Do Our Souls Evolve?–A Thought Experiment

My wife’s uncle is family famous for saying in his eighties “I feel like I’m nineteen but something is horribly wrong with my body.”   

If you are under 40 you probably won’t understand this essay.  People over 40, as they begin to feel older, often report that although their bodies are aging, their minds feel no different than when they were teenagers.  And I too, at sixty-two, feel like I’m the same person in all my memories, even the oldest.  But is that really true?  Are we mentally the same our whole life?  Do our bodies age, but not our organ of self-awareness?  Can we stay young at heart even after we start falling apart?   I’m already having memory problems I never had as a kid, but I feel like I’m that same kid, just with a flaky memory.

I am intrigued by this organ of awareness that thinks it’s always young.  Is that our brain?  Our soul?  Our identity?

We feel like we’re looking out our eyes, hearing through our ears, touching with our fingers, tasting with our tongue and smelling with our nose, but we know that if we lost our eyes, ears, fingers, tongue and nose we’d still exist inside our head as long as our body could keep our brain alive.  Oliver Sacks writing in The Mind’s Eye, tells stories about blind people who continue to see by living in a virtual reality inside of their head.

For convenience’s sake, I’d like to call that organ of awareness in our head, the soul, even though I’m an atheist.  It’s such a lovely word – the soul.  Our sense of identity resides in our soul.  We know we can shut the soul off with sleep or drugs, or distort it’s working ability with disease, drugs, stress, and injury to the brain.  But for most of our lives, if we’re lucky, our soul feels unchanging.

Is our sense of identity unchanging?  And what is identity?  We all feel like a little being riding around in the head of a body, sitting just behind the eyes, looking out, and steering our body through life.  I’m reminded of a bunch of old sayings:

  • Inside I feel just like I did when I was young
  • If I knew then what I know now
  • If I had to do it again I wouldn’t change a thing
  • If I had to do it again I’d do everything different
  • Youth is wasted on the young 

I think we do change, and I offer one bit of evidence and a thought experiment to explore this question.  Back in September 1966, The Monkees premiered on television and my sister and I absolutely loved that show.  Now in 2013, The Monkees are in reruns and when I catch an episode I’m horrified that I could have ever admired that show, much less watch it for more than ten seconds.  How can the Me I remember feeling just like the Me of today love a show then that I hate now?  The only way to explain that would be to say neither the body or the mind are part of our soul or identity.  Since I’m an atheist I don’t believe in souls that survive the death of the body, or move between bodies in reincarnation, but I’m willing to call that feature of our being that feels self-aware consciousness the soul.  But are souls unchanging?

To answer this question I’ll offer a thought experiment.  Imagine you could send your soul back in time to replace the soul of your younger self, would your older soul follow the same path as the younger soul first took?  Pick a month in your past and use the Internet and your memories to recreate everything you can about that month, all the personal encounters, all the activities, all the pop culture pleasures, and imagine whether or not you would have followed the same path or diverged.


September, 1966

Life and Family and Friends

I was fourteen and my sister twelve, when my mother took us to live in Charleston, Mississippi at the end of summer 1966, just before school started.  Aunt Let and Uncle Russell lived outside of Charleston, in the country.  I don’t know why my mother moved us there.  I remember my parents fighting all the time, but I don’t remember them talking divorce, but that might have been the case.  We had been moving around so much all my life that it was just another move.  By the end of March, 1967, we moved back to Miami, reuniting with my Dad.  He died in May of 1970, and those last years were miserable for all us when it came to family relations.

In September of 1966 I was a fourteen year old kid who survived by hiding out in science fiction books, AM Top 40 rock music, and watching television.  I quickly made two friends, Ben White and Mack Peters.  I had crushes on several girls I was afraid to talk to but who lived constantly in my fantasies.  I remember those eight months – August through March – very fondly, but I had a well honed coping mechanism.  If my 62 year old self had to live those same eight months he (it?) would have reacted much differently.

The 2013-me would have loved and sympathized with my parents far more than the 1966-me, but wouldn’t have put up with their bullshit.  I hid from their emotional hurricane when I was young.  If my current soul could have seen their suffering I’m positive I would have reacted completely different.  I’m pretty sure I would have been far more empathetic to their lives, but I also would have told them everything they never wanted to hear from a fourteen year old son.  It wouldn’t have been nice.  I would have told them to get their shit together, or get a divorce, and either way, I wanted the bus fare back to Miami so I could go live with my grandmother.  Over the years I realized that if I knew then what I know now I would have divorced my parents at age twelve.  Even now, I’m not sure what would have been best for Becky, my sister.

Do our souls change with experience and knowledge?  Are our souls the knowledge and experience we collect?  Then why don’t we feel like we’re aging on the inside?  Or are our souls the organ of awareness that just surveys knowledge and experience and that’s why we don’t feel it aging?

When it comes to friends, I’m pretty sure my present self could not have been friends with any of the people I remembered.  At fourteen I was already an atheist and liberal, and the racism of the small town Mississippi life revolted me, but I was too chicken back then to be confrontational.  I was already reading about LSD and was looking forward to when I could try it.  I remember a January, 1967 issue of Popular Science magazine that had an article about a guy trying LSD in a clinical situation that changed my attitude about drugs.  My time in Mississippi was just before the Summer of Love, and I was already reading everything I could in Time, Newsweek and Life about the counter-culture.  My 14 year-old self kept quiet then, but my 62 year-old self wouldn’t.

If for some Peggy Sue Got Married reason I found myself back in the past I would have done everything different.  But then, does doing things different, and thinking different, really mean my soul was different?  If our soul is only a mechanism of perception that feels the body, and listens to what the brain thinks, it still might change – and even evolve over time.  Hinduism teaches we are here lifetime after lifetime to educate our immortal soul.  Lovely concept, but I don’t believe it – but can we educate our mortal soul?  Or is it merely a viewing mechanism?

There are things that shuts the soul off.  It happens every time we fall asleep, or pass out drunk, or go unconscious because of sickness or drugs – or death.  Our souls can break down because of stress and torture, or come apart because of disease or drugs.  So why shouldn’t they change because of new learning experiences?  


September 1966, the month The Monkees premiered, many other famous television shows premiered too: The Smother’s Brothers Show, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., The Invaders, ABC Stage 67, The Dating Game, That Girl, Star Trek, The Time Tunnel, Tarzan, The Newlywed Game, and Mission: Impossible.  I also watched, sometimes with my family, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Bonanza, The Ed Sullivan Show, Candid Camera, What’s My Line, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Combat, The Fugitive, The Red Skelton Hour, Petticoat Junction, Lost in Space, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Gomer Pyle, The Virginian, I Spy, F Troop, My Three Sons, Daniel Boone, Hogan’s Heroes, Twelve O’clock High, The Avengers, The Jackie Gleason, Flipper, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Get Smart, Gunsmoke and Saturday Night at the Movies

I’ve always considered the 1966/1967 television season one of the best ever, if not the best.  Many of my cherish memories of growing up come from watching those shows.  Yet, I find them all painful to watch today.  If somehow I could go back in time I wouldn’t watch 1966 TV at all.  That would have disconnected me from family and friends.  My whole timeline, life and personality would have changed.

Does this mean that my soul has changed over the years, or have I just gotten used to more sophisticated TV?  I still love TV. I love binge TV watching, so I’ve not become an intellectual snob.  In 1966 I loved those television shows.  They were highly addictive, but when I catch reruns of them today their stories seem way too slow, simple and obvious.  I sometimes feel a twinge of nostalgia, but I’m way to impatient to watch them.  And many of them, like The Monkees, F Troop, Gilligan’s Island, etc. horrify me.  I can’t believe I ever had a mind that could like them, much less love them.  Star Trek stands out as being among the most intellectually ambitious of the bunch, but it’s absolutely painful to watch today.

I really don’t think I’m the same soul.  Maybe I have an old body, an older mind, and an older soul?

We like to think of ourselves as being the same person our whole life, but this thought experiment makes me doubt that.  I once read that it takes about seven years for all the cells in our body to change out.  If everything physical is new every few years how can we be mentally or spiritual the same?  Could our soul be like a computer program that can be replicated, but also patched and rewritten?


