 26, 2020

Even though I often bitch and moan about my memory problems, I don’t feel they’re a sign of early dementia. Humans just have poor memory management compared to computers. If Homo sapiens sapiens ever have a spinoff species I wonder if it will have better memory management? Science fiction writers often imagine Homo superior with superhero superpowers but I tend to believe whatever traits that sets our descendents apart from us will be rather mundane. I hope improved memory is one, but it will probably be the adaption to hotter weather and resistance to toxic pollutants.

Today I felt the need for the specific kind of memory if I was Jim Harris 2.0. I belong to a small group of people who discuss science fiction stories by email. This week we’re discussing “Utopian” by Mack Reynolds, which came out in 1970 about the problems people would face in the year 2000. I read two or three short stories by Mack Reynolds this summer and I wanted to reference them in my comments about “Utopian.”

However, I couldn’t recall anything about those stories – at first. Slowly, as I strained my constipated mind, I shat out a few rabbit turds of recollections, that eventually allowed a few larger memories to flow out. The results looked unrecognizable to what I had consumed. It’s a shame. We have rich experiences and all we retain are little piles of memory shit.

What would it be like if everything I read stored perfectly in my mind and I could recall it whole later? Yeah, I would be a computer then, wouldn’t I? But I’m not, so what’s the best work around?

I’m currently reading a novel, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig that’s about a young woman, Nora Seed, who commits suicide at 35. On the road to oblivion she is offered the opportunity to live a different versions of her life, ones based on paths she had not taken when younger. On one path she became an Olympic swimmer, but Nora realized once she was in that successful life just how much she had to give up to become an elite athlete. It required such a single-minded focus that she had to drop everything else she loved.

If I wanted a mind capable of remembering and writing about the work of Mack Reynolds in the kind of depth that I’m fantasizing about, I’d have to have ignored a whole array of other writers and stories I’ve been enjoying. The reason why I’m not great at anything is because I’m half-ass at everything else. I’m not finished with The Midnight Library, but one of the lessons I’m wondering Nora learns is the virtue of being a dilettante at many things.

I’ve tried diaries, journals, blogs, spreadsheets, databases, text editors, note taking software, 3×5 cards, clipping files, mind mapping tools, and so on trying to organize my thoughts and memories. Nothing works. I’m always surfing on a foamy wave of chaotic fragments of memories that I wished were whole. My mind craves the autistic trait of compulsive organizing but I can’t put everything in visually appealing stacks.

Each day I get up thinking of a new project to pursue. Whatever memories I can dredge together and hold in my mind for the course of the day become my entire set of tinker toys to build that project. Once I go to sleep at night, everything gets reset. I feel like Leonard Shelby in the 2000 film Memento waking up and starting over. I can carry a project over to another day, but I must rethink everything about it the next day. Often that takes me in a completely different direction. This explains why on a number of occasions when researching on Google I found articles I had written on the very topic I was thinking about writing that day, but had forgotten I had written. That really produces an eerie feeling.

What I keep searching for is a external tool or a mental discipline that would allow me to build a larger project by not having to restart everything the next morning. I marvel at people who can create large complex creative works over weeks and months. How do they keep everything in their head day after day? I have to assume their minds have laser focus ignoring endless distractions. I’m always seduced by distractions. I love distractions. I can’t resist squirrels and shiny objects.

Even knowing that distractions are keeping from doing what I really want, I can’t ignore their siren calls. There seems to be two kinds of people in this world. Those that get things done, and those that don’t. And it doesn’t appear that memory recall is the key difference between the two types. I’m guessing it’s more about limiting the amount of items the head juggles that’s more important. That managing a smaller set of data is the key to focusing. Which makes me wonder if Walter Isaacson had to forget all about Steve Jobs to write about Leonardo di Vinci?

If I could only think about one project until it’s finished. Maybe that’s the key to managing memory. I sit here thinking about all the interests my mind would have to ignore in one day, and that makes me feel like Wile E. Coyote trying to walk on air high above the canyon below.

