In a 1-minute video, circulated in the usual ways, a swarthy outdoorsy man with lots of dark wavy hair is holding a black wolf puppy, about 3 or 4 weeks old, probably being raised in captivity. The man explains briefly that movements in the pup’s ears have indicated that the ears are now open and functioning, so it’s a good time to begin teaching him his language. The man proceeds to howl. His lips don’t even appear to be open at all.
It was the most lifelike human wolf howl I’d ever heard. Tommy, my Golden retriever, got up from his nap and came to stand beside me, ears cocked toward the computer. Seldom does he ever show any interest in audio from the computer, unless I’m playing a dog-show video that contains my voice giving him his commands. I was watching both Tommy and the wolf pup. The pup’s head motions were jerky at first. Canine young are born with eyes and ears sealed, both unsealing at around 9 to 11 days old. The ears open when they are ready to work and the brain is developed enough to receive the signals, but a pup’s new eyes won’t focus or follow as well as they will a week, even two weeks later. Yet it didn’t take very many of the man’s howls before the pup had turned his head and fixed a stare on the man’s mouth. All his jerky puppy motions stopped. At the video’s 38th second, the little pup threw his head back and joined the conversation. A little squeaky cry that would’ve only been heard inside a den.
Afterwards Tommy went back to his favorite place beneath the window, where he can roll to his back and use the wall to hold him supine, and returned to his nap. He frequently dreams. Interrupting my work with little yips and high-pitched growls. I usually wake him, in case it’s a nightmare. But if he were about to catch a rabbit, I’ve ruined it for him.
It wasn’t until later that night that Tommy woke me with a howl. Two howls. I knew where he was in the room, and I knew he wasn’t standing up. He was in a foam-rubber bed that’s actually two small for him. Who howls lying down? And when had Tommy ever howled? He hadn’t. He woke after the second howl, got out of the bed and flopped onto another of his customary sleeping places, rattling the vertical blinds. What dream had the wolf video inspired?
There were notes on my nightstand, had been there about a week, about a dream I’d had. Until Tommy had his howl dream, I didn’t know how to write about mine.
In 15 to 17 definitions for dream, comprising variations in parts of speech, all but one carry at least tacit ties to “non-reality” — from imagination to delusion. But one definition tries (very hard) to ground itself without the tint (or taint) of illusion: dream as goal or ambition. Some would also call this hope, which brings back the whiff of fantasy. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” carries the hope tinge, yet was not meant to imply it was farfetched mirage. He was, however, describing a society that did not yet exist, so his use still sits beside the other definitions of dream that retain at least a fingerprint of “non-reality.” Walt Disney’s now oft-quoted (on motivational giftware) “If you dream it, you can do it” tried, or wanted, to have a literal understanding. The quip may not have intended to imply that any implausible to impossible notion will instantly (or even someday) be yours just because you dreamed (or wished-upon-a-star) of having it. While King’s line can be simplified to its (4-word) bare bones and retain its nuance, Disney’s simplifies on a slippery-slope more resembling “if I want it I should have it.” Just today I heard that on an insurance radio advertisement: “If you can dream it, you can have it.” I can have a dream to be a brain surgeon or solo concert violinist for the next ten years, but unless I make any of the necessary steps, like going to medical school or taking violin lessons — not to mention unless I relentlessly focus every iota of energy and discipline — it absolutely won’t happen. But, my current age aside, even if I had executed those grueling requirements, no matter how much I wanted it, geared my life toward it, and, yes, dreamed it in my conscious hours, I simply may not have been able to learn enough or become physically skilled enough to fully achieve either goal. Thousands may dream of being a solo violinist — and do all the requisite work to get there — but never arrive. Yes, they will be able to play the violin. They may play in ensembles from the unpaid community orchestra to world renowned philharmonics. But if their dream was to be a touring solo violinist, they did not get to “have it.”
This use of dream — an ambition, a goal, an objective — why is it the same word that also means images, thoughts, or emotions passing through the mind during certain phases of sleep?
