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Lightning Killed More Than My Hardware

by James Wallace Harris, 4/17/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, 4/1/21

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

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

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

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

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

Without the internet some of the things I missed were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Which Came First – the Emotion or the Hormone?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/26/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Imagine Living Only in the Real World and Rejecting All Screens

by James Wallace Harris, 3/18/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should I feel guilty about that?

JWH

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Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human

James Wallace Harris, 3/13/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, 3/9/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

JWH

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REWATCHING: The Birds (1963)

James Wallace Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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

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31 Lessons to Save the World

James Wallace Harris, 3/4/21

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

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

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

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

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

You can see why these books appeal to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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REWATCHING: The Graduate (1967)

James Wallace Harris, 3/3/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We didn’t, did we?

JWH

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To The Bearers of False Witness Against Our Democracy

by James Wallace Harris, 2/23/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harari went on to say:

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Book vs. Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Cracks in My Comfort Zone

James Wallace Harris, 2/18/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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How to Save The World by Reading Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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The Future Is About Jobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Finding Laughter in Interesting Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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The Mystery of the Aching Leg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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The Psyche of Blind Faith

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, January 9, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inspiration for this essay.

JWH

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Do You Read Just One Book at a Time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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2020 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 31, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Not Quite a Pink Light From VALIS

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 14, 2020

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

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

?!?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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BASS2020: “This Is Pleasure” by Mary Gaitskill

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 5, 2020

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Reviews:

Karen Carlson concluded:

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

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

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

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Reading:

JWH

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Their Wonderful Lives

by James Wallace Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Memory Management in Humans 1.0

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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BASS 2020: “Something Street” by Carolyn Ferrell

by James Wallace Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

JWH

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BASS 2020: “Halloween” by Marian Crotty

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Reviews:

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

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

JWH

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BASS 2020: “The Nanny” by Emma Cline

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Jake Weber’s review

JWH

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BASS 2020: “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers

by James Wallace Harris,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

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

JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Update:

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

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

JWH

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BASS 2020: “Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 10, 2020

I’ve read “Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson several times now trying decipher her message in a bottle, which is how I picture short stories. To me, we’re all isolated on our own deserted islands of consciousness. No matter how physically close we get, we’re all still very far apart mentally in comprehending one another. Fiction, that is the best of fiction, is a coded message from one conscious mind given to another.

I don’t mean to imply that literary writers have a philosophy to push, but I believe the best of them strive to describe something quite specific they’ve observe about reality with the best words and phrases they can find. However, no decoding of those words can ever lead to perfect telepathic communion.

There are a number of factors to consider when decoding a short story. The first thing to ask: “Whose story is it?” This can be simple to answer, or complex, or even multiplexed. In “Godmother Tea” Joy is a young black woman dealing with her unhappiness and loneliness. She has being abandoned by her lifelong best friend, the man she wanted to marry, and she is tormented by personal critiques from her mother, relatives, ancestors, friends, strangers, possessions, and even an imaginary godmother. Is Joy having an identity crisis? Is she worried that she is too white or not black enough? Is Joy a chronically dissatisfied human, or just having trouble growing up?

There is another level to consider when asking whose story is it. Is Joy merely a made-up character, or does she embodied any personal insights and characteristics of the author, Selena Anderson? All my favorite literary fiction has elements of the autobiographical. Roman à clef writing has gone out of fashion, but that doesn’t mean Anderson hasn’t used her own life as grist for the mill of her fiction.

One small clue I have that this story might be based on memory, is at the party, “some fool was playing Spice Girls on the violin.” The Spice Girls were popular in the mid-1990s. But that’s the kind of observation you save for a story, although that means Anderson has been working on this tale for a very long time. I did find this quote by Anderson:

My dissertation is a collection of stories about people who want to win and who make a bad situation worse by trying to do something about it. The stories are set in Texas—but in my imagined Texas of the recent past. There are ghosts, tiny men, a slave ship, dolls, dudes who talk in third person, forest fires, and plenty of girls brooding in their apartments.

