I woke up this morning from a series of detailed but strange dreams. The first series of dreams involved my little brother and my mom. I was at the high school I attended in real life. I asked my little brother and mom about a teacher who used to have an annual canoe trip in Minnesota–if he was still there at the school. They said they weren’t sure, and I said “well, you attend the school (to my little brother) and you substitute teach there (to my mom), you should know.” I said it with the conviction that this was so in the present — ie, 2014. Of course, my little brother has been gone for over fifteen years, and I don’t believe my mom continued her substitute teaching at the high school by the time he started there. Except, I was perfectly convinced that both of them were at the school in the present.
When I awoke I began to think that perhaps my insistent dream appearance of school is a metaphor for something else.
I have almost every single night these dreams where I am suddenly realizing that almost the entire semester has passed, and I have simply been negligent in attending my classes, and the important test to take in order to graduate is almost upon me. Sometimes the feeling is one of utter despair, that I’ve missed out on something wonderful that everyone else got to participate in, and other times it’s guilt for not having been a better student.
The next series of dreams involved me trying to get away from a mafia that was actively trying to recruit me. They had surrounded me with their people, and bugged all of my communication devices. I knew that if I simply tried to run away at that moment I would be shot dead. So, I was biding my time to for the perfect opportunity to make my escape. During this period, I met a girl and fell in love with her. She turned out to be the mafia boss’s daughter. I didn’t care because I loved her so much. We were holding hands and the boss came up to me and started talking to me about hand gestures that Italians found offensive. I played it cool and told him the ones I remembered from my days of working at the translation company. He said the classes are about to begin and walked away.
Apparently, both his daughter and I would be together for some of the classes, and then I would have to be taken away to a “special class” for fellows like me who had been recruited to be officers at the top of the organization.
Again, the dream came back around to a kind of school where I needed to go somewhere special to learn a specialized kind of knowledge. My advancement or enlightenment depended upon acquiring this knowledge.
So, I wonder if these dreams are all part of my own insecurities surrounding not having learned everything I need to know about being human, being a man, and being a man of my own culture and time and place, or if these dreams are trying to tell me that I am actually deficient in some area of wisdom and understanding that is beyond my earthly self.
In part, my insecurity that everyone around me knows something I don’t began at an early age. I can remember having this fantasy when I was six and we’d just moved to Missouri where the entire town got together in a secret cave located on the side of a hill that you passed when you were entering the town from Kansas City. I imagined that the townspeople were all well connected with each other, and had known each other for generations. To some degree, this was true. My family was probably one of the first ones to settle there who had a parent that commuted to KCMO for work. This would become more and more common until the time my little brother went to school, where most of his classmates had a parent that commuted to downtown KC.
I can remember that my insecurity simply continued as I passed up on every opportunity to be initiated into little groups and clubs of boys on the playground, and I declined playing sports like soccer and wrestling and t-ball. I remember my utter despair when all of the other boys in my class got to see the sex ed video in sixth grade, but I had to go to a district spelling bee contest because I’d won the spelling bee for our school. Then, it went in freefall. I missed every dance, and didn’t play football. I tried to play little league baseball, and signed up for band and track, but these were kind of nerdy, wimpy ways of being involved socially as a boy learning to become a man.
By the time I left for college (and in later years moving into different workplaces), I was simply unaware of how to get involved with anything. It was no longer a matter of being fearful about joining something, or having an affected disdain for group activity. I was simply clueless. I remember by the time I was 34 and started working at a software company for the first time how a young lady came in and was on a committee to encourage volunteering in the workplace within the first week of starting there, and another fellow was playing on the pickup basketball team every morning the first week that he started there. I was dumbfounded. I had this ill-conceived notion that you had to earn your place in the ranks of these kinds of groups after many years of getting to know the people and having them trust you and then getting a special, highly selective invite– and here were these folks just sauntering in and becoming a part of the social groups and committees at the company.
The invite to join the mafia in the second dream seemed unbearably authoritarian. You have no choice, you must join our group, was the attitude. No matter where you run to, we will find you. This is an especially strong fear that runs through me. There is some precedent for it. The years that I got involved at Ahmis Communications, my first real job after college, it seemed like my boss Karen Winthrop controlled every aspect of my life. We hung out all the time outside of work, and we were going to start a web design business together. At work, we were joined at the hip. It was too much. I felt like I couldn’t go to the bathroom without coming back and having Karen want me to talk to her about it. When you decide to commit to doing something in the community, you have to be prepared to show up at times and places even when you don’t feel like it at all. Volunteering with an organization on a committed basis is not easy at all for someone like me, who is used to being able to decide at the last minute whether or not if he wants to show up at the event.
Now, my inclination is to try to take my paradoxical, push/pull attitude about group joining or lone wolfing and apply it to my politics.
