11 September 2018

To a question in my sleep

Thoreau writes “After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where?” I think Thoreau is referring to his dreams of that night. In my dream last night, a question was put to me. Since at least fifty-five years ago, I have listened to the music of Peter, Paul and Mary. For awhile I attended their public performances, and once I remember (I think I remember!) traveling to a venue in New Hampshire where I sat on the floor not thirty feet away from the trio and my adored Mary (z”l) whose flung long, blond hair spoke of passion to my yet repressed bourgeois energies. The question my dream put to me wondered what it was about Peter, Paul and Mary that so attracted me that their music changed my life. Thoreau says he awoke to an answered question, but I turned to my writing to work through some answer.
            Years ago, I was privileged to introduce Peter Yarrow at a fundraising event. Then I think I approached this topic of why Peter, Paul, and Mary. Then I said that the first song I ever played on a juke box was ‘This Train,’ a song from Peter Paul and Mary’s first album —then, I was old enough not to remember if I put into the machine a nickel or a dime. Then I wondered where I had first heard that song, how it originally became familiar to me, and why it had attracted me. That event occured in about 1962, but I am also old enough now not to remember exactly what year that was exactly--but I imagine I must have been about fifteen. Then I said, I had earlier spent some time worrying about the tragic fate of Tom Dooley as expressed by the Kingston Trio, and had anguished over the tragic lot of a man named Charlie who for lack of an extra nickel for the fare increase couldn’t get off of the train on an increasingly expensive Boston subway. I am aghast at the expense of subway fare in New York City these days: back then (a typical phrase of older people) entry to the underground cost twenty-five cents for a ride down to Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village! In their music and by their presence, Peter Paul and Mary helped open my consciousness to the responsibilities of social activism and social justice. The first album I had ever purchased was Peter Paul and Mary’s first album. I felt that their work I ought to have readily accessible. It was on that piece of vinyl that I heard for the first time the anthemic songs “If I had a Hammer” and “Where have all the Flowers Gone.” They led me to Pete Seeger and the burgeoning folk music era. I spent considerable time in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village: see Inside Llewyn David and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for a taste of the scene. Then, I wanted to become a beatnik. I wore black turtleneck sweaters and dungarees. In that time of bubble gum music, of “Yummy yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy,” Peter Paul and Mary stood on the cover of that album against a red brick wall that I knew to be in my beloved Greenwich Village, and sang of Sorrow and Justice, and repairing the world if we only had our way. They drew me and many others like me into the cause: the politics were ripe for such movement, and I would spend my nickels and dimes and energies proselytizing and marching and singing those songs of explicit and implicit protest. Peter, Paul and Mary allowed me to listen in the company of my parents to Bob Dylan’s notice that it was their responsibility to get out of our way because they didn’t understand us, even as Peter’s song, “Day is Done,” comforted us that our parents if they so chose could join with us in the struggle. I learned from Peter, Paul and Mary more about metaphor than I did from Ms. Bueschel, my ninth grade English teacher. When they sang the traditional folk ballad, ‘The Cruel War,” we knew what war they were talking about; when they sang the Weavers’ spirited folk song, ‘Wasn’t that a Time” we knew to which Revolution they were referring. Even poor Puff the Magic Dragon was dragged in unwittingly and unwillingly as an element in the secret code of our burgeoning drug culture,” Peter, Paul and Mary taught us about the struggle and stayed with us through it. There was no turning back. 
            Then I said that later we went with ourchildren to hear Peter Paul and Mary at Northrup Auditorium here in Minneapolis. They remembered to us that many of us who had listened to them in the beginning had now brought our children to listen with them to them again. Some of us were even older. And Peter remembered to all of us the prayer, “We Shall Overcome” and we–we and our children--sang together. 
            Some would argue that Peter, Paul and Mary were too commercially marketed and by this process were made socially acceptable and therefore, too homogenized. Unlike Bob Dylan their voices were melodic and pleasant. Peter and Paul wore suits and ties and Mary always donned a dress. It was accused that whatever anger they expressed was too muted behind their stage presence and the controlled quality of their honeyed harmonies to effect action. But to answer my dream, Peter, Paul and Mary let this bourgeois teen communicate my angst to my parents even if they didn’t know (or didn’t let on) that they were being addressed. Young children at the heder are taught their alphabet by licking honey from the slate on which the letters were written: thus, learning becomes sweet. Peter, Paul and Mary were the honey that sweetened the rebellion of this repressed bourgeois teen and opened the world for me. Maybe they were the velvet cloaking to my revolution.

07 September 2018

The Dream Day

Freud refers to two stages of learning psychology, but what he says of a specific subject matter applies also to learning in school in general. In the first stage the student—the child, in my orientation—learn things, the subject matter. Adam Phillips says that this stage in Freud’s language is identification: the student becomes identified as a person who knows things! We teachers love these students: they correctly answer all the questions in class and on our tests. They are ‘good students.’ In the episode “Saint Joan” in the first season of Joan of Arcadia, this student is represented by Steve Zackheim. “Will that be on the test,” he wonders, rather than be concerned with the validity of the newly presented item or the implications of it for historical understanding. His teacher refers to Zackheim as his best student.
     But in the second stage, the student takes in what is presented in class or in the texts and consciously or unconsciously does something with it: makes the material her own in whatever form she desires. Joan Girardi makes of the Hundred Years War a personal quest to study the character and martyrdom of Joan of Arc with whom she identifies. Mr. Dreisback’s description of Joan of Arc as a paranoid schizophrenic with messianic tendencies threatens Joan’s own attachment to sanity, and her pursuit of Joan of Arc is a personal quest to know herself. Her effort exasperates her teacher and the school administrators who are interested solely in ‘the teaching.’ Joan’s quest leads to learning—even a learning acceptable to the powers that be—she earns an “A+ on the test--but the route to her learning was idiosyncratic and beyond the understanding of her teacher or indeed, anyone else, even her family and close friends.
     Phillips says that the first stage of learning—the teaching itself—is like what Freud calls ‘the dream day,’ that process by which we select material for the night’s dream. Our dreams will idiosyncratically do something with that material to create the dream. I really love that idea: that we are all artists on the inside looking about for material out of which to construct our dreams. “So,” says Phillips, “the student finds himself unwittingly drawn to specific bits of the subject being taught—whatever the emphasis of the teacher happens to be—which [the student] will then, more or less secretly (even to himself) transform into something strange.”
     So, I was about to drift off for an afternoon nap when across my consciousness rose the image of a man in the apartment condominium across from me exiting his front door holding a lawn sprinkler—one of those oscillating mechanisms with a steel curved bar (but maybe it is aluminum, I don’t know) with nipples for the spray of water, and with the mechanism sitting on a yellow plastic base and frame.  The problem for me  is that though there I have seen a man entering and leaving the front door of the condominium across from me, though there is miniscule flower bed occupied by a few plants and decorative butterfly posts, and though there is a green hose attached to a spigot, there is not present, and has never been present, a lawn sprinkler as I have crudely described above. There is absolutely no need of such a device—having one would be like purchasing an industrial jack hammer to hang a picture in my living room.
     But I wondered (even as I drifted off to sleep) whence that image derived? Once, I lived in a house and I think I recall (already an interesting grammatical construction) in the garage were one or two of these lawn sprinklers, but I honestly cannot recall using them. And I wonder why would I assign ownership of one to a man across the way to whom I have never spoken and of whom I have not the slightest knowledge? And who, in fact, may not even live in the condominium but is keeping company with the woman who does live there! What dream was I creating? More, who is this “I” that has drawn these bits and pieces—the man stepping out of the door of the condo behind me with the sprinkler in his right hand, the sunny day and the anticipation of watering . . . well, what exactly did I think was about to be watered? What needed watering?

02 September 2018

There Was a Choice

There was a choice. On a single night at the end of August an event conflict arose. We had purchased tickets for Poco, a group formed in the late sixties, had a brief run of almost fame, and then faded slowly away. I believe the last album was issued some time around 1986. Of the original members, on this night only Rusty Young remained in the band. (I think of the song “All Your Favorite Bands,” by the group Dawes: I hope that life without a chaperone is what you thought it'd be/I hope your brother's El Camino runs forever/I hope the world sees the same person that you've always been to me/And may all your favorite bands stay together.) I vaguely recalled hearing Poco in concert sometime in the early 1970s with my brother, and I remembered their song “Good Feeling to Know” and the joy I had felt during those performance moments. Despite the fact that the band did not stay together, I looked forward to the concert and hoped they might sing that song.
     But on that same night at the Edina Theater was a film version of Ian McKellan’s performance in King Lear. I have been attracted to Lear of late and especially as I grow older and more foolish. I have read the play twice of late, and actually did screen McKellan’s Lear somewhere on the computer. His performance fixed me to the screen and the mad scene made me cry (I think of Dar Williams’ song, “When I Was a Boy:” And he says, "Oh no, no, can't you see/When I was a girl, my mom and I we always talked/And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked/And I could always cry, now even when I'm alone I seldom do”). But I knew that on the big screen McKellan’s Lear would enthrall . . . I am an English major: always have been. Always will be.
     We chose Poco. For the closing song the band chose “Good Feeling to Know.” And for the first time in years I was up and dancing. Oh, not as I did during my days with the Grateful Dead, but neither was my movement a gentle swaying. Rather, my body movement reflected the joy and vigor I felt, and the boundless smile on my face was a part of that movement. There was nothing profound about the music (as there might have been say, at a Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan event), but there was undistilled happiness. The band members were enjoying themselves, having a good time. And I existed in the moment. (I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not think so much of the point we have left, or the point we would make, as of the liberty and glory of the way"). It was a good feeling to experience.
     It was what Rock n’ Roll has always been for me: the experience of joy and excitement. Oh, I have loved my folk music and the social conscious it inspired in me, and I do adore my Shakespeare and my novels, but when I want joy, I turn to rock n’ roll. It is a good feeling to know.