Letting Things Slide

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 21, 2017

Recently I told a friend they were letting things slide.

“What a horrible phrase,” they replied, “it sounds like I’m in a death spiral.”

“I didn’t mean you were going down the drain,” I said. “But you do keep pushing deadlines back.”

Psychology Today defines “letting things slide” as procrastination. Dictionary definitions include, “to ignore something, to not pay attention, put aside, write off, negligently allow something to deteriorate, allow something to go without punishment, to not do anything about something or someone when you should try to change or correct that thing or person.” Evidently, it’s a widely used phrase. By the last definition, if I hadn’t said anything to my friend I would have been letting things slide by not telling them they were sliding.

now-later

Often, offering helpful criticism means getting a foot stuck in our mouth. I then pointed out that one of the side-effects of getting older is letting things slide. My friend hates any suggestion that they’re getting older. They got even more annoyed with me. My wife tells me I’m too happy to accept aging. She says if I’m not going to fight getting old, I should at least not admit it.

I started thinking about causes of sliding not related to aging. I remembered that I started letting things slide more after I retired. I assume it was because I was getting older, but what if retirement causes sliding? What if not having a 9 to 5 structure promotes procrastination and delay?

When all your time is free its very easy to reschedule obligations. It’s also easy to choose pleasant activities over annoying tasks. I’ve known this for a couple years since I’ve been retired longer than my friend, so I was trying to pass on that bit of wisdom. Maybe people have to discover it for themselves.

I even wrote an essay, “Overcoming Inertia in Retirement.” I guess my friend didn’t read it. I often study older people when I get a chance to see if I can spot trends I might be following as I get older. And I do think letting things slide is an aging issue. Older folks generally do much less than younger people. We assume that’s because of health and energy, but what if it’s mental too? Life is about making an effort to get what we want.

What if the wisdom of aging is learning that some things aren’t worth the effort? Or is that a cop out? Maybe we just get tired of making an effort. I know I dream of arranging my future life so it requires much less effort. To put a positive spin on things, maybe we just streamline living as we get older.

Unfortunately, I think it’s more insidious than that. As we age our brains shrink, and we lose neurons and neural connectivity. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise can counter that trend. We actually grow new neurons and make more connections with exercise. I do very little aerobic exercise according to my FitBit. And I do feel I’m in a cognitive decline. That’s why I do things like write essays and solve crossword puzzles to keep what little brain matter I have oiled and active.

If we chart our activity levels across our 40s, 50s and 60s, we can probably plot a line that will show our activity levels for our 70s, 80s and 90s. Research shows we can tilt the slope of that line up if we exercise physically and mentally.

If other words, slowing the slide now means we’ll let things slide less in the future.

JWH

Aging, Changing, Technology, and Music

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 3, 2017

For someone whose childhood began in 1951, the year 2017 is the far fucking future. Sorry about the inappropriate word, but hey, that’s part of the relentless pace of change. We’re now allowed to use “bad words” in print.

I don’t think young people today can even imagine what a horrendous social offense it was to say fuck in the 1950s, much less write it down. If you could understand you might know what this essay is all about.

It Happened One Night

Last night I watch It Happened One Night with my friend Annie. I told her this 1934 picture was considered very risqué when it came out in 1934. After watching a while she asked why? By modern standards its so squeaky-clean it’s hard to spot the naughty bits. Even as a kid seeing it for the first time in the early 1960s, that old film still had its titillating parts. That changed after Midnight Cowboy.

I started listening to music in the 1950s on my father’s car radio when me and my sister could still stand in the front seat. This was before seat belts. It was his car and his music, but that’s how the times were back then.

For Christmas 1962 I got a AM clock radio. I played my music on that radio from 1962-1968. I turned it on when I got home from school and turned it off each morning when I left for school. I listened rock and roll while I slept, burning songs like “Rhythm of the Rain” into my unconscious mind. I grew up in Miami and loved WQAM and WFUN – the two competing AM Top 40 stations that played rock and roll.

My father had a second job bartending and would bring me and my sister 45rpm records that were pulled from the jukeboxes. In 1962 when I got the clock radio my sister had gotten a portable record player. I envied her that. (I might have stolen it.)

