Escaping into Artificial Realities

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 3, 2020

Is it possible to escape reality? We talk of escapist books, movies, and television shows, but aren’t they part of reality too? I’ve been a lifelong science fiction fan, and isn’t that another kind of escapism? Or is my reality one of music, books, movies, and television? Maybe art is artificial reality. Maybe we create art to fashion the reality we prefer over the reality we have? Or maybe we create art because we don’t want to face real reality?

Since I’ve retired I’ve retreated more and more into artificial realities inside my house rather than dealing with the reality outside my house. That’s even accelerated with the pandemic. Yesterday I started reading The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols for a nonfiction book club. Nichols reports on how the Dunning-Kruger effect has taken over society, and everyone wants to achieve political equality for their dumbass POV, no matter how uneducated and stupid that point of view turns out.

Evidently, not only do we seek to escape reality, but reject it too. I found Nichol’s introduction compelling and frightening. I think he’s right that everyone wants to reject experts, to reject science, and assume a view of reality based on their on their own personal narrative fallacy. I don’t know if I’ll find any hope by finishing this book, but it so depressed me that I retreated into The Wham of Sam a 1961 LP from Sammy Davis Jr. — leaping into a reality of an thrilling big orchestra, hip lyrics, and jazzy singing. Then I jumped further back into time, to 1957 to listen to Dream Street by Peggy Lee.

Her band was smaller, the music more relaxed, the mood more dreamy, and I found this reality an alluring call of Sirens. I spent most of the day researching stereo equipment to perfectly recreate that old sound. I want to arrange a room that’s perfect for music but I don’t want to mess with a lot of gear. In other words I want to escape the reality of wires, complicated equipment, or collecting LPs or CDs. I just want to stream high-definition music to great speakers. Right now I’m looking at a Bluesound Powernode 2i with some Kiptsph RP-5000F speakers.

The problem is I don’t have the perfect room for my new escape pod. My wife has the living room and I have the den (we each have our own favorite forms of escapism). The living room is better shaped for music, and I tried to get Susan to trade with me but she wouldn’t. The den is full of windows on three walls, so reality is glaringly obvious. She also didn’t like what I wanted to do to the living room, by covering the windows with soundproofing. Basically, I wanted my TV and stereo at one end, my bookcases on the side walls, and my La-Z-Boy in the middle of the room. It would be my spaceship for exploring artificial realities. But Susan nixed that idea. I thought about buying an extra house, but that would involve too much hassle with the real reality. I could rearrange my current man cave (library/office/extra room) but that would involve getting rid too much of my cherish crap.

I’ve also started noticing some correlations between my chosen escapist worlds. See if you recognize them.

There’s a clue if you compare these photos with the album covers. I have Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, but I spend nearly all my TV viewing watching DVDs of old TV shows. My favorite TV network would be MeTV if it wasn’t for all the damn commercials.

Yes, I’m stuck in the past. Currently, I’ve zeroed in on 1955-1975 for finding my escapist artificial realities. Most of the television shows, movies, music, and reading I like fit in that time span. The obvious thing to think is I’m being nostalgic, but I really didn’t watch those shows or listen to that music growing up. In fact, I hated Frank Sinatra type music, and shows like Perry Mason — those were escapes my parents preferred.

It’s not nostalgia but pleasantness I’m seeking. Modern shows are full of unpleasant aspects of reality. Modern shows have too many guns and killing. Hell, I’m even getting sick of Matt Dillon shooting so many people.

I haven’t completely rejected current reality. I watch the news, and read several articles a day about current events. I’m also reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson because I’m very worried about inequality. Black lives do matter. If we don’t solve injustice, corruption, inequality, and institutional racism, we won’t solve any of our other problems. We all need to work together. United we survive, divided we won’t.

Donald Trump is trying to make the 2020 election a referendum on law and order. He claims he’ll be the law and order president if elected. But why believe that, he’s been the break the laws and create disorder president since 2016. I believe 2020 will be a referendum on consensus. Do we want to work together as a united people and collectively solve our problems or not?

