Monthly Archives: July 2009

"Tie Me Kangaroo Down"

This Rolf Harris song was a big hit in the UK in 1960, as well as my personal anthem [since by then I had figured out that I was a cognitive ‘Roo, who needed to “rein myself in” during school hours]. Can’t resist quoting the timely [and prescient] first verse: “Watch me wallabies feed, mate…they’re a dangerous breed, mate.” Those Tasmanian poppy farmers [well, their parents] had been warned.

This is Dusk, a 16hh QuarterHorse [8″ shorter than Owen]: failed race horse [didn’t like being loaded into the starting gate], successful “A” Circuit Hunter/Jumper [though how they ever got her into a horse-trailer to haul her to all those shows is anybody’s guess], and set in her ways, by the time we owned her. If you’re interested in her pedigree, her sire was “Mr. Clabberdoo” and her dam was…a number. [I mean, literally–no name, just a number.] So claustrophobic was “Miss Clabberdoo” [our barn name for her, when she was being stubborn], that she often refused to come in from turn-out [in a boring, dirt–not gorgeous grass–paddock], to her lovely, warm [in winter] or cool [in summer] stall to eat her delicious food…until dusk. Stable lads galore would humiliate themselves by saying, “Oh, you guys just don’t know how to wrangle a QuarterHorse. I’ll get her in, in no time,” only to spend a fruitless hour coaxing, then chasing, then cursing this otherwise “nice” horse [a term of art that means talented]. Think of the intrusion [total waste of time and Therbligs] her silliness caused everyone at the barn. I finally figured out how to outfox her, based on the common practice of lungeing a feisty horse [having it run in circles, in alternate directions, bucking at will, on a long leash-type thingy called a lungeline] to dissipate all that pent-up recalcitrance. I would walk to the center of Dusk’s paddock and mime the actions of having her on a lungeline, schmizing her into cantering clockwise in a big circle, then counter-clockwise, until she would get tired, walk over to me, nuzzle my neck, and allow me to clip on a short leadline and walk her inside. [This could take up to 15 minutes, but it always worked.]

So, that is how you tie your Kangaroo down, mate. At a physical level, most cognitive ‘Roos are restless creatures, who need to exhaust themselves with a spot of aerobic activity, before they can “buckle down” to the task assigned by The Man. Sometimes [not always] fear and loathing of confined spaces has to do with the loss of liberty to “go walkabout.” If the legs can’t go, at least the mind is free to wander. In my culture, this is called being “away wit’ da Fairies.” It is not (or wasn’t, when I were a lass) pathologized–bemoaned, yes; rebuked, even–but mostly regarded as an inconvenient foible, to be outgrown or outfoxed. In England I was lucky enough to live in a stone-cold house [no central heating], so that a hot, strong cup of tea was a welcome part of breakfast. Then my first class of the day was Physical Training, where we scampered around a cinder track [usually in the fog] until exhausted. What a perfect way for a Kangaroo to get ready to “buckle down” and get schooled. To this day, I begin [almost] every morning with a 50-minute aerobic workout, followed by a strong cup of tea. To quote my younger daughter, it helps me to “linger at the gates” (of the Fairies’ realm), without actually slipping away.

So, are you Clydesdales getting any of this? Like Dusk, cognitive ‘Roos resist time and space constraints. But they can learn to become their own “wranglers,” by putting themselves on a virtual lungeline and getting all the bucking [of the system] out of their system [also known as “doing the Wolf-work” of figuring out what’s likely to get up their nose about acting like a biddable beast of burden], before reining themselves in for long enough to get a productive day’s work done. Robert Frost had a series of exchanges with Carl Sandberg, who wanted Frost to give up the constraints of rhyme and meter, and join their contemporaries in writing verse libre. Frost remarked, famously, that it would be “like playing tennis without a net.” Less famously, he added, “True freedom is moving easily in your harness.”

