I’m a Slow Learner of the Big Picture

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 12, 2019

It took me over ten years to graduate college, changing majors several times. I realize now that my problem was seeing the bigger picture of every topic. I never understood why I needed to learn what was required in each course. For example, The Modern Novel, a course I took for the English major I finally completed. Back in the 1970s, I couldn’t fathom why they called novels from the 1920s modern. Well, now in the 2010s, I do. I just read The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein. Goldstein chronicles how Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Elliot struggled in their personal lives to finish their most famous works in 1922. Each floundered in their efforts before finding new narrative techniques.

I now see the “modern novel” in a larger context, and I’m sure if I keep reading the history of everything from 1875-1930 I’ll expand that mental map even larger. Since I was an English major in the 1970s I’ve learned about the revolutions in art, music, philosophy, and other subjects in the early 20th century that add to that bigger picture. If I had taken courses in history, science, art, music, literature, engineering, medicine, etc. concurrently that covered the 18th-century one semester, then the 19th the next, and then 20th century, I would have understood how everything came together in the 1920s to be labeled modern. And that would have helped me comprehend the “post-modern.”

Concurrent to reading The World Broke in Two I’m also reading and studying the history of science fiction short stories. I’ve been reading these since the 1960s, and their evolution is finally coming together in multiple related ways. I realize now that I’m quite a slow learner when it comes to constructing the big picture in my head.

I remember back in high school and college feeling jealous how some of my fellow students always knew the answers. I assumed they studied harder than I did because I knew I didn’t study much. But that’s only part of the reason why they did better in school. I’m just now realizing they were also better at connecting the dots.

One of the big regrets in my life is not finding a passion while young to pursue with great effort and concentration. I knew success requires hard work, but the willingness to work hard requires drive and focus, and I never had that. I now understand that seeing the big picture is part of creating that drive and focus.

I’ve always been somewhat smarter than average, but never very smart. I had enough innate skills to get through school without studying much, but not enough cognitive insight to understand why I should study. I always saw school like the smaller image in the larger image above – a fragment of the whole that didn’t make sense.

Evidently, some people have a knack for seeing the synergy of details when they are young. We know this from the early works of successful people. It must be a cognitive skill like a sense of direction, spatial awareness, or conceptualizing in three-dimensions, but with data and ideas.

I know what I’m saying is vague, but then I’m trying to describe something I’m challenged at understanding. I only have a hint of its existence. I wonder if its a skill they can teach young kids? However, I also wonder if the way they teach subjects in school actually works against gaining this skill. Because schools divide up learning into thousands of lessons we’re trained to memorize individual facts, and not how those facts make patterns. Of course, pedagogy might have changed since I went to school a half-century ago.

I’ve often wondered if in each school year they should teach students the history of reality from the Big Bang to now so they see how all areas of knowledge evolved together. Of course, in pre-K years teachers would have to be very vague by telling kids the biggest generalizations, but with each successive year refine those details. I wonder if kids learned to see how knowledge arose from previous knowledge it wouldn’t help reveal bigger pictures of how things work.

JWH

 

I Wish I Had a Time Machine to Rescue My Dad

by James Wallace Harris

One of my favorite idle fantasies is to imagine how I would relive my life if my current mind could reincarnate into my younger self. Variations of this fantasy have included using a time machine to jump back in time to warn my younger self about the future, although I doubt young Jimmy would have taken older Jim’s advice. This week I’ve been struggling to remember everything I could from 50 years ago, and a new fantasy has occurred to me.

What if I had a time machine so I could go back and rescue my dad instead of me?

I know such fantasies are impossible, so why waste my time on them? But the science fiction reader in me loves the idea of creating my own alternate histories by playing “What if?” The challenge to these fantasies is to find the right point in time to divert the time stream. It occurred to me this morning that the moment to rescue my father was in the summer of 1967, but first I guess I should explain why my father needed help.

My father died in 1970 at age 49 when I was 18. My mother and father were alcoholics. My father was a steady drinker, but my mother would only hit the bottle in times of stress from her bipolar swings. My father loved being in the Air Force but was forced to retire after 22 years when he had a heart attack in 1964. Sitting at home without work made him drink more. Dad recovered, went back to work and had another heart attack. Dad recovered again, went back to work, and had a stroke. He even recovered from the stroke before he died of his final heart attack.