And that brings us back to the Tom Nichols book. If we can’t agree on the facts, if we can’t achieve a consensus view on objective reality, we’re all doomed to retreating into our subjective realities. I’m getting old, and I don’t think society will crumble before I die. It’s practical for me to hide out in the past listening to old music, watching old TV shows, and reading science fiction about futures that will never happen. I’m safe if I don’t live too long.

But if you’re younger than me, or have children, escaping reality is not an option. You better elect a president that has some experience. You better vote for people who will use experts. Vote for people who will work to solve problems for everyone and not pander to crazy folks Dunning-Kruger fantasies.

I’m all for equality, for equality of rights, of equality of economics, of equality of justice, but Nichols is right, we are not equal in knowledge. You wouldn’t want Joe Blow doing your brain surgery. So why elect politicians that know nothing about politics?

Nichols says Americans have rejected experts, and I think that’s true. We all want to think for ourselves, and that’s admirable, but unfortunately, we don’t all have the education and experience to make the right decisions. If Nichols is right about the trends he sees, my guess is there’s no hope for the future. But then I’m not an expert.

Science fiction is about speculating on extrapolations. Unless there’s a paradigm shift, unless there’s a big fucking positive Black Swan just around the corner, all my speculation sees is apocalyptic collapses in the future. Admiring Mary Tyler Moore in old TV shows and listening to Peggy Lee sing is merely enjoying myself on the Titanic while waiting for the iceberg.

We all know we’re heading toward an iceberg. We all know we could even do something. We all know there are people who know what to do. We just don’t want to listen to them.

JWH

The Best American Short Stories 2019

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, February 23, 2019

I’ve been buying The Best American Short Stories for decades but I have never finished reading one from cover-to-cover. I’d always jump around reading whichever story grabbed my attention with its opening lines. For 2019 they finally produced an audiobook edition, and I listened to the whole book. I’m very glad I did because I was introduced to a much more diverse selection of great writing. Going by initial impressions isn’t always wise.

Here’s a listing of the stories with a short comment by me, and a link to either the story itself (rare) or to an analysis by blogger Karen Carlson. She writes the kind of essays about the short stories she reads that I wish I took the time to do. It’s a shame that all of these stories aren’t available online because they all deserve more readers. Some of the sites have limits to free reads. You might try loading the link in a different browser if you’ve reached your limit. Or better yet, just buy The Best American Short Stories 2019. Who knows, maybe you might even be inspired to subscribe to some of these magazines.

