Growing Old With Dolly Levi

I first encountered Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker a 1958 film starring Shirley Booth. There was no singing and dancing. This was back in the sixties and I was still in my teens. I identified with Barnaby and Minnie and felt Cornelius and Irene were older, in their twenties. Dolly and Horace were very old, like my mom and dad. I could imagine myself as the youngest romantic couple and assumed I’d be in Cornelius second stage of getting married romance soon enough. But at that age, it was quite disturbing to imagine Shirley Booth and Paul Ford in bed together, to imagine later life-stages of romances. I didn’t sympathize with Dolly then. I didn’t understand she was an older woman making a romantic comeback. I didn’t realize the story was about the other end of a lifetime looking back towards my end.

I’ve never seen a Broadway play. And over my lifetime, I’ve seen less than ten musicals performed in a theater. I have seen quite a few famous film musicals but it took me years to acquire the taste for them. I didn’t see Hello Dolly! with Barbra Steisand when it came out in 1969. Maybe the first musical I saw was the film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 1970, which also starred Streisand. I went because of the story but ended up liking the singing. That led to seeing Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! All-in-all I probably saw five musicals on film in the 1970s. At the time I equated them with music for the elderly. Old people’s music featured big bands with trumpets and trombones, while young people’s music was made by a group of four or five with guitars and saxes.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but my first real encounter with Dolly Levi was in 1964 when I heard Louis Armstrong sing “Hello Dolly!” but I didn’t recognize what the song was about then. I loved Armstrong’s voice, and he was a cool old black guy, which in some ways made him more acceptable to my twelve-year-old self. My parents hated my music, rock ‘n’ roll, so I hated their music, even though it didn’t have a name. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee were all oldster crooners to me from way back when. Somewhere from being young to growing old, I learn to love their music too.

I’ve been listening to as many versions of “Hello Dolly” I can find on Spotify. I’ve reached an age where I love to hear how music is interpreted by different arrangements. When I was growing up peer-pressure convinced me to shun music that wasn’t written and composed by the performer. Back in the sixties, at the beginning of the singer-songwriter era, we felt it was inauthentic for an artist to sing other people’s songs. That was silly. All the great rock ‘n’ roll I loved in the 1950s and early 1960s was usually written by lyricists working with composers and performed by solo artists and groups. Even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones started out doing covers.

One of the best features of Spotify is to search on song titles to find all the cover versions of a song. A great song can have over a hundred different recordings. I’ve had two versions of “Hello Dolly” in my “Top 1000” playlist for years – the one by Louis Armstrong and the other by Bobby Darin. For some reason this weekend I played over a dozen versions of “Hello Dolly!” I never got tired of it and was constantly delighted by the different arrangements, instruments, and singers.  Thinking about why I enjoyed this song so much was very revealing in so many ways, both about the song and it’s many arrangements, and about myself. The whole listening experience was enlightening about growing older. And, as I listened to the lyrics over and over Dolly Levi came to life.

Dolly Levi existed before the song, Broadway musical and Hollywood movie. Thornton Wilder created Dolly Gallagher Levi for The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938, but it was inspired by earlier plays. Wilder revised the play and retitled it The Matchmaker which premiered in London in 1954 and New York in 1955. Ruth Gordon played Dolly first on Broadway before Shirley Booth played her on film in 1958.

Then on January 16, 1964, a Broadway musical, Hello Dolly! was created from the play with Carol Channing as the original singing Dolly Levi. This is where the songs I keep playing originated. However, there are two original versions, one sung by Dolly in the play with a chorus of waiters. It runs for about six minutes. In late 1963 at the producers request Louis Armstrong recorded a different version of the stage “Hello Dolly!” from the male point of view as if one of the waiters got a solo. Armstrong’s version was released on January 1964 and eventually breaking The Beatles three-song streak of holding the #1 position of Billboard Hot 100. This was his most successful hit song, and it stayed at the top of the charts for nine weeks.

After Carol Channing, many famous singers and actresses have played Dolly Levi. There’s a long thread on Broadway World about Dolly Levi’s age. The Barbra Streisand fans rationalize Dolly should be in her twenties because Streisand was 26 when she played Dolly, but they seem to naively miss the point of the play and lyrics. Dolly is a woman of a certain age, one who wants to hear her favorite songs from way back when, one who went away into her personal haze, one who has come back hoping tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days. The role was written for Ethel Merman, who would have been 56 in 1964. She turned it down but accepted it when she was 62. It turns out Bette Midler is the oldest Dolly Levi, at 71. Carol Channing was 43 when she began the role, but 74 the last time she played it.