Joy is definitely a girl brooding in her apartment making a bad situation worse by trying to do something about it. However, I also found an interview with Anderson talking about the writing of “Godmother Tea” and it doesn’t offer much hope that it’s about her (although in a couple places she mentions that some observations were based on the real world.)

The reason I love literary fiction, and even how I personally define it, is by it’s biographical/autobiographical feel. Literary writing is dominated by characterization that goes way beyond what genre characterization attempts. In short stories especially, literary writing feels like you are getting inside someone’s head. That’s why I say literary fiction feels biographical in third person or autobiographical in first person. It doesn’t have to be real biography/autobiography, just feel like it.

“Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson has the prestige of having the pole position for the BASS 2020 anthology. That means the editors really admired this story, and the one they expected to hook book buyers. It begins:

Just like my mama. She rolled up with a gift: a life-sized mirror edged by baroque curling leaves, with slender gold feet that somehow supported both its shimmering weight and mine. My mother has a knack for messy presents. Day passes to the gym, Merry Maids coupons, flat irons with built-in conditioner. This, however, was especially rude. A mirror would only reflect me, plus all my sulky auras, plus the cultivated environment that had drawn me this way.
 

Right away we know the narrator doesn’t want to see herself or how she lives. We don’t know immediately that the narrator is a woman, but it’s what I’m guessing. Moms don’t usually by their sons mirrors, and sons don’t usually worry about being judged or consider themselves sulky.

I did not know the author was black until after I read the story and began researching this blog. I didn’t know the character was black until later in the story, although I had my guesses. We don’t even learn her name right away, and then we discover this unhappy young woman is named Joy.

The main virtue of reading literary short stories is seeing inside people unlike ourselves. As an old white guy I expect most of these BASS 2020 stories will be about people much different from myself. Although Joy is African American her story isn’t about race. If anything, I feel it’s more about gender because Joy’s thoughts, observations, worries, and feelings aren’t anything like mine, or the guys I know, but are quite common with my women friends. But Joy’s problems are also about being young, something that’s becoming ever more alien to me.

A challenge to writers is to find a way to relate to the universal but present the specific. As readers we want novelty but we also need to resonate with the protagonist. Anderson lets us know the many ways in which Joy doesn’t like herself, and even why her friends are turning against her.

Joy is quite perceptive, quite smart. Is her suffering due to being too intellectual? Is her hyper-awareness of her situation the real cause of her anguish?

Joy’s mom obviously gives her gifts to help her improve her self esteem. Poor Joy has worn out her best friend who is leaving her, and rejected a boyfriend who was trying to help her. Joy knows all of this, and some of it comes out in an imaginary Godmother Joy creates to lecture herself. I wonder if Anderson wrote this story as a form of her own self realization.

Of course, we can’t know the answer to that. But I consider it a quality of good literary writing to wonder about such motives. On the other hand, would-be writers are taught to put their main character through the wringer, and maybe Anderson thought it would be fun to create Joy so we could watch her suffer.

Strangely, Anderson gives some of the best lines not to Joy, but to characters around her. Her best friend Nicole is moving on but still tries to help Joy by taking her to a party.

“You on the computer too much,” said Nicole. Someone passed her a plate of intricately painted chocolates that she rationed with me only. We were supposed to take one and pass them down. 

“Only because I’m heartbroken,” I said, “and failing. I’m not sure if we can take it anymore.” I was speaking vaguely about everything, so when Nicole said she knew what I meant, firecrackers went off in my face and hands. 

“I was just thinking about that the other day,” said Nicole. “I was wondering if I had the heart to do this work again. Like, could my heart break one more time? Then I came across the website of a woman who fostered medically fragile babies. Apparently when a newborn is terminal, the parents can give up their rights if they know they won’t be able to handle the medical bills. These newborns have nobody, so this woman would bring them home. Every now and then one would get better and be adopted, but most of them died in her living room. After about the tenth dead baby, her little son asked when they were getting another one. The mom told him it was too hard on her, she just couldn’t take it. And her son replied, ‘So we aren’t going to help any more babies because you can’t take it?’ ” 

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I said. I looked Nicole up and down. “That story reminded you of me?” 

