Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, punched me in the soul. No documentary has ever moved me as much, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And it’s not because it’s about the Holocaust. I’ve even read about most of the painful facts it presents before. No, the gestalt of this film, which is well over six hours, is to set off an epiphany about our relationship with history.

At the highest level, the documentary asks: What did Americans know about the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis from 1932 to 1945 and when and how did they learn it? But to answer that question Ken Burns and company have to describe what Americans were like during those years. The U.S. and the Holocaust give a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.

Maybe the best way I can describe it is to say: Everything that has horrified me about living through the years 2016 to 2022 existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The documentary cements a theory that I’ve been developing in recent decades – that people don’t change and even the percentages of the population that hold specific opinions don’t really change either.

The documentary set off this existential conundrum: Why didn’t I already know what the documentary revealed? Or did I just filter it out? Republicans are in an uproar over Critical Race Theory and other curricula that they’re afraid will upset their children. I imagine they will be just as upset at The U.S. and the Holocaust. I knew about the wide popularity of the KKK and eugenics in the 1920s. I knew Americans were mostly isolationists and anti-immigration in the late 1930s. But the documentary gives us a different take on history than what I was taught.

I have to wonder since FDR was president from 1932-1935, have we always gotten the Democratic party’s view of that history? I wonder if Ken Burns has rounded out the historical period by adding the Republican party’s take on those years? I do know the documentary feels very synergistic with today’s politics.

I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and none of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen from that era convey what I learned from The U.S. and the Holocaust. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, all lived through those years, and none of them ever described the mood of the country revealed in the documentary. I’m a bookworm that has read countless works of both fiction and nonfiction about America in those decades, giving me some of the details from in the documentary, but not in the same gestalt. Two books that come to mind are One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

After I watched the Ken Burns documentary I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s a kind of science fiction novel, an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the 1938 presidential election and for many of the reasons described in the documentary. Roth was born in 1933, and he makes himself the point-of-view character in his novel. Young Phil is only 8 when it begins and 10 when it ends, but his viewpoint is mature. It’s about the anti-Semitism of those years.

I thought The Plot Against America was a well-told story about Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey 1938-1942. I thought Roth’s alternate history speculation was well done, deriving from the kind of knowledge I got watching The U.S. and the Holocaust. But the story is mainly a personal one, and its gestalt is different from the documentary.

Last night Susan and I watched Radio Days for the umpteenth time. It’s Woody Allen’s nostalgic look back at those same years. It completely ignores all the political history of The U.S. and the Holocaust. Radio Days is like both movies from that period and later films that worked to recall that era. They all filter out the nastiness of racism and xenophobia that existed in America back then. Although some of it came through in the film The Way We Were, and the book version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And just before I watched the three episodes of The U.S. and the Holocaust I read Revolt in 2100 which contains a 1940 short novel by Robert A. Heinlein called “If This Goes On….” Heinlein imagined America would go through decades of The Crazy Years, before undergoing a second American revolution that created an American theocracy. I was disappointed that Heinlein didn’t do more world-building for his novel, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary I understand his inspiration for writing it. It’s obvious that many Americans back then wanted a Protestant theocracy. Consisting of only white people from England, Germany, and some Scandanavian countries.

I think it’s important to distinguish fascism as a political philosophy from the Nazis, who were also fascists. What many Americans wanted then and now is basic fascism, and the Philip Roth novel shows how America could have turned fascist.

The other day I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this: If you get warm and fuzzy feelings reading history then you’re not studying history. I’m on the third volume of world history by Susan Wise Bauer, and it’s brutal. Most people want to romanticize history, which is what we get from novels and movies. The Republicans don’t want CRT taught because they want their kids to feel all warm and fuzzy studying American History. The new Ken Burns documentary will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

My current theory is humans can’t handle reality. That we develop all kinds of psychological delusions to filter reality out. We prefer our fantasies. And popular history along with pop culture gives us nice takes on the past that allows us to cope. It’s also why most people’s theory of how reality works is no more complex than a comic book. It’s why we’ve always clung to religion. It’s why I have a life-long love of science fiction.

We just can’t handle complexity. There are plenty of real history books that document the reality of the times they cover, but they aren’t widely read. Maybe the Republicans are right, and history is too brutal for children. But maybe we keep repeating history because we’re all too wimpy to handle history.

