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.

What If Mrs. Saunders Had Read Us To Kill a Mockingbird Instead of A Wrinkle in Time?

by James Wallace Harris, 10/10/22

In 1962, when I was in the 6th grade, my teacher Mrs. Saunders would read to the class after lunch. The book I remember from that year is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I found it so exciting that I went to the school library and checked out a copy so I could read it faster than 30 minutes a day. At the time, I didn’t know the novel was science fiction, or that the story belong in a category of fiction. But looking back, I see Mrs. Saunders had put me on the road to becoming a science fiction fan.

Yesterday, I wondered if Mrs. Saunders’s influence on my life would have been different if she had read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee instead? Would I have become a different kind of bookworm? Instead of being fascinated with space and time travel, would I have become interested in social justice and equality? I did come to care about those issues later on in the 1960s as the decade progressed, but could I have been made aware of them sooner by reading the right book?

Even though I mostly read science fiction, I do read some serious literature. I was an English major in college. I know when they come out, The Best American Short Stories 2022 will have far deeper, more mature, better-written stories than The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 3: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2022. Yet, the odds are I’ll probably buy and read the science fiction anthology.

In eighth grade, my English teacher required us to read three books each six-week grading period and raised our earned grade by one letter if we read five. She had an approved reading list. That’s how I discovered Heinlein. She gave me the chance to read science fiction and non-fiction, and I took it. What if I had read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank instead? Would I have matured sooner? Would I have been more conscious of the real world?

What if in 1965 I read The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński instead of Stranger in a Strange Land? Would I have become a different person? Or, did I read what I read because I was an immature kid that could only handle the immaturity of science fiction? I tend to think it’s the latter because I know serious literature is far superior to science fiction now and I still seldom choose to read it.

I believe I read science fiction then and now to escape from the real world. I read nonfiction as a kid and as an adult to learn about the world. However, I do wonder how I would have been different if I had gotten addicted to serious literature as a kid.

If I had a time machine and could go back to talk to my younger self I would tell him to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d say, “Kid, stop daydreaming about going to the Moon and Mars. Other people will do it, but not you. And if you could, you wouldn’t like it. Our personality isn’t suited for space travel. Spend more time with people and less time with books, and when you read a book, make sure it helps to know more about people.”

I’m pretty sure my younger self wouldn’t listen. People don’t take advice. Not even from our future selves.

For all I know, Mrs. Saunders may have read To Kill a Mockingbird to us and I just ignored it. She read us several books that year, and A Wrinkle in Time is the only one I remember.

JWH

What Books Do You Speak?

by James Wallace Harris, 8/8/22

Most of our ideas are borrowed since few people have original thoughts. The other day I was wondering why conservatives and liberals think so differently. I decided one reason is that they read different books. Of course, not everyone reads books. Ideas are also passed around from person to person, or by newspapers, magazines, journals, advertisements, political rallies, television shows, the internet, etc. We dwell in a sea of ideas.

Ideas do originate with original thinkers, and often they are first published in books. Journalism and other forms of mass media then propagate those ideas, which in turn are spread by word of mouth. So, for now, let’s think of the basic unit for storing and spreading ideas are books.

My theory is conservatives and liberals think differently because the foundation of their beliefs comes from different books. I’m not suggesting that all conservatives and liberals read the same set of books, but the ideas for their thoughts and speech originated in a subset of books.

I was thinking along these lines because I wondered if conservatives and liberals each had a core set of twenty books, what would happen if the conservatives read the liberal’s books, and the liberals read the conservative’s books? Would our polarized political opinions begin to homogenize?

Then I wondered about fundamentalist religious people who put their faith in one book. What would happen if all the fundamentalists around the world all read each other’s holy book?

Thinking about that brought up an obvious stumbling block. Most people’s beliefs are based on what they first learned as children. If you are raised Christian and conservative you’re most likely to stay Christian and conservative. That suggests ideas acquired in youth are stickier than ideas acquired later in life. For my test, we’d have to raise children with The Bible, The Quran, The Tanakh, The Talmud, The Vedas, The Upanishads, The Tipitaka, The Tao Te Ching, The Yasna, etc.

We know minds are open and plastic at birth. If you took a child from a Christian family and gave it to a Muslim family to raise, it will grow up Muslim. But for some reason, after a certain age, minds close and lose their plasticity.

On the other hand, fads arise and spread ideas/memes all the time. Adults will embrace new ideas. Fox News, the Internet, to Tik-Tok can spread new ideas like a California forest fire. This suggests that people can acquire new ideas that they put on top of the foundational ideas that were programmed in their youth.

