What Are Your Earliest Memory Signposts?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 3, 2019

When I was young I thought people all saw the same external reality. Over time I learned that we each have a variety of different perceptional abilities, and no, the external reality didn’t look the same to everyone. I still believe there is only one external reality, and we just have limited access to perceiving it. I don’t believe we all live in our own subjective realities. But I guess those limitations give us subjective experiences.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve become obsessed with memory, and it fascinates me how varied the memory abilities are in the people I know. I’ve always known folks were smarter than I am, but that didn’t bother me. However, it does upset me that some people have vastly better memories, especially if they remembered more details about the past than I do. I guess memories seem more real than knowledge, but both are just faint shadows of the external reality.

My friend Linda and I were both born in 1951.  She in February and me in November, so she has a 10-month head start. The other day we were talking about first grade and I mentioned we started school just a month before Sputnik was launched (October 4, 1957). Linda said she remembered listening to Sputnik on the radio with her grandmother. I was incredibly envious! I have no memory of Sputnik but I wished I did because my school years were bracketed by Sputnik and Apollo 11.  We got to talking, and Linda remembers a lot more about the larger world than I did in 1st-grade. I’m so jealous.

And it wasn’t just her ten months head start. The first space launch I remember is Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. I was in the 4th-grade and we listened to it over the PA system. Linda remembers more about the greater world than I did at the same age.

Linda says she’s always paid more attention to her surroundings than other kids. She’s an observer, I wasn’t. I think I was always focused on playing. I was like a kitten with a peanut, oblivious to the larger landscape. This got me to thinking about our earliest memories. Most people when they think about their first memories conjure up something personal. That makes me want to ask:

What are your earliest memories beyond your Charlie Brown existence?  

I’m wondering if I could make up a fun list of questions to put on Facebook that asks people what year they were born, and then the year they remember something from the world beyond toys. Here are some things I remember seeing for the first time:

