How Accurately Can I Remember 50 Years Ago?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 16, 2019

2019 is the 50th anniversary of my graduating high school in 1969. I attended three different high schools in two states from 1966 to 1969. I’ve been looking at their yearbooks which has triggered a flood of memories. That is inspiring me to write a series of essays in lieu of attending my high school reunion. The process of struggling to remember and validating my memories with evidence has unleashed emotions and revelations that reflect a new honesty about myself. This is my third attempt to write about this experience. I keep bombing out when the essays got too long and complicated. So I’ve decided to cut them up into thematic chunks. I’ve toyed with writing “50 Lessons From 50 Years Ago” because I’ve remembered at least fifty scenes from the past that are worth an essay each, with more burbling out of my unconscious every hour. I’ve either stumbled upon a psychological fountain of wisdom, or a wriggling can of worms.

As my current ability to remember becomes iffier, and access times get longer, the whole topic of memory has become a siren call of fascination, even obsession. This week as I’ve worked to remember 50 years ago, I had many revelations about myself, some unpleasant and unflattering. An essential insight is I might be different from most other people. Because my family moved so much as a kid, I have always been hung up on recalling the past because I was always remembering friends, homes, and schools I just left. I envy people who never moved. My friend Linda, who is working with her 50th-anniversary reunion group is also in charge of the 1st-grade reunion. She told me recently she’s in contact with 9 of her 15 classmates from her first grade. That blows my mind. I can’t remember a single classmate from grades 1 through 3. And I can’t remember now if I went to four or five schools in those first three grades. I do remember living in 7 houses during those years.

This first essay will be about the limits of memory and evidence. To put it bluntly, our memories are flawed and unreliable. Whole books have been written about that. My favorite is Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman. Don’t be scared off because it’s about Jesus, Ehrman takes a historical approach and spends most of the book talking about how we remember. Describing someone from 2,000 years ago tests the limit of memory and evidence. I’m just trying to remember who I was 50 years ago and a few friends. Supposedly I should have been the best eye witness. I probably wasn’t. After reading through the yearbooks I went searching for more physical evidence. I found very little.

The photo above is from my 10th-grade yearbook, The Warrior when I attended East Tallahatchie High School in Charleston, Mississippi from September 1966 through the beginning of March 1967. I’m the guy in the striped sweater. Except for the teacher I can’t recall any of those other science club members. So far I’ve only found three photos of myself from 1966-1969. That’s scant evidence. I thought I had a few old report cards my mother saved, but I can’t find them. I have no diaries, journals, or other physical evidence. I had more physical evidence, but in the 1970s, went through a Buddhist phase and got rid of all my possessions that triggered memories. God, I wish I had that stuff now, what a jackass. At the time I wanted to free myself from thinking about the past.

The Yardsticks of Memory

There are two primary ways to reconstruct the past. The first is memories. The second is physical evidence. But I needed a standard unit of measurement, a yardstick to lay against both memory and evidence. Or I needed anchors in the past to work out from. I’m slowly developing several:

  • How many people did I know and how often did I talk to them? This involved recalling names and finding photographs and giving myself the third-degree about how deeply I interacted with these people.
  • What was I required to do every day? What were my routines?
  • What did I want to do with my free time?
  • What did I hope to do? What were my plans for the future?
  • What events can I document on Google that I remember attending?
  • Where and what did I eat at my three meals?
  • What TV shows did I watch?
  • What books did I read?
  • What movies and concerts did I go to?
  • How did I commute to work and school?

I’ve decided not to attend my reunion because digging through the yearbooks convinced me I knew too few classmates. I realized while contemplating this whole high school reunion thing, that I can measure my high school years by how much I talked to the different people. Today I can name damn few people I got to really know back in high school. I wasn’t particularly shy. I’m fairly confident that I learned all the names of my classmates in every class. I paid that much attention. People would talk to me and I’d talk to them, but it was all casual chit-chat that’s been forgotten. I remember several girls in each class that triggered sex fantasies to alleviate the boredom of lectures. Some of them actually like talking to me. However, I only actually dated only one girl for a couple of months, and I can’t remember one distinctive thing she said to me. I found damn few kids in my memories that liked to talk about what I liked to talk about, which was science, science fiction, the future, and NASA’s efforts at space travel. I did gab daily with folks about cars, television, movies, and rock music because those were the lowest common denominators of pop culture back then. I didn’t like talking about sports or school activities or gossiping about the other kids.

I still chat on the phone several times a week to my oldest friend, Jim Connell. We met at Coral Gables High School, my second high school, in 1967. So he wasn’t part of my graduating class, but Connell was the person I spent the most time with back then. We were also pals with George Kirschner. George is probably the second person I spent the most time talking to during my high school years. We three loved science fiction, and we had each had rejected our Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish upbringing. I was into the counter culture, George was the know-it-all with a more sophisticated upbringing, and Connel was adventurous but shy and loved the ocean. We all loved science.

