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We use the term “blockbuster” to describe a movie, book, or other product that has commercial success. Back in the 1940s, it described a big bomb dropped from a plane that was capable of destroying a whole block of streets. Somewhere in between the big commercial success and a bomb is the company known as Blockbuster Video.

Blockbuster was an American provider of home movie and video game rental services through video rental shops. They eventually moved, less successfully, to DVD-by-mail, streaming, video on demand, and cinema theater. Does that remind you of another company? Netflix?

Blockbuster was internationally known throughout the 1990s and at its 2004 peak, the company employed 84,300 people worldwide and had 9,094 stores (4500 in the US).

The last three American stores were in Bend, Oregon and two in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. The Alaska stores closed earlier this year, so the Oregon store got a lot of media attention as the “end of an era.”

The store still looks much like the ones from 20 years ago – all yellow inside, employees in blue shirts and an old computer system. But it still stocks old and new titles. The store still has licensing agreements and leases, and as of now has no plans on closing.

The Alaskan stores kind of made sense. I imagine folks watching movies during those long winter nights and not having cheap Internet. In 2013, there were 13 stores in Alaska.

My own local Blockbuster was in a strip mall. We had two other mom-and-pop video stores locally but they fell to Blockbuster. I have semi-fond memories of walking the aisles with my sons looking for a film that was appropriate and discouraging them from renting film again. “Let’s get something new. Or classic.”

Redbox and other video-on-demand services arrived and I guess people decided they didn’t want to leave their couch to get a movie. In the way that Amazon got people buying books from their couch and killed off many bookstores, Netflix did the same for movies.

I like browsing in person. I find books walking the aisles of a bookstore or library that I would never think to click or search for online. And even with AI, Amazon doesn’t usually find things I am interested in or great accidental discoveries.

Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010. I didn’t know that the remaining 1,700 stores were bought by Dish Network in 2011.

I hope browsing in stores remains. I accept that the movie store is gone, but I encourage people to walk around their bookstore, hardware store and all small, local stores. Make discoveries.

Television has attracted and distracted me my entire life. These days it seems as though there is so much content available that it is impossible to keep up. people are always asking me “Did you watch ______?  (fill in the blank) and most of the time my answer is No.

I actually keep a list of shows to watch. This is part of this era of streaming options, on-demand and binge watching.

And then there is cutting the cord that tethers you to cable and paid services. I have Netflix and Amazon Video and have some free offer access to HBO and Showtime, and just those offer way too much to consume.

I tend to stick with only a few series at a time. Too many and I can’t keep track of what episodes I already watched or what happened in them. Too many times my wife and I have returned to a series after a week or two and watch the “previously on” clips at the beginning and asked each other “Did we see that already?”

If you really want to cut the bills for content there are plenty of sources for free movies and TV shows. YouTube has a lot of free stuff (and now has low cost content too), and there are mostly free older movies and shows in the public domain in various places.

I can always watch old comedies like His Girl Friday , My Man Godfrey or My Favorite Brunette for free on a slow and lazy day.

There are channels designed to provide free content. Crackle (now owned by Sony) was a channel I discovered a few years ago when it popped up on y smart TV and was showing the first seasons of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I have since watched all those episodes and now the series has moved to the paid land of Netflix.  Crackle has movies, TV shows and some original series.

The big networks have taken note of the free and the cord cutters and now offer some free online content and have been moving into their own streaming networks.

AT&T recently merged with Time Warner and launched a new low-cost streaming service, WatchTV. You can stream through the WatchTV app or on some browsers at no extra cost with AT&T’s two latest unlimited wireless plans. For everyone else, you can purchase WatchTV for $15 per month. It has  over 30 live channels and 15,000 TV shows and movies on demand. It’s like a mini-cable subscription with A&E, AMC, CNN, Food Network, TBS, TNT, BET and Comedy Central.

But back to free…  Have you seen Tubi TV? It offers some popular shows and films without a subscription. The selections are updated weekly. You can get the app for your Apple devices and Android. That points to two trends: entertainment at zero cost, and watching TV (or should I just call it video?) on smaller devices like your phone.

Of course, we are still buying big TV screens and throwing content up there too. This week I was showing friends a slideshow of my son’s wedding photos by plugging a USB flashdrive into the side of the big TV.

