Do Your Possessions Reflect Your Personality?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 1, 2020

I love to peer at what’s behind people in Zoom and Facetime calls. This is true for the people I know, as well as famous people on TV. I wonder if what they own and how they decorate reflects much about their personality? I know I instantly like people who have shelves of books behind them, but then that’s what I have. Of course, now that Covid-19 has pushed so many people to appear from home I assume more and more people stage their background. I even see articles about how to look more professional on Zoom. And I know YouTubers carefully construct a set to present a creative image for their viewers.

Back in the 1960s, there was a slogan, you are what you eat. Odd, I’ve forgotten why we said that. In the 1970s I learned the term GIGO in computer school, an acronym for Garbage In Garbage Out. Now I wonder if we are what we own? Yet, how much can we guess about a person by looking over their shoulders in a Zoom video? Does this fall under psychological analysis, archeology/anthropology, art criticism, or tea leaf reading?

What do our possessions say about us? Are they like Rorschach images that reveal something about our personalities? The other day I was FaceTiming with my friend Janis who lives in Mexico. She’s only been in her current house a couple of months but she has it fixed up elegantly despite having to bring her possessions there one suitcase at a time. She was giving me a video tour and I looked for indications of her personality in the objects I could see. My first reaction was to think she had nothing personal on display, that it was all decoration because I was only seeing the artwork on the wall and crafts on the flat surfaces. Some were new, and some were from her old house I used to visit.

I then realized my initial thoughts were lame — I wasn’t looking deep enough. It occurred to me that Janis’ personality is reflected in the art objects she buys. She’s a lifelong traveler and all those things I first thought of as decorations were really her art collection from her travels. Each one meant something to her and had a story. For example, the picture at the top of the page. I asked her for its story and she replied:

I found this picture of a girl on a skateboard at an artists’ market in a Mexico City neighborhood sometime around 2003. I had worked for several months in 2001 as a flight attendant with Northwest Airlines but was furloughed after 9/11. As a laid-off employee I had flight benefits with Northwest for almost three years so I traveled to Mexico City several times during long holiday weekends. One weekend at the Bazar Sabado I found this framed painting and talked with the artist, from whom I had bought previously. In the airport the following day, I sat at the departure lounge with this 27” x 31” piece of art, made larger by a hotel bellman who had carefully wrapped it, wondering what would become of the girl in pink since the picture was way too big to bring aboard a plane, but since I was a furloughed flight attendant, the crew greeted me warmly and the pilots offered to store the piece in the cockpit.

Does everything we own have a wonderful story like this? Looking around my office here I see that I could probably tell a tale about everything in it. But to be honest, I’m not sure everything reflects my personality — at least not directly. For example, I have a picture of an old man praying. I am not religious, but my mother was, and this picture is something that used to belong to her. And that triggered another line of thinking. Whatever it meant to my mother is something different than what it reveals about me. But whatever anyone else sees into that picture can be completely different again.

Years before my mother died she started talking about how she wanted people to have certain belongings of hers. I’ve known many old people who have done this. I realize now that their possessions were an extension of their personality and they hoped to be remembered by them. Sadly, and I’m not sure I should admit it, but I didn’t keep most of the things my mom left. First of all, she left a whole house full of stuff. My sister and I took what meant something to each of us, but we gave most everything else away. Of my mother’s things I loved the photographs most. Becky, my sister seemed to be partial to mementos more. For many of the possessions my mother left, whatever they meant to her did not come through to me. She collected them before I was born, or after I left home. I didn’t have their story. I kept things like the quilts she made me because I knew their story. And my Mom wasn’t that sentimental sometimes, I once found Becky’s and my Baby Books in my Mom’s garbage can. I kidded her about that.

I’ve always worked at a different level. I don’t care much for things. But I do think photographs are very personal. I think the photographs we keep reveal a lot about us. Susan (my wife) and I have lots of family pictures on our walls, but we don’t collect artwork like Janis. I found seeing these two photos from Janis’ house far more revealing than her artwork.

Janis Mom and Dad

This is the story that goes with it:

These are my favorite photos of my parents. When my dad retired thirty years ago, he and my mother spent five weeks in London in a flat overlooking St. James Park where they could see the Royal Guards pass on the way to Buckingham Palace. This picture was taken in a Turkish restaurant where they ate often during their stay. This photo of my mother was taken when she was 18 years old and was singing with a band in Evansville, Indiana.