I think Dolly Levi’s story is supposed to be about being older and looking back, and that’s how I feel about why I like the song so much. I supposed for realism sake, Dolly should be in her forties, maybe fifties, an age I’m well past, but like Dolly, I love to hear old songs from way back when. I still want tomorrow to be brighter than today. In other words, I’ve finally reached an age where the song’s meaning is at it’s most significant perspective.

But it’s not just the words that make me contemplate the perspectives of age. The various Broadway recordings of the play and its revivals have one kind of sound. A 1960s Broadway orchestra sound that took me a lifetime to appreciate. I first got into jazz in the early 1970s, which took me back through the decades until I could enjoy ragtime. Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly!” has a banjo and a ragtime/Dixieland feel, also reminding me of Armstrong’s best music of the 1930s. Many versions have the arrangement of Las Vegas acts from the 1950s and 1960s, like those by Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. There’s a version by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a version with strings for the Lawrence Welk state of mind, and there’s even a version sung in French by Petula Clark. Harry Connick Jr. even brings a modern interpretation.

I’ve made a playlist of “Hello Dolly!” covers. I hope you have Spotify to hear it. (You can sign up for the free account if you don’t.) Crank up the volume. The music sounds best played loud over large surround-sound speakers. It still sounds wonderful on headphones but I prefer the aural soundstage created by speakers. The song evokes happiness and is upbeat which explains its enduring popularity. Most of the musical arrangements are for big bands or orchestras, although it works well with small combos. The various arrangements and Broadway recordings show how a good melody and lyrics can be creatively interpreted in endless ways.

The longer versions are how the song is performed by lead actresses on stage with a chorus of waiters. The shorter versions are usually male solo singers, although some female vocalists sing the short version. It also helps to see how the song was choreographed.

I chose this Bette Midler clip because of the quality of the film clip and how well it shows the staging of the song. I wished I could have found a film clip of Carol Channing from 1964.

Most people listen to music as a background filler. I listen to music like I’m intently watching a movie. Most people can’t get into a crazily obsessed state of mind like I can. It takes patience, practice, and concentration. I kid my friends that they have ants in their pants because they can’t just sit and listen to music. I’ve written this essay for them, to try and explain why I can sit absolutely still for an hour mesmerized by one song played twelve times. When you get deep into a song, time slows down and there is so much to discover.

JWH

Why Don’t I Do What I Know Is Good For Me?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 12, 2019

From all the studies I’ve read, I’d be a much healthier person if I ate a plant-based diet, and regularly lifted weights and did aerobic exercises. So, why don’t I?

I’ve never been a very disciplined person even though I know from limited experience that being disciplined has its rewards. If I eat right and exercise I feel better than when I don’t. Now that I’m getting older, the importance of health is becoming much too obvious. Yet, I do less to help myself. Why?

Popular wisdom now nags us that inactivity is as bad as smoking. I was disciplined enough to not smoke, so why can’t I make myself stay active? I’ve been a rather inactive bookworm my whole life. It’s hard to believe that my Walter Mitty ways are killing me. Laying around daydreaming feels perfectly natural to me. But I must admit that my energy levels are dwindling as the years go by. Not only do want to do less as I get older, but my muscle strength and overall stamina are fading too. But isn’t that plain old getting old? Can diet and exercise equal rejuvenation?

I tell myself to exercise more. I do. And I feel pretty good. However, naps are more alluring than ever. My doctor says all my blood work numbers are good. She says trying using the exercise bike twenty minutes a day. I do. Maybe I feel a tiny bit better, but I still love naps and daydreaming, and I can’t lift furniture or untwist jar tops like I used to. Is that because I’m racing towards 70? Or because I’m not moving enough?

I wonder if lifting weights or going to the gym would give me back my strength and stamina?. But it’s so much nicer to just read. I ask myself if going to the gym is the solution, why isn’t every oldster not in tip-top shape?

I have my best luck sticking with physical therapy exercises, doing Miranda Esmonde-White exercises, and walking. I gave my exercycle to my wife. I got rid of my big Bowflex machine because it was just too damn big. And I’m thinking about giving away my little Bowflex machine because I’ve found the back pains it cures are also cured by the Miranda Esmonde-White exercises.