I’m getting so I can’t stomach the historical lies of Hollywood, but I don’t know if I can handle all that much real history either. I used to think that maybe four percent of the population was mentally ill. In recent years, I’ve upped that to forty percent. But lately, I’m thinking there’s an entry for all of us in the DSM-5.

JWH

What If I Didn’t Come Back From The Dead?

by James Wallace Harris, 9/3/22

Last Monday I had hernia surgery and was under general anesthesia for over two hours. Being anesthetized is maybe the closest thing to being dead. Our conscious self is turned off so completely that it feels like we’re gone for good.

Interestingly, my book club book this month is Being You by Anil Seth and he introduces the study of consciousness with the discussion of general anesthesia. This was the fifth time I was put under so beforehand I was contemplating being gone. And I kept asking myself: “What if I don’t come back?” I thought it was philosophical fun to imagine nonexistence.

Mostly I thought about people I would miss but if I didn’t exist I wouldn’t feel anything. I think of death being like how things felt before I was born. I feel the only existence we know is this one. But my atheist beliefs could be wrong. I wondered how it would feel if I came to, but in another existence. I’ve always hoped if that happened I would be given all the answers to my questions about this existence.

My hunch is this existence is our only one. That reality is filled with many infinities but infinite existence isn’t one of them. Mostly I thought if I wasn’t coming back I should do a lot of paperwork before I might die to help Susan out. But I didn’t do that for two reasons. First, I assumed I was coming back. Second, because I’m lazy.

Still, it felt very weird and fascinating trying to imagine not existing.

Before my surgery, I had a long talk with my surgeon and he agreed to do everything I wanted. I was worried about two things. I was afraid lying on the surgical table for hours would inflame my spinal stenosis. I worried that I couldn’t hold my pee for that length of time because of my overactive bladder. I told him of these fears weeks before the surgery. He said he would try to arrange my back on the table like I needed and would give me a catheter but I would have to wear it for a few days at home. So I practiced lying flat each day before the surgery. Then on the day of the surgery, I told him to not worry about positioning me for my back but do whatever was best for his work. I also asked for the catheter to be removed before I came to and if I couldn’t pee on my own in recovery they could put it back in.

He seemed glad I practiced lying flat and agreed to my method with the catheter. This made me very happy and cleared all my worries. My surgeon then said he wanted to pray for me. I said sure. I’m not the kind of atheist that’s against religion or religious rituals. I am actually grateful for any prayers I receive.

I was impressed by the length of his prayer. He carefully went over all my problems and concerns and then covered all his goals in great detail while asking God for help. It was reassuring on several levels. First, it let me know how closely he listened to me, and second, it carefully laid out his working plans. But it fits in with my contemplations on nonexistence. And his prayer set the right mood for the occasion.

I felt that we each used a different language for understanding our shared existence. I use the word Reality for what he calls God. He believes in a personal relationship with God whereas I think I’m interacting with infinity and randomness. What he calls God’s will I call the unfolding of evolving randomness. Prayer assumes we can ask for blessings. I assume I will get what will be but I’m on one long lucky anti-entropic run of fabulous luck. The big difference is my surgeon believes there’s an existence after this one and I think death is oblivion. I’ve always been exceedingly grateful for this existence.

Well, I did come back. I’m writing this on my iPhone with one finger. The surgery went very well but it was more involved than my surgeon expected. I had no back pain after the surgery. And for 24 hours my back felt limber and young. Even after the drugs wore off it hasn’t been bad at all. And I peed right away when they rolled me back to my room after recovery. And in the days since I haven’t had much pain. I did without drugs except for a couple Tylenol and later, a couple of ibuprofen. However, I am suffering from a swollen scrotum which is typical of this operation and why I’m not sitting at the computer.

I’m quite glad to be back but I’ve learned that God’s will or reality wasn’t finished with me regarding this surgery. We never get what we picture, and my surgeon’s prayer didn’t cover post surgical complications. I thought going under inspired a lot of philosophical musings, but it turns out dealing with an expanding scrotum, generates even more existential thoughts.

One side effect of this experience is to feel sorry for women and their boobs. I imagine my affliction feels somewhat like getting a breast implant. My package is so much bigger it’s freaking me out. Having a sensitive globular appendage is not convenient. It gets in the way, making sitting and walking weird. So I imagine having two would be more than twice as inconvenient. And the size of my burden is still smaller that what most women have to deal with. I now regret every time I ever wished a woman had bigger breasts.

