Which Came First – the Emotion or the Hormone?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/26/21

This essay began when I asked myself: Do emotional states stimulate hormone production or do hormones flowing first cause us to experience an emotional state? Does happiness increase energy, or does energy increase happiness? Our mental, emotional, and physical states are all interconnected. As I get older I’m trying to figure out how to increase all three even though aging seems to be reducing them equally. I’m wondering if working on any of the three will cause a corresponding increase in the others.

Eventually, we all go looking for the Fountain of Youth. Some want to look younger, others like myself, want to feel younger. I quit believing in magic when I was a kid, so whatever is the source of vitality it should be discoverable by scientific observation. My current amateur theory is youth and vitality come from chemistry, but I also assume aging affects the efficiency of the chemical processes in our bodies.

Most people want to believe in mind over matter, but is there any evidence to support that belief? Can positive thinking overcome entropy? Or do positive thoughts come from robust chemistry? We all know hyperactive oldsters, but does their energy come from force of will or thriving endocrinology? If we’re low energy beings because of our wimpy hormonal system, can we fertilize them with right thinking, positive emotions, or good eating?

I’m pushing myself to write this essay. The whole time while I’m writing part me is begging to be allowed to go eat and watch television. But I’m still writing. Is that because willpower has empowered by want, or is it because I stoked my chemical furnace with good food and a nap this afternoon?

Does our state of mind set hormones in action that create our feelings, or do hormones generate our feelings which dictate our state of minds? Lately, I’ve been trying to observe my feelings and mental states. I’ve even wondered if changes in my brain chemistry in the past year is making me more aware of my feelings and thoughts. Other reasons for increased contemplation is I’m feeling old, tired, and worn out, so I’m spending more time just relaxing, and that’s leading to increase cogitation and self awareness, but not productivity.

What I want is to be more active. I can’t tell if that’s wishful thinking since I’m turning seventy this year and decrease activity is natural with aging, or if I could be more active if I thought the right thoughts, or felt the right emotions.

Has the stress of living a year in pandemic isolation drained my vitality or is my diminished energy just coinciding with normal aging? Life is complicated. There are no quick and easy answers. However, I’m not ready to give up. I’ve been retired from work since 2013 and easy living might also be a factor in my decline. Of course, we do have to be logical. How many aging people gain youthful vitality as they progress in years? How many retired people start doing more?

I’ve never thought of myself as an emotional person. Whenever I’ve seen people getting wildly excited at parties, sporting events, and rock concerts I wondered why I wasn’t jumping up and down and yelling too. I’ve always considered myself a happy person because I don’t get depressed. But then I don’t get exuberant either. If I was more emotional would that give me more energy?

I can energize myself somewhat by artificial means. I gave up drugs a half century ago. I’m slightly tempted again because old age seems like the perfect time for uppers and cocaine, but I know that would only accelerate my decline. I also gave up caffeine decades ago for mental clarity. And in recent months I’ve given up refined sugar, which might explain my current low mental states. But I’m also feeling better physically since I gave up sugar, and I’m losing weight, so I hope in the long run eating healthier will translate into more mental energy.

When I said I could energize myself artificially, I meant with music, books, movies, and television shows. Sometimes a nap and some good music leads to gung-ho thinking that inspires actual activity. Or has my lunch digested while I slept stimulating hormone flow leading to roused thoughts and finally feeling inspired to get up and do something? It’s a subtle distinction.

Whatever refuels my tank doesn’t do it for long.

For example, when I play “Here Comes the Dawn Again” by Billy Vera and the Beaters real loud, I feel physically stimulated. That also turns up the flow of emotions.Then my thinking speeds up. After that I feel like getting up and doing something. Has music increased hormone activity? Or did music increase my thinking which increased hormone activity? Is this a bit of evidence for the power of positive thinking?

Writing this essay is energizing me – to a degree. I can’t quite call it a jolt of youthfulness. I also feel myself draining my battery as I write. I wish drugs weren’t so self-destructive because I feel like doing a Kerouac and chewing benzedrine cotton from a broken inhaler to write more.

Now that I’m older I feel more emotional, but still not highly exaggerated emotions like I see in other people. We all have different levels of energy and emotions. Are highly emotional people more active people? I have observed that some of the most emotional people I know are also the most active.