And ideas don’t have to come from nonfiction books. If all you read are romance novels and watch romance TV shows and movies, your ideas about relationships will be different than if you only consumed mysteries.

I’m in a book club that was reading Developmental Politics by Steve McIntosh, a book about our polarized politics. McIntosh hoped his insights would help solve that problem but most of the readers in the book club doubted it. One of our members did believe in McIntosh’s ideas and thought they could work. I felt McIntosh’s ideas were insightful but figured for them to be persuasive, would require everyone to read many other books first. McIntosh’s book was complex enough to require reading dozens of other books to fully understand it.

That’s when I realized we speak in books. When we express ourselves, we pass on fragments of books, but we don’t pass on enough information to let other people fully understand the foundation of the original ideas. Generally, we pass on tiny fragments of the original idea that are barely impressions. And we seldom communicate ideas but express ourselves emotionally.

If you want to understand a person, you have to consume the same books they did, or at least the same secondary sources. If a friend is passionate about a belief you’ll never understand your friend until you understand the foundations of their beliefs.

Few people understand the sources of their beliefs. Few people can point to a set of books and say here’s where my ideas originated. The origin of a classical education came from the study of foundational books, but that idea broke down in modern times when we were overwhelmed with significant books.

Yet, even when there was only one book for most people, The Bible, Christianity spent centuries arguing over its meaning. If you study all the people who claim to be Christian today you’d find very little commonality. The Bible is too big and too diverse. If we took The U. S. Constitution instead, which is tiny in comparison, we still get endless disagreement.

Ideas are slippery and inexact. Even if we read the same books and speak about the same ideas we don’t interpret them in the same way. Humans aren’t computers. We filter ideas through our emotions. Books might sow ideas but they don’t plant them evenly, and they grow inconsistently.

It appears that humans latch onto vague concepts and use them for ammunition to get what they emotionally want. Even if we read the same books we’ll still be a long way from finding agreements.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. What we need is a better approach to understanding each other’s wants. It might start with reading the same books, but it would only be a start. We’d also need to start studying each other’s emotions, and emotions are even harder to communicate than ideas. That’s what McIntosh was getting into with Developmental Politics, building on developmental psychology.

JWH

Getting Too Close to Helpless

by James Wallace Harris, July 14, 2022

For this essay, I’m defining helpless as being in a situation where we can’t help ourselves or get help from someone else. As I get older I worry that someday my wife Susan or I will find ourselves in a completely helpless situation. This weekend it almost happened. Our hot water heater in the attic broke and water was pooling on the sheetrock of the ceiling above my computer room. A seam then spread open and water was draining onto the floor. Susan and I had to find a solution fast and several times I wasn’t sure we would.

First, we were lucky I discovered it so soon. I have an overactive bladder so I’m frequently going back to the bathroom which is annoying. But in this one instance, it put me Johnny-on-the-spot as I went down the hall to the bathroom. The pool of water was only in the middle of the floor.

I yelled to Susan and ran into the kitchen and pulled the filled garbage bag out of the tall kitchen trash can and ran back and put that under the water flow. I saw that it would fill pretty fast so I ran back to the kitchen and got the recycle bin and dumped the contents out on the floor and took it back to the room. By then Susan was there with a pile of towels.

I then went out into the hall, pulled down the attic stairs, and rushed up into the attic. The hot water tank is right next to the stairs and I could see the overflow pan was full and not draining. Damn. I went back down the stairs and ran outside and unscrewed the hose from the outside faucet and dragged it back into the house and up the stairs and connected it to the flush drain. It didn’t have a faucet handle but a slot so I yelled for Susan to get me a large screwdriver. I tried to turn off the hot water heater but it would only let me shut it down to pilot light. For some reason, I couldn’t make the button turn to the off position. I looked at the pipes and saw a red handle so I turned it all the way to what I hoped was an off position. When I had the screwdriver I opened the flush faucet and water started spraying everywhere from a leak in the hose connection. I turned it off.

Two weeks ago my back was hurting so much, that I could barely walk, so I was thankful I was able to be going up and down the stairs. I was moving at a frantic pace but I was calm. I wondered what would have happened if I couldn’t go up the stairs. I don’t trust Susan on the attic stairs. It was then I realized I could be helpless. If I couldn’t fix this problem I had to get someone else. Help means either doing it yourself or finding someone who could. I was suddenly scared I couldn’t, and we’d be helpless. I know this is a minor emergency, but it was enlightening.

