What To Read Before I Die

Most folks think growing up is the time to learn, and that the rest of life is for coasting on that education.  But as you age, you realize that every phase of life has its required coursework.  At sixty-two I’ve already forgotten most of what I learned in my K-12 years, and now that I’m retired, I’m quickly forgetting all the things I learned during my work years.  The knowledge I acquired in the first third of life prepared me for the second third, and what I learned in the second third, got me ready for the final third, but now that I’m living in the final third of life, I feel like I need to study hard for a next phase.  If I was a religious man, that would be a spiritual quest, but I’m not.  I’m studying for nonexistence, and that is changing my reading habits.

book tombstone

Most people talk about having a bucket list of activities they want to accomplish before leaving this planet, but I don’t think along those lines.  As a lifelong bookworm, all I want to do is read more books before I die.  I find reading in the final third of life has affected what books I want to read.  Strangely, I want read more nonfiction, as if facts are more comforting to dying, like fantasy was more inspiring to growing.  It appears that leaving reality makes you want to take more notice of what you’re leaving.  Most of us grow up hoping our childhood ambitions will come true as adults, but then settle for something more realistic.  Instead of becoming an astronaut I became a database programmer, and even then I continued to read science fiction all during my adult life.  Now that it’s pretty obvious that I’m never going to travel in space, Earth has become far more fascinating.

Even when I read novels now, I admire the details I can connect to reality.  This morning I started listening to Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, and his prose dazzles me with details, fictional facts that feel so authenticate, I’m sure Truman was acting as a recorder of reality.  Before that, I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a literary fantasy based on 19th century life in the Caribbean, long before Rhys was born, yet it felt real.  Rhys was born on Dominica, in 1890, and lived there for her first 16 years.  My hope is knowledge Rhys gained growing up in the West Indies distilled into her 1966 novel.  Before that was Factory Man by Beth Macy, a nonfiction book that was jam-packed with juicy realistic details, but told in a narrative form that was as exciting as any novel.

I crave details about reality, but I can’t just read Wikipedia all day long, even though that is very tempting.  And in the coming years, as I get closer to winking out of reality, it might come to that.   I still crave fiction, but it has to have a tight connection to reality.  Last night I watched The Crusades, an old Cecil B. DeMille epic, that made me hunger to read a nonfiction book on the subject the whole time I was watching.  At one time, all that mattered for a novel or movie to enchant me, was a great story and characters.  Now,  my critical and entertainment reaction needs to know how close the story, setting and characters models reality.  This age related transformation is changing my love of science fiction, making me crave more realistic science fiction, and that has philosophical implications too.  Driving into this world the future seemed full of fantastic possibilities, and now that I’m on the road leading out of town, the future seems far more restricted than the sense of wonder probabilities of youth.

And that’s another thing about how age is changing my reading habits.  In the 20th century I read mostly about the 21st century and beyond, but now that I’m living in the 21st century I mostly read about the 19th century and earlier.   I wonder if that’s true of other aging bookworms who grew up reading science fiction?

JWH – 8/27/14

Finding Sense of Wonder Science Fiction in My Social Security Years

Back in 1964, when I was twelve, the future was so bright we really had to wear shades to read science fiction.

Fifty years ago,  when I was twelve, I discovered sense of wonder in science fiction books from the 1950s.  Those books were more exciting than getting high—and I knew, because, by a few years later I was smoking dope to jet assist my science fiction take-offs.  My teen years in the 1960s was a combination of rock and roll, counter-culture and science fiction.  My mind flew interplanetary high with great expectations for the future.  In the 1970s I jettisoned the drugs, and coasted though the decades, living off the hope of 1950s futures.  Music and science fiction stoked the fires of the future, and kept the old dreams simmering.  Music stimulated my emotions and books energized my mind, but after fifty years we never reached the futures I once saw so clearly.