My father also had emphysema in his last years, requiring oxygen. But he continued to chain smoke Camels, eat meat and potatoes, and drink Seagram 7 all day long. His death certificate reported that his liver, lungs, appendix, and stomach were shot to hell. I’ve always figured his heart was very strong to survive all that. It made me wonder if he had ever tried to get healthy if he could have survived into old age. Or at least long enough for the two of us to get to know each other.

But my dad was not a happy man. When I was a kid I used to ask myself, “Was my father a drunk because my mother bitched all the time, or did my mother bitch all the time because my father was a drunk?” I’ve never blamed my parents about my upbringing. I survived by being totally selfish, and I figured it was every family member for themselves. Now that I’m older I feel guilty for being so selfish. I know as a kid I didn’t know enough to help them, or even how to be a better person myself. I just survived the best I could. I really don’t blame my parents, but I don’t think they were suited to have children.

Over the last few decades, I’ve come to believe that I and my sister were the main sources of my parents’ unhappiness. We just weren’t what they expected, and any effort to shape us into what they wanted only caused them endless suffering. Of course, it wasn’t easy on me and Becky either, but our youth gave us a vitality to survive. My father just couldn’t handle the emotional conflicts. My mom got better after my father died, especially with 1970s anti-depressants, but she suffered endless unhappiness for the rest of her life, mostly from trying to make Becky and I do what she wanted.

The photo above is my only proof that my parents were ever happy. It was taken in 1949 before they had me and Becky.

Over the decades I’ve tried to reconstruct who my dad was from memories of the people who knew him, but I’ve had little luck. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to talk with anyone who really knew him, and that includes my mother, who died in 2007. My father wasn’t much of a talker. He might have been before I knew him, but I now believe my mother, sister, and I drowned him out.

I have just 23 photographs of my father. All but three were taken before I was born, and two of those were with me as a toddler. I have no photographs of my father with my sister.

1936---George-Harris-photoshoppedMy father was born in Nebraska, in 1920, but moved when he was a little kid to Miami by 1923. He attended Miami Edison High School, but I’m not sure if he graduated there. I have a photo of him dressed for graduation that was taken in Homestead, Florida. Dad graduated in 1938 and I have his class photo, but I’m not sure if he graduated from Edison. I know he attended Edison for a while because I have a newspaper clipping about his class project. I know he worked as a Western Union delivery boy in high school because I have a photo of him in uniform from 1936. I have photos of my father in the service in 1942, but I’m not sure what he did between graduating in 1938 and joining the Army Air Corp in 1942. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and married my mother in 1945.

My parents were first stationed in Washington, DC, and then Puerto Rico. I have several photographs of my mother and father living on the island and looking very happy. And when I was young they often talked fondly of life in Puerto Rico. I was born on the 6th wedding anniversary on November 25, 1951. There are two photographs of me with my father when I was a toddler, probably in 1952. The next and last photograph I have of my father was from Thanksgiving 1969. It’s blurry and everyone is almost unrecognizable. He died six months later.

I remembered something this morning that made me think the perfect time to rescue my dad would have been in the summer of 1967. 1964-1966 were bad years for my parents, and they separated from September 1966 to March 1967. My mother took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi to be near her family. We returned to Miami in March 1967 to live on West Trade Avenue, in Coconut Grove, Florida. I guess my father was trying to get his act together. He also started computer classes. I remember him coming home from class and telling me about how punch card codes worked. However, it wasn’t long before my mother and father were fighting again. And my mother and father were both on my sister case, and she was having none of it. I remember a lot of family fights. I tried to stay as far away from my family as possible. I slept on the screened-in back porch with the clothes washer. I had my radio, record player and science fiction books.

This would have been a perfect time to have tried to get to know my father. I don’t know if I could have convinced him to eat right, give up smoking and drinking, and maybe even exercise, but maybe he would have considered it on his own if someone had shown any interest in his life. I think he drank because he was lonely.

Taking computer classes in 1967 was a great time to break into the field. I started computer classes in 1971. If I had studied with him I would have had a great headstart too. We could have gotten to know each other. Maybe he would have tried harder.

Generally, when I have my time travel fantasies I’m thinking of time periods to change my life. Over the years I’ve decided the best time for me was the fall of 1963. If I could have talked my parents into letting me live with my grandmother instead of moving with them to South Carolina I believe my life would have been significantly different. In the fall of 1963, I went to three different 7th grade schools. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I had lived in one place from 7th grade through the 12th. But now I see the pivotal moment in time for my dad was the summer of 1967.

