Love, Death + Robots: What is Mature Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 25, 2019

Love, Death + Robots showed up on Netflix recently. It has all the hallmarks of mature entertainment – full frontal nudity, sex acts of various kinds, gory violence, and the kind of words you don’t hear on broadcast TV or in movies intended for younger audiences. There’s one problem, the maturity level of the stories is on the young adult end of the spectrum. 13-year-olds will be all over this series when it should be rated R or higher.

When I was in high school I had two science fiction reading buddies, Connell and Kurshner. One day Kurshner’s mom told us almost in passing, “All that science fiction you’re reading is so childish. One day you’ll outgrow it.” All three of us defended our belief in science fiction, but Mrs. Kurshner was adamant. That really bugged us.

Over the decades I’d occasionally read essays by literary writers attacking science fiction as crude fiction for adolescents. I vaguely remember John Updike caused a furor in fandom with an essay in The New Yorker or Harpers that outraged the genre. I wish I could track that essay down, but can’t. Needless to say, at 67 I’m also starting to wonder if science fiction is mostly for the young, or young at heart.

I enjoyed the 18 short mostly animated films in the Love, Death + Robots collection, but I have to admit they mostly appealed to the teenage boy in me, and not the adult. Nudity, sex, violence, and profanity doesn’t equate with maturity. But what does? I’ve known many science fiction fans that think adult literary works are equal to boredom.

So what are the qualities that make science fiction mature? I struggled this morning to think of science fiction novels that I’d consider adult oriented. The first that came to mind was Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Orwell died before the concept of science fiction became common, but I’m pretty sure he never would have considered himself a science fiction writer even though he used the tricks of our trade. Margaret Atwood doesn’t consider herself a science fiction writer even though books like The Handmaid’s Tale are both science fiction and mature literature. Other mature SF novels I can think of are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. These are all novels that use science fiction techniques to tell their story but were written by literary writers.

Of course, I could be howling at the moon for no reason. Most television and movies are aimed at the young. Except for Masterpiece on PBS and a few independent films, I seldom get to enjoy stories aimed at people my own age. Which brings me back to the question: What makes for mature fiction? And it isn’t content that we want to censor from the young. If we’re honest, nudity, sex, violence, and profanity are at the core of our teenage thoughts.

Mature works of fiction are those that explore reality. Youth is inherently fantasy oriented. The reason why we’re offered so little adult fiction is that we don’t want to grow up and face reality. The world is full of reality-based problems. We want fiction that helps us forget those problems. Getting old is real. We want to think young.

Love, Death + Robots appeals to our arrested development.

Love Death + Robots - robots

I’m currently reading and reviewing the 38 science fiction stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m writing one essay for each story to discuss both the story and the nature of science fiction in general. I’ve finished 10 stories so far, and one common aspect I’m seeing is a rejection of reality. These stories represent what Dozois believes is the best short science fiction published from 2002-2017. On the whole, the stories are far more mature than those in Love, Death + Robots, but that’s mainly due to their sophistication of storytelling, and not philosophy. At the heart of each story is a wish that reality was different. Those wishes are expressed in incredibly creative ways, which is the ultimate aspect of science fiction. But hoping the world could be different is not mature.

Science fiction has always been closer to comic books than Tolstoy, Woolf, or even Dickens. And now that many popular movies are based on comic books, and the whole video game industry looks like filmed comic books, comic book mentality is spreading. The science fiction in Love, Death + Robots is much closer to its comic book ancestry than its science fiction ancestry, even though many of the stories were based on original short stories written by science fiction writers. Some reviewers suggest Love, Death + Robots grew out of shows like Robot Carnival and Heavy Metal.  Even though Heavy Metal was considered animation for adults, it’s appeal was rather juvenile.

I know fully well that if Netflix offered a series of 18 animated short science fiction films that dealt with the future in a mature and realistic way it would get damn few viewers. Even when science fiction deals with real-world subjects, it seldom does so in a real way. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a genre to be mature that wants to offer hope to the young. Yet, is its hope honest? Is it a positive message tell the young we can colonize other planets if we destroy the Earth? That we can solve climate change with magical machines. That science can give us super-powers. That if we inject nanobots into our bloodstream we can be 22 again. That don’t worry about death because we’ll download your brain into a clone or computer. Doesn’t science fiction often claim that in time technology will solve all problems in the same way we rationalize to children how Santa Claus could be real?