Between 1964 and 1969, I read book after book, that wowed my evolving mind with far out ideas.  Now my brain isn’t so young anymore, and I need some science fictional Viagra.  My future vision has been darkened by cataracts cause by living through years of reality.  Is it just me, or do kids growing up today see  different futures?  They look all cyborg cool in their Google Glass specs, but they don’t seem to see as far as we used to.  I’m not sure what they see, or what drugs they are on, but I’m not sure I like their dreams of the future.  Where’s the dazzle?  Where’s the vision?  Where’s the great expectations?  Or was science fiction no better than psychedelics at getting us Baby Boomers off Earth?

wake-us-cover

I still depend on music every day to boost my emotional self, but I’ve developed a tolerance to science fiction.  It just doesn’t give me that old sense of wonder high that thrilled by twelve-year old self.  Maybe the future I see from my retirement years doesn’t work with modern science fiction.  Maybe I need to be young to love today’s science fiction.  But I can’t help but believe there’s new science fiction out there for us old Baby Boomers that will help us keep the old 1950s dreams alive, but where is it?

Oh, I can find plenty of books to escape into, books that make me want to turn the page to find out what will happen, but I rarely read a science fiction story that gets me sensawonder high anymore.  No offense or criticism to modern science fiction writers, but they seem more into story than ideas, especially ones that can turn into a series of books.  Many of my SF reading friends love finding a character to stick with book after book, but that doesn’t appeal to me.

Back in 2009 I wrote “My Science Fiction Thrill is Gone.”  In the almost half decade since then I’ve found a handful of really good science fiction novels that I liked:

  • Wake/Watch/Wonder trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Martian by Andy Weir

Actually, averaging one great science fiction book a year isn’t bad.  Looking back over the history of science fiction, most years only produced one or two books I really loved.  But in the past I had a lot more near misses to keep me going through the slow times.

I’ve read many fun books I’m not listing, but they aren’t the kind of SF I’m talking about.   Nor am I talking about non-SF books that impressed me with other kinds of sense of wonders.  I sometimes stumble on older science fiction books I missed from earlier times, like Dawn by Octavia Butler and The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, as well as rereading many of the classics of SF I’ve encountered over my last half-century.

Yet, what I really crave is great new mind-blowing sense of wonder science fiction.  The kind I have to wear shades to read.

I can go for long stretches without any science fiction sense of wonder boosts in my life.  I miss that.  Such withdrawals are depressing.  Are all the great far out ideas used up?  I know many of my favorites concepts from my Golden Age of Science Fiction years have been done time and again.  Just how many aliens invading Earth or time travel stories can one consume in a lifetime without becoming bored with them?  How many stories about astronauts stranded on Mars before the thrill of being on Mars becomes dull?  Is there a new way to present societies developing colonies on the Moon and Mars?  And don’t get me going on how jaded I am about military SF and galactic empires.

When I look at the science fiction selection at Audible books sorted by relevance, giving the most popular and highly rated books, giant fantasy epics fill the top of the list.  A few science fiction books show up, like Ender’s Game and Ready Player One, both of which I’ve read.  However, fantasy dominates the list, for page after page.  The few new science fiction books that I haven’t read are books that I consider retreads of old ideas.  Sure, they might be great stories, but I just don’t want get involved with trilogies and longer multipart series just because of action and heroic characters.  I guess military SF give many science fiction fans something to read that feels like the old days, but I’m just too worn out on action to care anymore.  I don’t even like action SF at the movies anymore.  I was thrilled by Her.  Action packed, military based SF, including those set into galactic empires, feel like fantasy worlds to me, like reading Tolkien.

I hate to be an old fart bitching about how today’s science fiction ain’t as good as the stuff I read growing up, but well, shit I am.  I sped through The Martian by Andy Weir and it felt like I was twelve again, reading science fiction back in the 1960s, but we should be reading realistic literary fiction about life on Mars by now.  What the fuck went wrong?  Are the futures of 1950s all played out?  How can being a grunt in an interstellar fleet be such a popular future today?  And why did kids switch from space explorers to endless wars with the undead?  Really, is that what you want to grow up and do?  Is the only kind of alien you can imagine is the one you want to kill on your PS4 gun sight?  It’s no wonder that military SF is so popular, kids today grow up game-trigger happy, and they can only imagine futures where cardboard enemies pop up endlessly.

I want science fiction where I explore.  I want futures where fantastically far out ideas are possible.  In a way the failure of science fiction vision can be seen in the history of the various Star Trek series.  Over time stories became routine, usually about conflict with standard enemies.  Science fiction was better when it was like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, where they had to invent a new concept every week.