No lack of alternative entertainment.

We haven’t really nailed down what dreams are all about and there are still differing theories. In the explanation that Freud promoted, dreams are a way to see into our subconscious desires, thoughts and motivations. This is where we get the idea that the things in dreams (manifest content) are really symbols for the latent, or hidden, content.

Other theories view dreaming as a way the brain generates new ideas and creativity. This explains how people wake up with a poem or the solution to a complex problem.

A more everyday variation on this theory is another that posits that dreams are the way we process the day’s information. In sleep and dreaming, we categorize, prune away and store memories.

However, none of these explain the persistent idea that dreams, at least sometimes, seem to predict or foreshadow future events. The three theories first mentioned all deal with the past, whether it be the past 48 hours, or our childhood years ago.

If you have ever had a dream that later turned out to be “true” or prophetic, you probably have some belief in precognitive dreams.

J. W. Dunne, a British engineer and amateur philosopher, proposed that the way we believe we experience time as linear was an illusion. Human consciousness fools us into believing that, when in fact past, present and future were continuous in a higher-dimensional reality. We have imposed this sequential time mental perception of time as a way to understand it.

He wrote about what he called “serial time” is a series of books beginning with An Experiment with Time (1928) , The Serial Universe (1934), The New Immortality (1938), Nothing Dies (1940) and Intrusions? (1955).

As the years passed, he connected “serialism” to psychology, parapsychology, theology, relativity and quantum mechanics. Several famous novelists were fans of his theories, including James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley.

Vladimir Nabokov was another novelist who was taken with the Dunne’s idea that serial time allowed for dreams to “predict” a future we had already experienced. It also explained the déjà vu phenomenon.

In a recently published collection titled Insomniac Dreams,, we can see an experiment in time that Nabokov conducted himself.

Every morning for about three months, he would write down immediately upon awakening what he could recall of his dreams. Then the following days, he paid careful attention to anything that seemed to do with the recorded dream. This dream journal was recorded on index cards, which has also been his compositional method when he wrote Lolita.

He is surely not the only dream journaler who has believed that dreams are not just fragments of past impressions, but are both past and future events. Dunne said this was possible in his serial view of time because time then is not unidirectional but recursive.

Dunne would also say that the only way to observe the predictive nature o dreams is to pay careful attention to the content of dreams, as Nabokov and journaling do, and the events that follow in waking life.

Nabokov finds some instances of prophecy in his recorded dreams, but nothing I would consider extraordinary despite his idea that when you are confronted with predicted outcomes that might be explained as coincidences multiple times, you cease to believe they are coincidences and believe they “form the living organism of a new truth.”

I am more in the coincidence school of belief about the predictive aspects of dreams, and that they are given more weight when we pay closer attention, as Nabokov did.

Perhaps, I should do my own experiment paying closer attention to the followup days  and dream self-reflection. Though lately, I have not had any dreams to record as they seem to disappear before I even wake up with my dream journal beside me. What’s that all about?

 

I met pi in school. You probably met pi that way too. It is that number used to calculate the circumference of a circle. Pi is shown symbolically as:

π

Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is an “irrational number” which means its exact value is inherently unknowable.

Using computers, we have calculated billions of digits of pi, starting with 3.14159265358979323…   –  but no recognizable pattern emerges. So strange. The digits of pi continue to infinity. Does anyone really understand infinity?

Ancient mathematicians did not like irrationality because it didn’t work with the concept of an omniscient God.

Recently I read about another pi connection which is also strange. In 1996, the UK earth scientist Hans-Henrik Stølum published a paper announcing that pi explains the seemingly chaotic paths of rivers in a mathematically predictable pattern.

This is called a river’s sinuosity. By dividing the river’s actual meandering length by the length of the direct line drawn from source to sea.

Of course, some rivers flow pretty straight from source to mouth , so they have small meandering ratios. Some rivers wander all over the place and have high meandering ratios.

But the average meandering ratio of rivers seems to be pi. Good old 3.14.

Albert Einstein used fluid dynamics and chaos theory to show that rivers tend to bend into loops.

