How Do You Label Your Existence?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/3/22

Now that I’ve been retired for eight years, I realize I can no longer call myself a programmer, which is the way I identified myself during my middle years. Because Susan and I never had children, I’ve never been a parent, and thus can’t be a grandparent in my waning years, which is a label some of my retired friends proudly embrace.

My new identity is a retired person, but that’s not much of an identity and I’m not sure I like using that label, but I do. I spend most of my time reading and writing about science fiction short stories, which gives me a little bit of a purpose. I can’t call myself a scholar, but I do study that subject in depth. It’s just a tiny subject that’s not very relevant but does give my existence a purpose. I’m not sure I can justify my existence by calling myself a science fiction fan.

I guess I could call myself a blogger but don’t know how satisfying a label it would be to use. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist or philosopher but I’ve never come close to actually being either.

I look around and see people defining their existence in various smaller ways. One prominent label that is often in the news is Republican. Some of these people treat being a Republican almost like a religious identification and evidently find great identity with it. They even take great satisfaction in calling themselves a Republican or a Conservative. I’m a liberal but don’t get off on calling myself one. I think that’s one of the big differences between the two parties. Conservatives are a lot more organized, and they seem to get a lot of satisfaction out of being part of their group. I think being young and liberal is more of an identity thing. It was for me.

I observe people finding meaning in their existence in all kinds of ways. I know many people who are ardent travelers. They use the term traveler to define themselves. Many of them act like their purpose on Earth is to travel. They find self-worth by recalling the places they’ve been. I’ve noticed there are a lot of travelers with YouTube channels. I wonder if they feel like prophets of traveling?

I’m on the fringe of many subcultures. Take audiophiles for example. They find meaning in their never-ending question to achieve higher fidelity playback, I’m too cheap to go all the way with that group. I’m not a sports fan, but they are quite common around here, and they seem to find great happiness in identifying with their teams. There seems to be an overlap between sports fans, Christians, and Republicans, in that they all love their group identity and get immense satisfaction when their group wins or converts folks to the team.

I relate to many of my friends through the kinds of entertainment we share. Much of the conversations I have with my friends, deal with discussing shows and movies on television. I’m also a bookworm and find kinship with other bookworms. I’m not a foodie, but I know a lot of people who find dining out an important aspect of existence.

I believe people get more existential meaning from their pursuits when they have a strong label for themselves. The average person might love dining out, but someone who calls themselves a foodie obviously gets more meaning from it than those of us who just enjoy chowing down. And if people call themselves a gourmet, they feel even more important about themselves, like they were philosophers of the tablecloth.

That’s my trouble. I no longer have any good labels to define myself. I guess the best is Bookworm. It’s the one I’ve embraced since childhood. I’ve never been one for nice cars or clothes. I spend my money on books. I don’t travel because I prefer to read.

However, I have to wonder, when I lay dying in my La-Z-Boy, will I look back and feel my existence was well spent with all those books?

JWH

More Fun With Memory Loss

by James Wallace Harris, 5/2/22

Today I went to post my review of “The Long Iapetan Night” by Julie Nováková to my short story club that reads and reviews a short story a day. It was then I discovered the group had already read the story last year, and I had read and reviewed it before.

It was disconcerting that I had completely forgotten I had read this story, and I had even written a review before too. Usually, when I watch movies I’ve seen before, I discover it by getting to a scene that will trigger a memory. That never happened with this story.

Figuring I might have written this essay before I searched my site and found “Fun With Memory Loss,” which is what I originally called this post. So I retitled this essay, “More Fun With Memory Loss.” I did some more checking and discovered I’ve written about memory loss another time too, “Remembering When I Forget.” For those of you who read my blog with good memories, I apologize for repeating myself, but probably expect “Even More Fun With Memory Loss.”