My family moved from Coconut Grove, Florida to South Miami when I was in the 11th grade, and I finished out high school at Miami-Killian Senior High. However, I kept my job in Coconut Grove until the last week of November 1968. That kept me tied to some of my friends that still went to Coral Gables High School, but it meant a long daily commute to work. Remembering this made me realize I had friends at two high schools and a job so that meant a lot more names and conversations to recall.

It also made me realize that I did a lot of traveling every day and I didn’t own a car. Just trying to remember how I got from place to place is unearthing all kinds of memories. Google Maps tells me from home to Kwik Check was 16.1 miles via Old Cutler Road, and would take 37 minutes. Here’s a memory puzzle. I think my mother and father each had a car, but I didn’t. They both worked. I remember a 1967 Pontiac Tempest and vaguely remember a much older Mercury. I think sometimes I’d go to school on the bus, or catch a ride with Tim Green. Miami-Killian was between home and work. And then I’d hitch-hike into the Grove, but I don’t think I did that often. I only vaguely remember driving to school a few times, but what I really remember was loving the drive home after work. I’d be hot and sweaty after working six hours. My end-of-the-night tasks were sweeping and mopping the floors, cleaning the bathrooms, and incinerating the out-of-date food. I’d buy two 16-ounce Cokes after work and drive home via the Old Cutler Road, which was dark and lined with ancient looking trees. I’d have the windows down and play the radio very loud. I love the time I had to myself driving home. It was the only time I wasn’t rushing. So my assumption is my parents would lend me their cars. But I have no memory of discussing who’d take the car each day, or how they got to their jobs.

Nor do I remember much about my sister Becky’s life back then. She was two years younger than me. When I started the 12th at Miami-Killian she started the 10th, but I have no memory of which junior high schools she attended in Gables or South Miami Heights.

And this makes me remember something else. To many, high school is 9th through 12th, but in Miami, junior high was 7th through 9th and high school 10th through 12th. So if I’m recalling the details of my high school years, do I think of four schools or three, or four homes or three? Because recalling the 9th grade is a whole other memory era for me, and a different group of friends.

This quicksand trap is teaching me about memory. Every time I find a piece of evidence, remember a name, think of an activity or recall an event, I trigger memories around them. It feels like it’s all there, I just need to find the hook, or thread of the web and follow it. It boggles my mind to think that chemical etchings in my brain stores all these memories.

Now that I’m working out the framework for finding memories, I want to pick an individual memory and reconstruct it in depth. I know there was the reality to my life fifty years ago, but it was all perceptual. There was the person I wanted to be, the person I thought I was, the person other people saw, and they were all different. And my parents and teachers wanted me to be different people with different futures, and I wanted to be something I could never be.

One of the hardest things to remember is my realistic expectations about the future. I remember countless unrealistic expectations, but how often did I make realistic decisions and plans? Stay tuned for part 2.

JWH

 

Creating v. Consuming

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 2, 2019

Back in the 1970s when I used to visit New Age seminars I met a woman who claimed there were two types of people in this world: those that create and those who consume. I thought that was an interesting distinction, but probably bullshit. But every now and then I think about it. Most people read books, few write them. Most people listen to music, few play it. Yet, even a brilliant writer is a consumer when it comes to music, television, music, and even books too. And being creative doesn’t mean being an artist. Anyone with a job creates.

Since retiring I’ve thought about this insight differently. Without our 9-to-5, we spend a whole lot more time consuming and less creating, unless we have a hobby, volunteer, or pursue some other creative outlet. Cleaning house is creative – you’re making order out of chaos, but do you feel that when you do your chores?

I realize much of my happiness comes from waking up and thinking of something to do each day. Yesterday I wrote “Fantastic Universe (1953-1960)” which involved making almost 200 links to the web and the gathering of many facts. In the big scheme of things, this tiny bit of creative effort isn’t very important, but it gave me something creative to do. Creative not in the sense of Picasso, but in the sense of not consuming.

It made me happy. I know retired people who are restless, and even unhappy. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Even knowing what I’m saying here, it’s very hard to just pick something to do. Creativity, no matter how mundane, requires a drive. Having a drive to blog makes me lucky. I can’t tell my restless friends to start blogging. It won’t work if they don’t have the drive.