Janis has often told me many stories about her Mom and Dad, especially how her Mom used to be a singer and acted in the local theater until late in life. But maybe I’m being too basic in equating pictures of people as being more personal than the objects we own. It’s logical to think family is an extension of someone’s personality, it’s harder to think of the artwork they love as having a deeper personal meaning. Once I started thinking about Janis and how travel is the real love of her life, the artwork she picked up from around the world probably resonates deeply with her personality. But how much could I understand about Janis from just looking at her artwork? Don’t I also need the story?

I realize my casual efforts to decipher people by what they own were much too superficial, but it was educational. I then decided I need to reverse engineer the thought and ask: “Do things I own say anything about my personality?”

Of all my possessions, these are what I relate to the deepest way:

Books April 2020 cropped

Other than judging me a bookworm I’m not sure people can make much from seeing my books. Even though this collection has been curated from decades of experience and distilled down from thousands of other books, I’m not sure what anyone would learn about me by reading their titles or even reading their content. Like the art on Janis’ wall, they need a story. I used to believe the stories in the books reveal something about me, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. First, there are too many.

This gave me an idea for another project. List the exact short stories that would reveal the most about how I felt about this life. Here are three, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, and “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.

Before everything went digital I loved judging people by their books, albums, and movies they owned. I remember once going to William Faulkner’s house and looking at all his books, and I imagined a chunk of his personality was left in those bookcases. Like my Mom, this is how I used to want to be remembered after I died — even though I’m quite confident that a few weeks after my passing Susan would call up Salvation Army and have them haul it all away. And that’s the right thing to do.

By the way, this is how I remembered my mother on what would have been her 100th birthday. My father would have turned 100 in October and I plan to write my memories of him then. In both cases, I’m not sure I can ever know who my parents were. The possessions they left gave no real clues, and I now imagine they could be misleading in countless ways. It’s a shame they weren’t bloggers. That’s about the best way I could imagine for knowing who they were after they died. I wish all my friends were bloggers. They could at least post photos of what they own and give their stories.

I should give up guessing about people from their possessions (but I probably won’t). However, I am going to ask for more stories.

JWH

 

 

What If You Could Be Young Again for One Day?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, June 12, 2020

What if you could be young again for one day? What would you do with that day? Bloom a 2019-2020 television series from Australia on Hulu explores that very question. Bloom has two seasons of six episodes each.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but the show is about a small town in Australia where a few people discover the magical properties of a strange plant. They become young again. The rules of this fountain of youth are not explicitly explained in the story, but whatever they were in season one changes again significantly for the second season.

Think about what you would do if you could take a magic potion and have your body transformed into your younger self. Picture a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation, but instead of becoming a hairy monster, you become wrinkle-free and beautiful. In Bloom, most of the characters’ first impulse is to have sex. That reminds me of the science fiction novel, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi where the characters undergo another kind of rejuvenation process and immediately get horny. Is procreation our strongest urge? Wasn’t that also true in the old 1985 film Cocoon?

I was never that lucky at getting laid when I was young, thin, and had hair, so I have hard time believing these characters hook up so quickly. Other than that doubt, and finding the basic premise unbelievable, Bloom is quite compelling and even grittily realistic.

Ray Reed (Bryan Brown) has been married to Gwen Reed (Jacki Weaver/Phoebe Tonkin) for over fifty years, but for the last four years, Ray only knows Gwen’s body, because her mind has left them. We see the two Gwens in the photo above. Their story is the major thread, but there are several other old/young characters we follow too, including a criminal who befriends a young boy in an effort to be the father he regrets never being to his own son.

I binge-watched the six episodes of the first season over two nights because I found the story quite addictive. I’ve slowed down in the second season, where the setup has changed significantly. Season one ends with everything wrapped up, and season two begins by unwrapping everything. I assume because the original idea was used up and they needed to rethink their concept after getting the go-ahead for a second season.

But let’s get back to the philosophical question; What would you do with a second youth? The characters in the show are driven by physical impulses and regrets, but is that all that drives us? And if regained youth is only for a short period, I imagined food and sex are great short term pursuits, but how else could those few magical hours be spent. You certainly wouldn’t waste them on television. (So why do we watch so much television when we’re young?)