I know we only get one life to live. There are no do-overs. I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in heaven. But I’ve long thought the idea of reincarnation was a wonderful concept, but not how the Hindus imagine it. I’ve always thought we should reincarnate in our own lives and have another chance of getting it right.

My father always worked two and three jobs. I hope he had great friends in the service. I know he loved bartending at NCO clubs and VFW clubs. He loved running bars, and I got to visit in some in those bars. I hope he had friends. I often wonder if he and his buddies consoled each other about wives and kids that didn’t understand them. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I imagine my father always being tight-lipped. Just holding it in.

I can only remember a handful of conversations I had with my dad. One time we were watching The Today Show before he took me to school and he went to work. This was also in that summer of 1967. They mentioned The Hobbit and my father said he knew about Bilbo Baggins. I didn’t know who Bilbo was at that time but remembered my dad saying that name, Bilbo Baggins, later when I finally read The Hobbit. It made me wonder what books my father read, what dreams he had about the future. He grew up in the heyday of the pulp magazines and old time radio. I wonder what stories and heroes he loved.

My father loved the military, and in 1967 I was very anti-war. I remember once my dad calling me a commie-pinko-faggot in anger. His dream for me was to join the ROTC and become an officer. I was having none of that. I ruined his fantasy for me. I later thought he should have been mature enough to understand me because I was too immature to understand him. But that was all part of the great generation gap. If my dad had lived he would have been a Fox News kind of guy. I don’t think we would have ever bridged the generation gap.

However, if I ever get hold of a time machine, I would try.

1969---Last-photo-of-Dad

JWH

 

How Accurately Can I Remember 50 Years Ago?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 16, 2019

2019 is the 50th anniversary of my graduating high school in 1969. I attended three different high schools in two states from 1966 to 1969. I’ve been looking at their yearbooks which has triggered a flood of memories. That is inspiring me to write a series of essays in lieu of attending my high school reunion. The process of struggling to remember and validating my memories with evidence has unleashed emotions and revelations that reflect a new honesty about myself. This is my third attempt to write about this experience. I keep bombing out when the essays got too long and complicated. So I’ve decided to cut them up into thematic chunks. I’ve toyed with writing “50 Lessons From 50 Years Ago” because I’ve remembered at least fifty scenes from the past that are worth an essay each, with more burbling out of my unconscious every hour. I’ve either stumbled upon a psychological fountain of wisdom, or a wriggling can of worms.

As my current ability to remember becomes iffier, and access times get longer, the whole topic of memory has become a siren call of fascination, even obsession. This week as I’ve worked to remember 50 years ago, I had many revelations about myself, some unpleasant and unflattering. An essential insight is I might be different from most other people. Because my family moved so much as a kid, I have always been hung up on recalling the past because I was always remembering friends, homes, and schools I just left. I envy people who never moved. My friend Linda, who is working with her 50th-anniversary reunion group is also in charge of the 1st-grade reunion. She told me recently she’s in contact with 9 of her 15 classmates from her first grade. That blows my mind. I can’t remember a single classmate from grades 1 through 3. And I can’t remember now if I went to four or five schools in those first three grades. I do remember living in 7 houses during those years.

This first essay will be about the limits of memory and evidence. To put it bluntly, our memories are flawed and unreliable. Whole books have been written about that. My favorite is Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman. Don’t be scared off because it’s about Jesus, Ehrman takes a historical approach and spends most of the book talking about how we remember. Describing someone from 2,000 years ago tests the limit of memory and evidence. I’m just trying to remember who I was 50 years ago and a few friends. Supposedly I should have been the best eye witness. I probably wasn’t. After reading through the yearbooks I went searching for more physical evidence. I found very little.

The photo above is from my 10th-grade yearbook, The Warrior when I attended East Tallahatchie High School in Charleston, Mississippi from September 1966 through the beginning of March 1967. I’m the guy in the striped sweater. Except for the teacher I can’t recall any of those other science club members. So far I’ve only found three photos of myself from 1966-1969. That’s scant evidence. I thought I had a few old report cards my mother saved, but I can’t find them. I have no diaries, journals, or other physical evidence. I had more physical evidence, but in the 1970s, went through a Buddhist phase and got rid of all my possessions that triggered memories. God, I wish I had that stuff now, what a jackass. At the time I wanted to free myself from thinking about the past.

