Once Upon a Time the Future was So Bright We Had to Wear Shades

by James Wallace Harris

Between Camelot and Reaganomics existed the counterculture. For a very short while we thought we were entering the Age of Aquarius. Of course, it was a childish utopian dream, but a very positive hope. What happened to that dream? Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin reminded me of those hopes and dreams. Lattin explains what happened to four of the people who sold us some of that hope. Of course, those four weren’t the only ones. Back then, there was an entire army of John the Baptists promising heaven on Earth if we only believed.

In the sixties many of us thought by the 21st-century we’d have conquered war, disease, poverty, injustice, prejudice, inequality, and be living in a society where everyone had equal opportunity to achieve both spiritual and material wealth. We expected to create a world civilization that would make Jesus, Buddha, and all the past prophets and philosophers proud. We expected science to answer all our questions, and for technology to build ecological sustainable lifeboat Earth before we launched our spiritually-wise selves across the galaxy. Some of us called this anticipated transformation the Age of Aquarius, then The New Age, while hoping for the age of The Final Frontier.

Space travel never went beyond low Earth orbit after 1972. After three days of love, peace, and happiness it’s been Altamont every day since. And the doors of perception only led to tragedy and heartache. All our planned communities failed.

Just look at us now. You’d think the second coming had happened and no one was chosen, and we’re begun a thousand year streak of doom. There are damn few Pollyannas left on Earth that can see rays of hope for the future. Unlike Christians who have waited two thousand years without giving up their faith, the counterculture gave up theirs rather quickly. I read where psychedelic drugs are trying to make a comeback. And there are embers of spirituality still trying to rekindle the world but never do. What made us dream such big dreams in the sixties?

Before the dawning of the Age of Aquarius I was a straight-lace kid. I was gullible and believed what I was told. The U.S. Air Force guided my father and the Southern Baptist Church guided my mother. They had expectations for what I should believe, and I had no objections to those expectations. Well, not until 1963 or 1964. During my 12th and 13th year I changed. Looking back I could say it was merely puberty, but the whole country began changing at the same time.

Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club got me to thinking about those years and changes. Changes that had began much sooner than 1969 or 1970 when I first tried psilocybin and LSD. The making of my counterculture had begun before the drugs, with rock and roll and science fiction. Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club referenced many books I had read back then that shaped my thoughts. I began wondering about all the influences that had reprogrammed me during the sixties and seventies that gave me utopian ideals.

I remember in 11th grade sometime after the 1967 protest at the Pentagon, when a group of us kids waiting for the school bus discussed the coming revolution as if it was a certainty. Even as a dumbass high school kid I thought it weird that we expected such a huge social transformation. But those hopes kept building. Then in 1968 and 1969 Hair and its music was all the rage and people began talking about The Age of Aquarius. The hope became more than a political transformation, the counterculture began to expect a whole new age, which became the focus of the 1970s. I think all our foolish fantasies ended when Reagan was elected in 1980. By then I was married and working at the job I’d stay at until I retired.

My transformation was really an intersection of countless ideas that came from books, magazines, newspapers, television, movies, songs. We think everything comes from the internet today, but before the world wide web we had plenty of informational input. Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club reminded me of those books and other information sources, and all the prophets behind those words. For example, I don’t know if people today have any idea of the impact The Beatles and Bob Dylan had on their fans. Rock music was our gospel.

In 1962, when I was eleven, I got hooked rock and roll and science fiction. In 1963 I began rejecting religion when I started noticing that the people at church did not follow what was preached. A Joycean year of doubt ended in 1964 when I realized I was an atheist. I was just 13. My mother still tried to make me go to church but I felt like I was a spy, a pretender, a fraud. I didn’t have a new philosophy yet, but I was open, and about to try many.

Then in 1965 I read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein and got into Bob Dylan because of “Like a Rolling Stone.” I was still very straight-laced. I remember watching anti-drug and anti-smoking films at school and I was positive I’d never be stupid enough to do drugs or smoke cigarettes.

But only two years later, in early 1967, I read an article in Popular Science about LSD. Instead of sensationalizing the drug with fear and loathing like the news did on TV, the article described LSD as a tool for medical research and exploring the mind. That sounded science fiction. That sounded like something for me.