In 1963 an airman left his console stereo and LPs with my father was he was stationed overseas. That was my first introduction to LP albums. The airman left mostly folk music.

Our Man Flint soundtrack 

Eventually I got a little transistor radio to carry around. Then I got my own portable stereo record player when I started buying LPs in 1966. My first LP was the soundtrack to Our Man Flint. I would join the Columbia and Capital music clubs to mass collect albums. Joining, completing my fulfillments, quitting, and rejoining to keep getting those intro bundles.

When I started driving in 1967 I had a car radio. In 1968 I bought a console stereo system. It was my first use of credit, and I was only 16. The console introduced me to FM radio.

Just in the 1960s I went from AM to FM, and from mono to stereo. From tubes to solid state. In the 1970s I got a much larger console, started seriously collecting records, stopped listening to commercial radio, and eventually got into component stereo systems.

In the 1980s I switched to compact discs. I also tried different tape systems. As the decades past I used MP3 players and iPods, and even got into SACD audio for a while. For the last decade I’ve mostly been listening to subscription streaming music. I never got into Napster thievery. I guess I was too old fashioned to steal.

So in the course of half a century I went from listening to music on various physical media to listening to invisible streams of ones and zeros. In 1970 we were warned about Future Shock. Reading about what the future will do to us and living into the future are two different things. The future is both dazzling and tiring.

My point is the technology keeps changing. So does the music. So do the genres of music. I’ve bought some of my favorite albums many times, on LP, CD, cassette, SACD, and digital file (I was briefly into 24bit lossless).

The long playing (LP) record album came out in 1948, but it took a while to catch on. Because of streaming music, the concept of an album is fading. Not only have I outlived many technological changes, I’ve outlived an artistic concept.

And you know what? I’m tired. I’m fucking tired of change. I’m weary of the constant barrage of new technology. And I was a computer geek starting in 1971. Just read all those changes in computer tools I’ve used.

I’m happy with streaming music. Can’t we stick with it for a while? At least a quarter century, I hope. Give me 25 years and I’ll die on you, and the world can change as much and as fast as it wants after that.

ItsAMadPoster

JWH

621 Ways To Be Happier

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 29, 2017

Each day, the Internet now offers me more lists on how-to-be-happier than funny-cat-videos. That’s ironic since funny-cat-videos make me happy.

In recent years it seems that “12 Ways To …” is the lowest common denominator of journalistic seduction, whether its for newspaper, magazine, webpage, blog, or social networking readers. Evidently the quickest way to grab someone’s attention is to entice them with a list.

Life is Good

I wish I had a computer program that would collect advice lists on various topics and statistically analyze them for the most popular pieces of wisdom. Then I could ignore this whole category of journalism. I’ve theorized that if I stopped reading about Donald Trump and self-improvement lists I’d have time to read two quality novels each week instead.

How many people actually follow self-improvement advice? And if we did, would that advice work? I use a program called Instapaper to track what I read online and have collected 35 essays with 621 pieces of advice. It’s fascinating how many recommendations overlap. You’d think everyone would be 100% happy by now, and very productive.

I’m naturally a happy person, but I have several friends that suffer from depression. I sometimes forward these articles, but I’m not sure if they are helpful. Can willpower overcome genes and hormones? As I read more of them I realized some of the advice did apply to me. I never feel depressed, but I do feel regrets. Emotionally, I’m as happy as a drooling pug reading, writing, listening to music and watching TV. However, I have lingering regrets about not doing more. That’s why I tell people I’m a Puritanical Atheist – I feel guilty if I don’t spend a portion of each day accomplishing something, no matter how small.

Many of these lists appear to equate success, productivity, and creativity with happiness. I’ve often thought my natural state of contentedness keeps me from working harder at my ambitions. So I started reading these lists for tips on improving my productivity. I assume I’d be happier if I got more done, and regret less about not finishing all the projects I fantasize about doing. However, some advice is geared towards unhappy productive people. They are told to relax and do less. That makes me wonder if I did more would I be unhappier?

I could have gathered lists for any area of self-help that I wanted. Such lists are overly abundant on the net. I wonder when the trend will collapse? At some point I think everyone will get tired reading about Donald Trump and numbered advice lists.

