When Is Forgetting Natural or Dementia?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 25, 2016

This morning I sat down to write an essay, “What are the Most Important Concepts You’ve Learned Reading Science Fiction?” I was going to base it on Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. I knew I’ve mentioned Empire Star many times on my blog, so I searched on that title. That’s when I discovered I had already written, “What Are The Most Useful Concepts You’ve Learned From Science Fiction?” And it was just over a year ago! How could I have forgotten that? Even the titles are almost identical (but not quite).

Pug26

I’ve written 1,039 essays for this blog, and I’ve written hundreds more for other reasons. Let’s call it 2,000 essays. At what point is forgetting what I’ve written something natural, and when is it a sign of impending dementia? Occasionally, I’ve rediscover essays I’ve written and have no memory of writing them. Sometimes reading them brings back vague memories, sometimes not. Who remembers every meal they’ve eaten? Some forgetting is natural. Who can remember 2,000 of anything? Has any writer forgotten a whole novel?

Sometimes I know I’ve written an essay and intentionally rewrite it hoping to do a better job. Not this time. I thought I had a new idea. And I don’t think I could do better if I tried again. In fact, I was planning something smaller.

I don’t think I have dementia, but I wonder about the dynamics of forgetting. One of the fascinating aspects of getting older is learning my limitations. Everyone has limitations, but they’re less obvious when we’re young.

I wonder what the second essay would have been like if I hadn’t discovered the first.

Have I written this essay before?

JWH

The Fiction at the Bottom of Our Souls

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 17, 2016

  • Can we trust who we think we are?
  • Can we assume our convictions are correct?
  • Why are we so passionately convinced our version of reality is the right one?
  • Is fiction truer than memory?
  • How does fiction consumed in childhood affect the way we perceive reality?

Of your earliest memories, which do you favor: remembered events or stories? I can dredge up some exceeding vague memories from when I was three, but lately I’ve been reading about scientists studying memory that makes me doubt what I recall. I know what I think of as actual events might not be recordings of reality, but memories of memories of memories. Every time we replay an old memory, science now thinks, we record over the original memory with the impressions of remembering that memory. (Watch “Memory Hackers” on PBS NOVA or The Brain with David Eagleman.)

Treasure Island

There is nothing in my memory bank as vivid as the photo above.

Mixed in with all my memories of reality are memories of fiction. I was born in 1951, but my earliest memories of television come from 1954-55. A few years later, are memories of seeing my first movie on TV, High Barbaree. I’m sure I saw others, but its the one I remember. My late 1950s memories are filled with black-and-white science fiction films and Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan flicks.  Around 1959 I encountered Treasury Island, the first book I remember reading.

I have many memories of external reality growing up in the 1950s, but I also have more memories from television. Because I’ve seen those TV shows & old movies repeatedly over the years and decades, and often reread my favorite books, those fictional memories have gain vividness, while my real life memories fade. Is it any wonder that Turner Classic Movies has become so meaningful to the social security set?

I once returned to the house I lived in when I was four. I think of age four as the beginning of my personality.  When I stood on that sidewalk in front of that house, I felt like I was at the Big Bang beginning of my existence. From 1955 till today, I have two kinds of memory. What happened in my life and what happened in stories. In terms of deciding which programmed my soul more, I’m undecided.

Robert Silverberg has a wonderful essay, “Writing Under the Influence” in the March 2016 Asimov’s Science Fiction about how a favorite fantasy story he discovered in childhood influenced two novels he wrote as an adult (Son of Man, Lord of Darkness). The story, The Three Mulla-Mulgars, by Walter de la Mare, from 1919, is one I’ve never heard of before. Folks at GoodReads gush about how delightful this forgotten fairytale is to read. I snagged a free Kindle edition from Amazon and hope to read it soon.

I highly recommend reading Silverberg’s essay. I love people’s reading histories. Unfortunately the link to read the essay online will quit working when the next issue comes out. You can get Asimov’s at your newsstand, or from Amazon as a Kindle ebook.

dorothy-lathrop-three-royal-monkeys

Here’s one of the original Dorothy P. Lathrop illustrations from The Three Mulla-Mulgars, from a collection of them at 50 Watts.

Partly why Silverberg’s essay resonates so deeply with me is because he describes how an earlier true-life African explorer narrative, The Strange Adventures of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the Adjoining Regions figured in The Three Mulla-Mulgars. I’m fascinated by how stories inspire stories. Or how writers are inspired by authors from earlier generations. The memories of authors are encapsulated into their stories, and we share their memories by reading, and their memories as passed on through us. And if we write stories, using older memories from those we’ve read, those memories are rerecorded for another generation, much like brain memories, and just as distorted.