Then I went back down the stairs and called our regular plumber. I told them immediately I had an emergency of running water but they made me give me my information first before they told me they couldn’t have someone out until Monday. It was Saturday afternoon, but I thought it was Friday. So I called another plumber thinking I might catch someone still there. The same thing happened. Wanted my information before telling me the soonest would be Monday.

I got some duck tape and went back upstairs and wrapped the hose. I turned on the drain again. It didn’t shoot water. I went outside and saw that water was coming out of the hose. I then went back to the computer room and dragged the first bucket to the front door and emptied it on the front porch. I took the empty bucket and swapped it for the full and emptied it.

I felt I had a bit of breathing room. Then Susan said she still heard running water.

I went to the computer and looked up emergency plumbers. I found one that claimed 24/7 service and called them. Same thing. Can’t come until Monday. I then ran to the hall closet and got my T-wrench and went outside to the street to turn off the water to the house. However, I couldn’t get the valve to budge. I figured I had to call MLG&W to come shut off the water. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t know how long they would take to get here, and I didn’t want to go days without water.

I went back upstairs and realized that I had shut off the gas, not the water. I started looking around. This time I looked at the top of the water tank, which almost goes to the ceiling of the attic. There I saw water spraying from around the intake pipe, but I also saw another turn-off handle. I gave it a quarter turn and the water stopped running.

That gave me a sense of release. The flow of water from the computer room ceiling slowed, and in about fifteen minutes it stopped. I called the plumber and made an appointment for Monday.

However, I kept wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to shut off the water. What would we have done? What would Susan have done if I wasn’t home? She probably would have called a neighbor, her brother, or MLG&W. I pictured us taking turns swapping filled buckets all weekend, even taking sleeping shifts at night.

It’s incidents like this when I want more control. I should have been prepared. I should have known where the water shut-off to the tank was located. I thought I was prepared by buying the tool to shut off the water at the street. When the plumber came Monday I ordered a new tank and ordered an automatic shut-off device that works with a water sensor in the overflow pan. I also ordered a new overflow pan and all new drainage pipes. But is that enough? I prefer not to deal with another computer room flood. This was the second. Years ago the HVAC installers made the mistake of putting in the condensation pan at a tilt – a tilt away from the drainage outlet.

We don’t have complete control of our lives. On the news that night there were stories about flooding in the east that ruined entire homes. Our flooding was nothing, so I was thankful. However, knowing we can’t control everything doesn’t stop me from worrying about becoming helpless. One sight that always scares me when I see it on the news is when first responders have to rescue old helpless people.

I know I’m worrying about the inevitable, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying. It doesn’t stop me from thinking of ways to be prepared. If I designed houses I wouldn’t put the HVAC and hot water heater in the attic. Every house should have a little machine room on the ground floor, with a floor drain and sensors for flooding. This house has had a hot water heater in the attic since 1952 and things have been mostly good 99.9999% of the time.

Getting old has made me worry about my body breaking down or my house breaking down. I realize there are things I can do to help myself. I also realize there are things I depend on Susan to help me do. And I know there will be other things I will have to depend on friends or hired help. This flooding incident has made me think about the times I might not find any kind of help. Generally, that’s never a problem because we have each other. But it’s a thought.

JWH

Do You Still Watch The Oscars?

James Wallace Harris, 3/19/22

This YouTube video from CNBC says the Oscars and Emmys have lost more than 80% of their peak viewership. CNBC claims this is due to a generation shift, and because of cord-cutting. It reminds me of another news story I read about The Gilded Age on HBO Max. That report said the good news was the show was a hit, the bad news was only people over 65 watched it. Of course, that was devastating news to people who sell things.

Are the Oscars really a generation thing? Just how relevant are those awards to anyone nowadays? Why do we watch movies? Is it important that they be awarded prizes? Is it even important that the movies we love, win awards? Do we crave validation for our favorites? I used to use the awards as a checklist of what to try, but I stopped that years ago. However, I do love March, when TCM has 31 Days of Oscar.

I don’t know if it’s a generation thing either. I quit watching the Oscars decades ago. Even though I’m a big movie fan, it’s been years since I could remember the names of any of the new movie stars or directors, and the award ceremony always seemed to really be about and for them.