Since I hate going to the gym and I’m getting annoyed exercise equipment, I’ve been telling myself to embrace body-weight exercises. I’ve been collecting how-to articles, but I haven’t put them into practice yet. I know it would be good for me, but I can’t make myself start.

I’ve reached a state of equilibrium with my diet. I no longer pursue the plant-based diet that I did after I got my stent. I eat cheese, eggs, and yogurt. I eat some sweats, but not much. I’m still a vegetarian – I have been since 1969. This is my 50th anniversary. But I just can’t make myself go vegan even though I think I’d be healthier and live longer.

In other words, I’ll eat and exercise moderately, but I won’t make a big effort to become healthier. Why? I spend between 20-60 minutes a day exercising. If I spent another 30 minutes I might have more strength, stamina, and longevity, but I won’t go that distance. Why?

I know people who are physical fitness fanatics, spending hours each day exercising, and I know people who are epic couch potatoes, who never exercise or even try to eat right. I’m not sure if there’s any consistency in who is healthier. Both groups are more energetic than me, and both groups suffer from various random health crises.  I know exercise nuts who have gotten heart attacks, strokes, and cancer, and I know do-nothings living into their nineties still cramming down the junk food nightly.

I think the illusion is we want to control our fates. I hate that I’m losing my stamina, strength, and energy, but maybe that’s the fate of this particular body.

My new diet is to stop eating anything that makes me feel bad within 24-hours. I have a whole list of foods and drinks that my body doesn’t like. I also exercise just enough to avoid aches and pains. I can tell when my body needs some stretching or activity. After that, I can’t make myself do things on the assumption that I’ll live longer. There’s just no feedback.

Before I got the stent in my heart I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I was dying. That was a wonderful incentive to do something. But that was back in 2013. I now avoid fatty foods. If I eat too much fat I can feel a lack of oxygen. That inspires me. Feeling pain in my back or numbness in my legs inspires me. But the pleasantness of a nice nap while listening to music, or the contentment of sitting and reading doesn’t inspire me to move.

JWH

 

 

If I Was A Robot Would I Still Love to Read?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 8, 2019

One of the trendy themes of science fiction is the idea of mind uploading. Many people believe it will one day be possible to record the contents of our brain and put our self into a computer, artificial reality, robot, clone, or artificial being. Supposedly, that solves the pesky problem of dying and gives humans a shot at immortality. The odds of this working is about the same as dying and going to heaven, but it’s still a fun science fictional concept to contemplate.

I can think of many pluses to being a robot, especially now that I’m 67 and my body is wearing out into wimpiness. It would be wonderful to not worry about eating. Eating used to be a pleasure, now it’s a fickle roulette wheel of not know if I’m going to win or lose with each meal. And not having to pee or shit would be a top-selling advantage point to being a silicon being. And what a blessed relief it would be to never be tormented by horniness again.

Life would be simple, just make sure I always had electricity to charge up and spare parts for the components that break down. No worries about coronaries, cancers, viruses, fungus, bacteria, or degenerative diseases. Or flatulence.

I’d also expect to have superlative sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, along with a host of new senses. And I assume those senior moments would be gone forever.

But would I still love to do the things I love to do now – read books, watch television, and listen to music? What would reading be like if I was a robot? If I sucked down a book as fast as I can copy a file on my computer, I doubt reading would be much fun. For reading to be enchanting, I’d have to contemplate the words slowly. How would a robot perceive fiction? Are we even sure how humans experience the process of taking words from a book and putting them into our head?

Let’s say it takes me one minute to read a page of fiction. Somehow my mind is building a story while my eyes track the words. A novel would take hours to unfold. A robot could read a digital book in less than a second. Even for a robot brain is that enough time to enjoy the story?

Will robots have a sense of time different from ours? Dennis E. Taylor wrote a trilogy about the Bobiverse where Bob’s mind is downloaded into a computer. Taylor deals with the problem of robots perceiving time in it. He had some interesting ideas, but not conclusive ones.

In the WWW Trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer theorizes that consciousness needs a single focus for sentience. No multitasking self-awareness. I think that makes sense. If this is true, robot minds should have a sense of now. They say hummingbirds move so fast that humans appear like statues to them. Would humans appear like the slowest of sloths to robots? Does slow perception of reality allow us to turn fiction into virtual reality in our heads?