Did all the concepts get imagined?  Have they all been used up?  Have the bright futures become boring?  Or am I just a foolish old fart?  When I was young, I remember old farts claiming their youth was better than ours, so I’m assuming I’m going through the same stupid phase they were, but still, why does things in the past now look so bright I have to wear shades?

JWH – 7/29/14

Did The First Movie You Ever See Haunt You For The Rest Of Your Life?

In 1947 MGM released High Barbaree, a film based on the 1945 novel High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.  The book is long out of print,  mostly forgotten, and memorable because its authors wrote Mutiny on the Bounty.  For decades the movie rarely showed up on TV.  TCM eventually started showing it now and then.  And finally, after 67 years I can own a copy on DVD.  It’s also playing on Warner Archive, the great streaming alternative to TCM.   One reviewer at Amazon.com said they had been looking for this movie for thirty years – well, I’ve been searching for it for over fifty years, ever since I saw it as a very young kid, the first movie I ever remember seeing.

high-barbaree-movie

Most movie buffs will not know about this film, and would probably only consider it a slight piece of nostalgic fluff.  For me, it’s burned into my deepest memories, one of the few important remembrances  I have of my father, but it also has heavy psychological history for me, and I would eventually learn for James Normal Hall  as well, who did all the writing for the novel.  High Barbaree is important to me because when and how I saw it, and not because of the film itself, although there were events in the film that resonate with my own life.   The film featured Van Johnson and June Allyson, and was one of six pictures they acted in together the 1940s and 1950s, all of them slight and mostly forgotten, except for folks like me, where the film got stuck in our memories of growing up.  High Barbaree the book is about dying and aging memories of youth, especially last memories.

High Barbaree is a recursive art form for me, because it’s a story about memories that I use to think about remembering.

High Barbaree

Can you remember the very first movie you ever seen?  I think I can, but I’m not sure.  Memory is a funny thing, especially when you remember something on the edge of that time between when you were too young to remember anything, and the time when you first start becoming a person.  I have some vague memories when I think I was three, and quite a few more memories when I was four and five.  When I first saw High Barbaree I must have been around four, but I can’t pinpoint my age for sure.  We were living in South Carolina for the first time, out in the country.  One night I got up in the middle of the night and walked out into the living room.  My dad was up watching the all-night movies.  He let me stay up with him, and I caught High Barbaree for the first time.  That’s the earliest movie I remember ever seeing.  I’m pretty sure as an even younger kid I must have sat with my parents watching movies on TV, but I don’t remember any of them.

I don’t remember much from when I saw High Barbaree the first time.  I believe I remember four vivid scenes or images, but I can’t be sure because I confuse my first memories of seeing the movie with my second time seeing it, about 7-8 years later, when I was around 12.  The four scenes that stuck in my mind were two small kids climbing an old wooden water tower, of the boy saying good-bye to the girl who is in the back of a truck driving away, a PBY amphibian plane floating on the water, and the old South Sea islander welcoming the grown up boy to the island.   From seeing it the first time in 1955, I certainly didn’t learn the actors names, or even that it was about WWII.  The story was about life-long friends, Alec and Nancy, who grew up as kids in Iowa, but were separated when Nancy’s parents moved the family to Montana.  I’m sure I didn’t understand that at age four.  Even at that young age I had moved enough to know the loss of friends, so that movie touched me emotionally even though my mind was extremely immature.  

Around the summer of 1963 I caught the film again, also in the middle of the night.  My sister and I loved old movies and in the summer time my mother would let us stay up all night watching them.  It meant we slept during the day and didn’t drive her crazy.  This is where I first memorized the actors and plot of the show.  I probably don’t have any real film memories from 1955 other than the deep psychological impressions.  In fact, I didn’t know I had seen the film before until we got to the scenes of the kids climbing the water tower.  I also remember the scenes of the kids departing, the PB-Y floating on the ocean and the sequence with the island. 

