“Dreams, if they’re any good, are always a little bit crazy.”—Ray Charles
“I had a dream about you last night. You were holding a pine cone and introducing him as Gerald.”—Nicole McKay
Dreams, what are we to make of them, these convoluted stories and impossible images which stir our minds while we sleep? Sigmund Freud told us they are windows into our subconscious, revealing unconscious desires, a way for people to satisfy urges unacceptable to society. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that dreams are a natural expression of our imagination and use the most straightforward language at our disposal: mythic narratives. Jung did not believe that dreams require interpretation to perform their function, suggesting that dreams are doing the work of integrating our conscious and subconscious lives, a process he called individuation.
In ancient societies, Egypt and Greece among others, dreaming was considered a supernatural communication or a means of divine intervention whose messages could be explained by mystics. The current society pays more attention to people like Harvard University psychiatrists John Hobson and Robert McCarley, who have delivered what they call the Activation-synthesis hypothesis. Hobson describes activation as “the awareness that is normal to an auto-activated brain-mind.” In other words, our dreams occur when there is a stimulation in the brain—specifically in the brain stem—that brings thoughts to our awareness. Synthesis occurs in the forebrain. Hobson and McCarley used synthesis to refer to the brain’s attempt to interpret the random activity and make sense of it. The authors argue that their theory is strong in its ability to account for the bizarre nature of dreams, claiming the random activation of neurons describes how dreams can seem irrelevant and nonsensical. The selective activation of neural circuits leaves out structures such as areas in the prefrontal cortex associated with high-level reasoning, which lets us ignore their craziness and experience them as real.
Whatever dreams are, they are apparently necessary. Several studies have shown the importance of dreams to our health and wellbeing. In one of them, researchers woke subjects just as they were drifting off into REM sleep. Those who were not allowed to dream experienced increased tension, anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, lack of coordination, weight gain and a tendency to hallucinate. In other studies, people who went to sleep with a problem and dreamed often woke up with a solution. Writers so regularly discover breakthroughs in their dreams they keep notebooks or tape recorders at their bedsides to transcribe the phenomenon before it’s forgotten by the light of day. This is all well and good but how do we explain why Bill keeps getting stranded in the same airport in Mumbai or losing his car for the 756th time? It’s beginning to get a little annoying.
The Meaning Of Dreams
If we are to believe the psychologists and sleep scientists, dreams have little meaning, they are just tools to help us cope. I think I would cope just as well if I could just once make that flight from India to The States. I reckon I’ve missed the damn thing about fifty times now despite setting all kinds of Dreamland alarm clocks and even checking in at the Mumbai Airport Hilton, just a hop, skip and jump from the actual tarmac. Something always happens. On the rare occasions when I am not late, there are ticketing irregularities. Or my flightmate mysteriously disappears. Or volcanic ash suddenly appears, grounding all planes. Or the holiday of Diwali has arrived and all 98,566 Mumbai taxi drivers are sleeping it off at their local opium dens. Maybe next time I should be looking at a nice boat trip.
And what about my disappearing cars? How do Hobson and McCarley explain those? In 76 years of wakefulness, I never just misplaced a vehicle. The only one ever stolen was immediately found. Once, at a Florida Turnpike oasis, I will admit to walking out of the men’s room to the parking lot and being astonished to discover my car had vanished. When I rushed inside to report this to the very large lady security guard, she reacted with a minimum of concern. “Try the South side,” she suggested, as if this sort of thing happened all the time. There it was. But if that’s my only indiscretion, why are my dreams holding it against me? Is it fair that night after night I have to trudge through parking lots and turn endless street corners looking for my vehicle? Could I be allowed to find it just once? Apparently not. Does anyone know if they have appeals courts in Dreamland?
Some people claim to be experts in the interpretation of dreams. Maybe I should enlist one. Lauri Loewenberg, “Dream Expert and Author” offers her internet assistance. Lauri, who wants you to know she has 9,265 Twitter followers, makes it easy—you merely have to provide a brief description of your troublesome dream. I just did this and Lauri promptly wrote back. “If your car is stolen,” she advised, “then you may be feeling directionless in your life or you may be having a difficult time making a decision, feeling unsure what direction to take.” Lauri, much as I appreciate the fast reply, I think you may be a little off base here. I’m 76 years old. How many directions are there left to go in? I can’t go much further South and I’m scared to death to go East and run the risk of winding up in Mumbai again. But I do appreciate you trying.
Psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber thinks it’s important we learn to analyze our own dreams. Jeffrey is no babe in the woods at this business, having studied Global Dream Mythology at Harvard University and Jungian Dream Interpretation at the Jung Institute in Zurich. I might have gone to Harvard if I knew they offered this kind of stuff.
Sumber says “Dreaming is non-essential when it comes to survival as a body but IS essential with regard to our development and evolution as metaphysical beings.” Dreams, he assures us, let us play out painful or puzzling emotions or experiences in a safe place (like the Mumbai airport). “Dreams are the bridge that allows movement back and forth between what we know and what we think we know. Dream analysis is a key component in the process of becoming whole as a person. Dreams reveal our deepest desires and deepest wounds.” Ergo, analyzing your dreams helps you gain a deeper understanding of yourself. For instance, Bill understands he is never ever going to India.
How Do We Do It?
Sumber says there are several guidelines that can help you in understanding your dreams. The first and most important is “taking notes, even a few sentences that encapsulate the dream, literally drawing the content of the unconscious out into the realm of the concrete.”
So, first keep a journal by your bed. If you think you don’t dream or can’t remember your dreams, just write “no dream to record” every morning. Jeffrey assures us that within two weeks of this process, everyone will begin to remember their dreams. “In fact, you might open the floodgates.”
