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Can I Discipline Myself to Be More Disciplined?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 3, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Will Americans Ever Be United?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 30, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is It Time To Ditch News Feed Apps?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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There’s No Modesty at the Urologist

James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Do Your Possessions Reflect Your Personality?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janis Mom and Dad

This is the story that goes with it:

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

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

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

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

Books April 2020 cropped

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

 

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Expecting the Unexpected

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

 

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What If You Could Be Young Again for One Day?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, June 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Why Do We Love Television So Much?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd Grade (TV season 1958/59)

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

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

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

1958 Becky_Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3rd Grade (TV season 1959/60)

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

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

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

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

However, here’s what premiered in 1959:

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

4th Grade (TV season 1960/61)

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

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

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

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

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

5th Grade (TV season 1961/62)

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

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

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

6th Grade (TV season 1962/63)

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

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

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

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

7th Grade (TV season 1963/64)

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

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

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

8th Grade (TV season 1964/65)

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

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

9th Grade (TV season 1965/66)

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

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

10th Grade (TV season 1966/67)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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If I Had Free Will, I’d …

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 24, 2020

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

If I had free will, I’d:

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

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

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

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

p.s.

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

JWH

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Restless in an Age of Anxiety

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

 

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Have You had BPH Surgery?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, May 16, 2020

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

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

JWH

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What Is Your Specialty in Life?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 13, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s yours?

JWH

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Devs – Turn On, Tune In, Psyche Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Reading:

devs-stewart

JWH

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Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 30, 2020

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

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

tamsin-greig-anne-trenchard

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

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

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

Epix

JWH

 

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War and Peace – Book v. TV

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War and Peace family tree

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

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

JWH

 

 

 

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When Will This Be Over?

by James Wallace Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

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Emotional Reactions to Pandemic Times

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

 

 

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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim

 

 

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Playing Six Degrees of Separation with SARS-CoV-2

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 22, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

science

JWH

 

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Lessons From Black Swans

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

 

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Abandon Ship (1957)

 

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh

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

JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 8, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 7, 2020

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

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

Late Migrations is a collection of 112 of her pieces.

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

THE IMPERFECT-FAMILY BEATITUDES
BIRMINGHAM, 1972

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can follow Renkl on Facebook.

JWH

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What Were The Harry Potter Books of Your Childhood?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, March 3, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

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How To Prepare for the Pandemic

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

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How Christianity Was Created

by James Wallace Harris, 2/26/20

I am a lifelong atheist, but I’m not the kind of atheist who goes around trying to convince folks that God does not exist. Religion serves an important function for many people, giving them belief, community, morality, and solace. For some strange reason, I’m an atheist that enjoys reading about the history of Christianity, The Bible, and Jesus. Countless books have been written on these subjects, but most have been theological. I have no interest in those books. What I like to read are books by historians trying to figure out what actually happened two thousand years ago. It’s a magnificent cold case, a tremendous scholarly puzzle.

One of my favorite authors writing about this history is Bart D. Ehrman. I’m currently listening to Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, one of his older books from 1999, but it recently came out on audio. Next month I’m looking forward to reading Ehrman’s new book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife when it comes out (3/31/20). But as of now, I’ve read:

For a historical figure that we know practically nothing about, Ehrman has found a great deal to write about. The fun of all this historical sleuthing is putting the clues together in various ways hoping for new insights. Most believers assume we know a whole lot about Jesus but from a scholar’s point of view, most of the common beliefs about Jesus are made up.

What Ehrman and other historical scholars are trying to do is figure out who Jesus was before he died. What we have are writings that began appearing decades after his death. The goal of all the research is to examine various written memories of Jesus to determine if anything remembered might be true of the actual person. People have been making up stuff about Jesus for two thousand years. The assumption is the oldest documents might have the best clues. That’s what Ehrman’s books are about, going over the old documents, again and again, comparing them against each other. Reading Ehrman also teaches us about the methodologies of historians and the limitations of memory and writing.

Ehrman mostly focuses on first-century documents, the writings of Paul, the Gospels, a few other documents, and their possible ur-texts we don’t have. For a period of about 20-30 years after Jesus died his followers collected his sayings. We assume they were only passed down orally at first. Eventually, they were written down, but we don’t have copies of those sayings. Later on, the gospel writers used those collections of sayings to create the four Gospels. However, the information in each varies. And the newest Gospel, John, reports a great deal of information not reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I tend to agree with many historians that ideas about Jesus first appearing in the Gospel of John were made up.

In the second and third centuries, many more gospels were written and scholars tend to discredit them for various reasons, but they do offer interesting clues. The assemblers of the New Testament also favored the oldest gospels as authentic and considered the newer gospels as heretical. But if we examine all the gospels, there are reasons to doubt all of them because we see that various followers had different agendas in composing their gospels, and none of their reasons seem related to the historical Jesus. Every gospel was written claiming who Jesus was and what he taught. They are all interpretations with a purpose that fit the times in which they were written.

Thus historians are left trying to figure out what Jesus actually said from things he didn’t write down himself, but was written down by many different people decades later. This is why we have so many different conceptions about Jesus. It’s like saying there are 1,000 different biographies of Jesus and one of them could be right. But there’s also a good chance they might all be wrong.

Ehrman and other historians assume it’s possible to deduce the truth. I’m not sure it is.

The Jesus Seminar took a different approach. It asked theologians and scholars to vote on every saying by Jesus hoping some kind of consensus might reveal the truth. But after 2,000 years, can we really expect to find the truth? If you want to know more of their results read The Five Gospels.

What is revealed from all this study is how Christianity began. Jesus’ followers made him divine and determined the scope of his divinity. Ideas about the afterlife, God, and Heaven were all invented long after Jesus died. There is no evidence that Jesus believed any of it. Christ and Christianity are what his followers invented.

What I wish Ehrman (or some other historian) would write is a chronology of how various Christian dogmas emerged, when, and if possible who created the idea first.

I tend to accept Ehrman’s theories about who the historical Jesus was and what he preached, but I think there’s still room to doubt we can even know that much. And I don’t know if it matters. I think we might be giving Jesus too much credit. Both believers and atheists like me want Jesus to be someone wonderful. And believers want Jesus to be someone who validates the truths they want to prove true. I guess I just want to know what the guy really said and how it got distorted.

There’s a good chance that almost everything we call Christianity was invented between 50-350 CE. We don’t really know when Jesus actually died, probably 30-36 CE. Paul started preaching in the 50s. He got to meet some of the disciples that knew Jesus, but we’re not sure how much he learned from them. Paul’s writings actually say very little about Jesus the man. They are about forming Christian communities.

We know the followers from about 33 CE to 60 CE collected the sayings of Jesus. Paul probably saw some of these collection of says, but maybe not, because he rarely quoted them. We have to assume some of these sayings might have accurately recorded Jesus’ speeches, but we can’t be sure. Probably for many years, they were only passed around via word-of-mouth, and we know how poorly that works. And we know how people love to embellish a good story.

What we do have are the four Gospels that were probably written around 66 CD to 110 CE. Mark is assumed to be the oldest (66-70 CD). Matthew and Luke next (85-90 CE) and finally John (90-110 CE). We don’t really know who their writers were. Scholars assume they were not any of the disciples. Each of the four claims to tell the story of Jesus, but they each tell a somewhat different story, sometimes with conflicting details and beliefs. Think of how many books or movies you’ve encountered about famous modern people. Even the most serious biographies, with mountains of hard evidence, are always challenged on some facts. We can’t create perfect biographies even when we have voice recordings and videotape.

Paul essentially created Christianity in the 50s CE. What he preached was often disputed by Peter and the other disciples, but because Paul was so good at spreading his version of the word explains how he got the Christianity snowball rolling. Whoever wrote the Gospel of John created many now cherished beliefs for the emerging religion. Starting in the second and third centuries new theology was added by other writers who we know their names and have some of their writings.

I feel I have read enough on Jesus. I’ve given up on ever knowing who he was and what he taught. There’s just too much speculation. My rough idea after reading all these books is Jesus was probably a very interesting guy who taught something, probably something very unorthodox, probably utopian, and he got himself killed for it. His followers, who passionately believed in him were thrown into despair because they didn’t want to give up on his wonderful vision of how things could be. They came up with the resurrection as a way to keep the dream alive. All the stories about the post-crucifixion were invented to put a positive spin on the inconvenient truth that Jesus was wrong about the Kingdom of Heaven appearing on Earth in his lifetime. They used his memory to preach what they wanted. To sell their ideas they promised potential believers they would gain everlasting life. To gain converts, they made Jesus into a divine being. Then people who had never known Jesus, the gospel writers, started making up even better stories. The stories became so good, so convincing, that it converted most of the Roman world in a few hundred years.

I expect Ehrman’s new book, Heaven and Hell will cover that development. I also assume all the core beliefs of the various forms of Christianity in the last two thousand years are really driven about hopes of an afterlife. Donald Trump has clearly proved that Christianity is not about specific moral beliefs or spiritual discipline. What Christians believe today is too diverse to define them by a specific list of creeds. Basically, what ties modern Christians together is a vague belief in vague God and a hope of an existence after death.