Quite frankly, something doesn’t set well with me about the encroachment of the nanny state. If you don’t like a restaurant because it’s full of cigarette smoke, you don’t have to work there or eat there. Banning cigarette smoking almost everywhere has turned out to not be such a bad thing, though. I get completely nauseous now at the thought of smoking even one more cigarette, and it feels as if my skull wants to crush my eyes when I walk through a casino in Vegas. The nanny state of outlawing smoking has seemed to have a surprisingly nice effect, but at the same time, part of me wonders just how much we have to ban to prevent people from killing each other. I would prefer not to walk into a Chipotle and see a shotgun sitting on the table of the diner next to me, but if a local restaurant wanted to become a like a speakeasy for gun owners and cigarette smokers, more power to them. It’s not for me, and I wouldn’t work there or eat there, but if it’s someone else’s cup of tea, they should be able to drink as much of it as they like.
I can’t stand just about any bureaucratic requirement that comes with being an adult. I hate paying my taxes, not because I don’t believe that at least some of my income should go to the services and protection from the government, it’s just the hassle of the paperwork and messiness of all the rules. I’d rather just pay a fixed fee for being a U.S. citizen, and be done with it. I hated playing sports in high school gym class for the same reason. Basketball seemed to be the worst. There were too many rules that got in the way of simply dribbling the ball and trying to make a basket with it, and trying to prevent the opposing team from doing the same. Rules that seemed to make perfect sense to those who loved the game a lot, but rules that seemed to get in the way of the purity of what the sport could be.
The question of whether or not I’m really free to move about as I please runs around in the back of my mind in an inarticulate sort of way. I can sit here on a Saturday morning, and know that I’m free to listen to whatever I want to on Spotify, and write whatever I like, but if I wanted to just haul off and fly to Tokyo, I would experience a number of limiting factors along the way. One, I would piss off my wife for spending my money recklessly and going without her. Two, I would put myself into more debt than I care to be in, in order to make it happen–unless I wanted to resort to stealing money from someone. Three, I would encounter all of the well-documented bullshit TSA maneuvers to get me through the airport and on the plane. Four, I would hit so many angry pencil-pushers along the way (aside from the TSA bunch) who would be barking orders at me to come over here, no stand over there, no sir, your bag can’t go there, no you have to get in this line, that line is for the very wealthy people who paid extra to stand in that line.
Is this freedom? I suppose it is relative to what my chances of getting to Tokyo would have been if I were a citizen of the Soviet Union in 1954 or one of Nigeria in 2014, or of the U.S. in 1874.
But, it doesn’t feel like an especially strong sort of freedom.
In fact, it seems like most examples of the freedoms I enjoy as an American citizen are what I would call weak freedoms. I’m free to write whatever I like and publish it, because the likelihood that very many people are going to read it and take me seriously and cause a revolution in dismantling the current power structure is quite a small likelihood if it exists at all. At best, I would be like an Alex Jones–taken seriously by a core group of rabid fans, but dismissed by most people as being out of his mind.
What I am really free to do in this life is, in fact, not be hassled too much by other people to fulfill a series of obligations and duties that come with the privilege of being a citizen of this country, this world, this universe. In many other times and places, being a citizen meant being required to go and serve on civic committees and fight in wars. My private time would be extremely limited. To some degree, my time and place is not that different. Now, instead of being a good civic-minded fellow down at the Senate, I am obligated to do my part to keep the economy up and running. The U.S., in terms of its real value and legitimacy for existing as a nation state, is not really a geopolitical entity anymore so much as it is an economic one. I contribute to the well-being of my nation state by maintaining a full-time job, sending a quarter of my earnings back to the nation state’s government itself, and most of the rest of my earnings back into its economy. Keeping the economy alive and well is the civic duty of the citizen of the 21st century.
Of course, most of the roles played by those of us who hold jobs and actively participate as consumers are roles that aren’t conducive to becoming better human beings. If we allow ourselves to remain solely defined by our status as producer/consumer citizens of the U.S. economy, which most of us do no matter what our title or profession is, then we probably don’t grow that much spiritually or intellectually beyond where we left off with such endeavors during our years of high school and college when we felt like it was okay to pursue thinking about thinking on our leisure time. Most of us don’t even question how we feel about it–we seem to think that it is quite okay the way it is–improving our inner selves is a waste of time when there is a game on or a big meal in front of us to devour.
As long as I don’t expect too much in the way of freedoms, I can live pretty happily in the time and place that I live. It’s only when I start having the old yearnings for travel and acquiring more friends, power and wealth, that I get depressed and realize just how free I am not. The freedom my mind has to wander wherever it will is not closely matched at all by what freedoms my waking, physical self has in this world. I can’t fly up from the sofa, out of my house and over to Washington D.C. to poke my head into some inner quorum of dealmaking going on between politicians and their benefactors. I can’t fly back in time to meet the Abstract Expressionists in NYC or the Beats in SF.
The frustration of what is lost by being unable to physically experience something that you can only experience with the mind is the source of all depression, angst, and rage.
The solace that I take in being able to let my mind wander where it will is at times a perfect comfort and other times an utter sham.