My Father Would Have Been 100 Today

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My dad as a baby

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

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

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

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

Dad as telegraph delivery boy also from 1936.

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

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

After the war.

Don’t my mom and dad look happy here?

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

Happy Birthday, Dad.

JWH

When We Played Albums

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

Dang! I Wore Myself Out

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2020

At 68, I can still grab a 52-pound speaker and hauled it all the way from the den to the back bedroom. I was impressed with myself. I even did it again with the left channel speaker. No big deal. Then I started noticing how my old body was beginning to whine. Was I wimping out? Hell, maybe I should have gotten the dolly. And I had the two rear channel Infinity Alpha-50 speakers to go. I plopped down in my old worn La-Z-Boy to rethink my plans.

Was I too old for my stereo system?

I was setting up my Denon system in the bedroom because yesterday I got totally frustrated with reconfiguring once again for my TV surround sound system. I was trying to get 4 HDMI devices inputted into to the AV receiver to automatically switch via the ARC HDMI to the TV and switch with just the TV’s remote. I had three HDMI inputs working for a year, but for some reason adding a fourth HDMI input annoyed the receiver. The video was switching fine, but the sound worked erratically. Modern electronics can be a pain in the posterior, and I knew it was time to get out the manual and study the labyrinth of settings carefully.

However, I’ve reached an age where I just don’t want to fuck with stuff anymore. (I know, I should have said tinker, but I’m getting crotchety too.) It’s like Dirty Harry said, “A dude must know just how much shit he can handle.”

As I approach 70 I feel like I’m riding a horse that’s too old to carry me. Sure I can I grab a big bulky 23.5kg speaker and lug it briskly across the den, up some stairs, through the kitchen, down the hall, to the back bedroom, while almost believing the lies I tell myself I’m still young enough to do it.

An emotional insight from deep inside me yelled, “Act your age — get a smaller stereo system you putz.” So I called my neighbor Paul who was looking for a stereo for his son and gave it to him. They came over and hauled it away in two car trips. (Hey, his son was young and strong, he can handle it.) But that’s 300 pounds of gear I don’t have to ever worry about again. Yet, two days ago I would have been horrified at giving my stereo system away — I love having a big sound system. I’m shocked and impressed I made such a quick decision. Usually, I’m insanely Hamlet for weeks.

Reality kicked hours later. This evening I couldn’t carry a 5-pound speaker to the bedroom. You should see me walking hunched over. I feel ninety-eight. I’m contemplating going to bed early with painkillers and heating pad. I wonder if I’ll ever stand up straight again?

People often talk about downsizing in their retirement years, but I’m learning that means more than buying a smaller house. Today I realized my tiny Yamaha WXA-50 streaming amplifier and bookshelf speakers I use in my computer room is an age-appropriate size and weight for a 68-year guy who is a worn out pug dog. The big 5.1 sound system I gave away is going to be replaced by a single soundbar for my den TV. I don’t even want to mess with rear speakers or a subwoofer. I’ve been studying soundbars and the idea of hooking one up with a single HDMI cable thrills me almost as much as when I was a teen studying Playboy. As an extra bonus, the den will have 5 less speakers cluttering up the floor. No more goddamn speaker wire. And my TV stand will have a nice empty shelf.

Not only do I want smaller things, I want simpler things. Years ago I replaced my huge tower computer with a tiny Intel NUC. I’ve been thinking about going back to a big tower computer again, but my back just screamed, “Don’t do it you crazy old dog. Sit. Act your age!”

Marie Kondo tells us we should ask if our possessions spark joy. My back pain is now advising I ask my stuff if they’re too complicated or too heavy for my declining mind and body.

JWH

How Good a Reader Are You If You Compared Your Reading Skills to Playing a Piano?

James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Most people assume if you can read you can read. But what if reading was a skill like playing the piano and most readers are no better at reading than an eleven-year old with a year of piano lessons. (I’m expecting you to hear a badly played tune in your head.)

What if you could read like Glenn Gould playing Bach? Can you even imagine what that could be like? It would be like having Broadway actors performing in your head. It would be like having the professors from The Great Courses whispering you the annotations. It would be like James Joyce reading Ulysses to himself.

Well, I don’t read anything like that. My inner reading voice is a tone deaf monotone, and my annotations come from a lifetime of half-ass autodidactism.

Growing up I read nearly a thousand books. Because I read so much, I assumed I was a great reader. Beginning in 2002 when I joined Audible.com I often selected audiobooks I had read and loved way back then — when every book I read was great, even those by E. E. “Doc” Smith. Hearing all my childhood favorite books read by skilled readers has shown me just how bad a reader I was when I was growing up and thought I was so great.