Perhaps the incongruence of the word dream meaning both a real-life attainable ambition and some form of hallucination can be blamed (as many things are) on Freud insisting (and thrusting a generation of psychotherapists into believing) that nocturnal dream content was wish fulfillment. And this thin analysis of personality via dream interpretation is also likely behind the pariah-status dreams acquired among writers of literature.
Possibly as long as there have been creative writing classes, and even a little before that, using dreams in fiction was generally known — if I may overstate to make a point — as amateurish, cheap, the work of a hack, too easy, and juvenile. Putting aside the plethora of examples to the contrary (a list could start with James Joyce and Charles Dickens, and at the other end include me), professors of this art have generally stuck to Henry James’ view: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” Perhaps he purely meant a loss due to boredom, but “we” all know how dreams are inexpertly used as an updated version of dues ex machina to provide insight to a character or reader, to push resolution, to crudely create symbolism, or explain motive.
Even research scientists have a higher regard for dreams in art than this hard-line.
“The argument can cogently be made that the structure and narrative form of language itself is derived from our attempts to organize and share our dreams. Most dreams are narratives occurring, and often presented without applied organization, grammar, or expectation of critique. In the dream, we can literally observe the ‘thinking of the body,’ and with it, the birth of the literary process. Our dreams can be considered an exercise in pure storytelling whose end is nothing more (or less) than the organization of experience into set patterns that help to maintain order for the thinking system.”[i]
Then he goes one better:
“Among successfully creative individuals, dream and nightmare recall, as well as dream incorporation into work and waking behavior is much higher than in the general population, suggesting that one function of dreaming may be in the creative process.”[ii]
So the function of dreaming — the why it’s part of our physiological /psychological makeup — is to facilitate a creative process? Evolution developed the “cognitive mentation that we call dreams”[iii] so we could be “creative”? Then what’s behind Tommy’s dreams? What will he do with his wordless narrative?
Despite Tommy’s parasomnias — unwanted behaviors occurring during sleep, which usually do indicate but don’t prove dreaming — “most sleep medicine physicians consider dreaming to be mentation reported as occurring in sleep by a human participant.”[iv]
I love the word mentation. Loving a word does not set me apart from Tommy. He loves words too. Supper, cookie and toy are favorites. Also squirrel (any small animal) and window (hearing it means he should go look out of one because there might be a squirrel out there). He also has verbs, in the form of commands (which sounds more draconian than he takes it, but I admit, commands are not suggestions). Humans are always trying to find ways we are like our animals. Do dogs do the same? Or is it simply an assumption, to them, that we want what they want, feel what they feel, need what they need, and don’t care about what disinterests them? Without putting it in so many words, of course.
The type of dreaming dogs, decidedly, don’t share with us: that curiously related meaning having to do with desires and hopes, goals and ambitions. Master trainers say dogs can solve problems during training, but do they think about those problems when not engaged in the activity? Can they plan ahead? What kind of cognition, which some say is necessary for dreaming, do they have? Then what about the visual evidence: twitching legs and vocalizations – growls, yips, and the recent singular episode with the howl? Puppies, from the time they are a day old, sleep with twitching limbs. I’ve heard that’s how they exercise developing muscles. Tommy is 8 years old, fully (and very well) muscled. Add the vocalizing to the leg twitching and these parasomnia-like motions during Tommy’s sleep could be a form of somnambulism: “Sleep terrors and confusional arousals … associated with incoherent vocalizations ….”[v] Or, as I’ve suspected, nightmares. No dreams of glory killing a squirrel. If he’s never caught a squirrel, how would he create the narrative in a dream? But isn’t the same true of nightmares, including the three most prevalent scenarios in human nightmares (all experienced only in my sleep): falling (39.5%), being chased (25.7%), being paralyzed (25.3%)[vi]. Other research into nightmares insinuates they are a human-only occurrence, as those who endure them frequently are more likely to be fantasy prone, psychologically absorbed, have “dysphoric daydreaming and ‘thin’ boundaries.”[vii] While some dogs do have “thin boundaries,” I don’t know many dogs who are fantasy prone or psychologically absorbed, not to mention the agitated daydreaming. But there’s a person I know …
Mark finished high school with me, finished college with me, finished secondary-teacher preparation with me. Just before I abandoned the teaching credential for more graduate school, he confessed what I’d already known for five years: that he’d never wanted to be with anyone else, was distraught over our daily contact coming to an end, and couldn’t I please re-consider the refusal I’d maintained since his ungainly, overly-assertive attempts at love in high school? My response did not change the course of our futures, so he’d embarked on his high-school teaching career 100 miles away, in the desert near the border with Mexico. Two years later, he quit to return to our hometown where I still lived — now with a husband — so he could stay close to where I was. He knew that’s what he’d done, but I did not. He worked a graveyard shift job at a print shop.