“It reminded me of a lot of things,” she said. She turned a cocoa-dusted truffle between her fingers as though contemplating my future. “When you think of quitting on yourself,” she said, “just remember the mom and the babies.” But I was stuck on the little son who couldn’t get enough of baby-death, who had also put their sad life in perspective. Without him the mother never would have noticed. 

Nicole leaves both Joy physically and emotionally at the party and Joy overhears:

“It may be over between us,” the blond person said, “but I just have to say, right now, you are nullifying my entire life.” 

I turned away. I didn’t like to hear somebody’s life get nullified. People have the right to withhold their attention. I’ve done it. And when André did it to me, I’d believed I was special. My heartache was delicious. It turned me into an outcast. I would cling to him until he said something devastating, like Take it easy.

Joy then leaves the party to confront André, the man she rejected but still wants, first on the phone, and then at his house. Joy hears Porsche, the new girlfriend, say in the background: “All shut eyes ain’t sleep” and “You don’t apologize to a roach once you spray it” which Joy comments to us “It takes skill to get to that level, years if you study really hard.”

In the end, Joy achieves some insights that let us feel she’s going to be better, but I’m not sure I buy them. Jake Weber takes a deep look at Joy’s identity problem at his blog Workshop Heretic. He thought the story was more about black identity than I did, and there are hints in the story to suggest that. But I thought the story was more about being judged, with Joy being her own harshest critic. Joy sees herself as a failed artist, whose apartment reflects other people’s tastes, who can’t dress in style or put on makeup properly, who seeks identity by cooking world cuisine that others consider slop, whose best friend has grown bored of her even when she’s making exciting observations, and her lover has moved on with a women that has more insight about people and relationships.

“Godmother Tea” is stuffed with witty lines, but my favorite was “It was April and I liked to be alone.” Joy is a person who lives in her head trying to figure out who she should be by all the external judgments made about her. I believe Selena Anderson’s story captures this wonderfully. Because she has painted Joy’s inner world so vividly that I wonder if she used herself as a model.

Other Bloggers Reviewing BASS 2020 This Year:

Other Stories by Selena Anderson:

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JWH

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The Best American Short Stories 2020

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 6, 2020

Once again I’m turning my reading of The Best American Short Stories (BASS) into a blogging project. See my review for the 2019 volume. The series editor is Heidi Pitlor, who has held that post since 2007, and this year’s 2020 guest editor is Curtis Sittenfeld. Each year, the series editor reads hundreds of stories and passes on what they consider to be the top 120 stories to the guest editor, who in turn picks their favorite twenty stories to publish as The Best American Short Stories for the year. It’s a kind of literary playoff where the winners of the Final 20 are chosen by us readers.

I’ve always wanted to write fiction, especially short stories, but I’ve never felt I was any good at it. Reading these stories teaches me about the best of literary prose. For each of the past three years I’ve read hundreds of short stories and I’m slowly learning what goes into good storytelling. I doubt I’ll ever write a story worthy of being published but I keep trying. To succeed at 69 or 70 would be very satisfying as an extremely late blooming boomer.

My intended project is to read The Best American Short Stories 2020 and study how each story works. This means twenty blog posts, something that should take me months to complete. I’m aware of two other bloggers also analyzing each BASS story (Karen Carlson, Jacob Weber). If other readers of this blog are also reviewing this BASS edition, please let me know in the comments.

To understand each story at an artistic level will require multiple readings. I’ve already learned it takes two or three readings to do justice to a good story, and it will take even more readings to reveal everything the author intended. Most readers rush through their fiction. That’s how I’ve read most of my life. It’s only since I started listening to audiobooks in 2002 that I’ve learned that slower is better. I’ve read the first story in this volume, “Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson three times now, and I’m only beginning to comprehend why it’s the lead story.

My plan is to read each story via the printed book first. This will give me the general idea of the story, the flyover view. Then, I’ll listen to the audio version of the anthology. That will give me the voice and drama of the story. Professional narrators are highly skilled at interpreting that. And, finally, I’ll read the story again on the Kindle where I can highlight, take notes, and copy quotations. This is where I’ll deconstruct the writing and look for examples of what I want to learn.