The morning, The New York Times presented “The Queen of Change” by Penelope Green about Julia Cameron and her classic book The Artist’s Way. Most people who read this book do so because they want to pursue a traditionally creative endeavor. But, could her approach work for finding mundane creative endeavors in retirement? Most people seeking to be creative want to be successful artistically. But is that really important? Isn’t merely being creative at anything worthy in itself? Maybe my restless friends should read it.

I am still a big consumer. I actually love consuming movies, TV shows, music, books, essays, and short stories. It’s just unfulfilling to do it all the time. I think we need a certain amount of time when we’re creating, but I don’t know if it has to ambitious creativity. Piddling at something you love can be all the difference between happiness and unhappiness.

I’ve come to realize that I’m a happy person because when I wake up in the morning I start thinking about things I want to do. I worry about my friends who aren’t lucky that way. I’m afraid if I try to judge the worthiness of my piddling activities my happiness will break. I wonder if my unhappy friends kill their drive to do something because they deem it unworthy before they even try?

JWH

Creating Something Useful in Retirement

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 17, 2019

For their retirement project, Greg Hullender and Eric Wong created Rocket Stack Rank that reviews and rates science fiction and fantasy short stories as they come out in eleven SF/F magazines and some anthologies. It’s a major undertaking they’ve been working on since 2015. Rocket Stack Rank is quite a resource and especially useful if you love shorter works of science fiction. I subscribe to four magazines they review, and their reviews show up very quickly after a new issue appears. Because I’m always so busy reading older stories, I use their ratings to take my head out of the past and put it in the present. But I also admire the web design and programming that also goes into their site.

Greg and Eric have been buddies for twenty years. My friend Mike and I have been reading and discussing science fiction for almost forty years. Mike inspired me to create the Classics of Science Fiction list back in the 1980s. Since 2016 Mike has been programming the database for the site and this year created the query system that lets users build their own lists. We think of the site as our retirement project. It gives us purpose and hopefully provides a useful tool for other people.

However, recently we started wondering if all the work was worth the effort because very few people use our site. Identifying the most remembered science fiction stories of the past is going to appeal to a very niche crowd. The new query system that Mike has spent a great deal of time perfecting only gets a few people using it a day. We were planning to expand its features but have been wondering if its worth the effort. Mike loves to program and this gives him a project to work on, but is it the best use of his time? I spend a lot of time researching, data inputting, and writing essays for the site.

Last night we were asking ourselves if success is determined by the number of users. If we enjoy the effort does it matter how many people use the site? In one sense no, but we do want to create tools people will use. We have to balance the fact that a new feature might require hundreds or even thousands of hours of work against its future utility. We’ve been disappointed the CSF Query (Classics of Science Fiction Query) hasn’t gotten more users. We think it’s partly due to people not knowing about it, and mostly due to people not needing it.

CSF Query is the kind of tool in your toolbox that you will only need rarely, but when the need arises it’s perfect for the job. For example, Paul Fraser at SF Magazines created a listing of stories that can be considered for the 1944 Retro Hugo Awards. So far he’s found 326 stories from about a dozen 1943 pulp magazines that qualify. That’s quite of bit of work. If you set CSF Query for 1943 and a minimum of 1 citation and hit Search you’ll get all the stories that are remembered in our Classics of Science Fiction database. Our work compliments his. The fun challenge to Retro Hugo voters is to see if any of the 326 stories in Paul’s list that aren’t remembered in our list are worth rediscovering. Our list shows the stories that have been remembered in major anthologies since 1943. So CSF Query reduces 326 down to 20. If you change the minimum citation to 2 and hit Search it reduces the number of stories to 7, showing the most popular SF stories remembered since 1943. In this case, our tool is useful for showing how often an SF story was remembered by fans and editors.

I also love to use CSF Query to look at years and decades, or which works by a particular author were their most remembered stories. By changing the citation level CSF Query can zero in on the most remembered SF stories.

Of course, just how many people will want to do this on any given day? Mike and I have been thinking about adding a new feature that would allow users to query the database by theme. That would allow readers who want to read all the most popular stories about colonizing Mars a way to find them. Trying to catalog all science fiction stories by their themes would be impossible, but I’ve thought it might be possible to do the 275 stories on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list, and 139 books on the Classics of Science Fiction list. But researching 414 stories and deciding their themes would still be a huge task. It’s the kind of obsessive bibliographic undertaking that I would find pleasurable, but would it be all that useful to other people?

I believe having hobbies and projects in retirement are very important. Just existing every day consuming air, water, food, television shows, books, music, movies, etc. is pleasurable, but doesn’t make me look forward to the future. I like having a sense of building something, even if it’s tiny and only valued by me. But it’s even more rewarding when I create something useful to others, even if it’s only to a few people.