It’s much harder to pinpoint the books I read in September of 1966.  I was limited to my school library, and a tiny, two room Charleston, Mississippi town library.  I didn’t get to buy books.  I’d join the Science Fiction Book Club in early 1967, but at this time, I was limited to libraries.  I loved Robert A. Heinlein, and would read whatever I could find.  I brought a few paperbacks with me from Miami, Florida.  I can remember one author I discovered at the Charleston Library, George Adamski, and I’m terribly embarrassed to admit it.  I was reading books about flying saucers.  I also was reading about cryogenics, but remember no specific books.  I joined the science club at school and I proposed two experiments.  One was to get a weather balloon and launch it with lights and see how many people reported it as a flying saucer, and two, get some liquid nitrogen to freeze frogs and see if we could revive them.  The big lumbering husky 4H boys in their bib overalls probably thought I was one whacked out puny four-eyed city kid.

Of the writers that existed back then that I’ve come to love since, like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, George Elliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald – if I had tried to read any of them I would have failed to enjoy them.  But is that really true?  Two years later, in the 12th grade, I read and loved Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The Stranger by Camus and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  And a year after that I was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

Could it be our minds, our souls, reflect the pop culture we consume?  To be the soul that loves 1966 television meant I couldn’t be a soul that loved classic American and English literature!

If I could have given my 12 year old self novels to prepare him for girls, I wished I had discovered Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Middlemarch and The Way We Live Now.  They would have been far more useful than the science fiction I was reading to prepare me for the future.


Music is the monkey wrench in my theory.  I routinely play the music I listened to in 1966 today.  It still resonates with me at a very deep level.  I have learned to love many other kinds of music since, and I do believe if I could send my 1966 soul Miles Davis or Mahler he too would have loved their music.  Music is where the past me and the current me overlap the most.  That’s hard to explain.


Living in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966, a small town with no theater, took me out of the movie world for nine months.  In fact, the television was so exciting that season that I don’t remember watching many old movies, or even newer movies on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies.  I remember my cousin Robert and his wife Charlotte let me stay with them in Memphis for my 15th birthday that November and they took me to see Fantastic Voyage at the drive-in in their 1962 Chevy Corvair.  I had seen Our Man Flint in Miami at the beginning of 1966, and it was one of my favorites for the year.  Most of the other movies for 1966 I saw years later on TV.  If my present day self was stuck in 1966 I would have wanted to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Sand Pebbles, A Man for All Seasons and Blow Up – all flicks my younger self wouldn’t have liked.

Results of the Experiment

The next time I feel the urge to tell a young person I feel the exact way I did in my head at 16 that I do now, I’m going to pause, and try to stop myself.  Yes, I do feel that way, but only if I don’t analyze the details.  I think if I could be magically thrown back into the head of my younger self it would feel like an intense drug trip.  The restless energy, emotions, hormones, fears, pleasures, would overwhelm me.  Getting an erection countless times a day at the slightest thought or sight of anything female would drive 2013-me insane.  I’m not sure about this, but I get the feeling I must have had more thoughts per minute than I do now – so switching bodies would feel like doing speed.  I think the combination of a racing mind and constant horniness would short our my present soul if it was plugged into my younger body.

I don’t like that my body is getting old and failing, but on the other hand, I quite enjoy where my soul is at.  Having my soul travel back in time would be uncomfortable, like time traveling to a time before air conditioning, the Internet, indoor plumbing and antibiotics.

No, I don’t feel like I did when I was young.  I do, but it’s an illusion.  So why do we fool ourselves?  I don’t know, but I might explore the idea in the future.

JWH – 12/27/13

Homestead Air Force Base Library (1962-1963)–Aching for Photos

If you have photographs of the old library at Homestead Air Force Base before it was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew, please send them to me ( jameswallaceharris symbol outlook point com ).

My friend Linda and I had breakfast last Monday and somehow we got on the topic of the first books we remembered.  We were both born in 1951, but she grew up in Memphis, and I grew up in Miami.  Neither one of us could remember the first actual book we owned, but Linda remembered discovering libraries in the third grade, and I remember finding them in the fourth. 

We both figured we had children’s books when we were little, but we can’t remember them, but it was discovering libraries that turned us into bookworms.

I have vague memories of school libraries before discovering the Homestead AFB Library in 1962, when I was ten.  And I have fleeting memories of one other base library, but I can’t remember where it was.  Maybe New Jersey.  My father was stationed at Homestead Air Force Base in 1962 and 1963, and then after he retired, we returned to live near Homestead, so I got to use the base library again, while in the  8th grade. 

I still remember so many books I found at the Homestead AFB library.  I have many memories roving up and down the bookshelves, but what I would really love is photographs from inside and outside of that library.  My mind aches for some kind of validation to those memories.  I have no idea what the outside of the building looked like, and I’m guessing it was pretty small.  The check-out desk was in the middle of the building, just as you came in the door.  Going right led to a small wing holding the kids and young adult books.  Going left held the adult books and a small nonfiction section.  If memory serves, going left from the entrance, and then turning right just as you went into the room, was the science fiction section, which I didn’t know about in elementary school, but was a major discovery in junior high!

Straining my brain I’d guess that the science fiction section might have had no more than 6-8 shelves of books.  It wasn’t huge, but it was gigantic to my impressionable mind.  Going left, rather than right led to several sections of metal shelves in the middle of the room that held the nonfiction books.  I loved looking for books about space travel, fighter jets, astronomy, oceanography, maps, etc.  I loved this library.  It depresses me to think all of this was destroyed by a hurricane.

For a long time now I’ve had this fantasy that someone would create a database of all the photographs in the world so people could share them.  I envision going to the site and putting in a location and date, and seeing all the pictures taken that was closest to that date and location.

Did anyone ever take pictures of the library at Homestead Air Force Base?  They could be lying around in drawers, totally neglected, or even been thrown away, now decomposing in a dump.  How many photos were ever taken at the base in 1962 or 1963?  And how many people like me wish they could see them now?  Am I the only one?

Google and Bing found me a few photographs, but I’ve got to say their search capabilities stink to high heaven.  No matter how I phrased the search I’d always get photographs from other air bases, or even totally unrelated images.  But I was able to dredge up a few photos that validate some of my wispy memories.


Homestead Air Force Base was a rather compact site.  The flight line was is the major feature of the bottom right quadrant.  My father worked on the eastern end.  I remember hearing there were twelve B-52s stationed at the base at the time, with almost a hundred fighter planes.  At the far eastern end of the flight line they had a couple each of F-102s, F-104s, and F-106s.  Most of the planes were F-100s.  I remember seeing one F-51 on the field, and heard Airmen saying it belong to a doctor.

I believe the library and the base theater were on a road that paralleled the flight line.  For all I know, I was riding my bike somewhere in that photo.  I road my bike all over the base during those years, going to the library, theater, base exchange, or along the road near the flight line.  Hearing the B-52s rev up to fly was powerful.


Our base house on Maine Avenue didn’t look as fancy as this one, but it was the same design.  A duplex with a doubled shared carport in the middle.  Housing on the base was by rank, and my father was a NCO.  Kids of officers lived in nicer houses closer to the center of the base.  But I loved our house, and have many fond memories living there.



In October of 1962, President Kennedy came to visit the base, just after the Cuban missile crisis.  If my memory serves me, the Homestead Air Base Elementary let us kids off the the afternoon to go see the President, but me and my friends skipped JFK and went fishing at the rock pit, which I believe is the dark rectangle at the upper right quadrant of the aerial view above.  I’ve always regretted that I didn’t go see the President, but hell, I was ten, and waiting for some old guy to drive by in a big car didn’t sound like fun.  Going fish did.  I’m sure many of my classmates are in the photo above.

These four photos are a pretty skimpy haul for trying to recreate the past.  For all I know, the library might be in one of the two pictures of JFK, but the only landmark I really remember is the red and white checkered water tower.  How many people in these two photographs were holding cameras that day and snapping pictures?  How many people took family pictures in their base homes?  How many people took pictures at work with their friends?

Nowadays reality is so well recorded because everyone carries a camera built in their cell phones, but back in 1962 people only took photos on special occasions.  My family had a camera, but we could take a year or two to use up a 12 picture role of film.