At my second viewing of High Barbaree I knew I had seen this film before and that it was from a powerful memory.  It stuck with me and over the years as I grew up I ached to see the film again.  My father died when I was 18, and I have very few memories of him, especially ones of us doing something together.  He usually worked two or three jobs and was seldom home.  Often he was stationed away from home.  This memory of him letting me sit up with him and watch High Barbaree in the middle of the night is a special memory.

I didn’t catch High Barbaree again until I was in my late twenties or early thirties, after I had gotten married, and Susan and I caught it on cable TV, sometime before TCM.  I was working at library then, and it was then that it first occurred to me that the movie might be based on a book.  Indeed it was.  This was back in the early 1980s, before we had a VCR.  I would have loved to have owned a copy of the film, but couldn’t.  So I went searching for the book.  No luck.  Years later, in the 1990s, I caught High Barbaree again on TV, on TCM this time, and I thought about finding the book again.  This time I had the internet, and I was able to buy a copy through ABE Books.

Reading the book gave me a completely different spin on the story.  James Norman Hall was nearing the end of his life – he would die in 1951, the year I was born.  Even though High Barbaree was about a young Navy flier, it was autobiographical, about Hall’s own life growing up in Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, remembering his mother and father, and his home town.  I learned that after I discovered In Search of Paradise by Paul L. Briand, Jr., a biography of Nordhoff and Hall.

You might not want to read the next sentence because it contains a spoiler for both the movie and the book.  In the movie Alec is rescued and lives, and his story is only a dream, but in the book, Alec dies, and his story is his dying thoughts.  Hall had lived through two world worlds and was old enough to be thinking about death himself.  He had a daughter named Nancy he knew he’d loose when he passed on, and I assumed that fear was the basis for his novel.  High Barbaree is his fantasy of a mystical island where he might meet her again.  The movie makers took his somber little tale with thoughts of dying and made it into a romantic war adventure with a happy ending.

As a four-year-old kid I picked up on the story of separation and dying, and the mysticism and hope of fantasies.  I don’t know if High Barbaree caused this, but for my whole life I’ve been fascinated by stories of people stranded on islands or lost at sea.  Years later when I caught Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable on the all-night movies I loved it.  I also loved the Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson versions too.

In 1971 I started studying computer programming and I’ve often thought about how our brains are programmed by pop culture influences.  I’ve seen High Barbaree six times over almost six decades.  Each time I saw it, I saw something else because I was a different age and person, but the impact of seeing it at age four made some kind of life-long impression, some kind of deep programming sub-routine in my brain.  I’ve seen thousands of movies, most of which I’ve completely forgotten.  If anyone reading this finds a copy of High Barbaree to watch they will probably not find much in it.  When I saw it again the other night it seemed very slight.  However, it did trigger emotional waves deep within my own memories, and from my knowledge of James Norman Hall and why he wrote in the book, that I can see that the filmmakers meant it to be much more than what it became.  I think the filmmakers also had an emotional response to the book and hoped to convey that in the movie. 

I’m not sure the emotions are there unless you can bring your own deep experiences to the film.  I wish I could see High Barbaree without all my psychological baggage that comes with me to know if there’s a deserved reason why the film has been forgotten.  I wonder how many young kids happens to catch High Barbaree back in the 1950s and now feel nostalgic for it after all these years.

This makes me wonder if any film can truly stand alone, or requires the fertile minds of the audience to make them succeed?

JWH – 7/15/14

“Who Knows Where The Times Goes” at 4am

The older I get, the more I think about time.   Maybe that’s because I’m running out of time, or maybe time is just how we link our memories.

Now that I’m retired my sleep patterns are changing.  I guess work made me a solid sleeper.  Now I sleep whenever I feel like it, and more and more I find myself waking up in the middle of the night.  I’ve discovered 4am is a great time to listen to music on the headphones.  This morning’s random play started with “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” sung by Judy Collins.

One reason 4am is a great time to listen to music is because my mind exists in a disassociated dream-state.  Music and lyrics trigger images and thoughts that don’t surface during the daylight hours.  Since I also have a bit of a cold, my mind was even more weird.  Colds make me nostalgic, and listening to a song about where did the time go really pushed that button.  I even played it twice.