The other night I watched a documentary, Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams, an obscure writer I’ve not read. I saw this preview and couldn’t resist buying it. Near the end, the documentary maker is interviewing Harlan Ellison and laments that not enough people read Clark Ashton Smith. Ellison tells him that it doesn’t matter how many people read CAS, the number is what it is, but he is important to the readers who have found him. Our retirement project is important to us and the people who actually like using it, no matter what that number turns out to be.

JWH

Marie Kondoizing My Groundhog Day Loop

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 10, 2019

Do we ever change? Can we ever stop rolling Sisyphean dreams up a hill? Can we ever escape the hardwiring of our genes? Can we overcome the destiny of our unconscious impulses? My regular readers know I end up whining about the same exact fate over and over again. I feel like Bill Murray stuck in a Groundhog Day loop. It works something like this. I’ll write this essay to find a revelation of how to escape this loop. I’ll then try very hard to follow that insight. Over the next few weeks, I’ll get distracted by a growing number of other ambitions. I’ll get happily lost in frittering away my time in endless pursuits. Eventually, I’ll get exhausted chasing seventeen cats leoparding in twenty-seven directions. My real and virtual desks will overflow with aborted projects. Then the day will come, like today, when I decide I absolutely must Marie Kondo everything in my life. And finally, I’ll write this version of the essay. It will be much like the essays I’ve written before.

The last version I wrote back in June even has a nice mind map of all my diversions. My absolute, positively-no-matter-what conclusion was to always write fiction in the mornings. I diligently tried writing fiction for a while, but eventually, switched back to writing blogs. I told myself, “all you can ever be is a blog writer,” at which point I start working on more ambitious blogging projects that pile up in my drafts folder. Then the realization comes I can never juggle more than 1,500 words before an essay falls apart. I deeply realize the limits of my ability to focus. Then I start blaming all the physical clutter around me for not being able to concentrate.

Of course, in every iteration of the loop, I firmly feel I’ve discovered a new way out. Yet, is that illusory because I can’t remember all the other loops? This time the revelation is: the problem is not the clutter in my house, but the clutter in my mind that keeps me from focusing on my creative ambitions. The old belief was physical clutter caused mental clutter. The new idea is to Marie Kondo the mental clutter and I’ll naturally just start giving away the physical clutter.

When I’m in this phase of the loop I ache for simplicity. That’s why I crave Marie Kondoizing my possessions. I feel owning less will free my mind. I have fantasies of dwelling in one bare white room with no windows, a recliner, a few shelves of books, one desk, and one computer. I picture myself working on one writing project. When I’m tired, I sleep in the recliner. (In this fantasy, I somehow magically don’t need to eat or go to the bathroom.)

This time I feel different. I might have felt that before because my emotions loop too. However, I’ve been intermittent fasting for 100 days, and that has given me a new sense of discipline. Since New Year’s Day, I’ve stopped eating junk food. Giving up junk food was far easier this time. Is it due to the discipline gained from intermittent fasting? It’s even affected my writing. This time I’m going to try to break the loop not by getting rid my junk, but my Marie Kondoizing my thoughts.

If I write this essay again in six months you’ll know this hypothesis was wrong.

The reason why I never break out of my Groundhog Day creative loop is that I can’t stick to my chosen single project. I’ve known for countless loops the solution is to focus on one project. However, for the last many iterations of the loop that I can remember, I pick the same science fiction short story to finish. I’ll commit to that goal, but after several days, I slowly get distracted by a bunch of other desires.

That happens because I begin believing I can chase more than one goal. I’ll slowly rediscover all those hobbies I’ve pursued in the past and start ordering crap from Amazon again (even though I’ve given all that crap away many times before in other loops). For example, I just bought a microscope because I wanted to study biology. I pricked my finger using a gadget for testing blood sugar levels, looked at my blood under the microscope, planned to go get some pond scum next, but got distracted by going bird watching with my wife instead, piddled with about a dozen other projects, and forgot all about the microscope, and my story.

I envy people who can relentlessly stick to doing one thing, even if it’s just watching TV all day. I wake up in the morning with the urge to accomplish a specific goal. This morning I woke up wanting to build a MySQL database to collect and organize all the themes of science fiction. This particular project could take weeks. Instead of writing on my story, I got sidetracked into databases. And before I could finish that project, I started two more.

Usually, while showering, I’ll come up with 2-4 ideas of things I want to do that day. So far today I’ve wanted to listen to “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury and write an essay about it. I also decided to read all I can about bodyweight exercises and develop a set of routines so I can get rid of my Bowflex machine and stationary bicycle. And I wanted to read the four issues of BBC Music I already own to see if I want to subscribe and dedicate myself to learning about classical music.