The Yardsticks of Memory

There are two primary ways to reconstruct the past. The first is memories. The second is physical evidence. But I needed a standard unit of measurement, a yardstick to lay against both memory and evidence. Or I needed anchors in the past to work out from. I’m slowly developing several:

  • How many people did I know and how often did I talk to them? This involved recalling names and finding photographs and giving myself the third-degree about how deeply I interacted with these people.
  • What was I required to do every day? What were my routines?
  • What did I want to do with my free time?
  • What did I hope to do? What were my plans for the future?
  • What events can I document on Google that I remember attending?
  • Where and what did I eat at my three meals?
  • What TV shows did I watch?
  • What books did I read?
  • What movies and concerts did I go to?
  • How did I commute to work and school?

I’ve decided not to attend my reunion because digging through the yearbooks convinced me I knew too few classmates. I realized while contemplating this whole high school reunion thing, that I can measure my high school years by how much I talked to the different people. Today I can name damn few people I got to really know back in high school. I wasn’t particularly shy. I’m fairly confident that I learned all the names of my classmates in every class. I paid that much attention. People would talk to me and I’d talk to them, but it was all casual chit-chat that’s been forgotten. I remember several girls in each class that triggered sex fantasies to alleviate the boredom of lectures. Some of them actually like talking to me. However, I only actually dated only one girl for a couple of months, and I can’t remember one distinctive thing she said to me. I found damn few kids in my memories that liked to talk about what I liked to talk about, which was science, science fiction, the future, and NASA’s efforts at space travel. I did gab daily with folks about cars, television, movies, and rock music because those were the lowest common denominators of pop culture back then. I didn’t like talking about sports or school activities or gossiping about the other kids.

I still chat on the phone several times a week to my oldest friend, Jim Connell. We met at Coral Gables High School, my second high school, in 1967. So he wasn’t part of my graduating class, but Connell was the person I spent the most time with back then. We were also pals with George Kirschner. George is probably the second person I spent the most time talking to during my high school years. We three loved science fiction, and we had each had rejected our Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish upbringing. I was into the counter culture, George was the know-it-all with a more sophisticated upbringing, and Connel was adventurous but shy and loved the ocean. We all loved science.

My family moved from Coconut Grove, Florida to South Miami when I was in the 11th grade, and I finished out high school at Miami-Killian Senior High. However, I kept my job in Coconut Grove until the last week of November 1968. That kept me tied to some of my friends that still went to Coral Gables High School, but it meant a long daily commute to work. Remembering this made me realize I had friends at two high schools and a job so that meant a lot more names and conversations to recall.

It also made me realize that I did a lot of traveling every day and I didn’t own a car. Just trying to remember how I got from place to place is unearthing all kinds of memories. Google Maps tells me from home to Kwik Check was 16.1 miles via Old Cutler Road, and would take 37 minutes. Here’s a memory puzzle. I think my mother and father each had a car, but I didn’t. They both worked. I remember a 1967 Pontiac Tempest and vaguely remember a much older Mercury. I think sometimes I’d go to school on the bus, or catch a ride with Tim Green. Miami-Killian was between home and work. And then I’d hitch-hike into the Grove, but I don’t think I did that often. I only vaguely remember driving to school a few times, but what I really remember was loving the drive home after work. I’d be hot and sweaty after working six hours. My end-of-the-night tasks were sweeping and mopping the floors, cleaning the bathrooms, and incinerating the out-of-date food. I’d buy two 16-ounce Cokes after work and drive home via the Old Cutler Road, which was dark and lined with ancient looking trees. I’d have the windows down and play the radio very loud. I love the time I had to myself driving home. It was the only time I wasn’t rushing. So my assumption is my parents would lend me their cars. But I have no memory of discussing who’d take the car each day, or how they got to their jobs.

Nor do I remember much about my sister Becky’s life back then. She was two years younger than me. When I started the 12th at Miami-Killian she started the 10th, but I have no memory of which junior high schools she attended in Gables or South Miami Heights.

And this makes me remember something else. To many, high school is 9th through 12th, but in Miami, junior high was 7th through 9th and high school 10th through 12th. So if I’m recalling the details of my high school years, do I think of four schools or three, or four homes or three? Because recalling the 9th grade is a whole other memory era for me, and a different group of friends.

This quicksand trap is teaching me about memory. Every time I find a piece of evidence, remember a name, think of an activity or recall an event, I trigger memories around them. It feels like it’s all there, I just need to find the hook, or thread of the web and follow it. It boggles my mind to think that chemical etchings in my brain stores all these memories.

