Reconstructing 1973

by James Wallace Harris, 1/5/22

[The photo above was probably taken in 1972-1973. It should do to show what I looked like in 1973. Jim Connell is on the left. I’m on the right. Connell was 6’4″ so I look tall and skinny. I’m much lower to the ground and wider today.]

How many memories can our brains hold? Is there a limit, like a hard drive? I know from experience there are limitations on accessing memories, so I assume there are storage limits. However, countless random forgotten experiences burble to the surface of my mind daily. And at night I have an apparently limitless supply of visual settings and characters to film my dreams.

I’ve always been obsessed with wanting perfect recall. Aren’t the things we obsessed over what we want and can’t have? 2023 is the 50th anniversary of 1973. I shall use that year for testing my memory in this essay.

This is not another nostalgic look back in time. In fact, I feel the golden glow of nostalgia is finally starting to wear off. 1973 is one of the least remembered years in my mind. At this moment I can’t recall anything specific I did in 1973. I know I was doing stuff, and some of my vaguer memories might have taken place that year, but for now, I just don’t remember what I was doing. I’m not even sure where I was living at the time.

Think of this essay as a cold case. I’m going to go through old drawers and paperwork looking for clues and use the internet to find out what was happening in the world at large to see if that triggers any memories of 1973.

Unfortunately, around 1975-77 I went into a Buddhist phase and gave away or threw away a lot of my possessions. I intentionally tossed most of my personal mementos because I didn’t want to be attached to them or be hung up on the past. I regret that now because I destroyed all my letters, photos, slides, 8mm films, and copies of my APAzines. When my mother died in 2007 I inherited all her photos and mementos. She kept a lot of my report cards. And over the years people have given me photos and old letters. Plus I have my college transcripts — if I can find them. Physical clues are theoretically slim, but I shall look for them.

I shall use full names in case some of my lost friends are Googling their own names. Who knows, maybe it might cause a reconnection.

Sadly, many of my close friends from the 1970s have died. My old roommate Greg Bridges has moved away and I’ve lost contact with him. 1973 was well before I met my wife in 1977. I’m still in contact with my old high school buddy Connell, and my sister Becky is still alive. Becky married in 1971 and moved to Dallas, so she won’t remember much of my 1973. Most of my relatives have also died, at least the ones I saw the most in 1973.

I did not remember a visit to Dallas in 1973 with Carol Suter and Jim Connell until after writing the first draft of this essay. The act of writing has caused memories to float to the surface. Sometimes it took hours, sometimes days to recall. I shall note these delayed experiences in italics.

I’ve written an essay like this before, in 2019, for the 50th anniversary of when I graduated high school. This time I want to go deeper into reconstructing the past. One of the best books I’ve read about being a historian is Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman.

Ehrman covers all the sources of evidence a historian uses to reconstruct the past and discusses the effectiveness of each. Ehrman shows how memory is unreliable. He also shows how unreliable eyewitnesses are too. Even if I had lots of memories of 1973 I couldn’t trust them. Not everything I write here will be truly reliable. One of the most damning pieces of evidence Ehrman reviewed in his book was about a professor who had his students write down where they were and what they saw and felt the day after 9/11. Then a decade later he tracked down many of those students and asked them to write down what they remembered about 9/11. Several wrote something entirely different. But here’s the kicker. Some of those students who were shown their original essay written the day afterward claimed they didn’t believe what they had written. They believed their memory!

The first piece of evidence I found is a transcript from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis).

I was a terrible college student. I dropped out many times. I hardly ever did homework, and it’s amazing I got grades as good as these. During 1971-1972 I attended State Technical Institute Memphis. There I majored in a two-year computer science degree. I loved computers, but the focus was on COBOL and getting a job in a bank. I decided I didn’t want that and transferred to Memphis State in 1973. This only came back to me as I studied the transcript.