If a river has a curve that will generate faster currents on the outer side of the curve. Those currents will cause erosion and so a sharper bend. That will eventually make the loop tighten. I have read that then chaos will eventually cause the river to double back on itself and form a loop in the other direction.

I did some more research on this river connection and found that this claim may not be accurate.

Someone put up a website at one point to crowdsource river data. The site at PiMeARiver.com seems to be dead now. People could put in the coordinates of the mouth and the source of a river, and the length of the river (from Google Maps and Wikipedia probably) to calculate the sinuosity of a river. That study looked at 258 rivers and found an average sinuosity of an un-Pi-like 1.94.

Hmmm. Maybe it is another mathematical constant, like the golden ratio (phi) which we often find in nature. That value is 1.618. Nope.

What about if you look at pi/phi? You get 1.94. Okay, that’s a strange “coincidence.”  Or something more than coincidence?

I need to be careful with all this, because I saw the film titled Pi. I saw this science fiction film when it was released in 1998. It is a difficult film to label. It is surrealist, psychological, thriller, that delves into religion, mysticism, the relationship of the universe to mathematics and number theory. It was written and directed by Darren Aronofsky in his directorial debut.

I read it as a cautionary tale. It is about a genius oddball mathematician, Max, who has been working for a decade trying to decode the numerical pattern beneath ordered chaos. The ordered chaos he studies is the stock market.

Max’s belief that there is some mathematical “code” underlying everything compares in my mind with Einstein trying to find that theory that explains it all. That quest frustrated Einstein through the end of his life.

Beware of that quest.

There are some serious and some pop philosophies that extol “living in the moment.”  It makes sense to live in the now. In a very unenlightened sense, you have no choice since that is where we are. But many people cannot easily get over their past. They cannot leave behind events or people. Is this harmful?

I have always liked collecting quotations.  Here are two about this – serious: “The past has no power over the present moment.” – Eckhart Tolle; and pop: – “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today” – Will Rogers.

Eckhart Tolle has written about this in The Power of Now and says that the natural enemy to enlightenment is the mind. He feels that we are our own creator of pain and the cure is living fully in the present.

The past is important. It is clearly part of you and it is what formed the person we are in the now.  It shouldn’t be forgotten. Sometimes, it can’t be forgotten, though we may want to forget parts of it.

But sometimes letting go of the past is necessary to move on with our life. Obviously, we cannot change the past, even if it has changed our present.

Can you be selective in when and how you access your past? Being a product of the past is not the same as being a prisoner of the past.

I think of some of this mental time traveling as harmless. I tend to still listen to the music of my youth. Serendipitously, I heard the song “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull yesterday which was recorded when I was in high school. Harmless nostalgia, right? Well, it does trouble me that I have almost no interest in new music. I was so involved in pop music at one time. That is gone. Is that bad?

But that is not as serious as a person who more generally finds it difficult to accept new experiences and are more likely to recreate past experiences in more important ways than music you listen to.

I found a series of articles online about this approach. In Psychology Today, I found both ideas about living in the past and also the idea that “No one lives in the past. The past is the past. It’s gone. You don’t ever have to put the past behind you. It’s always behind you.”

When living is the past goes beyond nostalgic time traveling, it is associated with the fear of making changes, complaining more about the current situation, and isolation.

You can find those who will say that those who don’t remember or learn from the past will be forced to repeat it. But sometimes those who focus on the past, unconsciously, end up repeating similar, and not positive, situations.

This living in the present approach can start to sound like a song from the movie Frozen that was so annoyingly popular a few years ago and became a meme for other kinds of letting go of your past.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free
Let it go, let it go

Living in the past also nurtures regrets for things done or undone that cannot be changed.

In my most serious period of Buddhist studies, I fully embraced the now.

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past;
If you are anxious, you are living in the future;
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
–  Lao Tzu

But I still found myself depressed and anxious in the present. A teacher would tell me that was because I was not really in the present.

Fears are normal. Phobias are not. When visiting the past becomes living in the past, there is cause for concern.

Still, living in the now is not easy. People who are depressed are often fearful of the future. Their negative and anxious expectations encourage them to go back and letting go of the past is very difficult.

It is hard to see some negative past experiences as ones that ultimately make us wiser or put us on a better path. And some negative experiences don’t do us any good. They hurt and scar us.

