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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 06/07/2004
Volume 2, #126

Stories come from different places. I found that to be the case even when I was writing comics. Sometimes, the basic idea is just lying there; sometimes it pushes it way up through rocks. And sometimes it's a matter of dreams, like the one I'm going to tell you today.

Our Dreams Are Us But We Are Not Our Dreams

The other night I had this unusual dream. Most of the time, my dreams aren't anything to write home about. They're either hazy or chaotic or just plain ordinary. For example, I might have a dream about sitting in my living room and watching TV. Or just walking down my street and noticing that the numbers on my side are all even.

That's what I mean by ordinary dreams. They're exactly the same as real life. So I don't have a very exciting dream life like some people I know. But the dream I had the other night was different. It was a long dream and it was full of meaning.

In this dream, I allowed my car to go on automatic, without my being in it to drive it. That way, the car would simply precede me to where I was going. Cars could do things like that in this particular dream. So I sent it on, and started to walk. Then, as I came to where the road forked, I realized that the car wouldn't have known to go to the right which was my proper destination.

So I backtracked from the right fork on which I had already started and went up the left fork to try to catch up with the car. As I did so, I also began to realize other things the car wouldn't have enough sense to do on its own, like stopping at traffic lights and stop signs. As soon as this occurred to me, I really began to worry. The car could cause an accident, even kill someone.

What's more, I'd be held responsible for letting it go on its own in the first place. I was really scared now, and I began to realize that I wasn't going to be able to catch up with the car and stop it, so I just gave up.

I went to see my friend, Hartman. I needed someone to talk about it with, I was so worried. In the dream, I quietly tell about the car, realizing I'm even taking a risk in telling him about it because Hartman is very law abiding. I also realize, as I'm talking, that very soon the police will be coming round to see me because they'll find the car and will be able to trace it to me. So I start to think of excuses such as the car was stolen and that's why all this happened.

But then, I realize, they'll ask me why I didn't report it stolen right away. As I try to find a way around this question, I wake up. But the force of the dream still holds me so that even awake, I keep trying to figure out what I'll tell the police about why I didn't report the car stolen.

By the time I got really awake, the effect of the dream was still with me. I got up and had breakfast, cooking myself some bacon in the microwave, and frying a couple of eggs to go with it. All the time, I kept thinking of the possible meanings of the dream. Obviously, it was a warning of some sort. I had let something of myself loose that I had to learn to control, but I couldn't figure out what it was. But I knew it was important, because of the way the dream lingered. But what was I to make of it?

It would be a lost opportunity if I simply let it slide until it passed out of memory. I decided to go see my friend, Arthur Prim. Arthur was a very good one to talk to about dreams. Actually, Arthur, whom I had known for twenty years, was now Dr. Prim. He had gone at night to the state university, gotten his Ph. D. in psychology and gone into private practice. A few years ago, he had developed a method called "life planning" which had been written up in Popular Psychology which described it as a common sense approach to guiding the individual into a more effective orientation with the pace of change in such a way as to keep him constantly in tune with the world around him

No details were actually given, but Arthur once told me modestly when the subject came up that he had merely taken transactional analysis one step further. Anyway, I knew that Arthur would be a good one to talk to about my dream, because even though a lot of his contemporaries no longer set as much store on the unconscious as they did when Freud was considered the last word in psychology, I knew that Arthur had not given up on the unconscious because he still believed that dreams were the real gateway to life planning.

Arthur had a lot of patients so it was almost impossible to see him during the day. But he was basically a homebody and was usually available in the evenings. And so it was two evenings after I had the dream that I went to see him, after having phoned first to make sure I'd find him alone. I told him about the dream. We were in his living room, and he was sitting in his favorite armchair, leaning forward slightly, the fingertips of his left hand pressed lightly against his left temple. It was his way of showing me that he was listening carefully. He waited until I had completed my narration of the dream. Then he asked me what I thought the dream meant.

"Obviously, I wasn't planning properly," I said, trying to put my thoughts in terms that I believed significant to him. "I was letting something important get away from me. The car. It seemed to be telling me that my life isn't organized properly."

Arthur shook his head. "You're saying that to please me. Never mind about that planning stuff. Tell me what you really think."

"Actually, Arthur, it's what I really think, even if I used the word planning because it's kind of your term. There's something about my life that's out of control, and the dream was trying to warn me."

Again Arthur shook his head. "How did you feel when you first had this impulse in the dream to let the car go home on its own? Think back to that moment."

I did. "It felt nice. Like a surprise. Like I had a great idea."

Now Arthur nodded instead of shaking his head. "You felt free."

"Yes," I admitted. "That's exactly right. It was a feeling of freedom."

"And then after that, you began to worry. Right? The freedom scared you. Isn't that it?"

I nodded, doing it exactly the way Arthur did, pivoting my head forward on my neck without moving my shoulders. "You're right again, Arthur."

"Don't be so agreeable. I can see what the trouble is. I'm speaking as your friend now, not a psychologist. But it's something I've always felt about you. You're not spontaneous enough. The dream makes it obvious."

"Not to me, it doesn't."

"What do you think the car symbolizes in your dream?"

"My freedom?" I suggested. "I've always thought of the automobile as something I could get away in anytime."

"Or spontaneity?" Arthur suggested.

"Well maybe so." I considered for a moment. "You can say that all right, I suppose."

"Then why are you afraid of it?"