JWH

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BASS 2020: “Something Street” by Carolyn Ferrell

by James Wallace Harris

Something Street” is exactly the kind of story I was looking for when I bought The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020). It’s a Category 3 hurricane in its emotional intensity, with anguished gusts pushing into Category 4. The only other story with any powerful emotionality I’ve reviewed so far from BASS 2020 is “Godmother Tea,” but it was only a Category 1. “Something Street” roars with pain and anger.

“Something Street” was an hour and nine minutes on audio, making it the second longest story in the BASS 2020 anthology. Technically by some yardsticks it’s a novelette. However, I do recommend that you follow the link above and read it online before reading any further here. Actually, I highly recommend getting the audiobook edition of BASS 2020 to hear the powerful narration by Robin Miles. She brings Parthenia’s story to life like a one-person show on Broadway.

Trigger warning: This story is about a fictional famous black comedian who is a rapist. It’s obviously inspired by Bill Cosby. Carolyn Ferrell has divided the story into sixty sections. Cosby was accused by sixty women. This is Parthenia’s story, the wife of the comedian nicknamed Craw Daddy. I’m not sure how much it intentionally parallels Camille Cosby’s life but it feels like it faintly does. This makes me somewhat queasy because I wonder about the ethicality of using famous people for fiction. Not just here, but at any time.

I don’t intend to describe or summarize “Something Street” because it’s long, complex, and very deep. I’m afraid any description or quote I might give could dissuade you from reading it. Besides it so rich that I could write a dissertation on it, and I just don’t have the energy and time. “Something Street” is available to read online, and I recommend that you do so. But like I said, if you want the full force gale experience, get the audiobook of BASS 2020.

I do want to talk about why I crave powerful short stories. We live in a far-out reality that we mostly ignore because of our endless pursuit of diversions and duties. Reading an intense short story canes me over the head and shoulders like a Zen master telling me to pay attention.

I don’t feel my day has been worthy unless I read one or two stories that give me an that intense existential wake-the-fuck-up rush. “Something Street” did that for me today. Another recent read that did that was “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory. The link provides both the story to read and audio to hear.

You need to read “Something Street” very closely to get all the implied horror, some of which I goes beyond its real life inspiration. The reason why this seventh story in BASS 2020 stands out is its dramatic voice. Parthenia is painted in hyper-realistic details. “Something Street” has a baroque structure, with a rising arc ending in a tragic epiphany. I seldom use this term, but “Something Street” is a tour de force. Carolyn Ferrell hit one out of the park.

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

JWH

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BASS 2020: “Halloween” by Marian Crotty

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Evidently teenage lesbians can go just as girl crazy as other girls go boy crazy. In “Halloween” by Marian Crotty, seventeen-year-old high school senior Julie can’t control her impulses for college girl Erika and gets strategic dating advice from her thrice-married grandmother. “Halloween” is a nice little love story that moves from beginning to end in a linear progression. It does offer a small subplot about Julie’s jealousy for her mother’s growing transfer of affection for her boyfriend as Julie gets old enough to move out, and it digresses a delicious bit about the colorful grandmother, Jan. Maybe a little too much because Jan almost upstages Julie in this story.

Although “Halloween” is told with a decent concentration of embellishing details such as working at Yotopia, everybody else’s love life, bits of academic demands, and a few faint details about Tallahassee, Florida, the story is pretty much about Julie’s obsession with Erika. Sure, love stories dominate fiction, and its mildly interesting to learn about the sex lives of the latest generation, but it’s also a kind of ho-hum mundane love story. Because part of the story was set at Yotopia I couldn’t help compare it to John Updike’s classic teens at work story, “A&P.”

“Halloween” is an engaging story but won’t be memorable. Why is “A&P” still being taught in schools over a half century after it was first published and “Halloween” won’t? Why has “A&P” stuck with me ever since it was assigned to my English class back in the 1960s? How do you describe ineffable qualities?

There are milestones in the life of short stories. Getting written is a kind of conception. Getting published is a kind of birth. Getting selected for a best-of-the-year annual is a kind of graduation. Getting reprinted in retrospective anthologies is a kind of career. Becoming a classic is a form of longevity, even immortality. With every story I read that I like I have to ask if it has what it takes to keep living. And if I don’t think it will, I have to ask what would it take to survive.