Now that I’m working out the framework for finding memories, I want to pick an individual memory and reconstruct it in depth. I know there was the reality to my life fifty years ago, but it was all perceptual. There was the person I wanted to be, the person I thought I was, the person other people saw, and they were all different. And my parents and teachers wanted me to be different people with different futures, and I wanted to be something I could never be.

One of the hardest things to remember is my realistic expectations about the future. I remember countless unrealistic expectations, but how often did I make realistic decisions and plans? Stay tuned for part 2.

JWH

 

Creating v. Consuming

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 2, 2019

Back in the 1970s when I used to visit New Age seminars I met a woman who claimed there were two types of people in this world: those that create and those who consume. I thought that was an interesting distinction, but probably bullshit. But every now and then I think about it. Most people read books, few write them. Most people listen to music, few play it. Yet, even a brilliant writer is a consumer when it comes to music, television, music, and even books too. And being creative doesn’t mean being an artist. Anyone with a job creates.

Since retiring I’ve thought about this insight differently. Without our 9-to-5, we spend a whole lot more time consuming and less creating, unless we have a hobby, volunteer, or pursue some other creative outlet. Cleaning house is creative – you’re making order out of chaos, but do you feel that when you do your chores?

I realize much of my happiness comes from waking up and thinking of something to do each day. Yesterday I wrote “Fantastic Universe (1953-1960)” which involved making almost 200 links to the web and the gathering of many facts. In the big scheme of things, this tiny bit of creative effort isn’t very important, but it gave me something creative to do. Creative not in the sense of Picasso, but in the sense of not consuming.

It made me happy. I know retired people who are restless, and even unhappy. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Even knowing what I’m saying here, it’s very hard to just pick something to do. Creativity, no matter how mundane, requires a drive. Having a drive to blog makes me lucky. I can’t tell my restless friends to start blogging. It won’t work if they don’t have the drive.

The morning, The New York Times presented “The Queen of Change” by Penelope Green about Julia Cameron and her classic book The Artist’s Way. Most people who read this book do so because they want to pursue a traditionally creative endeavor. But, could her approach work for finding mundane creative endeavors in retirement? Most people seeking to be creative want to be successful artistically. But is that really important? Isn’t merely being creative at anything worthy in itself? Maybe my restless friends should read it.

I am still a big consumer. I actually love consuming movies, TV shows, music, books, essays, and short stories. It’s just unfulfilling to do it all the time. I think we need a certain amount of time when we’re creating, but I don’t know if it has to ambitious creativity. Piddling at something you love can be all the difference between happiness and unhappiness.

I’ve come to realize that I’m a happy person because when I wake up in the morning I start thinking about things I want to do. I worry about my friends who aren’t lucky that way. I’m afraid if I try to judge the worthiness of my piddling activities my happiness will break. I wonder if my unhappy friends kill their drive to do something because they deem it unworthy before they even try?

JWH

Creating Something Useful in Retirement

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 17, 2019

For their retirement project, Greg Hullender and Eric Wong created Rocket Stack Rank that reviews and rates science fiction and fantasy short stories as they come out in eleven SF/F magazines and some anthologies. It’s a major undertaking they’ve been working on since 2015. Rocket Stack Rank is quite a resource and especially useful if you love shorter works of science fiction. I subscribe to four magazines they review, and their reviews show up very quickly after a new issue appears. Because I’m always so busy reading older stories, I use their ratings to take my head out of the past and put it in the present. But I also admire the web design and programming that also goes into their site.

Greg and Eric have been buddies for twenty years. My friend Mike and I have been reading and discussing science fiction for almost forty years. Mike inspired me to create the Classics of Science Fiction list back in the 1980s. Since 2016 Mike has been programming the database for the site and this year created the query system that lets users build their own lists. We think of the site as our retirement project. It gives us purpose and hopefully provides a useful tool for other people.

However, recently we started wondering if all the work was worth the effort because very few people use our site. Identifying the most remembered science fiction stories of the past is going to appeal to a very niche crowd. The new query system that Mike has spent a great deal of time perfecting only gets a few people using it a day. We were planning to expand its features but have been wondering if its worth the effort. Mike loves to program and this gives him a project to work on, but is it the best use of his time? I spend a lot of time researching, data inputting, and writing essays for the site.

Last night we were asking ourselves if success is determined by the number of users. If we enjoy the effort does it matter how many people use the site? In one sense no, but we do want to create tools people will use. We have to balance the fact that a new feature might require hundreds or even thousands of hours of work against its future utility. We’ve been disappointed the CSF Query (Classics of Science Fiction Query) hasn’t gotten more users. We think it’s partly due to people not knowing about it, and mostly due to people not needing it.