"Afraid of it? Me?" And then all at once, it hit me. I could even feel a tiny explosion in my mind. A kind of "Eureka' sensation. That was it, of course. It was so obvious. I was afraid of my own spontaneity. I didn't trust it. I thought it would get me in trouble. So I kept reining it in, holding it back. And locking myself into a kind of unending narrowness and mediocrity. "I just want you to know, Arthur," I said, feeling a squirmy glob of happiness expanding in my throat so my words almost got choked off, "that you just did something for me I'll never forget. You've helped me throw off my chains. Set my feet on the path of new possibilities. Gosh this is wild."

"That's what dreams are for, right?" Arthur said, giving me a kind of chipmunk smile.

I could hardly sleep that night for thinking how from now on my life was going to change. No longer would I have to consider, to plan, to map out each minute detail of my actions. No more prudent restraints on the real me. I had something much bigger and better going for me. My own unconscious filled with its own wisdom and its uncanny ability to remember everything and see around corners. All I had to do was release my own spontaneity. How could I make a wrong move? It was a question of trusting myself. In fact, I'd begin the very next morning at the office. For a long time, I'd been putting up with a problem that my newly released spontaneity assured me I need no longer suffer.

As usual, at the office next morning, Rencroft brought me a copy of his weekly report. "For your review," he told me, as he'd done for perhaps the thousandth time in as many Mondays. We'd both been employed at Rudley's for at least ten years. He laid the sheets of paper on my desk with a heavy tenderness, as though he were setting down a child, which, in a sense, he was.

Rencroft thought highly of his reports. I knew that he took great care with them, and, accordingly, set great store by them, and even though it was my job to review them, this was part of the well established quality control system at Rudley's, I had never had the heart, or perhaps the stomach, to point out the various defects that I had so frequently detected during the course of my reviews.

Since they were minor, I decided that rather than make a fuss, it would be easier, considering Rencroft's great pride in his work, to let them pass. And I had done so without exception for all those years. At the same time, I could not help noticing, within the past twelve months, that Rencroft's little slips were expanding into areas where they might soon begin to make a difference. However I had let things go for so long that I didn't quite know how to call a halt. Understand that it was not my place to take Rencroft aside and point matters out to him. But I was supposed to prepare a supplemental report and send it along upstairs for further review. And that presented a problem as well. Since there were things I had failed to criticize in the past, and since the errors had accumulated, I would only be calling attention to the fact that I myself had been remiss over a long period of time. But today was a new day, and I was a new person, even though Rencroft, as he dropped the papers on my desk with that impervious arrogance that had grown on him over the years, clearly didn't see that.

As I went over the report, it was as though a flood had been released in me. An unrepressed and uncalculated outpouring. I was thorough and objective--no more, no less. But as it turned out, I realized that I had been less than vigilant in my reviews of the past, even though I never reported anything negative. In fact, Rencroft's report proved to be a mass of errors, far worse than I had realized. But I had set my course. I was no longer the same complaisant man. I finished my review and sent it upstairs. Then I waited for things to happen.

What did I expect? A new turn of events--.nothing more, nothing less. Rencroft surely would have been in for it. It wasn't unlikely he'd be dismissed. I even expected to be called on the carpet myself. But I also knew that , in the end, there would be changes, new effects arising out of fresh causes. My life would begin to change. And this would be only the start. I had expected to hear from upstairs before the end of the day. I stayed at my desk until five o'clock--about ten minutes later than usual, thinking that there had been some last minute delay. But not a word came down. Everything seemed as usual. Rencroft passed me on the way out. He smiled at me in that old friends kind of way he reserved for me, in which today for the first time I was certain I detected something complicitous.

"Staying late?" he asked.

"No--no. Just didn't notice the time. I'll be leaving momentarily."

And leave I did, thinking surely by next morning there'd be word from upstairs. But Tuesday passed and I heard nothing. Wednesday, again nothing. And right on through the rest of the week--not a word. I spent the weekend wondering why nothing had happened. And then, as usual, on Monday morning, Rencroft again brought in his weekly report.

"For your review," he said in his soft unctuous way.

But I was ready for him this time. "Rencroft," I said quietly. "We have to talk."

"About what?"

"These reports of yours"

"Come on--really?"

"They're not as flawless as I might have led you to believe." This whole thing was a purely spontaneous move on my part.

"Well now, then it's really like they said."

"What's that? Like who said?" I asked, disconcerted.

"They sent for me from upstairs last week. They asked me about you. Had we had a falling out? I said 'no, of course not.' Then why are you rocking the boat, they wanted to know. I'd like to know myself. Is something bothering you? I mean, you know, sleeping dogs. What made you do it?"

"Made me do it? Nothing made me do it. For the first time in ten years, I just did it. Just like that. Because I got tired of feeling I shouldn't do it. Because I, "

"Easy, man." Rencroft sounded sympathetic. "It's all right. Okay. Whatever's going on with you. It doesn't matter. As long as it doesn't happen again. Get hold of yourself. And you'll be all right." He patted my shoulder, gave me that same complicitous smile and walked on.

After work, I went to see Hartman . I told him how I'd dreamed about going to visit him when I had my automobile dream. I repeated the dream to him. Then I told him how Arthur had shown me how the dream revealed a fear of my own spontaneity. "It came to me like a revelation. That's how I knew Arthur was right. You know, I could actually feel my chains snapping off?"

"I'm very glad for you," Hartman said in his direct, uncomplicated way.

"It's not as easy as it sounds," I said.

"What's that?"

"Being spontaneous."

"Why not?"

"Well, for one thing, you can't just decide to be spontaneous."

"Why not?"

"Because once you decide that, you're not being spontaneous anymore."

"What did Arthur have to say about that?"

"I haven't told him."

"Why not?"

I shrugged. "What for?" I said.

--Alvin

<< 05/31/2004 | 06/07/2004 | 06/14/2004 >>

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