Jim – 1951

  • 1st house. An upper duplex in Memphis. I think it was 1954 – I was 3+. Next a house in Miami on SW 64th Court I believe. I was 4 – I think. Memory is so unreliable. I know I lived in 2-3 houses before 64th Court. I have the vaguest memory of the one before it. It hurts to think about it because memories of that house are like thoughts on the tip of my tongue.
  • 1st teenager. At the apartment above met a teenager with a broken leg in a cast. Before that only remember my parents and my sister. The cast is what probably anchored that memory.
  • 1st time riding a bicycle. 1954-55. I was 4. at SW 64th Court. Also, remember learning to swing in a swing from the same time period. Also, the first time I saw a bow-and-arrow. And toy trucks. I loved toy trucks, even before toy guns.
  • 1st television show. Topper in 1955, I was 4-5. I saw TV before that and have vague memories, but Topper was the first show I wanted to see on my own.
  • 1st western. Gunsmoke in 1955. I was 4-5. This began a life-long love of westerns.
  • 1st car. 1955 Pontiac in Miami around 1956-57. I was 4-5. I remember being in earlier cars, but not their make and model. My heart still twinges when I see 1950s cars. I love looking at cars. My grandmother would quiz me on models and makes as I got older.
  • 1st realization of death. 1955-1956 from watching Gunsmoke. At 5 I knew what pretending to die was. You fell down and laid still. But watching Gunsmoke one night I realized that not pretending to die, to really die, meant not ever moving again. That blew my little mind.
  • 1st Coca-Cola. 1955. Probably had them earlier. But that’s when Becky and I started begging for them every time my father took us for a drive.
  • 1st real gun held. 1958. The first gun I remember holding was my father’s .22 rifle that his father gave him. We lived out in the country in South Carolina and my parents tried to raise chickens. My father would shoot at dogs who killed chickens. He never hit one though. He said he would give me the gun when I got older. When we moved to Hollywood Florida I took it outside to show the other kids and their parents complained. It disappeared.
  • 1st movie on TV. High Barbaree (1947) around 1958 in South Carolina.
  • 1st movie at the theater. Snowfire (1958) around 1958 in South Carolina.
  • 1st phone number. Yu-3-6954 – 1958 in Hollywood, Florida. Lake Forest subdivision.
  • 1st science fiction. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Around 1958. Saw earlier SF but don’t remember any details. Hollywood, Florida at babysitter’s house.
  • 1st 7-Eleven store. 1958.
  • 1st memory of music. 1958 I think, from a car radio. We didn’t have a radio or record player in the house then. Linda remembers Elvis from 1957. Another big envy.
  • 1st grocery store. Kwik Check, Hollywood, Florida. 1958. I was 6-7 and in the 2nd grade. Again I remember being in grocery stores before that, but only vaguely. I don’t think I understood what they were. I remember this Kwik Chek because my grandmother took me there to see a sock hop out front.
  • 1st book. I remember my mother reading Treasure Island to me in 1959 when we lived in New Egypt, New Jersey.
  • 1st magazine. Highlights. 1959 New Jersey again. At the dentist office.
  • 1st newspaper cartoon strip. I don’t know.
  • 1st political campaign. Kennedy-Nixon 1960. But only because I remember getting in a fight on the playground. I was for Kennedy and the other kid was for Nixon. We started shoving each other and ended up rolling around in the dirt and the teacher broke us up. Marks, Mississippi, 1960, 3rd grade.
  • 1st time watching The Twilight Zone. 1960 in Marks, Mississippi.
  • 1st library. 4th grade 1960/61. It might have been a public library in Hollywood or Ft. Lauderdale. The first library I know by name is Homestead Air Force Base Library 1962/1963. I was in 5th grade.
  • 1st book I read on my own. Kid’s version of Up Periscope by Robb White from Scholastic Books. Summer of 1961.
  • 1st time learning songs and singers. 1962 at Homestead AFB. One of the earliest songs I remember waiting to hear on the radio was “Telstar” by the Tornadoes (August 1962). I had been listening to music for years but didn’t pay attention to the song titles or who artists who created them.
  • 1st plane seen up close. An F-104 at Homestead AFB is the first specific planes I remember seeing up close in 1962. Also F-100, F-102, F-106, and B-52s. In the 5th grade. F-104 has always been my favorite plane ever since. I was told I first flew in a Constellation when I was little, but don’t remember. My father worked on the flight-line and took me to a public exhibition.
  • 1st memory of regularly watching the news. 11/22/63 – Walter Cronkite. I have vague memories of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, but not intentionally wanting to watch the news. I have even vaguer memories of the Kennedy-Nixon campaigns, but too vague to recall a specific memory. After the Kennedy assassination, I became a regular news watcher.
  • 1st time hearing The Beatles. February 7, 1964, on the Ed Sullivan show.
  • 1st time hearing Bob Dylan. July 20, 1965, on AM radio with “Like a Rolling Stone.” I’m sure I heard his folk songs but have no memories.
  • 1st used bookstore. Perrine, Florida, 1965.
  • 1st new bookstore. Now, this is a weird one. 1967 in Coconut Grove, Florida. I was in 10th grade. I don’t know why I was so late seeing a new bookstore.

This is just some of the memories of the outer world I can recall at the moment. I’m open to other suggestions that would be good signposts. I feel I really woke up as a conscious being in 1964. I turned 13 on November 25, 1964. I had rejected religion by then and was already thinking politically. The years between 1962-1964 are full of great memories, but I’m not sure how aware of the wider world I was at the time. For example, in 1962 John F. Kennedy visited Homestead Air Force Base. They let us out of school to go see him. I went fishing instead. When I got older I kicked myself for that. I was very focused on all the things I thought fun and didn’t care about the world at large.

It wasn’t until Kennedy was killed a year later that I started watching the news and began paying attention to the larger world. I was in 7th grade. Was that the normal time most people start? Or was I late? I’m sure Linda began noticing things much earlier.