The real Jesus apparently didn’t think of himself as the Son of God, but the Son of Man. He advocated that followers share their belongings, to even live together communally until God created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, which would happen in his lifetime. He apparently preached about compassion and how people should treat each other. It appears Jesus had very liberal views. Modern Christians are mostly conservative, so it’s hard to reconcile their beliefs with anything Jesus actually taught. Modern Christians are really disciples of Paul and the writer of The Gospel of John, and second-century theologians.

What I learned from reading all these books on Jesus is whatever he taught can only be discerned from those collections of sayings that existed before the gospels were written, unfortunately we don’t have copies. Some of those sayings are mixed in with the gospels, but we don’t know which. Even then, there are plenty of reasons to doubt anything attributed to Jesus after his death. Can you prove anything anyone said to you twenty years ago was verbatim and what they did was exactly how you say it happened?

JWH

 

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The Best American Short Stories 2019

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, February 23, 2019

I’ve been buying The Best American Short Stories for decades but I have never finished reading one from cover-to-cover. I’d always jump around reading whichever story grabbed my attention with its opening lines. For 2019 they finally produced an audiobook edition, and I listened to the whole book. I’m very glad I did because I was introduced to a much more diverse selection of great writing. Going by initial impressions isn’t always wise.

Here’s a listing of the stories with a short comment by me, and a link to either the story itself (rare) or to an analysis by blogger Karen Carlson. She writes the kind of essays about the short stories she reads that I wish I took the time to do. It’s a shame that all of these stories aren’t available online because they all deserve more readers. Some of the sites have limits to free reads. You might try loading the link in a different browser if you’ve reached your limit. Or better yet, just buy The Best American Short Stories 2019. Who knows, maybe you might even be inspired to subscribe to some of these magazines.

  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. “The Era” from Guernica  – In the future, they teach kids to be completely honest about their feelings. Fun literary science fiction.
  • Kathleen Alcott. “Natural Light” from Zoetrope: All-Story – Learning about a parent from a photograph. I often speculate about old photographs.
  • Wendell Berry. “The Great Interruption” from Threepenny Review – A story within a story set in the 1930s. Berry’s entry is a stark contrast to most of the other stories because it feels old. Like it was written long ago.
  • Jamel Brinkley. “No More Than a Bubble” from LitMag – Two guys hook up with two mysterious women for one strange night. Very vivid.
  • Deborah Eisenberg. “The Third Tower” from Ploughshares – Another literary story that could have been published in a science fiction magazine. About a Kafkaesque form of therapy.
  • Julia Elliott. “Hellion” from The Georgia Review – My absolute favorite story of the collection, and luckily available to read online. A young southern Tomboy teaches her visiting cousin how not to get to beat up by her rowdy crowd of friends. Imagine Scout in the 21st century.
  • Jeffrey Eugenides. “Bronze” from The New Yorker – Set in the 1970s, a teen who’s trying to find himself by dressing glam gets picked up by an older man. Nice historical contrast to the more modern stories in the collection.
  • Ella Martinsen Gorham. “Protozoa” from New England Review – Another top favorite from this collection that’s also available to read online. Eighth-grade girl wants to appear more sophisticated but gets in over her head. The stories I liked most in this collection were those set nearest to the present by young writers. It’s not that I didn’t admire what the older writers (Berry, Le Guin, Eugenides) were giving us, but their stories often seemed like history, while the younger writers were reporting the news from various sub-cultures.
  • Nicole Krauss. “Seeing Ershadi” from The New Yorker – A dancer pushes her body to the limits to stay in a touring company while becoming more and more philosophical.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin. “Pity and Shame” from Tin House – I’m totally used to Le Guin’s science fiction and fantasy, so it was disconcerting to read what essentially feels like a western. An abandoned woman takes in a mine inspector crushed by a tunnel collapse and nurses him back to health.
  • Manuel Munõz. “Anyone Can Do It” from ZYZZYVA – A compelling tale of migrant workers, where a woman must try something new to survive. Another vivid story.
  • Sigrid Nunez. “The Plan” from Lit Mag – A disturbing story about a man driven to commit murder because it’s on his bucket list.
  • Maria Reva. “Letter of Apology” from Granta – One of the strangest stories in the collection about a communist party official who must get a letter of apology from a poet who made a politically incorrect joke. You end up feeling sorry for the oppressor.
  • Karen Russell. “Black Corfu” from Zoetrope: All-Story – Now this is the strangest story of the collection – a horror story no less – about a doctor to the dead. Russell must be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and George Romero.
  • Saïd Sayrafiezadeh “Audition” from The New Yorker – Son of the boss secretly works construction and practices his acting skills by pretending to be one of the regular dead-end guys.
  • Alexis Schaitkin “Natural Disasters” from Ecotone – Another top favorite about a young wife from New York getting a part-time job Oklahoma when her husband had to relocate. The job she finds is writing home descriptions for a real estate agent, requiring her to visit all kinds of people and their houses.
  • Jim Shepard. “Our Day of Grace” from Zoetrope: All-Story – An epistolary tale about the civil war. Good story but felt out of place in this collection. Of course, that’s not fair to writers who like to write historical fiction. See the comment below.
  • Mona Simpson. “Wrong Object” from Harper’s – A psychiatrist has a pedophile for a patient.
  • Jenn Alandy Trahan. “They Told Us Not to Say This” from Harper’s – Another favorite story because it’s about young Filipino girls who admire a white basketball player. Even though the story is set in the 1990s, it still feels contemporary to an old reader like me.
  • Weike Wang. “Omakase” from The New Yorker – Another vivid story of cross-culture dating. Read the interview with the author about this story.

I enjoy The Best American Short Stories anthologies most for those stories feel contemporary. I want literary fiction to be realistic portraits of what the authors have experienced. That’s very old-fashion of me and unrealistic. Roman à clef writing is not very fashionable anymore. To me, genre writing is all about creatively making things up, while literary writing is about reporting on thoughts and emotions of real people. Writers can’t always write what they have actually experienced, but they can infuse their stories with observations of themselves and others.

The stories by Berry, Shepard, and Le Guin felt totally made up. They were very creative, but still, they lacked what I’m talking about. What these writers are good at is faking what I’m talking about. The Eugenides story felt in between like he might have remembered something from the 1970s, but he’s such a good writer he could have made it up entirely.

Obviously, the stories with fantastic elements have to be made up. These stories, even though extremely well-written feel like genre stories to me. In recent years we’ve been seeing more genre included in the annual BASS collection. That’s not bad, but just not what I enjoy most in a BASS volume. Even my favorite story “Hellion” by Julia Elliott is probably all made up, but it rings true as if she lived it or saw it. It has such a wonderful collection of colorful details that I want them to have existed. Elliot knows the caliber of a BB gun – what a wonderful realistic detail.

I hope the 2020 edition of BASS is produced on audio again. Another reason I read literary fiction is to get insight into people and cultures that aren’t like me and mine. Hearing the stories read by professional readers makes those stories feel like I’m actually hearing the person talk to me in person. And that makes their stories feel even more authentic.

JWH

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The Stories I Want To Remember

by James Wallace Harris, February 20, 2020

I have no idea how many stories I’ve consumed in my lifetime. I’m sure the ones I encountered watching television runs into the tens of thousands. Movies, books, and short stories add unknown thousands more. Then there are the countless stories people have told me — some made up and others reported accurately as best they could. And finally, the combined number of all those sources is dwarfed by my own ability to make shit up inside my head.

We all build a model of reality by matching the data we gather with our senses to fictionalized versions of reality. I don’t know why fiction is so important in our lives, but most of us process hours of make-believe every day. However, like the meals we eat, the craps we take, we forget those stories. Evidently, we need a healthy amount of storytelling in our psychic diet every day to remain sane. Like the atoms our body extracts from food for its nourishment are invisible to our conscious minds, so are the essential elements of fiction that our brain craves for its RDA.

Some people are very good at remembering stories. They can regale others by repeating tales at parties or to spice up their political speeches or sales talks. Some people are good at understanding stories, able to interpret a story for all its intended and hidden meanings. I’m bad at both. When I was young I could see a movie and then bore family and friends with long monologues describing all the details of the show. I haven’t been able to do that for decades. Maybe my hard drive became filled and I lost my ability to transfer my mental notes into my working memory.

For some reason in my late sixties, I’ve been craving the ability to remember stories again. The year before last I started a project to read all the annual anthologies that collected the best science fiction short stories of the year. I started with 1939 and I’m currently reading through three anthologies of stories from 1952.  I’m getting a big-bang kick out of this — but it depresses me that I forget the stories I read so quickly. And it really irks my existentialism that I forget the best stories.