Yes, I came back, but to something I never imagined. But then, the future has always been what I never imagined.

If there is a God and he/she/they willed these big balls on me then I hope it’s God’s sense of humor and not punishment. So I will close with a prayer: “Dear God, please make my scrotum normal again. And if you intended a philosophical lesson help me learn it quickly. Amen.”

JWH

Reading With My Eyes and Ears At The Same Time

by James Wallace Harris, 8/26/22

I’ve recently learned why it’s best to read with my eyes and ears concurrently.

When I joined Audible.com in 2002 it changed my reading life in several ways. First, it made me discover several things about my reading abilities. I always thought I was a great reader. I thought that because I was a bookworm. Listening showed me that was a delusion. I was really skimming books because I was reading too fast. Listening revealed that my inner reading voice was crappy at best. Listening made it all too obvious that there were nuances to fiction and nonfiction that I was completely missing.

When you listen to a professional narrator read a book you often get to experience the book at its best. Usually, the words are pronounced correctly, and the dialog comes across naturally, at a speed at which you’d hear it in real life. This enhances the dramatic effects of fiction, but it also has a cognitive impact on nonfiction.

I suppose good readers do all this in their heads, but I didn’t. I read to find out what happens. I did not savor the words or the writing. As a reader growing up I conditioned myself to read books with fast action prose. Either for fiction or nonfiction. I mainly stuck to science fiction and popular science books.

When I started listening I quickly learned I could handle other kinds of prose – especially longer, and denser books. For example, I listened to Moby Dick, not an easy novel. Listening opened up the 19th century to me. I never had the patience for old classics, but once I started listening I got into Dickens, Austen, Trollope, Elliot, and even Henry James. I also got into all kinds of nonfiction, including dry academic works, because hearing made them more interesting and accessible.

Over time listening helped me to read better with my eyes. Listening taught me to read slowly, and that made a big difference. I would switch back and forth depending on what format was the cheapest to buy.

However, there are still books I couldn’t get into – like Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherry. Her dense prose makes my eyes glaze over when I try to read that novel, and my ears tune out when listening. Because it’s one of a handful of novels I haven’t read on the Classics of Science Fiction list, I’ve been pushing myself to finish it. And I’ve learned a trick that will help me.

I can only listen to books if I’m doing something else, like walking, doing the dishes, eating, exercising, etc. I had to give up walking, and because of my back problems, I’ve been exercising less. That’s cut into my listening time. If I try to listen while just sitting I fall asleep.

However, I’ve found a trick to beat that. I listen to an audiobook while reading the book with my eyes. Not only do I stay awake, but I retain what I read better. That’s always been one of the drawbacks of listening to books. I don’t retain them as well when I read with my ears. I don’t get into them as well when I read with my eyes.

When I read with my eyes and ears at the same time I get into the most and retain the most. And it turns out, it lets me read some books like Downbelow Station that I previously couldn’t read with just my eyes or just my ears.

Isn’t that weird?

The trick is to follow along with the words as I hear them – and don’t let myself get distracted.

I listened to Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World and The History of the Medieval World but started listening and reading The History of the Renaissance World. I’m getting so much more out of this dual-reading method, especially retention, that I’m thinking about rereading the first two volumes with the new method.

There is a major drawback to dual reading – cost. I do subscribe to Scribd.com and they sometimes have both the ebook and the audiobook. They had the recent biography on Buckminister Fuller that I listened to on audiobook so I just had to buy the Kindle edition. With Downbelow Station I had the paperback I’ve been meaning to read for years, and I’ve had the audiobook I’ve been meaning to listen to for years. And sometimes Amazon will give you a deal on the audiobook if you buy the Kindle edition first. Sometimes I get the Kindle on sale for $1.99 from Bookbub announcements and then buy the audiobook. Or I buy a used copy of the book or get it from the library.

I’m not going to read every book with my eyes and ears. But for books that I want to study, or total grok, or can’t get into, I will try the dual reading method.

JWH

To Go, or Not to Go — To the Bookstore?

by James Wallace Harris, 7/21/22

Each morning before I get out of bed I plan to do something with my day. It’s never very ambitious because of health problems, lack of discipline, and laziness. And things seldom go according to plan. Today I decided to donate ten books to the library bookstore. That impulse came from getting a new toy. I feel like Jerry Pournelle in his old columns for Byte magazine called “Chaos Manor.” In those columns, Jerry would get a new computer which would cause a cascading series of problems. I got a new little tube amp, a cheap one, to set up a better stereo system in my bedroom. That single act has caused a domino-falling cascade of problems to fix.