Next, ask yourself if you were scared, angry, remorseful, etc. Were those feelings still present the morning after? How comfortable were you with those feelings? Jung referred to dreams as a “feeling-toned complex of ideas.” In other words, according to Sumber, “We are always being called by our unconscious selves to feel into our ideas, thoughts and actions so as to gain a deeper sense of who we are and where we are going in our lives.”
Sumber says to put down the dream dictionaries that offer specific meanings for objects. “While there may be a trace of collective meaning for universal symbols that do have some bearing on our internal analysis and growth, I am far more interested in where the dreamer goes with the symbol and what the dreamer connects to as a result of the dream. I believe we are all unique and carry very personal histories that impact the symbols, objects, tastes and smells that we associate with a particular dream story or event.” In other words, he doesn’t know why I can’t find my car either.
Here are some questions Jeffrey Sumber would like you to ask yourself: “Am I alone with my oatmeal? Am I inside or on a veranda? Are the oats organic? Overcooked? Is there a horse nearby? How do I feel about the oats? What do oats typically symbolize for me? Are there any memories that I can tie to eating oatmeal? When was the first time I remember eating oatmeal for breakfast? How did my mother make oatmeal and do I make it the same way as an adult.”
Wait a minute. Is there a horse nearby?
The Wearin’ O’ The Green
We’ve arrived at Saint Patrick’s Day once more, 24 hours when everyone is Irish, when the big parade follows the green line down Fifth Avenue and the Chicago River endures 45 pounds of green vegetable dye, coloring the water between Columbus and Wacker drives. It’s a merry old time as festive Harps reach into the recesses of their closets for long-abandoned green apparel and march to the pubs for a taste of Jameson Irish Whiskey. Not that Irishmen don’t expect it, but that Jameson Whiskey will get you in a lot of trouble.
St. Patty’s Day was Drinking Day at the Subterranean Circus. I have never been much of a sot but I’ll have to admit to being an enthusiastic participant in this annual merrymaking. On one particular SPD evening in the early 1980s, employees Rose Coward, Ricky Childs and myself were minding the store and downing the grog when three twentyish girls came bouncing in. One of them, an average looking lassie with jet-black short hair, several tatoos and a lip ring nodded as she passed by. “She looks dangerous,” testified the often-fretful Ricky. “I think I’ll let YOU wait on her.”
I discovered her name was Carly. If she’d been born a boy, her biker-father would have named her Harley, she said, and Carly was a close as he could get. Carly was not beautiful but she was attractive in a menacing sort of way. The whiskey was having its way with me and it was not long before I was complimenting Carly’s many assets with my usual Irish charm. Rose rolled her eyes and Ricky watched with great anticipation. If this was not love at first sight, it would have to do. Before long, we unlocked the doors to the now-closed Silver City and passed on over to the other side. In more ways than one. The next thing I remember is Carly saying, “Wow, I needed that!” and returning to the Circus, where Ricky was pacing back and forth like one of those ducks at the shooting gallery. Rose, elbow on the counter, head in hand, looked pained. If the expression “Get a room” had been invented by then, she’d have beaten me over the head with it. Later, Rose simply said, “She’ll be back, you know.”
And Carly was, a few days later, replete with a come-hither look and a smile. Rose grinned her evil grin at me and Ricky fled to the bathroom. I made polite conversation and she eventually left. The second time she returned, I warmly took her aside and explained the unfortunate consequences often wrought by Jameson’s Irish Whiskey and apologized for my boorish behavior, which Carly didn’t seem to consider all that wretched. Now let me say at this point that dismissing women out of hand is not an implement to be found in my toolbox. Rather than hurt a girl’s feelings, I’d prefer to take a rocket ship to Mars and toil in the grunion fields for twenty years. If girlfriends didn’t leave of their own volition, they’d be piled high in my backyard, but fortunately for everybody they have more sense than I do.
On a subsequent St. Patrick’s Day episode, Rose, lofty on the sauce, finally came to an important life decision. “I’m going to get a boob job,” she decided. “And I won’t be cute about it like some people who pretend they grew giant tits overnight. I’m going to put an announcement in tomorrow’s newspaper.”
Small-breasted or not, Rose was an attractive girl, bright, lean and brassy. She had been in an ultimately unproductive 8-year relationship and now was looking to get married, have kids. I suggested a moderate size increase would best suit her body. “I’m getting the biggest honkers that they can hang on there,” she said, unconvinced, taking another belt of Jameson’s. “Guys like Clyde (her current target) want the big girls.” I pointed out that Clyde was basically a dope. “Look at Patty Bert (another Circus girl)—small breasts, big smile, nice long hair. Graceful as a deer when she runs and throws a baseball like a center-fielder. What more could a guy want?” Rose advised that Clyde was a fisherman rather than a baseball fan. I had to admit I had no idea what kind of girls fishermen preferred, though I imagined patience and a predilection for sunscreen might be involved. Rose got the XL implants, married Clyde, had kids and motored on. The marriage was ultimately unsuccessful, but she tried again and did better the second time with a non-fisherman. Last I heard, she was off the sauce. On the day of the bigger bust decision, I got a little oversaturated and went home early, immediately falling asleep. Sometime after midnight, I got a call from Rose. “I just want to tell you I’m home safely and I’m sick as a dog,” she wailed. “But I’m still getting giant tits. Oh yeah--- and I’m never working with you on Saint Patrick’s Day again!”
Ah, faith and begorrah! There’s nothin’ quite like a feisty semi-Irish lass!
That’s all, you Irishmen for a day….