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

Freak Out! – 51 Years Ahead of Its Time

Is there a word that means the opposite of nostalgia? Here’s a case of remembering something I didn’t like from the past. To further compound the problem, it’s a work of art that satirized what I did love back then.

I wish I could boast that I first discovered Freak Out! from The Mothers of Invention in June of 1966 when it was first released, but I didn’t buy it until 1968. And even then when I played it on my console stereo in my 11th-grade bedroom I kept saying to myself, “WTF?” Of course, back then we didn’t talk in acronyms. I didn’t hate it, but it was too weird-as-shit to like. I eventually got rid of that LP when I sold my record collection to pay for a travel adventure after my dad died in May 1970.

In 1973 and 1974 I went to see Frank Zappa perform live, I believe for the Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe(‘) tours. By then I liked his music because of all the jazz influences but still thought the songs were uncomfortably weird. To be honest, I mostly went to these two concerts because my friend John Williamson was a big Zappa fan.

Over the years I’ve bought a Zappa album here and there but seldom got into them. I do love “Watermelon in Easter Hay” which is on my Spotify all-time-favorite-songs playlist.

For some strange reason, I started playing Freak Out! a couple weeks ago and haven’t stopped. I guess the album was 51 years ahead of its time — at least for me. I mentioned this to a connoisseur of 1955-1975 music I know and he reacted rather badly. I replied, at least you have to admit this music is very creative. Randy said Zappa had no talent whatsoever. That shocked me. Sure in 1968 I might have accepted that criticism, but not in 2019.

This afternoon when I played Freak Out! while eating lunch my wife pleaded with her eyes for me to stop. (She tries very hard to let me have so sonic freedom around the house, but I stopped after I realized how much I was torturing her.)

In the summer of 1966, I was transitioning from the 9th grade to the 10th, and moving from Miami to Charleston, Mississippi. There’s a good reason for not discovering Frank Zappa in the rural deep south. But by 1968 I had returned to Miami and read about this legendary album. But like I said it was too weird for me. I didn’t understand then it was making fun of everything that made me happy. I was wanting to be a hippy when Frank was skewering the whole counter-culture movement along with the clean-cut youth culture. Somehow Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention saw through all the crap that I admired.

I didn’t know enough to dig their combination of creative music and absurdist lyrics. I didn’t know what the avant-garde was back then. And to be confessional again, I still don’t.  I just don’t care much for satire or humor in music. However, something has changed, and the gestalt of most of the songs have begun to work on me. I actually crave to hear them.

Why at 67 has this silly nonsense become something deeply real?

Freak Out - Inside

Like I said, it would be cool to brag that I’ve been into The Mothers of Invention since they premiered, but even though I only bought the album two years late, I’m over a half-a-century getting to like this album. The group did have an auspicious beginning, being the first group to have a double LP for their first album and to produce one of the first concept albums. Supposedly, even The Beatles paid musical tribute to it on their Sgt. Peppers album.

It’s very hard to understand how strange an album like Freak Out! was compared to the other albums of 1966. Playing it along with Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, Sounds of Silence, Fresh Cream, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Fifth Dimension, Buffalo Springfield, Blues Breakers, Sunshine Superman, or even The Monkees,  you can feel its both a part of a larger musical transformation and a reaction to it.

Everyone remembers “For What’s It’s Worth” by the Buffalo Springfield about the Sunset Strip curfew riots, just look at how often it’s been used on a soundtrack. It was recorded on December 5, 1966. But why don’t people remember Frank Zappa’s song “Trouble Every Day” written in 1965 about the Watts riots?

“Trouble Every Day” is far angrier but also captures the soundtrack of the mid-60s like “For What It’s Worth” but it’s never been used to accent a movie that I can tell. I love “For What It’s Worth” but it was a protest song about young hippies not getting to party while “Trouble Every Day” was about a major race riot. “Trouble Every Day” criticizes far more and with more exciting music. In comparison, the new folk-rock sound of “For What It’s Worth” feels kind of wimpy today.

“Freak Out!” had all types of songs that anticipated future trends. Just listen to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder.” Doesn’t that sound like Sha Na Na, a group that didn’t form until 1969? Zappa was making fun of a nostalgic movement that hadn’t even begun. Listening to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder” in 2019 seems even more relevant. On Facebook so many people my age post photos and music clips of Do-Wop nostalgia. One of my friends even said her retirement life was recreating her high school days.

I love “How Could I Be Such A Fool?” but it makes me wonder just how honest we all were about our teenage loves. The music of this tune presses some button in me and I often put it on repeat play. Why was Frank Zappa so cynical when so young?

And isn’t “I’m Not Satisfied” a great teenage angst anthem at least as good as “I Am A Rock” by Simon and Garfunkle?