I don’t believe I’m suffering from dementia, but I do think my memory is faltering. I find that fascinating. I’m even amused by these glitches because they reveal a tiny bit about how memory and personality work. For example, in my second review I ended by asking the group:

I enjoyed this story, but the plot seemed like something I've read before, where a second space mission is trying to figure out what happened to the first space mission. However, I can't recall any examples. Can y'all?

When I read my first review I realized this might have been the story, or it may have not. Was the vague sense of the plot all that I remembered, or is that plot used more often? In my first review, the story made me think of the film Alien, which is about a space mission that investigates a lost space mission.

In my first review, I summed the story up this way:

"The Long Iapetan Night," tells us that Earth's global civilization took two body blows in the 21st century, one from a super-volcano, and another from a massive solar flare. This sets up the plot for a second Saturn colonizing mission to wonder what happened to the first. At first, that earlier colony is just an odd mystery, then it becomes a historical tragedy like the lost colony of Roanoke, finally, the story mutates into a horror story in the present that overtakes the second mission too.

This long novelette would make a creepy space movie like ALIEN.

In my second review, I summed it up this way:

Depending on your reading reaction, "The Long Iapetan Night" by Julie Nováková might be considered a horror thriller if you thought it creepy enough, or just a mystery thriller if not. Humans arrive on Iapetus for the second time about a century after the first explorers. The mission to Saturn is split into two crewed modules on Titan and two on Iapetus.

Our point of view character is Lev, on Iapetus, but we're also introduced to another narrator in italic sections of the story. I found this confusing at first, especially since I listened to the story and there was no transition to indicate something was different. I discovered this problem by looking at the Kindle edition. I thought it was Lev's journal at first. Eventually, I realized it was the journal of an explorer from the earlier mission, and a mystery unfolds as the crew of the second mission tries to find out what happened to the first mission. This is where we have to wonder about ghosts, or unseen aliens because the old habitat begins to kill the new arrivals.

To make this story even darker, Nováková has a major volcanic eruption that disrupts the world's weather and then a solar flare that knocks out all satellites in the inner system, so the first mission to Saturn is cut off and abandoned. The second mission is after Earth goes through a long recovery.

I like my first review better because it was succinct and more vivid in summarizing the story. What’s revealing is my two reactions are nearly the same. This makes me wonder about the fixity of our personalities. It’s interesting that I read the story the first time with my eyes and listened to it the second time. I wonder if that’s why I didn’t remember it?

I ended the first review by asking the group this question:

I have one question though. Why would anyone want to live in a world that's -180C (-292F)? Now that I'm getting older and more sensitive to cold, I just can't believe people dream of going to other planets where it's so cold. Mars today is from -11F to -117F today.

In the second review I ended with:

QUESTIONS:

Would any of y'all want to explore the outer moons? It has zero appeal to me, and I can't imagine any sane human wanting to live in such an extreme environment. Is science fiction being disingenuous by suggesting people could and would?

Also, could we build a spacesuit that could handle being immersed in liquid air and still be practical to walk around and use? I know space and vacuum can be extremely hot or cold, but wouldn't it be different if there was a medium like liquid air to absorb the heat?

If I read this story again in ten years will I react the same way? My memory probably won’t remember the story, but will my personality react to it in the same way?

Is personality a kind of memory?

JWH

Mingus Ah Um

by James Wallace Harris, April 15, 2022

I’m not an experienced jazz aficionado but I do love to listen to that genre from time to time. Today, for my afternoon album I played Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus via Spotify. You can listen to it while you read by clicking on the YouTube video below. Unfortunately, it will play at the fidelity of your computer/phone/tablet and that won’t do justice to this legendary album. It’s best to listen to jazz in a dark room on a great stereo when you can devote your mind and soul to the experience.

My love of jazz depends on the tempo. I prefer the dreamy numbers that I imagine are heard in smoky clubs at 3 a.m., like the cuts “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and “Pussy Cat Dues.” I listen to music because it triggers emotions, and slow jazz is often very emotional and moody.

I do admire, and even enjoy the medium-tempo pieces like “Better Git It in Your Soul,” and “Jelly Roll.” This is head-bopping speed and generally focuses on solos. At this speed, I can still process what each instrument is saying.