I do not fear the time

Who knows how my love grows

Who knows where the time goes

Me and my friends are getting older and we often talk about where does the time go, and lament that time is running out.  If I live an average lifetime, I only have about as many years as I did from 2000 till now.  That’s both a lot of time, and not very much.  I already know many from my generation that have passed on, and the people I spend time with are becoming old friends in both age and the length of time I’ve known them.

Getting old sucks, but what can you do about it?  I have a philosophical bent that lets me enjoy my decay, but my friends think I’m morbid.

There’s a weird dichotomy between the people I knew before thirty, and those after forty.  Some of my “new” friends I’ve known for twenty years, yet sometimes when I’m hanging out with them I feel like I’m with strangers.  Maybe blood kinship only feel tighter because those are the people we’ve known since the beginning of our personal time, and everyone we met after we’ve adultified still feel like strangers.

Since my playlist was on random, it was rather serendipitous that the next song was “Old Friends” by Simon and Garfunkel.  It was a song written back in the 1960s imagining being old at seventy  I realized that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are now in their seventies.

Can you imagine us years from today

Sharing a park bench quietly

How terribly strange to be seventy

Old friends

There are damn few people I knew growing up that I’m still in contact with now.  What’s funny is I used to wonder back in the 1960s what all those rock stars I admired then would be like in their seventies.  Now I know.  It’s so fucking weird to see Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones on TV.  I’m still playing albums those guys made back when, picturing them from their classic covers, but seeing wrinkled old coots on my TV screen.

In the darkness, half asleep, I think about how Susan and I are getting old, and so are all our friends, and how we’re all worrying about becoming feeble or demented.  I seem to worry about different things things than my lady friends.  They hate so much not being young, but they seem to have their health.  My friend Connell and I, worry more about our failing bodies.  We don’t mind the wrinkles, but know our bodies aren’t going to hold out like the ladies, who will probably all last until their nineties.  Connell and I think we’ll fade away before our eighties.  I’ve known Connell since 1966, so we’ll be old friends in our seventies.  Some of my lady friends might have as many years ahead as they’ve had since 1980.

While listening to “Old Friends” in a dreamy state, half in, and half out, of consciousness, I had many revelations about time, things that seemed so insightful in the four o’clock hour of the morning, but now lost in the light of day.  I wish I could recapture the brilliance of my visions, but I can’t.  I live a strange life now by not working, spending most of my time processing the past.  I still do things in the now with friends, but my nine-to-five time is mostly spent in the profession of studying the relics of time.  I am a temporal archeologist.

I graze on time.  I study science that chronicles billions of years. I read histories that span  thousands of years.  I read novels from the past three centuries.   I watch movies that span nine decades.  I listen to popular music that span the same nine decades.  I read biographies that take me up and down the past.  I study 3,000 year old religions and philosophy that are distilled from 300,000 years of ancient thoughts.  I graze on time while my own dwindling 4D space is being consumed.

The next song that came on was “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis.

Hello stranger

It seems so good to see you back again

How long has it been

Seems like a mighty long time

How very strange, because it feels like I’m constantly reacquainting myself with old friends.

Wow, three songs in a row about time, what a coincidence.  Maybe fate is telling me something.  Or maybe time is very essential to song writing.  I wonder if I went through my playlist of All Time Favorites at Spotify, how many songs will I find about time?

Laying in the 4:14 am dark, with my eyes closed, in a serene state of floating consciousness, listening to my Spotify playlist through an old pair of Sony Walkman headphones attached to my iPod touch, I realized just how much time I spend consuming the past.  I study cosmology about things billions of years old, and evolution about things millions of years old, and history of things thousands of years old, and pop culture that spans hundreds of years, and my parent’s life since 1916, and old movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and my life since 1951, and rock music and science fiction since the 1960s,  and computers since the 1970s, and computer networks since the 1980s, and the internet since the 1990s, and all the great TV shows since the turn of the century.

I could restate that list over and over again with different examples.

I now like to think of my memory as a timeline, and my life in retirement is about moving up and down that timeline learning new stuff to fill in the ticks of time.  Laying in the dark I think of all the people I’ve known, many of which are dead, or I’ve lost contact with, who exist along my timeline since 1951.  Interspersed between the memory of people on the timeline are songs, and next to the songs are books I read while listening to music.  Or maybe television shows I watched with different people, or places I visited with other people.   It does seem like a mighty long time.