  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. “The Era” from Guernica  – In the future, they teach kids to be completely honest about their feelings. Fun literary science fiction.
  • Kathleen Alcott. “Natural Light” from Zoetrope: All-Story – Learning about a parent from a photograph. I often speculate about old photographs.
  • Wendell Berry. “The Great Interruption” from Threepenny Review – A story within a story set in the 1930s. Berry’s entry is a stark contrast to most of the other stories because it feels old. Like it was written long ago.
  • Jamel Brinkley. “No More Than a Bubble” from LitMag – Two guys hook up with two mysterious women for one strange night. Very vivid.
  • Deborah Eisenberg. “The Third Tower” from Ploughshares – Another literary story that could have been published in a science fiction magazine. About a Kafkaesque form of therapy.
  • Julia Elliott. “Hellion” from The Georgia Review – My absolute favorite story of the collection, and luckily available to read online. A young southern Tomboy teaches her visiting cousin how not to get to beat up by her rowdy crowd of friends. Imagine Scout in the 21st century.
  • Jeffrey Eugenides. “Bronze” from The New Yorker – Set in the 1970s, a teen who’s trying to find himself by dressing glam gets picked up by an older man. Nice historical contrast to the more modern stories in the collection.
  • Ella Martinsen Gorham. “Protozoa” from New England Review – Another top favorite from this collection that’s also available to read online. Eighth-grade girl wants to appear more sophisticated but gets in over her head. The stories I liked most in this collection were those set nearest to the present by young writers. It’s not that I didn’t admire what the older writers (Berry, Le Guin, Eugenides) were giving us, but their stories often seemed like history, while the younger writers were reporting the news from various sub-cultures.
  • Nicole Krauss. “Seeing Ershadi” from The New Yorker – A dancer pushes her body to the limits to stay in a touring company while becoming more and more philosophical.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin. “Pity and Shame” from Tin House – I’m totally used to Le Guin’s science fiction and fantasy, so it was disconcerting to read what essentially feels like a western. An abandoned woman takes in a mine inspector crushed by a tunnel collapse and nurses him back to health.
  • Manuel Munõz. “Anyone Can Do It” from ZYZZYVA – A compelling tale of migrant workers, where a woman must try something new to survive. Another vivid story.
  • Sigrid Nunez. “The Plan” from Lit Mag – A disturbing story about a man driven to commit murder because it’s on his bucket list.
  • Maria Reva. “Letter of Apology” from Granta – One of the strangest stories in the collection about a communist party official who must get a letter of apology from a poet who made a politically incorrect joke. You end up feeling sorry for the oppressor.
  • Karen Russell. “Black Corfu” from Zoetrope: All-Story – Now this is the strangest story of the collection – a horror story no less – about a doctor to the dead. Russell must be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and George Romero.
  • Saïd Sayrafiezadeh “Audition” from The New Yorker – Son of the boss secretly works construction and practices his acting skills by pretending to be one of the regular dead-end guys.
  • Alexis Schaitkin “Natural Disasters” from Ecotone – Another top favorite about a young wife from New York getting a part-time job Oklahoma when her husband had to relocate. The job she finds is writing home descriptions for a real estate agent, requiring her to visit all kinds of people and their houses.
  • Jim Shepard. “Our Day of Grace” from Zoetrope: All-Story – An epistolary tale about the civil war. Good story but felt out of place in this collection. Of course, that’s not fair to writers who like to write historical fiction. See the comment below.
  • Mona Simpson. “Wrong Object” from Harper’s – A psychiatrist has a pedophile for a patient.
  • Jenn Alandy Trahan. “They Told Us Not to Say This” from Harper’s – Another favorite story because it’s about young Filipino girls who admire a white basketball player. Even though the story is set in the 1990s, it still feels contemporary to an old reader like me.
  • Weike Wang. “Omakase” from The New Yorker – Another vivid story of cross-culture dating. Read the interview with the author about this story.

I enjoy The Best American Short Stories anthologies most for those stories feel contemporary. I want literary fiction to be realistic portraits of what the authors have experienced. That’s very old-fashion of me and unrealistic. Roman à clef writing is not very fashionable anymore. To me, genre writing is all about creatively making things up, while literary writing is about reporting on thoughts and emotions of real people. Writers can’t always write what they have actually experienced, but they can infuse their stories with observations of themselves and others.

The stories by Berry, Shepard, and Le Guin felt totally made up. They were very creative, but still, they lacked what I’m talking about. What these writers are good at is faking what I’m talking about. The Eugenides story felt in between like he might have remembered something from the 1970s, but he’s such a good writer he could have made it up entirely.

Obviously, the stories with fantastic elements have to be made up. These stories, even though extremely well-written feel like genre stories to me. In recent years we’ve been seeing more genre included in the annual BASS collection. That’s not bad, but just not what I enjoy most in a BASS volume. Even my favorite story “Hellion” by Julia Elliott is probably all made up, but it rings true as if she lived it or saw it. It has such a wonderful collection of colorful details that I want them to have existed. Elliot knows the caliber of a BB gun – what a wonderful realistic detail.

I hope the 2020 edition of BASS is produced on audio again. Another reason I read literary fiction is to get insight into people and cultures that aren’t like me and mine. Hearing the stories read by professional readers makes those stories feel like I’m actually hearing the person talk to me in person. And that makes their stories feel even more authentic.