Getting old is increasing my desire to accomplish something substantial. I guess it’s the fear of not completing the only goal on my bucket list. I might live another 10-20 years if I’m lucky, but if I’m ever going to get any fiction published it better be soon. The odds are already against me now. My guestimate is only one in a million would-be writers sell their first story after 60, and and that goes down to one in a billion by 70. I’m 67. (By the way, if you’re young and reading this, start now!) I began writing classes in my fifties, and I’ve wondered why creative success is usually found only by the young. In my fifties, I didn’t feel that mentally different from my thirties, but all through my sixties, I’ve felt my mental and physical abilities dwindling. I’m beginning to understand how and why aging reduces our chances to succeed with new creative endeavors.

We lose impulse control as we age. It just becomes easier to follow the urge of the moment. The older I get the more I don’t give a damn about how I dress or what the house looks like to friends. And it’s so much easier to give into Ben & Jerry’s than to make a salad. And boy is it getting easier to believe dying fat is better than dieting.

But, the siren call of less is more philosophers keeps enchanting me, and I think I can escape the loop by giving away all my junk.

When it comes down to it, escaping this loop requires discipline. And discipline is hard to come by at age 67. I’ve always known I could break out of the loop by giving up. But I always come to the same conclusion: the only item on my bucket list is to sell a science fiction story. I wrote dozens of them in my fifties and failed to sell any. Should that failure tell me to stop trying or try harder? I keep thinking I should keep trying, but poor impulse control tells me that pursuing little pleasures is far nicer than embracing the delayed gratification for having one extra-large pleasure.

Up until now, the hope of breaking out of the loop was to make myself keep writing science fiction stories. Maybe the real exit strategy is to give up that goal.

Not yet.

JWH

 

Guest Star – Susan Oliver

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 7, 2018

Life is indeed full of little pleasures. Nowadays, I love watching old television shows, and it’s another small delight I can add to my daily total when I can recognize a character actor from the past. The other night I watched an episode of Route 66 with Susan Oliver guest starring. (“Welcome to Amity“- 1961:s1:e29). I had seen her a number of times lately on other old shows, including a two-parter on The Fugitive. (“Never Wave Goodbye” –  1963:s1:e4-5).

Susan Oliver made a career out of guest starring. Back in the early days of television audiences had no problem with guest actors appearing as different characters, and were usually allowed to appear in the same series once a year. Oliver was so well-liked by audiences that she appeared annually in many popular television shows, each time as a different character. Yes, Susan Oliver was strikingly attractive but more important, she always struck me as a tortured soul which uniquely revealed itself in every character she played. I never knew why until an odd incidence of serendipity.

I can’t tell you the first time I saw Susan Oliver, but I can tell you the last time. It was Wednesday night, December 5, 2018 when I saw her in that episode of Route 66. I remembered her name and face but I didn’t know anything about her history. Normally, I would have gone on to watch another show and forgot all about her for the moment. If by accident in the future I again caught one of her guest appearances I would have had another little spark of pleasure if I recognized her and remembered the Route 66 episode.

But something weird happened. It almost felt like The Twilight Zone music played. I clicked the Home button on my Amazon Fire and went to my watchlist. I don’t know why, but my eye immediately caught The Green Girl, a documentary I thought was about Star Trek. That appealed to me. I hit play. Then I discovered the documentary was really about Susan Oliver. That was spooky and fun.

I had completely forgotten that Susan Oliver had played Vina in the first Star Trek pilot that Gene Roddenberry had made in 1964. The film from that pilot was reused in 1966 to make a two-part episode called “The Menagerie” (s1:e11-12). I had seen “The Menagerie” when it first premiered on November 17, 1966. Vina might be Susan Oliver’s most famous role, and thus the title of the documentary. At one point, Vina appeared as a fantasy to Capt. Pike (this was before Capt. Kirk) as a dancing green alien woman. Susan Oliver’s green woman was also shown in the closing credits of the first season of Star Trek, making her famous to Star Trek fandom. I had completely forgotten that until seeing the documentary.

I was eight days from being sixteen when I first saw that episode of Star Trek with Susan Oliver. I thought she was beautiful then, but I didn’t memorize her name at that time. By then I had probably seen her in several television shows. Oliver was never famous, never had her own TV series, or became a movie star, but she appeared in almost countless television shows starting in the 1950s. She’s now haunting me because I’m watching all those old TV shows again.

The Green Girl is a wonderful 2014 tribute to Susan Oliver that tells her life story, interviews her friends and fellow actors, and shows clips from dozens of her performances. The documentary also chronicled her exploits as a competitive pilot. Oliver flew across the Atlantic solo and came in second in a cross-country race. As she aged she tried writing and directing but was thwarted because she was a woman. The Green Girl provides both a moving story about an ambitious young woman breaking into movies and television back when I was growing up and also reminds those of us who grew up back then of all the television shows we loved so much.