Time is the thread that ties everything together, and who knows where it goes.

JWH – 7/13/14

Can I Defrag My Brain?

Conventional wisdom says we only use ten percent of our brains.  Well, that’s been debunked by scientists in various ways.  There are plenty of articles on the net that explain why this meme is an urban legend.  We don’t have a lot of extra capacity idling under the hood, especially as we get older.  At sixty-two I feel my brain is so chock full of facts that to learn a new phone number requires forgetting another number.  It’s like my brain is a computer hard drive at 99.9% usage.  I need to delete files to make room.  With computer hardware we can defrag ours drives, putting all the fragmented files into continuous order, thus speeding up access to our data, freeing up space, and even discovering bad sectors.

Is it possible to defrag our wetware too?

I need to speed up access to my stored thoughts, fix links to lost facts, delete old memories to have space to learn new things, and make my old brain run more efficiently.  Is that possible?  I’m not sure if our wetware uses linked lists, but it sure does feel like it.  It seems like I recall information by association to related information.  And nowadays I often can’t remember particular tidbits of data because my links are broken.  What I need is to defrag my mind.

This little TED film is very enlightening.  It explains why multitasking is wasteful, and why I can’t think when I’m tired and hungry.  If I’m theorizing I can defrag my brain, I’ll have take energy use into consideration.  This DNews flick below shoots down the ten percent idea too, but it does claim we could do more with our brains if we worked harder.  I’m thinking I need to work more efficiently with the remaining capacity I have, especially since my mental abilities are obviously in decline, and I can’t add new capacity.  I’m not being a defeatist, but accepting the reality that aging involves decay.  I really wished I did have an auxiliary memory though.

One thing that really helps me defrag my brain is blogging.  Struggling to put my thoughts into a coherent essay is almost exactly like taking widely disperse file fragments on a hard drive and putting them in one continuous file.  Not only does writing help me organize my thoughts, but making them coalesce into a unified structure seems to delete smaller thoughts from my brain.  I have no idea if this is true or not, but it feels that way.  Each time I write a good essay I feel like I’ve deleted a bunch of aborted drafts and stacks of 3×5 cards.

Many scientists have describe dreaming as a way the brain cleans up each day’s experiences and throws out the unneeded memories.  This sounds like a kind of defragging of files too.  Often during the day when I’m too tired to write, I’ll take a nap and when I wake up my brain is clear again.  I think partly this is recharging the brain, like recharging a battery, and partly sleep must clean out chemical waste that clogs my neural pathways, but it also feels like my unconscious mind has been processing my thoughts too, like organizing paper files into folders for my conscious mind, because when I wake up my thoughts feel more orderly.

The first film takes exception with multitasking, and I think they’re right.  I find that my brain feels more efficient if I try to do fewer things.  Now that I’m retired I my brain seems freed up to think about new things.  I worry about less crap now, which makes me think the old adage, “Use or lose it” is a kind of mental defragging tool.  Want to erase memories?  Avoid thinking, worrying and studying a subject.

One of my life-long models of behavior comes from the  1950 science fiction film Destination Moon.  When making their initial lunar landing, our fictional astronauts use too much fuel, so they don’t have enough rocket juice to return to Earth.  The solution is to jettison as much mass as possible from the spaceship so the fuel they do have is enough to make it back home.  Many self-help books promote the idea that if you want to succeed with your ambitions its best to have only one goal.  I never could do that, and I’ve never been great at anything in my life.  Now that I’m old I realize the same principle applies to coping with aging.  The older I get, the more I realize I’ve got less fuel to get me through the day.  The key to fighting this problem is to jettison tasks that don’t matter so I have to fuel to to do what matters most.

But I’m learning to do things that the astronauts in Destination Moon didn’t know how to do – make more fuel.  Eating better, exercising, and sleep either give me more fuel, or makes my old brain run more efficiently so I can do more with less.  I’m still on a downward spiral towards an eventual heat death of my universe, but every little bit of order I gather now seems to fight personal entropy.