High BarbareeHigh Barbaree Movie

I’ve often fantasized about writing a story based on my memory of my first encounter with fiction. My earliest memory of seeing a movie is waking up in the middle of the night, and watching the all-night movies with my dad. This was before I went to school, and I didn’t comprehend movies, acting or fiction. All I can remember is a scene of two kids who were friends being separated, when the girl and her family moved away. Even at that young age, that had already happened to me more than once, because my father was in the Air Force. It was a strong fictional emotion bonding with my own remembered emotions.

This was when I was too young to remember the title of movies. Years later I saw the movie again, and that’s when I memorized its name, High Barbaree, with Van Johnson and June Allyson. I was in the sixth grade. I used to trust my memories from that age, but I don’t anymore. I caught High Barbaree again in my twenties, after I got married. This time it occurred to me that it might be based on a book. I wasn’t able to find the book until the internet age, and AbeBooks.com. It was then I discovered the book was written the same guys who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, and they also have a fascinating history. I was also able to track down a biography of those two writers at that time too, In Search of Paradise by Paul L. Briand, Jr.

Between the original novel, and the biography, I learned High Barbaree was about memory, and a fictionalized autobiography of sorts for James Norman Hall. Hall was writing about how our souls are formed by early memory and fiction. He was remembering the writers who influenced him. His memories became my memories, and if I could ever write a novel, their memories would get passed down, along with some of mine. I guess I am a believer in the collective unconscious.

It’s now possible to buy High Barbaree on DVD, but I’m not sure I can recommend it. It’s slight, sometimes silly, and very sentimental. The book is more serious, and fits the memories I have of seeing the story as a child. Or at least, that’s how I remember it now. I know my original impressions, however vaguely they were recorded by my brain, have been lost to rewriting by all the times I’ve recalled that memory. Each time I’ve watched that film again, dwelled on those memories, reread the book, or written about all of this, I’ve recolored those deep original memories with newer philosophical musings.

I used to believe we could discover the truth of history. I used to think memories were real and trustworthy. Now I doubt the reliability of neural recordings, and any collective knowledge we have about actual history. We constantly rewrite our own memories, and we constantly rewrite history. For example, the new book by Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, has more than convinced me that it’s absolutely impossible to know anything about Jesus as a real person in history. Ehrman’s analysis of history and memory applies to recent historical figures as well, where we have solid documentation, like for Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein. All these revisiting and new recordings have written over any real history that happened.

rashomon

The best nonfiction is still fiction. I’ve taken classes and workshops in creative nonfiction, and I know from experience I can’t write the absolute truth.  Memories are just stories we tell ourselves about fleeting impressions of the past poorly etched in our brains. Our minds are not DVRs. And even if they were, how often have you seen a video in the news where people argue over what actually happened? Realty was never our version of events—it’s always the Rashomon effect.  Even if we average out all the eyewitnesses, we can never definitively say what happened.

All during 2016, we hear folks wanting to be president tell stories they swear are true. And we’ll vote for the candidate whose stories match our own stories the best. All of those stories were shaped by the fiction everyone encountered growing up. Remember how Ronald Reagan used to blend movie scenes into his recollections? I used to think he was a doddering old man, but now I wonder if he wasn’t wiser than he appeared. We’re all going to look like silly old fools someday, dwelling on fleeting memories of our past, poorly remembered. But that doesn’t mean the stories we tell ourselves and others don’t have a kind of elegant logic. It won’t be the truth, but if we could only get our stories to work together, it might be true enough.

My reality is colored by stories I encountered in my early years, like High Barbaree. Just like Robert Silverberg’s reality was colored by The Three Mulla-Mulgars, which he discovered when he was young. We might think the fiction at the bottom of our souls are merely stories, but I’m not so sure anymore. Those early tales had a butterfly effect on shaping who we became. We can’t understand reality in black and white certainty. But we do make sense of our external existence by storytelling, and so we need to understand the truth of that.

JWH

Cross Generational Music Appreciation

By James Wallace Harris, March 14, 2016

In his new book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, John Seabrook begins by telling how his young son took over the car radio during their morning ride to school. Seabrook loves music and wanted his son to love his music, but the kid was adamant that he wanted his own music. I remember doing this to my dad back in the late 1950s. I’m sure all of us have been on both sides of that divide of music generations. Seabrook decided to get into his son’s music, and ended up writing a fascinating book.

How much cross generation listening goes on? Don’t most people bond with the music from their teenage and college years and then essentially stop listening to new stuff when the next generation annoys them with their music? In recent years though, I’ve noticed that some kids have embraced a few bands, songs and albums from my generation, the 1960s. I belong to their grandparents’ times. Are these kids rebelling against their parents’ by listening to the music their parents rejected?

