Virtue & Mischief


When I was a boy, my mother would almost always acknowledge my arrival at the breakfast table with the greeting, “Good morning, Tim. What did you dream about last night?”

As a result, I was trained to take note of my dreams—often even as they were in progress—and mentally record them as best I could so I was prepared to report them in colorful and accurate detail the next day. Our conversations about my dreams were lighthearted and playful, a casual stroll through a nonsensical fantasyland. We never analyzed them very seriously.

Mom was too fun-loving and too cautious for speculative (and potentially dangerous) pursuits like that. She did, however, enjoy assessing the shallow depths of my thought processes so she usually explored the content of my nighttime mental excursions in greater detail and typically concluded with an arched eyebrow and the query “so…what do you make of your dream?” My decidedly non-Jungian, juvenile responses tended toward the honest-but-simple-minded. “It was disgusting,” “It was scary,” “It was really cool,” “I dunno, but can I have more Captain Crunch?” or—probably the most frequently issued response, “I think it means I hate [my younger sister] Barbie.”

Decades have passed and a few things have changed since my mother and I engaged in those discourses. For one thing, I either dream significantly less than I used to or simply don’t remember them as well. When I do dream, it usually involves the unsettling discovery that I’ve forgotten to take a test in college/graduate school/law school, a failure that renders my subsequent achievements null and void and my current employment status shaky; or some veiled crime I’ve committed (I can’t quite remember what I’ve done, but am vaguely aware it’s serious and that the authorities are close to finding me out). Second, I no longer find my sister Barbie an inveterate pest…and never really did, though it was fashionable as a ten year old to pretend I felt that way. And, finally, I am now the parent examining my children’s dream-worlds, an exercise that is sometimes alarming, usually delightful, and never boring.

Abby’s dreams center on her friends and usually echo the sort of Young Adult dystopian novel content she reads ad nauseum. “Well,” she told me one morning after I inquired about her dream, “L. and T. and R. and W. [names abbreviated to protect Abby’s innocent and wonderful friends] and I were in the park. And we were in the Greenville Hunger Games, so I had to shoot them with arrows in order to win. So…I did. But they were cool about it. They understood.”

Daniel’s are gauzier, more pleasant, and typically involve flying and food, like flying to the moon on gossamer wings for a cheeseburger, then returning to a warm, comfy bed, and so forth and so on. After listening to Daniel recount one of his dreams I begin to wonder if he’s got a stash of some psychotropic drugs hidden under a floorboard.

Luke’s dreams these days are all over the map, a veritable cornucopia of color, floridity, and outlandish content. A recent offering is illustrative.

“Dad,” he began, “my dream last night was totally weird.”

“Oh? What happened?”

“Well, I was in Mrs. F.’s [name abbreviated to protect the innocent and beleaguered fourth-grade teacher who deserves to enjoy her summer in peace] class and she gave us this strange assignment. She took us outside and gave us wood and power drills and chainsaws and nails and stuff.”

“Chainsaws? Are you sure you don’t mean a table saw or something like that?”

“No—chainsaws. Like you cut down trees with. Anyway, you’ll never guess what happened next.”

“For once you’re right, my boy. I have no clue, but I admit I’m eager to hear. Go on.”

“She said, ‘each of you has the supplies to make a chair. The first one to make a chair wins $23 and the change in my pocket. Ready…set…go!’”

“$23?? Why $23?”

“How do I know?! It was just a dream, dad!”

“Fair point. Proceed.”

“So all of us start sawing stuff and nailing stuff and then I heard R. [name of friend abbreviated to …et cetera, et cetera] scream like crazy. I looked over and he had accidentally sawed his arm off!”

“Wow! His right or his left? ‘Cause, you know, that could be pretty important for his baseball career.”

“Dad! Stop kidding! Anyway, R. is screaming and bleeding like crazy and I want to help but I figure ‘what can I do about it? I’m not a doctor or anything.’ Plus, you know, I really want the $23. So I keep working on my chair and, like, two seconds later A. [you know the drill] starts screaming too. I look over and he’s cut off his hand!”

“That’s pretty alarming. And gross,” I interjected. “What did Mrs. F. do about this?”

“She said ‘Oh, it’s no big deal, boys. Just go to the nurse’s office. She’ll take care of it.’ Then I woke up.”

“Man, that was quite a dream, Luke! What do you make of it?”

“Well, for one thing I think I should try to be a better friend. That, plus if Mrs. F. wants to have a chair-making contest with her class she probably shouldn’t give out power tools.”