Up to now, I’ve been very faithful to read every story in every volume, even if I didn’t like them. But I’m now having doubts about that dedication. I wonder if wading through two or three so-so stories after experiencing a wonderful story isn’t just erasing the memory of that great story.

What is my real goal for this project? Is it just a mega-marathon of reading? I sat out to study the evolution of the science fiction short story. I wanted to see how concepts emerged and were spread and reused. I wanted to see how certain ideas were repeated in each new generation. However, along the way, I started noticing more and more about how infrequent great stories are produced every year.

Stories worth remembering are rare. But I have this trouble remembering them, and that’s starting to bug my sense of being an old man who is running out of time. I know at my age I’m fighting an uphill battle to remember anything and I wonder if I need to pick the ground to make my last stand.

Some of the stories I’ve read I want to remember in detail. And that urge is getting stronger. I’m even at the point where I’m willing to consume less fiction just to hang onto a tiny amount of it in my mind. I need to binge-watch less, and binge-read less.

I’ve been thinking about changing my reading strategy. Instead of racing through all the annual best-of-the-year volumes to have the satisfaction of completing another year, I think I need to focus on finding the stories I love best and then reread them. Instead of finishing every story, quit any story that doesn’t resonate after giving it a fair try. Then go back and reread all the stories I did finish. And finally, decide which stories are worth remembering before going on to the next year.

However, I’m going to have to go well beyond that effort if I’m really going to put those stories into my long-term memory. I need to start a list of stories I want to work at keeping at my mind’s fingertips. I’m not sure how long that list can be, but I need to start tracking the best stories and periodically reread them. I’m sure I’ll thin out that list too as competition to get on the list grows. I won’t know the manageable size of the list until I’ve worked at the project for a while. And like a tontine, I expect the list to shrink at I close in on dying. Who knows, as I pass from this world into nonexistence I’ll be thinking about that last story. (That’s an odd thing to say, isn’t it. Why wouldn’t my last thoughts be of a real experience? I need to psychoanalyze that.)

When I started this project, my goal was to identify the stories that were most important to the genre of science fiction. Now I realize I need to identify the stories that are most important to me. And I need to branch out beyond science fiction.

In the long run, I want to create an anthology of stories that I want to remember, but also the ones that best explain my view of reality.

JWH

 

 

 

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Coronavirus v. Flu

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Warning: The calculation of percentages was done by me and could be wrong. The other figures come from the CDC and WHO.

My friend Anne asked me to give her some statistics on the coronavirus that would help her understand it in relation to the flu. I have taken my numbers from the CDC but did my own percentage calculations. Please let me know if my math is wrong. Here is my simplified table of their statistics for the annual flu seasons in the United States. The percentage of people dying is in relation to those getting sick.

Annual flu statistics

I found the statistics for the coronavirus from the World Health Organization. As of February 17, 2020, there have been 71,429 confirmed cases with 1,772 deaths, which is the death rate of 2.48%. (Someone, check my calculations, that seems very high.) It would mean if the 2017-2018 flu season that infected 45,000,000 people had been the coronavirus, 1,116,000 people would have died, as compared to the 61,000 from regular influenza.

However, people don’t have any natural immunity to the coronavirus, and as of yet, there have been no vaccines created. If it hit America a good deal more than 45,000,000 might become infected. Supposedly 675,000 Americans died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed 20-50 million people worldwide. But then the global population was only 1.8 billion as opposed to our 7, which suggests the coronavirus could be much less deadly than the Spanish flu. On the other hand, medical science wasn’t as advanced in 1918.

Let’s hope the Chinese can control the coronavirus. This could be very bad.

JWH

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Should I Forget Dorothy?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 17, 2020

Being part of history is the gold standard for being long remembered. Pop culture fame can also get you remembered, but not as long. Geneology is probably the common way we ordinary folks will be remembered, especially if we’re neither historical or famous. Writers and artists often like to believe they will achieve immortality through their works, and that was certainly true for Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens. Sadly, being published today usually proves a poor bet at avoiding literary obscurity.

Through some weird accident of circumstances, I have become the repository for the memory for Dorothy Rachel Melissa Walpole who wrote under the name Lady Dorothy Mills. I maintain the website ladydorothymills.com. Last year it got a total of 175 visitors, but most of them leave almost immediately. It’s a very static site because I seldom find new information about her. I used to get a query about her every year or two, but it’s been years now since I’ve heard from anyone asking about Lady Mills.

Lady Dorothy Mills wrote fifteen books from 1916-1931, nine novels, and six nonfiction books, all long out of print. I own all of them except her first novel Card Houses and the last Jungle!. She is most famous for writing five travel books capitalizing on the idea of an aristocratic European woman traveling alone in Africa, South America, and the Middle East in the 1920s. She achieved a minor amount of fame. As far as I can tell only 26 used copies of her books are for sale right now, and most of those are the nonfiction titles. Of the 5 copies of her novels, two are the German versions of The Dark Gods. Most of these volumes have been on the market for years. There is little interest in her work.

I’m trying to decide if it’s worth my effort to convert her books into digital texts so I can submit them to Project Gutenberg. It would be a terrific amount of work and its doubtful anyone would read them. But I’d hate to see Lady Mills become completely forgotten. I’ve been trying to come up with reasons to convince people to try her books. Right now it’s almost impossible to get ahold of any kind of edition to read. I’ve wondered if there were free ebook editions available would a few readers give her a chance?

I’m currently reading The Laughter of Fools from 1920. It’s about a young woman living with her aunt and uncle after her father dies. I’m not sure of the time period yet, but you have to imagine a Downton Abbey type of setting. Lady Mills was the daughter of an Earl and grew up in a manor house on a country estate. I assume her life was somewhat like Crawley girls, as Lady Mills was about their age. She would have been 23 in 1912, the year the story began. Lady Mills’ mother was also a rich American woman. However, Lady Mills married a poor American man, and from what I can infer, her father wasn’t as forgiving as Lord Grantham. Lady Mills went out into the world to make it own her own.

The girl in The Laughter of Fools is named Louise, and Lady Mills’ mother was named Louise. I have to wonder how much of herself she put in this character. Louise finds life with her aunt and uncle boring and eventually gets permission to go on a vacation for her health. Her guardians believe she is being supervised by a proper English lady, but Louise gets to run around with an arty bohemian crowd. This opens up a whole new world for her. I imagine the same thing happened to Lady Mills.

I wish I had a copy of Lady Mills’ first novel, Card Houses published in 1916. That was the year she married Capt. Arthur Mills. It might reveal more about her early life and personality. I get the feeling her first few novels were about the life she knew and that social set, and her later novels were fantasy or science fiction. Her travel books were about becoming an independent woman.

I can’t say that The Laughter of Fools is good literature. I only find it interesting for four reasons. First and primary, I’m looking for clues about Lady Mills. Second, I enjoy the Downton Abbey resonating vibes. Third, it tells about life in England during a very literary period — the book adds a few details that I don’t find in Woolf, Huxley, Forster, and others of that era. Finally, it’s about a woman breaking free in a time when few did. But mostly the novel’s appeal is trying to figure out what Lady Dorothy Mills was like and why she became a writer.

I still don’t know what kind of person she was. Would I have liked her? Or was she a weirdo, or even a Lady Asshole? Does she deserve to be remembered or is there a reason why everyone is forgetting her? I feel like I’ve fed a stray cat and now I’m responsible for its care.

Small items about her come up for sale every once in a while but they can be expensive. And if I really wanted to pursue this project properly I’d need to travel to England and do some real research. That is almost not going to happen. Still, I might try converting one book, The Laughter of Fools and see if anyone reads it. It would be nice to see if anyone else gets anything out of her. Sooner or later, I’d like to find a younger person to inherit the caretaking of this strange cat.

JWH

 

 

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Can Humanity Move to an Eco-Paradigm?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, February 9, 2020

Humanity has gone through a number of major paradigm shifts. Probably the most famous is the Copernican revolution when we realized Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. I’m guessing the biggest recent shift was in the 20th century when we realized women were not inferior to men. But as you can see from this map of when women became eligible to vote that a paradigm shift is slow and doesn’t hit all at once. (Source.)

When women could vote

We need to shift to a new economic paradigm where capitalism protects the environment. Many environmentalists feel we need to jettison capitalism to save the Earth, but I don’t believe that’s possible. Capitalism is how humans survive, how they feed, clothe, and shelter themselves. Current capitalism is killing the Earth, and will eventually make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and other species.

The present paradigm assumes the Earth is a storehouse of consumable resources for the taking. Our basic drive, which comes from our reptilian and mammalian portions of our brain pushes us to take and not give. We struggle for resources, mates, and raising our offspring. It’s quite natural. The greed we’re seeing in conservative political movements around the world is a natural survival mechanism. Everyone is programmed to grab all they can before its gone.

It really is survival of the fittest on a vast scale. Under the existing paradigm, the strong will survive with abundance while they take everything from the weak who won’t. Like I said, it’s the way of nature, it is natural — if you consider humans are animals. But can we transcend our animal nature? Can we use our neo-cortex to become something different? Moving to an Eco-paradigm means transcending our animal nature.