JWH

The Stories I Want To Remember

by James Wallace Harris, February 20, 2020

I have no idea how many stories I’ve consumed in my lifetime. I’m sure the ones I encountered watching television runs into the tens of thousands. Movies, books, and short stories add unknown thousands more. Then there are the countless stories people have told me — some made up and others reported accurately as best they could. And finally, the combined number of all those sources is dwarfed by my own ability to make shit up inside my head.

We all build a model of reality by matching the data we gather with our senses to fictionalized versions of reality. I don’t know why fiction is so important in our lives, but most of us process hours of make-believe every day. However, like the meals we eat, the craps we take, we forget those stories. Evidently, we need a healthy amount of storytelling in our psychic diet every day to remain sane. Like the atoms our body extracts from food for its nourishment are invisible to our conscious minds, so are the essential elements of fiction that our brain craves for its RDA.

Some people are very good at remembering stories. They can regale others by repeating tales at parties or to spice up their political speeches or sales talks. Some people are good at understanding stories, able to interpret a story for all its intended and hidden meanings. I’m bad at both. When I was young I could see a movie and then bore family and friends with long monologues describing all the details of the show. I haven’t been able to do that for decades. Maybe my hard drive became filled and I lost my ability to transfer my mental notes into my working memory.

For some reason in my late sixties, I’ve been craving the ability to remember stories again. The year before last I started a project to read all the annual anthologies that collected the best science fiction short stories of the year. I started with 1939 and I’m currently reading through three anthologies of stories from 1952.  I’m getting a big-bang kick out of this — but it depresses me that I forget the stories I read so quickly. And it really irks my existentialism that I forget the best stories.

Up to now, I’ve been very faithful to read every story in every volume, even if I didn’t like them. But I’m now having doubts about that dedication. I wonder if wading through two or three so-so stories after experiencing a wonderful story isn’t just erasing the memory of that great story.

What is my real goal for this project? Is it just a mega-marathon of reading? I sat out to study the evolution of the science fiction short story. I wanted to see how concepts emerged and were spread and reused. I wanted to see how certain ideas were repeated in each new generation. However, along the way, I started noticing more and more about how infrequent great stories are produced every year.

Stories worth remembering are rare. But I have this trouble remembering them, and that’s starting to bug my sense of being an old man who is running out of time. I know at my age I’m fighting an uphill battle to remember anything and I wonder if I need to pick the ground to make my last stand.

Some of the stories I’ve read I want to remember in detail. And that urge is getting stronger. I’m even at the point where I’m willing to consume less fiction just to hang onto a tiny amount of it in my mind. I need to binge-watch less, and binge-read less.

I’ve been thinking about changing my reading strategy. Instead of racing through all the annual best-of-the-year volumes to have the satisfaction of completing another year, I think I need to focus on finding the stories I love best and then reread them. Instead of finishing every story, quit any story that doesn’t resonate after giving it a fair try. Then go back and reread all the stories I did finish. And finally, decide which stories are worth remembering before going on to the next year.

However, I’m going to have to go well beyond that effort if I’m really going to put those stories into my long-term memory. I need to start a list of stories I want to work at keeping at my mind’s fingertips. I’m not sure how long that list can be, but I need to start tracking the best stories and periodically reread them. I’m sure I’ll thin out that list too as competition to get on the list grows. I won’t know the manageable size of the list until I’ve worked at the project for a while. And like a tontine, I expect the list to shrink at I close in on dying. Who knows, as I pass from this world into nonexistence I’ll be thinking about that last story. (That’s an odd thing to say, isn’t it. Why wouldn’t my last thoughts be of a real experience? I need to psychoanalyze that.)

When I started this project, my goal was to identify the stories that were most important to the genre of science fiction. Now I realize I need to identify the stories that are most important to me. And I need to branch out beyond science fiction.

In the long run, I want to create an anthology of stories that I want to remember, but also the ones that best explain my view of reality.