I highly recommend buying BASS 2020, but if you don’t want to make such a commitment, some of the stories are available to read online. Try reading one of them. Then read it again. Did a lot more of the story pop out that you didn’t notice when you read it the first time? Try reading it yet again. Were you surprised by even more being revealed? These stories have amazing depth to them.

  1. Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson (my review)
  2. “The Apartment” by T. C. Boyle (my review)
  3. “A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed” by Jason Brown (my review)
  4. “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers (my review)
  5. The Nanny” by Emma Cline (my review)
  6. “Halloween” by Marian Crotty (my review)
  7. Something Street” by Carolyn Ferrell (my review)
  8. This is Pleasure” by Mary Gaitskill (my review)
  9. In the Event” by Meng Jin
  10. The Children” by Andrea Lee
  11. Rubberdust” by Sarah Thankam Mathews
  12. It’s Not You” by Elizabeth McCracken
  13. “Liberté” by Scott Nadelson
  14. Howl Palace” by Leigh Newman
  15. “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” by Jane Pek
  16. “The Hands of Dirty Children” by Alejandro Puyana
  17. “Octopus VII” by Anna Reeser
  18. Enlightenment” by William Pei Shih
  19. Kennedy” by Kevin Wilson
  20. “The Special World” by Tiphanie Yanique

Normally, I read science fiction, but literary fiction usually reflects the cutting edge on the art of writing. Literary fiction also focuses on getting inside the heads of characters, and since we’re in the middle of a diversity boom, that means we’re seeing a wider range of perspectives, writing styles, and experimentation.

Few people read short stories today. It’s a dying art form that has a thriving subculture, albeit small. Before television Shanghaied popular entertainment in the 1950s, newsstands were filled with hundreds of magazine titles devoted to endless variety of short stories subjects, and most general interest and special focus magazines carried a handful of stories.

I consider short stories to be messages in a bottle from one soul to another. They are intricate little communiques where the writer sculps a small vision they want to share with the world. Great stories are multifaceted with layers and textures that required effort, concentration, and contemplation to reveal.

For some reason at my fading end of life I’ve found reading short stories to be far more interesting than any other art form. That’s partly due to the limits of what my aging mind can handle. Short and precise is good. But I also cherish what each writer expresses. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so each story is a handful of mental portraits and landscapes painted in words.

There is far more to short stories than finding out what happens in the plot. And once they are carefully decoded you have to ask why did the writer write this, and also ask yourself, what does it mean to me.

It’s all deliciously multiplex.

Other Bloggers Reviewing BASS 2020 This Year:

JWH

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Mind Over Aging

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 31, 2020

We all lie to ourselves that we’re not getting old. Unfortunately, we sometimes encounter situations that remind us of our self deceptions. Yesterday I went to IKEA to buy some Billy bookcases. After marching endlessly through their giant showroom maze I came to the warehouse section. I went over to a young woman with a vest assembling an order and asked her if it was quicker to pull my own order or let the IDEA staff do it.

“About the same,” she replied looking like she was anxious to get back to her task.

“Where can I find a cart?” I said figuring I could be faster.

She immediately changed her mind, “Oh, let me do it for you.”

“I don’t want to take you away from someone else’s order.”

“That’s okay,” she insisted, turning more friendly.

“Well, then let me help you.” I said. I wasn’t used to letting girls lift heavy things for me. I knew the boxes would weigh 72 pounds each.

“That’s okay,” and she called to another young women and they immediately started looking for my items. I thought this was great customer service. But I felt bad watching two young females do all the manual labor. (I know, I shouldn’t be sexist.)

After I paid for my stuff I rolled my cart out to my truck. Another young woman, a customer this time, driving out of the parking lot stopped and asked, “Do you need help getting that in your truck?”

I thought that was rather nice of her. I’m about a year from turning 70 and I remembered a George Carlin routine. He said when he turned 70 he never had to lift anything big again. He could try but people would rush over to do it for him. I realized the young girl thought I was old. I guess I am. George Carlin had observed some kind of social dynamic that’s not just a comedy routine.

