On the First Day of My Seventies

by James Wallace Harris, 11/25/21

When I left the work world back in 2013 I thought I’d apply myself toward writing science fiction short stories in my retirement years. For some reason, I’ve hit a barrier that hasn’t allowed me to do that. Very few people succeed at new creative pursuits in old age. I still hope to beat that statistic.

I’ve decided to attack the problem with a different approach. For my seventies, my goal is to write a nonfiction book. This is kind of an absurd goal since I’m starting to have trouble cranking out blog posts. But I have an idea — aim low, but be persistent. I seriously doubt I can produce a commercially successful work of nonfiction, so my ambition is to write a book I wouldn’t be embarrassed to self-publish on Amazon.

Two things make me think this is possible. I’ve written thousands of blog posts. All I’ve got to do is write fifty 1,000-word essays on the same topic that ties together in a coherent readable way. I already have several ideas that interest me, but can I make them interesting to other people?

At seventy, focus, concentration, and discipline are hard to come by. This week I’ve been watching videos on the Zettlekasten method of taking notes. Those videos have inspired me because they use an external system to organize ideas and build connections. This might let me overcome my cognitive limitations.

The older I get the harder it is to hold a thought in my head, much less juggle several thoughts at once to show how they connect. I’m encouraged I might overcome this limitation with the software Obsidian. That software is designed to help retain what you study and build a knowledge base. To help me remember what I find while researching on the web I’ll use Raindrop.io. I’ve already been using the mind-mapping software Xmind to organize ideas visually. Combing all of these programs might let me construct a large coherent collection of related thoughts and ideas.

I need tools that map where I’ve been and hopefully reveal where I want to go. These tools need to quickly show what I’ve already thought through. I just can’t do that in my head anymore.

Of course, I could be deluding myself. I used to wait until I felt good to work on my hobbies, which is a terrible approach. Now, I never feel good, so I’ll have to push myself to work anyway. That should be good for me. I’m usually drained of all psychic energy by mid-afternoon. I’ve even quit going out at night because I’m no longer functional by late afternoon. Working on this goal feels like I’m rolling a rock up the hill.

I just don’t want to give up, at least not yet. I just don’t want to become a passive consumer of other people’s creative efforts. There’s nothing wrong with that. Consuming creative works still gives me a lot of pleasure. I’m just an old dog that wants to learn one last new trick.

JWH

On the Last Day of My Sixties

by James Wallace Harris, 11/24/21

Tomorrow I turn 70. Thinking about that made me realize that today is the last day of my sixties. Damn, this decade has rushed by. I retired from work in October of 2013 when I was 62, so for most of my sixties, I’ve had all my time free. I’ve taken it easy and did exactly what I wanted. Looking back I’m not sure that was a good thing. Taking it easy has become an addiction.

A few weeks ago I thought of an idea for a blog about turning 70, but I never got busy on it. Between 60 and 69 I slowed down. I wonder now if I would have been more active if I hadn’t retired. Back then I could work eight hours and still find time to do many of the things I wanted to do. Now I have all my time free and I get almost nothing accomplished.

I can’t tell if this is a natural aspect of aging or dissipation due to not working. Being lazy doesn’t hurt, in fact, it’s quite pleasant, but I do feel guilty. I guess that’s the Puritanical Atheist in me.

I was at my doctor’s office at 7:30 am for my annual physical, then did the weekly grocery shopping at 9:30. After putting the groceries away had a snack and then a quick nap. I went out to lunch with my friend Laurie at 11:30. After lunch, we played one hand of Skip-Bo at 12:30. I was home by 1:30 for a nap, then listened to Adele’s new album, followed by The Kings of Leon’s new album, and wrapped up the afternoon by talking with my sister for an hour on the phone. It’s now about five. Doesn’t sound like I did much, does it? But that was an extremely busy day for me.

I call this grazing of lite activities puttering around in a small land. I wished I worked at my hobbies more systematically so I felt like I accomplished a little something towards a goal each day, but I’m more and more undisciplined as I get older.

Many of my friends who haven’t retired ask me “What’s retirement like?” It’s sort of like summer vacation between fifth and sixth grade, but never having to go back to school. I don’t know if I’m in heaven or the Twilight Zone.

I’m expecting things to get even more surreal in my seventies.

JWH

The Meaning of Sharing Two Grandparents

by James Wallace Harris, 11/11/21

They say that blood is thicker than water. I’ve never been much into genealogy but ever since my cousin Harold Ervin died a couple weeks ago I’ve been thinking about my cousins and regretting that I didn’t spend more time with them. I keep asking myself why I didn’t and why I regret it so much.