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Filed under born to run, ethology, gets right up my nose, non-linear thinking, therbligs, understanding shenanigans

Costume Dramas & Playing Against Type

Cheer up, hippophobes (or others simply missing Lili). She’ll be back in the next posting. Meanwhile, meet my late Uncle Dick’s Arab gelding, “Burrack.” In 1976, just as I was being measured for my Naval Officer’s uniforms by a skeptical little tailor at the Ft. Hamilton induction center in NYC [“They’re letting you in? With a back like that?”], Burrack and Uncle Dick were suiting up to re-enact battles from the 17th Century English Civil Wars between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. Alas, although Uncle Dick’s “type” [as in “know it and love it”] was completely Cavalier, The Sealed Knot re-enactors only had an opening for a Roundhead. Not to worry. Before he joined the RAF during WW II, Uncle Dick had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, whose philosophy of acting is anything but Method. “Get your costume and make-up right, and the character will follow,” could be their motto. So, instead of the long, curly locks and frilly collars worn by the followers of King Charles I, Dick donned an early-Beatles-puddingbowl-style wig and the austere, Puritan gear of a Roundhead, and played (very convincingly) against type.

But what about poor little Burrack? Like most Arabs, he is only 15hh high (4″ shorter than Dusk), and Uncle Dick (like my elder daughter) was over 6′ tall. [Just look at my feet dangling below his belly, and imagine how absurdly incongruous Dick might have looked on his trusty steed.] Well, he didn’t. Years before joining “Oliver’s Army,” Dick & Burrack were regular winners at Dressage events all over England, beating out the statuesque Warmbloods and their riders. I was never lucky enough to attend one of their horse shows (although I did see them do a battle re-enactment); but my guess is that once Dick-the-actor put on his Dressage “costume,” he assumed the persona of a Lippizaner rider and “sold it” to the judges and on-lookers, who forgot to notice Burrack’s “sportsmodel” size.

Well, that’s what I did for my 6 years on active duty in the Navy–put on a “costume” and “sold” the Clydesdale persona to my masters. [Incidentally, despite my bespoke tailor’s dismay at my scoliotic back, he made me the most flattering, perfectly-fitting jackets, skirts and slacks that I’ve ever worn. Hence the Cockney joke: “I’ve got a hunch…” “Not to worry. I know a good tailor.”] Fortunately, as a shore-bound member of the Staff Corps, unless I was the Officer of the Watch (about every two weeks), I was allowed to go home at night, take off my uniform, and resume Kangaroo status. In 1970s Annapolis, military personnel were widely despised by the townsfolk; and I had insults [and objects] hurled at me, while wearing my “Blues.” If I returned 15 minutes later in my civvies, with my long curly locks down [no longer up in the regulation bun], the same snide people would greet me cordially, apparently not making the connection between my two personae.

My biggest challenge was to try to maintain my Clydesdale-ness when directing Midshipman plays in the evenings, since often I and they had changed out of uniform for rehearsals. I didn’t always succeed; and my inner ‘Roo would usually emerge in tandem with my Wolf, when I was angry about how the show was coming along. Of course, the Mids were delighted, since many of them were crypto-‘Roos, too, just trying to “maintain” until graduation. My ignoble excuse, when one of my ‘Roo/Wolf outbursts was overheard by a higher-ranking Clydesdale skulking in the back of the auditorium, was “I’m from New York.” [My beloved Masqueraders were quick studies, and soon would say it on my behalf, if they spotted the Clydesdale before me: “She’s from New York, sir.”]

When our younger daughter was called out for ‘Roo-related shenanigans at school [about which we were then called up], we would threaten her [idly]: “If you don’t buckle down, we’re going to send you to a plaid-skirt school!” In Detroit, private schools were too expensive, and parochial schools were too crowded. Ironically, when we moved to Annapolis, she chose to spend most of her high school years “in uniform,” and graduated from a plaid-skirt school. For most of us ‘Roos, putting on the “costume” of a Clydesdale is like strapping on a (safety) harness that we have chosen to wear, which is just restrictive enough to remind us to “keep on the straight & narrow” while it’s on, though we look forward to that moment of liberty, when we can “throw over the traces,” let our hair down, and zig [or zag] again. The better an actor you are, the more convincingly you can play against type; but it’s easier to get into [and maintain] character, when you’re performing in a costume drama.