Actually, none of the stories in Love, Death + Robots offered any hope, just escape and the belief you can sometimes shoot your way out of a bad situation. But only sometimes.

Maybe that’s not entirely true, one story, “Helping Hand” by Claudine Griggs is about a very realistic situation that is solved by logical thinking. Strangely, it’s the only story by a woman writer. A “Cold Equations” kind of story. That’s a classic 1954 short story written by Tom Godwin where the main character has to make a very difficult choice.

My favorite three stories (“When the Yogurt Took Over,” “Alternate Histories” and “Three Robots”) were all based on stories by John Scalzi and have kind of zany humor that provides needed relief from the grimness of the other tales. I actually enjoyed all the short films, but I did tire of the ones that felt inspired by video game violence. Even those films like “Secret War” and “Lucky Thirteen” which aimed for a little more maturity, rose higher than comic books, but only to pulp fiction.

The two films based on Alastair Reynolds stories, “Zima Blue” and “Beyond the Aquilla Rift” seemed to be the most science fictional in a short story way. I especially like “Zima Blue” for its visual art, and the fact the story had an Atomic Age kind of science fiction feel to it. So did the fun “Ice Age” based on a Michael Swanwick story. Mid-Century science fiction is really my favorite SF era. Finally, “Good Hunting” based on a Ken Liu has a very contemporary SF feel because it blends Chinese myths with robots. World SF is a trending wave in the genre now.

I’m still having a hard time pointing to mature short SF, ones that would make great little films like in Love, Death + Robots. Maybe “Good Mountain” by Robert Reed, which I reviewed on my other site. I guess my favorite example might be “The Star Pit” by a very young Samuel R. Delany, which is all about growing up and accepting limitations. Most of the films in Love, Death + Robots were 8-18 minutes. These stories might need 30-60. It would be great if Netflix had an ongoing anthology series of short live-action and animated science fiction because I’d like to see more previously published SF stories presented this way. Oh, I suppose they could add sex, nudity, violence, and profanity to attract the teenagers, but what I’d really want is to move away from the comic book and video game plots, and into best better SF stories we read in the digests and online SF magazines.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Chocolate and Back Pain

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 18, 2019

I doubt many people will associate chocolate with back pain, but I’ve experienced a connection. I’ve been dealing with spinal stenosis for many years and I’ve learned how to control it with diet and exercise because pills that fight pain and inflammation bother my stomach. I’ve learned that food can cause inflammation. I hate this idea because it’s all my favorite foods that indirectly add to my back pain. Inflammation causes the stiffness and numbness which leads to pain. Most people learn to relax back pain with an anti-inflammation pill, but if you pay attention, avoiding certain foods also has an anti-inflammation effect.

I was doing great this year. I’ve been on 16:8 intermittent fasting since 9/21/18, and off junk food since 1/1/19. About ten days ago I started experimenting with a few minor treats. However, one thing led to another and I fell off the wagon, binging on chocolate for two days. What stopped me was stomach pains. As I’ve gotten older, my stomach has gotten wimpier. Not only had I gotten my back almost pain free and a good deal more limber, but also stabilized my stomach into its quiet state. Going off my diet quickly let me know that value of eating healthy.

I don’t know why, but in recent years my stomach has become extra sensitive to two of my most loved foods: peanut butter and chocolate. When my stomach started hurting I immediately quit my chocolate binge. That’s when I realized that my back had taken quite a setback, proving how much diet contributes to inflammation. I was back to walking hunched over with a slight limp. Just last week I commented to myself that I was feeling much sprier in ages.

When I feel good, I become weak to temptation.

Needless to say, I’m back on my diet. I keep thinking what I eat shouldn’t affect inflammation that much, but it does. I created the above headline to sound absurd hoping to entice people to read this essay. However, I searched on this title and lo and behold, other people are writing about chocolate and back pain too.