Many of these courses are general requirements but the ones that weren’t, remind me of when I was searching for a major. I remember now I was considering history, sociology, English, and anthropology. Although, at some point, maybe even when I quit State Tech, I was considering getting a library degree. I needed a B.S. degree before moving to Knoxville to get an M.L.S. degree (Master of Library Science). I just can’t remember.

I remember liking Byzantine history but not the course. It required too much real work. I don’t know why I made an F in “U.S. Southern History Since 1865” since I made an A in “U. S. History Since 1865.” I have absolutely no memory of taking that course. I took “Southern Literature” in the Spring of 1974 and got an A. I also took two Library Science courses that spring, which backs up my memory theory that I was thinking about becoming a librarian.

One course I distinctly remember is “ENGL 3501 English Grammar” because it was about grammar theory and was really hard. And I have trouble with ordinary grammar. What improved my grade was writing a paper on computer translation of languages. I was really into that subject and I impressed the professor.

I lived at 140 Eastview Drive in Memphis during that year because that’s where I remember writing the paper on computer translation. I was sharing a duplex apartment with Greg Bridges who was my science fiction buddy. We went to conventions and produced a fanzine on Gestetner mimeograph which the two of us co-owned with Dennis McHaney. Another buddy John Williamson lived next door in the duplex across the driveway. We got our friend Claude Saxon to move onto this street too, just a couple doors down. We pictured ourselves creating a hippie-like commune by getting all our friends to move to Eastview. It was a rundown neighborhood in 1973, and it’s worse now in 2022. Here’s what it looks like today from Google Maps.

One of the reasons why my grades were falling off was having so much fun at the time. I was into fandom and a member of two APAs – Spectator Amateur Press (SAPS) and Southern Fandom Press Alliance (SFPA). I was also going to lots of rock concerts and smoking a lot of weed with many friends. Two that I remembered a day later were Tom and Sara. I ended up dating Sara’s sister Alice in 1975.

It was while Greg and I lived in this Eastview duplex that he worked on the Programs committee at Memphis State and he got Fred Pohl, John Brunner, and James Gunn to come and do a two-day seminar. The three writers took Greg and me to lunch and we got to listen to them talk about the old days for a couple hours before Pohl and Gunn had to go to the airport. Then we spent the afternoon taking John Brunner around Memphis. He wanted to see the Lorraine Hotel because he was the president of the Martin Luther King society in London. This was before it was renovated. Then Brunner took Greg and me out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant on Union Avenue before we took him to the airport.

I was able to document this from a fanzine article Greg Bridges wrote for Memphen 279 in 2002. The internet has become my real auxiliary memory. Pohl, Brunner, and Gunn were in Memphis on November 22 and 23 1972. That’s before 1973, and earlier than I thought. I assumed 1973 or 1974. But, can I trust Greg’s memory. I hope he had some kind of physical evidence.

I’ve always told people I never lived anyplace longer than 18 months during the 1970s. His date puts me in Eastview in 1972 and I’m pretty sure I moved out in the summer of 1975. I remember 1975 because that’s the year Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen came out. If Greg’s dates are correct I lived on Eastview for almost three years, maybe longer. That completely contradicts what I believed for years.

To me, the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades seemed like the longest years in my memory. I went to three different high schools in two states while living in four different houses. There’s got to be more to 1973. I was twenty-one for eleven months of 1973, that should have been a special time. I suppose going to college filled up the time in a way that made it seem quick and not memorable.

I found a timeline I made years ago. It gives me a few clues. Jim Connell came to visit me and he, Carol Suter, and I drove in Carol’s yellow Gremlin to Dallis to see my sister Becky and her husband Skip Suter, Carol’s brother. That was when I first met Becky’s future second husband Larry Gamer. I was very impressed with him since he was a computer programmer.