Could robots watch movies and listen to music in real time? Or would images of reality shown at 24fps feel like a series of photos spaced out over eons of robot time? Would the beat of a Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let it Go” create a sense of music in a robot’s circuitry or just a series of periodic thuds?

It’s my guess that who we are, our personality, our sentient sense of reality, our soul, comes from our entire body, and not just data in our head. Just remember all the recent articles about how bacteria in our gut affects our state of being. Just remember how positive you feel about life when you have a hangover and are about to throw up.

I’ll never get to be a reading robot. That’s a shame. Wouldn’t it be great to read a thousand books a day? Maybe I could have finally read everything.

JWH

Why Am I Binge Watching Perry Mason?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Until the success of the VCR in the second half of the 1970s fans of television shows couldn’t just watch their favorite episodes whenever they wanted. I’m not sure people born after the DVR will understand that. In the early decades of television, a show premiered in its allotted time slot, and then a subset of that season got repeated in the summer reruns. You might fall in love with a particular episode and not get to see it again for decades.

Eventually, popular shows like I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, and Star Trek made it into syndication. If a fan was patient they could eventually see every episode of a series. Early adopters of VCRs took pride in collecting a complete run of their favorite shows, especially if it took years.

Nowadays fans can watch almost any show on demand. Some TV aficionados only watch a show when it has been completed or canceled so they can see the complete story on DVD or streaming. Meaning, they can watch an entire multi-year series by binge-watching for several days or weeks. After randomly watching about 50 episodes of Perry Mason on MeTV during the last year, I decided to start with season 1, episode 1 on CBS All Access and watch the entire 271 shows in order. They only have seasons 1-5, but I hope they’ll add the rest, otherwise I’ll have to buy the DVDs. (Maybe that’s their intention.)

I have to ask myself: Why Perry Mason? Even though Perry Mason is one of the most popular TV shows ever, it’s artistic quality pales compared to modern television series like Breaking Bad, Downton AbbeyThe Game of Thrones, The Crown and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Often when I watch an episode of Perry Mason my mind boggles by how the plot struggles to make any kind of logical sense. And Perry, Della, and Paul are completely lacking in the kind of vivid personal details we expect in 21st-century TV shows. I’ve never liked murder mysteries, never cared whodunit, and I never guess the guilty person while watching Perry Mason. Yet at this time in my life, I find the show very addictive.

I’ve binge-watched nearly of all the most popular television series since The Sopranos so I know Perry Mason is primitive in comparison. According to Wikipedia, “Perry Mason is Hollywood’s first weekly one-hour series filmed for television and remains one of the longest-running and most successful legal-themed television series.”  It premiered on September 21, 1957. The contrast between TV storytelling in 1957 and 2018 is startling. The evolution of creating TV shows during those years is worthy of countless Ph.D. dissertations.

The difference between television then and now is so stark, that I can’t imagine younger fans even being able to even watch Perry Mason. Except for one episode, it was filmed in gorgeous black and white. To the current generation, it would be like Baby Boomers having embraced early silent movies in their teens. So, why am I watching Perry Mason now when I could be watching countless superior shows? I think there’s something psychological I need to unearth. And it’s taking the length of a long Atlantic Monthly essay to scope out the problem. I doubt seriously if even my closest friends will want to read all of this, but I feel compelled to write out why. I need to explain it to myself.

Socrates warned us the unexamined life if not worth living. I’ve never argued with that. In the last third of life, such self-reflection seems truer than ever even for the smallest aspects of day-to-day living. Have you ever dissected your soul to find out why you love what you love? Stop a moment and think about that. Why is your gray goo wanting to substitute its current sensory input with data from a video screen? Watching television is a rejection of reality for a substitute, and maybe that isn’t bad, but it is revealing. When we tune in, turn on and drop out, what are we really doing?

Maybe you’ve been asked this deep question of why you love TV before, and maybe not. But let’s take it a little further, just a bit deeper. Have you ever asked yourself why you love to watch television with other people? Or do you? What we watch by ourselves tells us so much about ourselves, but what we watch together says so much more about our relationships. I bet you haven’t thought of that one before.

For almost a decade I’ve watched television with my friend Janis. Until this August, my wife had been working out of town all that time and Janis and I would watch shows together three or four nights a week. Janis moved to Mexico this August, something she’s been hoping to do as long as I’ve known her, and Susan finally got transferred back to Memphis. Susan and I discovered we no longer watch the same kind of shows, not like we did before 2008. Now, every evening we watch the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy together in the living room, and then I go to the den to watch my shows.