I hate having to give up everything I love to eat. But I feel like Pavlov’s dog. Certain foods now come with a kick in the gut or whack to the back. The trouble is I can only remember my conditioning for so long before temptation strikes again. I’m hoping I can remember the miserable stomach pains I felt Saturday and the back pains from yesterday.

JWH

 

 

Volunteer Librarians

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 9, 2019

A couple weeks ago I went with my friends Mike and Betsy to a book signing for The Watch on the Fencepost (a pleasant cozy mystery) by Kay DiBianca. Mike had worked with Kay for years and I went along because this was Kay’s first book, written after she retired, something I’ve always wanted to do. Kay introduced Mike and me to her audience as former librarians, suggesting we might be experts on books. Mike and I worked in a university library back in the 1980s, but as clerks, not librarians. At the time, we both wanted to become librarians, but it required moving out of town to get a Master’s of Library Science degree, something hard to do since we both had wives with jobs too. To become a librarian where we worked required an MLS to get the job and then another master’s in a useful subject area to keep it.

Mike and I were never qualified to call ourselves librarians so we’re always embarrassed when that title was bestowed on us. We both left the library to go into computers, but I think we each wished we had become librarians. Now that we’re retired I’ve noticed that many of our hobbies require librarian-like skills. I’m starting to think of ourselves and others that share our hobbies as volunteer librarians.

I haven’t worked in a library for almost four decades, but back then they had several main departments:

  • Acquisitions
  • Cataloging
  • Circulation
  • Reference
  • Periodicals
  • Binding & Repairs
  • Government Documents
  • Special Collections

My new hobby of scanning old science fiction fanzines for the Internet Archive involves acquisitions, cataloging, periodicals, repair, and special collection skills. Mike and I’s project for the Classics of Science Fiction involves reference skills like indexing, making rules for the title and author entries, using online databases, and linking to standardized catalogs. Each of us collects books and periodicals. Mike is much better at cataloging his collection in the GoodReads database. Mike would have made a great librarian because he is so extremely detailed oriented.

I think of my scanning project as collecting and preserving documents that are disappearing. There’s a very librarian-like appeal to it. Mike and I used to work with cataloging periodicals using OCLC and Mark II records. I wonder if these are still in use today? (I just checked and they are.) Now that we’re building our own databases of records we’re concerned about standards and interoperability with other database systems. We’re designing our system so titles and authors entries follow exact rules. Like libraries using the OCLC system, we’ve decided to piggyback our efforts on a more universal system, which is the Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB.org). ISFDB.org is a vast worldwide effort of volunteer librarians indexing and cataloging all books and periodicals related to science fiction and fantasy.

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It’s better to join larger efforts. That’s why I’m noticing volunteer librarians building what I believe will one day become the Library of Planet Earth. Right now countless systems, collections, databases, indexes, bibliographies, are springing up on the internet, usually by groups with special interests. They seldom work together, but someday they will. For example, I think it’s very logical that Wikipedia, ISFDB.org, WorldCat, Internet Archive, and other separate systems start cross-referencing everything about science fiction. Everything I upload to the Internet Archive is already cataloged in ISFDB and has entries in Wikipedia. I can already see that Wikipedia will become the Card Catalog of the emerging Planet Earth Library.

Other scanners preserving pulp magazines use Galactic Central which works to index all stories in pulp magazines and related periodicals. It overlaps with science fiction but covers other genres. Sometimes I wish Galactic Central had features of ISFDB, and sometimes I wish ISFDB had features of Galactic Central. Before computers, lone bibliographers compiled lists and 3×5 card stacks by hand and then published them in printed indexes that had to be annually updated. Now all their work is being done by volunteer teams that build huge datasets in the cloud that update in real-time. Eventually, I see these systems merging into super-systems. For example, one day there will be one database that catalogs every short story ever published.