For our species to survive will require moving to this new paradigm. Some have called it Lifeboat Earth. That’s an apt metaphor, but most people don’t like its grim connotations. Probably a better term to promote would be Eco-Capitalism. That’s why we’re hearing so much about the Green New Deal.

My liberal friends and I are becoming philosophically depressed over current trends in American politics. Conservative American politics means many things, but to me, it represents a rejection of the new paradigm. Conservative philosophy has always been backward-facing, stay-the-course, return to the good old days thinking. To protect its beliefs, conservative philosophy has become anti-science, and anti-environmentalism.

I see the U.S. 2020 presidential election as a referendum, with two choices on the ballot. Keep the old paradigm, or move to the new paradigm. I’m sure most voters will see it in terms of their own special interests.

The reason why I wrote my last essay about cognitive tools we used to work with reality is to understand how people think about this referendum. The Republicans have clearly defined what they want, but the Democrats haven’t. Most liberals just want to replace Trump, but obviously, Republicans will do anything to get what they want, including following such a repugnant leader. Democrats are arguing over who should be their leader, and not what they want. They are under the illusion they are fighting Trump, but what they are fighting is what the Republicans want. And what the Republicans want is not to change.

The world seemed to be moving to the new Eco-paradigm but then conservative movements around the globe emerged. My philosophical question of the day: Can humanity move to the new Eco-paradigm? I’m not asking will we, but can we.

When we look at the map of women’s suffrage and see that it took a hundred years to change (and it’s far from finished), that I have to wonder if it will take any less time to move to the new eco-paradigm. (And do we have the time?)

The Atlantic is running “Why Men Vote for Republicans, and Women Vote for Democrats” that provides some additional data for my conundrum. It appears that women are a driving force in liberal politics. We are changing, but are we changing fast enough? And like the backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment by conservative women, many women have chosen to maintain a conservative path.

I’ve been reading more and more articles about political burn-out. That old adage about not letting the bastards wear you down has new relevance. I know that I and some of my liberal friends are being worn down. This makes me feel we won’t make it to the new paradigm.

The 2020 election will give me exact numbers on how my fellow citizens feel. We still have ten months of political turmoil. Who knows, lots could happen. Liberals want it to be a vote about Trump, but I’m starting to see that’s an illusion. The Republicans have clearly defined what they want. The majority of the conservatives want a world where they can grab all the can, keep all they can, have no regulations on the grabbing, and spend the least on fixing up the nation or helping the needy. A minority of conservatives want to fight for certain religious beliefs that challenge liberal values.

The Democrats don’t have a clear goal. To the Republicans all the Democrats want is to give way their money. The Democrats haven’t made a Green New Deal their primary goal. They spend a lot of time talking about the environment and immigration, but they appear to make expensive social programs their deciding issues, and some of those issues don’t even have universal appeal to liberals. Republicans know their key desires and vote in lockstep.

I believe the young are more concerned with the new eco-paradigm, but I’m afraid too many of them have completely given up on political action.

Right now, I don’t believe we’ll make it to the new paradigm shift. I suppose if we suffered some truly catastrophic natural disasters, way larger in scope than the present disasters, we might start pulling together. But that might only cause more fighting in the lifeboat.

Readers might think I’m psychologically depressed because of this essay. I’m not. I might be philosophically down, but not personally down. I have a stoic existential psyche. What happens is what happens. We all want reality to be what we want, but our reality is what is. I’m just trying to guess where humankind is going. I want to imagine what the future might be after I die. But guessing the future is next to impossible. Yet, it amuses me to try.

JWH

 

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Our Cognitive Toolbox for Working with Reality

by James Wallace Harris,

All too often we think we know but we don’t. Why do so many people argue with 100% certainty against others who feel equally convinced? Often wisdom tells us the more we know the more we don’t know. Does that mean the person who claims to know nothing knows the most? Why is this reality so hard to understand? Even eyewitnesses are often fooled. And why is it so important to know thyself?

Reality is complex, but is it unknowable? Humans believe they are the crown of creation because all animals are ignorant of their own existence. Is our sentience really a quantum leap over all other life forms on this planet? If we compared ourselves to an amoeba, ant, or cat, we can see that awareness of reality has slowly gotten more complex and each of those animals perceives a larger portion of reality. Does that mean we see everything in reality, or are we just as blind to a much larger reality?

I believe we’ve evolved a number of cognitive tools to analyze reality, but it’s important to know the effectiveness of each.

First-Hand Experience. Common thought claims we have five senses for perceiving reality, but we actually have many more. People often believe seeing and hearing things for themselves is a primary source of knowledge. However, our senses can deceive us. For example, the lady cop who shot a man in Texas because she thought he was a burglar in her apartment when she was in his apartment. Just pay attention to how often eye witness accounts fail. Or better yet, recall all the times your senses have fooled you.

Instinct and Intuition. Our genes and unconscious mind direct us to act without thinking. Many people prefer to go by gut reaction than thinking it through. But how often does gut reaction tell us to kill or take what we want?

Language. By breaking reality down into pieces and giving each part a name goes a long way into gaining useful insight. But language is imprecise and the parts of reality are many. People who know the different names for trees have a greater understanding than the person who only knows the word tree. Language has evolved tremendously giving us one of our best tools. Pay attention to how words help you to perceive how reality works, and observe how people with lesser or better language skills fare compared to you.

Word of Mouth. We learn from other people’s observations. When we were hunters and gatherers hearing from scouts describe where animals could be hunted was vital. On the other hand, if a seafarer told you about mermaids you ended up believing in an unreal being. Word of mouth is very unreliable. Remember the Kindergarten game of Telephone? Word of Mouth evolved into journalism, and we know how reliable that can be. Word of Mouth has always had a fake news problem. Gossip, innuendo, slander are also descendants of word of mouth.

Counting and Measuring. Simple arithmetic became a tool that lets us invent, build, grow crops, trade, and develop an economy. Counting and measuring evolved into mathematics.

Mysticism. Mystics are people who claim to acquire knowledge from a higher source. They became shamans and seers who influenced other people. They also speculated about how reality worked, inventing higher beings. Even today many people still give credence to mystical insight. However, mystical insight has produced an infinite variety of conflicting information. We have to assume its all suspect. Mysticism tries to be the first-person experience of the divine.

Religion. Religion is codified mystical insight that is retaught as the truth. Religion allowed us to create very complex social structures. However, its truth is suspect. If there are a thousand gods, most followers are atheists to 999 of them. Religion succeeds in creating artificial realities that may or may not interface well with actual reality. Religion spreads best through word of mouth.

Laws. Laws are an external tool to encourage consistent thinking. Religious laws attempt to force mystical insights onto a population. Secular laws attempt to get people to work together.

History. If you study the Old Testament you’ll see it’s more about a history of a people than spiritual instruction. We have always tried to remember the past to explain how we got here. Early histories were no better than word of mouth stories that could be highly inaccurate. And each succeeding generation of historians alters the histories. A good example is the New Testament. Whoever Jesus was, and whatever he taught, has been constantly changed by each new writer of the New Testament. It appears the historical Jesus advocated communal living and sharing that today would be called communistic. The historical Jesus was concerned about creating heaven on Earth. It was later writers that gave him superpowers and turned him into God. Studying the history of Christianity is an excellent way to understand how history constantly mutates. History is a worthy way of understanding reality but it has to be tempered by comparing multiple histories.

Philosophy. Where religion taught that knowledge came from God or other spiritual authorities, philosophy teaches us we can figure things out for ourselves. Using rhetoric, logic, and mathematics men and women observe reality and deduce what’s going on. This was a great paradigm shift away from religion. However, like the game Mastermind, it leads to a lot of false assumptions. Elaborate castles of logic can build imposing concepts but that often turns out to be illusions of great knowledge. Philosophy is a major tool for understanding reality but it also has major faults.

Ethics. Ethics, like laws, attempt to come to a consensus on what’s right and wrong. Ethics is based on philosophy. Although in recent years, some ethicists have tried to look for a scientific foundation.

Science. Science combines mathematics, statistics, observation, testing, and philosophy into a systematic way to evaluate reality. Science assumes if tested observations and measurements prove consistent by scientists from any nation or culture then they might be true. Science never assumes it finds the absolute truth, but just the current best guess based on all the existing data. Science is statistical. Some science is so refined that it works incredibly well with reality. Space probes visiting distant worlds validate hundreds of years of scientific endeavors.

Scholarship. We have made education into a major portion of our life. We spend our entire lives trying to figure things out. We study, we think, we make assumptions. Like philosophy, scholarship often builds vast models of speculation. Scholarship tends to endorse results from competing trends. However, scholarly theories can be deceptive and even dangerous.