If by chance, you’re an old Air Force brat and have some photos of Homestead AFB, please contact me at ( jameswallaceharris symbol outlook point com ).

JWH – 9/19/13  

What’s the Relationship Between Memory and Profession?

I’m wondering if how much we can remember is related to what we become in life.  Generally we think the careers we pursue are selected by interest, the ability to conceptualize the work, and talent.  But what role does memory play?  Does the ability to remember details accurately influence what we choose to do in life?  Could engineers, surgeons, mathematicians, composers, physicists, become who they are without good memories?  Could actors and singers work without the abilities to remember lines and songs?  Could salesmen and politicians succeed without remembering people’s names.  How well could people in law enforcement do their jobs without a knack for remembering faces and cases?  Isn’t becoming a lawyer all about memorizing precedents and laws?  Well, what about absent minded professors?  Maybe to remember all the important facts of their discipline it’s vital to forget all the piddling practical things?

I can remember all the things I wanted to be as a kid, and looking back I can see I never had the memory skills to do those things.  I became a programmer when I failed at being a scientist.  And I’m only a so-so programmer.  I have a certain knack for programming, but that’s because I can remember commands and algorithms to a degree.  If I could have mastered mathematics I would have liked to have been an astronomer, or robot designer.  My fantasy careers were to be another Robert A. Heinlein or Bob Dylan.  I have great difficulty holding plot ideas in memory, and the only song I can remember is Happy Birthday, and I usually flub the 4th line.

Our whole K-12 educational philosophy is to prepare individual children to know everything that an ideal adult should know – as if everyone should be the same.  We expect kids to memorize a body of knowledge we consider essential for a well rounded citizen, when in fact, everyone specializes, and everyone has varying levels of brain processing powers.  Some people are Intel i7s, while others are Motorola 6502s.

The hot topic in education right now is the Common Core State Standards.  The initiative’s mission statement says:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

Currently, the Common Core standards focus on mathematics and English language arts, which is also what the national standardized tests cover.  In other words, this initiative is a massive effort in coordinated memorization.  By focusing on the Common Core standards we can evaluate students, teachers and schools through comparisons.  The assumption being if kids in school A rank higher than kids in school B, then teachers and administrators are doing a better job in school A.  But what if everyone learns the same standards equally well, but one school does better than another?  How much education comes from outside of the school?  Does growing up in a well-to-do family confer more opportunity to learn?  Or what if some kids have better parents or mentors that push practice and memorization?  Education isn’t just about the particularly facts we learn.

There are only so many facts we can stuff into our brains.  We grind through our school years cramming for tests, but how much of this essential knowledge is really essential later in life?  In last month’s Harper’s Magazine Nicholson Baker wrote “Wrong Answer: The case against Algebra II” – not available online, but nice summarized at Popular Science as “Should Math Really Be A Required Subject?”  Baker pleads for us to abolish the Common Core State Standards for Algebra II because few people use it later in life, and many students suffer from studying it.  But isn’t that true of most of what we studied in school?

What if pushing memory skills helps with careers?  Advance math requires remembering years of previous mathematical techniques.  Most of what you learn in school can be studied days before the test, but not advanced math.  Passing Algebra II reflects great memory skills.

How successful in life we become is determined by how much we can remember.  Kids who master Algebra II go on to become scientists, engineers, economists, doctors, lawyers – whether or not they actually need advance mathematics or not.  The ability to remember and process complex concepts correlates well with success in many fields – and I think it’s because it reflect memory skills.

Also in the news was the Bullitt County 1912 Eighth Grade exam, that made 2013 smart people feel stupid.  Not only could I not pass this 1912 test, but I doubt I could pass any 2013 Common Core tests.  I read lots of books and consider myself reasonably educated, but if I had to rate my intelligence by tests then I’m a dummy.  I love pop culture, but do miserably at trivia games.  Facts just don’t stay in my head, and I think that’s true of a lot of people.


I’ve read dozens of books on the history of physics and cosmology, yet I doubt I could talk about this topic in anything but the vaguest way. I often write blog posts stuffed with facts that I hope to retain by writing about them, but never do.  Some bits of information do stick, but I have no control over what facts get filed in permanent memory and what don’t, and whether or not I can recall the stored facts in a timely manner.

What I do is consume knowledge and shit out the solid facts, maybe digesting a bit of their nutriments, and I hope I become a bit wiser overall.  My opinions will change but I can’t substantiate my beliefs with regurgitated references.  My love of information is more akin to binging on sweets.

Knowing this makes me wonder why we spend so much money and effort forcing children to pass tests regarding knowledge they don’t retain.  Obviously, a good education leaves a lot of knowledge sticking to the ribs of their brains, but a surprising amount gets immediately discarded.  I do remember a fair amount of arithmetic but damn little algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics and calculus.  My guess is the old adage, “use it or loose it” applies.  So anything I learned fifty years ago that’s still in my head is there because I’ve had to use it.  So why not build an education system focused more on doing and less on testing?

Now that I’m retiring next month, I hope to study math again.  I’ve always regretted not working harder at learning math, and I’m wondering if I use it again, will some forgotten aspects magically come back, or will I have to memorize the old facts all over again?  My guess if I work at it for a year I’ll develop some skills I currently don’t have, but if I stop working at it, those same skills will quickly disappear.  Whether or not I’ll find some hobbies that actually need math skills is another matter.  I’ve always wanted to program some computer animation and that does take math.  If I apply the math, I might remember more, and for longer.

Sure, I might discover I hit a math barrier quickly.  I might not have the memory skills to go very far this second time around, but I am going to take a different approach.  It won’t be to pass tests.

Are our minds more like a hard drive where we store files, or like a computer program where we load information into memory to process?  We generally think of memory and mind as one, but what if that’s not true?  Is my personality reflected in how I react to experiences, or how I remember them?  Recently I fell in love with the song “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” sung by Joan Osborne.  Do I love that song because of who I am, or because of the 1966 Jimmy Ruffin version of the song imprinted on my brain for life as a mood memory and listening to the new one stimulates that old memory?

Even after playing this song over a hundred times recently, I can’t remember the words, nor could I hum the melody.  However, something has been recorded in my brain that remembers the mood of the original song.  Hearing the Joan Osborne version pushes the same button in a deeply emotional satisfying way.

What’s weird, I’m obsessed with the song right now, but in a few weeks I’ll have completely forgotten it – until the next time I hear the music.  Even when I want to preserve a memory, to hang onto a cherish feeling, I can’t.  I supposed if I sang the song myself every day it would eventually become a part of me.  And that might explain why I forget so much – I’m constantly consuming new songs, new books, new movies, new television shows.

There are limits to memory I can’t overcome, but I could master more facts if I was willing to narrow my consumption of new data.  I’m a hummingbird flitting from one flower to the next, with no memories of the last.  Maybe if I tasted fewer flowers I’d remember more of them?

If humans were robots and we stored our memories in mechanical devices, we’d still have limitations, even if we could consciously control what we retained.  I’ve always read about people with eidetic memories in awe.  In my mind, they must be a superior species.  Obviously, we’re all different when it comes to how many facts we can maintain at our fingertips.  We’ll never be robots, and most of us will never have photographic memories, but who we are is defined by our limitations of memory, and not what we remember.

I believe my hobby is blogging now because of the limitations of my memory.  I can look up facts and quotes on the internet as needed.  If I could remember lyrics, chords, notes and melodies, I’d be playing music as my hobby.  If I could hold a lot of entangled concepts in my mind, I’d probably be writing novels.  If I was good with trivia I’d spend more time with my wife going to trivia games.  If I had a great memory, I’d probably be programming with languages that have large libraries of powerful functions.  I’m really amazed at the synergy between my poor memory and using Google with writing blog posts.  Even the length of the post is hitting the wall with how much I can conceptually handle at once.

I believe our memory abilities define what we choose to do.  But I also believe that the limitations of my memory confines me in explaining this.  I hope my memory power at least hints at what I want to say.

JWH – 9/17/13

Nick (1994-2013)


Today, September 3, 2013, I had to have Nick put to sleep.  He was almost 19.  His sister, Nora, died just two years ago, also in September.  Nick was a survivor.  When he was young Nick had cancer twice, having to have operations on his back both times.  For each operation they had to shave his back and turned him into ugly cat for months.  For years now Nick had mega-colon, an enlarge heart, a heart murmur, and arthritis in his hind legs.  Today they told me he also had severe anemia and needed a blood transfusion, plus his heart had a new fast arrhythmia, and his kidney function was worse than it was just a few months ago. 