JWH

Improving My Memory by Remembering the Science Fiction I Read in High School (1965-1969)

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 25, 2019

In recent years my ability to remember has become rather haphazard. I’ve even forgotten the names of some of my closest friends – at random times for several long unpleasant moments. My memory access times are just flaky. Retrieval times are their longest when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. It makes me wonder if memory functionality doesn’t correlate to the time of day.

However, in the past week, I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my recall ability. At first, I’ve even wondered if I’ve eaten something with memory-boosting vitamins. Or could I have increased my exercising or gotten better sleep? Then I remembered I’ve been dredging my deepest brain cells to recall my high school years. This was set off a few weeks ago when I realized 2019 was the 50th anniversary year of my release from the K-12 imprisonment.

Marshall-Brent

Has a prolonged effort to recall the past strengthened my memory muscles? The other night I watched Lifeboat, the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock film and the next day I could recall all the actors’ names. Last night I watched The Rains of Ranchipur, a 1955 film that starred George Brent. I never can remember his name and always confuse him with Herbert Marshall, whose name I never can remember either to great frustration. Here I am remembering both of their names. What has changed?

Has all my effort to remember somehow opened up clogged neural pathways?

The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein 1967

This morning I found a history of the Science Fiction Book Club. I joined it in early 1967, and the 1965-1969 monthly select list triggers memories of which books I bought during those years. I’m working to distinguish which books I bought from the Things to Come monthly sales flyer, and which I bought later. Making such a distinction helps to remember. My memory tells me the first book I ordered was The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein. It was the April selection for 1967. But my memory tells me I got it in March. However, the sales flyers came weeks earlier so this memory could be true.

It just occurs to me that “the past through tomorrow” are ironic words to come up right now.

I often feel like a detective looking for clues to my own past. I know from personal experience and books to distrust memories. We constantly fool ourselves. We work on the assumption that our memories are accurate. They aren’t. That’s why I’m always looking for external clues to verify what I think I remember.

I’m pushing my memory to recall how I bought books during the 1965-1969 high school years. In the 8th and 9th grades (1963-65) I was getting books from my school libraries at Homestead Junior High and Cutler Ridge Junior High School. Around this time I started making money from cutting lawns and a paper route. The first books I remember buying new at a store were two paperbacks. Well, that’s not exactly true. In the 6th and 7th grade I ordered paperbacks from Scholastic Book flyers they gave out in class, and my mother gave me the money to buy them. But in 1965, but maybe early 1966, I remember going to a shopping center on my bike to buy The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein and Stranger in a Strange Land on separate occasions They were from a spinning wire rack at the back of a drugstore. I just checked ISFDB.org and the first book was 1966 and the second 1964. So that validates my memory. Here are their covers as I first saw them back then:

First-Heinlein-books-I-bought

In August of 1966, we moved to Charleston, Mississippi, a very small town without a bookstore, but with a very tiny, very ancient, very dusty storefront library. Charleston’s drugstore had one twirling rack of books, but without science fiction. I bought Popular Science magazines instead. I also got a job throwing papers for the afternoon paper from Jackson. I got my first checking account at 15. This is when I first joined the Science Fiction Book Club. We moved back to Miami in March of 1967 to Coconut Grove, Florida, the oldest section of Miami (if I can trust my memory). It was here that I visited my first new bookstore, and even then it was half bookstore and half stationary store. It only had a couple of shelves for science fiction, but as of now, I can’t remember buying any specific books there.

I did get a job at the Kwik Chek in Coconut Grove in November of 1967. This is when I got my second checking account, at 16. With my first paycheck I remember being around $40, I ordered the twelve Heinlein juveniles in hardback directly from the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons. (They cost $3.33 each, or $39.96 for the set, so that verifies.) I’ve forgotten how much postage I had to pay. Those books arrived on 2/18/68. I know that because I still have them. I had signed and dated them.