How could I make the most of that regained vitality if I had the chance?. I believe the writers struggled with that question too. That’s why the second season seems to be more about how to extend that time in paradise regained. Being young seems to be its own goal.

I can’t answer the title question, but it does make me ask another question: What does it mean to get old? Aging is more than getting wrinkled, hair loss, and having the Johnson quit saluting. There is an ineffable change of consciousness. Because we’re watching a TV show we focus only on the changes we can see, but suddenly being young again would be like snorting coke or dropping acid — it must ignite the brain. They used to have a silly phrase, “high on life” that I think applies here. There are moments in the show where that comes across, especially in the first episode where Sam runs down the main street shedding his clothes.

But there’s a Catch-22 problem. Evidently, it’s always young and foolish, or old and wise.

JWH

If I Had Free Will, I’d …

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 24, 2020

After watching the TV show Devs, I’ve been thinking about free will and determinism.

If I had free will, I’d:

  • Do what I decide to do
  • Keep my house clean and orderly
  • Eat only healthy food
  • Exercise just the right amount
  • Weigh sixty pounds less
  • Own only what sparked joy
  • Finish every writing idea
  • Complete my To-Do list daily
  • Open my mail and not let it pile up
  • Master a few hobbies
  • Remember all the important details
  • Be kind, generous, charitable, and helpful
  • Not waste time on useless fantasies
  • Be more active

I have to assume because I can’t achieve any of these goals that I lack free will. But is free will only about self-control? Did I choose to write this essay or did I write out of determinism? I think of having free will as being disciplined, but does that mean that people who are discipline have free will? What if being lazy and undiscipline is what I chose with my free will?

Other people think that free will as being able to choose between right and wrong. It seems much easier to not kill someone than it does to vacuum the house. It takes no effort not to lie, but a lot of effort to be creative. Maybe there are levels of free will, and I’ve got enough free will to not steal, but not enough to lose weight.

I once read that success in life was getting to be sixty-five without becoming a drunkard or living in a mental institution. I think James Mitchner said that. Maybe free will isn’t more than not giving up?

p.s.

My wife Susan says I just don’t have any will power.

JWH

Restless in an Age of Anxiety

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 18, 2020

To paraphrase Rodney King, “Why can’t we all be normal?”

Usually, I’m a very laid back guy, but a slow restlessness is building up in me. It could be the weeks of confinement, but I doubt it. I’m retired and seldom went out before the pandemic. The U.S. is closing in on 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 and millions want to get out again. That makes me nervous, but I’m not sure if it explains my uneasy sense of restlessness. What makes me more nervous is millions of people want to believe the pandemic won’t get them. That might be part of it. Some people want to deny the coronavirus like they deny climate change, but I’ve been living with deniers for decades, so that might not be it either.

They interviewed a scientist on 60 Minutes yesterday and he said people need to recognize the certainty of physics, chemistry, and biology. Reality doesn’t give a damn about what we believe. It’s foolish to believe in mind over matter. And that makes me restless when I realize the inevitability of the objective reality. I’ve always wanted to believe I could outwit determinism.

I might also be feeling restless now because I need prostate surgery for my BPH. I’m scheduled to see a urologist and expect to have some kind of surgical procedure done. Peeing all the time isn’t normal, so maybe I’ll find peace if they can fix me. I’m hoping it’s like my two heart procedures. I had a heart arrhythmia for years and they went in and zapped something inside my heart and I was normal again. Anxiety was deferred. Another time, I was having chest pains and breathing problems, and they went in a stuck in a stent, and I was normal again, bringing another kind of peace. I know the urologist will rotor-rooter my you-know-what, and hopefully, I’ll be normal again. I also know until I’m physically normal again, I’ll worry about the possible complications and side-effects, and that’s a source of the restlessness too.

However, I don’t think my current restlessness is completely anxiety over having surgery. I wish politics could return to some kind of normalcy. I’m tired of having a crazy incompetent megalomaniacal crook being a rampaging bull in the White House. I want some dull-ass politico that just works at bi-partisan politics, statesmanship, foreign affairs, and leadership the heals the nation. It sure would ease my nerves if I didn’t feel our capital was Clowntown.