CSF Query is the kind of tool in your toolbox that you will only need rarely, but when the need arises it’s perfect for the job. For example, Paul Fraser at SF Magazines created a listing of stories that can be considered for the 1944 Retro Hugo Awards. So far he’s found 326 stories from about a dozen 1943 pulp magazines that qualify. That’s quite of bit of work. If you set CSF Query for 1943 and a minimum of 1 citation and hit Search you’ll get all the stories that are remembered in our Classics of Science Fiction database. Our work compliments his. The fun challenge to Retro Hugo voters is to see if any of the 326 stories in Paul’s list that aren’t remembered in our list are worth rediscovering. Our list shows the stories that have been remembered in major anthologies since 1943. So CSF Query reduces 326 down to 20. If you change the minimum citation to 2 and hit Search it reduces the number of stories to 7, showing the most popular SF stories remembered since 1943. In this case, our tool is useful for showing how often an SF story was remembered by fans and editors.

I also love to use CSF Query to look at years and decades, or which works by a particular author were their most remembered stories. By changing the citation level CSF Query can zero in on the most remembered SF stories.

Of course, just how many people will want to do this on any given day? Mike and I have been thinking about adding a new feature that would allow users to query the database by theme. That would allow readers who want to read all the most popular stories about colonizing Mars a way to find them. Trying to catalog all science fiction stories by their themes would be impossible, but I’ve thought it might be possible to do the 275 stories on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list, and 139 books on the Classics of Science Fiction list. But researching 414 stories and deciding their themes would still be a huge task. It’s the kind of obsessive bibliographic undertaking that I would find pleasurable, but would it be all that useful to other people?

I believe having hobbies and projects in retirement are very important. Just existing every day consuming air, water, food, television shows, books, music, movies, etc. is pleasurable, but doesn’t make me look forward to the future. I like having a sense of building something, even if it’s tiny and only valued by me. But it’s even more rewarding when I create something useful to others, even if it’s only to a few people.

The other night I watched a documentary, Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams, an obscure writer I’ve not read. I saw this preview and couldn’t resist buying it. Near the end, the documentary maker is interviewing Harlan Ellison and laments that not enough people read Clark Ashton Smith. Ellison tells him that it doesn’t matter how many people read CAS, the number is what it is, but he is important to the readers who have found him. Our retirement project is important to us and the people who actually like using it, no matter what that number turns out to be.

JWH

Marie Kondoizing My Groundhog Day Loop

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 10, 2019

Do we ever change? Can we ever stop rolling Sisyphean dreams up a hill? Can we ever escape the hardwiring of our genes? Can we overcome the destiny of our unconscious impulses? My regular readers know I end up whining about the same exact fate over and over again. I feel like Bill Murray stuck in a Groundhog Day loop. It works something like this. I’ll write this essay to find a revelation of how to escape this loop. I’ll then try very hard to follow that insight. Over the next few weeks, I’ll get distracted by a growing number of other ambitions. I’ll get happily lost in frittering away my time in endless pursuits. Eventually, I’ll get exhausted chasing seventeen cats leoparding in twenty-seven directions. My real and virtual desks will overflow with aborted projects. Then the day will come, like today, when I decide I absolutely must Marie Kondo everything in my life. And finally, I’ll write this version of the essay. It will be much like the essays I’ve written before.

The last version I wrote back in June even has a nice mind map of all my diversions. My absolute, positively-no-matter-what conclusion was to always write fiction in the mornings. I diligently tried writing fiction for a while, but eventually, switched back to writing blogs. I told myself, “all you can ever be is a blog writer,” at which point I start working on more ambitious blogging projects that pile up in my drafts folder. Then the realization comes I can never juggle more than 1,500 words before an essay falls apart. I deeply realize the limits of my ability to focus. Then I start blaming all the physical clutter around me for not being able to concentrate.

Of course, in every iteration of the loop, I firmly feel I’ve discovered a new way out. Yet, is that illusory because I can’t remember all the other loops? This time the revelation is: the problem is not the clutter in my house, but the clutter in my mind that keeps me from focusing on my creative ambitions. The old belief was physical clutter caused mental clutter. The new idea is to Marie Kondo the mental clutter and I’ll naturally just start giving away the physical clutter.