I can’t remember when I first heard about Timothy Leary. I’m pretty sure I heard about LSD well before I heard about Leary and his famous “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out” saying. In late 1968, or maybe early 1969, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. That book didn’t turn me onto Timothy Leary either, but The Beats. I knew about Leary in the sixties, but he always seemed like some kind of media clown. Around this same time I began reading The Rolling Stone magazine. It became my main source of counterculture propaganda.

But remember, I was also mass consuming science fiction, which was changing too with its own New Wave revolution. I remember Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner had a huge impact on me, as did Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions.

I wish I knew when I first bought Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. It was probably the early 1970s, but it might have been sooner. The 1970s brought a flood of influential books and magazines. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke had made me aware of overpopulation in the mid-1960s, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the environmental movement was giving us plenty of reasons to change our ways.

By the mid-1970s I became open to trying religion again, but mainly Eastern religions. Be Here Now by Ram Das (Richard Albert), books by Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Herman Hesse, and New Age Magazine made me think that spiritualism and mysticism had some answers.

I wasn’t stupid, I knew the dreams were doomed. Books like The Population Bomb, The Limits of Growth, and Future Shock, among many others like them, kept me grounded. Plus, the science fiction books I was reading became more realistic and pessimistic about the future.

Still, we had a great deal of hope about the future. We thought we could solve all our problems. We had the knowledge, we had the technology, we knew the solutions, it was only a matter of getting everyone to work together. That’s when the dream ended. We never could work together. We all separated into our own personal trips. No matter how much visionaries preached, we never could agree.

Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club also covered the decades of falling apart. Alpert, Weil, and Smith were able to rebuild their lives and become constructive, but not Leary. Their lives parallelled my life and I’m sure all other counterculture true believers. We found ways to be here now. To make do with reality. To give up on our utopian fantasies.

Looking back I also remember what life was like when we were chasing those dreams in the 1960s and 1970s. Things were bleak. The war, the riots, the prejudices, the inequalities, the crime, the bombings, the protests, the generation gap, the oil crisis, the burning rivers, the pollution, the urban decay.

Drug taking and believing in utopian futures were symptoms of the disease, not cures. Much like similar symptoms today. The right-wing countercultures of today have their parallels with the left-wing countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s. But there’s one big difference. We no longer need to wear shades when looking towards the future. That’s rather sad. No, that’s depressingly tragic.

JWH

Explaining My Addiction to Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, 9/26/21

One reason I haven’t been posting much here lately is because I’m writing a short story review every other day on my science fiction site. I’m reviewing The Big Book of Science Fiction, an anthology of over a hundred science fiction stories from the 20th century, including many stories I’ve read over the past sixty years. The whole endeavor is a kind of self-psychoanalysis of a lifetime addiction to science fiction.

I’m slowly realizing what science fiction means to me. In 1960, I became a bookworm in the 4th grade to cope with the stress of growing up. In the 5th and 6th grades I slowly focused that addiction on science fiction. A couple decades ago I realized I had substituted belief in science fictional ideas for my childhood beliefs religion, becoming an atheist around age 12 or 13. But actual space exploration played a part too. Sputnik went up weeks after I began the first grade, and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon weeks after I graduated high school.

When I first started reading science fiction in the early 1960s I knew no one else that read it too. Then in March, 1967 I met my buddy Connell in 10th grade who became my lifelong friend. When I discovered he had read some science fiction I asked him who was his favorite author. I expected him to say Heinlein, since I assumed Heinlein was the absolute best. Instead, Connell said Clarke. We’ve been arguing ever since.

After Star Trek ended in 1969 I realized that millions of science fiction fans had come out of the closet. I joined an APA in 1970, then a local science fiction club, and then started going to SF conventions with my friend Greg. At the time, science fiction fans seem few and far between.

Then in 1977 Star Wars came out, and it seemed like everyone began to love science fiction. But I soon realized that even though the world loved science fiction on TV and at the movies, very few people actually read the science fiction magazines, and only slightly more people regularly read science fiction books.