“I think I can manage,” I said, “but that’s awful nice of your to stop and offer.”

The boxes were heavier than I wanted to lift. After hurting my back carry 53 pound speakers a few weeks ago I knew I shouldn’t lift 72 pound boxes. But I hadn’t planned to pick them all the way up. I lifted one end of the first box onto the tailgate, and then lifted the other end sliding it on the truck bed. I had visualized doing that before I left home.

I then happened to look up and saw the young woman had pulled over and was watching me from her car. I quickly put the other boxes in the truck and waved to her that I was okay.

For most of my life women expected me to pick heavy stuff up for them and kill their bugs. I guess I’m old now when they rush over to do the heavy lifting. I wonder if they still want me to kill their bugs?

When I got home I knew I couldn’t carry the boxes into the house. So I opened each box one at a time and Susan and I carried the pieces inside individually. I had visualized that before I went shopping too. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Mind over aging. It took me two days to put the bookcases together and load them up with books. I wore myself out several times. But I got the job done. Mind over aging.

But I kept chuckling to myself that those young women saw me as a helpless old guy. I realized the store clerk probably thought I was too old to too, which was why she quickly offered to help. Someday I will be too old. Or maybe I’m getting there. I feel it’s important to have the right attitude about aging.

I’ve been studying aging for many years from Ronni Bennett and her website about aging Time Goes By.

Yesterday Ronnie died. She was just ten years older than me, and I always felt she was exploring the path of getting older just ahead of me. I felt it was important to pay attention to her because she was having the real experiences I would someday go though too. I’ve learned many things from Ronni’s wonderful posts, but I think the most important was: Don’t pretend we’re not getting older. My friends tell me I’m too accepting of aging. They want to believe if you don’t think about it, aging and death won’t happen.

All us fans of her blog knew Ronni was dying. She was in Hospice care these last several months. She blogged right up to the end. Here’s her last regular post called “Old Lady Fancy Pants” about getting her first pair of adult diapers. Ronni’s last two paragraphs:

It was my first chance to try this out on Monday with my first evening incontinence pill at bedtime. I yanked a pair out of the tightly wrapped package, shook the panties open and to my utmost surprise, found they they are trimmed in – wait for it – frilly lace. Yes, you read that right: frilly lace.

Is there anything else to do but giggle? So I pulled them on, pranced around in front the full-length mirror and had a big hearty guffaw at myself – old lady fancy pants.

That is truly mind over aging. Of sure, I’m scared of getting old and feeble. I’m terrified of dementia. But reading Ronni’s communiques taught me I’ll have to take whatever comes. Laughing at wearing adult diapers is certainly better than crying. I hope I can laugh when the time comes.

I thought Ronni was the Zen Master of mind over aging. Anyone over sixty should maintain a keen awareness of growing old. Oh sure, don’t give in easily. Being aware isn’t giving up. I’m reminded of something I heard Stevie Nicks say on CBS Sunday Morning last week. She said being forced to stay home from touring was aging her. I thought that was a keen insight. No one wants to age, but I think it’s important to notice when and how it’s happening. Those two girls taught me that I’m starting to look old.

Thinking about aging is a kind of conscious practice, a developing awareness, that allows us to surf the waves of declining powers rather than letting them drown us. We will all die. Getting old will be unpleasant. We will have to deal with an endless procession of experiences we don’t want to experience. The real goal is to figure out how to keep doing all the things we want to do – and chuckle along the way.

By the way, fans of Ronni will keep her website going, and maintain what she wrote. Visit Time Goes By.

JWH

Featured

Are You Sure You Want to Reject Science?

by James Wallace Harris

Trigger Warning: Do Not Read While Flying

I assume we live in an objective reality understandable by the scientific method. There is a growing movement to reject science. Does that mean those people believe reality is explainable by something other than science? Or do science deniers assume reality is subjective and mutable by our thoughts, desires, and fears? What happens if science doesn’t explain an objective reality? What happens if we really do live in a reality where mind over matter rules?