Before the pandemic, I went to the movies once a week. I haven’t seen a movie at a theater in over two years. When the 2022 Oscar nominations were announced I thought I’d stream all the films that were up for the best picture to catch up. I don’t really care who wins and don’t plan to watch the ceremony. This year ten movies are up for best picture:

This made me wonder just how many movies came out in 2021? Checking Rotten Tomatoes, they list 235 with over 70% positive reviews — there must have been many hundreds made. There are just 30 in their Golden Tomato Awards. Only 4 of the Oscar-nominated best pictures were in that 30. Indie Wire lists their 50 favorites, which have some overlap with both the Oscar nominees and Rotten Tomatoes but rank them differently. Paste Magazine remembers 2021 with another list of 50 films, and with a different slant of opinion. The web could provide me with many more lists, and if you look at enough of these lists, some movies do seem to pop up on many of these top movie lists. In recent years, that’s how I measure movie success — if a film got on multiple best-of-the-year lists.

I’m realizing by following the Oscar best picture nominee list I’m doing myself a big disservice. If I consider the other award categories that involve a feature film, there are 21 other films to consider, for a total of 31 (assuming my ability to count is accurate). I was surprised by how often the 10 best picture nominees were also nominated in the other categories. The movie business is big on promoting their films for the Oscars, often spending millions according to the CNBC report above. They said Netflix spent $60 million to promote Roma. So the Oscar awards feel incestuous, picking the same films over and over again in each category.

I also expected the ten films nominated for best pictures would all be stunning and obvious choices, but I loved only a few of them, and two of them I found tedious and boring. I thought it interesting that three of the ten were remakes. I thought all three remakes were technically superior to the originals, but I prefer the originals for Nightmare Alley and West Side Story. I’m not sure if I care about any version of Dune.

I saw the 1947 black and white version of Nightmare Alley just weeks before seeing the beautiful color 2021 version. I liked everything about the 2021 production, yet I thought the 1947 version was creepier. I wondered if time-period had anything to do with it? Nightmare Alley (1947) seemed to be about something real, something contemporary, whereas Nightmare Alley (2021) felt like a pulp noir fantasy. This was also true for West Side Story. The original felt relevant to when I saw it back in the 1960s. The 2021 version seemed like a perfect recreation of the past but without any current significance. Nowadays gangs kill each other with assault rifles, so a musical about angry teens with switchblades seems out of date.

Dune was gorgeous, but it felt like I was looking at the Illustrated Classics comic version of the story. I read Dune back in the 1960s, and again about ten years ago, and the story felt heavy and rich. The movie versions feel cliche. But science fiction movies about galactic empires have become so common that they now seem silly parodies of each other. While watching Dune my eyes were delighted by the visuals. Yet, intellectually I was wondering if the reason why science fiction movies don’t win awards is because they feel aimed at childish minds? There’s nothing wrong with children’s stories and YA fiction, but the awards appear aimed at stories for grownups.

I’m afraid Drive My Car mostly bored me. I love foreign films, so that isn’t the issue. The problem is Drive My Car felt like MFA literary writing. It’s the kind of story that academics love to analyze and admire. That kind of fiction works on me sometimes, such as The Wonder Boys, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or the way Birdman played with Raymond Carver. I just didn’t pick up on Uncle Vanya as a subtext like I did with “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in Birdman.

But what I like and don’t like isn’t really the point. What I’m asking is: Do the Oscars help us find the best films to watch from the previous year? In recent years I haven’t paid attention to the Oscars but this year I’m using the ten nominees to catch up on what I missed during the pandemic. While I didn’t go to the theater in 2021, I did stream a couple dozen films from that year. CODA and King Richard were my top favorites. I admired The Power of the Dog and Belfast but didn’t love them. I really enjoyed Being the Ricardos. Why wasn’t it up for the best picture Oscar? Who decides these things?

This makes me wonder about how we determine what makes a great movie. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, so there’s no objective way to measure movies. Looking at what I liked, King Richard and CODA makes me wonder if feel-good movies might be my yardstick. Both were riveting stories that left me feeling like I learned something, and they made me feel good about people. (Many movies push my misanthrope tendencies.)

Dune and Nightmare Alley were just fun stories. I would add The Dig and The Last Duel to that kind of story. Don’t Look Up was a very relevant satire, but very uneven to watch. I thought Some Kind of Heaven, another fun satire, was a far better film.

I won’t be around in 50 years, but in 2072 how many movies from 2021 will be shown on TCM in March? If you look back to the 1972 Oscars, I’m still watching many of the films it picked. Professional and critical recognition might matter after all. Then, on the other hand, how many movies do you love that are unrecognized, obscure, and forgotten?

We mostly find the movies we love by accident. It would be interesting if there were a system that would identify films we’d resonate with for sure. Giving films an Oscar doesn’t predict anything for sure, but it might help some in finding movies to watch. Watching the nine nominees for best picture was an interesting education.

I’m planning to watch Licorice Pizza tonight to finish out the ten.

JWH

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