The problem is we use all these tools to explain our version of reality. Unfortunately, most are unreliable or clash with other people’s version of reality. Science has proven to be the most consistent at explaining reality, but science doesn’t cover everything. For example, right and wrong. These two concepts are ancient, probably coming out of mysticism or an instinctive desire for justice. Both religion and philosophy have tried to perfect them, but our reality is completely indifferent to morality or ethics. We have invented many concepts that just don’t exist in reality.

This causes problems. Several million people might believe with absolute certainty in a particular concept and then try to impose that view on millions of others who are just as certain such a concept is invalid.

We live in a polarize society because we all embrace different ancient beliefs, most of which we can’t explain how they came about. We just accept them as true. Most people believe in God because it was something they learned as a little kid. They won’t let the idea of God go no matter how much other cognitive tools disprove God’s existence.

Donald Trump seems to base most of his knowledge from first-hand experience and word of mouth information. Twitter is the perfect tool for word of mouth. Trump is neither religious, philosophical, or scientific. But this isn’t an uncommon way of dealing with reality. Few people are philosophical or scientific. Too many people only want to trust first-hand experience and instinct, but we know how unreliable those cognitive tools are. People who rely heavily on first-person experience and word of mouth tend to disbelieve science.

There have been various disciplines that try to teach self-programming that jettisons cognitive bullshit. Zen Buddhism is one. Meditation can be used to seek mystical insight or to observe the working of our own being.

The reason I wrote this essay was to help me think clearer. I’ve been reading books on Greek philosophy, and early Christian history. They are teaching me what people 2,000-2,500 years ago thought. I can see those ancient people struggled to make sense of reality without science. I can also see the same struggles today in people. We just don’t think clearly. We’re too influenced by low-level cognitive tools that deceive us. We base our existence on illusions created by those most primal cognitive tools.

I keep hoping the human race will get its act together and create a sane society that coexists with reality, and not on insane illusions and delusions. I realize until everyone becomes a master of their various cognitive tools, and learn the limits and limitations of each, we can’t start working on that sane society. We can’t start learning what’s real until we learn how to perceive what’s not real.

JWH

 

 

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All The Things We Forget

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The last time I went to a barber was in the 1970s. I got married in 1978 and my wife cut my hair after that until I went mostly bald, at which point I’d just mow my own head. But in the 1950s and 1960s, I probably went to the barber every 2-3 weeks. I’m sure, several hundred times. I have a few vague impressions being at a barbershop, but for the most part, all those memories are gone. I can remember having butch cuts, crew cuts, flattops and haircuts I had to comb. Those were in the years before the Beatles. After that, I tried very hard to avoid the barber. Maybe that suppressed the memories of haircuts.

There are 3,650 days in a decade if we don’t worry about leap years. And at age 68 I’ve lived around 25,000 days. Other than what I ate today, and maybe yesterday, I’ve forgotten roughly 75,000 meals. I know I had a lot of dinners with my family growing up, but except for a few fleeting images of Thanksgivings, I can’t remember them.

I have more memories of sitting with my parents and sister watching TV. I’m better at remembering people, but it’s an accumulation of countless vague encounters. The more vivid memories generally involved great joy or great pain. Average got forgotten, and I imagine 99.999% of my life was quite mundane.

I know I hated going to Sunday School and church when I was growing up. We even went on Wednesday night sometimes. But I can only remember a handful of specific events at church. So, did we go all the time, or did I only think we went all the time?

If I work hard I believe I can remember all the pets we had, but I’m not sure of all their names. I spend a lot of time with my cats now. They are always nearby or sleeping on me. I can’t remember how much time I spent with my pets growing up. I remember fleeting moments of playing with them, but not the day-to-day living. Now that I think about it, I believe my mother expected dogs and cats to live outdoors. I can remember our dogs walking us to school and meeting us afterward, but I don’t remember them sleeping with me or hanging out in my room.

One area of memory I really regret losing is memories of my classmates and teachers. I’d spend about 200 days a year with them, and at the time knew all their names and could tell you stories about each of them. I did pay attention — then. But it’s all gone now.

Because my family moved around so much I attended many different schools. There were schools I’d ride my bike miles rather than take the school bus. I tried to always walk or ride my bike, although when we lived in South Carolina the second time, out in the country, the school bus ride was 35 miles. The thing is, I can’t remember how I got from home to school in all those schools. Oh, there were a few places where we lived just a couple blocks from school and I can remember, but I’ve looked at Google’s Streetview trying to find my way around old neighborhoods and I can’t.

Am I alone in forgetting all these kinds of things? Am I alone in wish I had a photograph of all my bikes?

I had a very happy childhood. I’m very nostalgic for those years, but they were chaotic and stressful because of my parents’ alcoholism and our constant moving. I watched a lot of television and read a lot of science fiction to keep sane. And that’s what I remember most. In the last couple of decades, I’ve been rewatching those old shows and rereading those old books. That has only reinforced their memories. I now have better memories of TV and books than of my parents.

If I only focused on the present would I even think about the past at all? However, getting old seems to inspire looking backward. I noticed that many young people photograph everything they do and put it on Facebook, including their meals. I wonder what that will mean to them when they get old, having so much documentation?

There are so many things I wish I had photographs of now. And videos would be better yet. I wish I had pictures of every friend I made, of every teacher, classmate, and every classroom, every pet, house, car. I wish I had multiple photographs of every room of every house I ever lived in. I wish I had photographs of all the TV sets, record players, and radios I used. I even wish I had a few photographs of going to the barber and Sunday School.

I’d love the documentation of my past because it might trigger memories. I don’t think I’d need snaps of 75,000 meals, but a few hundred would solidify my sense of who I was. My parents had an old Brownie Hawkie camera, but I think they only shot two rolls of film of me and my sister. I figured they also shot two rolls of themselves before we were born.

That’s just 48 photos to document my youth. I really envy kids growing up with smartphones today. (But why aren’t I snapping pictures with mine now?)

JWH

 

 

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Amazon Music HD

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 1, 2020

Amazon Music HD promises to fulfill nearly all my current wishes for a streaming music service. The main ones are:

  • Provide sound quality equal to CDs
  • Provide every song ever recorded, or let me upload music into its system
  • Let me try super-high-resolution music
  • Have playlists that work across all music services

Streaming music has always been more convenient than listening to CDs or LPs, but audiophiles have bitterly complained that its sound quality was a compromise. With Amazon Music HD it’s now possible to stream music in CD quality. Audiophiles need to stop sneering at streaming music. This also means I can forget about physical media (if streaming always offered what I want to hear). And for years I’ve been chasing the idea of high-resolution music. I’m not sure I’m capable of hearing it, but so many audiophiles claim the difference is night and day and I’d hate to miss out.

To play Amazon Music HD or Ultra-HD tracks requires having the right equipment. My iPhone, Denon, and Yamaha systems can all handle the HD setting of CD-quality of 16-bit 44.1kHz. My iPhone and computer can play 24-bit 48 kHz songs, which is the low end of Ultra HD. So Amazon HD music lets me check off one of my streaming music wishes.

Another great aspect of Amazon Music HD is it always tells you about the quality of the streaming file. Actually, I’ve yet to find a 192kHz file. Of course, I’m not sure I can tell the difference between 16bit 44.1kHz and 24-bit 48kHz music.

Ultra-HD Music

 

Amazon Music has always let me upload my files to their system, so I can put songs on my playlists that Amazon doesn’t offer. Spotify doesn’t let me do that. That checks off another wish. I have 1,900 CDs uploaded to Amazon Music. So my collection is with their 50 million songs.

It’s my last wish that is so frustrating. Amazon offers the super-high-resolution files that I’m anxious to try (24bit 96 or 192 kHz files). Could I really hear a difference? I don’t know, because I don’t have the equipment to play them. And I’m not sure what equipment can. I know I could add a Dragonfly Cobalt DAC to my iPhone to get up to 24-bit 96kHz files, but what about those elusive 24-bit 192kHz files? Am I chasing a non-existant Holy Grail? I keep reading articles like this one that argues selling high-resolution music is a complete con. Still, I want to try the snake oil for myself.

However, to play the 24bit 192kHz files will require having a DAC that’s Amazon Music HD aware. And what I really want, is hardware that I can remotely control. I have a Yamaha WXA-50 streaming music server amplifier. It works great with Spotify, but its MusicCast software/app is the pits for any other service. I tried it with Tidal and its built-in interface to Tidal music was atrocious. So I canceled Tidal. Theoretically, the WXA-50 could be upgraded to handle Amazon Music HD but everyone is saying Yahama is terrible about upgrades. I feel I’m getting my money’s worth out of the WXA-50 now for Spotify, but I don’t plan to buy Yamaha equipment in the future.

I’ve read the Denon HEOS will handle Amazon Music HD, but I’m afraid if I buy one of its receivers I might be disappointed like I was with Yamaha. To work properly, I need a receiver that can serve all the Amazon Music HD files, and it has to have an iPhone app that works well with Amazon Music’s catalog of songs. The reason why Spotify works so well with the Yamaha is it uses the Spotify app itself. And that’s possible because the WXA-50 has a Spotify Connect awareness. Before I buy any new hardware to listen to Amazon Music HD I’m going to wait until stereo equipment has the equivalent of Amazon Music HD Connect. This is true of Amazon’s Fire/Alexa products, but I’m not sure if any of the present hardware can handle 24-bit 192 kHz files. My current Fire TV only handles 16-bit 44.1 kHz.