“Halloween” needs something. Either more Julie, or more Erika, or more of both. If you compare Julie with Joy in “Godmother Tea” you’ll know what I mean. I wanted a lot more details about Julie’s inner world, and a lot more details about what she sees in Erika. For “Halloween” to survive we readers would have to feel what Julie feels when she can’t stop herself from going to the Halloween party. The story as is made me intellectually understand, but for it to reach the next level I’d have to feel it.

Jake Weber’s review. He found some comic elements that I didn’t. I recently wrote an essay about science fiction stories that could be read straight or as humor depending on your current perspective or mood.

Other Reviews:

Karen Carlson framed her insights around the three generations of women with relationship problems.

Jake Weber was fascinated by the questionable dating advice Jan gives Julie.

JWH

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BASS 2020: “The Nanny” by Emma Cline

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 15, 2020

“The Nanny” by Emma Cline is available to read online at The Paris Review.

Have you ever dreamed of writing fiction? I have. I’ve even studied it in college. Writing stories is much harder than it looks. I don’t know if I fail because I’m a bad writer or because I don’t understand how stories are told or constructed. I’m reading and reviewing The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020) this year to see if I can spot what good writers do that I don’t.

Even though I’m about to nitpick another story, I must reiterate that all these stories are well written and entertaining. However, I’m not sure what kind of reader will like them. Few bookworms read short stories, and I think that most that do are would-be writers. Getting short stories published is like making it onto farm team in baseball – but the real goal is to get into the show.

Emma Cline has already made it to the big time with The Girls in 2016, so I expect her short story production to fall off as she writes more novels. This makes “The Nanny” an important story to study because we know Cline has the knack for attracting readers. And as soon as I started reading “The Nanny” I noticed that her story is full of significant details. And “The accumulation of significant details is the key to great fiction” is the most important piece of advice I got at Clarion West in 2002, a six-weeks writing workshop.

However, writing techniques are not the only thing I’m studying with this BASS 2020 project. I’m also analyzing what do people like to read and why. And even more than that, why do people read short stories. There’s several answers to that. First and foremost, we naturally like the art form, but more specifically, we get hooked by the opening:

There isn’t much in the house,” Mary said. “I’m sorry.”

Kayla looked around, shrugged. “I’m not even that hungry.”

Mary set the table, bright Fiestaware on place mats alongside fringed cloth napkins. They ate microwave pizzas.

“Gotta have something a little fresh,” Mary’s boyfriend, Dennis, said cheerily, heaping spinach leaves from a plastic bin onto his pizza. He seemed pleased by his ingenuity. Kayla ate the spinach, took a few bites of crust. Mary poured her more water.

When Kayla asked for a beer, she saw Mary and Dennis glance at each other.

“Sure, sweetie,” Mary said. “Dennis, do we have any beer? Maybe check the garage refrigerator?”

I didn’t find this opening very enticing. Kayla appears to be our protagonist, and she’s being fed on the fly, maybe even an inconvenient or unwanted guest. I can vividly picture this scene though.

Cline gets down to business in the next hunk of description:

Kayla drank two over dinner, then a third out on the porch, her legs tucked up into the oversize hoodie she had taken from Mary’s son’s room. The wildness of the backyard made everything beyond it look fake: the city skyline, the stars. Reception was awful this high in the canyon. She could try to walk closer to the road again, out by the neighbor’s fence, but Mary would notice and say something. Kayla could feel Dennis and Mary watching her from inside the kitchen, tracking the glow of her screen. What would they do, take her phone away? She searched Rafe’s name, searched her own. The numbers had grown. Such nightmarish math, the frenzied tripling of results, and how strange to see her name like this, stuffing page after page, appearing in the midst of even foreign languages, hovering above photos of Rafe’s familiar face.

We really don’t know what’s happening. Evidently Kayla is hiding out because she’s become notorious on the internet with a famous person named Rafe. I do know what’s happening because I’ve already read the story, but at this point for first time readers, the motives of this paragraph are a mystery. And that bugs me. I don’t like stories that withhold information from the reader to create suspense. Of course, that’s a pet peeve of mine, and it might not be yours.