The only place I have to put a stereo in my bedroom is on top of two bookcases. That’s okay if I don’t care about sound quality, but this new little tube amp sounds great — if the speakers are at ear level — but sounds like crap next to the ceiling. For me to solve this problem, will require moving two Ikea Billy bookcases and replacing them with a piece of furniture 72 inches wide and roughly 24-30 inches high.

“Ah-ha!” you might be thinking. “He’s finally getting to the part about going to the bookstore.”

Well, not quite. This is going to be a long story about getting old and how my aging mind and body affect my decision-making at seventy.

The quick and easy solution to my problem was to go into the dining room which we’ve converted into a gym and take the TV credenza and put it in the bedroom in front of the bookcases. That left the TV on the floor for now, but I had to give up exercising when my back went out a few weeks ago, so I can worry about it later. Since I’ve become semi-invalid the easiest solutions are the ones that work with the least effort.

If Susan and I had had the foresight to have children we could have gotten them to move the bookcases into the dining room, left the TV on the credenza, and then sent those kids to Ikea to get a cabinet for the stereo. Unfortunately, back in the early 1980s, we didn’t anticipate this need.

My back has gotten somewhat better. I can do a little lifting. I don’t want to do too much because I might screw it up again. I figured I could unload a shelf or two each day in stacks on the floor. There are two cases with six shelves each. You do the math. I could put slides under the cases and push them into the dining room, and then reverse the process of loading them back up. Ikea also offers delivery and assembly for a fee. Thus, without offspring, and if I’m patient, I can get the job done in a week or two depending if Ikea can deliver that quickly.

But is this the best long-term solution? Susan has long complained that she doesn’t want to deal with all my books after I depart this world — whenever that might be. I keep telling her she can just call Salvation Army or a book buyer, but maybe all those books are my responsibility?

This morning I decided I would start going through my books and weed out enough to empty two bookcases. I figured I could carry ten or twelve books to the library bookstore each week and eventually, I’ll donate two bookcases worth of books. So after doing my spinal stenosis physical therapy exercises I pulled the first book off the shelf I thought might be the first of ten I would part with today. It was The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan.

I opened it up to a random page and started reading. Whoops. There went my plan. Maeve wrote lovely little essays about living in New York City for The New Yorker. The first one I read was about seeing a young woman collapse on the street outside her restaurant window. The next was about an evening walk to see a farmhouse that had been moved from downtown to Greenwich Village. I bought this book after seeing a documentary, I think on HBO, about another writer who met Brennan before she died. That writer had discovered Maeve on the street after she had become homeless. I’d like to see that documentary again, but I can’t remember its title.

I’m afraid every book I pulled off the shelf had a story behind it, one that made me want to keep it. I have more books than I could read in another dozen lifetimes. It might take me years to find and decide which books I could give away that would free up two bookcases full of books.

That left me so despondent that I went to the library bookstore and bought five more books.

JWH

p.s.

The other night Janis and I were jabbering on the phone about all the hoarders we know. We felt horror at what has befallen our friends. Now I need to worry if that affliction needs to be added to my recognized list of afflictions.

Getting Too Close to Helpless

by James Wallace Harris, July 14, 2022

For this essay, I’m defining helpless as being in a situation where we can’t help ourselves or get help from someone else. As I get older I worry that someday my wife Susan or I will find ourselves in a completely helpless situation. This weekend it almost happened. Our hot water heater in the attic broke and water was pooling on the sheetrock of the ceiling above my computer room. A seam then spread open and water was draining onto the floor. Susan and I had to find a solution fast and several times I wasn’t sure we would.

First, we were lucky I discovered it so soon. I have an overactive bladder so I’m frequently going back to the bathroom which is annoying. But in this one instance, it put me Johnny-on-the-spot as I went down the hall to the bathroom. The pool of water was only in the middle of the floor.

I yelled to Susan and ran into the kitchen and pulled the filled garbage bag out of the tall kitchen trash can and ran back and put that under the water flow. I saw that it would fill pretty fast so I ran back to the kitchen and got the recycle bin and dumped the contents out on the floor and took it back to the room. By then Susan was there with a pile of towels.