Why wasn’t it a hit single in 1966? It certainly reminds me of my 15-year-old emotional life in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966.

Zappa rerecorded several of the Freak Out! songs in 1968 as Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, to parody in even more creative musicality the 1950s rock era. I get the feeling that Zappa both loved this music, but also realized it came from a shallow culture.

So what is the word that describes anti-nostalgia? Maybe the word needs to convey both wistful fondness while recognizing what we love so much was essentially childish and unenlightened. And maybe the word should also mean demystifying nostalgia.

The 1960s was a weird time. It was both exciting and frightening. It was creative and brutal. Online I find so much nostalgia for that era, but few people remember the viciousness only the unthinking carelessness that was so fun.

JWH

Mindfulness Inside Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Probably most people picture mindfulness as the act of sitting on a beach crosslegged meditating on existence. The word mindfulness connotates an aesthetic living alone in the desert or on a high mountain monastery in Tibet. But it also applies to you washing the dishes, taking a crap, and even being fully aware while you’re reading a book or watching television.

BE HERE NOW is an important lesson of eastern philosophy. Our minds wander all over our distractions. Mindfulness is the ability to live fully in the moment being aware of what each sense is telling us and how we process it. One of the first things you should observe is there are more than five senses. Mindfulness is the ability to keep our model of reality in sync with reality. We are not little beings peering out our heads through sensory windows at reality. Our senses recreate a model of reality inside our head which our observer assumes and acts upon as if it was the objective reality. Subjective thoughts distort the flow of data from the external reality. Mindfulness is the skill of observing all of this happen.

Many of us spend a good portion of our day inside fiction. How can we be mindful when we’re lost in reading a novel, watching a television show, or out at the movies? We substitute our cognitive model of reality with a fictional model that someone else has created. We fool ourselves into believing we are someone else, being somewhere else, doing something else. Fiction by its very nature is anti-mindfulness.

Fiction is sometimes how we communicate our models of reality. Other times, fiction is intentional replacements for our model of reality meant to entertain or provide us temporary vacations from reality. When we’re inside fiction, we’re at least two dimensions away from the external reality. The only way to be truly mindful is to constantly recall our immediate place in reality, but that spoils the magical illusion of fiction.

Is it possible to be a bookworm and be mindful at the same time? Is it possible to be mindful while inside fiction? Especially when it requires forgetting who and where we are to fully experience a work of fiction.

While I’m at the movies watching Colette, I must juggle the sensation of seeing an illusion of 19th-century Paris while sitting in a dark room in Memphis, Tennessee. I must accept Keira Knightley pretending to fool me that she is Colette, a woman who spoke another language in another time and is long dead. This is when fiction is a tool for communicating what reality might have been like for another person. Being fully mindful of the experience requires observing my memories of history and knowledge of movie making as it reacts with experiencing the film in a darkened theater.

To be mindful in such a situation requires grasping the gestalt of a complex experience. That’s why people usually pick a quiet empty room to work at mindfulness. It’s much easier to observe our mental state of the moment when not much is going on. Being mindful inside fiction requires our observer watching a symphony of mental activity and understanding how it all works together.

Generally, we consume fiction to forget our observer. When I was listening to The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky I was imaging being thousands of years in the future and many light years away. This new model of reality was generated by whispering words into my ear. I never completely forgot the input from my senses because I listened to the audiobook while eating breakfast or walking around the neighborhood.

I believe part of being mindful while inside fiction is to observe our psychological need for that particular kind of fiction at that moment and how I’m reacting to it. I want and get something much different watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel than when I watch Get Shorty. What I experience while reading Friday by Robert A. Heinlein is much different from what I experience reading Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. The lack of mindfulness inside fiction lets us consume fiction in the same way we can eat a bag of potato chips without noticing that each chip was different.

If I don’t explore why my mind is entertained by stories of a 1959 housewife becoming a standup comic in New York City and a low-life thug wanting to become a movie producer in modern-day Nevada, then I’m not totally being here now.

The purpose of mindfulness is to be fully aware of who you are in the moment. So, it’s almost oxymoron to ask if we can practice mindfulness inside fiction because most people use fiction to escape who they are in the moment. But then, most people aren’t fully in the moment when they are getting dressed or even sitting in a lotus pose in front of a sunset. In the west, mindfulness is taught as a cure for the stress of living. We are told if we meditate five or ten minutes during the day it will help us handle the stress of the rest of the day. Of course, meditation is not mindfulness, but all too often they are confused as one.