One thing I’m learning lately is being a news addict is counter productive.  More news means less news remembered.  I love reading the “news” on the internet about all kinds of subjects, watching news shows and documentaries on television, and reading as many books as I can, but I’m discovering it’s better to take in fewer stories and concentrate more on one idea at a time.  This is very hard to do, because so much is going on in the world and it feels like I’m missing out if I don’t pay attention to everything.  Not watching the NBC Nightly News feels like I missed out on what went on around the world that day.  But you know what?  I’ve watched thousands of episodes of the nightly news and I can’t remember 99.9999% of what I’ve seen.  I record the news on my computer’s DVR, and I’m learning to skip through certain kinds of stories.  This has a defragging effect on my brain.  Eventually I might stop watching the news altogether, but right now I can’t break that habit.

I’m finding it more satisfying to read a whole bunch about one interesting topic than learn a little about a hundred different of subjects.   I think either way I’m going to forget most everything I learn, but it’s more satisfying to gorge on one subject than graze on a thousand.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll retain a little more of that one subject. 

This is analogous to a computer’s CPUs and multitasking.  Our brain’s main loop can time slice many subprograms, but the more we have going, the slower our brain runs.  Having fewer interests and worries speeds up processing on the functions we do keep running.

I don’t know if it’s scientifically possible to defrag my brain, but I sure am trying.

JWH – 7/9/14

New v. Old, and Old v. Young

We live in a society enamored with both the new and the young, so being old is hard, especially while we watch old things fading.  As you grow old you treasure the past and old things more and more, and your ability to keep up with new things and understand the young gets harder and harder.  One of the hardest thing about being old is trying to stay young, both in body and mind.  Menopause and erectile dysfunction are cruel reminders that staying young at heart can even feel foolish.  Sagging flesh, hair loss, wrinkles, age spots, varicose veins, gnarled fingers tells others we’re old even though on the inside we still feel nineteen.  But should we still try to act nineteen?

Getting old is both fascinating and cruel.  For most of our time on Earth we feel our life is in front of us, but then that changes, and slowly we realize that we have little to look forward to and much to look back on.  The tendency is to try to stay young in mind, and patch-up our our tired old bodies so we can keep going.  Staying young at heart requires the existential endurance of Sisyphus.  The trouble is acting young makes us look old and silly.  Sure, a few like Mick Jagger can pull off wearing hot fashions and acting twenty, but most of us would look like pug dog in a funny outfit.

pug-in-pink-coat

Today’s technology allows old pop culture and new pop culture to co-exist simultaneously.  When I was young that wasn’t true.  My parents had their old pop culture they mostly remembered, and we had our new music, movies, television shows and books that dominated the pop culture landscape.  Back then, we even had a name for it – the Generation Gap.  Today, old people can love new stuff, and young people can love old stuff.

Do I remain young if I’m watching the second season of Orange is the New Black and running Ubuntu 14.04 on a machine I built myself?   Would I be younger still if I watched stolen copies of HBO shows on a Mac Air?  I’m rather clueless about the latest trends in hipness.  But I have noticed something about my peers.  Some only listen to 1960s music and watch reruns of 1970s television shows, and they marvel that I listen to Katy Perry and Mumford and Sons.  I do try to go back to my old favorite shows of youth, like The Many Loves of Dobbie Gillis and Star Trek, but I can’t focus on them.  I don’t know if that’s because I’m too old, or the shows are too old.

Don’t get me wrong I do love some old stuff.  I’m listening to 1967 albums this morning as I write, and I’m reading Possession about 19th century fictional poets because I love the 19th century.  But I also read modern books like The Goldfinch and The Martian.  Is my ability to enjoy contemporary pop culture keeping me young, or was I born with the genes that make me like contemporary pop culture?

There are many popular trends I can’t comprehend.  I can’t get into video games.  I want to.  They look cool.  But I buy them and just don’t know what to do.  I’m also embarrassed by comic books and movies based on comic books – they seem too much for children.  I’m going to catch a lot of flack for this, but I can understand Ruth Graham’s POV in her essay “Against YA” even though I read and loved The Fault in Our Stars.  I’m one of those old people that read YA fiction – occasionally.   I also read Pulitzer and Booker prize winning novels too.  I’m not quite embarrassed to read YA, but I am for comics.  Is that my 1950s upbringing showing?  I wasn’t too old to enjoy music videos in the early 1980s on MTV, but I am way to old to watch MTV today without cringing.