What’s enlightening to me is the shows I choose to watch by myself. I assumed I’d continue to watch all the popular binge-worthy shows I had been watching with Janis. But I’m not. For weeks I tried countless shows but my restless mind could not settle on any of them. I ended up watching old westerns from the 1940s and 1950s every evening.

For the last few years, whenever I’m alone watching TV, I binge on Hollywood classics, westerns, film noir, 1960s comedies, or Pre-Code Hollywood from the early 1930s. These have all been life-long favorites. They’ve also been the kinds of films my friends don’t like watching. Then I got hooked on the 1950s and 1960s television shows I hadn’t seen much of when I was young, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, and The Fugitive. After Janis moved away I mostly watched westerns for weeks, mixed it with some Perry Mason. Strangely, all these television shows and movies are in black and white. I wonder what that means?

I’ve gone through a number of psychological changes since I retired five years ago, including how I watch television. I’ve been a TV addict since 1956, but the level of addiction and types of shows I craved have changed many times over the years. The hole in my TV watching schedule is making me think about my lifetime relationship with TV and who I watched it with.

Watching TV by myself is so different from social TV watching. Looking back, I realized I’ve mostly been a social television watcher. There have always been shows I watched by myself, but there have been more shows I watched because of other people. When I was young, I watched shows with my family. Once I got past the sixth grade, I loved watching shows with friends, either at my house or theirs. I got a job in high school in 1968 and quit watching television for many years. That ended some friendships. I seldom watched TV in my college years. As I got back into television around 1975, I began social TV watching with a new generation of friends. Then when I got married to Susan in 1978, and we found prime-time bliss. I would watch her shows and she would watch mine. When Susan move to Birmingham to keep her job, my television life fell apart. Then Janis became my TV buddy during the time that coincided with the era of binge-watching on streaming TV. We picked shows that made us want to watch two or three episodes at a time.

For the last few months, I’ve tried many new series, but my mind can’t stick with them. I keep hopping from one show to the next for about ten or fifteen minutes. Every once I a while I could find a series that would hook me like Sisters season 1 or Man in the High Castle season 3, but for the most part, I’d fall back on westerns. Then I got hooked on Perry Mason.

Remembering my television watching habits when I was 5-15 is a hazy affair. I’d love if my memories were perfect. I do have clues. I have memories of my parents always asking me what was on television even from an early age. There were only three channels back then, so I imagine it wasn’t a great feat for a kid to memorize the schedule. One of the first magazines I remember reading is the TV Guide, but I’m not sure how often we bought it, or when my mother started bringing it home from the grocery store.

What I realized now is I watched all kinds of shows back then because sometimes my parents picked them, and sometimes Becky, my sister, and I got to choose. It wasn’t until I, Spy (1965) and Star Trek (1966) that I tried to never miss an episode of a favorite show. That got interrupted in 1968 as I mentioned before when I got my first punch-the-clock job after school in the eleventh grade.

Wanting to see every episode of a television show became a real habit after Susan and I got married. We loved NBC’s Must See TV Thursday nights. Then in this century with whole season DVD sets of television shows and Netflix. Binge-watching a series from the first episode to last become a thing.

I believe part of the attraction to Perry Mason is because it’s a complete work, and available on DVD. It also appeals to me that I can buy The Perry Mason Book by Jim Davidson for my Kindle, a handy-dandy comprehensive episode-by-episode reference guide to supplement my Perry Mason watching. Even though I don’t care about whodunit in a murder mystery, I do care about what model car Paul Drake drove or where a picturesque scene is filmed. One aspect of Perry Mason I love is the location shooting from 1957-1966. The show is full of little details I find compelling.

Of course, these are piddling details. The urge to go deeper into my unconscious pushes me to find greater insight. I’ve known for years that living in the last third of light resonates with the first third. When I was young I was often disappointed with older people when they told me they were clueless about the current pop culture I valued so much. Now that I’m older I know what it means to not be able to keep up. Perry Mason is familiar territory. The beautiful black-and-white photography is comforting. All the then new cars are the ones I coveted growing up and wished I owned now as classic old cars now. Plus the women in their conical bras and tight sweaters are the prototypes of feminine beauty from my earliest memories of horniness.