Everything that unfolds in “The Nanny” is a mystery because Cline doesn’t tell us upfront what’s going on. Now this might be a great technique for hooking some readers. Since I don’t think I should spoil the story for you, I can’t tell you why Cline is doing this.

But how can I talk about the story then? Can I trust you to go read the story and then come back? It is online. Should I just warn you to not read beyond this point until you’ve finished reading BASS 2020? I don’t think many people who are reading this blog plan to read these stories. In that case, any benefit you get from reading what I say comes from my observations, so I matter as well spill the beans.

Kayla is hired by Rafe and Jessica to nanny their son Henry. Rafe is a movie actor, and Kayla ends up having sex with him. Then Kayla is on the run from paparazzi and bad press. At first I wondered if this was going to be a #MeToo story, but it’s not. It’s really about Kayla attitude towards the world. Cline captures a young woman who flows along with an almost nihilistic outlook. At one point we are told:

The thing was, she was a smart girl. She’d studied art history. Her first class, when Professor Hunnison turned out the lights and they all sat in the dark—they were eighteen, most of them, still children, still kids who had slept at home all their lives. Then the whir of the projector, and on the screen appeared hovering portals of light and color, squares of beauty. It was like a kind of magic, she had thought back then, when thoughts like that didn’t feel embarrassing.

How mysterious it seemed sometimes—that she had once been interested or capable enough to finish papers. Giotto and his reimaginings of De Voragine’s text in his frescoes. Rodin’s challenge to classical notions of fixed iconographic goals, Michelangelo’s bodies as vessels for God’s will. It was as if she’d once been fluent in another language, now forgotten.

Evidently, Kayla once had academic ambitions, even hopes of having something to distinguish herself, or at least impressing her professor. Through the course of the story we learn she wasn’t smart enough. Her affair with Rafe might have been another hope for Kayla, but it was only out of boredom for Rafe. She thought the relationship made her special, but when everyone turned against her she had to run. She just goes through the motions as Mary and Dennis take care of her out of pity. In the end we are told the sad reality of Kayla’s dreams:

Dennis scanned Kayla’s face, her eyes, her mouth, and she could tell he was seeing what he wanted to see, finding confirmation of whatever redemptive story he’d told himself about who she was. Dennis looked sad. He looked tired and sad and old. And the thing was, someday, she would be old, too. Her body would go. Her face. And what then? She knew, already, that she wouldn’t handle it well. She was a vain, silly girl. She wasn’t good at anything. The things she had once known—Rodin! Chartres!—all that was gone. Was there a world in which she returned to these things? She hadn’t been smart enough, really. Even then. Lazy, grasping for shortcuts. Her thesis moldering in her college library, a hundred labored pages on The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple. She’d messed with the margins and font sizes until she barely made the required page count. Professor Hunnison, she thought miserably, do you ever think of me?

Kayla lives in a society that admires people who create successful identities and she struggles to find anything at all to set herself apart. The story concludes in a way that turns even us against her:

At least he had given up on the idea of lecturing her. Convincing her there was some lesson in all this. That wasn’t how the world worked, and wasn’t it a little tragic that Dennis didn’t know that yet? No use feeling bad. There wasn’t anything to learn. Kayla smiled, sucked in her stomach, just in case—because who knew? Maybe there was a photographer hidden out there in the darkness, someone who’d been watching her, who’d followed her here, someone who had waited, patiently, for her to appear.

Would the story had been just as successful is Cline had told us right up front that Kayla was on the run for having sex with a married actor and the popular opinion was against her? What if we were told Kayla was a graduate school dropout at the beginning of the story and she was searching for any kind of recognition she could latch onto?

Was it fair of Cline to hide Kayla’s faults from us? Mary and Dennis hope to help Kayla, and see her as a good person – at first. We assume Rafe and Jessica did too. And haven’t we held out hope for Kayla too, also assuming she was a good person. Then how do we feel at the end when we learn she’s pathetically wants a paparazzi to find her?