As a kid, I wanted to be a science fiction writer like other kids wanted to be rock stars, football players, or astronauts. And even though I took writing courses in high school and college I never developed the discipline to write. Later on, I guess as a mid-life crisis, I took off six weeks from work in 2002 and attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and afterwards began a MFA in creative writing. I still didn’t have what it took. When I retired in 2013 I thought I’d finally get down to writing, but I didn’t.

Over the eight years I’ve been retired I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of science fiction. It’s become a pleasurable hobby to fill my time. But I’ve also discovered why I’ve psychologically embraced the genre. For most of my life I thought that space travel was important to the development of humanity, and science fiction was a kind of prophetic literature that gave exploring the high frontier meaning. Now I see wanting to leave Earth as a kind of psychological escape, and science fiction is only a minor art form, a specialized kind of fantasy and entertainment.

In my old age, I read science fiction and admire it for creative storytelling. But I know it’s only a couple steps up artistically from comic book reading. I do read literary novels, and know the difference. Science fiction appeals to the adolescent in me. That keeps me positive while the world around me is turning negative. Reading science fiction in my old age makes me realize I never grew up, but then I’m also realizing most of the people around me never have either. As a species we’re not very good at maturing and facing up to reality.

The percentage of people who rely on denialism to cope with reality grows every day. I like to think I don’t deny reality so much as avoid it. Most of the people who aren’t deniers tend to be avoiders. Only a small percentage of the population face up to reality. I don’t mind reading and studying reality, but I have no discipline to live the life I know I should live. Reading science fiction is my way of occupying my mind when I’m not thinking about how humanity is destroying itself.

I admire people who actual do something about the problems we face, but they are very rare. Most of us just fool ourselves that everything is going to be okay and maybe do a few token things to help, but isn’t that really an effort to sooth our guilt? Reading science fiction is my version of watching Ted Lasso or The Andy Griffith Show. But we’re all on the Titanic killing time in amusing ways even though we know we could change the ship’s course if we worked together. Unfortunately, cooperation is not in our genes.

Reading science fiction teaches me about the possibilities. Science fiction has always been about building better futures, advocating better societies (utopias) or warnings of de-evolving into dystopias, or even the nightmares of apocalypses. It’s all too obvious that we’re actually heading towards the collapse of our global civilization and an environmental apocalypse. Half the population copes by denying this, and the other half that does recognize our destiny does little to avoid it.

We indulge in mindless consumerism and socializing, or restless tourism, or occupy our minds with political and religious rationalizations. When I see people protesting that the 2020 election was stolen, or vaccinations are evil, or the January 6th attack on the capitol didn’t happen I realize those people have the psychology of children, the kind who throw tantrums, who scream “You can’t make me” or “You’re not the boss of me” to their parents, teachers, and even peers. But you can’t reason with them not because they can’t see reason, which they can’t, but because that’s their survival mechanism, and if you could get past it, these people would only fall apart. I have to assume reading science fiction is my survival mechanism.

I am starting to worry a tiny bit because some of my coping mechanisms are starting to fail. I used to binge watch TV in the evenings. I’ve always loved TV, and looking back see that it was a reality stress releaser too. But I now have to try a dozen or two dozen TV shows or movies before I can find one that I can watch. And I no longer can watch TV and movie science fiction. For example, I was looking forward to the new production of the Foundation series on Apple TV+. It just annoyed me, and I quit trying after fifteen minutes. I forced myself to finish the first episode the next night, but still no joy.

I worry that I’m also going to develop a tolerance to written science fiction, and it will fail to hold my attention like my TV watching. So far, I still find great pleasure in reading science fiction short stories. I don’t have the patience to read novels anymore, but continue to enjoying reading old SF anthologies and magazines. I worry that this love won’t last.

Luckily, I still have other interests to turn to if I finally wear out on science fiction. The current state of the world is very sobering. It might even cure my addiction to science fiction, but I doubt it. I’ve had it my whole life now. It might be too late to give up. But my attitude has changed. We wanted a lot of fantastic things from religion, and that’s true of science fiction. That’s why I compare them. I believe we need to change our expectations for both. Religion and science fiction need to focus on reality. They both need to be more down to Earth.