At 62 I find it hard to relate to anyone under 40.  It’s strange, but I enjoy the company of people born closest to 1951, the year I was born.  Rarely, I’ll meet a young person that actively studies baby boomer pop culture, or parts of it, and I find that rather strange.  We’ll have a common interest, and I’m more than happy to talk about the old days with them, but I can’t fathom why they like my old stuff.  Was I any different in my twenties talking to old guys about Big Band music of the 1930s?

I think old and young people can share old stuff and new stuff, but I’m not sure we’re seeing it in the same way.  And if old people enjoy new stuff, does that make them youthful?  And if young people like old stuff, does that make them mature?  I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

JWH – 6/9/14

Movies for Old Men

I can only remember my father going to one movie, in 1958 when I was six, when the whole family went to see Snowfire.  My wife’s father always bragged the last theater movie he saw was Fiddler on the Roof in 1971.  A neighbor who is one year older than me, claims the last movie he saw at the theater was Animal House in 1978.  My two closest male friends quit going to movies long ago, but I don’t know when.  The only reason I still go out to the movies is because of lady friends.  I do know some males my age that still love getting out to see a movie, but not many.  Yesterday I went with my friend Janis to see Godzilla – her pick – and I was bored the whole time, even though the young people seated around me were cheering.  The most fun I had was looking at all the odd names as the credits rolled by.

banner-belle-film 

Many of my lady friends love action blockbuster flicks, the kind I used to think were targeted to teenage boys.  The whole world seems to love superhero movies based on comic books.  Maybe I’ve morphed into a curmudgeon, because those movies seem downright stupid to me, with grown men pretending to fight each other with choreographed violence that’s as realistic as a Three Stooges slap fest while wearing embarrassing costumes that only a seven year old kid would wear in real life, and then only on Halloween.  And don’t get me started on the psychological appeal of flicks like The Expendables series.  Our society has gone gonzo for guns.  And it’s not that I’m anti-gun.  My favorite movie genre is the western—a Colt .44 and a Winchester is all the firepower I think anyone should need.  But I get the feeling everyone is scared and paranoid and feed off action pictures because they feel powerless and wish they had super powers, bulging muscles and very large caliber machine guns to protect themselves.

Janis and I also went to see Chef this weekend.  Now that was a good movie for an old man.  It was a touching story about a divorced dad getting to know his young son that he’d been neglecting because of work.  Jon Favreau plays a creative chef, Carl Casper, stuck in job cooking the same menu for ten years.  Carl gets in a internet feud with Oliver Platt, who plays Ramsey Michel, a vicious food critic blogger.  Carl bonds with his son Percy, played by Emjay Anthony, who teaches his dad about Twitter.  Then Carl inspires Percy to learn to cook.  Slowly the film becomes emotional rewarding, and a film worth watching by an old guy.  The theater I saw Chef at was small, but most the seats were filled with older people, and some of them even clapped at the end.  I’m not sure young people would have liked this film, but I doubt we’ll know, because it’s not the kind they’ll go see.  No guns, no car chases, no buff bods, no Wile E. Coyote violence.

This afternoon I plan to go see Belle with three lady friends.  Even if I wasn’t hanging out with women, I’d want to see this one.  As an old guy, a well done historical film is actually a type of movie that makes me want to go out to the movies.  The older I get the more I like realism.  I prefer documentaries, or very accurate historical dramas.  You’d think it would be the other way around.  That young people would crave realistic movies to learn about life, and old people would want escapist fantasies.  Maybe I’ve given up on escapist fantasies because the older I get the less reason I believe that they will ever come true.  Even if I owned a whole arsenal of weapons and an elegant collection of spandex attire, and even had real bulging muscles to stretch out my costumes, I could never be a superhero.  It’s about as realistic as trying to fantasize that beautiful young women would want to have sex with my ugly old body. 

But I can relate to a clueless dad learning to Twitter from a ten year old.

JWH 5/26/14

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