When I’m in this phase of the loop I ache for simplicity. That’s why I crave Marie Kondoizing my possessions. I feel owning less will free my mind. I have fantasies of dwelling in one bare white room with no windows, a recliner, a few shelves of books, one desk, and one computer. I picture myself working on one writing project. When I’m tired, I sleep in the recliner. (In this fantasy, I somehow magically don’t need to eat or go to the bathroom.)

This time I feel different. I might have felt that before because my emotions loop too. However, I’ve been intermittent fasting for 100 days, and that has given me a new sense of discipline. Since New Year’s Day, I’ve stopped eating junk food. Giving up junk food was far easier this time. Is it due to the discipline gained from intermittent fasting? It’s even affected my writing. This time I’m going to try to break the loop not by getting rid my junk, but my Marie Kondoizing my thoughts.

If I write this essay again in six months you’ll know this hypothesis was wrong.

The reason why I never break out of my Groundhog Day creative loop is that I can’t stick to my chosen single project. I’ve known for countless loops the solution is to focus on one project. However, for the last many iterations of the loop that I can remember, I pick the same science fiction short story to finish. I’ll commit to that goal, but after several days, I slowly get distracted by a bunch of other desires.

That happens because I begin believing I can chase more than one goal. I’ll slowly rediscover all those hobbies I’ve pursued in the past and start ordering crap from Amazon again (even though I’ve given all that crap away many times before in other loops). For example, I just bought a microscope because I wanted to study biology. I pricked my finger using a gadget for testing blood sugar levels, looked at my blood under the microscope, planned to go get some pond scum next, but got distracted by going bird watching with my wife instead, piddled with about a dozen other projects, and forgot all about the microscope, and my story.

I envy people who can relentlessly stick to doing one thing, even if it’s just watching TV all day. I wake up in the morning with the urge to accomplish a specific goal. This morning I woke up wanting to build a MySQL database to collect and organize all the themes of science fiction. This particular project could take weeks. Instead of writing on my story, I got sidetracked into databases. And before I could finish that project, I started two more.

Usually, while showering, I’ll come up with 2-4 ideas of things I want to do that day. So far today I’ve wanted to listen to “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury and write an essay about it. I also decided to read all I can about bodyweight exercises and develop a set of routines so I can get rid of my Bowflex machine and stationary bicycle. And I wanted to read the four issues of BBC Music I already own to see if I want to subscribe and dedicate myself to learning about classical music.

Getting old is increasing my desire to accomplish something substantial. I guess it’s the fear of not completing the only goal on my bucket list. I might live another 10-20 years if I’m lucky, but if I’m ever going to get any fiction published it better be soon. The odds are already against me now. My guestimate is only one in a million would-be writers sell their first story after 60, and and that goes down to one in a billion by 70. I’m 67. (By the way, if you’re young and reading this, start now!) I began writing classes in my fifties, and I’ve wondered why creative success is usually found only by the young. In my fifties, I didn’t feel that mentally different from my thirties, but all through my sixties, I’ve felt my mental and physical abilities dwindling. I’m beginning to understand how and why aging reduces our chances to succeed with new creative endeavors.

We lose impulse control as we age. It just becomes easier to follow the urge of the moment. The older I get the more I don’t give a damn about how I dress or what the house looks like to friends. And it’s so much easier to give into Ben & Jerry’s than to make a salad. And boy is it getting easier to believe dying fat is better than dieting.

But, the siren call of less is more philosophers keeps enchanting me, and I think I can escape the loop by giving away all my junk.

When it comes down to it, escaping this loop requires discipline. And discipline is hard to come by at age 67. I’ve always known I could break out of the loop by giving up. But I always come to the same conclusion: the only item on my bucket list is to sell a science fiction story. I wrote dozens of them in my fifties and failed to sell any. Should that failure tell me to stop trying or try harder? I keep thinking I should keep trying, but poor impulse control tells me that pursuing little pleasures is far nicer than embracing the delayed gratification for having one extra-large pleasure.

Up until now, the hope of breaking out of the loop was to make myself keep writing science fiction stories. Maybe the real exit strategy is to give up that goal.

Not yet.