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Filed under non-linear thinking, semiotics, sharks and jets, understanding shenanigans

Meaner Than a Junkyard Dog

Not Lili (she said, Metalingually). Idiots (mostly guys, but not always) who buy what is currently called a “Status Weapon” (a Pitbull or similar breed of dog), and then realize that it is high maintenance, needs lots of training & exercise, needs a pack leader to follow or it will freelance…and so–emotionally or physically–they abandon the dog. In a 12-hour interval, I heard 2 news stories about this, and had one personal experience of the phenomenon. On the way to work, I heard an NPR report [so it must be true] on the citizens of Fresno, CA–fruit & veg growing capital of the country–who are the most prone of any city in the USA to obesity & Type II Diabetes. How come? The report boiled it down to two reasons. The fruit & veg are all shipped out of Fresno, because of a city ordinance against Farmers’ Markets (hence a less healthy diet); AND no one dares to walk outside in Fresno anymore, because it’s overrun with packs of (gang-acquired, then abandoned) Pitbulls.

Then–like a made-for-television movie–as I pulled into the parking lot at work, a loose Pitbull came over to greet me as I got out of my car. He had a collar on, but no apparent owner supervising him. I reflexively gave him some Japanese commands, got the Robert de Niro quizzical head-tilt, and switched to hand signals and English. I could get him to “heel” for a few steps, but then he would leave me and head back towards the road. What was I planning to do with him, even if he had followed me all the way to the building? Put Lili’s leash on him and bring him inside? Tether him outside the building and hope his owner would retrieve him? Tell you what I was not planning to do–call Animal Control. I had done this about a month ago, for a loose dog holding up traffic in both directions on the hilly, twisting road near my home; and I was so humiliated by the cynical tone of the questions they asked me [“And why, exactly, are you reporting this?”] that I made a Note to Self : “Let canine ‘Kitty Genoveses’ fend for themselves in this county.” Hours later when I left work, the parking lot Pitbull had escalated to holding up traffic on a main thoroughfare, during rush hour. I rationalized that shortly one of the many cop cars that patrol that road would encounter him, and handle the situation. On my drive home, BBC news did a long piece on the growing problem of dogs acquired as “Status Weapons” in the UK, with an audio vignette of policemen approaching such a dog, armed with fire extinguishers, and a dog handler wearing the afore-mentioned “bite-me” padded suit.

This is the first post where I consider the power of vicarious pain & suffering to provoke anger. If I really wanted to connect all the dots, I could probably make it be all about Lili & me: humiliation that strangers will perceive her as my ill-advised “Status Weapon”; fear that just her breed will provoke others to treat her and me like criminals. But–apart from that one lady & her dog in the school yard some months ago–Lili and I have received nothing but positive feedback on our sorties. She was even addressed as “Sweetie-pie,” by the guy who maintains the cross-country trail and coaches the high school team, this week.

So, there you have it: a possible distinction between a human’s amygdalar arousal, and a dog’s. As Bill Clinton might put it, we “feel their pain,” and it makes us angry, and we wonder what to do for the best; whereas when a dog senses a human’s pain, it has only to decide, “Hmm. Should I go over and lick him, or bite him, or should I just keep walking?”

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Filed under leading a pack, semiotics, vicarious trauma


(Quoted from The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1934 ed.) “[Italian: “light-dark”] noun: Treatment of light & shade in painting; light & shade effects in nature; variation, relief, handling of transitions, use of contrast, in literature, etc. adjective: half-revealed.”

On certain Projective [as opposed to Objective] psychological tests–where there supposedly aren’t any “right or wrong” answers, only “revealing” ones–the subject’s use of chiaroscuro [attention to the shading of an inkblot or an ambiguous drawing] has been interpreted in various ways, over the decades. The earliest developers of such tests [seeming to regard their own free associations to “light & dark” imagery as the norm] came up with: “anxiety about shadowy situations,” “fear of the dark,” and “hypervigilance.” I’m sure Carravaggio and his buddies in the artistic school of tenebrism would be amused to know that they were all Nervous Nellies.

By the time I was in grad school, the received wisdom was that use of chiaroscuro–a tendency to go beyond Black & White perceptions of an ambiguous situation, and instead to take into consideration the nuanced gray areas–reflected a capacity for abstract reasoning and empathy.