The Green Girl

When I was young I used to be frustrated with older folks when they didn’t know my favorite pop culture icons. I couldn’t understand how they could be so clueless to current famous people. Now that I’m old, I’m clueless about the identities of current pop culture favorites, and I realize I should have been more forgiving of my elders. I also wish now that I had memorized far more people back then. I feel bad in 2018 that I hadn’t become a dedicated fan of Susan Oliver in the 1950s, memorizing her name and following her career until she died.

This is kind of weird, maybe even spooky too, but for some unfathomable reason, I’m drawn to my pop culture past. I do love modern TV. For example, I’m crazy about The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel. But I can’t tell you who plays Mrs. Meisel. I’m not even going to make the effort to look it up – I’d only forget it. Why aren’t I memorizing all the details of current pop culture? I don’t even try. I don’t even feel guilty for not knowing. But it is important to me to keep up with the trivia of the 1950s and 1960s. Why?

When Susan Oliver shows up in an old TV show it brings me a little pleasure. Recalling the character actors names in shows I haven’t seen for decades gives me a twinge of happiness. And it’s not like the present doesn’t also bring pleasure. I really, really love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It gives me great happiness. Much more than watching old favorite TV shows. Yet, I feel no need to memorize the names of its actors. Why?

It feels like I’m giving up on the present because I enjoy the past more. I’m not sure if that’s healthy, but then I don’t care either. I used to wonder why old guys wore orange plaid slacks with red paisley shirts. Now I know it’s because they are old and have an “I don’t give a shit” attitude about everything. (Although I’m quite thankful I don’t have the urge to wear plaid and paisley together. If I did, I would.) For some reason, it’s more important to remember trivia from the old days than it is to remember facts about the present.

If you feel that way, then I bet you’ll love watching The Green Girl.

JWH

 

What To Do When Your Favorite Writer Goes Bad?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 3, 2018

This month, I’m forcing myself to read a book I hate for a book club I moderate. The book is Friday by Robert A. Heinlein. I first discovered Robert A. Heinlein in 1964 when I was still twelve and in the 8th grade. By 1966, I believe I had read all his then published novels and most of his published short stories. He was my favorite writer by far, and I was a voracious bookworm. By the end of the 1960s, I was regularly rereading his books.

Then in 1970, Heinlein came out with I Will Fear No Evil. It was the first hardback I bought as a new release. I remembered how excited I was to delve into that book and just how disappointed I was when I read it. I was surprised and disturbed that I could dislike a Heinlein book. Heinlein never wrote another book I liked. His last seven novels, published from 1970-1987 were horrible reading experiences for me. My reactions ranged from bored to being revolted. I’ve never been able to even finish Friday or The Number of the Beast, and never even tried To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

What is strange, is I often encounter Heinlein fans who prefer his later books. When I was younger I assumed the Heinlein I hated was bad Heinlein, but can that be possible when there are plenty of readers who love the works I consider bad? When I was younger I also assumed Heinlein changed. In more recent years I wondered if I had changed. I pretty much loved Heinlein in the 1960s when I was a teenager. Heinlein was a substitute father figure for me because my own father wasn’t around much. Ultimately, in the late 1960s when the generation gap was at its widest, I think I rejected both of my fathers because of political differences. Heinlein and my dad both supported the Vietnam War, and I didn’t.

In the last few years, I’ve thought about giving Heinlein a second chance. Maybe there are good qualities to his “bad” books that I missed. Maybe I am wrong in thinking books can be judged good or bad. Maybe I should also reread the “good” books to see if what I disliked about Heinlein was there all along and I just skimmed over those aspects.

I’ve also thought that Heinlein devolved as a writer as he aged. He did have medical problems that affected his thinking in later years, but supposedly surgery fixed that. Heinlein claimed until to the end of his life that Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) were his best books, the ones that defined his personal philosophy, and the ones he wanted to be remembered and judged by. As I’ve aged, I’ve turned against all his 1960s novels. I now consider his novels published from 1952-1959 as his best, from The Rolling Stones to Starship Troopers. I tend to like many, but not all, of his shorter work published from 1939-1959.

I’m not alone. Many science fiction fans my age prefer the earlier Heinlein. Heinlein was proud of the young-adult novels he wrote in the 1950s, but I don’t think he felt they represented his insight and art. When he went to G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1959, Heinlein felt he had been freed to write what he wanted. I think that’s when he saw himself as a mature artist and wanted to be respected as a philosophical novelist. I believe he wanted to be another Ayn Rand. I’ve only read The Fountainhead, and I’m not an admirer of Rand, so I can’t really compare them. But I know they both wanted to be influential. From Alec Nevala-Lee new book, Astounding, it seems obvious Heinlein was anxious to make an impact and disappointed that his success didn’t go beyond writing science fiction.