I realize that by gathering this meta-list of lists I’m only playing into the trend. Gotcha! Well, I hope you find some good advice. My takeaway is I need to go to sleep earlier, get up earlier, focus, avoid distractions, and reduce my goals to as few as possible. I’m not sure, but I did’t Benjamin Franklin make that list over 200 years ago?

The Wisdom of Happiness

JWH

Comparing Where-To-Retire Strategies

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, April 24, 2017

My wife Susan and I have been talking about possible places to retire. Right now we each have completely different thoughts on the subject. It would help if I laid out the possibilities. Making this decision feels like climbing a mountain. Quite often I want to turn around and go back down.

mountain-and-reflection

The Least-Effort Lazy Plan

Our house will soon be paid off. We could just stay here. We’ve recently bought a 30-year roof. Since the Social Security Life Expectancy calculator predicts we’ll live another twenty years, we’re covered so-to-speak. Twenty years seems like a long-time and not-too-long time. To give perspective, the film Titanic came out twenty years ago.

Retiring in place has many advantages. We know the city. We have our friends. We have our routines. We know all our doctors, dentists, plumbers, and such.

The main disadvantage is it’s the same old place and we could be living somewhere much more exciting — or secure.

The Secure Low-Maintenance Plan

Maintaining a house, especially while getting older, is a pain-in-the-ass. My idea for the perfect low-stress retirement is to move to a 55+ community and rent a nice apartment. It would need to be well-built and soundproof. I don’t want to hear neighbors or they hear us. But the idea of having no yard is overwhelmingly seductive. I’d also love to live somewhere where we didn’t need a car. I imagine moving to a retirement community near a small city would be a safer place for aging. The bustle of a big city is probably scary while aging.

Living in a 55+ community would also offer lots of social outlets and activities. Plus all the support services would be geared to people our age. Such a lifestyle would maximize free time by reducing chores to a minimum.

The Atomic Ranch Plan

I love old 1950s ranch style houses, like those profiled in Atomic Ranch magazine. If we wanted to keep a house and car, it would be cool to move to small Florida retirement community, find a corner lot with a ranch house, buy a vintage 1950s car, and then recreate a beautiful recreation of our childhood. I could collect 1950s science fiction books, pulp magazines, and old vinyl records. I could put in a 21st-century large screen TV to show old movies and television shows. If I wanted to get really weird, I could drop off the net, and cut the cord to cable.

This retro-retirement-recreation appeals to me, but I don’t think it does for Susan.

atomic ranch

The Cool City Plan

If we’re not quite ready to mosey off to the elephant graveyard to wait to die, we could pick a trendy city to live in and attempt to stay young for another decade. This would appeal to Susan more than me. I already consider myself old. She still loves going to parties, eating out, rock concerts and baseball games. If we chose this path I’d like to find a very liberal city, but on the small side, maybe a college town. I like living in flat cities but wouldn’t mind being near mountains or oceans.

The Not Likely Adventurous Plan

If I had the guts to be adventurous I’d love to live in several interesting cities before I died. I feel bad about not trying to see more of the country or even the world than I have. I traveled around a lot when I was young, but have been in the same city for the last 46 years.

It would be far-out to get a 1-year lease in a new city every year for ten years, and then settle down in a 55+ plus community. Such a plan would require pairing down our possessions to a minimum. We’d have to learn to make new friends quickly, and how to find new doctors and dentists wherever we went.

The Least Likely Political Activist Plan

It bothers me that conservatives have taken over the nation. Conservatives have worked for decades at the grassroots political level to achieve their goals. If liberals want to regain power they need to duplicate those efforts. It would help the cause if liberals living in urban areas would move to red counties, districts, and states. It would help even more if they got involve with local politics and social activities.