Like most things in psychology and real life, it could be both, ya know. Lili is most likely to react with alarm to suspected “intruders into her territory” when the light is tenebrous–at dawn & dusk. Like the lads in the lamppost anecdote, most scientific researchers trope to the light, rather than trolling through the dark alleys of half-revealed clues–even if that’s where the keys to understanding emotions and behavior lie. If we can be brave enough to tolerate the tenebrous subjunctive mood–“Well, I can’t say for sure, but it might be this…”–we can often stumble upon a useful truth.

Something seems to be troubling you. You are snapping at others, and shedding more tears than usual, and what a headache you just got! Oy, veh! Could you maybe be angry at someone or some situation? A little something up your nose? Rather than assume you are coming down with a Clinical Depression or “The Dreadful Lurgy” [aka the ‘flu], why not try a little poking around in the shadows of you mind, to see if you can get some instant relief? The “Always? Not always!” prof I told you about had a simple remedy for sudden-onset headache. “Say the name of the guy whose head you want to bash in!” [“Always a guy? Not always.”] Either the headache will go away right then, or you may be having an intra-cranial event. Are you willing to try it, before setting off for the ER? Maybe you could try it on the way. Just to see.

My favorite source of humor on weekday mornings is The Chris Moyles Show on BBC Radio One. The other day Chris was mildly mocking their light-weight, female sports reporter, who had apparently gotten “high as a kite” on one glass of wine at a Karaoke event they were hosting in a provincial pub. “When Carrie’s drunk, she could pick a fight with her own shadow: ‘Stop following me around, and falling at my feet!'”

Feel free to use it. And the possible headache cure, as well.

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Filed under aggression happens, black and white thinking, gets right up my nose, semiotics

"Gotta split."

Remember the Object Relations Theorists? (No? Well, I guess it’s a case of “Out of sight, out of mind.”) These guys cannot be accused of “circling the lamppost” to discover the whys and wherefores of human behavior–they go way back into the “dark alley.” Some, like the Kleinians, go back up the birth canal, to “study” a baby’s in utero experience. [How? By doing Regression Therapy with grown-ups, to help them “recall” these early times.] The Beauty Part? Who could ever disprove such personal, pre-verbal memories? [A twin, I suppose. There’s a dissertation topic, there.]

Others observe actual babies–tracking their eye movements, their facial expressions, the various vocalizations they make–not unlike ethologists’ studies of other primates, dogs, rats, or wolves. In both kinds of research, there is alot of inference going on–alot of projection of the observer’s thoughts & feelings onto the subjects under investigation. Don’t you just bet? So, caveat legens.

You are an infant, lying in your crib in your nursery, down the hall from your parents’ room. [This is in 1940s America or Western Europe. That’s how it was back then. None of your Family Bed sleeping arrangements, except for the very poor.] You have already cried several times, and your Good Mother has shown up, to do the needful–feed you, change you, rock you back to sleep, whatever. The last time you cried, however, your Bad Mother showed up–with lightening bolts coming out of her head! That was scary! [Fear] Now, you need Room Service again. How can you possibly risk the reappearance of Bad Mother? Maybe you’ll just try to hold out a little longer, but Oy, veh! The pain & suffering you’re enduring! It shouldn’t happen to a dog! So you develop a Las Vegas philosophy: “Life is a crap-shoot. It’s even money each time, whether Good Mother or Bad Mother will show up. I’m feeling lucky, so here goes. ‘Baby needs new shoes!'” This early defense mechanism, wherein necessary-but-sometimes-angry-people are split into two people [one Good, one Bad], is called Splitting.