I know science can produce inconvenient results, but do you really want to reject it? I can understand why the faithful rejects science, science invalidates their theories about life after death. I can also sympathize with business people who fear following scientific research means losing money. But still, do you really want to reject science? Hasn’t science created more wealth than faith?

What happens to our reality when everyone believes whatever they want?

First off, if you have doubts about science don’t get on an airplane. For hundreds of thousand of years Homo sapiens did not fly. Then we discovered science and took to the skies. If we were wrong about science, maybe flying really doesn’t work. If reality works by believing and we stop believing, what happens? If enough people stop believing in science will planes start falling from the skies?

Religion is based on faith. That means believing in believing is how things work. Do you really want to believe that? What if you’re lying in bed at night and imagine a monster is going to grab you and wad you into a bloody ball? Doesn’t rational thinking protect you from such dangers?

Whenever I’ve stood next to a jetliner I’ve marveled at its immense size and weight. It boggles my mind that science can explain how lift works, especially with something so massive. Yet, I put my faith in science even when it’s hard to believe. Science succeeds in so many millions of ways that I can’t believe it could be wrong even when I can’t understand.

What if the faithful are right, and it’s faith that makes things happen. If we lose faith in science, will that mean jets, televisions, computers, telephones, medicines, cars, and so on will stop working? Do you want to return to horses and plows? Do you want to bring back ghosts, demons, angels, pixies, devils, and all those other beings that science disproved? Do you want the world be be flat and just a few thousand years old?

What if mind over matter is true? What if technology works because we live in an age where Faith in Science works? Do you really want to stop believing in science and create a new age? I don’t believe it, but if you deny science, aren’t you believing that?

Back in the 1970s I got into a lot of New Age ideas. The foundation of those beliefs was mind over matter. Religions are based on the same principle. God created the world with the Word. If you take that to its logical conclusion, reality could be anything we imagined. That’s fine as long as you can maintain happy thoughts, but if your minds veers into darker ideas, it can get pretty damn scary. Think about the next time you’re 40,000 feet in the air. Don’t you actually prefer embracing cause and effect over the power of thoughts?

I decided way back then that I didn’t want to live in a reality ruled by mental power. I wanted reality to be objective rather than subjective. Of course, maybe I live in an objective reality because my mind subjectively built it that way, but I prefer not to even believe that. I want planes to fly because of the laws of nature, and not because of our shared beliefs.

Our species has a history of inventing explanations for reality. The only cognitive tool we’ve ever discovered that works in a consistent fashion is science. Magic, faith, religion, philosophy, gossip, conspiracy theories – all fail to produce consistent results – no matter how much we wish they could. Science has transformed our relationship with reality. Science isn’t easy to understand because reality is complex and thus hard to predict. Often the number of variables involve make it difficult for the statistical nature of science to be definite. But just look how we’ve improved weather prediction over the last several decades. Just consider how many diseases we’ve conquered. Just contemplate the marvels of technology. We can fly. Doesn’t the continual success of science validate it?

Just because science implies something you don’t want doesn’t mean disbelieving will alter the results. You don’t want to believe that – especially if you’re flying.

For those who believe in God, what if science is the way God works? In all religious texts, God or gods succeed because of magical abilities their believers can’t fathom. Faith is belief in the power of that magic. What if the belief in magic is wrong? What if reality isn’t ruled by magic, but science? People who reject science are people who believe in magical thinking.

The next time you’re flying in a jetliner, think about magical thinking. Does magic make it fly, or science.

But, like I said, decide before you get on the plane. Don’t think about it in flight – what if you decide wrong?

JWH

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My Father Would Have Been 100 Today

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My dad as a baby

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

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

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

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

Dad as telegraph delivery boy also from 1936.

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

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

After the war.

Don’t my mom and dad look happy here?

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

Happy Birthday, Dad.

JWH

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Albums You Can’t Play on Spotify

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 2, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Collecting v. Accumulating v. Hoarding

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Hoarding Creative Works

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Spielberg Should Make a Movie About Them

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Music – Hear More With Less Equipment

by James Wallace Harris,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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When We Played Albums

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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What Was the First Album Cover with Art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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Escaping into Artificial Realities

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 3, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH