Journal: Wednesday, September 28

signEvery so often I have a dream that was obviously intended for someone else. Last night’s tour of the unconscious mind was a case in point.

My dream self popped up in a hole-in-the-wall greasy-spoon diner somewhere in New York City.

The place was little more than a narrow closet: four or five two-tops running along one wall, a battered white enamel display case stocked with an assortment of plastic-wrapped mystery-meals, and a narrow aisle in between. At the back was the cash register and a doorway leading to the kitchen. Continue reading

Come Fly with Me

Icebergs? Bah! We’re not afraid of any silly icebergs!

I know Mr Jung and Mr Freud tell us that we can learn things from our dreams. Well, last night I learned that zeppelin crews on the Rio to Lisbon route steal shoes from the passengers’ staterooms when they get bored. (Brawls have broken out over a pair of Spongebob flip-flops.)

I learned further that if you lose your wallet during the trip you are handed over to my friend Judith Levine for safe keeping — although her response is usually just to throw up her hands, cry “Whatever!”, and sail out in a flurry of crêpe de Chine. The trip takes three days.

It was quite a dream, even for me.

For centuries, people blamed spicy food for exotic or unusual dreams: in 1904, Winsor McCay began a comic strip for the New Evening Telegram called “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” in which the central characters’ bizarre dreams were caused by a late meal of “welsh rarebit“, a dish of toast with mustard-and-Worcestershire-seasoned cheese sauce. Giants romping through New York City, people experiencing their own funerals… It was a pretty kaleidoscopic experience, generally, and a lot to blame on a couple of pieces of cheese toast.

In 1905, Winsor McCay began the strip for which he is best known, “Little Nemo in Slumberland”, which, while certainly loopy, was a toned down considerably from its predecessor in order to appeal to a more general audience. He is also known for one of the earliest animated shorts, “Gertie the Dinosaur”, from 1914.

Little Nemo, romping through dreamland in his footie PJ’s.


My dinner last night centered around roasted brussels sprouts, a baked potato, and tuna steak, so I don’t think I can fall back on the welsh-rarebit defense.

Another highlight from last night’s extravaganza? I learned that my extensive study of Renaissance painting on biblical themes made me the only person on the zeppelin crew who could spell “Massacre of the Innocents” correctly for a sign we needed to create. (In their defence, many of the other crew members spoke primarily Portuguese, so perhaps there was a language issue.) I don’t recall that we were actually planning to massacre any innocents, but I have no memory as to the purpose for which the sign really was intended.

I’ve written about dreams in this blog before (last June, in “Dream a Little Dream“), but this morning I don’t think I’m quite up to a scholarly disquisition. I’m just giving you the particulars, and leaving you to draw your own conclusions.

The control room of this trans-Atlantic behemoth (it was an airborne cruise ship) looked a lot like a laundromat, as all of the zeppelin’s controls were housed in white boxes with knobs and dials, with the occasional large lever alongside — you know the kind, the one that sticks up three or four feet from the floor in spaceships from 1950’s science fiction movies, and never works when you need it to. Once over the ocean, there was little for the crew to do, so we spent much of our time devising ways to amuse ourselves, such as playing shuffleboard in the hallways and mixing up passengers’ laundry.

The “Infinite Monkey Theorem” of 1913-14 states that a monkey hammering away at a keyboard for an infinite length of time will, at some point, purely by accident, manage to place the right letters in the right sequence and recreate “Romeo and Juliet” in its entirety. I sometimes wonder if the human brain works in a similar way — if you tumble enough random bits and pieces around in there for long enough, perhaps it’s inevitable that you will one night produce a dream in which a zeppelin crewmember, while mopping the floor in an outside walkway, will stumble upon a Hello Kitty pocketbook filled with #8 finishing nails.

I should mention that I am prone to somewhat cinematic dreams, and I rather enjoy them. Like stumbling across a box in your mother’s attic, filled with artifacts of your childhood that you had forgotten existed, sometimes wild dreams help to stir up memory, and bring old knowledge into new focus, or throw everyday events into bizarre and unexpected juxtapositions, like the “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella” of the Comte de Lautréamont, in his Chants de Maldoror.

Did you know that the if no one pays any attention to the large molded-plastic warning signs that hang above the debarkation escalator, the lettering gradually melts back into the surface and fades away? Yep. It happens on the Rio to Lisbon zeppelin. I saw it.


Dream a Little Dream.

Last night I dreamt that my family was being studied by a world-famous psychiatrist (the doctor’s first name was Hannah, but that’s all I remember of her identity) and dozens of my relatives had been gathered together for the purpose, almost none of whom I recognized. Even my father — who died some years ago — showed up in a cheap brown suit and took a stroll through the crowd and then wandered back out the way he came, without saying a word to anyone.

Dada artist Hannah Hoch might have provided a model for Doctor Hannah, although I don’t personally recognize anyone in this image.

(Personally, I would have thought the job would have required more than a single psychiatric professional — we were always a bit more like the Simpsons than the Cleavers — but I suppose my dream-insurance didn’t cover that.)

In the middle of a room full of people there was a table covered with documents: books, letters, pictures, and so on; all the odds and ends that a family accumulates over time. One large photo album had pictures of my immediate family in a variety of situations — around the table, in front of the Christmas Tree, at a barbeque — all quite normal, except that the faces were from different photos, sometimes from different ages, cut out in little squares and glued on over the existing versions: the correct faces on each body, simply taken from the other pictures. When I started flipping through the album, Doctor Hannah come over and took it from me, informing me that these materials were only for the family.

When I pointed out that I was, in fact, a member of the family, she backed off — but reluctantly, clearly suspicious, not entirely convinced.

As is often the case with dreams, other things happened that seemed significant in the context of the dream, but confusing.  There were conversations, interactions, such as meeting a little boy who was both a distant cousin and a friend from my own childhood (apparently un-aged), and being rudely snubbed by an angry dark woman who looked like Maria Callas.

Toward the end of the dream, I found myself in conversation with the doctor, and she asked me if I was afraid of ghosts. I told her that I was not afraid, that ghosts were my friends. She then observed that this was perhaps because I was, myself, “the family ghost”.

I woke up about this time, but, needless to say, the dream stayed with me.

.  .  .

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — who, with Sigmund Freud, co-founded the subset of psychiatry they called psychoanalysis — believed that there were layers of images and ideas within us all that represent basic human principles, themes that we all hold in common, regardless of culture or experience, simply by virtue of our shared biology. He called these concepts “archetypes”.

Early in his career Sigmund Freud was fortunate enough to meet the woman of his dreams: she was beautiful, she was intelligent, she was fascinated by his theories, she was clearly destined to be his soul mate. What did he do? He married her dumpy and intellectually-challenged sister, and then just made everyone’s lives miserable. He and Jung parted ways over Freud’s obsession with sex as the root of all human emotion — he felt so strongly about it that when Jung contradicted his theories he would burst into tears, and sometimes faint dead away. A carpenter might find the perfect opportunity to polish his skills by living in a really old house that is in constant need of repair: perhaps the same principle applies.

Whereas Freud traced everything back to some rather gruesome principles of childhood psycho-sexual development, Jung interpreted the behavior of human beings as the expression of our relationships to the internal archetypes. He was fascinated by frameworks such as alchemy and the Tarot, in which experience and interaction are formulated into a complex, but internally consistent, symbolic language, representing our innermost feelings and impulses through highly developed images. Both Freud and Jung saw great value in dreams as a means for the “unconscious” to express itself without being edited or suppressed by our conscious selves, and both organized elaborate systems of interpretation — Freud, typically, relating everything to sex, and Jung searching the dream imagery for evidence of the archetypes, hoping to use these symbols as guides to the underlying mind of the dreamer.

Today, many of those who study such things believe that there is, in fact, no structure to dreaming; that only upon waking do we attempt to drag the tattered bits and pieces of meaningless imagery that may have haunted our sleep into some kind of recognizable narrative. Others believe that dreaming is simply a way for our minds to sort and prioritize the vast accumulation of images and feelings that we experience during our waking hours, filing away important concepts in a sort of underground memory, a river of experience that bubbles up to provide our moments of déjà vu or inspiration, allowing our waking selves to reach beyond the daylight world for the ideas and connections that separate us from cats and cattle and coyotes.

Me, I’ll go with the middle ground: Like everyone else, I’ve found myself in the embarrassing position of telling some story about a past experience — completely sure of my facts — only to be contradicted by someone else who was also present at the time. Memory, clearly, is flawed, even when we’re wide awake: how much more unreliable might it be when we attempt to bridge the gap between waking and sleep?

On the other hand, if I had the conscious ability to assemble the sort of scenarios that I wake up from two or three times a week I’d be in Hollywood, and Johnny Depp would be camped out on my doorstep waiting for a chance at the next screenplay. Something is going on in my skull while I’m snoring into my pillows.

I like dreams: even nightmares can seem like a window into another world, a place where many of the same people live and work and play, but where the rules are different: a stairway can go up or down forever; a room can become larger or smaller from one moment to the next; a ventriloquist’s dummy can chase you down the hallway and out into the front yard, gibbering wildly from that creepy little hinged jaw and waving its disgusting little arms. (Those things should be outlawed. I mean, really.) In our dreams we have the opportunity to live in two different realities, and sometimes we get to take a little something from one to the other.

When I was a boy I dreamed about pirates and giant ants and the Blob. Now I’m thinking I ought to write a movie about the family ghost. Tonight I’m putting a notebook next to my bed: Tim Burton, get out of my way.