If you pay attention to the information you get on the internet, you’ll start noticing the volunteer librarians. Wikipedia is both volunteer encyclopedists and volunteer librarians. If you’ve ever used Discogs or MusicStack or All Music then you’ve seen the work of volunteer music librarians. Every subject hobby has them.

Some people just have a natural urge to collect, catalog, preserve, index, and organize diverse kinds of recorded knowledge. It’s a kind of hoarding of historical artifacts. We don’t want civilization to Marie Kondo itself and throw out all the tidbits of knowledge that keep piling up. In a way, volunteer librarians are like the dream mechanism in our heads at night that decides which memories are worth keeping. We can’t save everything, but we can try.

Volunteer librarians don’t need library science degrees, just a strong urge to collect,  catalog, and preserve.

JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 25, 2019

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

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

Marshall-Brent

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

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

The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein 1967

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

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

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

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

First-Heinlein-books-I-bought

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Treasury of Great Science Fiction

I Robot by Isaac Asimov

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Farnham's Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein

Earthblood by Laumer and Brown

Mindswap by Robert Sheckley

Omnivore by Piers Anthony

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

JWH

I Wish I Had a Time Machine to Rescue My Dad

by James Wallace Harris

One of my favorite idle fantasies is to imagine how I would relive my life if my current mind could reincarnate into my younger self. Variations of this fantasy have included using a time machine to jump back in time to warn my younger self about the future, although I doubt young Jimmy would have taken older Jim’s advice. This week I’ve been struggling to remember everything I could from 50 years ago, and a new fantasy has occurred to me.

What if I had a time machine so I could go back and rescue my dad instead of me?

I know such fantasies are impossible, so why waste my time on them? But the science fiction reader in me loves the idea of creating my own alternate histories by playing “What if?” The challenge to these fantasies is to find the right point in time to divert the time stream. It occurred to me this morning that the moment to rescue my father was in the summer of 1967, but first I guess I should explain why my father needed help.

My father died in 1970 at age 49 when I was 18. My mother and father were alcoholics. My father was a steady drinker, but my mother would only hit the bottle in times of stress from her bipolar swings. My father loved being in the Air Force but was forced to retire after 22 years when he had a heart attack in 1964. Sitting at home without work made him drink more. Dad recovered, went back to work and had another heart attack. Dad recovered again, went back to work, and had a stroke. He even recovered from the stroke before he died of his final heart attack.

My father also had emphysema in his last years, requiring oxygen. But he continued to chain smoke Camels, eat meat and potatoes, and drink Seagram 7 all day long. His death certificate reported that his liver, lungs, appendix, and stomach were shot to hell. I’ve always figured his heart was very strong to survive all that. It made me wonder if he had ever tried to get healthy if he could have survived into old age. Or at least long enough for the two of us to get to know each other.

But my dad was not a happy man. When I was a kid I used to ask myself, “Was my father a drunk because my mother bitched all the time, or did my mother bitch all the time because my father was a drunk?” I’ve never blamed my parents about my upbringing. I survived by being totally selfish, and I figured it was every family member for themselves. Now that I’m older I feel guilty for being so selfish. I know as a kid I didn’t know enough to help them, or even how to be a better person myself. I just survived the best I could. I really don’t blame my parents, but I don’t think they were suited to have children.

Over the last few decades, I’ve come to believe that I and my sister were the main sources of my parents’ unhappiness. We just weren’t what they expected, and any effort to shape us into what they wanted only caused them endless suffering. Of course, it wasn’t easy on me and Becky either, but our youth gave us a vitality to survive. My father just couldn’t handle the emotional conflicts. My mom got better after my father died, especially with 1970s anti-depressants, but she suffered endless unhappiness for the rest of her life, mostly from trying to make Becky and I do what she wanted.

The photo above is my only proof that my parents were ever happy. It was taken in 1949 before they had me and Becky.

Over the decades I’ve tried to reconstruct who my dad was from memories of the people who knew him, but I’ve had little luck. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to talk with anyone who really knew him, and that includes my mother, who died in 2007. My father wasn’t much of a talker. He might have been before I knew him, but I now believe my mother, sister, and I drowned him out.