Perry Mason 2Back in the 1990s I flew down to Miami and got my old buddy Connell to drive me to a house where I lived in 1955 when I was four. I stood on the sidewalk in front of my old home, the site of some of my earliest memories of playing outside. I felt like I was standing on the Big Bang beginning of my universe. Watching 1957 Perry Mason takes me very close to that origin. It’s the inflationary period when my mind began to be expanded by television.

So, what does this say about my psychology? Why do I pick a 62-year-old TV show to watch by myself at 67? If I watch TV with friends we’d watch a 2018 show. Susan too watches old TV shows by herself, but they are usually from the last decade, except for Friends. Are the shows we pick reflective of the escapism we need? Is the political incorrectness 1957 much easier to handle than political insanity of 2018?

I wonder what my friends watch by themselves and why? Is everyone sitting alone turning back the hand of time? Some people I know have the TV on all day long to keep them company. They tell me it helps with loneliness. I hate hearing a TV in the daytime. I love TV when it’s dark and late, and I’m too tired to do anything else. I realize now that I categorize my friends by which pop culture references we share. I go flicks with some friends and other films with other friends. I share old science fiction with a couple of friends, but not with the rest. My love of westerns requires hanging out with strangers on Facebook to find anyone to share that enthusiasm.

I have one friend that loves Perry Mason but we seldom see each other anymore since she was a work friend and I’m retired. She watches Perry every night at 10:30. I wish I could watch it with her. But she is younger than I, so I’m not sure we resonate with the same aspects of the show? None of my close friends will watch Perry with me. None of them like the old movies and westerns either. This got me to thinking about how our personalities are divided by what we do alone and what we do together.

I went to see Green Book with a friend after getting positive reviews from several other friends. And I know a few other folks who want to go see it. That means we’re all bonded by this one current movie. I like that. Back in my K-12 days, I’d go to school and seek out other kids who had seen the same TV shows the night before. The same thing happened during my work years.

Some people I know get their feelings hurt if you tell them you don’t like their favorite TV show. I don’t. I am disappointed sometimes when someone I like a lot won’t try a current show I love. I feel like I’m making an offer of connection, and they refuse. I don’t care if they end up hating the show. It’s the willingness to try to communicate that counts.

When I go to a party I ask people what they are watching on TV or going out to see at the movies. When I find someone who has seen what I have, and we both are crazy about the story, I actually like the person more. And if I hear a person put down a show I love, I feel like there’s a side to the person I can’t comprehend. It’s like the old generation gap – a pop culture divide.

Comparing tastes in television shows makes me realize just how different people are in my life. What we share is a kind of Venn diagram of commonality, what we don’t, defines our borders. But I wonder. Is it the shows we watch alone that define us the most, or the ones we share with each other?

JWH

 

 

 

Counting the Components of My Consciousness

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 20, 2018

When the scientific discipline of artificial intelligence emerged in the 1950’s academics began to seriously believe that someday a computer will become sentient like us, and have consciousness and self-awareness. Science has no idea how humans are conscious of reality, but scientists assume if nature can accidentally give us self-awareness then science should be able to intentionally build it into machines. In the over sixty years since scientists have given computers more and more awareness and abilities. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: What are the components of consciousness needed for sentience? I’ve been trying to answer that by studying my own mind.

Thinking Machine illustration

Of course, science still doesn’t know why we humans are self-aware, but I believe if we meditate on the problem we can visualize the components of awareness. Most people think of themselves as a whole mind, often feeling they are a little person inside their heads driving their body around. If you spend time observing yourself you’ll see you are actually many subcomponents.

Twice in my life, I’ve experienced what it’s like to not have language. It’s a very revealing sensation. The first time was back in the 1960s when I took too large a dose of LSD. The second time was years ago when I experienced a mini-stroke. If you practice meditation you can learn to observe the moments when you’re observing reality without language. It’s then you realize that your thoughts are not you. Thoughts are language and memories, including memories from sensory experiences. If you watch yourself closely, you’ll sense you are an observer separate from your thoughts. A single point that experiences reality. That observer only goes away when you sleep or are knocked by drugs or trauma. Sometimes the observer is aware to a tiny degree during sleep. And if you pay close enough attention, your observer can experience all kinds of states of awareness – each I consider a component of consciousness.