It came to me that cousins are special because we share two grandparents. But what does that mean? I’ve always felt closer to my cousins on my mother’s side of the family. My mother was one of five sisters, and her mother, my grandmother, was a much-loved matriarch of the family. My sister Becky and I called her Nanny, and she had sixteen grandchildren (although one was by marriage).

I actually loved my father’s mother more. We called Ma. My father was one of three boys. But my father’s side of the family didn’t make over Ma as much as my mother’s family made over Nanny. Could sixteen grandchildren versus ten make a difference? I do think my cousin Alana might have made over Ma more. She was always my favorite cousin on my father’s side. It could be that I knew my father’s side cousins a lot less, and thus didn’t know how much time they spent with Ma. One of my big regrets in life is essentially forgetting about Ma after we moved away from Florida. I only went back to see her once.

The above photo shows the last time all sixteen of Nanny’s grandchildren were together. I’m the bald guy on the far left. I’m not even sure when that photo was taken. And I really wish it was a much better photo, one where I could see everyone clearly. But it’s what I have to help me remember, and the poor image is kind of fitting since the memories that day are fuzzy too.

Seven of the sixteen are now dead, and it seems like something very essential to my life is fading away. Even though I have strong feelings for these fourteen people (not counting me and my sister), I don’t remember actually spending that much time with them. I have spent far more time with people that aren’t kin. But these fourteen, and the eight cousins on my father’s side, have a large presence in my memory. Is that because of blood? The most intense memories of my cousins come from the years 1960-1970. Were the kinship experiences I had in adolescence the strongest not because of genetic connections but because everything was so strong during that phase of life?

Looking back I realized that I saw my cousins mostly when my grandmothers were alive. (I never knew my grandfathers.) After my grandmothers died I saw my cousins mostly when visiting my aunts and uncles. Then when my aunts and uncles died, I seldom saw my cousins again. Actually, I haven’t seen my cousins on my father’s side of the family since his funeral in 1970. I do regret that. I also regret that I don’t have a group photo of the ten of us.

Contemplating all of this I realized there are varying levels of kinship bonds. Parents and children are the strongest. But that relationship comes in two modes. Your relationship with your parents, and the relationship with your children. My wife Susan and I have never had children, so I don’t know the second mode. I’m guessing the strength of bonding is greater with your own children. I wonder if I didn’t want children because I never felt a strong bond with my own parents? My parents weren’t happy, and I’ve often thought having children is what tore their marriage apart. Their marital strife certainly affected my desire to have children.

The next most powerful relationship is between siblings. After that, it’s with grandparents. Next, is with aunts and uncles. Then comes cousins. Finally, it’s nephews and nieces. My connections to my cousins were at their strongest when my grandmothers were alive. After that, my aunts and uncles kept me close to my cousins. But once my parents and their siblings were gone the connections to my cousins just faded away. By then, they had their children, and grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. That’s sad that Nanny’s family has dispersed, but natural too.

The passing of my cousins might be hitting me harder because Susan and I are a dead end. I have no direct descendants going forward in time. All my connections to family are toward the past, and they are disappearing. I wonder if we could have felt what we feel now when we were young would we have chosen to have children? Strangely, Susan still doesn’t regret not having children, but I do. However, I don’t think I would have been a good parent, I’m too selfish. Most of my friends don’t have children, but of the ones that do, I see they’re having a whole different life in old age than us childless couples.

Writing this essay has answered my question about why I regret so strongly that my cousins are dying. They are the last of my direct line relatives. Susan and I have eleven nephews and nieces, and we like them very much, but they feel like they are on different branches of the family tree. We never got to see our nieces and nephews that much after they grew up, and they are now spread across the country. They have their own children, and in not many years, their own grandchildren. And how much blood do we share with our nephews and nieces? But I have such fond memories of my aunts and uncles, why hasn’t it gone the other way? Is it because I didn’t try harder?

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been recalling all the times I saw my grandmothers, aunts and uncles, and cousins. I’ve even thought about trying to write down every encounter I can remember – the number is quite finite. I’m starting to think there really weren’t that many meetings. Mostly we met at holiday dinners, vacations, weddings, funerals, and reunions.

For some reason, we have a special bond with people who have the same pair of grandparents. Is blood really thicker than water? Or is it because we knew those people when we were young and gathered on so many special occasions? I will continue to think about this for a while. I wonder what my cousins think? Maybe I’ll send them this blog.

JWH

Do I Still Want To Be A Programmer?

by James Wallace Harris, 10/28/21

For most of my work life, I worked with computers. I thought of myself as a programmer, it was part of my identity. After I retired in 2013 I still thought of myself as a programmer, but I haven’t done any real programming since I stopped working. I keep thinking I want to get back into programming, but so far I haven’t. I think I need to either start programming or stop thinking I’m a programmer.