The Most Rewarding and Scariest Plan

I have a friend who plans to move to Mexico. I’ve been watching films about expat life with her and reading newsletters and books about living abroad. I’ve never traveled outside the U.S. If I really wanted to enrich my life before I die, living abroad would be the way to do it. It could involve living in a city, an expat community, or even an overseas retirement community.

guanajuato

JWH

Confessing My Anxieties

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 14, 2017

There’s nothing that sets off my anxiety more than having an event in the future to worry about. Next week I’m scheduled for jury duty and I’m worried I’ll be sequestered. I have no idea how many people are like me. We never know how other people think, do we? So I thought I’d just tell you about my quirky anxieties and figured you might tell me about yours.

the future 

The tendency is to believe everyone thinks in the same way, but I don’t know if that’s true. First, we can divide the world up into the anxious and the anxiety free. Of the people I know who confess their anxieties, it appears our symptoms come in all varieties, with many variations of physical and mental properties.

I have no idea how common my type of anxieties are among other people. If I studied psychology I could analyze the data and statistics, but I think I’ll take different path. I’m just going to confess my anxieties and ask my friends to confess theirs. Confession is great for the soul, or so they say.

I’m not sure how honest I should be. I don’t want to come across as psychically naked. But on the other hand, this experiment is based on revealing what’s behind my barriers. The act of writing down my problems is therapeutic. That implies a certain degree of honesty is required for effective results.

My main source of anxiety comes from thinking about the future. That can be planning my grocery shopping trip or worrying about climate change in the year 2100. I’ve always thought this was a particularly good trait for someone who wants to writes science fiction – an ambition I’ve had since age 12. Unfortunately, even though I imagine hundreds of scenarios every day, I’ve yet to learn how to dramatize them into fiction.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered this trait is a handicap. It has a number of downsides. It’s especially paralyzing for social activities. Future worry has led me to create a very comfortable now. I am my own siren. On the other hand, any disruption to my routine causes anxiety. Most of the time, it is very minor anxiety. I am happiest when I have nothing scheduled. I have friends that schedule their lives weeks in advance – what a nightmare.

My second anxiety, and I believe it’s caused by the first anxiety, is I hate to leave home. When I was young I always wondered why older folks were so homebound. Now I know. Home is security. Controlling my future is easiest done from home. Leaving the house increases the variables involved in imagining the future. When I was young I could go out and play all day, ranging over neighborhoods, countryside, and woods. It never even occurred to me to plan my future. After I retired I had nearly complete control over my time. It was only when I have to be somewhere else do I lose that control.

My agoraphobia is not extreme, but it is growing. I have not always been this way. Even after I grew up and out on my own, I could leave home with abandon, worry free. Before I got married, the longest I had lived in any one house was eighteen months. I’ve lived in my present house about ten years, and I think that long comfortable stay has affected me.

However, I believe my agoraphobia started when I developed a heart arrhythmia in my forties. My fear of having an episode in public made me want to always stay home. Even after I had surgery to fix my heart a bit of that anxiety remained. I began going out again, but never like before. Because this event was concurrent with getting older and living longer in the same house, I’m not sure which was the primary cause.

Then in my early sixties I had to have a stent put in my heart because of clogged arteries. Around the same time I developed spinal stenosis which has caused a number of physical limitations. I have a Catch-22 situation. If I exercise more to help my heart, my legs go numb, and I have back problems. If I exercise less the numbness decreases and the pain goes away, and my heart feels worse. I have to walk a razor’s edge to stay feeling reasonably well. I’ve also worked out a rather severe diet that helps both conditions. Eating out makes it very difficult to follow that diet. All of this conditions me like Palov’s dog to stay close to home.

Many of my retired friends are trying to do more outside the house, especially travel. Travel scares the crap out of me. First, I’d have to leave home. Second, I’d have to give up most control. Third, I’d have to eat at restaurants. Fourth, I wouldn’t have my custom exercise equipment. Fifth, I might have to sleep in a bed, which freezes up my back. (I’ve been sleeping in a recliner for years.)

Are my anxieties just in my head? Or has my body dictated them? If I worked hard I might discover how to eat healthy on the go, how to exercise anywhere with no equipment or portable elastic bands, how to sleep comfortably by improvising back friendly nests with available furniture at hand. Theoretically, all that’s possible, but it’s hard to imagine. To get a good night sleep I need a certain kind of recliner adapted with four kinds of pillows.