This month I’m making a concerted effort to understand Heinlein from one of his later works, Friday. It was first published in 1982, just six years before Heinlein died. Friday was nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and Locus award, but did not win any of them. Jo Walton at Tor.com calls FridayThe Worst Book I Love.” She fell in love with the story at 17, but always knew it lacked a plot. Walton says in the end, “Even as it is, I love it for its moments of clarity and beauty. I wouldn’t be without it. I taught myself almost all I know about how to plot by lying awake trying to fix the end of Friday in my head.” That’s far more generous than I could ever be, but then she’s much younger than I am.

I can’t forgive Heinlein for creating a woman character who could rationalize being gang-raped as part of her secret agent job but wanted to slowly kill one of her rapists because he didn’t brush his teeth and use mouthwash first. The story itself is high-minded about accepting different people but spends an inordinate amount of time on when to kill folks for their bad manners. Friday Jones is an artificial person (clone) and rejected because of it, so you’d think she’d be a little more forgiving about all the capital killing snubs she feels.

The conflict in the novel is as contrived as religion. The good guys feel like bad guys to me, willing to kill people for what I think are trivial reasons, but ones they judge as highly offensive. Heinlein never defines his bad guys. They don’t have a philosophy. They don’t have an agenda. They are just a supposedly evil existential threat, ruthlessly killing and committing bad manners. But I wonder if Heinlein’s nebulous bad guys are really us, good guys from a rational world.

The “Boss” character who seems reprocessed from Heinlein’s 1949 story “Gulf” and a secret agent version of Jubal Harshaw from Stranger in a Strange Land is one self-righteous sanctimonious know-it-all. I worry that Heinlein’s great philosophical message is this character’s beliefs? If that is true, then Heinlein’s art is only the conceited gospel of his opinions.

But I have my own faults as a reader to confess. I should have set higher standards for my favorite author long ago. I can’t separate my boyish love of science fiction from any discernment of great writing. It’s taken too long to realize that great writing should be those stories that enlighten me about reality and not the fiction I most want to escape into.

The reason I loved Heinlein in adolescence is that Heinlein shared my fantasy for colonizing the solar system. That was my psychological substitute for religion when I became an atheist at age 13. Heinlein after 1959 gave up on space exploration. His fiction became all about rationalizing his personal philosophies. He gave up his ability to tell a story and create characters. Tragically, he took many of his old characters I cherished and turned them into puppet mouthpieces for this Heinlein philosophy. I never could forgive what he did with the Stone family from The Rolling Stones when turned them into sleazy swingers in The Cat Who Walk Through Walls. Even worse, they all lost their unique voice and became zombies speaking in Jubal-tongue.

But am I being too harsh on my literary hero? That’s why I’m rereading his later books. Maybe I just don’t get it. I’m giving Heinlein one last try. One of my other favorite genres is literary biographies. Most writers are tragic figures. Maybe I need to be more forgiving of Heinlein the man, and not judge him by his bad books. The literary heroes I replaced Heinlein with in the 1970s were Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Philip K. Dick, none were angels, and certainly wrote their share of sinkers. Maybe I need to approach Robert A. Heinlein like I do Jack Kerouac, as a deeply flawed human who tried to justify his existence with his writing. In some ways, Heinlein is my Bronson Alcott father figure, and if Louisa May could come to terms with her crazy father, maybe I should with mine.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Counting the Components of My Consciousness

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 20, 2018

When the scientific discipline of artificial intelligence emerged in the 1950’s academics began to seriously believe that someday a computer will become sentient like us, and have consciousness and self-awareness. Science has no idea how humans are conscious of reality, but scientists assume if nature can accidentally give us self-awareness then science should be able to intentionally build it into machines. In the over sixty years since scientists have given computers more and more awareness and abilities. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: What are the components of consciousness needed for sentience? I’ve been trying to answer that by studying my own mind.

Thinking Machine illustration

Of course, science still doesn’t know why we humans are self-aware, but I believe if we meditate on the problem we can visualize the components of awareness. Most people think of themselves as a whole mind, often feeling they are a little person inside their heads driving their body around. If you spend time observing yourself you’ll see you are actually many subcomponents.