JWH

 

 

 

Should I Forget Dorothy?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 17, 2020

Being part of history is the gold standard for being long remembered. Pop culture fame can also get you remembered, but not as long. Geneology is probably the common way we ordinary folks will be remembered, especially if we’re neither historical or famous. Writers and artists often like to believe they will achieve immortality through their works, and that was certainly true for Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens. Sadly, being published today usually proves a poor bet at avoiding literary obscurity.

Through some weird accident of circumstances, I have become the repository for the memory for Dorothy Rachel Melissa Walpole who wrote under the name Lady Dorothy Mills. I maintain the website ladydorothymills.com. Last year it got a total of 175 visitors, but most of them leave almost immediately. It’s a very static site because I seldom find new information about her. I used to get a query about her every year or two, but it’s been years now since I’ve heard from anyone asking about Lady Mills.

Lady Dorothy Mills wrote fifteen books from 1916-1931, nine novels, and six nonfiction books, all long out of print. I own all of them except her first novel Card Houses and the last Jungle!. She is most famous for writing five travel books capitalizing on the idea of an aristocratic European woman traveling alone in Africa, South America, and the Middle East in the 1920s. She achieved a minor amount of fame. As far as I can tell only 26 used copies of her books are for sale right now, and most of those are the nonfiction titles. Of the 5 copies of her novels, two are the German versions of The Dark Gods. Most of these volumes have been on the market for years. There is little interest in her work.

I’m trying to decide if it’s worth my effort to convert her books into digital texts so I can submit them to Project Gutenberg. It would be a terrific amount of work and its doubtful anyone would read them. But I’d hate to see Lady Mills become completely forgotten. I’ve been trying to come up with reasons to convince people to try her books. Right now it’s almost impossible to get ahold of any kind of edition to read. I’ve wondered if there were free ebook editions available would a few readers give her a chance?

I’m currently reading The Laughter of Fools from 1920. It’s about a young woman living with her aunt and uncle after her father dies. I’m not sure of the time period yet, but you have to imagine a Downton Abbey type of setting. Lady Mills was the daughter of an Earl and grew up in a manor house on a country estate. I assume her life was somewhat like Crawley girls, as Lady Mills was about their age. She would have been 23 in 1912, the year the story began. Lady Mills’ mother was also a rich American woman. However, Lady Mills married a poor American man, and from what I can infer, her father wasn’t as forgiving as Lord Grantham. Lady Mills went out into the world to make it own her own.

The girl in The Laughter of Fools is named Louise, and Lady Mills’ mother was named Louise. I have to wonder how much of herself she put in this character. Louise finds life with her aunt and uncle boring and eventually gets permission to go on a vacation for her health. Her guardians believe she is being supervised by a proper English lady, but Louise gets to run around with an arty bohemian crowd. This opens up a whole new world for her. I imagine the same thing happened to Lady Mills.

I wish I had a copy of Lady Mills’ first novel, Card Houses published in 1916. That was the year she married Capt. Arthur Mills. It might reveal more about her early life and personality. I get the feeling her first few novels were about the life she knew and that social set, and her later novels were fantasy or science fiction. Her travel books were about becoming an independent woman.

I can’t say that The Laughter of Fools is good literature. I only find it interesting for four reasons. First and primary, I’m looking for clues about Lady Mills. Second, I enjoy the Downton Abbey resonating vibes. Third, it tells about life in England during a very literary period — the book adds a few details that I don’t find in Woolf, Huxley, Forster, and others of that era. Finally, it’s about a woman breaking free in a time when few did. But mostly the novel’s appeal is trying to figure out what Lady Dorothy Mills was like and why she became a writer.

I still don’t know what kind of person she was. Would I have liked her? Or was she a weirdo, or even a Lady Asshole? Does she deserve to be remembered or is there a reason why everyone is forgetting her? I feel like I’ve fed a stray cat and now I’m responsible for its care.