Susan and I had a hard time letting him go, but we decided it was finally time.

I hate putting animals to sleep because they can’t make this decision for themselves.  I’d like to think Nick would have thought it the right time too – for all I know, he might have been ready to go months ago, but felt obligated to stay around to be our cat because he thought it was best for Susan and I.  The doctors and staff at the Greene Animal Hospital were wonderful as usual.  Nick died very peacefully, and I only wish when my time comes I could go like that.


Nick was my all time favorite pet – although I loved all my dogs and cats.  He will be my last pet.  I couldn’t watch another grow old and die, and I’m not sure I could outlive another pet myself, and I wouldn’t want leave an animal that was attached to me that way.  Back in 2002 I went to Seattle for six weeks and I felt really bad leaving Nick – he always favored me in picking laps.  I worried about how he felt not finding me for so long.  And when I returned I could never tell if he recognized me or just found another person to like.

We got Nick and Nora back in 1994.  Yes, they were named after the famous movie detective and his wife, Nick and Nora Charles.  Nick and Nora were our second set of cats, with Yin and Yang the first.  Susan and I have been married long enough to outlive two generations of cats.  Nick was so small when we first got him, I could hold him the palm of my hand.  That was so long ago, and just yesterday.

When they were kittens, Nick and Nora loved each other, and like Yin and Yang, would play fetch with paper balls.  Susan and I would sit in our chairs and the cats would get on our footstools and wait for us the throw paper balls over their heads.  They’d leap high up into the air, snatch the balls in their paws, and sometimes even do flips before landing on their feet.  Half the time they’d even bring the paper balls back for us to throw again.  We’d always know when they wanted to play this game because you’d look on the floor beside your chair and find a pile of paper balls and a cat staring up at you.  They’d also play soccer, batting the balls around while chasing after them, scattering them all over the house.  But the cats would bring them to back us when they wanted to play fetch.

Sadly, both sets of cats got tired of these games as they got older.  And it was also sad, as they got older they became less friendly with each other.  For many years Nick would sit in my lap and Nora would sit in Susan’s.  If there were only one of us in the den watching TV they’d both pile up in a single lap that we called a double-cat.  If Nora got to a lap first she’d get pissy if Nick tried snuggle a space next to her.  At one time Nick got up to 20 pounds and Nora peaked at 16, so we’d have 36 pounds of cat on our laps.  However, as you can see, I’m no lightweight either.

Cats 010 

Even though Nick and Nora stopped playing together, they stayed together most of the day.  It was hard to tell them apart at times.  After Nora died, Nick got the pick of our laps.  He loved sleeping on us – until we bought him a heating pad for his old age.  He loved that heating pad so much, but would always still spend a portion of the day sleeping on one of us.


Many of my friends have worried that I will be lonely without Nick.  Since Susan works out of town, I’m by myself all week.  Nick has kept me company for five years now, but I’m not sure if I will be lonely.  Loving an animal seems much different from loving a person.  Loneliness for me is not having someone to talk to, and I can call Susan on the phone.  And even though I often talked to Nick, he never replied back or started a conversation.  What I love about animals, and what I will miss, is their nonhuman qualities.  We mainly communicate with animals by touch, sight, body language – and smells.  I’m not going to miss the smells, but I will miss having a creature that chooses to curl up on me.

In his old age, Nick got very set in his ways.  But then so am I.  For the last two years we lived like old bachelors, following a clockwork routine.  My life will take a new daily course without Nick.  It will take me a while to get used to it.  It took me a long time before I stopped seeing Nora after she died.  Twice this evening already I’ve thought I saw Nick.  It’s funny how we get used people and animals being in our lives, and how hard it is to not see them when they are gone.

But for now on, I will have to make furry friends with those creatures owned by my friends.  I was very attached to Nick and Nora, and I just can’t go through that again.  This might sound hard hearted, but from now on I only want to attach myself to beings that will die after me.

JWH – 9/3/13

A Study in Fame–Bob Dylan

Our world is awash with famous people but how many are really worth the notice?  If you live long enough you’ll watch the famous coming and going, maybe not as fast as every fifteen minutes, but its amazing how many once famous faces I can no longer match a name in memory, or tell you if they are dead or alive. Think about it, how many people can you name that have stayed famous your whole lifetime?  One of the strangest of the famous that’s haunted me my whole life is Bob Dylan.


Dylan was born in 1941, and I was born in 1951, and he started recording in 1961, so he was in the generation just ahead of mine, who made an impression us boomers as we became aware of the world around us as teens.  Fifty years on, my demographic cohorts are in their sixties, and the generation that influenced us are in their seventies.  Many of the famous people that inspired my generation are forgotten or dead – or both.

Most folks are famous for a Warhol unit of time because they create only one noteworthy event on the world’s stage.  Bob Dylan has written hundreds of songs, an astounding output of artwork, but what makes many of them memorable is how they fit into history at large.  And if you didn’t like his singing, there have been hundreds of performers covering his tunes.  At one time I had a playlist on Rhapsody with over 100 cover versions of “All Along the Watchtower.”  Part of Dylan’s fame is due to influencing so many other people.

Not only is Dylan famous, but he’s legendary, infamous, and mythic.  Although most people won’t think of Bob Dylan when they think of the concept of fame, but if you read his biographies, and there are countless bios to read, you’ll see he’s a perfect example of someone suffering the fates of fame.

Plus Bob Dylan has toured the Earth like no other person in history.  Dylan played 2,000 concerts between 1988 and 2007, and he continues to tour at the rate of about 100 concerts a year.  His constant touring, which has gotten named the Never Ending Tour, will probably end when he dies.  Just look at his tour dates and locations.  Fans now follow Dylan from city to city like hippies used to follow The Grateful Dead.  Dylan tours like Sisyphus rolls rocks.

Has there been anyone in the history of the world that has traveled to more places than Bob Dylan?  Dylan has his own artistic empire of fame.

Yet, to the average person, how many people can name a Bob Dylan song?  He’s not that famous, not enough that all 7 billion people on Earth know of him.  Currently Dylan is only #65 on one of The Most Famous People of All Time lists.  But such lists are bogus, because there’s no real way to measure fame, other than maybe counting daily Google searches.

Of people who listen to rock and roll, Dylan is famous, to people that don’t, I can’t imagine his name coming up very often.

Fame is an odd concept.  Fame is both ephemeral and lasting.  If you look at the 2013 Time 100 list of most influential people of the moment, you won’t see Dylan, and you will see many names you’ve probably haven’t heard of before either.  How many people know of Elon Musk?  You’re famous if the media takes notice of you, whether its because you’re heroic, criminal, mad, inventive, creative, stupid, or whatever catches the public’s fancy at the moment.

Some people consider Bob Dylan a rock star, others a songwriter, and others a poet.  Fame for a poet really means how often are any of your carefully crafted lines quoted or memorized?  Fame for a songwriter is measured by how often do people sing and record your songs.  Fame for a rock star is measured by how many people swoon at your image holding an electric guitar.  Poetry is a dying art form, but poetry was never popularly consumed to begin with, but some poems have lasted a very long time.  A century from now, how many rock stars will actually be remembered?  How many figures from popular culture can you remember from 1913?  That’s after Mark Twain and before Charlie Chaplin.

The Independent gave “70 reasons why Bob Dylan is the most important figure in pop-culture history” on his 70th birthday.  Will any of those reasons be valid in 2113?

Go to this list of Dylan songs at his website, and see how many titles you know.  Then click on the song name and read the lyrics.  You’ll have to decide for yourself if the words will survive like the words of the great poets of the past.  Dylan has lead a legendary life.  I’m sure there will be novels and movies based on his adventures in the future.  Some have already come out.  But his real fame will come from his songs, and the seeds they plant in minds yet born.  Byron and Keats never imagined all the thoughts thought about their lines of poetry, and we can’t imagine what will happen to Dylan’s words in the future.  But my guess is they will be put to uses in ways we could never fathom even if time travelers came back and told us.