Twice in my life, I’ve experienced what it’s like to not have language. It’s a very revealing sensation. The first time was back in the 1960s when I took too large a dose of LSD. The second time was years ago when I experienced a mini-stroke. If you practice meditation you can learn to observe the moments when you’re observing reality without language. It’s then you realize that your thoughts are not you. Thoughts are language and memories, including memories from sensory experiences. If you watch yourself closely, you’ll sense you are an observer separate from your thoughts. A single point that experiences reality. That observer only goes away when you sleep or are knocked by drugs or trauma. Sometimes the observer is aware to a tiny degree during sleep. And if you pay close enough attention, your observer can experience all kinds of states of awareness – each I consider a component of consciousness.

The important thing to learn is the observer is not your thoughts. My two experiences of losing my language component were truly enlightening. Back in the 1960’s gurus of LSD claimed it brought about a state of higher consciousness. I think it does just the opposite, it lets us become more animal-like. I believe in both my acid and mini-stroke experiences I got to see the world more like a dog. Have you ever wondered how an animal sees the reality without language and thoughts?

When I had my mini-stroke it was in the middle of the night. I woke up feeling like lightning had gone off in my dream. I looked at my wife but didn’t know how to talk to her or even knew her name. I wasn’t afraid. I got up and went into the bathroom. I had no trouble walking. I automatically switched on the light. So conditioned reflexes were working. I sat on the commode and just stared around at things. I “knew” something was missing, but I didn’t have words for it, or how to explain it, even mentally to myself. I just saw what my eyes looked at. I felt things without giving them labels. I just existed. I have no idea how long the experience lasted. Finally, the alphabet started coming back to me and I mentally began to recite A, B, C, D, E, F … in my head. Then words started floating into my mind: tile, towel, door, mirror, and so on. I remembered my wife’s name, Susan. I got up and went back to bed.

Lately, as my ability to instantly recall words has begun to fail, and I worry about a possible future with Alzheimer’s, I’ve been thinking about that state of consciousness without language. People with dementia react in all kinds of ways. From various kinds of serenity, calmness to agitation, anger, and violence. I hope I can remain calm like I did in the bathroom at that time. Having Alzheimer’s is like regressing backward towards babyhood. We lose our ability for language, memories, skills, and even conditioned behaviors. But the observer remains.

The interesting question is: How much does the observer know? If you’ve ever been very sick, delirious, or drunk to incapacity, you might remember how the observer hangs in there. The observer can be diminished or damaged. I remember being very drunk, having tunnel vision, and seeing everything in black and white. My cognitive and language abilities were almost nil. But the observer was the last thing to go. I imagine it’s the same with dementia and death.

Creating the observer will be the first stage of true artificial intelligence. Science is already well along on developing an artificial vision, hearing, language recognition, and other components of higher awareness. It’s never discovered how to add the observer. It’s funny how I love to contemplate artificial intelligence while worrying about losing my mental abilities.

I just finished a book, American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee about wolves being reintroduced into Yellowstone. Wolves are highly intelligent and social, and very much like humans. Blakeslee chronicles wolves doing things that amazed me. At one point a hunter shoots a wolf and hikes through the snow to collect his trophy. But as he approaches the body, the dead wolf’s mate shows up. The mate doesn’t threaten the hunter, but just sits next to the body and begins to howl. Then the pack shows up and takes seats around the body, and they howl too. The wolves just ignore the hunter who stands a stone’s throw away and mourns for their leader. Eventually, the hunter backs away to leave them at their vigil. He decides to collect his trophy later, which he does.

I’ve been trying to imagine the mind of the wolf who saw its mate killed by a human. It has an observing mind too, but without language. However, it had vast levels of conditioning living in nature, socializing with other wolves, and experiences with other animals, including humans. Wolves rarely kill humans. Wolves kill all kinds of other animals. They routinely kill each other. Blakeslee’s book shows that wolves love, feel compassion, and even empathy. But other than their own animalistic language they don’t have our levels of language to abstractly explain reality. That wolf saw it’s mate dead in the snow. For some reason, wolves ignore people, even ones with guns. Wolves in Yellowstone are used to being watched by humans. The pack that showed up to mourn their leader were doing what they do from instinct. It’s revealing to try and imagine what their individual observers experienced.

If you meditate, you’ll learn to distinguish all the components of your consciousness. There are many. We are taught we have five senses. Observing them shows how each plays a role in our conscious awareness. However, if you keep observing carefully, you’ll eventually notice we have more than five senses. Which sense organ feels hunger, thirst, lust, pain, and so on. And some senses are really multiple senses, like our ability to taste. Aren’t awareness of sweet and sour two different senses?

Yet, it always comes back to the observer. We can suffer disease or trauma and the observer remains with the last shred of consciousness. We can lose body parts and senses and the observer remains. We can lose words and memories and the observer remains.

This knowledge leaves me contemplating two things. One is how to build an artificial observer. And two, how to prepare my observer for the dissolution of my own mind and body.

JWH