Now I know why old crotchety folks I met in my youth were so set in their ways. Aging means adapting to your bodily demands. If I eat just right, exercise just right, and sleep just right, I can avoid pain. Have my anxieties evolved through pain avoidance? Or am I just being a pussy? Should I just get over them?

My wife thinks I give in too easily. She might be right. She loves to be on the go, to travel, to be active. She has aches and pains – but just ignores them. I know a number of people our age who eat whatever they want, never exercise, and lead happy active lives. Then I know other people who are adapting their life to deal with ailments, conditions, pains, disease, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc.

Is anxiety mental or physical? Like I said, there many kinds of anxieties. I think some are mostly mental. I think mine are related to the physical, but I could be fooling myself. If I changed a mental condition with drugs or conditioning, is it really mental?

Most people associate anxiety with depression. As long as I can pursue my hobbies at home I’m extremely happy. I don’t feel crippled by anxiety. I guess I would if I wanted to travel. Maybe I’m happy because I accept my limitations. If I wanted more, I might be unhappy. Even this might be age related. If I was young and felt this way, I’d feel resentful, even imprisoned.

Does getting old allow us to accept what we can’t change? Or does getting old mean we stop trying to change.

Is everything I’ve written here a rationalization that allows me to avoid living life to the fullest? I have a feeling going to jury next week will teach me a lot. I’m not to try to get out of the duty, but it provokes all the fears I mention above. I’m having far more anxiety than before my heart procedures. I’ll write an update to this piece and confess what I learned after I’ve faced those fears.

JWH

Serving Only One Master

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 4, 2017

I’d like to repurpose a famous saying by Jesus, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” and apply it to modern self-help advice about goal seeking. If we replace God with goal and money with everything in our life that keeps us from our goal, I think it works quite well.

Every day my newsfeed Flipboard includes a handful of articles about successful people and their habits, especially lists of things to do if we want to achieve our goals in life. Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of such how-to guides. I’d say the most common bit of advice is to narrow your goals down to as few as possible. And if you’re really ambitious, make it one. Jesus didn’t know about psychology because it hadn’t been invented yet, but he must have been a keen observer of people.

focus

For my whole life, I’ve been plagued by wanting to do too many things. Too many choices paralyze us with indecision. Humans are terrible at multitasking, and we’re not much better as task switching. Success requires focus. To focus requires getting into a flow state, and that’s not possible with distractions.

Recently I wrote, “Time Management for Work, Hobbies, Skills, Chores, Pastimes, and Interests” that calculated the time requirements for different levels of applied focus. Since I’ve retired I’ve been trying to organize my time to pursue as many of my favorite hobbies as possible. I wrote “Sisyphean Hobbies For My Retirement Years” about how I hoped to juggle them.

It’s been a complete failure. The more I divide my time, the less I get done. A byproduct of aging is a slow decline in the total time I can focus. Maybe I could have kept more balls in the air when I was younger, but I can’t now. I thought having all my time free would give me more time to focus. It just hasn’t worked out that way.

When I quit work in 2013 my plan was to write a science fiction novel. I quickly learned I couldn’t focus on such a big project. I switched to essay writing. Novels normally run 50,000-100,000 words. My essays run 500-1500 words. Even that shorter length requires a great deal of focus. And it’s not just a matter of cranking out the words. The challenge is to write better essays over time.

I think what happened in recent months is I got distracted by other hobbies – coloring, drawing, photography, computers, math, crossword puzzles, socializing, television, and I started writing less. If my retirement was only about having fun that wouldn’t matter. Nor am I trying to become a successful writer. What I’m really talking about is maintaining a skill while aging.

We need one master to serve to measure our ability for commitment and focus. We need one goal that defines us. Reality does not assign meaning. Existentialism requires us to define our own meaning. I believe happiness comes from having something we want to do. Whether that’s a goal, discipline, job, art, hobby, religion, philosophy, etc. is up to us. But it becomes our yardstick by which we measure ourselves. It’s the anchor of reality which everything else is related.

We can pursue as many activities as we can cram into our schedule but we need one to be the yardstick.

JWH

Time Management for Work, Hobbies, Skills, Chores, Pastimes, and Interests

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 26, 2017

I don’t have the time to do everything I want – and I’m retired! I assume everyone gets up daily hoping to do more than they do because I’m constantly seeing time task management advice on the web.