Another thing I remember is making a trip to Cape Kennedy with Carol. Her mother asked Carol and me to drive her nephew and niece back home to Titusville. They had been staying with Carol’s mother. Their father, Carol’s uncle, worked at NASA and he took Carol and me to his job site at a communication facility on base. While we were there they taped conversations with Skylab 3, which operated from July 7, 1973, to September 25, 1973. This was when we were out of school and could have made the trip. After we dropped off the kids, Carol and I drove to Gainesville to see my old friend Jim Connell. I remember sleeping on the floor in a communal house. But I’m not sure of this memory. It might have been another trip with Carol. But Gainesville would have been close to Titusville. I do remember we went by Six Flaggs in Atlanta. That’s when I saw Helen Reddy in concert.

I made that timeline decades ago to help me remember all the places I lived. It confirmed the trip to Gainesville. It said the Helen Reddy concert was on 8/31/73. It also said Carol and I went to see Edgar Winter and Dr. John the next day, 9/1/73.

So far I’ve been able to prove I took 12 college courses and visited Dallas, Atlanta, Gainesville, and Cape Kennedy in 1973. That’s something but not much.

I have found one letter from 7/29/73 that I wrote Connell which he returned in 1980. I wrote Connell hundreds of pages of letters, which he kept in a box, but his mother threw out sometime in the 1970s. I’d give anything to have that box now. Here’s the letter:

There’s something woo-woo in that letter. In the third-to-the-last paragraph on page one, I asked Connell to imagine a future where he has a daughter born deaf. Connell’s stepdaughter went deaf several years ago after having to take some major antibiotics.

This letter is also weird because it sounds like me now. But then I was trying to imagine the future and now I’m trying to reconstruct the past.

I had Connell read the letter to see what he remembered. He didn’t remember the letter but he thought we thought many more thoughts per second back then than we do now because the letter impressed him with my stream of ideas.

I don’t remember taking any photographs from 1973. I don’t think I owned a camera. That really limits my recall.

A day later I remembered that not only did I own a camera, but so did Greg Bridges and John Williamson. That we had built a darkroom, in the living-room closet at the house on Eastview and considered ourselves amateur photographers. I still don’t think we took pictures of ourselves. We were all into nature photography and macro photography. I did take several rolls of film using Carol as my model. Plus we made super8mm movies. Williamson was into various creative hobbies and even made silkscreen images. He made a silkscreen cover for my SAPS apazine After the Goldrush. I through all that out in my later Buddhist phase.

I’m now out of physical evidence to prove my existence in 1973. Wikipedia’s timeline of major events of 1973 triggers little for me. Neither the 1972-73 nor 1973-74 TV schedule triggers any memories. I’m not sure we watched TV at the Eastview house or even owned a TV.

In my letter above I review a movie. I can’t remember where I watched it. I sometimes rode my bike over to my mother’s house to watch TV there. Today I had a vague memory of a black and white TV in an old wooden cabinet sitting in a tiny living room that had one ugly couch. This memory was in black and white. All my memories of that Eastview living room are in black and white. I think it must have been dark and dingy.

In this post about 50 albums from 1973, I remember many of them, but most of them I bought later. The only ones I think I bought in 1973 were Brothers and Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band, ‘Pronounced ‘Leh-‘nerd ‘Skin-‘nerd’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Over-Nite Sensation by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John, and Piano Man by Billy Joel.

I was able to verify going to a few concerts by recalling them and verifying the dates on the internet. Carol Suter and I went to see Elton John on October 11, 1973, at the Mid-South Coliseum for the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tour. We also saw him one other time, but I can’t remember if it was in 1972 or 1974. Carol hurt my feelings because she said she would go with me to see Billy Joel during the Piano Man when he was at Lafeyette’s for several days but then went with someone else. I now wished I had seen Billy Joel before he was famous.

I also saw Frank Zappa twice during the 1970s. He was in Memphis in March of 1973, but I can’t verify I was at that concert, but I think it was around the time of Over-Night Sensation. I and my friends went to a lot of concerts during these years. It seemed like every week some big act would perform, often two or three at a time. And the tickets were less than ten dollars back then.

If I would go to the library and look at the microfilm of the Commerical Appeal for 1973 I could verify all those concerts probably. I might even dredge up some other 1973 events I remembered or attended.