Instead of mind over matter, could it be emotions over matter? Or is there a direct relationship, more emotions means more mental activity? If that’s so I’ll have to find a way to increase both. However, I’m still trying to decide if more mental activity increases emotions, or if more emotions increase mental activity.

JWH

31 Lessons to Save the World

James Wallace Harris, 3/4/21

Reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) by Yuval Noah Harari and Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World (2020) by Fareed Zakaria made it all too obvious that everyone needs to get to work together to save the world. But will we? Harari and Zakaria are two tiptop brains who have been thinking mighty hard on what needs to be done and have come up with a total of 31 useful insights. However, while reading these books I kept wondering if humanity will do what it takes to save itself.

Of course, both books carefully assess the major governments around the world and generalize on the psychological abilities of their citizens. Harari focuses more on people, while Zakaria deals more with governments. Harari is an international philosopher from Israel, while Zakaria is a savvy political commentator on CNN. Harari’s lessons focus on how people think and his main advice advocates freeing oneself from all the bullshit that confuse our thinking. Because our modern world lays a lot of crap on us, Harari offers a great number of lessons to free ourselves. Zakaria asks us to focus on what is good government and how can we build them. Since the United States has been sinking deeper and deeper into bad governmental practices for decades Zakaria suggests a lot of changes too.

Can individuals and humanity as a whole make all the needed transformations before our problems reach a perfect storm of self-destruction? One of the lessons Harari covers is how people live by the stories they tell themselves. He makes a case that people generally don’t think for themselves, but buy into group thinking. Psychologically, it’s beneficial and easier to accept a story from a group than invent your own. That’s why people embrace religion, nationalism, and political parties – they give meaning to their lives, a satisfying sense of purpose and understanding, and a story to embrace and share.

At first, you’d think Yuval Noah Harari is a liberal, but as he recounts the history of various philosophies, dismissing each, he comes to liberalism and says its dead too, and keeps on going. That made me question my own stories I got from hanging with the liberals. It made me ask: What story do I live by? Well, here’s my story abbreviated as much as possible:

I don't use the word universe to mean everything anymore after science started speculating about multiverses. I use the word reality. From all my studying of science there appears to be no limits to be discovered from exploring larger and larger realms, or by delving into smaller and smaller pieces. Evidently reality is infinite in all directions in both time, space, and any other possible dimension or existence. Earth is an insignificant portion of reality. But in the domain of human life, this planet is all that matters because it sustains our existence. I am an accidental byproduct of reality churning through all the infinities of infinite possibilities. I am a bubble of consciousness that has a beginning and end. I coexist on a planet with other similar consciousnesses, as well as a spectrum of other living beings with their own versions consciousness. Life on planet Earth has the potential to exist here for billions of years, but it appears our species is about to destroy its current level of civilization, if not commit species suicide, or even wipe out all life. We can all continue to live pursuing our own stories ignoring their cumulative effect on the planet, or we can collectively decide to protect the planet.

You can see why these books appeal to me.

To cooperate means everyone working from the same pages. I’m not sure that’s possible, but these two books describe what some of those pages should look like. As long as we selfishly pursue the individual stories we currently live by, cooperation can not happen.

I cannot bet we’ll cooperate because the odds are so impossible. But I am quite confident that we’re quickly approaching an endpoint to our current civilization. All the odds are just too high for that. If you haven’t read Collapsed by Jared Diamond, you might consider doing so. It’s about all the civilizations before our current ones, they all failed. But just pay attention to all the trends you encounter. They all seem to be aiming at a near future omega endpoint bullseye.

To solve our problems requires everyone becoming a global citizen. We must all put the security of the Earth before our own goals. That involves learning a new story. But as Harari points out, most people don’t switch stories once they’ve found one that gives their life meaning, even if it has no connection to reality whatsoever.

We live in a era where people are embracing nationalism over globalism. This is Zakaria’s territory. Not only must individuals must change, but nations need to change too. Zakaria covers how some nations are succeeding and others are not.