But back up to a space between the third and fourth sentences of the previous paragraph. January 1980. I was six months past rejecting the plan (but never a dream) to be a high school English teacher, six months past Mark’s plea for us to remain together; and at least a year away from knowing what the hell I might do instead except the fixated typing that had been going on for almost a decade. Mark was half a year into his foreseen (but not dreamed) career as a high school band director. Despite my refusal to consider him romantically, I begged him to be my friend, to let me write to him. One instinct advised him to say no, to break contact, to try to figure out something else he could want. His other impulse, the one that had been with him since he was 16, told him to embrace any form of intimacy, the only one he was being offered. We wrote letters. Or I did. He was a man with a job and could answer with phone calls. My letters were typed, single spaced, and page after page of misspelled, superfluous, angsty laments, questions, frustration, exasperation, rage, doubts, and fears … about who I was, who should I be, who would I become, what I was doing, where I was going, who would I eventually go there with … and all the gory details about a Jehovah’s Witness I thought I wanted who’d rejected me on the grounds I was too worldly, a sin. I was still a virgin.
Finally one of my letters declared what I needed was to go to a bar and get picked up. Mark seemed the essence of calm when he suggested he could take me to his next gig with the Latino top-40 band he played with — down by the Naval shipyard. The plan was set: he would supply the transportation and the venue, I would take it from there and get picked up. The plan had no exit strategy. It also did not have any hope for achievement because I either sat in self-fulfilling misery in the far back of the nightclub or refused to dance when asked (once). When Mark came to where I was sitting and told me not to sit way back there if I expected to meet anyone, I moved to a closer table. I moved to the band’s table. I was there when they returned for their last break. Without a typewriter, I began narrating another tome of bewilderment and despair. And Mark, hot with worry that I’d come there to meet someone, and planning how he was going to prevent it, was available for me to flop, predictably, into his arms. We held on to each other. We moaned. We kissed. He professed his love. He was careful to not repeat the zealous ardency of his teenaged self, but he couldn’t stop his words. Please .. come be with me … I’ll take care of you … said against my ear in his car. Modified to Please, let me hold you tonight … I promise, I’ll just hold you … please … when we were on my stoop. Just before I closed the door.
For two months I couldn’t even say why. When my letters resumed, I tried to blame the book I was writing, my need to focus on it, on finishing school. I created openings so he could blame the alcohol so as to resume his composure or poise. What I didn’t realize, or allow, was his version: I’d received his raw feelings, I’d accepted them, I’d responded with my own; then I’d said I wasn’t ready that night, but six months later I suddenly was ready, and it was with someone else. I married exactly to-the-day one year after the nightclub night with Mark. Six months later he quit his two-year-old teaching career and came home to live with his parents, work in a print shop, and drop in two or three times a week after his shift to visit. Perchance to dream.
In 1986, Mark was part of the crew helping me and my then-husband move. Mark was teamed with my father. On one trip back for another load, my father, making conversation, casually remarked, “So, Mark, what’re your plans now?” I’m not sure how much my father meant by it, perhaps no more than “What’ve you been up to?” but Mark took it as, Look, you’ve quit the teaching job you went to college for (so you could be near her) and now you’re helping her move into a house with her husband (who, in case you haven’t noticed, isn’t you) — what’s your next brilliant move?
Mark’s next move was to find the first woman who didn’t notice his preoccupation — one who had enough baggage, chaos, and problems needing (his) help to solve so there wouldn’t be much downtime for reverie — and bring her back out to the desert where he was rehired for another teaching job. His former dream not even a dream anymore. A what-if. An if-only. A reverie put away but not destroyed. Not forgotten. Spoken only by his saxophone.