Is it good storytelling to hold off a surprise until the end? Personally, I would have preferred to know the ending right up front, and then got to watch Kayla closely throughout the story to understand all the interactions of the characters. If we had known the ending at the beginning, then these paragraphs at the front of the story would have taken on different meanings.

Before Tuesday there had been hardly any record of Kayla: an old fund-raising page from Students for a Free Tibet; a blog run by a second cousin with photos from a long-ago family reunion, teenage Kayla, mouth full of braces, holding a paper plate bent with barbecue. Her mother had called the cousin and asked her to take the photo down, but by then it had passed into the amber of the internet.

Were there any new ones? She looked through the image results again, in case. They had dug up photos of Kayla lagging behind Rafe and Jessica, holding Henry’s hand. Rafe in his button-down and jeans, surrounded by women and children. Kayla had no photos of her and Rafe together. That was strange, wasn’t it? She came across a new photo—she looked only okay. A certain pair of jeans she loved was not, she saw, as flattering as she’d imagined it to be. She saved the photo to her phone so she could zoom in on it later.

Kayla made herself close the search results, then let her text messages refresh. A split-second reprieve where she could believe that perhaps the forces in the universe were aligning and aiming something from Rafe in her direction. She knew before they finished loading that there would be nothing.

Knowing the ending would change my attitude about the information given here. I wonder if Cline always saw Kayla’s faults and wrote the story thinking about them, and didn’t realize some readers might follow different assumptions before learning the truth?

It’s not that we eventually turn against Kayla completely, but it would have been more useful knowing her weaknesses sooner. I assume Cline wanted us to get to know Kayla slowly like everyone in the story. But then, we wouldn’t know the breadcrumbs Cline sprinkled throughout the story meant unless we read the story twice.

Of course, that brings up a whole other issue. So many of the stories I admire require two or three readings before all the author’s efforts are revealed. Should we always read short stories twice immediately? Should we write them assuming people will read them twice? That rarely happens.

Is it possible to keep the reader completely informed with one reading?

The point of “The Nanny” is to create a psychological portrait of Kayla, but is that what readers want from short stories? There is no plot. There is no ending. Nothing is wrapped up. I accept that in literary stories, but do most readers?

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Jake Weber’s review

JWH

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BASS 2020: “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers

by James Wallace Harris,

Near the end of 1968, Connell and I were over George’s house and the three of us were having a passionate discussion about “And Then There Were None” by Eric Frank Russell. Connell and I were in the 12th grade, and George was in the 11th. We considered science fiction important because it was about the future. We were just back from seeing the launch of Apollo 8, and what could validate the importance of the future more than that?

Evidently, George’s mom was listening in on us. Mrs. Kurschner came in and said, “You know when you grow up you’ll realize that science fiction is childish crap, not even real literature. You won’t take it seriously at all.” We were stunned and insulted. I knew Mrs. Kurschner was well educated, world traveled, a sophisticated women, besides being a mom. We all argued with her at once, pleading she was wrong. Over the years, John Updike, and other famous literary authors would write essays that reiterated her opinion about how science fiction was crap written for adolescent boys. The genre got less respect than Rodney Dangerfield.

Well, I’ve outlived Mrs. Kurschner, John Updike, and many other literary snobs who put down science fiction. The fourth story in The Best American Short Stories 2020 is science fiction, “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers. Oh sure, over the decades genre fiction has slowly snuck into BASS and literary writers began using science fictional themes in their hibrow works. There’s even The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories that are part of the growing BASS series of annuals.

The inclusion of science fiction in BASS has always been rather tentative, on the gentle side of science fiction, and that’s true of “Sibling Rivalry.” Back in the 1960s I knew damn few people that read or watched science fiction, especially before Star Trek. Now our pop culture is supersaturated with science fictional themes and ideas. I suppose few readers will be surprised to read about androids in the annual BASS volume, or even resent the fact. Does that mean that science is finally mainstream?

Nah, it turns out Mrs. Kurschner was right all along, and so was John Updike. Science fiction is not mature literature, and yes it’s targeted at our adolescent nature, which our culture glorifies. I’m much older now than Mrs. Kurschner was back then, and I’ve read a lot more science fiction and literature since then. But, don’t take me for a turncoat. I just see science fiction and serious literature as two separate art forms with uniquely different ambitions. Sure they both borrow techniques from the other, but for each to hit their defining targets they must fire their canons in entirely different directions.