My collection of science fiction was growing. I had a two-shelf bookcase I built in shop class in the 9th grade. My collection took about half of one shelf. I can visualize myself shelving I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov along with Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein. Using the listing of the Science Fiction Book Club I believe I added the following books to my bookshelf during 1967-69 years. This included buying some of SFBC’s older selections. Looking at the covers instantly verifies my memories. I’m also surprised by the famous SF books I didn’t buy during those years but bought much later once I discovered what they were. So some classic science fiction novels I read when they came out and others way afterward. This exercise is also teaching me which books I bought but didn’t read.

  • A Treasury of Great Science Fiction (2 volumes) edited by Anthony Boucher (January 1960)
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (August 1963)
  • Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein (September 1963)
  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov (October 1963)
  • Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (May 1964)
  • Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein (November 1964)
  • The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov (December 1964)
  • Prelude to Mars by Arthur C. Clarke (August 1965)
  • Twice 22 by Ray Bradbury (March 1966)
  • Mindswap by Robert Sheckley (May 1966)
  • The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard (Summer, 1966)
  • Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov (August 1966)
  • Earthblood by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown (January 1967)
  • The Artificial Man by L. P. Davies (Febrary 1967)
  • The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein (April 1967)
  • Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison (December 1967)
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (January 1968)
  • Cryptozoic! by Brian W. Aldiss (May 1968)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (September 1968)
  • The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd (November 1968)
  • Nova by Samuel R. Delany (May 1969)
  • A Specter is Haunting Texas by Fritz Leiber (June 1969)
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (July 1969)
  • Omnivore by Piers Anthony (July 1969)
  • The Pollinators of Eden by John Boyd (August 1969)
  • The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (September 1969)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (October 1969)
  • The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner (November 1969)

If you are still reading I hope this hasn’t been too boring watching me walk down memory lane. If it’s helping me to exercise my brain then I’ve got to keep doing it. During this period I also bought paperbacks, but not very often. It wasn’t until 1969-1970 that I got into buying used books in volume (by the cardboard box). That’s because I discovered flea markets and trade-in paperback bookstores. I especially remember three paperbacks I purchased during my high school years: Empire Star, Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection. Samuel R. Delany was my second favorite author after Heinlein and my favorite 1960s science fiction writer. Delany was younger, so I felt he represented contemporary science fiction and Heinlein represented the 1940s and 1950s science fiction.

Looking at these titles really does define my reading memories from high school. And their dustjackets trigger old emotions. I wonder if that’s why my memory is improving All this remembering is stirring up the chemicals in my brain?

A Treasury of Great Science Fiction

I Robot by Isaac Asimov

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Farnham's Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein

Earthblood by Laumer and Brown

Mindswap by Robert Sheckley

Omnivore by Piers Anthony

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

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

 

Archiving the Past for the Future

Are you throwing away history? How you perceive yourself is determined by what you remember. How society remembers itself is through histories. Histories are written based on the evidence the past leaves for the future.

If our eyes and ears were a video camera, each day we take in several terabytes of information, yet we remember very little. Our brains decide to throw away most of our sensory input. How many commutes to work or school can you remember? There are many theories as to how we select what to save, but I don’t science has found a consensus yet. We can’t recall the past with TiVo-like utility. Our memories are vague impressions squirreled away inside our heads. Most people don’t have photographic memories, much less video-graphic. This is also true of historians, they only have tiny incomplete fragments of the past.

Now that we’re entering into the Marie Kondo phase of our lives, many of us are throwing away the physical evidence of what we’ve done at the same time many of us have become interested genealogy. If you’ve ever watched Finding Your Roots you know how important physical records are for reconstructing the past. What’s true for individuals is even truer for society.

My father died when I was 18, and I’ve often wished I had more evidence of his life to figure out who he was. I don’t have that evidence, but I wonder if it exists elsewhere. I’ve also wanted more evidence of my own life to remember who I was. I’ve spent a good deal of time reading about world history, trying to put together a consistent memory of our past. Too much of history is opinion because we don’t have enough hard evidence.