My generation (who knew the Who could be so prophetic) has become terribly nostalgic for music history, seemingly to never tire of documentaries like, The Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Searching For Sugar Man, Atlantic Records, and Respect Yourself: The Stax Years. Just last week I watched documentaries on Fats Domino and Carole King. I’d watch more if I could find them. It’s funny, but this music is the one bridge I have with my Fox News watching conservative friends. We hate each other for our politics but commune over music.

But if I tell my peers I have Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj on my playlists they laugh at me. But if I tell them I’ve been listening to Ronnie Spector or Dionne Warwick it sparks a memory fest. And if tell them I’m been playing Peggy Lee or Lena Horne, a few of them will perk up. Among my music loving buddies who do cross generations, they generally travel backwards. I guess the young people I meet with Jimi Hendrix T-shirts are traveling backwards in time too. I don’t know why older folks look down on the music of younger generations. I have a number of friends who stopped listening to new music around 1975, and no matter what I play for them, I can’t seem to get them to move forward in time.

That’s a shame because musical creativity didn’t stop in the 1970s. Seabrook writes specifically about pop music (Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Rihanna, KPOP, American Idol, Denniz Pop, Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Ester Dean) and how they make hits with computers and teams of creative personnel that collaborate with the performing artist. There are no singer-songwriters here. No bands that play all their instruments. Producers are the emperors of the studio, hiring up to a dozen people to write a song. But wouldn’t that be true back in the Motown era if everyone who added anything to a song got credit? The Song Machine was absolutely fascinating to me, even though I’m not from that generation. It annoys me that my friends won’t give new music a chance, and probably refuse to read this book.

the-song-machine-john-seabrook

All this cogitation about cross generation listening has made wonder about many things. How do kids today choose what they listen to from past generations? And why? Are they mesmerized by tunes in movies and end up chasing them down? Have they found LPs at Granny’s or Goodwill, which inspired them to dig up an old record player, curious about the tunes on those strange black discs? This morning I was wondering why young people remember The Beatles, but not The Byrds. Is there any reason for one generation to remember the pop culture from another generation? Has classic rock become the elevator music of today, and Beatles songs became ear worms boring into young brains? Do they teach The Beatles in school? Maybe kids clicked past nostalgia shows on PBS and got hooked. I don’t know what percentage of today’s generation discover old music, but is there any reason to expect them know about my music, or even like it? And why don’t I ever hear them express their love for The Byrds—my favorite band from the 1960s?

Mr Tamborine Man - The ByrdsTurn Turn Turn - The Byrds

At the moment I’m listening to a collection of 1950s songs on Spotify because I caught an episode of American Masters on PBS about Fats Domino. One thing I didn’t know, Fats was as popular as Elvis for a short while during the 1950s, but people now remember the 1950s belonging to Elvis. That makes me think there are some people like me, who remember their decade of music differently. I hardly play The Beatles anymore, but I play music from the 1960s constantly. Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Motown, San Francisco rock and pre-1965 Brill Building pop dominate my memories. If I made list of my favorite songs, I bet there would be a couple hundred songs from the 1960s at the top of my list before I even listed my first Beatles tune.

And I loved The Beatles, but I loved other artists from the 1960s more. Should I encourage young people to discover their music? Should schools teach 1960s music like they teach classical music in music appreciation courses? As I got older I sought out popular music that came out before the 1960s, going back into the 1950s, 1940s, 1930s and even the 1920s. I crossed genres into jazz, country, big band, folk, pop, world, opera and classical. I suppose some of the kids who are discovering The Beatles are doing that today.

Fifth Dimension - The ByrdsYounger Than Yesterday - The Byrds

When does pop culture become history? When does memory become nostalgia? They used to play Fats Domino songs like I’m listening to as I write on the weekends in 1962, on WQAM and WFUN, and called them “Oldie Goldies” even though they were less than ten years old. Now they’re over sixty. People from my generation go to concerts today performed by acts they grew up with, even though those artists are even a generation older than us. I’m not keen on seeing dinosaur rock. I love remembering those performers when they were young, vibrant and in their times. On Facebook I have friends who post photos from parties where they act like they are still in high school. That’s cool. But should they listen to some new music too? It’s really hard to give up the pop culture that imprinted on us as teens.

I’m not sure there are reasons to require listeners to cross generational divides. When I watch “People Are Awesome” videos on YouTube I realize the current generation have plenty to keep them busy, more than I ever had. Now is always more important than the past—or the future. On the other hand, I’ve switched from Fats to “Jealous” by Ester Dean, playing it over and over. It’s definitely not from the 1950s! I’m too old to live in the times in which this song belongs, but Dean’s voice and melody touches my heart in a way that I wish I could.