“Sibling Rivalry” is a story that shoots at both targets, and misses twice. That’s not to say I wasn’t thoroughly engaged and entertained by this story, but if you’ve been reading my reviews of BASS 2020 so far you know I consider high quality writing and exceptionally entertaining stories to be the minimum qualifications for this anthology. My naggings and quibblings only deal with how these stories meet my jaded hunger for fiction. It’s an addiction, so I always need purer, more potent stories. In other words, any marketing data obtained here only applies to one buyer – me.

“Sibling Rivalry” on the surface feels like ordinary literary fiction, Peter and Julie Burkhart have two children, Matt, 11, and Melissa, 7, and the story is about their love and concern for raising their kids and loving each other. There are two differences in their suburban world. First, Melissa is a synth, an AI artificial person who looks exactly like a human seven-year-old, and second, instead of everyone having smartphones, they have cookies, which network their thoughts, allowing parents to spy on their children, and for grownups to gossip more easily.

In the science fiction genre both of those divergents from normal life are called What If ideas. What if we could buy children to order? What if we had technological telepathy?

One of the biggest challenges to writing science fiction is integrating a neat idea into a plot with appealing characters. Most science fiction fails because the characters feel like chess pieces acting out a neat science fiction idea. This isn’t true with “Sibling Rivalry.” Byers makes the story about the Burkharts, and you really feel for them, or at least I did. Thumbs up for the literary side of this story.

Science fiction often fails too because writers use retreaded plots about space warfare, overthrowing dystopias, repelling alien invasions, battling robotic overlords, and the romance and intrigued inside galactic empires. It’s a real challenge to write an original science fiction story. Byers is far less original here, because countless SF stories have dealt with robots that look just like people. Byers follow two well worn paths regarding androids, but I’ll up his grade for his exploration of cookies.

“Sibling Rivalry” is a kind of Sci-Fi Literary Lite, sometimes called Slipstream. Basically, it tries to merge regular literary characters and settings with a gentle intrusions of science fictional tropes. In this story Byers presents a near future where he introduces two disruptive technologies, like the iPhone did in 2007.

Back in the old days of science fiction, the common writing advice was to only introduce one science fictional change in a story and play it out to its logical conclusion. I guess they don’t give that advice out anymore because Byers bites off two at once, and he veers into two very tired SF trends – sex with androids and robot overlords. I thought this kitchen sink approach diluted the story, and wished it had only been about cookies. But I still liked the story very much.

With both technologies, Byers attempts to let his readers get a feeling for a future that’s very much like now, but slightly altered by the two technologies. Because Byers jumps around exploring different ideas the story is essentially plotless, and several interesting revelations go unexplored. That’s actually perfectly fine for literary writing, but it might disappoint genre fans. Nothing is resolved or tied up. Basically, Byers opens up Pandora’s box and we get to watch several fires start burning. However, all of them are intellectually amusing to contemplate. And that’s the value of science fiction, contemplating possibilities.

There are two types of science fiction fans: those that don’t care about the science and those that do. When I was growing up, some fans were like Connell, George, and I. We loved reading science fiction because so we could argue over whether the ideas in a story were realistic – were scientifically possible. The vast hordes of SF fans only care about stories, even if the science is at the level of comic books. Which is why most literary critics cringe at science fiction. Comic book science is idiotic to mature minds.

There is a faith in science fiction that’s no more logical than fundamentalists who believe the world is just six thousand years old and mankind once coexisted with dinosaurs. I’ve often been on online and said faster-than-light travel won’t happen and people reacted like I said God doesn’t exist at a Southern Baptist revival. Try being Mr. Skeptical Inquirer at any science fiction convention and you might get run through with a Bat’leth by a adolescent femfan.

I feel most readers, either literary fans or SF fans just want a good story. There are some literary readers who want characters to act realistically human, and some science fiction fans who want SF stories to be scientific. Most readers aren’t critical in either regard if the story is fun.