The obvious reason why I haven’t done any programming is I don’t have any tasks I want automated. Without a programming problem, I have little incentive to program. I’ve done some piddly stuff with HTML but that hardly counts. No, I need something that requires computer processing power to accomplish.

This morning I watched several YouTube videos about fun programming projects. None really appealed to me. Making my own Sudoku solver or password manager might be fun, but the idea of putting hours of work into something that creates a tool I don’t care to use seems pointless, especially when others have already created superior tools that do the same thing.

I’ve thought about programming a book manager since I’m always frustrated with Goodreads but just entering in all my books in a potentially finished project depresses me. I just don’t want that tool bad enough.

I’m trying to imagine creating a tool that would be a joy to create and use. One thing I’ve always wanted to make is an abstract art generator. Something I could use mathematical equations to produce trippy light shows. This is a super-advanced example of what I’m talking about. I picture myself developing very simple things, to begin with.

This Pinterest page shows works closer to what I might be capable of programming. I’d like to start with recreating the animated sequence in the credits to On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, then expanding on that, making it more interesting, adding user controls, so people can alter what’s happening in real-time.

I keep wanting to create an auxiliary memory system but why recreate what Evernote is already doing. I’ve had one idea but it would be very challenging, and probably way beyond my skill level. I collect scans of old magazines, and sometimes the scans are poor, or the original printing of the magazine was poor. I thought it would be neat to create a program that sharpens the text of these old magazines scans. I fantasize about restoring scans of old magazines to look beautiful.

Notice the I in the word Image at the top of the page. It has white bites out of it. I wonder if it’s possible to write a program that could examine all the letters and come up with perfect replacements that are uniformly sharp and dark. I’d also like to be able to create a background for the text that looks like the paper the magazine used when it was new. Also, notice the L in Likeness, it has a smudgy spot in it. I’d want to program out such artifacts.

I also wonder if it’s possible to create a program that could return faded worn covers so they look like they did when they were new. To brighten up colors, remove wrinkles, smudges, and markings. I want it to work in batch mode since I have thousands of digital magazines.

I have one other idea, but this is super-super advanced. I’d like to write an AI program that could input all my old digital SF magazines and read them. I’d want the program to decipher what the stories are about and build a theme database. Then I could ask it for things like “List all stories that are about colonizing Mars” or “List all stories about generation ships,” or “Create a list of all the major themes you find.”

There are three hard questions I have to ask myself:

  • Do I really want to dedicate the time to these projects?
  • Are these goals beyond my skill level?
  • Am I too old and tired?

I don’t have much discipline left, but I might have enough to apply myself for one hour a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but I’d be damned impressed with myself if I did. I never feel good anymore, and most of the time I’m just tired. I might have the skill to create simple light shows. It would be really fun to write a program to take bitmap images and improve the type, but I’d have to push myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself before. That would be a miracle. Creating an AI to read magazines is a fantasy.

I believe what I need to do is try creating the light show in Python. If I can’t, I should stop thinking about programming. If I succeed it might give me the psychic energy to go further. If I fail, I can free my mind of some old desires, and clean out programming books and magazines from my bookshelves.

This really is about coming to grips with aging. There are already many physical activities I’ve had to give up. I’m starting to think I might have to give up mental ones as well.

JWH

Explaining My Addiction to Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, 9/26/21

One reason I haven’t been posting much here lately is because I’m writing a short story review every other day on my science fiction site. I’m reviewing The Big Book of Science Fiction, an anthology of over a hundred science fiction stories from the 20th century, including many stories I’ve read over the past sixty years. The whole endeavor is a kind of self-psychoanalysis of a lifetime addiction to science fiction.

I’m slowly realizing what science fiction means to me. In 1960, I became a bookworm in the 4th grade to cope with the stress of growing up. In the 5th and 6th grades I slowly focused that addiction on science fiction. A couple decades ago I realized I had substituted belief in science fictional ideas for my childhood beliefs religion, becoming an atheist around age 12 or 13. But actual space exploration played a part too. Sputnik went up weeks after I began the first grade, and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon weeks after I graduated high school.

When I first started reading science fiction in the early 1960s I knew no one else that read it too. Then in March, 1967 I met my buddy Connell in 10th grade who became my lifelong friend. When I discovered he had read some science fiction I asked him who was his favorite author. I expected him to say Heinlein, since I assumed Heinlein was the absolute best. Instead, Connell said Clarke. We’ve been arguing ever since.