Spotify Connect is truly awesome. The Spotify app on my iPhone sees my computer, the Yamaha WXA-50, Denon AVR-X1000, as well as my Roku Ultra and Amazon FireTV Gen 2. The music doesn’t stream through my phone, but my phone controls the music streaming through all these hardware devices. It’s this app/server relationship that I want for Amazon Music HD. Theoretically, the DACs in all my devices could handle high resolution if they were upgraded with the right software, but I get the feeling I need to wait for new hardware to be specifically designed to be Amazon Music HD aware. So I’m getting close to the third wish.

I’m happy enough with Amazon Music HD to keep subscribing, but I’m not ready to cancel Spotify. I love Spotify, and it has a great interface, plus it works on so many devices. If Spotify offered HD music and the Spotify Connect servers in my Yamaha and Denon machines could handle 24-bit 192 kHz files, which I think they can, I might end up sticking with Spotify.

Plus, to switch to any other service would require recreating all my Spotify playlists. That would be a huge amount of work. My last wish is for a universal playlist format that would allow all my music services to use the same playlists. I doubt this will ever happen, but I can wish.

I follow a number of YouTubers who review Audiophile equipment. Three of them have had shows about audiophile burnout. They ask, “Are you into music for the equipment or the music?” I was passionately in love with the music I listened to in 1962 on AM radio played through a single 3″ speaker. My present equipment is lightyears beyond that. I shouldn’t think about hardware at all. Spotify offers millions of songs.  What I really should be doing is trying to play all of them, and not worry about how theoretically perfect they might sound. But I do.

JWH

 

 

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Trying To Control My Insane Impulse to Buy the Past

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 24, 2020

Lately, I want to buy the past. For example, I’ve been craving old computers I couldn’t afford back in the 1980s. Or I’ve been compulsively buying old books and magazines on eBay I once own when I was a teen in the 1960s. And now I dream of buying a mid-century house and fixing it up to look like the 1950s Florida of my childhood. Maybe even get a 1957 Pontiac to match.

What explains those impulses? I used to have in-the-moment impulses like eating junk food or getting laid, but my decrepit stomach gets upset at one and my elderly dick has become erratically indifferent to the other. That makes me wonder if buying the past is a kind of compensation for two of nature’s most basic impulses. If it is, it doesn’t work because I’m still hungry and horny.

Life used to be more satisfying when I could get satisfied.

Buying old stuff does provide a fleeting moment of pleasure but as soon as the UPS delivery person delivers my goodies I pack them away and think about the next relic of the past to purchase. A carton of Ben & Jerry’s would keep me happy for two evenings, and getting lucky would alleviate horniness for a few moments to a few days depending on my age in life.

Television used to be a great balm for itchy urges, but nowadays watching Perry Mason shows remind me of 1962 or viewing YouTube inspires collecting and renovating antiques of my twenties. If I had never watched The 8-Bit Guy I don’t think I’d be craving an Apple IIGS right now. I can understand where the genetic programming for pizzas and pussy come from, but what explains the biology driving me to buy decaying runs of Galaxy Science Fiction?

Getting old is nothing like I expected. I thought I’d go bald and become wrinkled, yet essentially be my same old self. I never imagined a time when I couldn’t drink Dr. Pepper and eat German chocolate cake. I was warned that my dick would wear out, but I assumed so would the horniness. That really wasn’t fair. I feel like Henry Bemis when his glasses broke.

Henry Bemis

My retirement years are everything I never planned. Why didn’t they warn us? I have all this time to indulge my whims and have all the whims of my youth, but being young when you’re old isn’t very practical. I still have a future. Maybe even a future as long as my working years. Everyone asks you when you are a kid, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” But who asks, “What are you going to be when you get old?”

I think I need new cravings. I need new urges and ambitions that suit a decaying body. Something more fulfilling than the urge to guzzle Metamucil. When we are young we study to understand the world and prepare for our working decades. I think I need to study for becoming a successful old person. I don’t need a retro 8-bit computer, what I should crave is a 128-bit computer and an engaging task that will maximize its use.

I need to be buying the future.

JWH

 

 

 

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Writing Lessons from Envy

by James Wallace Harris

Basically, my blog is where I write what I think. I polish my essays to be more readable, but I’m too lazy to be more ambitious. Blogging is piano practice for writing but seldom produces professional-level writing. Blogging improves writing skills, exercises the brain to think clearer, but is too casual to produce art. Lately, whenever I read an exceptional essay I feel both envy and regret. Envy for craft, and regret for laziness. It’s time to up my ante.

I recently wrote about rereading Brave New World fifty years after first reading it in high school. Then I read “BRAVE NEW WORLD Revisited Once Again” by the science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch in On SF. I was amazed by how much better Disch had done with the exact topic. He opens with:

Just fifty years ago, at the dawn of the new era that dates from the death of Henry Ford, a young, half-blind, upper-class Englishman published a novel destined to become—along with Orwell’s 1984—one of the two most enduring prophetic visions of the future ever to clatter from the typewriter of man. The novel was Brave New World, its author Aldous Huxley, and the vision was of the Jazz Age gone to heaven. Anything goes in A.F. (After Ford) 632, but what goes particularly well are those two pillars of the affluent society, sex and drugs. What has been eliminated from that society as being subversive and destabilizing is: family life, passionate love, social nobility, and any art but the “feelies, ” fashion design, and dance music. Here’s a sample of the song lyrics and the lifestyle of A.F. 632:

Orgy—porgy, Ford and fun,
Kiss the girls and make them One.
Boys at one with girls at peace;
Orgy—porgy gives release.

I realized this was a complete lesson in writing. Here’s my opening paragraph:

I first read Brave New World in high school back in the sixties. Rereading it again in 2020 reveals that it was entirely over my teenage head. I doubt I got even 5-10% of Aldous Huxley’s satire. Although I expect high school and college students of today have both the education and pop-culture savvy to understand it better than I did, it’s really a novel to read after acquiring a lifetime of experience. When I first read Brave New World I was already mass consuming science fiction so it was competing with shiny gosh-wow sense-of-wonder science fiction. I remember liking Brave New World in places, especially the free sex and Soma, but I thought the story somewhat boring and clunky.

My paragraph was more about me than Brave New World. I feel Disch and I are both trying to get people to reread Brave New World but his lead-in is a better salesman. His paragraph is dense with details about the book, while mine has too many details about myself. Should I even be the subject? My intent was to convince people the book deserves a second reading by my experience, but I could have done that without talking about myself.

Do visitors to this blog want to know about me or the topic of my discussion? Blogging is intended to be personal, and I have a number of followers for this blog, but the essays with the most hits are from people searching Google on a specific subject. Those readers aren’t interested in me. I could have written my first paragraph without any mention of myself and still provided the same data.

I consider this blog, Auxiliary Memory, to be my personal blog and Classics of Science Fiction to be a reference site. Maybe I should use a different style of writing for each.

Information is the key. When people read, people either want specific information or entertaining information. And web readers want quick information. I’m a wordy bastard. This essay is already longer than what the 99% want to read. But I haven’t covered my topic. I could describe a dozen insights I’ve learned from Disch’s essay and make this post 3,000 words long. Or I could put each insight into a different post.

If information is the key, then information density is the essence of great writing. I’m still impressed by how much Disch conveys about Brave New World in his first paragraph. I believe his summary says even more in fewer words.

My final quarrel with the book is one of emphasis from my first reading. I’ve always had a sneaking fondness for the world Huxley invented. I know I’m supposed to disapprove. But I would like to try soma just once, and I wouldn’t say no to a night at the Westminster Abbey Cabaret dancing to the music of Calvin Stopes and his Sixteen Sexophonists. The lyrics of the songs may be sappy, but I’ll bet they’ve got a good beat. As for the feelies, I suppose the plots are pretty simpleminded, but any more so than Raiders of the Lost Ark?

This is not to endorse all the sinister theories of Mustapha Mond, only to suggest that fun’s fun, and that some of the targets of Huxley’s satire are mean-spirited, insofar as he is making a case against pop culture, sexual candor, and the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Relax, Huxley. You worry too much. Have a gram of Tylenol. Things could be worse. This might be 1984.

Disch’s reading reaction that Huxley’s dystopia is alluring is close to mine. Disch combines story description with story reaction into the same sentence where I separated them into different paragraphs.

My envy of Disch’s writing inspires me to work harder, but it also makes me ask myself a lot of psychological questions about why I want to write. Blogging and other social media appeal to our urge to express ourselves. On many levels, I worry that’s appealing to our ego and vanity. Of course, we also call our activities on social media sharing. But what exactly are we sharing? Ourselves, information, promotion of cool things, memories, passions — the list goes on and on. When a writer produces a work to be read, they are also asking readers to use up some of their time.

The best thing I learned from my six weeks at the Clarion West writers’ workshop was “Great writing is the accumulation of significant detail.” I believe what I learned from my recursive reflection between these two pieces is: “Great writing is the accumulation of significant detail that wastes the least time for the reader.”

That’s a single lesson at one recursive turn. With another cycle, Disch’s prose sparkles for me because I just reread Brave New World and all his allusions resonated. That wouldn’t be true for people who haven’t read the book. That insight reflects back again, and I see I admire Disch’s essay because we both reread Brave New World late in life after first reading it when young. Seeing that lets me know great writing isn’t always in the prose but in the sharing. But that reveals the limits of finding the right reader.

I could keep going, but after the 1,178th word, I believe I spent enough of your time.

JWH

 

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Sanditon on PBS Masterpiece

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Over the past year, I’ve lost my ability to binge-watch TV. My mind just doesn’t latch on to shows like it once did. However, Sunday night I watched three episodes of Sanditon and then last night finished up the season by watching five more episodes. Only two have been broadcast, but if you donate to PBS and sign up for your Passport account, you can stream all eight episodes now.

Sanditon is based on a Jane Austen unfinished novel. She had completed about 24,000 words when she died. If you’re really interested you should read what Wikipedia said about the unfinished novel and the new TV series. The first of the eight episodes cover what Jane Austen originally wrote, so the next seven episodes are new. The show does have the feel of Jane Austen except for two glaring issues. There are a couple of sex scenes, and some British viewers claim the ending is not what Jane Austen would have written. I was thinking the ending might be setting us up for a second season, so I was withholding judgment.

I was completely delighted with the mini-series and thought it very Jane Austen-ish for the most part. Farmgirl Charlotte Heywood gets to stay with Tom and Mary Parker, a well-to-do family who live in Sanditon, a seaside village. Tom pours his fortune and others into making Sanditon a prosperous vacation destination. That reminds me of the spa town Bath from the Austen novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Tom has a brother, Sidney who insults, ignores, and irritates Charlotte no end. We’ve seen that relationship before with Mr. Darcy. Charlotte also reminds me of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, being a naïve visitor in a grandeur society and growing up quickly. Charlotte has a lot of Emma Woodhouse in her too by her meddling. Sanditon also has a rich old woman, Lady Denham who is a lot like Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Pride and Prejudice. The only thing missing are red-coated soldiers, but this work might be set after the Napoleonic Wars, or Jane had planned to write about them in later chapters.  One new character type for Jane was Miss Lambe, a black heiress, who was in the unfinished manuscript. If only Jane had finished this story. Would she have made the story almost a cliché of her earlier work? Or would it strike out to be distinctly different like all her six famous novels?

One of the intriguing aspects to the unfinished Sanditon that Wikipedia points out is the story has been finished before in various ways by a number of authors. Mary Gaither Marshall at the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) wrote an extensive essay about the completers: “Jane Austen’s Sanditon: Inspiring Continuations, Adaptions, and Spin-offs for 200 Years.” Her essay suggests most of the continuations were off the mark in terms of actually writing something that Jane Austen would have written. At first, I wanted to try some of these completions, but after reading Marshall’s essay closer, I’m not so sure. Too many of them added silly gimmicks.

After enjoying the miniseries I read the unfinished Austen novel. It’s twelve chapters barely fleshed out the first episode. The next seven episodes don’t contradict what Jane Austen had started, but there is little evidence to suggest that’s where she was going. Tom Parker’s obsession was the likely plot in my mind. Eleanor Bley Griffiths gives a few clues to the difference between what Austen wrote and what Andrew Davies adapted for the miniseries. See “How closely is Sanditon based on Jane Austen’s original unfinished novel?” and linked essays. I feel after watching the show, that it might be the best of the continuations when it comes to finishing Jane Austen’s book.

If you don’t like Jane Austen, you probably won’t like Sanditon. Regency-era England has social norms and manners that seem silly and very politically incorrect to modern minds, although the TV writers did add some modern feminist insights. There are certain complications in the miniseries that I’m not sure Jane would have approved, but then maybe she would have. If there is a heaven I picture Jane being mobbed by fans asking her about all these adaptations. We assume Jane Austen had to censor herself for her early 19th century audiences, and if she had had more freedom probably would have explored some of the issues that modern adapters have added.

JWH

 

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Where Are You On The Handling Complexity Scale?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 6, 2020

I like to think our minds are like the mixing boards you see in recording studios, with dozens of sliders, each for a different cognitive ability. Think of the autism spectrum as one slider, and artistic ability, spatial perception, and mathematics as other sliders. I’m not sure how many mental spectrums exist, but I’ve been thinking about a possible spectrum to consider – handling complexity.

It’s obvious some people handle complexity better than others. People who can’t handle complexity want everything to be black and white. To them, everything is binary – for/against, male/female, good/evil, theism/atheism, rich/poor and so on. These people seem to have made up their minds early in life and will defend their beliefs with great tenacity. It’s easier for them to build an array of defense mechanisms than it is to deal with complexity. Successful people handle complexity and thrive. However, if you can’t handle complexity can you recognize people who can?

Ever since Donald Trump was elected I’ve been trying to understand why people like him. My current theory is neither Trump nor his follows can handle complexity. Trump’s simplex approach to problems resonates with their own simplex relationship with reality, and they find that comforting.

Republicans have taken an ostrich’s head-in-the-sand, ass-in-the-air approach to complexity. Denying complexity is their great survival mechanism. However, to solve the world’s problem involves dealing with complexity. We need leaders who place high on the handling complexity scale.

Trump is low on the scale, seeing reality in terms of black and white. People like voting for candidates like themselves. We need to vote for people who are higher on the handling complexity scale than ourselves. But how do we pick people who have cognitive skills we can’t imagine? How do we pick a person whose solutions might not make sense to us?

One way is to judge how they’ve handled complexity in the past. Trump has zero political, diplomatic, or leadership skills. His businesses have very few employees. He has no handling of complexity skills at all. Millions of people voted for him because he handles complexity in the same way they do – which is at a simple gut-level.

Most people see the world with a binary vision. Most voters see the political spectrum as left and right. That’s incredibly simple-minded. Just seeing the world in a grayscale of 16 adds great complexity, but it’s still extremely low on the complexity scale. Remember when computers only had 16 colors and how bad computer games looked? At the time we thought it an amazing step up from black and white (or black and green) monitors. Then when graphic cards went to 256 colors images started to look somewhat realistic. It wasn’t until graphics cards could handle millions of colors did photographs begin to look realistic. (The above graphic is CGA, EGA, and VGA.)

People have an extremely difficult time juggling 16 variables. We embrace ideas like the Myers-Briggs scale, trying to pigeonhole people into 16 types. The Myers-Briggs scale has its appeal because it vaguely works — but does it really?

Take climate change. Its complexity is immense. Even computer models that track millions of variables can only paint a rough picture of what is happening. Simplex people prefer accepting a blowhard’s opinion on climate change who has no understanding of the complexity of climate change over scientists with supercomputers and billions of dollars worth of scientific measuring devices. Why? Because binary thinkers prefer binary solutions.

We can’t solve complex problems with binary solutions. We need an army of PhDs who have armies of supercomputers working with artificial intelligence to even begin to understand climate change. Why don’t we require such expertise from our politicians? Isn’t our country’s social/economic/political structure nearly as complex as the weather? Why don’t we expect all politicians to have PhDs in political science? Why shouldn’t the highest political jobs require the greatest political experience? Shouldn’t a president at least have the experience being a governor or senator, if not a whole lot more?

How can we possibly expect a person with no experience to succeed at a job that requires the most experience? How can we expect a person who has no ability to handle complexity to succeed in a job that requires the most understanding of complexity?

Only a simplex person would vote for another simplex person.

Think of it this way. Say you’re a betting person and want to win some money on a football game. There are two teams. One team consists of professional football players, and the other team is made up of regular guys who believe they can play football. Who’re you going to put your money on? Or imagine you need brain surgery. Who will you pick? The surgeon with the most experience, or some egotistic guy who thinks anyone can do brain surgery?

JWH

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Thinking About the Future Without Making Resolutions

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 2, 2020

This year I didn’t even try to make New Year resolutions. I can’t make myself do things just because I think I should do them. I can’t lose weight. I can’t stop wasting time. I can’t be more productive. I can’t want to go to the gym. I can’t make myself write that science fiction novel. I can’t make myself be a better person.

I’m reading a depressing book for a book club, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. Even though Wallace-Wells claims to be optimistic we’ll deal with climate change his litany of statistics and predictions are soul-crushing. The world has clogged arteries, COPD, an A1C of 9.3, and is grossly overweight, but like me, it can’t stick to any New Year’s resolutions either. There’s no chance humanity will give up excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and start exercising.