In the best of all possible childhoods, more often Good Mother shows up, than Bad Mother; so that by the time the kid is a toddler, he is brave enough to do a little research of his own. What if, while he’s hanging out with Good Mother, he reaches up and tries to twist her lips off? Unless she has read too many books on child rearing forbidding her ever to say a discouraging word to her child, she will eventually–having endured her limit of pain & suffering at the hands of her beloved offspring–turn into Bad Mother, right before the toddler’s very eyes, and tell him to “Knock it off!” If she believes this mild rebuke will scar him for life, she may try to hang in there and display the patience of a saint. This makes the toddler think, “It’s no use. I’ll have to inflict more pain,”which he will then do, in the name of research. On the other hand, if the books mother has read suggest giving the toddler [and herself] a Time Out, and she flees the room to compose herself, when she re-enters as Good Mother, the toddler will be none the wiser; and he will take longer to give up the defense of splitting. In the best case scenario, Bad Mother stays onscreen with the kid and allows him to charm her back into Good Mother, by telling her “Sorry,” gently patting her aching lips, and so on. Variations on this experiment must be repeated daily for about a year, for the kid to “get” that Mother is “two, two, two Moms in one” [sometimes in a good mood, sometimes in an angry mood]. In the worst case scenario, if Bad Mother appearances far outnumber Good Mother ones, the kid will never have the courage to try the lip-twisting experiment, and so will have to keep the primitive defense of splitting, with everyone he encounters.

This rather far-fetched theory became plausible to me with my first child case @ the Psychological Counseling Center @ Columbia. A 5-year-old girl I’ll call “Sonya” kept complaining to me that I had just ignored her in the corridor, before each session in the playroom. Reluctantly, I came to realize that she was making the same “mistake” my boyfriend [another grad student in our class of 12] had–to find me interchangeable with the only other shicksa in our year, Grace. In the interests of psychotherapeutic progress, I persuaded Grace to stand beside me in the corridor, for “Sonya” to compare & contrast us, saying stuff like, “See? Grace wears Gloria Steinem glasses, and I don’t. She’s wearing corduroys and I’m wearing a long skirt. See?” Then “Sonya” and I went to the playroom, where I expected to experience the joys of a child who had given up splitting. “That was so cool, how you stood beside yourself like that!” she said. [It’s not a one-trial learning kind of thing.]

Individuals whose childhood prevented them from doing the “terrible twos” research necessary to integrate the Two Faces of Mother into one person–capable of both positive and negative emotions–are those with a tendency for Black & White thinking. [Very little chiaroscuro on their projective test answers.] They tend to regard someone new that they meet [especially a potential Significant Other] as “Perfect,” right up until the first time that the person puts a foot wrong–at which point they become an “Evil Doer.” Do you see where I’m going with this? Human beings are not either Perfect or Evil Doers. They’re light & shadow, a little of both. Just like Dear Old Mom.

By the way, many authors of books on dog training have characterized the emotional make-up of a dog as “part wolf, and part toddler.” A little of both.

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Filed under black and white thinking, ethology, magical thinking, object relations theory

"Ne Me Quitte Pas"

This song, from the musical review Jacques Brel Is Alive & Well & Living in Paris, was assigned to my flatmate & drama school classmate, Helen, to perform in our Off Off Broadway showcase production. Her boyfriend, Drew, found this hilarious: “You’re singing a Neil Diamond hit?” [It had been, under the title, “If You Go Away.”] We’ll get into what was lost in translation, anon. Macho Drew got “The Dove,” [a rather girly anti-war song]; and I got “Amsterdam” [in which I portrayed a drunken, jilted sailor–drawing upon my Navy childhood for verisimilitude]. We were all “playing against type.”

[Now, back to Sunday in the park with Lili.] Kids! No sooner have they firmly grasped that Mother is not a set of identical twins (a Good one & an Evil one)–but rather a woman of many moods (not all of them angelic)–than all you see is the back of them! [Thus, the French version of the Brel song: “Don’t leave me.”] My favorite New Yorker cartoonist, William Haefeli, who draws hatchet-faced urban sophisticates expressing interpersonal ambivalence, recently gave us 3 women @ Starbucks, one looking at her cellphone: “Let me see what my mother wants–aside from attention.”

As they say in the City (when you’re kvetching about your age), “Consider the alternative.” [The alternative, in this discussion, to the Empty Nest Syndrome, let me clarify, Metalingually.] In these grim economic times, some kids never get to check out of Mom’s Place, or they check back in, after an Existential Smack in the Snout [aka job loss], as “Boomerang” kids. [Research topic: “Do more ‘Kangaroos’ end up as Boomerang kids, than ‘Clydesdales’ do?” Too soon to tell. They’ve only just been identified as a demographic.]

