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On Daydreaming, Friendship and Beauty
“Hey you, pay attention!”
We hear this admonition when our mind has wandered like an empty grocery bag in the wind. Perhaps we’ve been looking out the window and not seeing what’s out there, but remembering some pleasureful moment or spinning a fantastical narrative that cannot be in real life.
Psychologists often point to the importance of our dreams while asleep. But what about our daydreams? Why do we do it? What of their importance? How does daydreaming take care of the mind? What are we doing when we daydream? How are mine different from yours?
Today I found myself drifting back to some joyful times with friends of yesteryear. When I daydream, I often tend to reminisce, sometimes to enjoy again a time and place long past. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes with no purpose at all.
Not everyone reminisces when they daydream. Some are not fans of nostalgia. I can go for hours in a state of sweet longing for what is long gone. Is it long gone? A friend of mine says she does not care to think about the past, but rather her daydreams are about inventing and reconstructing new ideas out of the old like imagining the setting of her next house. When I was very young I remember my mother saying, “Theral, get up and do something.” Why she didn’t realize I was doing something, a favorite something, bothered me.
Obviously, we have to stay focused to accomplish a task. But must all of our lives be productive and goal-oriented? If we didn’t have to “go to work” or “make money,” I wonder what natural balance there would be between focused mental work and random daydreaming. Is this why I enjoy spending time with retired people? Did ancient humans daydream on the savannah, in between looking for a meal and avoiding being a meal?
According to research, I’m not alone in all my daydreaming. (What a relief!) Harvard researchers enrolled over 2200 adults between the ages of 18 and 88 in a study in which they were sent regular text messages asking them what they were doing and thinking. Those enrolled reported that their minds wandered an astonishing 46.9 percent of the time, often onto positive things, like getting a promotion, piloting an aircraft, inventing a new kind of space travel, or founding a small island society. People love to daydream.
I do appreciate my mother’s work ethic. One has to get things done. She didn’t wait around. But more than that, my mom was actually happiest pushing a vacuum, making a cake, or crocheting. She had to be busy as I remember her as a kid. Now in her late eighties, she seems happiest telling stories about her grandkids.
Friends have told me that they need to be involved in an activity, not that demanding, for their minds to roam free. I know what they are saying, though I can do it sitting on my ass looking out the window. But I also engage in this between the state of working at a fun activity—not anything like changing a tire on the freeway—and letting my mind play in the sandbox of all possibilities. I certainly do this by listening to music and even playing music on the piano. Perhaps I do it now, taking the time to write down these meaningless meanderings of a merry mind.
Today my thoughts roamed to the topic of friendship and our need to share the beauty we encounter. How we need someone else to see what we see: the intense yellow of the sunflower in the garden. Was it this bright last year? Someone to smell and taste the chocolate molten cake right out of the oven. “Eat it now, it’s warm.” Or see the second full supermoon in the same month. We want someone else to see us in the moment of seeing it. Sort of like I’m doing now with you. The self seeks basic confirmation of its existence. But it’s more than that. We transcend the self connecting with others through the beauty of the world. We look into another person’s eyes, or we observe their other body language to confirm that they are seeing, hearing, or sensing what we are sensing. Beauty is the common language.
This deep connection with others is perhaps most vital when we are young. Perhaps. As teenagers we are looking, waiting, sensing those who are similar almost like a predator in the wild. Perhaps it happens at the opera. We begin a conversation with that person in the next seat sensing the same exhilarating anticipation before Don Giovanni begins. Or shopping together at a farmer’s market, elevated, we cannot help but share our joy at this season’s ripe red Early Girl tomatoes. Perhaps we are on the trail of a national park together. Perhaps we are in our first porn shop, discovering the gay section.
OK, that one was dated.
My thoughts now drift back to some close, long-term friends from my youth whom I met at the symphony in Pasadena, California. An older couple, Herb and Ilene, were big supporters of local classical music. Newly arrived in town as a young apprentice to the conductor and the symphony, I hadn’t been to rehearsal but a couple of times when tall Herb hailed me in conversation backstage amongst the musicians.