Michael Byers presents an idea that is almost universally embraced in modern science fiction – that technology will produce robots/androids/replicants that are indistinguishable from real humans. We see such AI creatures in books and movies everywhere. I say we’ll see them as soon as we see FTL or time travel. In other words, never. My opinion is atypical, a downer, to those who believe anything is possible.

In “Sibling Rivalry” laws prevent couples from having more than one child, so those wanting a big family buy extra synth children. They are identical to human children in all ways, including the ability to grow. This is an absurd What If to contemplate on so many levels. The basic premise of society outlawing children to save the Earth is believable, but allowing unlimited synths instead is not. They would also put a burden on the environment too, maybe even more than human children. Byers does say synth children are carefully crafted from analyzing the parents behavior, so I would have found it more believable if synth children were just a vanity fad, rather than a byproduct of trying to control overpopulation.

Even though I disbelieve in artificial humans, I will accept the idea for the story. I do believe we will create AI minds that are sentient and self-aware. I will assume Byers’ synth children are literary symbolisms, although I do believe Byers was not intending to be symbolic. But would parents love AI children if they looked like mechanical spiders, even if they mentally mirrored the parents? I don’t think so.

I believe Byers is the kind of SF writer that wants us to believe everything in his story is realistic just for the purpose of the story. When I ask SF fans if they object to unscientific things in SF they say they only judge stories for the storytelling. However, if I tell the same people those concepts don’t exist outside the context of fiction, they get bent out of shape. But analyzing the psychology of people who passionately believe in angels or hot girl robots is for another essay.

Insights into understanding humans is my yardstick for measuring literary fiction. “Sibling Rivalry” lightly touches on some issues I think are worthy of considering, especially about how much do we really want to know about what goes on in other people’s minds.

Imagining possibilities that time or science has yet to discover is my yardstick for measuring science fiction. Byers didn’t do anything with synthetic humans that hasn’t been done before, but some of his ideas about cookies intrigued me. I don’t know if they are scientifically possible. I tend to doubt it, but I’m less skeptical of them than the idea of creating artificial people we can’t tell from real people.

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Be sure and read Jacob Weber’s review of this story because he chronicles the stages he goes through as he reacts to each new bit of information in the story. A neat technique.

JWH

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BASS 2020: “A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed” by Jason Brown

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 11, 2020

In literary fiction, plot is often a contrivance that careens the story toward genre fiction. That’s why I often hear friends say “I don’t like those slice of life stories” when sneering at literary fiction. They want a plot that carries them along in the story. “Godmother Tea” the first story in The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020) didn’t have a plot. The second story, “The Apartment” did, one that fits the short story template of having a beginning, middle, and end, with an arc of rising action that includes characters growing and learning. It even had an old fashioned ending that would have amused Poe or O’Henry.

The third story in BASS 2020, “A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed” by Jason Brown promised a plot but it fizzled out. Although I might be completed and fleshed out in the ten linked stories in the collection by the same name, but I haven’t read it.

By coincidence, both this story and “The Apartment” are about a man wanting to acquire a home from an old dying person. Our first person narrator, John Howland, is just as neurotic as Joy was in “Godmother Tea” so the story is really about him and not the quest of ending up with property. Jason Brown has created an imaginary family dynasty that began with the first John Howland arriving on the Mayflower, but is now petering out while fighting over the last four acres they still own in Maine, on Howland Island that the family once owned completely.

The current John Howland is having the same growing up pains as Joy in “Godmother Tea,” but his anxieties are diluted by a story of a grandfather scheduling himself to die on Saturday with a pre-dug hole waiting for him. As a reader I’m torn between following two interesting fictional forks in the road. The first is the kookie Howland family feuding, and the second is the hapless John Howland quest to get married and have children.

I have to say the most interesting aspect of “A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed” is John’s problem of wanting to marry Melissa, an independent woman who isn’t interested marriage. From my perspective outside the story looking into John Howland’s inner perspective, I can’t see why any woman would want to marry him. His dream is to marry and have children so he can occupy the ancestral manse that has no electricity or indoor plumbing.

