What Is Your Specialty in Life?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Do you have a specialty in life? (Doesn’t everyone?) A subject you love more than anything else. A topic you want to share with others. An area of interest you always think about? I tend to believe everyone has one, but they don’t always reveal it. I’m not sure we know what interests our family and friends, what warms their heart of hearts. I don’t talk about my specialty with most of my friends because I know it will bore the crap out of them.

And of course, our specialty changes all the time. What fascinates us in our teenage years might be completely forgotten by our thirties. Or what we dwell on during work hours might be ignored nights and weekends. Or even what we think about waking up might not be what we dwell on before bed.

I know during my middle years I was obsessed with computers. I began computer school in 1971 with mainframes. They were interesting but not exciting. Then in 1978, I got obsessed with microcomputers, and until I retired in 2013 I spent most of my time at work and at home thinking about PCs and what they could do. I spent decades programming dBASE, FoxPro, HTML/ASP/SQL Server. I thought after I retired I would continue to program, but I haven’t. I planned to get into Python and artificial intelligence as a hobby. I keep thinking I will still, but it hasn’t happened in six years.

I’ve often wanted my specialty to be something other than what it actually was. I don’t think we have any free will over what fascinates our minds. I’m not even sure we can explain where our specialties originate. For some reason, our neurons are drawn to highly specific aspects of reality. Often, with no rhyme or reason.

Being retired is somewhat like living in limbo before dying. I love being retired, but it’s not like growing up when we were expected to study, or the work years, when we were expected to be productive. I suppose retired people are expected to have a good time in their waning years, and I do, but they are lacking in future goal thinking. When we were little, we prepared to grow up and become what we thought we wanted to be. When we worked, we prepared for the freedom of retiring and doing exactly what we really dreamed of doing when we were kids. What’s our real future goal now? Preparing to die? I guess if you’re Christian you can plan your heavenly years in eternity.

It really helps to have a specialty in retirement. The only thing is I never imagined the specialty I’d end up having in my retirement years. My current specialty is science fiction anthologies. My dream before retiring was to write science fiction, but I can’t make myself do that. If I had free will, if I had mastery over my domain, I’d be writing science fiction. I have all the time in the world to write science fiction, I just don’t.

What I currently like doing and thinking about doing is collecting and reading science fiction anthologies. I’m even in a Facebook group of 187 people that share the same specialty. Although there are only three of us that seem to have this as our major, the other 184 people probably only pursue it as a minor. Still, my specialty is what gets me up in the morning, and keeps me working all day long. When I’m too tired to do anything else, I try to watch TV at night, but I’m finding that hard. I can’t really focus on the shows. I wish I had the mental energy to keep reading science fiction anthologies or writing about them. I have to accept that specialty.

What’s yours?


Sisyphean Hobbies For My Retirement Years

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 16, 2016

Let’s face it, our retirement years are life in decline. Our minds and bodies turn to oatmeal. Any hobby we pick at age 65 will get increasingly harder at 75, 85, and 95. So the challenge is to pick tasks that works well while rolling our rock up hill. For example, I’ve recently taken up crossword puzzles. I can see why oldsters do them. I started off with the New York Times mini-puzzles and I was flat out horrible. I couldn’t do them. I now finish the mini-puzzle on most days. I’m quite proud of that. To a real cross word puzzler, that’s like telling a friend who does monthly marathons you were able to run around the block today. But I feel a sense of accomplishment. I feel like an old dog telling the world “Fuck you” by learning a new trick.

crossword-puzzleThe other day I subscribed to the full New York Times Crossword Puzzle. I can barely do a seventh of a daily puzzle before I give up. However, I figure I’ll get better. I expect to eventually finish them. It might take months. And I believe I should continue to get better for many years, or dare I say it, decades? At least until my mind goes oat-mealy. Crossword puzzles will be the canary in the mind. When I start getting worse, I’ll know winter is coming to my neurons.

Blogging is a fantastic hobby for the last third of life. It’s a multipurpose exercise machine for the mind. When I go many days without writing, I can actually feel my thoughts get hazier, and I spend more time chasing elusive words around my head. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I finish an essay, so on the days I don’t write feel guilty. I feel lazy, and unproductive.

Retiring is all about not going to pot. (One reason I won’t smoke dope if it became legal.)  It so easy to do nothing. So doing something, doing almost anything, feels good. That’s why hobbies are important. And it’s all relative. I know retired guys who run marathons or build hand-crafted furniture, and know other guys who are happy to walk to the library or read a mystery novel. The key is do something you couldn’t do yesterday, because tomorrow you might not be able to do what you did today.

I’ve realized in recent weeks is I need to pursue more hobbies, ones that preserve my aging oats. Hobbies that exercise mental and physical skills that are currently snoozing on the couch. I need more variety of fun things to do each day. I wish I could do more outside physical things. I was walking and biking, until this summer, when I had to cut back. It was making my back and hip hurt, and making my legs numb. That’s because of my spinal stenosis. Not walking and biking makes my back, hip and leg better, but I worry about my heart. I’ve started small short indoor bike trips to replace the outdoor work. Luckily the plant based diet helps my heart tremendously. I also do my physical therapy and work out on Bowflex machines.

I get a lot of mental exercise out of reading and writing, but I’m starting to worry its not enough. I need some cross-training. Functions not tied to verbal skills need to start doing push-ups. My friend Connell has been getting better at drawing. I wish I could do that. I’ve also wished I could get back into programming. I did that for thirty years, and miss it. For my whole life I’ve wished I had some kind of musical ability, and recently wondered if I could create music with a computer or synthesizer. I could do that without performance skills, and it would get me back into computer programming. And I’ve also wondered, once again, if I could get back into math. I was doing the Khan Academy for a while, and it was pleasurable, but got out of the habit.

That’s the thing. Hobbies require building habit muscles. You have to do a little bit every day. When I do math, I discovered I had to go all the way back to grade school math. It requires being methodical. It’s much easier to go visit a friend, watch a TV show, or listen to music. Being retired is like living with sirens (Greek mythological babes, not fire engines). It is seductively easy for me to read a book, watch TV or listen to music. It’s much harder applying my mind to learning something new.

MPKmini_angle_web_lg_700x438Today I came across something called Csound. It’s a programming language for sound. This is a completely new world to me, and I wonder if I have the mental ability to explore it. I also ordered an Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII. It was only $69 at Amazon. This nifty toy will let me play music with Garage Band on my iPad mini, interface with music programs and programming languages on my computer, plus it comes with some simple synthesize software. I hope to teach myself basic music skill.

I’m making my 2017 resolutions a couple weeks early. I want to learn crossword puzzles, drawing, math and music next year. I’m not particularly ambitious though. So long as I piddle at each a little bit each day, and show a tiny tittle of progress, I’ll be happy.


My Brain Is Not Firing On All Neurons

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 26, 2016

For years now I’ve be plagued by forgetting words, especially nouns and names. From what I’ve read, that’s just a normal part of getting older. It doesn’t make me worry because my peers are experiencing the same problem.

Recently I started studying math using the Khan Academy. At first, I figured I could begin with algebra, but quickly discovered I needed to relearn basic arithmetic. One of the disconcerting things I’ve experience is thinking I’m doing a problem right, then double-checking, still feeling I’ve got the right answer, submitting the answer to Khan Academy, and seeing, nope, I was wrong. Damn! Each time I discovered I had made a very simply addition or multiplication mistake. If I had been calculating something in the real world, I would have used my answer with confidence. What a delusion.


More and more, I’ll start a movie on television thinking I haven’t seen that movie, only to discover I have. Sometimes, even fairly recently. And sometimes, I even have to watch 10-20 minutes before I realize my mistake. This is unnerving when I realize I saw the movie just three months ago. That would worry me big time, but I’ve heard other friends my age describe the same experience. Just another kind of senior moment we’re all collecting. And we all feel we can remember movies better from 50 years ago than the ones we saw last week.

I’ve been noticing in the past year or two I don’t have the same sense of balance that I did when I was younger. For example, I’ll be toweling off after a shower, and catch myself starting to fall because I was leaning over too much. Although, I still amaze myself with how often I can catch something I’ve accidently dropped. Some reflexes seem sharp, while others are wimping out.

Evidently neurons in every part of our brains are failing, but we don’t notice until we need them.

I don’t think anything is particularly wrong with me considering I’m 64. But I’m developing a theory. Maybe not a very scientific one, but still it’s my theory. I’m wondering as I lose neurons I’ll lose very tiny abilities. I’m sure I’ve got billions of neurons, but I’m thinking as we get older, and our neurons wink out, we’ll only notice their loss in subtle ways. Like one of those signs made of an array of thousands of lights, but with a few dead bulbs. The sign still conveys it’s message, but you see some dark holes where a light should be. It starts to be a problem when the dead lights change the wording.

I always pay attention to folks older than me, those in their 70s, 80s and 90s. They generally have more problems than I do, yet they still function. Just slower, with more little glitches.

I’ve read that we can grow new neurons even late in life, and make new synaptic pathways. I’d like to believe that. I’d like to believe if I keep studying math that other neurons will learn what the lost neurons knew. This hope fits in nicely with that old saying, “Use it or lose it.” But it also reminds me of those old acts on Ed Sullivan where a guy keeps a bunch of plates spinning on top of sticks. He would have to run from stick to stick to reenergize each plate to keep them all spinning. That would imply that anything we stop doing regularly is going to fall off its stick and break.

I also have to assume since none of us get out of here alive, that we’re all fighting losing battles. So over time, the number of dying neurons will grow faster than their replacements. That might explain why I see old people pursuing a dwindling list of interests as they age. I already feel like I’m chasing after too many hobbies and that I need to cut some loose. It’s like that old movie Lifeboat, where one by one the weak passengers give up. That means more for the survivors, but it’s cruel. I guess that also explains why downsizing is so popular with older people. We throw our weak interests overboard to die to help our major interests to keep living.

That line of thinking makes me wonder if I should sacrifice some hobbies sooner, if it would let me keep other hobbies longer. Here’s some of hobbies I was hoping to pursue in my retirement years:

  • Essay writing
  • Short story writing
  • Novel writing
  • Learn to program Python
  • Learn to program R
  • Study data mining
  • Study deep learning programming
  • Learn how to draw
  • Study art history
  • Relearning Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry and Calculus
  • Learning Linear Algebra, Discrete Mathematics and Statistics
  • Learn basic electronics to build fun toys.
  • Learn to build and program robots
  • Build and play an analog synthesizer
  • Learn to recreate famous science experiments
  • Build a cheap supercomputer
  • Buy a microscope and study simple microorganisms

The Khan Academy practice is teaching me just how ambitious my math goals are for an old guy. If I live another 20-30 years I might achieve some of them, but it’s going to take considerable work. Would those neurons be put to better use studying writing? Or does studying math boost my overall brain power that will help with writing too?

Should I give up my plans for math and electronics and gamble all my neurons on writing?

Of course, relearning math might be a complete pipe dream anyway. I’m currently studying 5th grade math. I might not have enough new neurons to get through algebra or geometry again. I’m working on an essay this week where I’ve hit the wall. I’m pretty sure I could get further if I gave up most other things I love to do each day.

It could be that neurons are like time, we only have so much, and as we get older,  we need to ration our neurons.


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