JWH

What’s Your Lamborghini?

by James Wallace Harris, 8/24/21

Few of us are exempt from materialistic desires because I don’t know anyone who follows in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi. Today’s gurus are the influencers on the internet, those beautiful young people who convince other people to give them money to buy what they can’t have themselves. Most of us don’t feel incomplete without a Lamborghini but we do want something.

I realized what I want is weird. My Lamborghini is old books and magazines, things most people would throw away, or give to Goodwill.

I’d rather have a first edition of I, Robot by Isaac Asimov than a new Ferrari. (Although, if given a Ferrari I could sell it and buy a collection of all Gnome Press first editions, including I, Robot.)

I saw both of these on a Facebook group devoted to collecting old SF/F books. I suppose I could spend my retirement savings to satisfy this book lust, but I won’t.

Just recognizing where my materialism lies an is enlightening self-realization. It doesn’t free me from those desires, but it lets me know just what species of wacky duck I belong to.

So, what’s your Lamborghini?

JWH

A Bright Vision of a Positive Future

by James Wallace Harris, August 12, 2021

Last night I had an epiphany while watching the NOVA episode entitled “Great Electric Airplane Race” on my Roku PBS channel. It’s available to view online or stream with the PBS channel (but it might require a Passport membership).

The show was overwhelmingly positive about the future, and it conveyed that hope by showing rather than telling. To avert the catastrophes of climate change will require leaving fossil fuels in the ground. That means converting to other forms of energy. Air travel is a big contributor of CO2, but designing electric airplanes has tremendous challenges. The example given was for a Boeing 737. It uses 40,000 pounds of jet fuel, but the weight of the batteries to replace that jet fuel would total 1.2 million pounds. How is it even possible to overcome such a Mt. Everest of a technical obstacle?

The answer is science. The rest of the show was about how science and engineering is actually tackling the problem. Expect a great transformation in the airline industry over the next two decades. One person in the show called it Air Travel 3.0. I had no idea that these inventions were that close to going into production.

And the new technology wasn’t even the most inspiring part of the show. Miles O’Brien interviewed and profiled many entrepreneurs, scientists, and engineers who were creating these new aircraft, business plans, and air control systems, and it uplifting to see so many women and minorities in leadership roles. This show proved social progress is happening too.

While I watched this episode I realized it was a vision of how things could be. We could solve our environmental, social, economic, and technical problems if we choose. That is, if we choose to be rational and scientific. This show was practically utopian in its scenes and implications. If you can, watch this episode of NOVA and meditate on what positives each scene suggests.

Of course, this isn’t proof we’ll solve our problems, just a vision of what it would be like if we tried. To succeed we need to overcome denialism. Denialism is holding us back. It’s why the pandemic rages on, it’s why we don’t commit to solving climate change. The denialists are going to destroy us.

The epiphany I had is we will succeed if everyone accepts science. Science is capable of solving our problems. The deniers don’t want to believe that for various philosophical reasons. I’m not sure if it’s possible to convert deniers into scientific believers, but that’s our pivot point between future success and failure.

For my own peace of mind, I’ve got to find more sources of inspiration like this episode of NOVA. Up till now I had given up on the future because I was convinced the deniers will bring us down. Now I want to focus on the doers. If you’re going to bet, especially psychological capital, bet on the winners.

JWH

Why Am I Peeing 30 Times a Day and Other Mysteries of Getting Older?

by James Wallace Harris

I am being forced to become a detective, but the mystery I must solve is not one of who did it, but why is my body out to get me. Sometime in the future we will all die, but before we’re done in we’ll fear many possible assassins. For most of us, our murderer will be a natural cause, but which one? Our last years will be spent running away from various suspects, always looking for clues to who our real killer will be. But the older we get, the more suspects show up, complicating the mystery.

All my friends in my age group suffer from something, many have dodged several bullets, and a few haven’t. Like all the machines we’ve owned over our lifetime, our bodies will wear out, part by part, until they can’t be fixed anymore. Unfortunately, being a machine that’s breaking down is not a fun experience. Like an old car, we never know which part will need repairing next. And continuing this metaphor, most of us aren’t skilled repairmen. We can only guess about what’s causing our breakdowns, and even when we do hire an expert, we never know if we’re getting the right repairs.