JWH

 

Can Meditation Overwrite the Unconscious Mind?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 9, 2018

My friend Linda has been getting into meditation. That made me think I should give it another go. I’ve tried meditation many times since the New Age of the 1970’s, but never stuck with it. I currently face two obstacles I want to overcome and wondered if meditation could help. I see at least one article a week show up on Flipboard touting the successes of meditators. They claim science supports the claims of meditation, but I’d want to verify that before I claim it too. I’ve written before about how I feel there are two wills occupying this body – the conscious me, and my unconscious mind whose will seems much stronger than my conscious mind.

older-adult-meditating

The two of us fight over health and creativity. My unconscious mind wants to follow my biological urges. The conscious me wants to become disciplined and be more creative. The conscious me wants to control or eliminate my biological urges and apply all my energy to achieving my goals. My unconscious mind loves to go with the flow and puppet-mastering me into doing whatever it feels like.

This morning I sat erect in an upholstered straight chair, put 20 minutes on my iPhone timer, sat on my hands, and closed my eyes. Meditation usually involves following your breath or focusing on a mantra. I decided to pay attention to my senses and always bring my mind back to one thought: I want to write a short story. I already know which story. I’ve written several drafts but left it unfinished several years ago.

I have two barriers I face every day. My declining health and my declining ability to focus on work. As I sat, and let my mind quiet I noticed the regular tick of the clock on the wall. I observed that tick which was more of a quiet thump, thump, thump…

Then I noticed the faint wail of a train whistle far to the east. I told myself to think about writing. I worked to just empty my mind of words and hold just the urge to write. Time and again my thoughts would flare up. They’d be about writing, but I tell myself to stop thinking words and just observe.

Then I noticed the sound of the HVAC in the attic starting the furnace. My mind went back to the clock and then wail of the train that was getting closer. I had three sounds to follow. My mind felt like it was in a golden sphere of nothingness. My mind began to chatter again, thinking about the details of writing. I brought it back to just the three sounds and the urge to write.

I have no idea how meditation is supposed to do its wonders. Does merely learning to slow and stop thoughts alter the unconscious mind into new programming?

My mind drifted to other thoughts not related to writing. I reigned it in again. I observe the sound of the thump, thump, thump of the clock, the concurrent sound of the approaching train, the sound of the HVAC now blowing air through the vents, and a new sound, the little crashes of the occasional acorn hitting the roof and then rolling off. Then I noticed constant Tinnitus sound in my ears. My ears were singing louder than all the other sounds.

It came to me I should write a thousand words today. Then it came to me I should write about meditation. Then it came to me I should write the fiction first. Then it came to me I should write 1,000 words of fiction the first thing every day. Then I stopped my thoughts and went back to observing the sounds outside the golden glow of my mind.

After a while, my mind got away, and it gave me the first sentence of the story. I thought up more sentences but told my mind to stop. I focused on quieting the mind and observing the sounds.

It kept doing this until the alarm went off.

I got up immediately, went to the computer and wrote 1,039 words of new fiction. The first in a very long time. Is that success due to meditation? I don’t know. Let’s see what I do tomorrow and the following days.

I doubt the success of today’s writing is due to twenty minutes of meditation. I felt good today, after a string of feeling poorly days. I got up and did a Miranda Esmonde-White classical stretch workout, and then 30 minutes on the exercise bike. I then took a nice warm shower. I was feeling pretty damn good when I meditated, so maybe just the momentum of following some positive endeavors help me write fiction. I’ve been wanting to get back into writing fiction for years but just couldn’t make myself try. Mainly, because all my efforts ended in disappointment.

Most creative efforts are achieved by folks when they are young. A few creative endeavors have late-blooming exceptions, and writing is one of them. But I think I’m already older than that oldest late-blooming author I know about. My hope to succeed at something is strictly against all odds. And I understand why. The older we get, the less mental and physical health we have, the harder it is to make ourselves work at disciplined tasks.

I was feeling pretty good today. Except for a pesky hemorrhoid, I’m feeling really good this morning. That’s rare. My back and heart aren’t nagging me at the moment. My mind is a good deal more alert than usual. I have been on this intermittent fast for almost 40 days. I haven’t lost weight, but it seems to be making me feel better and give me more energy. I’m napping less. So one session of meditation probably didn’t get me to write today, but maybe feeling like meditation is another good sign. I hope to do it twice a day from now on. Let’s see if my unconscious mind will stop me, or if I can reprogram it.

I know I’m battling an uphill mental fight while in a physical decline, but I keep hoping there are things I can do to keep the fight going longer. I know at some point declining health and aging will crush my spirit. And even when I can’t actively be creative, I hope for some years of mass-consumption of books, music, movies, and television will keep me happy. I’ve talked to many old people that gave up on everything. I know what the future holds. I’m just fighting a delaying action. But I consider that a positive.

JWH