Nortorious Byrd Brothers - The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo - The Byrds

Do the young today long to visit my era in the same way I wish I could be young now? The Beatles were tremendously exciting, but were they more exciting than the groups now? Why are the sounds of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Jefferson Airplane still siren calls that hold me back in time? If I stopped listening to the songs that tie me to the past, could I modernize my brain by only playing new songs on Spotify?

I often think about my future when my body will be fading out of existence and my mind barely floats in reality. I’ve often thought listening to music on headphones while I die would be a great way to go. Will I be listening to seventy year old songs? More and more, the songs on my main Spotify list are newer ones. I play my tunes on random play. Will I leave reality hearing 1965, or 2037? Wouldn’t it be weird if I lived long enough to live The Sixties again?

JWH

Why Do We Fall In Love With The Past?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 28, 2016

We explore the past through infinite paths. The past no longer exists, yet we recreate “what was” with artifacts that continue to exist in the now. We use our neurons as virtual reality machines to remember. Most of us have a rough map of our own life, and hazier maps of our own culture. Beyond those maps lie the unknown territory of the collective past, which we are all deeply rooted. We have all shook hands with someone who shook hands with a 19th century person, who had shaken hands with someone from the 18th century. I am old enough to have shaken hands with many people born in the 19th century. Every history book we read weaves thousands of threads that link us to a past.

Have you ever contemplated how we build the past in our minds? As individuals we use memories. We talk to other people and use their memories. Novels, movies, songs, television shows, paintings – are fundamental ways of recalling the past. Art is recorded memories. Think of cave paintings, probably among our oldest memories. Slowly, education and scholarship evolved to organize the details of the past. Whether you’re studying math or The New Testament, you’re recreating the past. The discipline of history isn’t that old in the big scheme of things. In recent times we have journalism and the internet to extend our sense of the past.

Whenever we play an old piece of music or see a work if art in a museum, it connects us to people, places and things who lived and died long ago. For example, I’m currently reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrère (19281982, San Francisco, Berkeley, Point Reyes, Santa Ana) a biography of Philip K. Dick. Or I recently saw The Revenant (1823, Montana, South Dakota) about Hugh Glass. I could link to dozen more movies and books I’ve recently seen that connect me to the past. Just follow those few links to understand how we network with the past, and how far and quickly that web of memory will carry you away. Trying to grasp the fullness of past is like falling into a black hole.

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

Here’s a photo of my father’s father, his brothers and their parents (my great grand parents). I know next to nothing about these people, and can only remember a couple of anecdotes. What would it take to learn about them?

The answer comes in a book I just finished, The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, who took a couple years out of his life to learn about his ancestors on his father’s side. This wondrous book will delight lovers of history, art and culture. There’s enough material here for six fascinating historical movies, and seeds for many more. The challenge here is for me to describe it in a way that will make you want to read it. It’s not a book for everyone, but it is a book for everyone that loves the past.

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

When I was young, I’d often hear or read that America had no old culture, not like the Europeans. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand what they meant. Except for a few mementos, like your granny’s quilt, or collecting antiques, we seldom dwell on our own heritage. We’re always thinking about the next new gadget to buy (as we throw away the old ones), or the next new show to binge-watch. Some Americans are into genealogy, but not that many. We generally embrace the pop culture of our teenage years, which we cherish our whole life, but few people branch from from there.

Edmund de Waal has written a book that succeeds in capturing a panoramic snapshot of his cultural heritage that spans three centuries. The Hare with the Amber Eyes starts off as a quiet unassuming memoir that slowly builds into an atomic explosion of multicultural history of art collecting. The story is anchored by a collection of 264 Japanese netsukes that came into his family in 19th century, and de Waal inherited in 21st. The book is set in Paris, Vienna, Odessa, Tokyo and London.

I have read this book for three book clubs now. It’s a challenge to explain its appeal. If you love art history, especially French Impressionism, or how Japanese art came to 19th century Europe and 20th century America, this book will appeal to you. If you like to read about Jewish history, especially about Jews living in Odessa, Vienna and Paris in the 19th and 20th century before WWII, this book will grab your attention. If you are fascinated by the American occupation of Japan after the war, the book has insights for you too. If you’re fascinated by Nazi art theft like The Monuments Men (the book, not the movie) and The Woman in Gold (the movie), then this book has stories for you. If you’ve ever tried to write your own families history and wondered what kind of effort it takes, then this book is for you. If you love the PBS shows Antiques Roadshow and Finding Your Roots, then this book is for you.

Most of all, if you’ve ever seen old photographs of your great grandparents and your great great grandparents and wonder what their daily lives were like, this book is for you.