And depending on my mood, I can get into the fast pieces like “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” and “Pedal Point Blues.” The faster the jazz guys jam, the more they’re showing off. Usually, at this speed, if my mind is following along, I can dig the piece intellectually, but it’s stopped pushing my emotional buttons. This is how I often feel about listening to classical music. To truly appreciate these pieces I think it would be helpful to be young, high, and manic.

The frantic-pace performances push my limits to appreciate the form, like “Bird Calls,” which Mingus says wasn’t inspired by Charlie Parker, but bird calls. Parker is generally too speedy for my tastes. There are times when I feel Mingus is playing his bass twice as fast as the tune. The cuts on Mingus Ah Um aren’t nearly as fast as the hotter jazz from the early 1950s.

Jazz constantly mutates, so there’s no real one kind of jazz. Right now I prefer it from the late 1950s and early 1960s. 1959 was a fantastic year for jazz music. Two of the most accessible jazz albums ever came out that year: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Those two albums are often loved by people who never listen to jazz. We could consider them suitable for freshmen students of jazz. The other great jazz album of 1959 is The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman. That’s graduate-level. Mingus Ah Um is more advanced than Kind of Blue and Time Out, but far from The Shape of Jazz to Come. It’s still very accessible. I’d recommend it for juniors majoring in the genre. I don’t think it should be anyone’s first jazz album. Kind of Blue and Time Out are the gateway drugs.

However, I should amend what I’ve just said. One of my all-time favorite songs regardless of genre is “Moanin'” by Charles Mingus, and it’s an assault on the senses. It makes you feel like you’re dancing with a tornado. I love it. There are many versions of this song, even many by Mingus, but this is the version I have to have.

If you go to buy this album, be careful, there are many editions, some not so good. The $7.98 CD from Amazon is a good entry-level choice.

JWH

Paying Closer Attention to The Beatles

by James Wallace Harris, 8/6/22

Yesterday morning while riding my stationary bike I watched a video about The Beatles. Eric Callero of Vinyl Rewind covered his least favorite Beatle song from each album. I think it’s fascinating that young people are into The Beatles and their albums that came out over fifty years ago. Can you imagine Baby Boomers excited about bands from the 1910s or 1920s when we were young.

I started listening to The Beatles in 1964 and bought all their records as they came out in the 1960s. My nostalgia finds it confusing because The Beatles albums on sale today were not the same ones we bought back in the 1960s. I bought all The Beatles standard albums again in the late 1980s when they came out on CD, and then bought them again this century when they came out on remastered CD.

The Beatles were tremendously exciting back in the 1960s but they weren’t my favorite band back then. That was The Byrds. I did play each Beatle album quite a bit as they were released, but I forgot about them in a few weeks. Then over the decades whenever Susan and I watched a documentary about the Fab Four I’d get the albums out again. When the remastered CDs came out several years ago I bought them but only listened to each album one or two times.

Yesterday, inspired by the Vinyl Rewind video I listened to Please Please Me and With the Beatles. Unlike Eric Callero I couldn’t pick my least favorite song from each album. I was surprised by how good all the songs sounded. I also notice something. I couldn’t distinguish between John and Paul’s voices. Sometimes I thought I could but I was never sure. I did spot the two songs sung by Ringo, but I didn’t even notice that George was the main singer of five of the songs.

This made me realize that I’ve never paid close attention to The Beatles’ songs. Susan and I love watching documentaries about The Beatles, and we’ve read a few biographies on them. Susan can sing their songs, but we’re not Beatlemaniacs.

While watching the Vinyl Rewind video I envied Eric Callero for being able to cite so many details from each song. I’ve always listened to music as a kind of drug. Music stimulates my brain, setting off emotions. I take in each song as a gestalt. To be honest, I hardly even pay attention to the lyrics.