I just finished reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein.  It was a compelling read that kept me constantly wanting to find more time to read.  Among the many biographies of Dylan I’ve read, it’s among the best, although my favorites are still Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu and No Direction Home by Robert Shelton, now in a new edition.  Reading about Bob Dylan is like trying to study cosmology, it’s a subject of endless depth.

JWH – 7/14/13

What Makes You Cry?

I don’t cry, not the boo-hoo kind of weeping, I’m more of a Mr. Spock when it comes to emotions.  But I do get misty-eyed from time to time, and as I’ve gotten older, those wet eyed moments come more often.  What makes us cry?  And obviously, we all cry for different reasons.  Yesterday my friend Mike sent me a video, “Bittersweet Melodies” by Feist, that choked me up.  If I wore mascara it would have run.  It had gotten to Mike too.  I forwarded the link to some of my friends and to the online book clubs I’m in.  So far I’ve heard from about fifteen women and a handful of men.  Men get choked up.  Women think its nice, clever, but no tears.  I’m waiting for more responses, but so far it’s quite gender specific.

Like I said, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to observe that everyone has different buttons to push to turn on the waterworks.  But of my  small sample, it seems the Feist video worked with men but not women.  So here’s an experiment, watch this video and let me know how you reacted.  Do you think it’s just clever, or does it choke you up?

[The original photographs used in the video can be found here and here.]

Before and after pictures of people getting older is a definite emotional button for me, but understanding why, is harder to explain.  The wistful Feist song does create an emotional mood, but it’s the photographs that poke me in the heart.  Why?  Well a couple of anecdotes might help.

When I was a little fella, I remember this time I had to get a shot.  I was in a full blown bawling meltdown and the doctor and my mom were trying to get me to cooperate and get punctured.  I remember the doctor patiently waiting for me to settle down. 

When I had calmed down a bit he said, “You don’t have to cry.”

I don’t think I said anything, but I was thinking, “Huh?”

He again said, “You don’t have to cry.”  He had gotten my attention.  Then he came closer and whispered, “You can choose not to cry.”

I thought about it for a moment, turned off the faucets in my eyeballs and let him give me the shot.  I was amazed I didn’t have to cry.  I remember consciously choosing not to cry the next time my mother switched me, and when my dad gave me the belt.  I then learned not crying enraged my parents who would switch and belt harder because of my lack of reaction.  Not crying had a kind of empowerment.  I went with it.

Babies cry, I believe, because they have no other outlets for communicating their needs.  I think as adults we cry when we have no other ways to express what we feel.  Most of the time we do, so we don’t cry.

The other anecdote from childhood that is useful for this topic is about separation.  To kinds of separate.  As a kid my family moved around a lot.  A whole lot.  I’d always make a best friend wherever we moved, but ultimately, that friendship would be torn apart, just something beyond my control.  Starting at an early age, looking back and thinking of lost friends always choked me up.  I think that’s why most people cling to the idea of heaven – they can’t bear that they will never see some people again.  That’s why death tears us up, we can’t communicate our feelings of loss and separation.

When I was very little, I woke up in the middle of the night and went out to the living room where my dad was watching all-night movies.  He let me stay up and I watched a film about two kids being separated when one family moved away, then they were reunited during WWII, in the Pacific.  I was too young to understand this, I just felt it.  That film burned into the core of mind, at the bottom of all my memories.  Years later I caught it again, when I was old enough to remember its name, High Barbaree, and the actors, Van Johnson and June Allyson.  Eventually I learned that it was based on a book by the same name, written by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, the writers of The Mutiny on the Bounty.  The story was about the last memories of a dying man, but of course, in the Hollywood version, he’s rescued from death.  His dying thoughts were about his childhood and teen years.  I think men feel separated from their young selves, in a way that women don’t.  I know there are no hard and fast gender generalities, but this one sort of works.

The key to my deepest emotional buttons are encrypted in that movie and book.  Events in that story resonate at the core of my being.  And that reveals probably my most powerful emotional button, the desire to return to childhood.  We can return home, to the physical location where we grew up, but we can’t return to the state of mind when we called it home.  I wonder if my lady friends didn’t respond to the Feist video because they don’t have that urge to return to childhood.  Women want to be young again in body, but guys want to be young again in mind.

I’ve read there are two kinds of people, those that would pay anything to relive their adolescence, and those who would pay anything to erase the memories of those same years.

“Bittersweet Melodies” is incredibly wistful to me.  When I really like a person I want to see photos of when they were kids.  I want to know what they did when they were kids, and where they lived.  Sometimes I think our true souls are the ones we had at age twelve.

JWH – 6/17/13

The Forgotten Places In Between

Growing up my family moved a lot, a whole lot.  I attended three different first grade schools.  I also went to three different schools for the seventh grade.  I was lucky enough to stay in one school for grades sixth, ninth and twelfth.   All the others I attended two different schools each year.  But it’s a freaky mathematical problem of memory to tell you the total number of schools I attended.  For example, the third seventh grade school was also the first eighth grade school.  I just can’t remember all the overlaps.  For many years I was sure I went to two ninth grade schools, but I can only remember one now, so I only count the one.  If I live long enough, I wonder if I will forget them all, except the school of my last memory?

I’ve lost a school somewhere.  I know I lived in South Carolina twice, I just can’t remember when in my early timeline the first time was.  I can’t even remember if I went to school or not at the time.  I don’t remember going to school, which might means it was before I was five, but then we might have only stayed there during a summer.  It’s just forgotten.  I hate that my memory is as holey as Swiss cheese.

The lost memories I miss the most at the moment are the forgotten streets between favorite place memories.  Often I can remember two places but for the life of me I can’t remember how I got between those two places, even when I traveled those forgotten streets hundreds of times.  The haziness hurts.  I often have dreams of losing my way to places.  In real life I’ve always had a great sense of direction, loved maps, and never had trouble getting around.  But I’m always lost traveling between my memories.

For example, my last school was Miami Killian Senior High.  I started there sometime in the eleventh grade, but I’m not sure when, but probably sometime in early 1968.  My family had moved from Coconut Grove, where I was attending Coral Cables Senior High, to live in South Miami Heights.  I have a vague memory the address might have been 1234x South West 188th Street.

Now here’s one of my in between memory problem.  Each day, for over a year, I went to school at Miami Killian, then went to work at the Kwik-Chek back in the Coconut Grove, then drove back home to South Miami Heights at night.  That’s a lot of driving.  I don’t remember owning a car, not until later.  I remember borrowing my parent’s cars sometimes.  I remember hitch-hiking sometimes.  I remember riding the buses sometimes.  I remember getting rides sometimes from my parents or friends.  But I don’t remember going between those three places, and the routes I took.  I’ve forgotten all the places in between being at home, being at school and being at work.

In the forty-five years since, all those in between memories have been erased.  I wasn’t paying attention, so I don’t remember when.  I do know about fifteen years ago going back to Miami and getting my old pal Connell to drive me around to all those locations, my house, school and work.  This was thirty years after the fact.  Everything looked different, if not unrecognizable.  For the life of me, I couldn’t have found my way between any of those three locations on my own.  And I had driven them hundreds of times in the distant past.  I had walked along those street hitch-hiking, or waiting on buses.  Those streets should have been burned into my mind.

I’ve been thinking about this for years.  It bugs me I can’t remember how I got between memories.  It bugs me that my memories are like little fluffy clouds separated by a mysterious void.

Think about it.  How many in between places can you remember?  I’m guessing you lucky folks who grew up and lived one place your whole life, that you didn’t forget the in between places.  But maybe not.  Let me know.

I still have a lot of memories.  Places where I lived.  Places where I worked.  Homes of friends and families.  Schools, libraries, favorite places to shop or eat.  But here’s the thing – I’ve forgotten all the places in between.  And in a few cases, I’ve forgotten some of the the places too.  That a primary location has melded in with the forgotten in between places.

I’ve always been fascinated by the brain, the mind and memories.  We can think of ourselves as a computer and we’re born with a hard drive of limited capacity.  That old saying that we only use 5% of our brain is pure bullshit.  We fill our brains pretty damn fast, and somewhere inside of our heads are subroutines to delete old memories to make room for new ones.  I don’t think it’s ever a conscious decision about what we get to keep.  What’s strange is the mental mechanism is not perfectly efficient.  How often has an old memory popped up, one you haven’t thought about in decades?  We’re lucky to have those little surprised memories, because somehow they’ve been saved from the memory munching recycling program.