I have just 23 photographs of my father. All but three were taken before I was born, and two of those were with me as a toddler. I have no photographs of my father with my sister.

1936---George-Harris-photoshoppedMy father was born in Nebraska, in 1920, but moved when he was a little kid to Miami by 1923. He attended Miami Edison High School, but I’m not sure if he graduated there. I have a photo of him dressed for graduation that was taken in Homestead, Florida. Dad graduated in 1938 and I have his class photo, but I’m not sure if he graduated from Edison. I know he attended Edison for a while because I have a newspaper clipping about his class project. I know he worked as a Western Union delivery boy in high school because I have a photo of him in uniform from 1936. I have photos of my father in the service in 1942, but I’m not sure what he did between graduating in 1938 and joining the Army Air Corp in 1942. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and married my mother in 1945.

My parents were first stationed in Washington, DC, and then Puerto Rico. I have several photographs of my mother and father living on the island and looking very happy. And when I was young they often talked fondly of life in Puerto Rico. I was born on the 6th wedding anniversary on November 25, 1951. There are two photographs of me with my father when I was a toddler, probably in 1952. The next and last photograph I have of my father was from Thanksgiving 1969. It’s blurry and everyone is almost unrecognizable. He died six months later.

I remembered something this morning that made me think the perfect time to rescue my dad would have been in the summer of 1967. 1964-1966 were bad years for my parents, and they separated from September 1966 to March 1967. My mother took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi to be near her family. We returned to Miami in March 1967 to live on West Trade Avenue, in Coconut Grove, Florida. I guess my father was trying to get his act together. He also started computer classes. I remember him coming home from class and telling me about how punch card codes worked. However, it wasn’t long before my mother and father were fighting again. And my mother and father were both on my sister case, and she was having none of it. I remember a lot of family fights. I tried to stay as far away from my family as possible. I slept on the screened-in back porch with the clothes washer. I had my radio, record player and science fiction books.

This would have been a perfect time to have tried to get to know my father. I don’t know if I could have convinced him to eat right, give up smoking and drinking, and maybe even exercise, but maybe he would have considered it on his own if someone had shown any interest in his life. I think he drank because he was lonely.

Taking computer classes in 1967 was a great time to break into the field. I started computer classes in 1971. If I had studied with him I would have had a great headstart too. We could have gotten to know each other. Maybe he would have tried harder.

Generally, when I have my time travel fantasies I’m thinking of time periods to change my life. Over the years I’ve decided the best time for me was the fall of 1963. If I could have talked my parents into letting me live with my grandmother instead of moving with them to South Carolina I believe my life would have been significantly different. In the fall of 1963, I went to three different 7th grade schools. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I had lived in one place from 7th grade through the 12th. But now I see the pivotal moment in time for my dad was the summer of 1967.

I know we only get one life to live. There are no do-overs. I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in heaven. But I’ve long thought the idea of reincarnation was a wonderful concept, but not how the Hindus imagine it. I’ve always thought we should reincarnate in our own lives and have another chance of getting it right.

My father always worked two and three jobs. I hope he had great friends in the service. I know he loved bartending at NCO clubs and VFW clubs. He loved running bars, and I got to visit in some in those bars. I hope he had friends. I often wonder if he and his buddies consoled each other about wives and kids that didn’t understand them. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I imagine my father always being tight-lipped. Just holding it in.

I can only remember a handful of conversations I had with my dad. One time we were watching The Today Show before he took me to school and he went to work. This was also in that summer of 1967. They mentioned The Hobbit and my father said he knew about Bilbo Baggins. I didn’t know who Bilbo was at that time but remembered my dad saying that name, Bilbo Baggins, later when I finally read The Hobbit. It made me wonder what books my father read, what dreams he had about the future. He grew up in the heyday of the pulp magazines and old time radio. I wonder what stories and heroes he loved.

My father loved the military, and in 1967 I was very anti-war. I remember once my dad calling me a commie-pinko-faggot in anger. His dream for me was to join the ROTC and become an officer. I was having none of that. I ruined his fantasy for me. I later thought he should have been mature enough to understand me because I was too immature to understand him. But that was all part of the great generation gap. If my dad had lived he would have been a Fox News kind of guy. I don’t think we would have ever bridged the generation gap.