“You’re new around here! What’d’ya think?"
He was tall enough to be a bit hunched and still looked tall in his loose jeans way out of style. The wide reach of his arms matched that of his smile. He was both assertive and courteous. His formal suit jacket clashed with bright white tennis shoes. His glasses had chains. His eyes were large marbles that rolled randomly to and fro, his nose beak-like. His skin too was bird-like, thin and fragile, and still quite young-looking. He talked of the inner workings of the music, and then of politics. He asked me my opinion of the first composer of the evening like I had the right to have an opinion. I answered like I had the right to have an opinion.
“It was terrible,” I said. I actually don’t remember now what I said. This was classical music. No one had the right to an opinion of the composer! I was home.
When his wife Ilene joined us, she had a cackle of a laugh, one where she seemed to gasp deeply for air with each repeat. Despite my initial medical concern, I basked in her confidence and joy. Her hair was silver yet still with a youthful bounce. And that cackle—it came on the last word of each sentence. They invited me to lunch. This was nice. Not only eating in a fine restaurant in Old Town Pasadena on a student budget, but I also consumed their educated banter like the delicious pasta. They were confident; they listened; they were just being themselves. What was out of the ordinary for me was for them just another Saturday lunch. It turned into dinners at their place.
Is it indulgent of me to share my nostalgia? As you can see, this was an excellent time for me: pursuing my dreams and making new friends.
Herb and Ilene Bernard lived in the Hollywood Hills in a careful simple Japanese-style cantilever house that they had designed themselves. The walls were mostly glass and served a view over Los Angeles like a personal butler would serve. You could see the Hollywood sign from the living room couch. Modern wood furniture was minimally placed throughout the house rather in a calculated fashion. I remember when they custom ordered a new piece for the living room it was a big deal. The only thing that ever changed was the fresh flowers in the vase on the coffee table. The basement was a wine cellar. Our evenings together were structured in a similar minimalist fashion. I came to the door at 4 or 5, as invited. Herb was always playing his Steinway piano when I arrived—improvised jazz. Always. He had played as a bar pianist in his 20s and wanted that career. Instead, he became a documentary film director.
First the obligatory “welcome” and “how are you?”, then Herb would pour martinis. Always gin martinis with two olives with Bombay Sapphire gin. How would I know that there were those who paid the same attention to cocktails that I did to a musical composition? After a bit, Ilene would excuse herself to make dinner, and Herb would ask, well, what would you like to listen to?. . . and before I could answer, he’d go on . . . “I’ve just found a new album, such and such.” Was I in heaven? Sometimes I did follow Ilene into the kitchen to talk, to slice veggies. Herb was always introducing me to new works, not a difficult task in those days. I remember first listening to Eric Korngold, the Austrian composer who had come to Hollywood in the 30s to write film scores, and also to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and to several of the Mahler Symphonies. Mahler Five I particularly remember the trumpet signation in the first movement and the tear-jerker Adagio. Herb found it quite wonderful that I had never heard Mahler before or Shostakovich. He took great delight in what I had not discovered. And even though I had heard Mozart’s 40th Symphony, he still insisted on playing it time after time. Greatest music ever written, he said.
Can you argue with him?
My dear friend Herb Bernard. After I moved out of town I would talk to them on the phone at Christmas. Ilene would say, “Let me put Herb on. He’ll love this.” By then he had Alzheimer’s.
Yes... those afternoons in the unique glowing light of Los Angeles about five o’clock . . . summer and winter. A dry martini with two olives and then Mozart and Korngold with Herb and Ilene. I had them over to my apartment in Pasadena once or twice—I mean my friends, not the composers—my cat jumping ahead of them to the dinner table. Oh, my friends how I enjoyed your company! Smart pleasant conversation merged in the golden hour of a Los Angeles sunset with Mahler howling, mourning, and dancing into the night. Herb sat there with his marble eyes and his large nose with a wicked smile staring into the music, staring at me as if asking,” Do you get this?”, then staring past me.
“Dinner’s ready,” said Ilene. She came in to enjoy the final movement with us.
After dinner, raucous politics.
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