Sometimes I fantasize about being a robot that can control and manage all its memories.  But even robots would have limited storage space to save daily experiences.  That’s the difference between robots and people.  We aren’t told when a memory is going to be thrown away, but a robot will have to decide for itself.  I guess when we’re sleeping, when we’re dreaming, our brain decides what to overwrite.  Think of all those thousands and thousands of 9 to 5 work hours, of zillions of dish washing hours, or times mowing lawns, or studying algebra.  Our subconscious mind finds so much we do easy to forget, and I’m glad of that.  Who’d want to remember everything?

So why does it trouble me that my soul has thrown out all the brain recordings of going between places?  Why do I ache to remember them so much?  I’m a linear person and just want to remember my life as one long path.  Instead it’s a jumble of puzzle pieces.  

What if our brains, or even robot brains, worked like DVRs, and recorded over the oldest memories first.  We’d all slowly forget our earliest years and we’d have a constantly growing stretch of amnesia to ponder.

No, we have selective forgetfulness.  And evidently, a choice space to erase are the memories of traveling between our strongest memories.  So in the end, all we have left is isolated islands of strong memories.  And, we don’t even get to keep all of them.  Even my essential memories of places I cherish most, are being eroded by my dreaming mind’s memory mulcher.

Damn analog mind.

It’s a good thing we’re evolving digital minds.  Robots will have different memory management than we do.  They will be able to compress and store their memories more efficiently, and even off-load them for long term storage.  Can you imagine being a robot and replaying a day from a century ago?  Right now, it would be nice to load up a memory of my trip to school one morning back in 1968, then play the trip from school to work, and then from work to home.  I made those trips hundreds of times, it would be nice to remember some of them, even one of them.


The mind is a marvelous thing.  Like the old adage, ask and receive, a memory has just floated to the surface as I wrote this blog.

I even remember the road’s name, Old Cutler Road.  I remember driving home in the dark after work, after 10pm and listening to “Hey Jude” on the AM radio.  I remember singing along and banging my hands on the steering wheel.  “Hey Jude” came out August 26, 1968.  I remember the windows being down and muggy cool air blowing over me.  I remember being dirty and sweaty from work, and the air cooling it clean. 

My last job every night at the Kwik Chek was to sweep and mop the floor, and then burn outdated food in the incinerator.  I’d always buy two 16 ounce Cokes to drink on the way home because I was so thirsty.  I always guzzled the first one as I left the building, and then nurse the second one on the ride home.  I love the drive home, going through old Coconut Grove, driving through mostly dark back roads, sometimes smelling the ocean by Matheson Hammock in the distance. 

I loved listening to the radio, because 1968 was a great time for music.  I’d constantly switch between WQAM and WFUN.  My mind was very active on the drive.  I was always hyper after getting off work.  I was sixteen and thinking about a girl name Nancy Morris that I went out with some.  But I also thought about my friend Connell who worked at the Kwik Chek too.  But these imagined thoughts are just speculation.  I have no memory of thinking anything particular.  But I do remember I loved being alone driving through the darkness, with the radio cranked, blasting out “Hey Jude” and drinking my Coco Cola.

Thank you subconscious, thanks for saving that one memory.  In case you recycle that space, I have it here.


JWH 3/8/13

Am I Losing My Memory?

This morning I got the idea of writing an essay about how there are generations of popular writers in all genres.  I had been looking at lists of bestselling science fiction books on the web and I was surprised by how most of the authors were unknown to me.  Obviously a newer generation has supplanted all the popular writers I once knew.

I figured at any given time there are a cadre of top writers whose names come to mind when people think of science fiction writers.  Because I’m 61, I’m tied to the past, and think of SF writers long dead, and maybe forgotten, or never known to new readers.


Think of it this way, the stars of Hollywood in the 1930s would be much different from the stars of the 1950s or the 1990s.  That people would think of the rock stars or baseball stars of the 1960s as a different generation or group than those of the 1980s.

I grew up reading science fiction in the 1960s, and Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were the SF stars of that era.  Who are the science fiction writing stars of the 2010s?

Now here’s where I lose my memory.  I thought of writing an essay about how Heinlein rose to fame and then show how his fame diminished over time.  I got some ideas about how to start the essay and decided to check on some facts I knew I had written about before.  Then I found:  “The Fall of Robert A. Heinlein and The Fading of the Final Frontier” by James Wallace Harris.  That’s me.

I had completely forgotten I had written that essay.  Not only that, but when I reread the essay it covered ideas I wanted to write in the essay I was imagining.  What’s even scarier is I think the earlier essay had some better ideas that really impressed me.  They didn’t even seem like my ideas.  I had forgotten this essay so well that I could admire the writing like it was written by someone else.  That feels weird.

Now is this common for writers to forget what they’ve written?  Or am I suffering a side-effect of getting old?

I had already written the title for the new essay, “The Rise and Fall of Robert A. Heinlein and His Vision of Science Fiction.”  Very similar to the earlier title.  Now, it was going to be a different slant.  I wanted to capture the flavor of science fiction that Heinlein and others created and show how that’s changed.  1950s and 1960s SF feels very different from 2000s and 2010s science fiction.  That was going to be a lot of work, and I wasn’t sure how I could do it.

If I had unlimited time, I would describe how Heinlein saw space travel in the 1950s, and compare it to how science fiction writers in the 2010s see space travel.  I may have had that idea before.  I don’t remember.  I think of ideas to write about all day long, and forget them just as fast.  But that was true in my teens so I don’t think it’s an age issue.

Memory is such a weird thing.  Back in the 1960s I swear my best friend Connell bought a book Birds of Britain by John D. Green, now a collector’s item.  It was a photo book of British girls during the Mod era.  Today Connell swears he doesn’t remember ever seeing such a book.  Just now I watched an episode of The Twilight Zone about three astronauts coming back from space and how each of them slowly disappears from people’s memories.  Reading my own essay that I had forgotten felt like being in The Twilight Zone.

For all I know I could have written this essay before.

The public is forgetting my favorite writers.  I forget my own writing.  Memories are fleeting.  They’ve always have been.

JWH – 1/29/13

How Good is Your Visual Memory?

I recently read The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks and I can’t stop thinking about it.  Sacks is professor of neurology and psychiatry that writes about medical oddities relating to cognition.  The Mind’s Eye is about all aspects of vision and how it impacts the brain, our behavior and our perception of reality.

I’ve always assumed I was an average person, with average abilities, so that I was smarter than some, but dumber than others.  That I was stronger than some, and weaker than others.  I’ve always assumed I fit comfortably in the middle of the bell curve of what it means to be human, and thus assumed what I see and feel is pretty much what other people see and feel.  Reading Oliver Sacks proves that assumption completely wrong.


We all see the world drastically different, both at a physical level and at a conceptual level.  People aren’t a homogenous species.  If you’ve watched the recent Olympics you know what physical extremes exists.  Reading Oliver Sacks will illustrate the cognitive extremes.

Even in the snug middle of the bell curve, we’re all very different.  In the last chapter of The Mind’s Eye, Sacks writes about blindness and talked about his essay on John Hull, author of Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness.  Hull wrote about losing his sight, and slowly forgetting all visual memories until years later he reached what he called “deep blindness.”   Hull blew my mind, when he wrote that he felt deep blindness was a richer state of mind. 

In his essay on Hull, Sacks seem to imply this was how blindness worked in general.  Later he was surprised by all the letters he got from blind people explaining how their blindness had not worked that way.  He soon learned there was an array of human responses to going blind.

From this Sacks wrote about visual memory.  Sacks himself discovered he himself had poor visual memory when he took a lizard skeleton to his mother and she visually memorized it by turning it 360 degrees, stopping each 30 degrees to memorize that view.  She was a surgeon and had expected her son to be a surgeon too, but when she realized he didn’t have her visual memory, she told Sacks he shouldn’t go into surgery.  I suggest you find a copy of The Mind’s Eye and read the whole chapter rather than me paraphrasing it all, because it has an astounding amount of information about visual memory to contemplate.  Especially the stories about blind people who still feel they live in a visual world – an artificial reality inside their heads.