In the story I live by as described above, I know my place and limitations. I’m a single consciousness that will endure for a few more years. Basically, I putter about in my tiny portion of this planet, pursuing things that interest me. I enjoy what I can, and try to limit my suffering as much as possible. I am quite thankful for having this experience of existing in reality. Maybe it is too much to hope that we could collectively control our environment and the fate of our species. Reality is all about creation and destruction, roiling through all the Yin-Yang possibilities. Maybe in some locations in reality the inhabitants do work together to shape their existence, and theoretically this could be such a location, but I doubt it.

I told my friend Linda the other day, to save the world will require everyone reading a certain number of books to understand what needs to be done. I’m not sure how many books would be required, but I’m pretty sure they won’t get the readers needed. That’s why my most popular essay is “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive,” getting tens of thousands of hits. And most of the people who leave comments are quite cynical about our odds too. I really need to update that essay with current examples, but I could call this essay reason #51.

JWH

Book vs. Movie

Horseman, Pass By, a beautiful coming-of-age first novel by Larry McMurtry was immediately made into a big Hollywood film starring Paul Newman and renamed Hud. The film was huge validation for a freshman novelist, and got Larry McMurtry’s writing career going with a bang, but I wondered how McMurtry felt having his sensitive literary hero pushed aside to focus on the novel’s most insensitive, and rather minor character. Horseman, Pass By made me think of a rural version of The Catcher in the Rye. Hud feels more akin to Midnight Cowboy. Don’t get me wrong, Hud is a good movie, it’s just not Horseman, Pass By even though they keep much of the basic plot.

The novel is about 17-year-old Lonnie Bannon’s emotional life in the summer of 1954 where he lives on his grandfather’s east Texas ranch with several other significant people. One of those people is Scott “Hud” Bannon, his uncle. In the book we seldom see Hud, and usually only when he’s at his nastiest. For the movie, Hud is elevated to the main character, and Lonnie’s story becomes secondary to Hud’s. Instead of being an empathetic story about a boy learning about life through relationships, the movie gives us sympathetic story about the nastiness of an asshole. Unfortunately, that asshole is so well played by charming Paul Newman, that he becomes an anti-hero, and upstages all the other characters. In the book, Hud deserved to put down with a 30-30 like one of the hoof and mouth infected heffers, in the film he’s not quite as bad, but still deserves some jail time. In both stories he gets off scott free.

Actually, we know what McMurtry thought about Hud since he wrote Hollywood: A Third Memoir about his books being turned into film. He was overjoyed to get the money because it freed him from a life in academia. His only disappoints were he didn’t get to meet Patricia Neal on the set and the screenwriters didn’t fix the ending, the scene with Homer Bannon dying. McMurtry thought it was weak, and one forced on him by his publishers. McMurtry’s general attitude toward Hollywood was take the money. Oddly, though, the pictured Hollywood made from his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, retitled Lovin’ Molly so outraged him that he wrote a protest article for New York magazine. So, I guess he really didn’t care about the changes made to his first novel with Hud.

But I did. I cared a lot. Horseman, Pass By is a great novel. It deserves more attention, and it deserves not to be remembered as Hud. Besides not focusing on Lonnie, the movie leaves out one great character, and chickenshitly changes another.

The Halmea character played by white Patricia Neal in the film was an African-American woman in the novel. She is a sympathetic and fully realized black character in a 1961 southern novel, making her very important indeed. Hollywood just couldn’t handle that. If 1961 Horseman, Pass By had been filmed as it was, it would have been very close to 1960’s To Kill a Mockingbird in sentiment. And to say a sensitive inner-voice novel can’t be put on screen is to ignore the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Horton Foote did the screenplay for that book, so I wonder what he could have done for Horseman, Pass By.

Hud also leaves out Jesse, an aging cowboy who Lonnie admires. Jesse is a far more important character than Hud. The real story is Lonnie’s relationships with Homer, his grandfather, Halmea who mothers him, but who Lonnie is sexual attracted, and Jesse, who is a kind of cowboy Socrates to the boy. In the novel, Lonnie is trying to figure out how to live through the people he admires. Hud is not one of them.

Hud is an excellent film if you ignore the book it’s based on. I’ve watched it three times over my lifetime. I just wished they had filmed Horseman, Pass By as it was written. This is my second reading of Horseman, Pass By, and that’s what I want to stick with me.