Here are the most remembered science fiction books from 1973. I don’t remember reading any of them during that year. Greg and I were both science fiction collectors. I’m pretty sure I subscribed to F&SF that year because I had collected over 200 back issues. But I probably also subscribed to Galaxy, Analog, Amazing, and Fantastic. I also remember building several large bookcases for my collection. They were the same size as a sheet of 1/4″ plywood. I used 1 x 8-inch planks for the shelves and plywood for the backing. They were huge. Greg used giant metal shelves in his room. We even had bookcases in the hall and living room.

Greg and I also published fanzines, traded fanzines, and subscribed to fanzines. Our favorite was Richard Geis’s Science Fiction Review. A few years ago I bought most of them again on eBay and scanned them for the Internet Archive. Probably if I reread the 1973 issues it would trigger many memories.

A memory that came to me on the second day of writing this essay was about my Raleigh 3-speed bicycle. I didn’t have a car that year. When I needed a car I’d ride my bike over to my mom’s house and borrow her car. I rode that bike all over Memphis. Once, and I don’t remember when I visited Connell in Miami and he told me to bring my bike on the airline. I did. And we rode it all over Coconut Grove, where I used to live. I loved that bike. I have no idea what happened to it. That saddens me.

Well, this research is running too long for a blog post, but I think you get the idea. We can remember a lot. Especially if we have triggers. I often have vivid memories of the past pop into my head unbidden. It makes me wonder if everything is recorded and if the bottleneck is the mechanism of recall.

I’m sure if I kept at this experiment I could write a whole book about memory and what I could eventually remember from 1973. I doubt many would want to read it. I’m not even sure anyone will want to read all that I’ve written here. Most people don’t seem very interested in remembering the past. I even know people who say they intentionally try to forget the past and throw away anything that makes them recall it. That horrifies me. I hate that I went through that Buddhist phase.

How much can you remember from 1973?

JWH

Historical Bible Study Counteracts Irrational Faith Better Than Books by Atheists

by James Wallace Harris, 12/22/22

Most Christians acquire their faith in childhood. A growing proportion of Christians drop most of their early beliefs as they get older and better educated. But a significant proportion of Christians cling to childhood beliefs their entire life. Faith in the irrational can be extremely strong, no matter what evidence to the contrary is given.

Why do some people hold onto their cherished childhood beliefs with such tenacity? We know that a baby taken from a Christian culture and raised in a Muslim culture will become Islamic rather than Christian. Beliefs children are exposed to in their early years, imprint on them stronger than beliefs acquired later in life. It is very hard to deprogram early beliefs, even silly and irrational beliefs. Why is that?

One theory is cognitive dissonance. That theory studies the psychological stress caused by people experiencing conflicting information, usually caused by having old beliefs exposed to new and contradictory information.

For some people, accepting new information can undermine their psychological stability so it becomes imperative to go to any extreme to preserve the beliefs that define their sense of reality. Decades ago, a number of books became popular promoting atheism, with some becoming bestsellers. They may have had an impact because the percentage of people attending church has been declining faster in the last decade. On the other hand, many Christians left the mainstream churches and joined evangelical churches which advocated even more extreme Christian beliefs. In contrast, other believers just doubled down on their faith.

Many from that demographics became anti-science in several ways and politically skeptical. They deny climate change, vaccines, the medical profession, scientists, and even democracy. I’ve wondered if it was to maintain their Christian faith. Their cognitive dissonance is so great they are being forced into extreme views about how reality works. To some family and friends, these people are embracing disturbing irrational beliefs. This is further polarizing our society. If we are to solve our civilization’s problems we’ll need to heal this cognitive schism. To fix our relationships with each other and the Earth we must agree on what is real.

This divide will be the defining crisis for Christianity in the 21st century. If Christianity wants to regain its validity, its message must be universal. Christianity should have some core values that all denominations embrace, and even non-Christians will admire. Christianity needs to coexist with science, philosophy, history, and all other areas of knowledge. It can’t keep breaking up into smaller and smaller denominations and sects that claim they each own the truth, especially when those truths are so crazy sounding to the average person.