After Star Trek ended in 1969 I realized that millions of science fiction fans had come out of the closet. I joined an APA in 1970, then a local science fiction club, and then started going to SF conventions with my friend Greg. At the time, science fiction fans seem few and far between.

Then in 1977 Star Wars came out, and it seemed like everyone began to love science fiction. But I soon realized that even though the world loved science fiction on TV and at the movies, very few people actually read the science fiction magazines, and only slightly more people regularly read science fiction books.

As a kid, I wanted to be a science fiction writer like other kids wanted to be rock stars, football players, or astronauts. And even though I took writing courses in high school and college I never developed the discipline to write. Later on, I guess as a mid-life crisis, I took off six weeks from work in 2002 and attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and afterwards began a MFA in creative writing. I still didn’t have what it took. When I retired in 2013 I thought I’d finally get down to writing, but I didn’t.

Over the eight years I’ve been retired I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of science fiction. It’s become a pleasurable hobby to fill my time. But I’ve also discovered why I’ve psychologically embraced the genre. For most of my life I thought that space travel was important to the development of humanity, and science fiction was a kind of prophetic literature that gave exploring the high frontier meaning. Now I see wanting to leave Earth as a kind of psychological escape, and science fiction is only a minor art form, a specialized kind of fantasy and entertainment.

In my old age, I read science fiction and admire it for creative storytelling. But I know it’s only a couple steps up artistically from comic book reading. I do read literary novels, and know the difference. Science fiction appeals to the adolescent in me. That keeps me positive while the world around me is turning negative. Reading science fiction in my old age makes me realize I never grew up, but then I’m also realizing most of the people around me never have either. As a species we’re not very good at maturing and facing up to reality.

The percentage of people who rely on denialism to cope with reality grows every day. I like to think I don’t deny reality so much as avoid it. Most of the people who aren’t deniers tend to be avoiders. Only a small percentage of the population face up to reality. I don’t mind reading and studying reality, but I have no discipline to live the life I know I should live. Reading science fiction is my way of occupying my mind when I’m not thinking about how humanity is destroying itself.

I admire people who actual do something about the problems we face, but they are very rare. Most of us just fool ourselves that everything is going to be okay and maybe do a few token things to help, but isn’t that really an effort to sooth our guilt? Reading science fiction is my version of watching Ted Lasso or The Andy Griffith Show. But we’re all on the Titanic killing time in amusing ways even though we know we could change the ship’s course if we worked together. Unfortunately, cooperation is not in our genes.

Reading science fiction teaches me about the possibilities. Science fiction has always been about building better futures, advocating better societies (utopias) or warnings of de-evolving into dystopias, or even the nightmares of apocalypses. It’s all too obvious that we’re actually heading towards the collapse of our global civilization and an environmental apocalypse. Half the population copes by denying this, and the other half that does recognize our destiny does little to avoid it.

We indulge in mindless consumerism and socializing, or restless tourism, or occupy our minds with political and religious rationalizations. When I see people protesting that the 2020 election was stolen, or vaccinations are evil, or the January 6th attack on the capitol didn’t happen I realize those people have the psychology of children, the kind who throw tantrums, who scream “You can’t make me” or “You’re not the boss of me” to their parents, teachers, and even peers. But you can’t reason with them not because they can’t see reason, which they can’t, but because that’s their survival mechanism, and if you could get past it, these people would only fall apart. I have to assume reading science fiction is my survival mechanism.

I am starting to worry a tiny bit because some of my coping mechanisms are starting to fail. I used to binge watch TV in the evenings. I’ve always loved TV, and looking back see that it was a reality stress releaser too. But I now have to try a dozen or two dozen TV shows or movies before I can find one that I can watch. And I no longer can watch TV and movie science fiction. For example, I was looking forward to the new production of the Foundation series on Apple TV+. It just annoyed me, and I quit trying after fifteen minutes. I forced myself to finish the first episode the next night, but still no joy.

I worry that I’m also going to develop a tolerance to written science fiction, and it will fail to hold my attention like my TV watching. So far, I still find great pleasure in reading science fiction short stories. I don’t have the patience to read novels anymore, but continue to enjoying reading old SF anthologies and magazines. I worry that this love won’t last.

Luckily, I still have other interests to turn to if I finally wear out on science fiction. The current state of the world is very sobering. It might even cure my addiction to science fiction, but I doubt it. I’ve had it my whole life now. It might be too late to give up. But my attitude has changed. We wanted a lot of fantastic things from religion, and that’s true of science fiction. That’s why I compare them. I believe we need to change our expectations for both. Religion and science fiction need to focus on reality. They both need to be more down to Earth.

JWH

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