I would be hard press to make a list of all the subjects de Waal touches upon in his small book. The frame of his story is to take his 21st readers back to the 19th century Paris to explain how his family first acquired the netsuke. His story begins in France as Impressionism is coming into vogue, which is concurrent with Europeans becoming obsessed with Japanese culture and art. The story then travels to turn of the century Vienna, past WWI, through the years between the wars, WWII in Europe, to the Japanese occupation by Americans, and then into the home stretch of this century. Along the way, The Hare With Amber Eyes encounters many famous people and events in 20th century history. If de Waal played six-degrees of separation, he’s only a few degrees from some very historical folk. Yet, de Waal current life is very unassuming. He’s an artist, a maker of porcelain. When heading into the past, you never know what you’ll find. Besides, we have four grandparents, eight great grandparents and sixteen great great grandparents. It gets pretty easy to make some marvelous connections.

My goal is to try and explain why I liked the particular details in The Hare With Amber Eyes, and that’s rather difficult. I’m not that into Japanese netsuke, although they are impressive little sculptures. There’s no reason for me to identify with de Waal’s genealogy, my family was nothing like his. What enchanted my reading is their love of art and culture. The book’s connections to 19th century Paris and early 20th century Vienna provides vivid details of what it’s like to be great patrons of art. The book gives me another side of the history of Impressionism – the buyers side. Charles Ephrussi, who originally bought the netsuke, was even painted into Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Charles is the guy in the top hat. What a way to be remembered!

But why should I care about Charles? Reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes makes me wonder why I care about anyone in the past. But I do. We all do. Most of us are obsessed with the past. I keep looking at that painting above and wonder what it was like to have been at that party. In the book, the netsuke are touchstones to the past. De Waal owns them now, and the netsuke put him one degree from Charles and many of his relatives between the 1870s and now. They tie a family history together. De Waal focuses on three of his ancestors, and the cities that shaped their souls, Paris, Vienna and Tokyo.

I can’t think of anything I own that ties me to the past like that, other than photographs. I wonder how many hands have held that photograph of my great grand parents? My mother’s mother, Lou Dare Little, was born in 1881. She held my mother’s side of the family together for decades. She bore five daughters, which held the family together for several more decades. But now that only my Aunt Louise is still alive, the family seems to be coming undone. What de Waal shows with The Hare with Amber Eyes, is how history and art can sew a family back together. However, it took two years out of his regular life to accomplish that effort. My cousin Jane wrote a book many years ago that tied the descendants of Lou Dare Little together – at least for a while. How many of my cousins and their descendants will keep reading Jane’s book in the future? Will anyone from newer generations write another book? We don’t have anything like the netsuke to travel into the future, to get later generations to remember us. Or do we?

I’m not sure I’m accomplishing my goal here. All I can really say is read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and let it convey what I want to say. It is a cornucopia of memory triggers. But also, every time you turn on your TV, or go to a movie, think about what you’re seeing is saying about the past. Whenever you read a book, have a family reunion, or go to an antiques dealer, think about how the past won’t let us go, or we won’t let it go.

JWH

Photographs I Wished I Had Taken

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 5, 2016

With smartphones, we always have a camera ready to snap a pic. Growing up my parents would only splurge for a roll of film on special occasions, like a cross-country vacation, or a big Christmas. Even after I moved out on my own, I seldom bought film. So I don’t have many photos from my first fifty years of life. Now that I’m getting older and my memory is going, I wish that I had pictures of people, places and pets that I never took.

For example, the other day I struggled to remember what the old Periodicals Department looked like back in the early 1980s, when I worked at the Memphis State University Library (now University of Memphis). I don’t know why I started thinking about this large room where I lived 8:00-4:30 with fourteen other people for six years. We had 15 desks crammed together. It was during my early thirties. We each had to work one night during the week and about every fifth weekend. I volunteered for Fridays since I was married. There was always a regular crowd of lonely folks hanging out at the library on Friday nights. Like the English professor who would visit for an hour ever Friday and tell me about his rare Bible collection or the rug factory his Lebanese immigrant family owned, or the hipster dude who came in like clockwork to read the Playboys, and called the Commercial Appeal the “commercial appall” – a joke I heard hundreds of times.

My memory has no images for their faces. Nor can I really see that workroom I spent so many years toiling away, typing up missing serial orders on a manual typewriter. I’ve search Google images in vain to find a photo of that Periodicals Department. One of the few times Google has let me down. I have fleeting mental fragments that I can’t put together into a whole scene. Like the rickety wood cart we kept the Commercial Appeal and Wall Street Journal on until we got them on microfilmed. They were the two most requested items at the desk, so we’d roll that cart up close to our stools. I also remember the two blond wooden tables that were shoved together to make one long work area for sorting the mail. We checked in hundreds of magazines and newspapers every day. I try to imagine, Rita, Jane, Mike, Barbara, Kitty, Pam, Floyd, Jack, Delores, Robert, Margaret, Carol, Susan and Mary at their desks.