Finally, the most frightening form of this seems to me to be something a friend is still going through after the death of their child. They don’t feel they can control the present. And that means they certainly can’t have any power over their future. She sees this as not only her problem, but a problem that “all of us” are dealing with in the current state of “the world.”

Sorry – no solutions here. Just acknowledgement of something I am observing.

 

While in New York City last weekend and staying near The Battery end of Manhattan, I went out for my walk and decided to follow some of the path that Herman Melville would have traveled in his days there.

With an online walking tour as a guide, I set out. The place I wanted to really see was the Custom House where he worked as a customs inspector. I like to imagine him sneaking in some literary time between working on boring forms about tariffs.

Even with a guide, it can be confusing as there are several “Customs Houses” in the city.  One is the Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street that had been the U.S. capital until 1790 when that honor moved to Philadelphia and the building went back to housing the government of New York City. The building was razed with the opening of the current New York City Hall in 1812. You can see part of the original railing and balcony floor where Washington was inaugurated in the memorial there. The current classical building was built as the first purpose-built U.S. Custom House for the Port of New York and opened in 1842. A nice place to visit, but no connection to Melville.

In 1862, Customs moved to 55 Wall Street which is where Melville spent his time.  Now known as The First National City Bank Building, it rests upon the foundation and lower portion of The Merchants’ Exchange, built in 1842.

Melville’s wife’s family used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York in 1866. This was a humble position, but with a decent salary. He held the post for 19 years. He had a reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution.

Though he never knew it, his position and income “were protected throughout the periodic turmoil of political reappointments by a customs official who never spoke to Melville but admired his writings: future US president Chester A. Arthur” (Olsen-Smith).

The basement vaults below Melville held millions of dollars of gold and silver as this was one of six United States Sub-Treasury locations at that time. .

The Merchants’ Exchange replaced the previous exchange which burned down in the Great Fire of New York in 1835

“…it’s worth pointing out that [Herman Melville] worked in [the New York Custom House] as a deputy customs inspector between 1866 and 1885. Nineteen years, and he never got a raise – four dollars a day, six days a week. He was by then a washed-up writer, forgotten and poor. I used to find this subject heartbreaking, a waste: the greatest living American author was forced to spend his days writing tariff reports instead of novels. But now, knowing what I know about the sleaze of the New York Custom House, and the honorable if bitter decency with which Melville did his job, I have come to regard literature’s loss as the republic’s gain. Great writers are a dime a dozen in New York. But an honest customs inspector in the Gilded Age? Unheard of.”
― Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation

Just prior to his Custom House days, his writing career was not very successful. His greatest sales had come from his earliest books of adventure and travel. His first book was Typee (1846), a highly romanticized account of his life among Polynesians. That best-seller allowed him to write a “sequel” Omoo (1847). These books gave him enough money to marry Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of a prominent Boston family,

Next, he got to write a novel not based on his own travel experiences. That novel was Mardi (1849), also a sea narrative but a very philosophical one. It didn’t sell at all. It wasn’t what readers expected (or wanted) from Melville. He went back to something closer to the earlier books with Redburn (1849). This story about life on a merchant ship was better received by reviewers. So was the next book about the hard life aboard a man-of-war, White-Jacket (1850). But the books did not bring enough money to sustain the family.

In the summer of 1850, Melville moved his growing family to Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There he befriended fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. Melville started the novel in New York in 1850, but finished it in Pittsfield the following summer. But this great American novel was a commercial failure, and the reviews were mixed.

Just to give a sense of those literary times, along with Moby Dick was the publication of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and in 1855 Thoreau’s Walden and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Melville was no longer a popular or well-known author and Pierre (1852) was at least partially a satire on the literary culture of the time – and not a best-seller. Either was his Revolutionary War novel Israel Potter (1855) which was first serialized in Putnam’s magazine but not well received by critics or readers as a book.

Melville published some excellent short fiction in magazines during this slow period: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), “The Encantadas” (1854), and “Benito Cereno” (1855) which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales.

He wasn’t totally broke and in 1857 he traveled to England and did some lecture tours to earn money. He was reunited briefly with Hawthorne in England. He was also able to tour the Near East.