JWH

Do You Read Just One Book at a Time?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, 1/1/21

For some reason I can’t read just one book at a time. Well, I actually do read just one book at a time if we’re talking about the singular now. But if we stretch the definition of time to mean a more generous sense of the now, then I’m always reading several books at once.

The eight books pictured above are the main ones I’m concurrently reading in that bigger definition of now.

I switched between reading and listening to Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America by Kurt Andersen, and discussing it with my friend Linda who is also reading it. I call this my two-person book club. Andersen chronicles how conservatives began manipulating law schools and the judicial system back in the 1970s to reduce personal and corporate taxes and fight regulation. This essentially covers the rise of the libertarian movement. Evil Geniuses plows similar ground to Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer which Linda and I read years ago. I also bought Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman and 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang to supplement our reading of Evil Geniuses. In this one case, you can see how one book pushes me to read multiple volumes. Kurt Andersen is a great synthesizer.

I’m also listening to The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson because it’s probably the most important science fiction novel since Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Like Zanzibar, it’s told in a nontraditional narrative style, which will probably annoy some readers, but then so did Zanzibar. The story narrative is frequently interrupted by monologues and dialogues that lecture the reader. However, I don’t mind. The opening chapter was one of the most dramatic and scary visions of a climate change future that I’ve ever read. I highly recommend following the link to read it. Science fiction is seldom this serious.

And I’m listening to Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy because I was reorganizing my bookcases and it caught my eye. It was originally published in 1984, and I believe I read it back then. I’m listening because when I found the old paperback I checked to see if there was an Audible edition and discovered I already owned 25th anniversary edition on Audible. My two favorite subcultures grew out of science fiction and computers, and I’ve always loved reading history books about their early pioneers. For years I’ve been wanting to do a blog post that covered all my favorite computer history books in a useful timeline.

I’m reading The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction Third Series edited by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas because I’ve been collecting old copies of F&SF and have been feeling very nostalgic about them. My online friend George Kelley plans to read and review the entire F&SF annual anthology series this year starting this month. Unfortunately I don’t have the first and second series. They are very rare and when they do come up for sale very expensive. However, I do have all the original issues from the early years those first two anthologies cover.

I’m reading Year’s Best SF edited by David G. Hartwell because I’m leading an online discussion of it on Facebook. That group keeps me busy because we keep two anthologies under concurrent discussion. We just finished 50 Short Science Fiction Tales edited by Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin, and are about to start Orbit 1 edited by Damon Knight. I’m having big reading fun gorging on old science fiction short stories, but it takes up a lot of reading time.

I need to get back to my Best American Short Stories 2020 project (BASS 2020). I’m on story #9 of 20. This reading is taking me out of my science fiction obsession and reminding me what the literary world is writing.

A couple weeks ago I was at the used bookstore and spoted Is That All There Is: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin. I’ve been listening to Peggy Lee and other female vocalists from the 1950s so I grabbed it up. I was reading on it hot and heavy when I decided I need to finish War and Peace before 2020 ended. Now I’m anxious to get back to it.

Finally, a guilty pleasure, The Deviates by Raymond F. Jones. I started reading it because of the lurid cover. I read two of Jones’ Winston Science Fiction juveniles last year. He also wrote This Island Earth which was made into a fabulous 1950s Sci-Fi flick. Jones is not a well-remembered science fiction writer, but his books dwells in that territory that sets off my 1950s science fiction nostalgia.

As you can see, my mind is not focused. I actually have a few more books lying around with bookmarks in them, and my iPhone has some more titles loaded that I’ve started but not finished, and my Kindle has several books that when you click on them take you to the middle of things. And my Scribd has some audiobooks and ebooks I haven’t finished yet either. But I didn’t want to list all of those books I’m trying to read because I don’t want to come across as completely scatterbrained.

I’m just wondering how many bookworms are like me, and how many of you are more focused?

JWH

2020 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 31, 2020

Since 2008 on December 31st I blog about my year in reading. I used to list all the books I read during the year, but since last year I’ve been using Goodreads to track my reading. If anyone is interested go see the 2020 titles there. I only finished 45 books, down from 48 in 2019. My goal was 52. However, I did read over 400 short stories in 2020. That’s kind of impressive, but wait until you read why.