I’ve been discovering a different approach to Christianity in the last decade, which has been an emerging academic discipline for a couple of centuries. That is the historical study of Christianity and its texts. People who embrace both the sacred and the secular are pursuing these studies because it’s the most fascinating cold case in history. Who was Jesus, what did he really believe, and how did Christianity develop. The major focus is on the first century CE. What happened then and how do we know it.

And one of the primary methods for analyzing this period is the study of the New Testament. Most Christians, even the ones who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible seldom study the New Testament with such scrutiny. This kind of Bible study used to only exist in seminary schools – now it’s becoming a popular self-study. However, not all scholars pursuing this history are doing it with the same level of discipline. Many true believers have become Biblical archeologists to prove the validity of their faith even when it conflicts with secular truths. But what’s interesting is Bible study has become a powerful force for eroding faith in the irrational. There are several former evangelicals who are now university scholars that don’t believe what they once believed. And we’re discovering that the Bible does match up with history in many ways, but often not in the ways the faithful want.

Whoever the historical figure we call Jesus was and what he said is hidden by two thousand years of revisions and creations. Jesus, and that wasn’t his real name, is portrayed differently by the Apostle Paul, and the writers of the four gospels. The human being we call Jesus probably didn’t consider himself divine or claim to perform miracles. Everything we think we know about Jesus was invented by ordinary people decades after he died. They gave him an origin story and superpowers to compete with other figures of their times. Did you know that Augustus, the Roman Emperor, was also called a son of God? The followers of Jesus had to top that. And they kept topping every other competing belief system at the time. Their best recruiting promotion was to promise ordinary people everlasting life. No other religion promised that at the time.

Are there any clues to what the historical Jesus said and did? Maybe. One intriguing approach is the Jesus Seminar.

Many of the people who are doing historical analysis of Jesus and Christianity have examined a tremendous amount of information. Getting where they are coming from requires reading countless books. And it requires learning the disciplined approaches of professional historians. Yesterday, I discovered a video on YouTube that covers some of this territory in a very concise matter. It’s a good introduction to what I’m talking about, although some of the faithful might not like their light, even flippant approach.

After that, I recommend reading the books of Bart Ehrman or watching his YouTube channel. I find his books to be a more efficient method to take in information than watching hours of his YouTube interviews. In 2016 I wrote a review of some of his books for Book Riot. Back in 2014, I reviewed five of his books for this blog.

Trying to decipher who Jesus was is an enticing historical mystery to solve, and I think from the YouTube videos I’ve been seeing, it’s becoming very popular. I’m guessing that it will reshape Christianity. I’d like to think the teachings of the historical Jesus had certain unique philosophical insights but it’s almost impossible to know them until we can distinguish what he might have said from the fiction created about him during the first and second centuries.

JWH  

Dang, I Broke My TV Watcher

by James Wallace Harris, 11/5/22

I seem to be losing my ability to watch television. In the past year or two, when I try to watch TV by myself, I have the hardest time getting into a TV show or movie. If I’m watching television with Susan or a friend I have no trouble settling into the show, but if I’m alone, I often abandon a show after five or ten minutes. Because I’m a lifelong TV addict used to filling my evenings with the boob tube, this is disturbing.

I’ve got sixty-seven years of solid practice watching TV, so why am I losing this skill now? Some of my earliest memories are of watching TV when I was four. I started watching television with the 1955-1956 season, but sometime in 2021, I began noticing I had a problem, maybe even earlier, but it’s painfully obvious in 2022.

The TV watcher part of my brain has broken. And it’s not for trying. Every evening I try getting into several movies and TV shows. Every once in a while, I find one that my mind will latch onto, but it’s getting rarer. So I’m developing some theories about why my brain is broken.