Time is never on our side.

Time Management

If I could distill all that web advice it would be: Focus on the fewest goals, avoid distractions, start your day early, stick to what’s important. Of course these advice lists are aimed at people who want to make it big. What if you’re less ambitious? What if the only person you have to please is yourself?

This got me to thinking about retirement and goals. There’s nothing stopping me from being completely whim driven. The other day I got a jury duty summons. It made me realize I had my first work schedule in years. Except for doctor and dental appointments I seldom punch a clock. My main time pressure is to finish essays, but even then I don’t have actual deadlines.

Does a retired person need to worry about time management skills? That depends on how productive retirees want to be. I’ve decided there’s a hierarchy of using time productively.

  1. Ambitions. If you want to be successful at anything then you have to put in the time. Generally, your ambitions are your major goals in life. And it really helps to only have one at a time. Everything else is subordinate. The most successful people can focus so intensely on their ambition that it becomes their life. Few people go that far.
  2. Hobbies. It’s possible to have multiple hobbies, and even get pretty good at several of them. Just putting in 30-60 minutes a day can lead to remarkable results.
  3. Skills. Over our lifetime we develop various skills. Whether it’s chopping vegetables or fixing computers, skills come with practice, but we don’t routinely focus on them like hobbies.
  4. Chores. Chores are like skills, but we don’t even think about how good we are at doing them. Doing the dishes or grocery shopping are just things that have to get done.
  5. Pastimes. Watching TV can be mindless but fun. We often fill up our life with activities that are pleasant, but we don’t think about improving our pastime abilities. Watching basketball on TV is a pastime. You can make playing basketball into a skill, hobby or even ambition, but most people don’t.
  6. Interests. There are topics you enjoy talking about at parties but on subjects you’d never study. Watching the news might be a pastime, and sometimes it covers your interests. Our interests are our least active pursuit. We waste time thinking and talking about them, but we don’t work at become specialists. We’d probably do poorly if we were tested on our interests because we treat them so haphazardly.

If your goal is to be the best at something, than spending time on activities 2-6 are detrimental to your ambition. Few people are that driven. Most of us don’t even have hobbies we systematically work at. Probably the average person is content with skills, chores, pastimes and interests.

I came across a video yesterday that perfectly illustrates what applying an hour a day can achieve. It shows the progress of a young woman learning to play the violin from week 1 to 2 years. In a separate video she explains how much she practices. I don’t know if this means anyone could learn the violin, or if this woman had music ability that made her more suited to the hobby. She does claim the violin is her first instrument, and she started playing in her twenties.

In recent years, whenever I needed a new skill, from opening a mango to repairing a toilet, I’ve learned from YouTube. That suggests we can learn almost anything if we try. The above video is proof we could get good at a hobby if we spent 30-60 minutes a day working at it. Which means even employed people have time for one or two hobbies.

My problem is I have too many interests that I want to develop into pastimes, skills and hobbies. Right now writing essays is my main hobby. It’s not even an ambition – yet – because I haven’t dedicated myself to it. If I wanted to be a great essayist, I’d need to ignore casual interests,  abandon hobbies, and only pursue skills that related to writing.

I’m not that focused or disciplined. I wish I was, but I’m not. I do wish I could get good at a second hobby. I’m hitting a wall that might be age related. I seem to have only so much activity energy to apply at learning each day. Once it’s used up I fall back to pleasant pastimes and interests. I haven’t figure out if active pursuits are like muscles which can be built up, or like chemical energy, which is consumed.

Off hand, I’d say being active in the above pursuits is related to health and age, which means our time on target dwindles as we get older. I’ve recently got much better at crosswords, so that was encouraging about being an old dog learning new tricks. But then I read “Here Are the Age You Peak at Everything Throughout Life” and saw that 71 was when we peaked at vocabulary. Unfortunately, they didn’t mention essay writing, photography, drawing, and other skills I’d like pursuing. I am past the age for peak arithmetic skills – 50, which might explain my trouble with relearning 6th grade math.

JWH – Happy 39th Anniversary Susan