One reason I’m bringing up the topic of mindfulness inside fiction is that I believe some types of fiction are polluting our minds. I have to wonder if all the violence in fiction isn’t programming our minds in subtle ways. Is there not a correlation between the mass consumption of violent fiction and the violence we’re seeing in everyday life? The other day I saw a short documentary on the history of the video game. In the 1950s video games were just blips on the screen. Today they almost look like movies. It startled me to see sequences from first-person shooters because I realized those video games were creating the same kind of scenes that mass shooters must see as they walk around blowing real people away.

I have to wonder if the rise of overblown emotional rhetoric we encounter in real life is not inspired by dramatic lines from characters in fiction. Everyday people can’t seem to express their feelings without putting them into harshest of words. Too many people can’t object to a philosophy without claiming they will kill the philosopher.

I  believe its time we extend moments of mindfulness beyond quiet empty rooms or restful respites in nature. We need to observe what fiction is doing to our minds, especially at the subconscious level. We need to be mindful why we seek fiction. We need to understand the purpose of fiction in our lives. We need to know why we turn our own lives off in favor of fictional lives. We need to know what our minds bring back from our fictional vacations.

When I first took computer courses back in 1971, I was taught an interesting acronym, GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. It meant if you put lousy code and data into a computer you’d get crap for output. I believe it also applies to fiction.

JWH

Prioritizing My Ambitions

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Being 66 and retired gives me a lot of free time, yet at the end of every day, I always wish I had more. My lifelong, no-so-secret ambition has been to write a book. I’ve had plenty of ideas, and I could have found the time, even during my nine-to-five years. Yet, I haven’t. Why? Because I fritter away my goddamn time. I have a personality that loves to do what I want when I want. Some people call that laziness, but it’s essentially poor time management. Somehow I need to learn how to prioritize my time to succeed.

Most people must achieve their ambitions before forty. Most big ambitions required the peak performance of youth. Generally, writers must also succeed in bloom, but there are a few outliers that give me hope. Writing is one endeavor where late bloomers have an outside chance. So, if I don’t want to go to my grave still fantasizing about the books I want to write, I need to conquer time management.

All that’s required is focusing, working diligently, and ignoring all the distractions. Of course, that’s easier declared than lived. I’ve mind mapped how I spend my time. What I need to, is Marie Kondo its branches.

Time Mind Map

I write best in the mornings, but to maintain my health I must exercise. My self-control wanes quickly during the day, so if I don’t do my exercises in the morning, there’s little chance I’ll do them at all. In fact, I’m skipping my morning bike ride to write this. That bike ride gives me vitality, something in short supply. And if I don’t do my physical therapy and Miranda Esmonde-White exercises, my back will go out. Maybe one reason people don’t succeed after forty is that we have to spend too much time on body maintenance.

I need to completely get over this ingrained habit. I need to write in the mornings and exercise later in the day. I doubt I have the mental and physical energy to write more than four hours a day, maybe only two, even if I give it my best hours. Somehow I need to make those writing hours the #1 activity in my day. After that, I have to make exercise #2.

I have a friend whose life-long ambition is to live abroad. She’s finally getting to do that because she’s getting rid of everything she owns here. Part of my time management problem is possession management. According to minimalists, owning less is more freeing. That’s true, For example, I’ve been spending a lot of time and mental energy researching buying a new television and computer, or what books and magazines to collect. I need to stop that. It would also help to get rid of all the stuff I must spend time maintaining.

If you study that mind map, you’ll notice I consume a great deal of fiction. Generally, I rationalize television and reading by claiming I only do it when I’m too tired to do anything else. I need to make sure that’s true.

Looking closer, I also realize I spend a great deal of time socializing. I’m not sure I can give friends up, but I need to make being with them more efficient. People are just as essential as food, but some of my social activities are junk food.

Many of the activities listed above are mostly ambitions I just piddle around with at best. Maybe it’s time I give up thinking I’m a programmer. I spent my work years programming, and I think of myself as a programmer, but I really don’t program anymore. I want to. If I gave up writing I’d want to program. But I can’t have two ambitions. There’s not enough time.

If I’m really serious about writing a book then I need to prune the crap out of that mind map above. Meditating on it is very revealing. I should print it out and study it first thing every morning when I wake up. I should reread this essay every morning to remind myself of the lessons I’ve learned writing it.

I find it most rewarding on waking up if I make two goals for the day. It used to be five, then three, and now two. They can’t be too big either. And sometimes I have to waste one on things like grocery shopping or seeing a movie.

If my mind map was smaller, with fewer branches, it would be easier to be ambitious with my limited resources. It’s going to be painful to give up so many possessions and activities. But if I really want to succeed with my goal, I can see from studying the mind map, that’s the price.