I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about that room and those people. I left it thirty years ago and seldom thought about it since. But my mind wanders and memory fragments stab me, and the black holes trouble me. I guess that’s part of getting older.

I fantasize about a different life, an alternate history, of living with digital cameras since I was born back in 1951. I wish I had taken a photograph of every house I lived in, from all angles, and showing each room. I wish I had taken a photograph of every vacant lot and patch of woods I played in. I wish I had a photograph of every pet I own, and every friend I had, and every pet they owned. I wish I had photographs of every school I attended, with all my teachers, classmates and classrooms. I wish I had a photograph of every library, bookstore and record store I’ve visited. I wish I had pictures of every place I worked and everyone I worked with.

My father was in the Air Force and we moved around even more often than normal servicemen. My dad was a restless guy who volunteered to be relocated. We’d move to a new city, rent a house, start at a school, then buy a house, and switch to another school. I’ve lived in dozens of houses, and attended at least 15 schools before I got out of high school. I worked at a lot of different jobs starting as a paperboy at 12, and until I got married. But once I got married, I stayed at the same job for almost forty years, although I worked at a bunch of different departments, offices and buildings. Because I was the web photographer for our college in later years, I collected those pictures into a folder before I left. When I look into that folder so many memories are unleashed. I wish I had folders for every place I lived, studied and worked. I wonder what memories are buried in my head that would be released with the right photo to trigger them?

I’ve written about the ache for photos to help remember before, see “Homestead AFB Library 1962-1963.”

Generally, when we take pictures, we usually take pictures of people, or our pets. I have a fair number of those to comfort me. What I miss, are pictures of buildings, rooms, computers, radios, baseball gloves, stereos, cars, television sets, bicycles—all missing objects that now haunt me in their absence. I miss things. I miss places. I miss roads and paths. I miss trees and shrubs. I miss bookcases, books, record cases and records. My mind longs to see how things were shaped and laid out. I miss seeing down long tree lined streets or sandy paths through woods, that I walked and hiked.

I wonder how many visual vistas my brain has recorded. They pop up in dreams and sometimes when I’m awake. Could I learn to recall them? Our brains seem to have a compression algorithm that is very lossy. Or is that just a faulty recall mechanism. My dreams often seem of much higher resolution than my recalled memories during conscious moments.

If I had the photographs I wanted, would looking at them burn their limited views over my natural memories? This makes me wonder if I did have photographs of all these things, how would I organize them? How often would I look at them. Would they boost my ability to remember or make my memory processor weaker?

Young people growing up today with smartphones that can take pictures, videos and sound recordings. Will having huge libraries of external memories alter their souls? What will their nostalgia be like in 50 years? Will having so much external evidence make them into different people than we are now? Aren’t we different people from those who lived before photography?

1958 Jimmy-Patty-Becky-Jody-Christmas-1958

I can remember the Christmas above. It was one of the big ones. I don’t remember being so small though, nor my sister and her friends being so tiny either. We were giants back then. We were the King and Queen of our street. I led the Eagle Club, and my sister had her Please and Thank You Club. My sister Becky is the redhead, and that’s Patty Paquette flashing her underwear, and Jody playing with a flower pot. I wish Michael Kevin Ralph was in this photo. You can’t see the details in the grass, but that yard is full of stickers. This was Hollywood, Florida, 1959, and stickers were a big problem for us kids who loved to go barefoot. I had just turned eight. This was a new subdivision called Lake Forest, and only half the block was built. The sidewalk actually ended halfway round the block. We’d roller skate to one end of the sidewalk, and then skate back to the other end. It was wonderful when the built the other half and we could skate the whole block. Down the street was an empty lot, where Mike and I built a fort. It was a pit covered over with old branches, brown Christmas trees and abandoned boards. Later the Catholic Church conquered our fort. We should have fought harder.

If I kept looking at this photo I could write a hundred thousand words. A thousand is too few.

JWH – Essay #994

Why We Draw, Paint and Photograph

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 26, 2015

I’m taking a community education course in beginning drawing and it’s making me think about why we draw, paint and photograph. I took the course to do something with a friend and learn a few drawing skills, but the class is making me contemplate the nature of art. Most people now carry a camera with them at all times because of smartphones. Why learn to sketch, when a click of the camera can capture any image far easier? Yet, before cameras, why did we want to draw what we saw? The urge goes back to our earliest days as cave dwellers. Did drawing skills precede language skills? Often, whenever we want to explain something complicated to another person, we draw a picture. The hot new trend in journalism is infographics. And, there’s that old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

cave art

My efforts to draw what I see has been extremely frustrating so far. I can draw a table that allows someone else to say, “Hey, that’s a table.” What frustrates me is I can’t accurately draw the table I see. I know I can’t become a human camera, but I do want to sketch with a level of accuracy that teaches me to see the abundance of details I’m currently ignoring. When I think about art, I wonder if I’m missing the point. Until we had cameras, artists strove to accurately record reality. Paintings were physical memories of what they saw. Artists also did more. They tell stories and create beauty. And, of course, they wanted to make a living, and maybe even become famous. Since I don’t need to earn money from drawing, nor do I care about fame, that leaves me with beauty, story and memory.