And it’s not just comparing my wimpy inner reading voice to professional narrators, or the fact that I was young and wasn’t mature enough to understand everything in what I was reading. I am including my college years in that youthful period, when my mind was at its peak performance, and being crammed with a variety of diverse knowledge.

Listening to audiobooks taught me that I read too fast growing up. That I paid attention to the action and dialog but skimmed over any long passages of dense narrative details. But I also missed the emotional cues, and I didn’t spend enough time picturing the scenes and settings. More than that, I didn’t dwell on the implications of what was being expressed fictionally.

Every so often a friend will say they love the sentences in the books they are reading. I don’t think I ever stopped to admire a sentence.

By the way, I don’t mean to imply that my reading skills have vastly improved over the years. They are a good deal better, but I am no concert pianist at reading. In fact, I have a hard time gauging my skills against others.

Growing up I assumed everyone saw the world in the same way, that our brains and senses were similar. I’ve since learned that our perceptions of reality vary so greatly that if two people standing next to each other watching the same event will interpret it in two distinctly different ways. Since discovering that I’ve paid attention to whenever people describe how they read, and I’ve learned that decoding words produces a wide range of cognitive results.

You can test this observation by asking your friends about what they experience when they read. I’ve been doing this for years and discovered some of my friends have amazing mental abilities that make me green with envy.

Have you ever loved a book and urged a best friend to read it and then been let down when they didn’t respond to it like you did? Have you ever read a classic novel or bestseller and wondered what all the fuss was about? Have you ever read a book about your favorite subject and found it boring?

Part of reading is decoding words in the way the author intended. Part of reading is being on the same wavelength as the writer. Learning to be a skill reader involves words, sentences, and paragraphs, but it’s also involves reassembling the vision the author constructed in their mind that they wanted you to see, and triggering the emotions and philosophical insights they felt.

What if readers could be ranked like chess players using their Elo ranking system? Would I be an 800 or 1200? I’m quite confident I’m nowhere near a master rating. I wish I could be a grand master of reading but I know that’s impossible. We all wish we could be rock stars at our chosen ambitions but we’re not. But just how much can we improve? Can advance reading skills be taught? Can advance reading skills be assessed? I wonder what I’m missing.

My SF anthology reading group on Facebook is reading two stories this week, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster from 1909, and “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe from 1972. I might have tried to read both when I was young because I had anthologies they were in, but I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have liked either. I just don’t remember. The writing style of the Forster was too quaint, and Wolfe’s prose was much too dense.

Reading these two stories in 2020 is dazzling my reading mind, but I hunger to know just how much I’m comprehending, just how much of their totality I’m experiencing with my current reading skills.

I’m reading these stories with my eyes (Kindle) and my ears (Audible) concurrently. I’m doing everything I can to read them with all the possible reading skill I can muster, but I have no idea how skilled that effort is. Am I 50% efficient at getting what Forster and Wolfe intended? Or even 75%, or just 30%? It’s my third reading for Forster and my second reading of Wolfe in recent years. I’ve also read about both stories, and I’m constantly encountering insights into them I missed or didn’t draw the implications the reviewers did.

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” is about an old man telling about his childhood, and the audiobook I have has an old man with a pompous or posh English voice reading it. You can listen here:

The setting feels like the French Quarter of a 19th-century New Orleans but it’s actually set on another planet in the far future. Wolfe writes in a baroque style about two boys growing up in a brothel during a decadent era, being educated by a robotic tutor, and slowly learning their bizarre origins. The story is dense, and I’m not sure if I read it ten times that I would find every treasure Wolfe buried away in “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.”

“The Machine Stops” is about an agoraphobic woman blogger who Zooms with all her friends in a country completely controlled by an AI machine. Well, not exactly since it was written in 1909. But when you read it, you’ll wonder if E. M. Forster ever hitched a ride on H. G. Wells’ time machine. Again, there is so much in this story that I can’t tell if I’m little Becky playing her first recital at church or Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff in Russia. My hope is I’m at least Becky as a sophomore majoring in music at college.

I just wished I had some kind of assessment tool to help me evaluate my abilities and progress. I suppose I could go back to college and take literature courses, but I’d prefer something more scientific, something more quantitative, something involving computers and brain scans.

Anyone who has read the works of Oliver Sacks knows how different humans minds can function. Reading isn’t just reading. Our ability to process words into mind movies varies so greatly that it’s impossible to comprehend. Every cognitive ability you can possibly envy in another person goes into the infinite ways in which we process books. Because we can’t see what other people experience when reading we assume it’s like our own reading experience. But it’s not.