However, if I ever get hold of a time machine, I would try.

1969---Last-photo-of-Dad

JWH

 

How Accurately Can I Remember 50 Years Ago?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 16, 2019

2019 is the 50th anniversary of my graduating high school in 1969. I attended three different high schools in two states from 1966 to 1969. I’ve been looking at their yearbooks which has triggered a flood of memories. That is inspiring me to write a series of essays in lieu of attending my high school reunion. The process of struggling to remember and validating my memories with evidence has unleashed emotions and revelations that reflect a new honesty about myself. This is my third attempt to write about this experience. I keep bombing out when the essays got too long and complicated. So I’ve decided to cut them up into thematic chunks. I’ve toyed with writing “50 Lessons From 50 Years Ago” because I’ve remembered at least fifty scenes from the past that are worth an essay each, with more burbling out of my unconscious every hour. I’ve either stumbled upon a psychological fountain of wisdom, or a wriggling can of worms.

As my current ability to remember becomes iffier, and access times get longer, the whole topic of memory has become a siren call of fascination, even obsession. This week as I’ve worked to remember 50 years ago, I had many revelations about myself, some unpleasant and unflattering. An essential insight is I might be different from most other people. Because my family moved so much as a kid, I have always been hung up on recalling the past because I was always remembering friends, homes, and schools I just left. I envy people who never moved. My friend Linda, who is working with her 50th-anniversary reunion group is also in charge of the 1st-grade reunion. She told me recently she’s in contact with 9 of her 15 classmates from her first grade. That blows my mind. I can’t remember a single classmate from grades 1 through 3. And I can’t remember now if I went to four or five schools in those first three grades. I do remember living in 7 houses during those years.

This first essay will be about the limits of memory and evidence. To put it bluntly, our memories are flawed and unreliable. Whole books have been written about that. My favorite is Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman. Don’t be scared off because it’s about Jesus, Ehrman takes a historical approach and spends most of the book talking about how we remember. Describing someone from 2,000 years ago tests the limit of memory and evidence. I’m just trying to remember who I was 50 years ago and a few friends. Supposedly I should have been the best eye witness. I probably wasn’t. After reading through the yearbooks I went searching for more physical evidence. I found very little.

The photo above is from my 10th-grade yearbook, The Warrior when I attended East Tallahatchie High School in Charleston, Mississippi from September 1966 through the beginning of March 1967. I’m the guy in the striped sweater. Except for the teacher I can’t recall any of those other science club members. So far I’ve only found three photos of myself from 1966-1969. That’s scant evidence. I thought I had a few old report cards my mother saved, but I can’t find them. I have no diaries, journals, or other physical evidence. I had more physical evidence, but in the 1970s, went through a Buddhist phase and got rid of all my possessions that triggered memories. God, I wish I had that stuff now, what a jackass. At the time I wanted to free myself from thinking about the past.

The Yardsticks of Memory

There are two primary ways to reconstruct the past. The first is memories. The second is physical evidence. But I needed a standard unit of measurement, a yardstick to lay against both memory and evidence. Or I needed anchors in the past to work out from. I’m slowly developing several:

  • How many people did I know and how often did I talk to them? This involved recalling names and finding photographs and giving myself the third-degree about how deeply I interacted with these people.
  • What was I required to do every day? What were my routines?
  • What did I want to do with my free time?
  • What did I hope to do? What were my plans for the future?
  • What events can I document on Google that I remember attending?
  • Where and what did I eat at my three meals?
  • What TV shows did I watch?
  • What books did I read?
  • What movies and concerts did I go to?
  • How did I commute to work and school?