Small items about her come up for sale every once in a while but they can be expensive. And if I really wanted to pursue this project properly I’d need to travel to England and do some real research. That is almost not going to happen. Still, I might try converting one book, The Laughter of Fools and see if anyone reads it. It would be nice to see if anyone else gets anything out of her. Sooner or later, I’d like to find a younger person to inherit the caretaking of this strange cat.

JWH

 

 

What Do the TV Shows I’m Addicted to Say About Me?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Have you ever wondered what our lives would be like without television? Television is like the proverbial sixth that lets us see and hear across space and time. We could have used television technology to extend the reach of our eyes and ears to real-time events in reality. My wife spends endless hours watching an eagle’s nest in Florida, but few people watch live cams. Most of us watch recorded shows. Either fiction or nonfiction. And as much as I love documentaries and news programs, my real TV addiction has been to fictional shows.

When you think about it, isn’t it rather odd that we have this technology to spy on reality across the globe but we prefer inputting make-believe into our eyes and ears instead? I can only assume watching our favorite television shows is a rejection of reality.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not about to tell you to stop watching television. I’ve had a lifelong addiction to television and there’s little chance I’m going to give it up now. I do feel I’ve gotten my TV habit under control though. I only watch 2-3 hours a day, and one of those hours is my routine of watching the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy with my wife Susan. For the first ten years of our marriage, we spent primetime together every night, but we’ve slowly drifted apart preferring other shows.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I remember watching television every evening with my family. I had my favorite shows I looked forward to each week, but I wasn’t obsessed with watching every episode. Beginning this century with complete seasons on DVD or streaming an entire series from the first episode to last, I’ve developed the habit of binge-watching completed series from the past. Now that feels like an addiction. Looking back I realize my TV viewing habits have changed many times since 1955. That’s when I remember watching my first TV show.

I’m realizing what I’ve been doing recently is going back over a lifetime of television watching and picking out certain shows to watch every episode in order. Here’s are the shows I’m currently working my way through:

Now, this does not cover any of the dozens of TV shows from the 21st-century that I’ve watched every episode as they came out.

I keep asking myself why I’m drawn to those old TV programs when we have the latest shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, CBS All-Access, The Great Courses, Curiosity Stream, and Acorn TV to watch.

I keep thinking I need to psychoanalyze myself. I accept TV watching as my addiction, but I keep wondering why I pick the stories that I do. Most nights I flip through all the new offerings and end up watching either Perry Mason or Route 66. These shows give me the most pleasure at the moment. And it’s not necessarily nostalgia because I didn’t watch them when they first ran. Oh, I saw a couple episodes back then, but I was too young to appreciate them. My ten-year-old head was into Dobie Gillis and The Flintstones back then.

While Susan is in the living watching her shows late at night, I’m watching old black and white TV shows from the late 1950s. There’s a certain surreal quality to that. I feel like I’m channeling my parents who would have been in their forties at the time. These were their favorite shows. Or maybe I’m channeling the whole era from when I was growing up.

If watching TV is rejecting reality, then watching old TV is rejecting modern reality and the alternate reality of modern TV shows. There’s a weirdness to that. Think about it, TV is how we turn off our senses to the present and provide an alternative input. Why am I feeding my brain 60-year-old TV shows? What does that say about myself? And if I also admit to focusing on reading science fiction short stories from the 1940s and 1950s, I’ve got to wonder about my connection to the present.

It’s telling we prefer fiction to reality, but isn’t it also revealing what kinds of fiction we prefer for our substitute of reality?

Last night Susan and I made a Spotify playlist to share where we only added songs we both loved. Most of them were from the 1960s and 1970s. Tomorrow night we’re going out on the coldest night of the year and pay for high-priced movie tickets to watch The Wizard of Oz from 1939 on the big screen, a movie I got addicted to as a kid from its yearly showing on TV.

(By the way, I’m not completely out of touch with modern pop culture. I’ve already seen 6 of the 8 Best Picture Oscar nominations for this year, and will probably see the other two before the Oscars are revealed. I’ve lost touch with modern music, but I’m going to be really worried about myself when I no longer keep up with movies too.)

JWH