Even though we’re on the Titanic and see the iceberg we can’t alter our course. Does that mean the future is set in stone? Is it hubris to think we can pilot our personal and collective destinies?

I spent a good bit of time last year trying to understand Republicans. We can’t make any decisions about the future if we’re polarized by two views of reality. I’ve concluded there is a total failure of communication between liberals and conservatives, and like New Year’s resolutions, I should give up trying.

Now, this might all sound like I’m depressed, but I’m not. Even though I’m an atheist, I’ve always loved 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.

The trouble is I keep thinking I can change more than I can. I guess that’s why they say wisdom comes with old age because I’m starting to realize the difference.

What I love doing is reading. I love figuring out how things function. I will continue to do that. I can easily study how things work while giving up trying to make them work differently. I need to swim with the current rather than against it.

I can change little things in my own life, but I think I’ve finally found the wisdom to know I can’t understand, communicate, or influence Republicans, which means we can’t do anything about climate change. I give up. Climate change is theirs, they own it.

For the rest of my life, I’m going to feel like those strange visitors from the future in “Vintage Season” by C. L. Moore who came to watch a terrifying event in our present. Readers always wonder why those visitors from the future don’t alter our fate, but if you reread the story enough…

JWH

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2019 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 31, 2019

This is the 12th year I’ve been doing these “Year in Reading” posts. They’re really written for my poor memory because I can’t imagine anyone caring about a list of books I’ve read. It’s a ritual where think about my reading habits and contemplate what I might want to read in the next year. At the end of last year I said, “Other than gorging on short science fiction, I’ll make no promises for 2019.” I think that’s the first time I’ve actually done exactly what I said I was going to do regarding my reading predictions.

This year I won’t list the books I’ve read. I’m being lazy because it takes a lot of work to create that HTML table. I’ve started using Goodreads to track my reading so here’s my 2019 summary for those who care. It’s much more visual anyway since it displays the list by the covers.

The Best Science Fiction 1949 1950 1951 1952

This year I read many anthologies and author collections of science fiction short stories. I’m guessing well over two hundred stories. I also read several books about the history of science fiction. I’ve separated my obsession with science fiction to another blog. I’m starting to wonder if I read too much science fiction, especially older science fiction.

Asimov and others

What’s interesting is when I look over the books I read in 2019 the books that stand out the most weren’t science fiction. I’d have to say my novel of the year was The Overstory by Richard Powers. I was also very impressed with The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Picking my favorite nonfiction book is harder, so here’s my three-way tie:

2019 - Favorite Nonfiction Books

Since I don’t feel like spending a lot of words on describing these books I thought I’d link to reviews that do:

I will say that I wish I could remember what’s in these books. It bothers me that I read intensely fascinating nonfiction books and then quickly forget it. I’ve written about this forgetting angst before. My best existential solution is to tell myself that feeling knowledgable about these subjects while I read them is good enough. This is my second reading of the Hugo Award-winning The World Beyond the Hill, and it’s already fading away. I hate that.

Quite often when I reread one of these Year in Reading posts I discover so many titles that I no longer recognize at all. And I’m not even talking Alzheimer’s forgetting, but merely mundane I’m-getting-old forgetting. Part of my problem is I chase too many squirrels. One comforting aspect of focusing on old science fiction this year is the feeling that I’m becoming knowledgable about something. It is a rather useless academic territory to claim, but at least it feels familiar when wandering around in the same small land.

I assume next year I will continue exploring deeper into the history of science fiction. However, I would like to broaden my reading somewhat. At the end of this year, I read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan because several best-of-the-decade lists praised it. This literary fix-up novel (13 short stories that have connections) was far better written than any science fiction I read and does broaden my reading experience, but I’m not sure I cared. Still, I might try some more contemporary literary fiction in 2020.

I feel in my waning years that I need to specialize in a few subjects because I can’t maintain a coherent sense of a generalist. On the other hand, I am impressed by how many Jeopardy clues trigger lost facts to pop out of my head. There’s a jumble of knowledge in there, I just can’t organize or quickly access it.

More and more I’m impressed by people who can explain things in detail. The ability to quickly recall bits of information and string them together into a verbal narrative is a skill I envy. I’d love to be able to describe what I read in a coherent speech when my friends ask me about what I’ve been reading.

Next year when I read a book I truly admire I hope I will study it, write a concise summary, and then develop that into a little speech. I wonder if the act of preparing a micro-lecture will help me remember more?

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

JWH

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A Tale of Two Angels

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 25, 2019

This month I’ve watched two films about angels: The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Wings of Desire (1987). I happen to be an atheist who enjoys movies about angels. Angels are a weird conceptual race of beings that constantly mutates for our fictional needs. In the old days, angels were not human or ever human and existed on another celestial sphere with God. They were God’s messengers in the Old Testament. Humans keep making up stories about angels changing them each time. In the forty years between The Bishop’s Wife and Wings of Desire, what the angels represent are starkly different.

Cary Grant plays Dudley in 1947. Bruno Ganz plays Damiel in 1987. By the way, Bruno Ganz died this year, so it was sad seeing Wings of Desire again. I believe this is the fourth or fifth time seeing The Bishop’s Wife.

With last night’s viewing, I started questioning Dudley’s role in the story. In modern times we think of angels as guardians. Dudley appears to Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) in answer to his prayer for help. Henry is troubled because he wants to build a cathedral and his primary doner wants to pull the plug unless Henry makes the cathedral a monument to her dead husband. Henry believes he’s doing divine work by building an edifice to God’s magnificent and doesn’t want it tarnished by such egotism.

But Dudley doesn’t seem interested in the cathedral. He’s interested in Julia (Loretta Young), the Bishop’s Wife. Last night, I began to wonder just how honest Dudley is in this film. He claims angels are the reason why people do good, implying they work behind us like puppeteers. But he also deceives humans. He arranges for Henry to get stuck to a chair so he can take Julia out. He tells Debby, Henry and Julia little girl, she can throw snowballs when she can’t, he makes boys magically show up for choir practice when they’ve obviously chosen to be elsewhere, and in the end, destroys Henry’s plans for the cathedral. Everywhere Dudley goes in this film, he pulls angelic wool over people’s eyes. Yes, they become happier, but they are still being deceived.

In the end, Dudley goes away and erases all memory of his visit. What has he changed? Will the happiness he arranged for Julia, Debby, and the old Professor continue in their life. Will Henry devote more time to Julia even though he’s been given another big job? Will Sylvestor the cab driver have as much fun with Julia and Henry as he did with Julia and Dudley?

Most of The Bishop’s Wife is depended on the charm of Cary Grant. Every last woman in this picture glows when Cary Grant is in the scene. We assume they feel the presence of an angel, but it appears they are all fawning over a hot guy.

For my last two viewings of The Bishop’s Wife, I’ve wished that David Niven played Dudley and Cary Grant played Henry. The casting was too obvious. They should have reversed the roles and made Grant and Niven act against type. The charm of the angel shouldn’t have been confused with physical beauty.

The Bishop’s Wife is a charming film if you don’t think about it too much. Basically, Hollywood puts two outstandingly beautiful humans together for us to watch. They added some Christmas decorations and an angel but in a philosophically iffy way. It’s not like It’s A Wonderful Life, where an angel merely shows George Baily how much good he accomplished in his life. I’m not sure we’re shown any human doing good in The Bishop’s Wife. Julie wants a husband that pays attention to her, the Old Professor wants to write his book. Henry wants to build a cathedral. None of the humans want to sacrifice for others, and the story implies we need an angel to give us what we want.

In Wings of Desire, the angels are all around us humans. We can’t see or hear them, except sometimes young children can. The angels are immortal and have been on Earth forever. They merely watch. In a way, the angels witness reality, and maybe even give it meaning by their observations. The angels feel great empathy for us and listen to our thoughts. And when they detect a particularly troubled human put a hand on the human’s shoulder. This seems to bring a slight sense of comfort, but that’s all. The angels don’t work magic. They just care.

Damiel eventually falls in love with Marion, a lonely trapeze artist and decides to become mortal. Marion has friends but can’t connect with them. However, this love story comes at the end of a long film, so most of the movie is about listening to people’s inner thoughts. Watching the movie makes us like the angels, we watch and listen, in other words, we get to be angels too. Wings of Desire is a very slow philosophical film. The film doesn’t work unless you have the empathy to feel for the suffering of the human characters.

Wings of Desire is a much more spiritual film than The Bishop’s Wife. However, it’s much harder to watch. I love The Bishop’s Wife because of nostalgia, but as a spiritual message, it is lacking. It leaves me unconsciously wishing I was Cary Grant scoring with Loretta Young. It makes me wish there was magic to solve any bothersome problem that might come up in life. The Bishop’s Wife feel-good nature comes from making us want to live out a Hollywood fantasy. It’s now making me question the value of a guardian angel. We should be better people from an inner drive and not an outer influence. Magic is corrupting. But then, we don’t see the evil of magic.

JWH