It also makes me nervous when protestors bring their guns into capitol buildings. Protesting is an honest outlet in a democracy. And I accept that people have the right to own guns, I just don’t want to see them. Seeing them at protest rallies makes me nervous. How do you tell a second amendment rights protester from a mass shooter? They all look like crazy angry white guys with guns. Don’t get me wrong, I like guns. But I don’t like seeing them out in public unless they are being carried by a person in uniform — either the police or military. It makes me nervous seeing guys with guns on their belt at concerts and other social gatherings. I don’t think they will protect us from bad guys, and seeing their guns make me think of beserk killers. At least armed women keep their guns hidden in their purses. Part of the problem with the protesters with assault rifles is they look like people cosplaying their favorite action heroes, but that’s unnerving because it also looks like they’re grown men playing acting with real guns. I’m all for people owning guns, but I only want to see civilians with guns in their homes, at the shooting range, or out hunting. Otherwise, I’ll think they’re a crazed shooter of school children or concert goers.

Another thing that’s gnawing at my sense of normalcy if the economic meltdown. The United States has a tremendous economic engine, but it’s taking a massive hit right now. It’s unsettling to think of how many tens of millions don’t have jobs, that millions of companies might go under, and that a whole generation is being delayed from starting their chosen careers. This is a time we should all stay calm and find a way to work together, but instead, everyone is arguing. Without wise leaders in times of crisis, incompetent leaders create the feeling we’ve all shipped out on the Titanic. We need a Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Churchill, not the Great Tweeter.

Living through a world-wide crisis in the middle of a polarizing political conflict is the wrong time to make decisions based on party affiliation. Taking sides because of single-issue positions is insane right now. We need to create comprehensive solutions that work holistically for every citizen. Politics based on greed and self-interest is going to undermine everything. It’s time to remember old adages like “United we stand, divided we fall.”

I want the pandemic to go away so life can go back to normal. But physics, chemistry, and biology will not allow that. Reality has thrown us a curve that demands we think differently, far outside any box we’ve ever known. Instead, we’re being drowned in insane conspiracy theories.

My friend Connell said he thought the internet would bring enlightenment by spreading knowledge faster and wider. Instead, the net spreads chaos and ignorance. Maybe the world would feel less crazy if I unplugged? The trouble is technology offers us the ability to form a hive mind, one with seven billion concurrent parallel processors, but instead of being seven billion times wiser, collectively we’re acting like the biggest single asshole with the worse case of Dunning-Kruger ever.

If would make me less restless if the country was run by leaders who were experts in their fields rather than yahoos who just think they are. We need to set job requirements for our politicians, ones that show they have the experience needed to do the exact tasks of their titles.

I have no idea how we find our way back to normal. That old curse, “May you live in interesting times” is one vicious curse. I wish we all had duller lives at the moment.

There is one last thing I’m considering. I’m wondering if I’m getting restless from getting older. I’ve never really worried about aging before. But then I never felt getting old before. I have felt my body failing before. Having my heart flake out is very educational about dying. And chronic pain is also instructive. But what’s more insidious, is diminishing vitality. I logically knew getting old meant slowing down and I accepted that cognitively. But I didn’t know what it felt like. I didn’t know what having a slow leak in my mental drive feels like. I think that’s making me restless. It’s not depressing me — yet, but it is nagging me in an interesting way. I realize I don’t have the psychic energy to do the things I want, which tells me to conserve my psychic energy. In other words, it’s time to seriously Marie Kondo my desires and ambitions, and that also creates a sense of restlessness.

That explains another reason why I want to get back to normal. I don’t want to waste my dwindling supply of motivating energy worrying about the pandemic or politics or crazy guys with guns. Writing this essay reveals that I need to let such things go, but I’m not sure I can. And letting things go also creates a sense of restlessness. It’s hard to come up with the right combination of attitudes to preserve my dwindling psychic drive.

JWH

 

 

Emotional Reactions to Pandemic Times

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 27, 2020

Psychically, our nation, our world, has made an abrupt U-turn. The stock market was soaring, unemployment was at an all-time low, and everyone was running around the planet doing everything they dreamed. We thought we had a handle on the future. Then BAM! Now we’re all huddled in our homes fearing the grim reaper and hoarding ass-wipes. (Of course, this ignores all the other forms of endless suffering so many humans were already combatting.)