The current decluttering mania teaches us to categorize our discards into three piles: Keep, Give Away or Sell, or Throw Away. I believe we should keep an eye out for a fourth category – Save for History. When we hold an object and ask ourselves, “Does it bring me joy?” we should also ask, “Could future historians use this?” The trouble is, what is of historical value, and who do we give it to?

Any document that connects people to events might be valuable. Of course, ticket stubs to a Bob Dylan concert might only help you remember where you were on a night in 1978. But what about a schedule of speeches for a conference? Or an old menu saved for sentimental reasons? Or a video of a family reunion? Or a catalog from an art exhibit? Anything that might help other people remember might be worthy to save.

We need to think about how we remember who we are as a society and what artifacts to save? I’m currently reading Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and I’m amazed by how much information we have about people who lived over five hundred years ago. Few of us have that kind of information even if we wanted to write our own autobiographies. Evidently, people who get into genealogy learn what’s important to identify people connections. And anyone who has written up an event or documented a house for sale knows about the importance of supporting facts.

What evidence should we save today about our past to help people in the future understand us? I’ve acquired a new hobby of scanning old magazines and fanzines. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people digitizing popular culture and uploading it into libraries, and sites on the internet like Internet Archive. However, like our own minds, we have to decide what tiny bit is worth saving, and what massive amount of junk is not. We’re actually Marie Kondoising our culture every day.

The next time you have a box of junk to throw out, don’t just ask if each item gives you joy, but would it give a future historian joy too.

One kind of evidence I ache to have for my own personal history are photographs. I wish I had pictures of all my schools and classmates since kindergarten. I also wish I had photos of all the houses I’ve lived in, their yards, and of each room. My father was in the Air Force and we moved around so much that I can’t remember all the houses I lived in or the schools I attended. I wish I had evidence to recreate that knowledge. In other words, I wish I had documentation to support my memory. There’s a chance that other people photographed what I wanted. It’s a shame we don’t have a photograph database, especially one controlled by artificial intelligence with machine learning.

PBS - Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.Most of us do not have evidence that will matter to historians, but you never know. And even if we did, how do we pass it on? If you’re a famous person you can donate your papers to a library. One thing us ordinary folks can do is to share photographs with relatives, or anyone who is pictured in the photographs. I have some old school yearbooks that I’m going to scan and upload to the Internet Archive. Yearbooks are starting to show up there. I keep hoping yearbooks from schools I went to that I don’t have will show up. Classmates.com has yearbooks for a fee, and I use it, but I think this information should be public. Eventually, items in the Internet Archive, which hopes to save everything digitally, will be churned through by AI and data miners, and there’s no telling what kind of results will turn up. I highly recommend watching the PBS show Finding Your Roots to see how sleuthing personal histories work.

I’m also scanning and uploading old fanzines to Internet Archive. It’s a skill that takes a little work to acquire, but I like rescuing these old documents. I worked in a library while going to college, and one of my jobs was finding missing issues to make whole volumes to bind. I’d send snail mail requests around the world to track down lost/stolen issues. Now, I get on eBay to look for missing issues to scan.

I haven’t gotten into genealogy yet, but I’ve thought about getting into that hobby just learn what kinds of things people save. I’m just getting into this idea of what to save for history. I know I don’t have items for big history, but I wonder if I have little clues that other people want for their small histories.

JWH

I Haven’t Studied Biology in a Classroom Since 1967

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 5, 2019

How old is your knowledge? That question can be taken in two ways. The years since the last time you studied a subject, which for me and biology is 52. Or, the age of the subject itself. For example, Euclidean geometry is two thousand years old. And dating the ages for either isn’t precise. I’m sure when I studied biology in the tenth grade (1966/67) my textbooks were not up-to-date, and far from chronicling the current discoveries in biology. Thus, my simple-minded memories of cell structure might be about two hundred years old.

In the first third of life, we go to school and college to prepare ourselves to be functional adults for our middle third of life, but how much do we need to know for our last third of life? What is a useful education for our retirement years? I certainly could sneak by without knowing any more biology, but should I?