Twenty-five years later, Mark has embarked on a deferred life in partnership with me, and as a member of my extended family. As difficult as it had been to allow himself the yearning, that was easier than it has been to get here. In order to be sitting in a dusk-darkened sunset-illuminated living room across a coffee table from a 93-year-old man he’d thought should be his father-in-law when the man was 60, Mark had to relinquish half the retirement he’d built over a career teaching middle-school music, half the stressed miracle-it-existed-at-all savings account, half his (sometimes crumbling) assets, and had been court-ordered to pay a sum equal to half his monthly salary to the woman with all those problems to solve who’d also never worked, whose deadbeat children he’d partially raised and supported even into adulthood, and whose relentless spending created a runaway-train of the household budget. Not only had she been awarded nearly half of his retirement account, once he started drawing from his remaining portion as income, he still has to pay almost all of each check to her to meet his monthly support requirement. What might have been fair and just to give a former partner who’d maintained the house, meals, and children, was more like ransom paid to free himself. He is only 57, now without a job, has shed almost everything, except his saxophone and his want.
In my parents’ living room, my dad on a sofa with the newspaper, Mark across from him, a sunset lighting up the window behind Mark’s head and reflecting opaque orange from my father’s glasses — while my mother and I struggled to communicate in her newly-formed stoke-induced grammar, making pasta y fagioli which she used to make by rote but now needs a recipe — my father said, “So, what kind of work do you think you’ll be looking for over there.”
“Pretty much anything I can get,” Mark said. “Tutoring, WalMart, HomeDepot, substitute teaching, music lessons … anything.”
“I guess you won’t know until you get there.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figure. Get there first, then start seeing what’s possible.”
As my father lifted the newspaper up to read, he said, “You’re braver than me.”
Mark sat a while, looking at the curtain of newspaper. Then said, “I’m scared.”
My father lowered the paper. He turned his head enough that Mark could tell he was looking past him, out the window to the dimming sunset. The glint on his glasses no longer orange but white, like overcast. “That’s why you’re brave.”
I am now three weeks away from the dream whose bedside notes began this essay. The notes preserved enough memory that I still retain the images, as well as the emotions. My body recalls the physical responses. Some of the flashbacks are here for context:
I’m the driver, Mark the passenger. I’m taking him on a tour. Of sights. The first one, I pull off the road or highway or freeway. The spur off-ramp ends, almost immediately, at an outcropping parking space. Fits maybe 2 cars. The parking space is not paved but is made of solid grey shale. The shale protrudes out off a cliff, but it’s obvious enough to not pull that far forward. The parking place is indeed a viewpoint. There’s a similar viewpoint off-ramp on Interstate 5 between Orange County and San Diego, but it’s a complete on-and-off circle. I’m not sure what the particular view is on the I-5 viewpoint, except the Pacific Ocean. Mark has told me that he almost drove off the road (somewhere near that viewpoint?) when I fell asleep in our carpool on the way home from student teaching and my blouse gaped open, exposing (thanks to a bra with equally fatigued elastic) a crescent of nipple-color. He was 23. It was a year before our accidental-on-purpose ill-fated non-date at a nightclub where his band was playing.
This dream viewpoint likewise seems to be ocean, but the beach doesn’t have the classic sand-with-breakers. More like the tide pools of La Jolla, the waves come effervescing up across and into Swiss-cheese pocked flattened rocks. This is what I mean to show Mark. I also (in the dream) recognize it as being the Presque Isle River in the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where I now co-own a fishing cabin. The tannin-colored water coming out of the Porkies, descending toward Lake Superior, has carved hot-tub sized circles in the sedimentary rock shoreline. The river swirls into and back out of each tub, a furl of froth always staying behind and circling. Mark and I didn’t get over to the Porcupine Mountains on our brief trip to the U.P. last summer. My foot is firmly on the break, and I shift to park and set the emergency break. A car pulls into the space beside us, then immediately backs out again. I am aware of my foot, my toes slightly bent backwards, maintaining cognizant pressure on the break. I also know I am only wearing my slippers. I can feel the shape of the pedal under the thin sole. I don’t tell Mark out loud, but think to him: don’t worry, my foot won’t slip off the break. And anyway, I’ve shifted to park. But he’s ready to go. We both feel nervous. The way we used to feel nervous driving home from student teaching on I-5. The way we both knew the other was nervous, without saying anything.