The important thing to learn is the observer is not your thoughts. My two experiences of losing my language component were truly enlightening. Back in the 1960’s gurus of LSD claimed it brought about a state of higher consciousness. I think it does just the opposite, it lets us become more animal-like. I believe in both my acid and mini-stroke experiences I got to see the world more like a dog. Have you ever wondered how an animal sees the reality without language and thoughts?

When I had my mini-stroke it was in the middle of the night. I woke up feeling like lightning had gone off in my dream. I looked at my wife but didn’t know how to talk to her or even knew her name. I wasn’t afraid. I got up and went into the bathroom. I had no trouble walking. I automatically switched on the light. So conditioned reflexes were working. I sat on the commode and just stared around at things. I “knew” something was missing, but I didn’t have words for it, or how to explain it, even mentally to myself. I just saw what my eyes looked at. I felt things without giving them labels. I just existed. I have no idea how long the experience lasted. Finally, the alphabet started coming back to me and I mentally began to recite A, B, C, D, E, F … in my head. Then words started floating into my mind: tile, towel, door, mirror, and so on. I remembered my wife’s name, Susan. I got up and went back to bed.

Lately, as my ability to instantly recall words has begun to fail, and I worry about a possible future with Alzheimer’s, I’ve been thinking about that state of consciousness without language. People with dementia react in all kinds of ways. From various kinds of serenity, calmness to agitation, anger, and violence. I hope I can remain calm like I did in the bathroom at that time. Having Alzheimer’s is like regressing backward towards babyhood. We lose our ability for language, memories, skills, and even conditioned behaviors. But the observer remains.

The interesting question is: How much does the observer know? If you’ve ever been very sick, delirious, or drunk to incapacity, you might remember how the observer hangs in there. The observer can be diminished or damaged. I remember being very drunk, having tunnel vision, and seeing everything in black and white. My cognitive and language abilities were almost nil. But the observer was the last thing to go. I imagine it’s the same with dementia and death.

Creating the observer will be the first stage of true artificial intelligence. Science is already well along on developing an artificial vision, hearing, language recognition, and other components of higher awareness. It’s never discovered how to add the observer. It’s funny how I love to contemplate artificial intelligence while worrying about losing my mental abilities.

I just finished a book, American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee about wolves being reintroduced into Yellowstone. Wolves are highly intelligent and social, and very much like humans. Blakeslee chronicles wolves doing things that amazed me. At one point a hunter shoots a wolf and hikes through the snow to collect his trophy. But as he approaches the body, the dead wolf’s mate shows up. The mate doesn’t threaten the hunter, but just sits next to the body and begins to howl. Then the pack shows up and takes seats around the body, and they howl too. The wolves just ignore the hunter who stands a stone’s throw away and mourns for their leader. Eventually, the hunter backs away to leave them at their vigil. He decides to collect his trophy later, which he does.

I’ve been trying to imagine the mind of the wolf who saw its mate killed by a human. It has an observing mind too, but without language. However, it had vast levels of conditioning living in nature, socializing with other wolves, and experiences with other animals, including humans. Wolves rarely kill humans. Wolves kill all kinds of other animals. They routinely kill each other. Blakeslee’s book shows that wolves love, feel compassion, and even empathy. But other than their own animalistic language they don’t have our levels of language to abstractly explain reality. That wolf saw it’s mate dead in the snow. For some reason, wolves ignore people, even ones with guns. Wolves in Yellowstone are used to being watched by humans. The pack that showed up to mourn their leader were doing what they do from instinct. It’s revealing to try and imagine what their individual observers experienced.

If you meditate, you’ll learn to distinguish all the components of your consciousness. There are many. We are taught we have five senses. Observing them shows how each plays a role in our conscious awareness. However, if you keep observing carefully, you’ll eventually notice we have more than five senses. Which sense organ feels hunger, thirst, lust, pain, and so on. And some senses are really multiple senses, like our ability to taste. Aren’t awareness of sweet and sour two different senses?

Yet, it always comes back to the observer. We can suffer disease or trauma and the observer remains with the last shred of consciousness. We can lose body parts and senses and the observer remains. We can lose words and memories and the observer remains.

This knowledge leaves me contemplating two things. One is how to build an artificial observer. And two, how to prepare my observer for the dissolution of my own mind and body.

JWH

Can Meditation Overwrite the Unconscious Mind?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 9, 2018

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

older-adult-meditating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It kept doing this until the alarm went off.

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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