1024px-Botticelli-primavera

Right now I’m struggling to make smudges on paper that capture what I see. I’m picking objects that look easy to draw. But eventually I’ll want to record something I really want to remember, and something that I’m seeing in a more powerful way than how I look at things now. Ultimately though, I want to create something that’s beautiful. That’s the special quality of art. Art creates something that doesn’t exist in nature but competes with nature for beauty.

Right now I have absolutely no idea of how to create something new and beautiful, but I get the feeling that’s where this path leads. My teacher seems to know that’s where we need to go, but also knows we’re going to quickly get lost, and give up. Most people are artists when they are kids, but they lose their way. Maybe when we get old, we try to return to that way of looking at the world, like when we were young.

Gustave_Caillebotte_-_Paris_Street;_Rainy_Day_-_Google_Art_Project

I doubt I’ll ever become an artist, or even create something beautiful, but that doesn’t matter. Trying teaches me about the nature of art more than just admiring works in a gallery or studying art history courses. It’s like programming computers, there’s lots of procedures, subroutines and techniques to learn. There are tools to master, and coding languages to memorize. I’m surprised by how many technical tricks are involved in drawing. Talent might be involved, and it might not either. My guess is it’s mostly practice and work, and picking up skills and tricks from other artists.

Anyone can draw a picture or snap a photograph. It’s the why that matters. What do we want to remember, what story do we have to tell, can we capture beauty we discover in reality, or can we add something beauty to reality? I hope I can develop a daily habit of drawing, and it become a routine like exercising. It’s really hard to start doing something totally new late in life, but I think it will be good for me. Just the little effort I’ve put out for this class hurts my brain in a way that lets me know how artistically out of shape I am, and how artistically fit some of my friends are in comparison.

modern_art_by_dorianoart-d483eet

I use John’s Background Switcher to display random photography as wallpaper on my desktop. Every ten minutes I get a new scene capturing a beautiful instant from somewhere in the world. These photos are memories, stories and beauty. I’m astounded by the artistic visions that photographers find, often in locations other people would call ugly. Other times I have John’s Background Switcher randomly go through famous paintings. Every ten minutes I’m reminded of the amazing diversity of what’s possible to imagine that’s not in reality. These paintings and photos transcend time and space, and they tell a relentless story.

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Learning To Love Classical Music

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 27, 2015

I’ve been a big music love all my life, but I’ve never really liked classical music. I keep trying, thinking classical music must be an acquired taste, or I need to be educated to its ways. In recent months I’ve been trying harder, attending a few concerts. Last night I went to hear The Ceruti String Quartet perform Opus 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”) – Franz Joseph Haydn, Opus 11 – Samuel Barber, and Opus 59, No. 3 – Ludwig van Beethoven. I was emotional moved sometimes by the Barber, mostly because some melodies seemed somewhat familiar, like I might have heard the second movement in a movie soundtrack. I liked the Haydn least, and the Beethoven kind of impressed me, but still didn’t quite work as something I’d want to regularly hear.

Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber

I’m fascinated by why some people find classical music so moving and powerful and others find it annoying. I’ve learned to like classical music enough, from brief measures here and there within symphonies, that I want to learn to like it more. I believe I have a conceptual barrier to understanding classical music. By understanding I mean being able to listen to it and appreciate its artistic beauty.

One hypothesis I’m working with, is I don’t have the working memory to appreciate classical music. I can’t remember the melody to any song, even popular songs I’ve heard a thousand times. I can’t hum a tune, or remember lyrics. Popular music, which I love, is based on short songs built around a relentless rhythm. Rock, folk, country and to a degree jazz songs are composed around a steady beat, usually provided by drums and bass. Other instruments weave simply melodies within the beat, but they are seldom complex, at least compared to classical music. Pop music is close to a short chant, while classical music is often much longer, far more complex, and might be compared to several long poems all read at the same time, but which still create a coherent whole. To my mind, classical music is a jumble of words and phrases I can’t comprehend, often jarring, usually without resonating with my feelings, but occasionally twinging a sense of beauty.

I came up with my working memory theory because of three recent incidents. First, my friend Janis has listened to two symphonies with me that she remembered from her high school band days. She can still hum/sing them, and remember their ever changing movements. She’d conduct with her hands as she listened, which shows she remember their overall structure.

Then I saw a video of a 3-year-old kid “conducting” the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 5th.