I got out a book we had on The Beatles, tell me why by Tim Riley, that lists the main singer for each song and started trying to train my ear to discern whether John, Paul, George, or Ringo was singing. This website also gives that information.

I’m going to keep playing these albums after lunch and see just how much I can get out of each song. I remember noticing in the past I didn’t know who was singing. And I also remember noticing in the past that the songs are recorded weirdly, with what appears to be the bass, drums, and George’s guitars on the left, and the singing and John’s guitar, and sometimes other instruments, on the right. I also knew that some songs were covers, but never really paid that much attention to which were originals and which were covers.

The desire to notice more in songs comes from several motivations. For being such a major music addict I feel bad about not knowing more about the music I love. But I also feel bad that I don’t pay more attention to the details of life. I’m curious if I can become more discerning. I’m also curious if I can change myself so late in life.

At seventy, I feel my mind is slowly decaying. I know my body is, so it’s natural to assume my brain is too. I eat better and exercise to squeeze more out of my body. I wonder if paying attention to details will it help sharpen my dull mind?

JWH

“Glad and Sorry” by Ronnie Lane

by James Wallace Harris, 3/23/22

For many many years, the song “Glad and Sorry” from the album Down by the Old Mainstream by Golden Smog has randomly played from my main playlist. I bought the CD because I was a fan of The Jayhawks and some of their members were playing on it. The song originally appeared on Ooh La La by the Faces in 1973 (originally, the Small Faces). I’m pretty sure I had that album back in the 1970s but didn’t remember it or “Glad and Sorry” when I first listened to Down by the Old Mainstream back in the 1990s.

I like to play whole albums after lunch and Spotify offered up Ooh La La. When I heard “Glad and Sorry” I recalled that album by Golden Smog. That’s when I started my research and discovered the song was written by Ronnie Lane of the Faces. Then I found a lovely remembrance of the song which I’ll quote below.

Here’s how the Faces did “Glad and Sorry” in 1973

Here it is again by Golden Smog.

The song is loved enough that it inspired 14 playlists on Spotify, and there are many cover versions. I love how some songs inspire countless performers to sing and record them. Here’s a nice jam session.

The lyrics are very simple:

That beautiful interpretation of the song is at the site One Week // One Band but without the name of who wrote the essay. Here’s the quote I mentioned, but it’s worth reading the entire piece. This is the way I wish I could write about music (I took this quote starting about halfway down the page, after the history of the song):

“Thank you kindly/For thinking of me/If I’m not smiling/I’m just thinking.”

All my life I’ve been the Quiet One, the one who (mostly) doesn’t say what he’s thinking, the one who doesn’t interact with others because he’s too withdrawn, or too self-serious, or too afraid that he’s bothering people. Always thinking, never sure he’s thought of anything worthwhile to say. “Smile,” they used to tell me, back when I had people in my life who would regularly engage in what they called encouraging me. “It’s not that bad.” Well, no—but smiling for the sake of smiling feels like dishonesty to me. Anyway, I’m thinking.

“Glad and sorry/Happy or sad/When all is done and spoken/You’re up or I’m down.”

It’s never “I’m up,” it’s never “you’re down.” There’s always a fundamental disconnect, we never meet in the middle, and I’m always lower. Not class or any bullshit like that, just circumstance. I can never meet your needs—emotional, physical, social, financial. The person who is You changes every so often, as people pass in and out of my life, but the relationship, once begun, is always the same. It’s bittersweet every time; the emotions are always tangled up. Glad, happy, sorry, sad—and then, at some point, I’ve done everything and said everything I’m going to do or say.

I wish I could relate to lyrics and poems like that.

I’m writing this because this song moves me, but I don’t know how to describe how it moves me. I’m writing this because I love how some songs stick with us for years. I’m writing this because I love how some very simple songs resonate deeply with people. I’m writing this to remember this afternoon, and to remember “Glad and Sorry.” Sadly, I won’t remember it every day, but on those days the songs pop up in my playlist, and I’ll add the original to my main playlist.

JWH

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