The Gilligan Island Effect

I loved Gilligan’s Island back in 1964 when it first aired. But as I got older I could no longer watch it. My friend Connell and I use Gilligan Island as our example of being young and stupid. Whenever I catch it on TV now I cringe and wonder how could I ever been so easily amused. That feeling is also true for The Monkees. It embarrasses me to recall those were once among my favorite shows. Now I understand why my dad used to pitch a fit when they were on, telling me and my sister we were morons.

As we age we become more sophisticated in our pop culture consumption. I assumed that development stopped when I got into my twenties because I pretty much watched the same kind of shows for the next several decades. However, with The Sopranos, TV jumped a level in sophistication, and for most of the 21st century, I’ve been consuming ever more sophisticated TV content.

What if my TV-watching mind has gotten jaded with all TV? So everything now feels stupid like Gilligan’s Island did when I got a couple years past twelve?

The TV Buddy Effect

As I said, I can watch all kinds of TV shows and movies if I’m watching them with other people. And looking back over my life I realized I watched a lot of TV with other people. With my family growing up. With friends when I was single. With Susan for most of my married life. With my friend Janis when Susan was working out of town Mondays through Fridays.

When Susan retired and Janis moved to Mexico, things changed. Susan now wants to watch her favorite TV shows from the 20th century and I don’t. So she sits in the living room with her TV and cross-stitches while watching endless reruns of her favorite shows. She likes old shows because she doesn’t have to look at them while she sews. I sit in the den and try to find something to watch on my own. Over the last few years, I’ve had less and less luck until I’m starting to wonder if I can’t watch TV alone at all anymore.

Susan and I do watch some TV together. Around 5:30 we watch Jeopardy and the NBC Nightly News that we record. It’s a family habit and the cats sleep in our laps. On Wednesdays we watch Survivor.

This year I was able to binge-watch Game of Thrones. I had watched it as it came out, and when two of my friends living in other cities each expressed a desire to rewatch the entire series I joined them. I discussed each episode with Linda and Connell in separate phone calls.

The YouTube Effect

Let me clarify something. I can watch about an hour of YouTube a day, and I can channel surf trying to find something to watch for another hour. (By the way, that drives Susan crazy. Another reason she likes watching TV by herself.)

My dwindling ability to watch TV has coincided with my growing love of watching YouTube TV. I have to wonder if watching endless short videos and constantly clicking from one subject to another has broken the TV watcher in my brain, so I can’t stick with longer shows.

The Relevance Effect

Last week I binge-watched A Dance to the Music of Time, a four-part miniseries based on the twelve-novel series by Anthony Powell. I had seen it before, but because I was now reading the books I wanted to watch it again. That seems to suggest if I have a good reason to watch television that I have no problem sticking to a show. My mind isn’t completely defective. I’m now on the fourth book in the series, and I’ve bought a biography of Powell and a character concordance to supplement my reading. The series has over 300 characters.

Knowing the Magician’s Tricks Effect

Another theory I’ve developed deals with my studies in fiction. As I read and think about how fiction works, I’ve paid more attention to how movies and television shows are constructed too. I’ve noticed that I often quit a movie or TV show when I spot the puppeteer. I can hardly stand to watch a mystery or thriller nowadays because they seem so obviously manipulated.

Male Aging Effect

I remember now how my uncles as they got older stopped watching TV except for sports, and even then, still not often. My male friends stopped going to the movies years ago, and I’ve finally stopped myself. I’m now doing what Susan and I used to laugh about her father – going to sleep in his den chair after dinner. Since we bought Susan’s parent’s house when they died, I’m going to sleep in the very same den, around the very same time – 7:30.

Conclusion

Because I sometimes find shows that hook me, I figure my TV watcher isn’t completely broken. I do worry that it will conk out completely. Right now I spend my evenings listening to books or music, and I worry that those abilities might break if I overuse them. I’m thinking my TV watcher needs new kinds of TV content to watch, but I have no idea what that would be.