We all want to get back to those tomorrows we were planning just a few weeks ago. I imagine the emotional reactions to the pandemic vary greatly, especially by age. I am 68, going to turn 69 this year, and I was already feeling oddly emotional about getting close to my seventies. The growing aches and pains of aging, as well as the deterioration of my various organs and digestive system, was already leading me into gloomy thoughts about the future. Running out of time has become more and more inspirational, but when the plague hit, that emotion went into hyperdrive.

We are experiencing something very new and different. It’s not that humans haven’t been on the brink before, or that we don’t think about it often, but we’re getting to feel it for ourselves in a very intimate way. Last night I watched the first episode of The War of the Worlds on Epix, where billions of humans are wiped out by invading aliens. I’ve read books and seen shows about apocalyptic events countless times in my life, but watching this one last night felt more realistic than ever before. The worse this pandemic gets the harder it will be to vicariously enjoy fictional apocalypses in years to come. The Great Depression and WWII inspired a lot of fluffy fun films in the 1930s and 1940s.

We still don’t know what this plague will bring. It could be over in weeks, months, or years. We don’t know how many lives it will terminate, how it will change the economy, or how it will alter our future daily outlooks. Essentially, it’s fucking with our sense of the future. What I love, and I imagine most of my fellow humans do too, is normalcy. We want orderly lives that we can control and predict. Remember, “May you live in interesting times” is a curse. Sure, there is a percentage of the population that are thrill-seekers, but most of us are not.

I was already stressed out for political reasons. The plague has both trumped Trump and swept away the 2020 election. I realize if I had the psychic energy I would ignore both and get on with my plans. I can pursue all my old ambitions at home while sheltering in place. But the dark clouds of rapidly shifting futures disrupt my thoughts. I assume they do you too.

If I was Yoda I suppose I could separate thinking from my emotions, but I’m not. The fear of being put on a ventilator keeps me from mentally seeing straight. And the fear of Donald Trump being elected a second term still eats away at my sense of wellbeing. If I had Zen Master mind-control I’d phase out these psychic ripples caused Covid-19 and Trump and get on with business. Unlike Trump, I don’t think we should all plan to go out by Easter. On the other hand, until the virus grabs me, I don’t think I should sit around and wait for it either.

The reality is I’ve already got other age-related health problems. Worries about the pandemic just exacerbate them. My health is easily disturbed by disruptions in my diet, exercise, sleep, and thinking. That wasn’t true, or not apparently so when I was younger. All of this leads to the realization that controlling my emotional reactions to the daily news is vital to my health. At 68, staying positive is critical. Fearing the future is just as dangerous as actual viruses. What we want is to act on the now to bring about desired futures, rather than wait in the now for scary futures.

When I was young I used to tell people I never worried about getting old because I didn’t fear wrinkles and going bald. I thought being old was all on the outside. I never imagined the psychic components of aging. What getting old is teaching me is the breakdown of consciousness is scarier than the breakdown of the body. Of course, they go hand-in-hand, but ultimately we need to fight for mind over matter.

What the plague is teaching me is how positive emotions are tied to our planning. And experiencing a plague later in life combines two very similar storms of emotions. I used to think I was like Mr. Spock, all intellect and no emotion. That delusion was possible when I was young, healthy, and society was stable. But looking back, I realize society was seldom stable.

I have a hard time imagining how the young are reacting to the pandemic mentally and emotionally. Do their youth overpower their fears, or do their fears undermine their youth? I am too distant from them psychically to empathize. I assume it’s quite a trip being laid on them.

I live in the American South and all the reports tell us we’re next in line for major pandemic growth. Ignoring that is hard. The older I get the more I envy robots. Being a conscious mind on top of a soup of chemical and biological reactions is a razor’s edge of a tightrope to walk. The idea of just having discrete circuits and powerful fast emotion-free thinking is so damn appealing.

The reality is I’m not a robot, nor am I Yoda, and I’m definitely not a Zen Master, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it so. I also feel sorry for all the people who have faith in prayer or Donald Trump’s reality avoidance systems. Our emotions have a hard time when hard reality canes us viciously about the head and shoulders.

JWH