My foot increases its pressure on the break. Very careful to not let the foot, in just a slipper, slip off the brake pedal. Release the emergency brake. Shift into drive. Foot will have to jump quickly from brake to gas. The dream doesn’t include a clutch (which would have been present in the car driving us home from student teaching), but all of my old trepidation regarding starting forward motion with a standard transmission when stopped at a light at the top of an incline has returned to me. The fear in that case: stalling (of course), or the car rolling backwards into the car too-close behind before the clutch engages first gear and the car can begin to go forward. And yet I also know there’s no clutch here. I won’t make a mistake.
Is this even a surprise by now? I press the gas, and the car, without a jolt, moves forward and is airborne over the beach with flat pock-marked pools.
My thoughts: I put it in drive by mistake. I can’t change it now.
Mark’s thought: we’re going to die.
My answer thought: Maybe we’ll only be hurt.
We look at each other while also still seeing the overhead view of breakers foaming into the sandstone pools.
The dog on the floor in the bedroom didn’t stir. Even if I’d made any kind of sound, I doubt he would have. But since in the dream I didn’t cry out or scream (or try to scream but met with vocal paralysis), I doubt there was any sound to wake or alarm them. But of course, they don’t even stir if I vomit at night, and what could be a more alarming sound?
Wondering if I’d made any dream-sound was not, however, what was on my mind after waking. My deliberation was over how it was one of those mistakes that simply can’t be undone. Like cutting off a finger while deboning a chicken. Like accidentally hitting a television screen or aquarium with a hammer — something I’ve imagined happening when I’ve walked through a room with a hammer, provided a television or aquarium was present. Like turning on the garbage disposal while I’ve got my hand in there, stuffing the potato peelings down — something I tell myself not to do every time I have to stuff something down there.
No, listing the other kinds of sudden, ghastly mistakes that can’t be undone was also not what I was thinking. Just that I had made one. In the dream. And I was feeling, still, in a sustained extension of the seconds-after, what it felt like to make one. What it felt like seconds before the resounding end.
It was obvious that closing my eyes without replaying the car’s gentle leap off the overlook — without rethinking the thoughts, both Mark’s and mine, without feeling the hot gush of realization — was not going to be possible. So I turned on the light and began reading the first six chapters of a graduate student’s novel manuscript, where every character was in the slow-motion beginning of a metaphoric fiery crash with no concept of the impending dire conclusion, which had started when they were born, or at least when their childhood families had fallen apart. Mark and I have no such background. We have other flashbacks, but not that one.
An hour later, light off and replaying the dream scene again — the same flash of soaring fear — I realized I hadn’t ever said I was sorry.
[i] Pagel, James F. “What Physicians Need to Know About Dreams and Dreaming,” Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine, 2012;18(6):574-579 … referencing States Bert O. Dreaming and Storytelling. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press; 1993. p. 53.
[ii] Pagel James F, editor. Dreaming and Nightmares — Sleep Medicine Clinics, vol. 5. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders; 2010. pp. 241—248. And Pagel, The Limits of Dream — a Scientific Exploration of the Mind/Brain Interface, Oxford, UK: Academic Press, 2008.
[iii] Pagel, James F. “What Physicians Need to Know About Dreams and Dreaming,” Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine
[v] International Classification of Sleep Disorders – Diagnostic and Coding Manual (ICD-11). Disorders of arousal, Winchester, IL; American Academy of Sleep Medicine; 2005. pp. 139–145.
[vii] Hartmann E, Kunzendorf R. The central image (CI) in recent dreams, dreams that stand out, and earliest dreams: relationship to boundaries. Imagination, Cognition & Personality 2006; 25:383–392.