This story is entertaining because Jason Brown has concocted a fun story and has the creative skills to do so, but that’s all it is. I’m afraid I crave something heavier. To give you an example of what I mean read “Useless Things” by Maureen McHugh.

In this story, the unnamed narrator is a woman living alone out in the country in New Mexico near the border. Times are tough, few people have jobs, drought is the norm. The temporal setting is the near future when climate change has taken its economic toll, but the story could be very close to now. Like the two other stories about wanting property, the narrator of this story is struggling to make ends meet so she can pay her property taxes, keep her home, and avoid becoming homeless person living out of her car. To scratch out a survivable income she makes realistic dolls that look like babies that have died for a very sad clientele. But a hobo immigrant steals her tools, so she’s forced to sculpt realistic dildoes for online buyers instead because they require fewer tools and resources.

There is a grim realism in “Useless Things” that hits you in the gut. The story scares us about the future. We feel the desperation, fear, and pain. The people in the story don’t feel like they were made up fit a story, even though they were.

I’m not saying fiction needs to be grim to be worthy. Joy’s struggle for identity in “Godmother Tea” is funny and light even though it’s about a serious existential crisis. But I am saying I want stories that make an emotional impact. They have to be about something I can connect with reality. I want stories that point to something other than themselves. Does that make sense?

Now this is just me. My take on BASS 2020 is probably extremely atypical. I’m old and tired of just being entertained, but I do know and understand the value of entertainment. Just watch Sullivan’s Travel (1941) to understand why I say that. I seek fiction where writers are driven to comment on reality, usually inspired by their angst, or some other powerfully felt emotion. I want stories that make me cry or laugh, or dazzle me with awe and insight. Creative and clever are amusing, earning some Brownie points, but they don’t satisfy my hunger for hardcore emotionality.

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

JWH

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BASS 2020: “The Apartment” by T. C. Boyle

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Writing teachers used to tell budding writers to write what they know. But if you’ve run out of things to say about yourself or the people around you, you’re left to make stuff up. My natterings about “Godmother Tea,” the first story in The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020), expressed a theory that literary writing tends feel biographical or autobiographical. That’s especially true of stories by young writers. Older writers who have long said everything they wanted to say about themselves, tend to make up fascinating fictional tales, but still with rich characterization. Even with contrived plots, the true hallmark of genre stories, the literary characters feel like real people.

T. C. Boyle is currently 71, and his story, “The Apartment” feels like something Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had taken a very long Rip Van Winkle nap. The story is about a wager between a fortyish man and an eightyish woman with a setting that begins in France in the 1960s. The main characters are merely called Monsieur R and Madame C. Boyle paints what feels like realistic portraits of both in rich detail, but “The Apartment” is really about the plot.

I don’t have a lot to say about this story. It was well-written, entertaining, and I will soon forget it. “The Apartment” is finely crafted by a master wordsmith. It should even make a lovely little movie. I might continue to remember Joy in “Godmother Tea” because the story was about realistic conflicts in her head. “The Apartment” is about an artificial conflict invented for telling this story, and even though it’s entertaining, it’s not memorable.

Most writers who succeed over a lifetime churn out countless such stories, but it’s quite difficult to write memorable stories. Over the decades, I’ve picked up The Best American Short Stories now and then. I’m always dazzled by the level of writing. But my mind seldom hangs on to any of the stories, even when I feel they are excellent. MFA programs have been churning out armies of high trained literary writers for decades, writers that can write with New Yorker level skill. But after you read a few hundred such stories, it’s hard to remember any of them.

I am old. I’ve consumed tens of thousands of good stories in my lifetime if you count up all the short stories, novels, movies, plays, and television shows. This year I’m digging through BASS 2020 looking for something. I’m not sure what, but just being a well written story it’s not. The first story “Godmother Tea” offered a faint scent of what I’m after. I’ve got 18 stories to go, so maybe I can still find what I’m after.

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Update:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic has a much more extensive review of “The Apartment” where he reports the story is based on real life events and characters. Now I’m less impressed with Boyle’s plotting and creativity. And the grotesque Poe ending takes on a whole different meaning.

Karen Carlson at A Just Recompense was also reminded of Poe when reading this story.

JWH