I’m currently dealing with two medical mysteries. The primary one is why do I pee thirty times a day. I went to a urologist and had a Urolift assuming it was a common male problem of an enlarged prostate. Although the Urolift improved flow, the procedure failed to stop my excessive peeing. Evidently, I had two problems.

Before the Urolift I had hoped the procedure would fix me and I’d be back to normal. However, I’m learning in old age we seldom get back to what we once were. Atul Gawande analyzes that hope of returning to normal in his book Being Mortal. We all believe doctors can fix us, but that isn’t always true, especially the older we get. That’s when we try to fix ourselves with sleuthing our own medical mysteries.

I’ve been watching many videos on YouTube about the causes and cures of frequent urination. I feel myself grasping at straws hoping to find any help. For example, Dr. Oz recommends consuming ground flax seeds to calm an overactive bladder, and Dr. Berg recommends following a keto diet to reduce insulin resistance that can cause frequent urination. My own urologist has prescribed Myrbetriq to relax my bladder muscles but it made my prostate/bladder ache, and my urges to pee stronger and somewhat painful. Katy Butler warned in her book The Art of Dying Well against anticholinergics, the common medicine prescribed for overactive bladders, because of their dangerous side effects. My own internist is against them too. Evidently, a large number of older people have overactive bladders and we’re all looking to solve the mystery of why it’s happening to us and how to fix it.

I’ve taken a different approach. I had hoped the Urolift would have left me peeing like a teenager again, which the sale testimonials promise, but when I informed my urologist that magic hadn’t happened, he said it took months and years for my bladder to learn its current habits, so it might take just as long to break them. I went home feeling relieved with this bit of hope. In fact, for several days after that office visit I only peed 24 times a day. But then the frequency went back up.

I wondered if that was a clue. Could that sense of relief brought on by hope have relaxed my bladder, even just a bit? Could I consciously try relaxing my bladder through stress reduction or meditation? I bought a chem flask with a milliliter gauge and have started measuring my output, along with logging my frequency. A healthy person will pee 250-400 ml when they go and maybe up to 800 ml when they really hold it, but I only produce 50-70 ml during my frequent visits to the bathroom, and even less when my bladder is having fits.

From what I’ve learned people of all ages can have urine retention, but it’s more common in oldsters. I already know that several of my organs are wearing out, so why not the bladder? But if it’s a matter of muscles, either for contraction or relaxing, can I make changes with exercise, diet, or mind control?

By the way, those are some of the many approaches we take when trying to solve our own medical mysteries. There’s several, often approached in this order:

  • Time will make it go away
  • Prayer will heal it
  • Diet will help it
  • Exercise will overcome it
  • Pills will cure it
  • Surgery can repair it
  • Meditation can relax it
  • Alternative medicine might fight it

When you have a medical mystery you keep trying to solve it like a complex Sudoku puzzle. We always want to believe we can fix something and return to normal, but part of aging is the realization that some things are out of our control.

But what’s particularly frustrating is assuming something can be fixed if only we can find the right evidence and clues. The trouble with medical problems is all the variables and interactions. It’s almost impossible to get a definitive answer.

While working on my pee problem my gallbladder said, “Hey, pay attention to me!” Turns out I have gallstones. I’ve had a couple minor gallbladder attacks, but since I’ve seen someone with a major attack I’m positive I don’t one the kind requiring an ambulance. At first, I thought, let the doctors rip out my gallbladder because I’ve known a number of people that’s had that procedure. Then I started learning about possible consequences of living without a gallbladder. After ultrasounds, bloodwork, and a CT scan, my doctor has recommended a wait and see attitude. While doing all that poking around though, they also found fatty deposits and a cyst on my liver. So I feel like a ticking time bomb. But these new issues only adds to the list of my failing parts and systems.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m boo-hooing in my blog. I’m just reporting on a mental process I find interesting about getting older. And like I said, I know so many people with all kinds of medical problems, nearly all of them worse than mine. In fact, I can’t think of anyone my age or older I’d trade bodies with.

I’ve just reached an age where stoicism is the only practical philosophy. I know one of my organs will fail, and murder me, but not which one. But does it matter? It will be out of my control. The frustrating thing is thinking we can control things, and we can to a very limited degree. But evidently, part of aging is learning when we can’t.

JWH