I then went out into the hall, pulled down the attic stairs, and rushed up into the attic. The hot water tank is right next to the stairs and I could see the overflow pan was full and not draining. Damn. I went back down the stairs and ran outside and unscrewed the hose from the outside faucet and dragged it back into the house and up the stairs and connected it to the flush drain. It didn’t have a faucet handle but a slot so I yelled for Susan to get me a large screwdriver. I tried to turn off the hot water heater but it would only let me shut it down to pilot light. For some reason, I couldn’t make the button turn to the off position. I looked at the pipes and saw a red handle so I turned it all the way to what I hoped was an off position. When I had the screwdriver I opened the flush faucet and water started spraying everywhere from a leak in the hose connection. I turned it off.

Two weeks ago my back was hurting so much, that I could barely walk, so I was thankful I was able to be going up and down the stairs. I was moving at a frantic pace but I was calm. I wondered what would have happened if I couldn’t go up the stairs. I don’t trust Susan on the attic stairs. It was then I realized I could be helpless. If I couldn’t fix this problem I had to get someone else. Help means either doing it yourself or finding someone who could. I was suddenly scared I couldn’t, and we’d be helpless. I know this is a minor emergency, but it was enlightening.

Then I went back down the stairs and called our regular plumber. I told them immediately I had an emergency of running water but they made me give me my information first before they told me they couldn’t have someone out until Monday. It was Saturday afternoon, but I thought it was Friday. So I called another plumber thinking I might catch someone still there. The same thing happened. Wanted my information before telling me the soonest would be Monday.

I got some duck tape and went back upstairs and wrapped the hose. I turned on the drain again. It didn’t shoot water. I went outside and saw that water was coming out of the hose. I then went back to the computer room and dragged the first bucket to the front door and emptied it on the front porch. I took the empty bucket and swapped it for the full and emptied it.

I felt I had a bit of breathing room. Then Susan said she still heard running water.

I went to the computer and looked up emergency plumbers. I found one that claimed 24/7 service and called them. Same thing. Can’t come until Monday. I then ran to the hall closet and got my T-wrench and went outside to the street to turn off the water to the house. However, I couldn’t get the valve to budge. I figured I had to call MLG&W to come shut off the water. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t know how long they would take to get here, and I didn’t want to go days without water.

I went back upstairs and realized that I had shut off the gas, not the water. I started looking around. This time I looked at the top of the water tank, which almost goes to the ceiling of the attic. There I saw water spraying from around the intake pipe, but I also saw another turn-off handle. I gave it a quarter turn and the water stopped running.

That gave me a sense of release. The flow of water from the computer room ceiling slowed, and in about fifteen minutes it stopped. I called the plumber and made an appointment for Monday.

However, I kept wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to shut off the water. What would we have done? What would Susan have done if I wasn’t home? She probably would have called a neighbor, her brother, or MLG&W. I pictured us taking turns swapping filled buckets all weekend, even taking sleeping shifts at night.

It’s incidents like this when I want more control. I should have been prepared. I should have known where the water shut-off to the tank was located. I thought I was prepared by buying the tool to shut off the water at the street. When the plumber came Monday I ordered a new tank and ordered an automatic shut-off device that works with a water sensor in the overflow pan. I also ordered a new overflow pan and all new drainage pipes. But is that enough? I prefer not to deal with another computer room flood. This was the second. Years ago the HVAC installers made the mistake of putting in the condensation pan at a tilt – a tilt away from the drainage outlet.

We don’t have complete control of our lives. On the news that night there were stories about flooding in the east that ruined entire homes. Our flooding was nothing, so I was thankful. However, knowing we can’t control everything doesn’t stop me from worrying about becoming helpless. One sight that always scares me when I see it on the news is when first responders have to rescue old helpless people.

I know I’m worrying about the inevitable, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying. It doesn’t stop me from thinking of ways to be prepared. If I designed houses I wouldn’t put the HVAC and hot water heater in the attic. Every house should have a little machine room on the ground floor, with a floor drain and sensors for flooding. This house has had a hot water heater in the attic since 1952 and things have been mostly good 99.9999% of the time.

Getting old has made me worry about my body breaking down or my house breaking down. I realize there are things I can do to help myself. I also realize there are things I depend on Susan to help me do. And I know there will be other things I will have to depend on friends or hired help. This flooding incident has made me think about the times I might not find any kind of help. Generally, that’s never a problem because we have each other. But it’s a thought.

JWH

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