The last prose he would publish was the quite different and interesting novel, The Confidence-Man (1857).

“Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his.
The Confidence Man

With money running out, they left the farm and returned to New York so he could take a position as Customs Inspector. They moved to Allan Melville’s house at 104 East 26th Street, for which they traded their Pittsfield farm.

Melville turned to poetry. That first year at the Customs House he published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War which contains his poems on moral questions about the American Civil War.

Probably he had given up on the novels due to the poor sales and reviews. Publishers probably weren’t interested either. But I think the trips abroad had an influence on his thinking and I can see him sneaking in some poetry at lunch and breaks from Customs House work at his desk as he walked and maybe stopped coffee houses around Wall Street.

“… the New York guidebooks are now vaunting of the magnitude of a town, whose future inhabitants, multitudinous as the pebbles on the beach, and girdled in with high walls and towers, flanking endless avenues of opulence and taste, will regard all our Broadways and Bowerys as but the paltry nucleus to their Nineveh. From far up the Hudson, beyond Harlem River where the young saplings are now growing, that will overarch their lordly mansions with broad boughs, centuries old; they may send forth explorers to penetrate into the then obscure and smoky alleys of the Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street; and going still farther south, may exhume the present Doric Custom-house, and quote it as a proof that their high and mighty metropolis enjoyed a Hellenic antiquity.”
― Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage

I made a stop at 54 Pearl Street, which would have been Fraunces Tavern in Melville’s time. It’s not here anymore, so I had to imagine him at what was described as “a slightly rundown tavern and meeting place.” At numbers 58 and 62, you get a glimpse of what he would describe as “grimlooking warehouses.”

Along Pearl Street was Coenties Slip, a man-made inlet, now filled in and making up parts of Water, Front and South Street. Melville knew the area as a boy, and wrote in Redburn:  “…somewhere near ranges of grim-looking warehouses, with rusty iron doors and shutters, and tiled roofs; and old anchors and chain-cables piled on the walk. Old-fashioned coffee-houses, also, much abound in that neighborhood, with sun-burnt sea-captains going in and out, smoking cigars, and talking about Havana, London, and Calcutta.”

This could not have been a happy time for Melville and his family. In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot, which may have been an accident or may have been suicide.

He publishes Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land in 1876, a long and difficult metaphysical piece. In 1886, his son Stanwix died. That year Melville would retire.

Melville

Last known portrait of Herman Melville, 1885

Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891, but he had continued to write in his retirement years. Two more volumes of poetry were privately published and one was left unpublished. He was working on another sea novel but the unfinished Billy Budd was not published until 1924.

The 1919 centennial of his birth seems to have started a “Melville Revival”and critics and scholars explored his life, novels, stories and poetry. Certainly, Moby Dick makes every list of the great American works of fiction.

On my walk, I visited (as we know Melville did) Trinity Church to climb up into the belfry. I’m not sure how religious Melville was, but I know that we seem to share similar spiritual concerns, so  a prayer for him seemed appropriate.

I walked by what would have been the Post Office a block away from the church on Nassau Street between Liberty and Cedar Streets. It was demolished in 1882.  I thought about Melville possibly mailing off his writing to publishers there in the hopes of reviving his career.

If he got to go out for lunch during a work day, he would have seen clerks heading up and down the this busy street. Maybe he dropped in on his brother, Allan, whose law office was at No. 10 on the second floor. It certainly figures into his wonderful short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” with “the numerous stalls nigh the Custom House and Post Office.”

This section from Nassau to Broadway is sometimes called “Bartleby’s Wall Street.” I found no one selling ginger cakes or any apple sellers that would allow me “to moisten [their] mouths very often with Spitzenbergs.”

If Herman’s daily work was boring, being a scrivener like Allan, (they were the all-male secretarial pool of that day) and copying legal documents in “quadruplicates of a week’s testimony” sounds even more boring.

I didn’t get to the intersection of Park Avenue south and 26th Street which was dedicated in 1985 as  Herman Melville Square. This is where Melville lived from 1863 to 1891.

A giant species of sperm whale was named in honor of Melville. Livyatan melvillei was discovered by paleontologists who were fans of Moby-Dick. I suppose it is a kind of sad irony that this species is extinct.

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