Like Sacks I have poor visual memory. Sometimes when I listen to music with my eyes closed, I’ll have flashes of visual scenes, but I have no control over them, and they last so little time I can’t study their details.  People with great visual memory can study their mind’s image and draw them.  A stunning example is Stephen Wiltshire, who draws Rome from one helicopter ride.  (See other videos here.)

If I was to go blind, I assume my experience would be pretty much like John Hull, and I’d eventually forget my visual memories and end up in deep blindness.  But thinking about this, I wondered if I couldn’t exercise my visual memory, like doing push-ups to make my arms stronger, and develop my visual memory.  After I read the last chapter in The Mind’s Eye I started paying more attention to visual details and became fixated on a church steeple I see on my drive to work, atop Audubon Baptist Church.  I drive by a 8:25 in the morning when the sun is behind me and there is no shadows, and again at 1:55 when I’m returning from lunch, and it does have shadows.

The first time I noticed this steeple after reading the book, I tried to memorize as much as I could when I was at the light near the church.  The steeple sits on a peaked A-shape roof.  The steeple has four parts, a square based with one round window per side, an eight-sided level above that with large rectangular windows, an even smaller level above that with wooden shudders, again eight sides I think, and a tall steeple that comes to a very sharp point.

When I got back to work the first time I tried to draw it from memory.  But I didn’t have any visual memory.  I remember the peaked roof, the four sided box, an eight-sided box on top of it, and another eight-sided box on it, and then the steeple, so I tried to draw those geometric shapes.  It was a terrible drawing because I tried to draw all the sides.  The next time I drove by I studied it again and realized, duh!, that I only see one side of things, and only a portion of the geometric shapes, and from a certain angle.  I had started my drawing with an 3d octagon wire shape, and that’s a conceptual view, not a visual view.  So if I’m looking from the side, I’ll see one side of the 4 sides, and 3 sides of the 8 sides, and essentially a very long triangle.

To test my memory just now I found a picture of the church on the web and it’s nothing like what I remember seeing.  For some reason I remember the church as having wood siding, and it’s brick.  I did remember the wooden slates on the third level, but I didn’t remember the tall windows of the second layer.  I’m no Stephen Wiltshire.

I remember having a much better visual memory when I was young and smoked pot.  Oliver Sacks said he experimented with large dosages of amphetamines when he was young and for a few weeks could draw quite well, especially from his visual memory.  After he stopped taking the drugs he lost all ability to draw.  The poet W. H. Auden took Benzedrine to write poetry, because it helped him to concentrate intensely on detailed verbal imagery.  I assume drugs in each case helps tune out larger reality so we can zoom in on a single tiny aspect, which helps the brain focus.  But can visual memory be enhanced without drugs?

I’m pretty sure it can because of my experiment with looking at the church steeple.  If I studied that steeple every day, and tried to draw it every day, and checked my errors every day, I’d learn about seeing and drawing, but I don’t know if I would have a better visual memory.  Many of the blind people Oliver Sacks wrote about, have extremely detailed inner worlds.  They know they aren’t accurate compared to the outer world they can’t see, but they are very functional models and maps that help them live and work in reality.  One blind man even re-shingled his own roof, freaking out his neighbors because he worked at night.  Another could design machinery with his inner sight.

I think when I have flashes of visual memory it’s more like dream memory.  I have very vivid dreams, but sometimes I’ll have microsecond flashes of dream memory when I’m awake.  When I took drugs when I was a kid, some of those memory flashes would last seconds.  I remember one of flying over the Golden Gate bridge, as if I was a bird, or riding in a helicopter.  Often my flash memories are visions from great heights – and I can’t explain that.  A person with good visual memory could retain those images in their mind.  I can’t.  My memory of them are more like wordy descriptions, which probably explains why I write rather than paint.

I’ve always been impressed by 19th century scientific drawings.  Drawing was an important skill to a scientist.  I don’t know if this meant they had good visual memory, or just a good eye for detail.  And that makes me wonder if I developed an eye for detail would that enhance my visual memory?

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctionsmoon-drawing

I’ve always wondered if painters had to paint 100% of what they put on canvas while observing their subjects, or did they paint some of their pictures from memory.  Often when I look at photographs I think I remember in great detail, I’m shocked to find my memories are either wrong or just fuzzy smudges at best.  People with perfect visual memories are often autistic.  Temple Grandin, a famous autistic person, profiled by Oliver Sacks and featured in the wonderful HBO movie of the same name, thinks in visual imagery.  I’ve many times wondered if animals, who don’t have our language skills, think in pictures too.

To be honest, I believe I have a poor visual memory because I go through life not paying attention to visual reality.  My life is books and words.  I think in concepts.  And I wondered if John Hull felt deep blindness was more rewarding because it allowed him to focus more intensely on concepts.  Now, I have no desire to go blind, but I can imagine after reading Sacks, that blindness isn’t the sensory depravation I once thought it was.

Also, I wonder if I can improve my current abilities.  The cliché is your hearing and touch senses improve if you go blind, but do you have to go blind to improve your other senses?  Can one enhance all our senses, or is their a limitation in brain processing?  Because I’m getting older and my memory is failing, I pay attention to all that advice about improving memory.  I started playing Words with Friends.  I used to be terrible at Scrabble, but now I keep 6-8 Words with Friends games going and I can now beat people that used to always stomp me.

I’m confident if I got some drawing books and practiced, or even took some drawing classes, I could improve my drawing skills, but I also wonder if those skills would translate into better visual memory?  Is that a physical limitation – you either have it or you don’t?

How good is your visual memory?  Post a comment.

JWH – 8/11/12 

Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen

I’m going to review Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen in a strange way – by the way the Kristen Iversen taught me to write.  I took her Forms of Creative Nonfiction and Creative Nonfiction Workshop back in 2003, and even then she was telling the class she was working on a book about Rocky Flats, a secret government site near where she grew up, that built nuclear bomb triggers.  I haven’t seen Iversen in all those years but I’ve been waiting for her book.  And it was worth the wait – it’s a disturbing story about seeking the truth – the best kind.

I discovered Full Body Burden was out when my sister-in-law, Natalie Parker-Lawrence, a more recent student of Iversen’s creative nonfiction classes, told me a month ago.  Natalie was so excited about Full Body Burden that she convinced our nonfiction book club to make it our book of the month.  It’s a great book and now I want to convince others to read it, but to review it requires my own personal story.


I had never heard of Creative Nonfiction before taking Iversen’s class.  On our first day of class she had us write 10 minutes about the first memory that came to mind, in a quick in-class writing assignment.  I wrote about fishing on a seawall in Biscayne Bay in Miami when I was 12, while staying with my grandmother.  My grandmother managed an old apartment building populated mostly by retired people and I had found an old fishing tackle box in an apartment I helped clean out.  In the fishing box was a switch-blade knife which I wrote about for my memory exercise.

Now here’s the thing about what I’m writing now.  I can’t accurately remember the exact assignment or words Kristen told us that day.  Nor can I remember exactly what I wrote, nor when I was writing the exercise, was I sure of my memories of that night on the seawall and the knife.  Kristen was using various kinds of writing exercises, memoir, personal essay, travel, etc., to teach us about creative nonfiction.  And there’s a real problem trying to distinguish creative nonfiction from regular nonfiction as a separate genre. 

Creative nonfiction goes beyond reporting the cold facts.  It makes them personal, but it risks the appearance of being subjective about objective reporting.  It pushes the limits of truthful accuracy, to tell the story in such a way, that feels even more true.  I still argue with my sister-in-law Natalie, who got her MFA in Creative Nonfiction about what exactly is creative nonfiction.  I’m a MFA dropout, so I have less authority, but I’m going to give you my take as part of this essay.

I don’t believe a story can be called creative nonfiction unless the story is pushing the boundaries of narrative techniques, otherwise it’s merely nonfiction, the old kind we’ve always been used to.  To understand creative nonfiction, think In Cold Blood by Truman Capote or The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, or more recently The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

My hard-to-put-into-words definition of creative nonfiction I acquired from Kristen Iversen is based on how the narrative is told, and I latched onto one particular technique as the defining style of creative nonfiction writing – and that’s when the author puts themselves into the story, and they reveal how they came to write the story as the story is being told.  I’m sure this is an extremely limited definition of creative nonfiction, but it just so happens to be how Full Body Burden is written.