With so many premium channels cranking out so many kinds of quality shows for the last two decades, I worry that they’ve done everything to death. One reason my mind responded so well to YouTube is the content is very different from regular streaming TV content. But I feel like I’m about to reach the end of YouTube too. I’m starting to think TV shows and movies are like clickbait, that once you’re used to all the variety of bait, you become jaded and stop clicking.

JWH

p.s. I’m using DALL-E 2 to generate the art for my blog.

Can Fiction Educate As Well As Nonfiction?

by James Wallace Harris, 11/2/22

I turn 71 this month, and getting older is getting harder. Being old is nothing like I imagined. That’s a problem for me because I like to be prepared, and being prepared requires anticipating the possibilities.

Last year I read The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler. It’s a useful handbook giving tips about healthcare for the elderly, plus Butler relates plenty of stories about people she met who were going through a variety of issues as they approached death. I learned a lot from her book. People tend to decide between two paths toward the end of life. Some want to take advantage of everything medicine has to offer, and others prefer to take a gentler path, choosing less aggressive medical procedures, or even refusing treatment. One of the best lessons of the book is doctors will go to extremes to keep you alive unless you learn to say no. And for me, the important part of The Art of Dying Well is learning when to say no, and how to decide what you want before you lose control of your situation.

When I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout this week, I was surprised by how it inadvertently taught many of the same lessons. Although it’s called a novel, it’s a collection of thirteen interrelated short stories, and often those fictional stories were like the case studies in Butler’s book. Olive is in her late sixties at the beginning of the book, and seventy-four at the end. I was particularly horrified by the final accounts of Olive’s husband, Henry.

Olive Kitteridge is a book that offers a series of intense emotional impacts. And most of them made me think about how I will deal with a particular issue if it should happen to me. Henry’s fate is the hardest to contemplate. One day he and Olive are going to the grocery store and when he steps out of the car, he falls to the ground. He’s had a sudden stroke that leaves him blind, unable to walk or talk, and probably has left him deaf. He’s put in a nursing home where he needs to be cared for like a small child. To me, that’s scarier than anything Stephen King ever imagined. And how do you prepare for something like that?

It would help to have all the proper legal paperwork ready. And it would help if others knew your wants. That’s covered in the Butler book, but it’s covered in more detail in Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson. Aronson is a doctor who eventually got into geriatric medicine. Her book is heavier than The Art of Dying Well, with more clinical details. It has a tremendous wealth of information, but I found Aronson’s structure for her book somewhat disappointing. Elderhood has a clearly laid out structure but Aronson doesn’t always stick to it.

Both nonfiction books are excellent handbooks for anticipating getting older, especially for the medical and legal details. But the novel, Olive Kitteridge, was also excellent for the same purpose, but in a different way. I guess it’s a handbook for philosophically preparing for our last years. Some of its most important lessons were about communication, or more precisely, the lack of communication.

Much of the novel is about waiting until it’s too late to express our true selves. One of the strongest reasons why people want an afterlife is so they can meet up with dead loved ones. Is that because we really want to tell them something? Or that we really want to ask them something? I know that’s true for me.

I loved reading Olive Kitteridge enough that I’m going to read more Elizabeth Strout books and have already started on Olive, Again – a sequel with additional short stories about Olive Kitteridge and the people she knew. I’m also keeping The Art of Dying Well and Elderhood to reread again and again as I get older.

JWH

Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, punched me in the soul. No documentary has ever moved me as much, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And it’s not because it’s about the Holocaust. I’ve even read about most of the painful facts it presents before. No, the gestalt of this film, which is well over six hours, is to set off an epiphany about our relationship with history.

At the highest level, the documentary asks: What did Americans know about the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis from 1932 to 1945 and when and how did they learn it? But to answer that question Ken Burns and company have to describe what Americans were like during those years. The U.S. and the Holocaust give a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.

Maybe the best way I can describe it is to say: Everything that has horrified me about living through the years 2016 to 2022 existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The documentary cements a theory that I’ve been developing in recent decades – that people don’t change and even the percentages of the population that hold specific opinions don’t really change either.