I’m reading The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen for a book club. Reading it makes me feel ashamed of how little I know about biology while blowing my mind with new information. It makes me wonder just how current my knowledge should be in various important subjects, subjects that help me understand my place in reality. Just because I might be leaving this reality soon, doesn’t mean I should fall into oblivion knowing so little.

universal-phylogenetic-tree-showing-relationships-between-major-lineages-of-the-three

The Tangled Tree starts out by announcing “recent” discoveries in biology, such as horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and the third domain of life called archaea and how they are disrupting our old image of an evolutionary tree structure, thus the title of his book. Both discoveries occurred after my last biology class. I had heard of archaea since and seen the graph above. I’ve read about prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (plants, animals) but I couldn’t remember those labels. They say to really learn a subject you should be able to teach it, but I could only confuse small children with the vague ideas about biology.

Of course, I’m not totally ignorant of later biological developments. I regular watch PBS Nova and Nature, and over the decades read books like The Double Helix, The Selfish Gene, and a few popular books about the history of evolutionary theory, but they don’t require the same kind of learning that taking a class does. To really know a subject, even at a fundamental level requires knowing the words that describe it. As an adult, I’ve read many books about physics and astronomy, so I know some of their vocabularies, but I know very little of the terminology of biology. Quammen describes many fields within biology that are new to me, like molecular phylogenetics. I’m savvy enough to know what molecules and genetics are, and I could guess that ‘phylo’ concerns their taxonomy, but I’m totally clueless about how scientists could go about classifying these wee bits of proto-life.

Before jumping into the work of Carl Woese, Quammen succinctly describes the history of how the idea of evolution emerged in the 19th-century with various scientists using the tree metaphor to illustrate life emerging out of an orderly process. And he gives passing references to those scientists that developed taxonomy systems to categorize all living things. This lays the groundwork for understanding why Carl Woese wanted to develop a tree model and taxonomy of bacterial life.

1837_notebookb_cul-dar121.-_040Quammen grabbed my interest by describing how 19th-century scientists first started drawing trees to describe their theories. He even describes a page from Darwin’s notebook saying his first tree was rather simple. I was shocked when I saw it though, it was too simple looking, but the basic idea is there. I’ve vaguely remembered seeing this before, but to be honest, I’ve never tried to learn all of this information in a way that I’d memorize and use it. I put my faith in science, in evolution, but I know very little of the actual science. What I know probably compares to what the average Christian knows about this history of Christianity.

This got me to thinking. Should I study biology before I die? I doubt I’ll need it after death since I’m an atheist. So, what should my educational aspirations be in my retirement years? I’d like to pass from this world knowing as much about reality as possible. Why leave in ignorance? Why live in ignorance? There’s no meaning to our existence, but why not try to understand our situation to the fullest extent possible?

linnaeusWe’re a bubble of consciousness that has accidentally formed in reality. That’s pretty far out. Most of the matter in this reality is unconscious stuff like subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and a smidgeon of biological living things. Reading The Tangle Tree makes me want to do more than reading over the subject and forgetting it again. Like Linnaeus, I want to organize what I should know into categories, into a Tree of Knowledge I Should Know. But I realize I am limited by time and energy – the time I have remaining to live and the dwindling personal energy I have each day.

How would I even go about studying the subjects I deem time worthy? I do have access to free university courses. And there are countless online courses, and I already subscribe to The Great Courses on my Amazon Fire TV. I could pick out some standardized tests for my goals, and thus limit the scope of what I want to learn. Or I could start studying and then try to teach what I learn by writing essays for this blog. That sounds more doable.

Other than the history science fiction, I don’t think there’s a single topic I could teach. I’m not even sure how many other topics I’d like to study — at any level. I do feel a sense of challenge that I should work on biology. At least for a while. Maybe read a few books on the subject this year. Maybe take a Great Course.

That makes me think I could choose a topic each year to study. I can’t promise much, but I think I should try.

Thus I declare:  2019 is the year to learn about biology.

JWH

 

Even If You Only Speak English You Still Know Many Languages

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 19, 2018

My obsession with memory is teaching me fascinating lessons. I realized something new today. I was trying to remember what my mental outlook was like in 1959 when I was seven. I barely remember the presidential election of 1960 and seeing Kennedy and Nixon on TV. But I have no memory of ever even noticing President Eisenhower before 1960. And I got to thinking about my essay “Counting the Components of My Consciousness” and realized how important languages are in understanding the world around us.

I see now we know many languages even when we think we only speak one.

In 1959 I had no language for politics, so politics was invisible to me. I didn’t understand words like mayor, governor, president, senator, congressman, etc. I didn’t know about local, state, and federal governments. I didn’t know about the three branches of the federal government. I didn’t know about constitutions or legal systems. The world of politics was invisible to me because I didn’t know the language of politics. At seven, I also didn’t know the language of religion, science, mathematics, or even grocery shopping.

My awareness of politics began on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. That’s because my family watched the news for several days straight, and that hooked me on watching the nightly news with Walter Cronkite. However, I still didn’t know the language well. In the 9th grade (1965-1966) I took a required civics class that taught me the basics, but I’ve been learning the nuances of the language of politics ever since, and still don’t speak it fluently. It has its own vocabulary and grammar.

This morning I was researching where I went to school in Aiken, South Carolina in 1964. I found a copy of an Aiken newspaper online. I was 12 at the time. All the stories about local politics and businesses were unfamiliar to me. Even the ads were unfamiliar to me. I didn’t shop for groceries or clothes at age 12, so I didn’t have the language to remember that part of Aiken, South Carolina. I realize now I could have read that paper at age 12, but didn’t. I doubt I could have understood most of it. I didn’t have the languages. And that’s why I don’t remember 99.99% of what life was like in Aiken, South Carolina in 1964.

I’ve often returned to the year 1959 over my lifetime. 1959 was an important year in jazz, but I didn’t know that until I began learning the language of jazz. And my ability to speak jazz is at a very rudimentary level. I’m much more conversant in the language of science fiction so I can comprehend 1959 in science fictional terms much more deeply.

This revelation about knowing multiple languages within English is giving me many insights this morning. It explains why so many people refuse to accept that climate change is happening to us right now. They don’t understand the language of science, so it’s invisible to them. This realization also explains our polarized politics. Conservatives only know the language of conservative politics, so they are blind to liberal politics. And liberals are blind to conservative politics because they don’t know that language.

Linda, the other member of my two-person book club, suggested we read a conservative book for our next discussion. We’re both extreme liberals and she thought it might be enlightening if we did. And it is. We picked Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake. I’ve only just begun but immediately realized Flake speaks a different political language than I do. His words have different meanings. His grammar is even different. His language references points to concepts and things in reality that I normally don’t see.

Liberals and conservatives are polarized because they aren’t speaking the same language even though they use the same words. In the essay, I mentioned above, I told about two experiences where I lost my ability to use words, and how reality looked when that happened. Without words, I didn’t know what things were. I could still see and hold them, but I could tell you what they were. Abstract concepts ceased to exist. Language is everything in understanding reality.

In 1959 I didn’t have the languages to understand most of what I saw and experienced. I’ve since learned a lot of new languages and can look back and see so many things that were invisible to me then. I’m obsessed with memory at this stage in my life, and I’m learning how important languages are to memories. I’m losing my memories, words, and languages. I struggle to keep them. One way of doing that is to look back over the years and study the languages that reveal what I saw.

We can’t trust our memories. One way to understand them is to struggle to remember what we saw. But another way is to study what we couldn’t see, and learn the language to reveal it.

I realize now I must study the languages I know more deeply to understand what I see now, and what my memories might have seen in the past. Here are the languages I partial know now but want to study deeper:

  • Science Fiction
  • Literature
  • Science and Nature
  • Politics
  • Ethics and Philosophy
  • Computers and Programming
  • Music
  • Television
  • Movies
  • Myths and Religions

JWH