Full Body Burden is a real bargain of a book, because you get two books in one.  First is Kirsten’s memoir of growing up and coming to terms with her alcoholic and distant father, and second, its the history of Rocky Flats, a dirty little skeleton in our government’s closet.  Either story is outstanding on its own.  Each is a compelling read.  Because Kristen grew up next door to Rocky Flats it might seem natural to tell the two stories together, and it totally is.  But in the old days of reporting a story like Rocky Flats, writers worked very hard to be impartial observers.   One of the revealing truths about creative nonfiction is learning that writers aren’t impartial, and letting the reader see our biases is very creative.

I love a category of story writing called meta-fiction.  Meta-fiction is fiction about fiction.  It’s recursive and self-conscious of its own techniques of telling the story.  I consider the best creative nonfiction to be meta-nonfiction.  One of the great themes of Full Body Burden is the impact of plutonium on our environment, and whether or not Rocky Flats is causing a rise of cancer and other strange diseases to the people who live near the plant.  Kristen can’t be impartial, because she and her three siblings all have strange diseases and cancers.

Iversen weaves her own personal biography into the history of Rocky Flats.  She even worked at Rocky Flats.  She interviews people that worked there, or so I would assume.  In every creative nonfiction narrative, how does the author get the information they state in the sentences they write?

This is one aspect of Full Body Burden where I wanted more, and this might be unfair to mention in this book review.  I still need to express it because writing this review explains why.  I wanted the full meta-nonfiction treatment.  Kristen is very open and revealing about her personal life, and she talks about becoming a writing teacher while all the events go on in this book, but she doesn’t tell us how she interviewed the people and how the book was written while the other two stories were unfolding.

We know why she wrote Full Body Burden because Rocky Flats is the biggest story in her life.  We know why she’s in the book, because if she had grown up in New York City or Miami as a different person, Kristen Iversen of Colorado would be a perfect person to interview for the story.  She’s actually a good character to tie the story around.  But I wished Iversen had gone one layer deeper.  She’s a fantastic writing teacher, so I wished she had covered how a writer writes about such a great story.  Of course she might have assumed most people aren’t interested in the mechanics of writing.

We know she worked on the story for 12 years.  That’s got to be fascinating by itself.  Am I asking too much by wishing I had gotten three books in one?   I do have Iverson’s Creative NonFiction textbook, Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.  If you’ve never heard the term “Creative Nonfiction” and read Full Body Burden and fall in love with it, you might want to pick up this book to understand why Full Body Burden is so good.

In class we often discussed how to be factual in nonfiction, how to tell the truth, when our memories, and the memories of the people we interview, are so vague.  Do we really know what we’re writing is true and factual?  How often in recent years have we heard about writers getting into trouble for fudging facts?  Because of Iversen’s lectures, the whole time I was reading Full Body Burden I kept thinking how did she get the quotes she gave.  How did she recall her family memories.  How did she know about what her sister was doing when she was on a date.  Did she remember what her sister told her at the time, or did she interview her sister decades later?  To many readers, this might be too tedious, but because I was Iversen’s student, I wanted to know.  But like I said, this is my own hang-up, but it’s a fascinating aspect of creative nonfiction, where telling the story becomes part of the story.

Iversen brings page after page of startling facts about how our government lied to us.  How it covered up its lies.  Most of the story is about the operation of Rocky Flats and  sinister dangers the Department of Energy (DOE) allowed to be inflicted on the citizens of Colorado.  The other story, and just as gripping to me, is how Iversen reveals a steady stream of deeply personal facts.  Her own coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s was so revealing that if the Rocky Flats story hadn’t been included, I would still consider Full Body Burden a great read.

Now again, I must reveal my own personal connection to justify that appraisal.  Kristen reveals how her father was emotional distant, about his decades of alcoholism and how it affected her mother and herself, how her dad almost killed her and her siblings in a drunk driving accident, how her lawyer father was regularly in trouble with the law for drunk driving and fighting with cops, how he ended up living alone driving a cab.   My parents were alcoholics.  My mother almost killed me and my sister in a drunk driving accident.  My father was distant and hard to know, worked all the time, and never made much contact when he was home.  My father also had run ins with the cops and ended up living alone driving a cab.

Not only do I have personal overlaps with Kristen’s story, I also have some overlaps with the plutonium story.  I was born in 1951 the year Rocky Flats was planned and conceived.  The year the Iversens moved to Colorado to live next to Rocky Flats, my family moved to New Ellenton, South Carolina to live near the Savanna River Site, another nuclear weapons site run by the DOE.  We also were told everything was safe there, but years later I learned that wasn’t true.  Growing up I was very pro-science, but in the mid-1970s I turned anti-nuke, attended lectures, joined No-Nuke groups, and read books on the dangers of living with nuclear power plants and weapon manufacturing.

It will take decades, if not centuries to learn all the consequences of our experiments with nuclear weapons and energy production.  Full Body Burden is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg, but it’s ever so scary.  Growing up I was told plutonium was among the most deadliest substances known, but from Full Body Burden we learn that potentially over a ton of it is missing and maybe spread around the Denver area, with similar radioactive pollution happening to many other sites around the country.  And all these sites still have huge stockpiles of radioactive waste that we just can’t deal with properly.

Full Body Burden is about the U.S. government covering up its mistakes with the justification of national security.  However, how many Americans will die from being nuked by their own government? Rocky Flats was a kind of dirty bomb.  So why isn’t this on national news?  That’s a good and tough question.  The insidiousness of plutonium is very hard to quantify.  I assume if data miners comb the medical records in America and compared them to all the people living near nuclear processing plants, they would eventually find statistical correlations that would show the impact of this poison, but for now the stories are all hearsay.

Full Body Burden is convincing evidence, but its like the legal cases Iversen reports on, not conclusive evidence.  Why aren’t there millions of cases of cancer directly linked to plutonium released around processing plants in America and the rest of the world?  Why isn’t Denver a hot zone?  Why aren’t people living near Rocky Flats all wearing dosimeters?

Well it’s all part of our huge experiment with impacting the environment.  How hot can we make it?  How much radiation can we add?  How many poisons can we add to the fish tank we all live in?  How many species can we push to extinction?  Just how much of the Earth can we trash before it all collapses?

If I didn’t have these overlapping experiences and beliefs would I love Full Body Burden as much as I do?  I don’t know.  It’s all about being creative nonfiction reader.  Not only do we need to know how the writer involved themselves in the story, we need to know what we the reader brings to the story when we read it.  I’m trying to be honest about why I liked this book.  If you’re coming from a different headspace you might not like this book at all.  On the other hand, the reviews have been pretty outstanding, just look at the quotes at Amazon.

Now there’s another aspect of creative nonfiction I should mention that makes it a more appealing read.  One of the techniques of creative nonfiction is to use writing techniques novelists use to write fiction.  This has gotten more pervasive in nonfiction writing as creative nonfiction techniques have spread to general nonfiction writing.  Look at this sample page:

Full Body Burden Sample 1 

It looks and reads like a novel.  For nonfiction, writing like this makes the story more gripping and appealing to read even though it’s presenting a lot of facts.  This is why The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson are such wonderful books to read – they use the same creative nonfiction techniques.  All three of these women spent over a decade writing their books.  They could have used the same material to write novels, or journalistic, just the facts, nonfiction books.  Do you see what I mean when I say telling the story becomes part of the story?

Rebecca Skloot and Isabel Wilkerson each have websites that tell more about how they wrote their stories and this is very fascinating to me.  Not only can you read and watch videos about how the books were written, but you can follow along with reports of their successes.  Kristen Iversen also has such a web site and I expect it to grow as Full Body Burden becomes a huge success.  These three women have written the best books I’ve read in recent years, and strangely two of them, Skloot and Iversen, worked at the same English Department at the University of Memphis for awhile, teaching creative nonfiction.  Many people do not believe the creative nonfiction is a separate genre, but their success seems to prove otherwise.

JWH – 7/30/12


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