The documentary set off this existential conundrum: Why didn’t I already know what the documentary revealed? Or did I just filter it out? Republicans are in an uproar over Critical Race Theory and other curricula that they’re afraid will upset their children. I imagine they will be just as upset at The U.S. and the Holocaust. I knew about the wide popularity of the KKK and eugenics in the 1920s. I knew Americans were mostly isolationists and anti-immigration in the late 1930s. But the documentary gives us a different take on history than what I was taught.

I have to wonder since FDR was president from 1932-1935, have we always gotten the Democratic party’s view of that history? I wonder if Ken Burns has rounded out the historical period by adding the Republican party’s take on those years? I do know the documentary feels very synergistic with today’s politics.

I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and none of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen from that era convey what I learned from The U.S. and the Holocaust. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, all lived through those years, and none of them ever described the mood of the country revealed in the documentary. I’m a bookworm that has read countless works of both fiction and nonfiction about America in those decades, giving me some of the details from in the documentary, but not in the same gestalt. Two books that come to mind are One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

After I watched the Ken Burns documentary I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s a kind of science fiction novel, an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the 1938 presidential election and for many of the reasons described in the documentary. Roth was born in 1933, and he makes himself the point-of-view character in his novel. Young Phil is only 8 when it begins and 10 when it ends, but his viewpoint is mature. It’s about the anti-Semitism of those years.

I thought The Plot Against America was a well-told story about Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey 1938-1942. I thought Roth’s alternate history speculation was well done, deriving from the kind of knowledge I got watching The U.S. and the Holocaust. But the story is mainly a personal one, and its gestalt is different from the documentary.

Last night Susan and I watched Radio Days for the umpteenth time. It’s Woody Allen’s nostalgic look back at those same years. It completely ignores all the political history of The U.S. and the Holocaust. Radio Days is like both movies from that period and later films that worked to recall that era. They all filter out the nastiness of racism and xenophobia that existed in America back then. Although some of it came through in the film The Way We Were, and the book version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And just before I watched the three episodes of The U.S. and the Holocaust I read Revolt in 2100 which contains a 1940 short novel by Robert A. Heinlein called “If This Goes On….” Heinlein imagined America would go through decades of The Crazy Years, before undergoing a second American revolution that created an American theocracy. I was disappointed that Heinlein didn’t do more world-building for his novel, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary I understand his inspiration for writing it. It’s obvious that many Americans back then wanted a Protestant theocracy. Consisting of only white people from England, Germany, and some Scandanavian countries.

I think it’s important to distinguish fascism as a political philosophy from the Nazis, who were also fascists. What many Americans wanted then and now is basic fascism, and the Philip Roth novel shows how America could have turned fascist.

The other day I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this: If you get warm and fuzzy feelings reading history then you’re not studying history. I’m on the third volume of world history by Susan Wise Bauer, and it’s brutal. Most people want to romanticize history, which is what we get from novels and movies. The Republicans don’t want CRT taught because they want their kids to feel all warm and fuzzy studying American History. The new Ken Burns documentary will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

My current theory is humans can’t handle reality. That we develop all kinds of psychological delusions to filter reality out. We prefer our fantasies. And popular history along with pop culture gives us nice takes on the past that allows us to cope. It’s also why most people’s theory of how reality works is no more complex than a comic book. It’s why we’ve always clung to religion. It’s why I have a life-long love of science fiction.

We just can’t handle complexity. There are plenty of real history books that document the reality of the times they cover, but they aren’t widely read. Maybe the Republicans are right, and history is too brutal for children. But maybe we keep repeating history because we’re all too wimpy to handle history.

I’m getting so I can’t stomach the historical lies of Hollywood, but I don’t know if I can handle all that much real history either. I used to think that maybe four percent of the population was mentally ill. In recent years, I’ve upped that to forty percent. But lately, I’m thinking there’s an entry for all of us in the DSM-5.

JWH

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