Although countless songs have been written about longing for the absent Loved One [the kid, the partner, the pet…”Had an old dog and his name was ‘Blue.'”], we students of musical theatre learned some obscure but nifty ditties about the other half of the ambivalence–the Too Close for Comfort genre–one of the best being, “This Plum Is Too Ripe” from The Fantasticks. [You could look it up.]

Remember the post “The Lone Wolf,” which posed the conundrum, “Would you rather be smothered by your mother’s micro-management, or Erased from the Blackboard of Her Heart (and her will)? ” [Talk about obscure ditties, a college friend and I used to kill time in long choir rehearsals by inventing Country & Western song titles, and fobbing them off as real on supposed aficionados, who would brag, “Yep. Got that one on my shelf back home.” Our most successful offering was “Ah’m’o ‘Rase You from thuh Blackboard of Mah Heart.”] What most people crave is neither extreme [In-your-face-ness or Never-darken-my-door-ness], but a Tango, a dance number, a mutually-agreed-upon to-ing & fro-ing between intimacy & space. [As in “I just need my…”] How ironic [Poetic?], that a wildly successful social networking site–designed to bring people together–is called MySpace. [Picture another Haefeli scenario, in which the re-clothing lady reassures the still-unclothed gent in the bed: “If I were sleeping with other men, would I waste my time sleeping with you?”]

In NYC [at least, back in the day], these “dance routines” were hammered out in coffeeshops throughout the city, using the opening gambit, “So, whadda we got here?” [As in Woody Allen movies, if fellow diners can overhear the conversation, they are permitted (expected) to kibitz.] In my ‘hood, the West 70s, actual dance routines for actual musicals were hammered out in the dairy aisle of the pre-Fairway grocery store in the Ansonia Hotel. [Talk about tap-dancing around a tricky topic! The Ansonia’s downstairs venue, The Continental Baths, was the original social networking site. Bette Midler got her start there. Look it up, already.]

So, here’s the point. Although he was Belgian, Jacques Brel wrote & sang in French, where the subjunctive mood is considered cowardly: “If you (were to) go away…(then I would be so sad).” Non! Be brave! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Just blurt out how you really feel: “Don’t go away!” Risk humiliation, already!

The other party still might go away, of course. Back in the day, they would offer you the parting valediction, “Gotta split.”

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Filed under ambivalence, object relations theory

Glienicke Breucke: "Bridge of Spies"

Hands up, if you remember the Cold War…or have read any spy novels by John Le Carre or Len Deighton…or maybe saw the movie Funeral in Berlin, starring Michael Caine. In fact and fiction, the little bridge, spanning the Havel River between Potsdam & Berlin, has been the venue for several spy swaps between the Soviet Union and the US, under cloak of darkness. First, Gary Powers, the downed U-2 pilot [no, not part of the Irish band, you Young Ones], in 1962. [Followed by the fictional “Harry Palmer” in 1966.] Then in 1985 the US got back 23 agents in exchange for 4 Soviet agents [such a deal!]; and finally, a 4 (of ours) for 5 (of theirs) swap in 1986.

If you keep in mind that these exchanges happened at night, between warring factions, the metaphor I’m about to lay on you will work better. As a Young One, myself, in the UK of 1960, I used to fall asleep listening to Radio Luxembourg play the latest English & American hit tunes…only to wake up with a shriek @ midnight, when the station switched over to broadcasting Voice of America “information,” only to be promptly and cacophonously jammed by transmitters in the USSR. What a racket! What a rude awakening! What an apt analogy for Freud’s theory of the interpretation of dreams!

Initially, he thought the purpose of dreams was two-fold. They serve to preserve sleep. C’mon, admit it. Have you never concocted an elaborate dream which “accounts” for the sound of your alarm clock, transforming it into something else entirely, just to allow you a bit more shut-eye? Secondly [pace Walt Disney], Freud opined that “A dream is a wish your heart makes, when you’re fast asleep.” His example of this is the sad story of a man whose child has died, for whom he is now sitting shivah. He falls asleep and dreams that he and his child are walking together through a field, with the warm sun beating down on them…until finally, the smell of burning cloth intrudes on his reverie, and he wakes up, to discover that a candle has fallen over onto the dead child’s bedding and set it on fire. While it lasted, this Restoration dream fulfilled the wish that his child had not died; and, for a time, it “accounted” for the heat & light of the fire [transforming it into a sunny day], thereby postponing the mourning father’s rude awakening.

“Oh, really?” said the skeptics of his time, “Do you mean to tell me that the nightmare I had last night was a wish?” Stand by for a large loophole. The language of dreams is Primary Process (more of an Indie film than a conventional Disney narrative); and the way you express “not” in a dream is to begin a scene and then “yell ‘Cut!'” before its logical conclusion. Always? Not always. Just when the dream makes more sense as a wish, with a “not” thrown in.

Enough quibbling, already. Let’s cut to the chase [scene]. There is an “Iron Curtain” between the Unconscious [where dreams are produced] and the Conscious [where they are shown, shared with friends, underappreaciated…]. Like the Soviets who jammed the Voice of America signal, there is (in most individuals) an intra-psychic “censor,” whose job it is to filter, spin, and otherwise obfuscate the message from the Unconscious. How come? Because the censor thinks “The Conscious can’t handle the truth!” Maybe the truth is inconvenient to the current regime. It might incite the dreamer to challenge the status quo, rock the boat, do something wild & crazy. The more “buttoned-down” an individual, the more powerful his censor is; and fewer of his dreams make it across the Glienicke bridge.

Here’s where the “tradecraft”–the cloak & dagger passing of secrets, as described in the novels of le Carre & Deighton–comes in. The message has a better chance of slipping past the censor if it is encrypted. Freud described two common forms of encryption: displacement & condensation. In dreams, actors rarely appear as themselves [except, like Hitchcock, for brief cameos]. So where do the characters come from? And, for that matter, where do the plotlines come from? Often, from current events, mass media, and the dreamer’s daily routine. Freud called this Day Residue. In his dream decoding algorithm, Day Residue is “subtracted” from the Manifest Content of the dream; and the remaining images (especially the odd ones) are assumed to be displacements or condensations of two (or more) images, which need to be deconstructed, for the dream’s Latent Content to be discovered. Got all that?

Let’s use a dream I had in graduate school, to practice decryption. “I have just come out of the 72nd Street subway station and am waiting to cross to the East, but there is traffic from both Broadway & Amsterdam Avenue. I don’t have time to wait for a ‘walk’ sign, so I intend to jay-walk, when there is a lull in traffic. Here comes a furry limousine, moving very slowly. I could definitely dart across in front of it…but I feel the need to reach out and touch it as it passes by.”

Day residue: That’s my real-life subway stop, my etoile of streets to cross, and my typical late-for-a-very-important-date mindset. What’s left, if we take that away?

Odd image: “Furry limousine, moving very slowly.” My free association: “Looked like a Cadillac. Hate them! Make me carsick. Grandparents always drove them. Why furry? This is Springtime. Who wears fur in the Spring? My maternal grandmother wears those weasels biting each other around her neck, even in mild weather. Why moving slowly? Like a hearse? ‘Reach out, reach out and touch someone’ is the current jingle for Bell long distance telephone.”

Latent content: I wish to call my grandmother, before she dies.

“BFD!” I hear you say. But, for complex tribal and power subtext reasons, I had been estranged from my grandmother for about 5 years. Still, having deconstructed a possible meaning for the dream, I went ahead and enacted the “latent wish,” and called her. [She mistook me for my sister, and mentioned she was feeling her end was nye; but when she realized she was talking to me, she back-peddled and hung up.] And, verily, she died later that week. No, I didn’t cause her death, or even really predict it. [She was in her 80s, after all.] I did allow a coded message from my Unconscious to affect my behavior regarding her; and I am very grateful that I did.

Next time you remember one of your dreams, why not see if you can decode it? You are not obliged to enact every “wish your heart makes”; but dreamwork (like wolf-work) often provides valuable “inside information,” to those brave enough to undertake it.

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Filed under altered states, Freud meant..., power subtext, secret code, semiotics