If you watch young Jonathan you can see that he anticipates what’s coming up. He has memorized the piece. Janis has done the same thing with the two pieces we listened to. I don’t know any classical music well enough to anticipate any part of it, even the symphonies I’ve played four or five times. I have no memory for structure. Popular music is so repetitive that you don’t have to remember. Has popular music made me lazy, or do I just have a very poor working memory?

I did play the three pieces I heard last night before the performance on Spotify–so I wasn’t absolutely new to them. I wonder how many times I would have to play them before I would learn to anticipate all the changes?

I remember taking tests where I was asked to remember a series of numbers. I’m miserable at it. Which probably explains why I can’t remember lyrics, poems and melodies. I don’t know if this is a birth defect, laziness, or lack of training. But it also relates to a third clue I discovered when I read “What Makes a Prodigy?” Scientists have discovered that most prodigies have fantastic working memories, either in the 99th percentile, or even in the 99.9th percentile. Most childhood prodigies are good at math, music and chess—all things I’m terrible at.

This probably explains why all my life I’ve wished I could play chess, music and do math—I hunger to do what I can’t. It might also explain why I can’t sing or dance. Don’t worry, I’m not feeling pity for myself, I’m good at other things. We often want what we can’t have. I’m guessing it might take a certain level of working memory ability to appreciate classical music, say 70th percentile or above, and I must be way below that.

Last night as I sat alone in the hall, (none of the three friends I asked to go with me would go). I struggled to make sense of what I was hearing. I was impressed by the performers, and by the creativity of the compositions, but except for some of the Barber, what I heard didn’t feel like what I feel when I listen to music I love. And I have a theory about that too.

If you are born into a family of Baptists it’s most likely you’ll grow up to be Baptist. If a Muslim family adopted a Baptist baby, it would grow up to be Muslim. Or maybe Hindu if it was taken to India. I was never raised with classical music, so it’s a foreign religion, a foreign culture. Because some people can move to a distant land and embrace a new culture, religion and ethics, I assume it’s possible for me to learn to like classical music. I just don’t know how hard that might be, or if my short term memory problem will be a limiting factor.

I tend to think it’s a matter of long term exposure. I used to really hate opera, but in the last year I’ve added a few arias to my Spotify playlist of favorites that I play everyday on random. This playlist are songs I can always hear and always enjoy, no matter when they come up. I’ve learned to love a few opera pieces enough to add them into the group.

Yet, I continue to struggle to conceptualize classical music. It’s funny what a newbie I am. I want to clap at the end of movements, whereas the obvious tradition is to sit quietly until the end of a piece. There’s no whistling, shouting, or stomping when a performer plays a particularly good riff. I was in a mostly empty hall with about sixty people in the audience. I think most of them were music majors, or older folk who love classical music. They all knew when each piece ended and clapped right on clue. I expected most of them were familiar enough with each of the three pieces they could have conducted. Which means they see classical music as a whole, something I can’t fathom yet.

Popular songs are played so often, and last so little time, that most people can grasp their basic structure quickly. A very long time ago I tried learning how to play the guitar and my teacher taught me the chord structure to “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song I’ve heard thousands of times since 1965. For a few weeks, decades ago, I could bang out that song, and had a feeling for its structure. I can’t even hum it now.

I listen to music in a extremely weird way, that might not be typical for most people. I don’t comprehend it’s parts. I can’t comprehend or visualize it’s structure. But holistically music pushes a button in my brain that turns on emotions. Music is a drug to me. Because pop songs are so concisely repetitious, they usually create just one emotion. Because classical music is so complexly varied, so diverse in it’s effects, that most of the time I feel nothing, but every once in a while, a measure, or even half measure of its music will find an emotion button to press. I wonder if I keep trying, I’ll learn how to like classical music so more of it’s riffs hit buttons within me that produce a response? One thing significant about classical music, and why I often compare it to movie soundtracks, is it creates a series of different emotions, sometimes even a rollercoaster ride of feelings.

Finally, I have one other hypothesis. I think I responded better to Barber than Beethoven or Haydn because he’s a 20th century composer. And that I liked Haydn least because he’s the oldest. I’m guessing the music of the 18th and 19th century was different because people’s minds were different, and I can’t tune into those periods—yet. With popular music I’ve learned to enjoy music all the way back to the 1920s, and I’ve even heard songs from the 1910s that are becoming catchy to me. For me to learn to love classical music will require learning to love music from other centuries. What’s fascinating is I started listening to chants from the Middle Ages, and I dug them. And I have a theory about why. Medieval music is more like today’s popular music, very simple. The early melodies were monophonic. Which makes me wonder if the minds of people in the 18th and 19th century were more capable of comprehending complexity than our 21st century minds?

JWH