Afterward:

The two goals that came to mind this morning, were to write a new blog, and finish a scanning project and submit it to Internet Archive. This accomplishes one of them. I think of blogging as writing. I’ve always said blogging was piano practice for writers. Yet, I see it’s not working on a book. I’ve got to start blogging outside my morning writing hours. Blogging is essential to my my mental agility. It has to be #3 after morning writing and exercise. But I positively have to stop blogging in the morning.

If I can’t make writing in the morning my #1 activity every day, I should Marie Kondo my ambition to write a book. To be honest, I must prune my ambitions too.

Maybe I’m really doing what I want, and the desire to write is what I should give up.

Not yet.

JWH

 

 

Poor Man’s Time Machine

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 12, 2018

Some days you just want to live in another era. Statistically, we live in the best of times. If you’ve read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, you should feel safer about war, crime, and violence. Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress promises to make us feel better about everything. Bill Gates is calling it his all-time favorite book. Yet, 2017 was a very depressing year for me because of Donald Trump. 2018 should be even more depressing because there’s no sign that Trump will be impeached or quit.

time-machine-steampunk-clock

Whenever I watch the NBC Nightly News it makes me wish I had a time machine. Sadly, I can’t afford one. When I read Global Citizen I feel like I should be doing something to help the world because that site shows how people can make a big difference. But to be honest, I’m old, set in my ways, and don’t want to get out in the world anymore. When I look at Congress I see a rabid pack of old white guys snarling and snapping at each other to shape America with their narrowminded beliefs. It’s time for women, youth, and diversity to take the reins.

I don’t think the world needs input from another old white dude, so I’m retreating from the rat race by reading books. What’s hilarious, those books are mostly by old dead white guys. Maybe it’s like the old Tarzan movies, and we’re like a dying elephant knowing where to go to our secret graveyard.

I’ve been time traveling back to the late 16th-century by listening to The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Donald M. Frame. When Montaigne was still in his thirties he retired by retreating to a tower in his castle, bringing a desk, chair, and a thousand books. There Montaigne contemplated reality by comparing his personal experiences to what he read. Along the way, he invented the personal essay, which is why I consider Montaigne the Patron Saint of Bloggers.

Montaigne remains essential reading for jaded bookworms because he explains the usefulness of all those dead white writers of history, the ones remembered in The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Listening to Montaigne makes me understand why 19th-century intellectuals were so big on classical studies. By the way, if you have a detailed scholarly bent, love annotations, and notes on textual variations, you might prefer the M. A. Screech translation. Listening to the Frame translation makes me feel like Montaigne is talking at me. It’s very smooth.

And I highly recommend you listen to Montaigne on audio because he’s a rambler, and rambles on for over a thousand pages. But, if you prefer to hold a book in your hands, I recommend the Everyman’s Library edition of The Complete Works, also translated by Frame. It’s easier to hold and has a nifty ribbon bookmark. However, you’re still holding a 1,336-page book. Because there’s no ebook edition with a Frame translation, I’d recommending getting older Cotton/Hazlitt translation from the public domain for your carry around everywhere on your phone edition. Amazon has many 99 cent Kindle editions, but I picked this edition because the text reformats nicely on my phone.

(By the way, I got turned onto Montaigne from reading How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.)

When I’m not back in the 16th-century I spend a lot of time in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, either by watching old television shows and movies, or reading old books, or listening to old music. Recently I’ve been listening to a playlist of music from the 1920s and 1930s created from ten volumes in a series called The Big Broadcast.

I’m still having big fun reading through The Great SF Stories #1-25 (1939-1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. These stories were from the great science fiction pulp magazines. It almost feels like I’m living in 1940 when I read the stories and play music from that year, especially when I get so deep into a tale that I forget it’s 2018, and a maniac runs the country.

I’ve fantasized about redecorating my living room so it only contains furniture and objects that could have existed before WWII. We bought the house my wife grew up in after her parents died, and left the living room unchanged with the old furniture, lamps, and pictures on the wall. I imagine smoking a pipe wearing a smoking jacket while sitting in one of the blue chairs reading a July 1939 issue of Astounding Stories.

Susan did add an antique floor standing radio she bought at an estate sale. We gutted the old equipment from it that didn’t work, but left the knobs and the frequency scale. I could build a computer to hide inside it that played pre-war radio shows and music. I could put mint copies of old books, slick and pulp magazines on the coffee table. Then play Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong while reading and imagine I’m back in the past.

I’d have to concentrate hard not to remember Donald Trump. Actually living in the 1930s would be horrible compared to today. I’m just nostalgic for its pop culture, well some of it. For example, I’d have to make sure I played “All of Me” instead of “Strange Fruit” when listening to Billie Holiday.

Sadly, there is no utopia to escape to. Steven Pinker is right, now is the best of time for humanity. The future is unknown. I hope trends continue and things continue to get better. But as long as Donald Trump is in the news I just can’t imagine it.

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