The books I recommend most this year are (links to my reviews):

I’ve got to admit I read damn few novels while making another orbit of the Sun. Instead, I was gorging on classic Sci-Fi short stories. I’ve become obsessed with old science fiction. This is partly due to belonging to the Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction where we group read old SF anthologies. It’s a lot of nostalgic fun. Membership is currently at 322, and most of the members are old guys like myself who grew up reading short fiction the science fiction magazines.

However, switching to reading short stories is also due to a change in my reading habits. I just hate committing to a long book, even one that’s only a couple hundred pages. It’s amazing I finished War and Peace this year because my mind now craves short fiction. And it’s not because of the pandemic. I started this shift in 2018. Maybe it’s age related and I’m just losing my patience with fiction. That’s also true with movies and television shows. I now prefer spending my TV time on YouTube videos or documentaries.

I’m not sure how to explain this mental shift away from the longer fiction of novels, movies, and TV series. Only a few years ago I was binge watching TV shows and mass consuming novels and movies. I can’t decide if I’m just tired of fiction, or just tired of padded stories. Or maybe I’m just jaded with certain kinds of plots. Even my new passion for old science fiction short stories is wearing out. Of course, after sixty years, it might just be I’m having trouble finding something new and novel to entertain my old mind.

For example, I’ve been trying to get into Bridgerton, the new Netflix series. I love Jane Austen, I love historical stories from the 19th century, and I love movies and TV shows with beautiful period costumes and sets. However, a tale about young Regency ladies hunting rich aristocratic husbands has grown stale, even with the added bonus of graphic sex. Bridgerton is no Belgravia, and a far cry from War and Peace. At best, it’s Jane Austen let’s pretend. And let’s face it, without their costumes, those naked bodies seem way too 21st century.

I’m even starting to get testy with the old science fiction short stories too. That worries me. I’m scared I’m developing a tolerance to my last favorite kind of fiction. Oddly, enough, it was my first type of favorite fiction. Is that a sign of regression?

I worry because I’m constantly searching for more potent SF stories to read. I crave great stories, but I mostly find lame tales that were crude and silly even back when they were first published. The more I read, the fewer jewels I discover. And for some reason, the more stories I read the more I feel the total number of jewels I thought I discovered dwindles. It’s become a process of reading distillation. I used to think there were hundreds of great SF short stories, now I wonder if I can find 100. As I get closer to the end of my life, will it be just 50, or 25? Or will the wonder of them finally disappear?

I wish I had kept a reading diary of the short stories I read this year to chronicle their highs and lows. I started one for The Best American Short Stories 2020 but I didn’t finish it. The reviews I did write go a long way to explaining my changing reading interests and abilities. I only read and reviewed 8 of the 20 stories, but I still hope to finish all of them before the 2021 edition comes out next October.

I also wrote “I’m Having a Problem With Science Fiction – And It’s Due to Getting Older” for my Classics of Science Fiction blog that explains some of my reading problems with science fiction. That site is where I review the science fiction I read. I’ve morphed into reviewing individual short stories there instead of novels and whole anthologies. And I wrote “What I Love Best About SF Short Stories” that explains my current infatuation with SF short stories if anyone is interested.

I actually getting more excited about the nonfiction I’m reading or watching. For example I read Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner about startups in Silicon Valley in the 2010s. That bit of reality was actually more thrilling than most old fantasies about space travel. I also read Bart D. Ehrman older book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Again, that history trumped most of the science fiction in far out ideas. I’m currently reading Evil Geniuses by Kurt Anderson and it’s inspiring me to do tons of research. However, I mostly fall back to reading old science fiction short stories.

I hate to say this, but I think aging is playing a role. It takes a lot of mental effort to read a big novel or nonfiction book. It takes even more effort to read the supplemental material to research those books and write about them. So, I’ve fallen into the trap of seeking the path of least resistance. I just grab another SF short story or watch a YouTube video.

That’s starting to bother me. I wonder where my reading in 2021 will take me. I’m going to stop making predictions and plans because they never come true or get accomplished.

JWH