In my last third of life I’m struggling to read with greater skill. With fiction, I’ve mostly shifted to reading short stories. Novels take up too much of my precious time, and they are also too indulgent. Short stories, novelettes, and novellas are compact, intense, and offer more variety of reading experiences. I’d like to think I’m an old dog that can still learn new tricks. I know I’ll never read like a pianist performing at Carnegie Hall, or even at a high school auditorium.

I intuit this from listening to the best audiobook narrators or from watching lectures on The Great Courses Plus. But I have acquired the awareness of my progress and that’s something. It’s a shame we haven’t emphasized the details of reading skills. Oh sure, schools constantly grade kids on reading ability, but we never get enough feedback as to what those abilities truly are.

All I can guess is what you experience in your head when reading is much different from what I experience. I just wonder if there is any way to compare experiences? I participate in a number of reading groups, but the best we seem capable of is expressing if we like or dislike what we read. We know how much a musician knows because they perform and their performances can be evaluated and compared.

I suppose the real GRE for evaluating reading is writing. By that measure, I also come up short. I struggle to write fiction like a drowning person flails in the ocean.

JWH

Do People Still Read Short Stories?

Yesterday I read, “43 of the Most Iconic Short Stories in the English Language” by Emily Temple over at Literary Hub. Her essay begins 

Last year, I put together this list of the most iconic poems in the English language; it’s high time to do the same for short stories. But before we go any further, you may be asking: What does “iconic” mean in this context? Can a short story really be iconic in the way of a poem, or a painting, or Elvis?

Well, who knows, but for our purposes, “iconic” means that the story has somehow wormed its way into the general cultural consciousness—a list of the best short stories in the English language would look quite different than the one below.

I was able to look up her 43 titles on the internet and found most of them available to read online. I assume that’s because those stories are taught in schools and colleges and teachers have put them online as pdf files so their students can read them for an assignment. I doubt that’s legal, but it’s convenient for me.

Are these stories iconic because a captive audience has been made to study them? Does forced cultural literary constitute a kind of fandom? I’m sure Emily Temple and I are the kind of book nerds that love these stories, but just how many other people do?

I went to Amazon looking for anthologies that might contain these stories. I assumed if they were iconic then they’d be readily available, but they weren’t. The only anthology I found that had more than a couple of these stories is an old one I already owned. It had 7 of the 43, which is pretty good. That volume, The Art of the Short Story edited by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn is probably a textbook, but it seems to be out-of-print. I found a few other textbooks that had some of the 43 stories, but at most three. However, the same authors are anthologized over and over again, so there seems to be disagreement as to what their best stories might be.

This still leaves me thinking Emily Temple’s 43 iconic stories aren’t that iconic outside of hardcore bookworms. These stories definitely aren’t iconic like Classic Rock albums or the old TV shows that rerun on MeTV or TVLand which have tens of millions of fans across generations.

I added the 43 stories to a Google Sheet and put in links to where I found the stories online. I plan to read them all. I also plan to add other lists of “iconic” short stories to this spreadsheet, and read them too.

Last night I read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. It was a bit of horror fluff that didn’t have much to say philosophically, nor did it reveal anything about life in 1843 America. I can’t believe we make children read it. There’s got to be better Poe to force onto younsters. 

On the other hand, rereading “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omeleas” by Ursula K. Le Guin is intensely philosophical and I imagine an excellent story to trick teens into thinking about deep concepts.

How many people still read short stories after they leave school? Probably damn few. That isn’t to say that Edgar Allan Poe or Eudora Welty don’t have their fans, but are their followers a large enough crowd to swing over the needle of a pop culture meter when mentioned on Jeopardy? Well, some Jeopardy contestants would be the kind of folks to read short stories.

More and more, I’m getting into short stories. I’m reading over three hunded of them a year. But it also feels like I’m withdrawing from reality. My friends want to talk about novels, or movies, or TV shows — and I can’t. And they aren’t interested in discussing short stories.

I imagine kids when assigned to read short stories today feel about the same way as we did when forced to do quardratic equations back in our school days. No, I don’t think the word iconic applies to Emily Temple’s list of old short stories. But what’s the right word?

I wonder if that word is in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? I wish I knew Greek and Latin so I could make up a word for loving art forms going extinct. Or a word for cherishing fadding pop culture successes of the past. Anachronostalgia? 

It has been said that writers write to become immortal, but that immortality only lasts as long as people continue to read what they wrote. What’s a word for keeping old works of art alive? It’s kind of a good deed, don’t you think? Of course, not as good as helping a real person in need, but it’s still a kindly thing to do.

JWH