I’ve decided not to attend my reunion because digging through the yearbooks convinced me I knew too few classmates. I realized while contemplating this whole high school reunion thing, that I can measure my high school years by how much I talked to the different people. Today I can name damn few people I got to really know back in high school. I wasn’t particularly shy. I’m fairly confident that I learned all the names of my classmates in every class. I paid that much attention. People would talk to me and I’d talk to them, but it was all casual chit-chat that’s been forgotten. I remember several girls in each class that triggered sex fantasies to alleviate the boredom of lectures. Some of them actually like talking to me. However, I only actually dated only one girl for a couple of months, and I can’t remember one distinctive thing she said to me. I found damn few kids in my memories that liked to talk about what I liked to talk about, which was science, science fiction, the future, and NASA’s efforts at space travel. I did gab daily with folks about cars, television, movies, and rock music because those were the lowest common denominators of pop culture back then. I didn’t like talking about sports or school activities or gossiping about the other kids.

I still chat on the phone several times a week to my oldest friend, Jim Connell. We met at Coral Gables High School, my second high school, in 1967. So he wasn’t part of my graduating class, but Connell was the person I spent the most time with back then. We were also pals with George Kirschner. George is probably the second person I spent the most time talking to during my high school years. We three loved science fiction, and we had each had rejected our Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish upbringing. I was into the counter culture, George was the know-it-all with a more sophisticated upbringing, and Connel was adventurous but shy and loved the ocean. We all loved science.

My family moved from Coconut Grove, Florida to South Miami when I was in the 11th grade, and I finished out high school at Miami-Killian Senior High. However, I kept my job in Coconut Grove until the last week of November 1968. That kept me tied to some of my friends that still went to Coral Gables High School, but it meant a long daily commute to work. Remembering this made me realize I had friends at two high schools and a job so that meant a lot more names and conversations to recall.

It also made me realize that I did a lot of traveling every day and I didn’t own a car. Just trying to remember how I got from place to place is unearthing all kinds of memories. Google Maps tells me from home to Kwik Check was 16.1 miles via Old Cutler Road, and would take 37 minutes. Here’s a memory puzzle. I think my mother and father each had a car, but I didn’t. They both worked. I remember a 1967 Pontiac Tempest and vaguely remember a much older Mercury. I think sometimes I’d go to school on the bus, or catch a ride with Tim Green. Miami-Killian was between home and work. And then I’d hitch-hike into the Grove, but I don’t think I did that often. I only vaguely remember driving to school a few times, but what I really remember was loving the drive home after work. I’d be hot and sweaty after working six hours. My end-of-the-night tasks were sweeping and mopping the floors, cleaning the bathrooms, and incinerating the out-of-date food. I’d buy two 16-ounce Cokes after work and drive home via the Old Cutler Road, which was dark and lined with ancient looking trees. I’d have the windows down and play the radio very loud. I love the time I had to myself driving home. It was the only time I wasn’t rushing. So my assumption is my parents would lend me their cars. But I have no memory of discussing who’d take the car each day, or how they got to their jobs.

Nor do I remember much about my sister Becky’s life back then. She was two years younger than me. When I started the 12th at Miami-Killian she started the 10th, but I have no memory of which junior high schools she attended in Gables or South Miami Heights.

And this makes me remember something else. To many, high school is 9th through 12th, but in Miami, junior high was 7th through 9th and high school 10th through 12th. So if I’m recalling the details of my high school years, do I think of four schools or three, or four homes or three? Because recalling the 9th grade is a whole other memory era for me, and a different group of friends.

This quicksand trap is teaching me about memory. Every time I find a piece of evidence, remember a name, think of an activity or recall an event, I trigger memories around them. It feels like it’s all there, I just need to find the hook, or thread of the web and follow it. It boggles my mind to think that chemical etchings in my brain stores all these memories.

Now that I’m working out the framework for finding memories, I want to pick an individual memory and reconstruct it in depth. I know there was the reality to my life fifty years ago, but it was all perceptual. There was the person I wanted to be, the person I thought I was, the person other people saw, and they were all different. And my parents and teachers wanted me to be different people with different futures, and I wanted to be something I could never be.

One of the hardest things to remember is my realistic expectations about the future. I remember countless unrealistic expectations, but how often did I make realistic decisions and plans? Stay tuned for part 2.

JWH

 

Archiving the Past for the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH