Remembering When I Forget

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 16, 2017

One tragic aspect of aging is memory loss – however, I’m trying to laugh off these incidents before they become painful. For example, I planned on calling this essay “Fun with Memory Loss” until I discovered I had already blogged that same idea two years ago. Then I thought about calling it “More Fun with Memory Loss.” I wonder how many times I’ll come up with the idea of writing about memory lapses and calling it “Fun With  Memory Loss?” The original essay included a list of 43 scenes remembered from a movie, Seven Men from Now, a western starring Randolph Scott to prove what I could remember overnight. The previous day I had been startled to discover partway into the film I had seen Seven Men from Now just months before and it took me half a movie to remember.

Shedding-memories

The goal of the original essay was to come back and check to see how much I could remember after intentionally trying to remember. I forgot the experiment, I didn’t go back to check myself. Seeing the title again didn’t recall any of those 43 scenes I wrote down. Yet, while I read each today I did remember them. That’s weird. Is recalling the real problem? When I watch a film again, one I can’t describe before watching, it seems like as I rewatch each scene I do feel like I’ve seen them before. Wouldn’t that scene have to be in memory to feel that? Maybe we record a coded impression rather than the details and rewatching resonates with that recorded impression?

The reason why I wanted to write another essay called “Fun with Memory Loss” is because of two incidents. The first involved my wife Susan and my movie buddy Janis. Susan wanted Janis and I to watch Bad Moms with her because she wanted to rewatch the original before going to see the sequel.  Susan told us all about the film, and how funny it was, giving us many details. I rented it from Amazon. The first clue to something wrong was when the film started at the end where the credits were rolling. I restarted it at the beginning. After a while, Janis and I both realized we had seen it before. Then we figured out what had happened. Susan had talked the two of us into watching Bad Moms before, just like she had the second time. We had rented a movie we had already rented before. None of us remember the first time. It’s amazing that all three of us forgot.

Then yesterday my old friend Connell recommended a movie called The Discovery. He described the movie in detail and it sounded intriguing. The story involves a scientist, played by Robert Redford, scientifically proving life after death existed. He didn’t claim it was heaven but claimed he could observe souls leaving their bodies for another dimension after death. This caused a rash of suicides around the world. I got on Netflix and started watching. You guessed it, I had seen it before. I called Connell and we eventually figured out that he had recommended it before, I had watched it, and I had even called him before and discussed the film. We both had forgotten completely the whole first cycle.

I’m starting feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, trapped in a loop. Connell says he can re-watch his favorite binge-worthy shows and not remember whole episodes. I’m beginning to worry when my friends will start rewatching our old favorite shows time and again and never know we’re replaying them.

The other night I had my friends Mike and Betsy over to see Auntie Mame. We loved it. Before the movie I was positive I had never seen it. During the movie, I sometimes had slight flashes of déjà vu. I suppose I could have seen Auntie Mame decades ago and only the faintest of memory residue remained in my brain.

To me, one of the absolute best books on memory is Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman. Sure, it sounds like a book on religion (and it is), but Ehrman uses how people remembered Jesus to explore the limits of memory. Humans have a terrible memory. First person witnesses are totally unreliable. My memory lapses in my sixties might not even be a sign of aging. I wrote a whole essay about memories we cherish from youth becoming corrupted or illusionary, see “The Fiction at the Bottom of Our Souls.”

I hate that I can’t retain what I read, especially regarding non-fiction, but there’s nothing I can do. Our brains aren’t hard drives. Two years ago I wrote, “Why Read What We Can’t Remember?” because it depressed me that I spent so much time learning new facts and concepts from books and documentaries only to have them leak away. I decided that we read for the moment for the joy of learning in that moment. We generally don’t know what we forget until its tested. Back in my school days testing showed I forgot a lot back then too.

Some people have remarkable abilities to remember. I envy them. As long as I know I’m forgetting I’m okay. It’s when I don’t that I’m in trouble, but then I won’t remember that.

I wonder if I’ve written this essay before?

JWH

 

Why Do I Love Old Black and White TV Shows and Movies?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Normally I watch the latest hit TV shows, usually on Netflix, HBO, or Amazon Prime. Generally, I watch these shows with friends. I’ve gotten so I don’t like watching TV alone. However, when I do, it’s because I’m too tired to do anything else and it’s too early to go to bed. When I’m alone I’m drawn to old black and white television shows, movie westerns from the 1950s and old Hollywood movies from the 1930s. Why do I prefer black and white shows? Why do I save shows in color for when I’m with friends?

MeTV got me hooked on two old TV series this month, The Fugitive and The Outer Limits. Both shows premiered in 1963. As a kid, I discovered The Outer Limits when the first episode aired. It ran on Monday nights at 7 on ABC. My father loved The Fugitive which came out on Tuesdays on ABC at 10 pm. I watched it some back then but didn’t really care for it. I generally hated the TV my folks loved. I don’t know if that was rebellion or I was just too young for the content.

I have a hard time remembering my dad being home, but he loved TV, and he liked it best when us kids weren’t around. There was nothing on Tuesdays at 10 my sister Becky and I wanted to see, so we left him alone to watch The Fugitive in peace. A half-century later, I’m staying up late watching The Fugitive alone like he did. I wonder if that gives me any kind of psychic connection to how my father felt?

Fugitive

Becky and I were horrible TV hogs. We’d have huge shouting matches with our dad on Sunday nights during the 1966/67 season when we pleaded to watch The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and he fought to see Bonanza, his favorite western. I loved westerns too, but not Bonanza or The Virginian, my mother’s favorite cowboy show. Gunsmoke was my TV shoot-em-up. I don’t think Becky ever liked westerns, but I should ask her the next time she calls.

This year I’ve also bought the first seasons of Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Route 66, and Cheyenne. I bought the complete series of The Twilight Zone on Blu-ray and The Fugitive on DVD. I’m thinking about buying Perry Mason and Maverick.

Route 66

I used to hate Perry Mason, which was my mother’s all-time favorite TV show. She also loved to read the Perry Mason mysteries. But for some reason this year, I started watching them on MeTV. I liked that it was in black and white and sometimes featured street scenes of the early 1960s. That’s why I bought Route 66 because it was filmed on location, viewing 1963 America in contrasty black and white.

 

At the start of the 1963 TV season, we were living on Homestead Air Force Base. I started the seventh grade at Redlands Junior High in South Florida, when I was eleven. After a few weeks, we moved back to Hollywood, Florida, and I attended my second 7th-grade school, but I forgot its name. I thought it was Broward Junior High, but I can’t verify that on the internet. I was in class at that school when they announced over the PA that JFK had been shot. Three days later I turned twelve. After that, we moved to South Carolina, where I went to my third 7th-grade school, John F. Kennedy Junior High.

The Outer Limits

Memories of 1963 represent living in two states and three schools, and for some reason the 1963/64 television season also vividly sticks in my mind. I started regularly listening to rock music at the end of 1962 when I got an AM clock radio for Christmas. I became much more aware of the world around this time. It was during that time period I became a bookworm, rock & roll fan, addicted to the boob tube, and started going to the movie theater on my own.

High Barbaree

I remember watching TV since I was four or five, probably with the 1956/57 television season. My family didn’t get a color television set until 1965, so my first decade of TV was in glorious black and white. All my life I’ve loved old black and white movies from the 1930s and 1940s. I wonder if that’s because I spent my formative years viewing a B&W TV screen? My earliest memory of my father is waking up in the middle of the night when I was four, and walking out to the living room to find my dad watching an old movie on television. He let me stay up and watch it with him. This is my first memory of television and the first movie I ever remember seeing. I didn’t discover until years later it was High Barbaree (1947) with June Allyson and Van Johnson.

Why now? Why has my mind started craving old black and white TV shows again, ones from long ago? Is it just nostalgia? Is it a way of communing with my dead parents. And isn’t it odd that I’m not watching the shows I loved as a kid but prefer seeing the ones my parents watched when I wasn’t around?  I still can’t stand Bonanza or The Virginia. Both of those shows insult my sense of what a western should be.

The other night my friends and I watched The Solid Gold Cadilac and I found it immensely pleasurable it was in wide-screen black and white. I can only remember a couple wide-screen black and white films at the moment, The Apartment and The Big Trail, both of which I have on Blu-ray. It’s a shame B&W wide-screen didn’t catch on back in 1930.

Am I drawn to the black and white, or to the period content? I don’t know. I’m not sure I would like The Fugitive as much if it had been in color for its first three seasons. For some reason, I’ve never liked the remakes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits which were made in color. And the only horror movies I enjoy are the classics from the 1930s which were in black and white.

I wonder if nostalgia comes in black and white and modernity in technicolor? The 1950s were definitely a black and white decade to me, even though I have some personal photographs to prove it was indeed in color. I wonder if kids who have always lived with color TV ever think of the past in black and white? Were my formative years corrupted by black and white TV sets? Will children today remember the world in LCD/OLED imagery? How would my consciousness of the past be today if I had never seen a TV, movie or computer screen, or photograph of any kind? Would I even conceive of black and white?

The world does turn black and white in low light, or when you’ve had way too much to drink. But now that we preserve the past digitally in color, will that eventually eliminate an appreciation of viewing reality in grayscale?

JWH

 

 

 

Distractions! Distractions! Distractions!

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 11, 2017

I’ve always wanted to be a person who could focus intensely on a project until it’s finished. Instead, I’m easily derailed by endless distractions. Don’t get me wrong, I love my distractions – that’s my problem – I love them too much. I have too many interests, too many things to do, too many people to visit, too many art forms to consume, too many ideas to write about, too many ambitions, too many book clubs, too many hobbies, too many distractions of all kinds.

Distractions

As can be guessed from the previous sentence the solution is to have less of everything. I regularly meditate on the wisdom of minimalism but the best I can do is maintain a holding action against the thought-kipple hordes that eats up my time.

Psychologically I feel I have all the time in the world since I’m retired, but the reality is I don’t. Every morning when I wake, I spend a delicious half-hour planning my day or thinking about essays to write. I know not to be too ambitious. I’m quite aware of my limitations. Usually, I settle on three small goals, because that’s all I can remember. One task always involves writing. The other two deal with fighting the chaos that comes with everyday living.

If I ever found a genie in a bottle my first wish would be for the kind of mental focusing powers that allow complete control of going in and out of flow. Of course, as all the three-wishes stories tell us, there are dangerous side-effects to getting what we think we want. But this how I imagine focusing:

distractions2

I know what it takes to get there. I’ve always known. I’ve written about it many times before. A great analogy is a rocket with a payload and a destination. The mathematics of space travel involves cruelly cold equations. Every bit of extra mass a rocket carries costs fuel. In the 1950 science fiction film Destination Moon, the astronauts used too much fuel landing their rocket ship on Luna. The only way to return to Earth was by jettisoning everything possible to lower the take-off mass.

Destination-Moon

Knowing this wisdom doesn’t change who I am, that takes more of something I evidently don’t have. It requires I throw out all my beloved interests but one. I usually spend my days alone in solitary pursuits. I love being with people in the evenings. This gives me six to eight hours to pursue whatever I want during the day. That should be more than enough to achieve take-off to any destination.

I dream of spending all those hours on one big ambition, writing a book. However, right now I can’t muster that kind of focus. The older I get the harder it gets to spend even two hours on writing small essays like this one. The reason why I write essays for this blog and other sites is that short essays allow me to pursue many subjects, and that appeals to my scattered-brained thinking. I’m like a dog trying to chase six squirrels at once. I enjoy the hell out of the pursuit but I don’t catch any squirrels. I need to pick just one.

And if that one squirrel I pick to chase is writing a book, it means giving up essay writing, something that’s become a habit during this last decade. Up to now, I couldn’t make that commitment. But today I’m wondering if I could try it for a month?

So, the plan is to spend the rest of August finishing up some projects and commitments and spend all of September thinking and writing on one subject as an experiment. I’ve imagined writing a nonfiction book by writing fifty blog-sized related essays on one subject. 50 x 1,200 words = 60,000 words. I’ve probably written 1,500 essays since 2007, or about 30 books worth of words. The challenge will be to plan one coherent topic that’s divided into fifty chapters that locked together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle.  I’d need to learn to constantly redirect my thoughts to that one topic. I have a topic in mind too, but I don’t want to talk about it ahead of time.

Now that I’ve thought this out I need to spend the rest of this month jettison all the extra mass I can.

JWH

How Much Time Do You Spend Consuming Pop Culture?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 24, 2017

In past centuries, living left little free time. Survival was all time-consuming. Twelve-hour workdays were the norm once. Few people had time for hobbies or pursuing pop culture. And if we weren’t working we were raising families or maintaining our little castles.

Times have changed. The work week keeps getting shorter. More people choose not to have kids or even marry. Some people spend as much time watching TV as working. And a lot more people are retired or unemployed. Probably, if you’re not depressed, strung out on drugs, or chasing someone to have sex with, you’re consuming popular culture with all that extra time.

Pop culture

How many hours a week do you spend reading, watching television, going to the movies, listening to music, binge-watching the internet, looking at comic books, going to museums, attending plays, or any other popular pursuit reported on by Entertainment Weekly? And what about video games? Or VR? Are they pop culture or something new?

Are the hours starting to add up? Is mass consumption of pop culture good or bad? I really don’t know. As a retired person I realize most of my time is occupied with pop culture pursuits. I’d like to think I’m consuming art, that I’m psychologically imbibing in the most creative cuisine our culture offers. Is that true? I also like to believe I’m learning about the past through consuming popular culture from other eras. For example, how well can I understand the 1920s from reading Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Wharton, Joyce, Lawrence, and Hemingway, listening to old jazz, watching silent films, look at art, and reading history books?

Would the time I spend on consuming pop culture be better spent on hobbies? TV watching and going to the movies are a big part of my social outlet. Music and reading are solitary pursuits. Hobbies are generally solitary too. I could get up every day and do something more productive than consuming art and writing about it.

Most biological beings spend most of their time looking for food, mating, rearing their young, and avoiding being prey to other biological beings. Isn’t it rather fascinating that humans excrete art and consume it? We used to say humans were the only animals that made tools – until we discovered a whole bunch of other tool using species. Then we said humans were unique because we have language. Well, we discovered that wasn’t true either. More and more we’re finding examples where animals play, have friends, and show curiosity. But do other animals create art? What about the bowerbird?

Satin-Bower-Bird-Nest

Is art tools we make to stimulate our minds? Or is art external remembrances we make for shared memories? Pop culture is art for the masses. Art used to be unique, a one of a kind piece. Pop culture depends on mass producing artwork that we like to share. Pop culture feels more nourishing to my soul than air, water, and food, although I couldn’t survive without them, and I could survive without pop culture.

Maybe I shouldn’t use the word soul. The soul doesn’t exist. It was a creative fiction of religion. (And couldn’t religion be the first pop culture creation?) Even though science cannot find any evidence for the soul, and philosophers have refuted its existence, we all feel we have one. Science shows we are not minds and bodies, but just bodies that are biologically programmed to react to our environment. So what is pop culture?

Pop culture is something we add to reality. Of course, we rearrange atoms and molecules that already exist to create art, but there is something new there. Yesterday I read “All the Animals that Love Touchscreens” and learned another way humans are not unique. Pop culture is something that even animals might perceive.

Pop culture is mass-produced art. But that also means it is art that can be saved and preserved. Pop culture artifacts remember aspects of our collective souls. There’s that word again. Religion is wrong about immortal souls. Nothing lasts forever. Neither we, our culture or our art will survive forever.

If you spend several hours a day watching television you’re consuming pop culture. Is it just a way to kill time. To distract you from life? Or do you value pop culture as an artistic achievement?

JWH

Best Music of the 1950s

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 22, 2017

If you use a subscription music service like Spotify you have access to tens of millions of songs, but there’s a Catch-22 to that wealth of music. You need to know what to try. I have tracked down a number of sites that use different methodologies to recognize the best music from each year, and below is a grid for the 1950s.

1950s-600px

To use this table effectively, pick a year, right-click on it, select “Open in new window.” That way you won’t lose this page, and you can have multiple windows open to compare each site. Those sites have their own methods of ranking the top album and songs for each year. Each site has different extras and unique values. For example, Discogs is best for record collectors. I like Best Albums for just finding albums to try. Tsort is great for its massive collection of hit music charts.

If you have a subscription music service start playing some of these albums. It’s like traveling back in time. When I was young, 1950s music was my parent’s music, the music I rebelled against. Now that I’ve gotten older, I’m starting to like what they liked, and like well beyond their limited musical tastes.

If you don’t have a subscription music service, click on Play Now which will take you to the Tropical Glen site. It’s a radio station based on years.

Discogs 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Best Albums 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Top Songs 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Challenges 50 51 52 53
Rate Music 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Play Now 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Tsort 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Wikipedia 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59

This is the second version of this post. I worked on it for days and the WordPress system swallowed it without a burp. I’ve done a quick recreation without all my extra commentary. I’m going to publish it out in stages because I fear losing it again.

For those of your with Spotify, here are some albums I’ve been trying. Leave a comment about whether or not you can play them. I’ve yet to determine if providing these links are worthwhile. It takes a fair amount of work to create them, but if no one is using them I’ll stop providing them when I write about music.

1950

1951

1952

1953

1954

1955

1956

1957

1958

1959

JWH

Catching Words With Crosswords

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 17, 2017

I like to imagine my conscious mind as a small boat floating on a sea of memories. Words I readily use swim in schools near the surface. I can  grab them quickly. Other words swim deeper, take longer to catch. Some words dwell in the darkest deeps of my memory sea, taking hours to reel in. Doing crossword puzzles helps me catch words I haven held in my mind for a long time. After I release them, they swim close to the boat for a while, making them easier to catch again.

crossword_puzzle

For most of my life crossword puzzles had little appeal for me. I’ve never been good at games. But last year I started doing the mini-puzzles in the New York Times. I liked them because I could actually finish the grid, which I couldn’t with the full-size puzzles. The mini-puzzles provided positive reinforcement, and only took a few minutes. Which is the limit of my gaming patience. As my confidence grew I looked forward to doing the mini-puzzle each day. My wife Susan, who works out of town, does them too. We do them before our last phone call at night, and compare our completion times. I’ve only beaten her once.

Recently the New York Times sent me an sales pitch – get a year of the full-size puzzles for just $19.95. My new sense of crossword ability con my ego into pressing the buy button. As soon as I started the first full-size puzzle I had buyer’s remorse. They were way too hard for me. They were over my head. I did find it satisfying that I could answer many clues, more than ever before, but felt bad about leaving most boxes empty.

I’m not giving up. I just figured I needed more practice. Then my friend Linda told me about the Dell Crosswords puzzle books. I bought one called Easy Crosswords. And they are easy! Maybe too easy. But it’s very encouraging to complete whole puzzles, and they’re more practice than the mini-puzzles. I’ll get to the big puzzles someday.

I noticed something else. Doing the crosswords made me think of words I seldom used. Ones that swam deep in my sea of memories. This must be why the social security set love doing crosswords. I’ve already started my battle of recalling words (which I know I’ll ultimately lose but will fight the good fight anyway). Every year more nouns and names hang out on the tip of my tongue. Which reminds me of a poem by Bill Collins my friend Connell sent me, called, “Forgetfulness.”

The poem begins:

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

In my struggle to recall words, I’m not sure if they completely disappear, or merely sink too deep to be captured. I’m always surprised by forgotten vocabulary suddenly returning. Doing crossword puzzles churn the words in my sea, keeping them near the surface. One scientific study found that doing crosswords could delay the onset of memory loss by 2.54 years. Other studies show elderly minds can retain elasticity and even grow new brain cells and connections, although those studies focus on aerobic activity, and not games.

Then there is the issue of speed. I feel my mind goes slower than other minds. My wife Susan and my friend Linda can do the mini-puzzles 2-5 times faster than I can. That might explain why I’ve never liked games. It makes me wonder if people who think faster are attracted to games. When I first started doing the NYT’s mini-puzzles they took me 5-12 minutes to complete. I now do the easy ones in 2-4 minutes. Susan and Linda often finish in 1-2 minutes, with occasional times below a minute. I think Susan’s best is 43 seconds.

I’m wondering if I think slower than other people. My wife used to get very impatient with me, finishing my sentences before I could. I complained and she’s been more patient. Which is nice of her, but I can tell I’m slowing her down. Maybe that’s why I like writing better than talking. I can say what I want at my own chosen speed.

Anyway, the point of this story is to express my thanks for crossword puzzles. Hope I didn’t take too long in doing it.

JWH

Running Away to Mars

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 8, 2017

While reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a handbook for processing memories, it triggered several vivid revelations about my childhood. Especially the time when I ran away to Mars in 1963. That flashback revealed why I first dropped science fiction. I wanted an antidepressant. Science fiction has proven quite effective at masking reality, because I can’t even remember being depressed. How PKDickian!

Two Mars

A lifetime of contemplating the future has been an excellent mantra for ignoring the present. I am rather disappointed that running away never got me anywhere. I’ve been to Mars many times, but never to the one that exists in reality.

Today I’m plotting my own alternate history timeline. What if I had not run away to Mars back in 1963 and stayed on Earth instead? Wow, that’s more mind-twisting than The Man in the High Castle.

Maybe it wasn’t the Mary Karr book that jarred these insights. Could it have been the election? Have we all run away to imagined worlds? Reality seems so deserted these days.

JWH