The Joy Menu #14: Idealization
Your intrepid author reckons with the dreams he’s clung to, and those he’s let go, in this most challenging year.
There’s nowhere I’d rather be than lost in a dream. The blanket of fantasy tucked high up to my chin. A discarded “what if” half-drunk on the bedside table.
This is why I love novels, films, poetry: why stop at your own dreams, when great minds—great artists—offer their best dreams for you to share?
The flip-side of such dreaminess is a struggle to live in reality. A dream world is an ideal world, soft-focused yet simple, elusive yet always there. It’s a beautiful place to dwell; but there always comes the alarm clock.
And then: the real world—too pale or too bright, too drained or too harsh, busy, imperfect, frustratingly mundane.
Idealization, cousin of the dream, is an energy that goes outward: we sit in place but our mind visits a past and paints it with varnish so it shimmers, or travels forward to pour onto a future the brightest possible colors.
It gives the self the feeling of having done, without the tedious discomfort of having to do. Like reading a recipe while eating fistfulls of chips, or watching a workout video while seated on the couch.
2020 was many things. One thing was the year when the outward—and often, literally, the outside—became a sight of danger and of risk.
This meant that many of us were asked to stay inside, to stay at home, to stay put.
For me, this meant losing access to many of my usual techniques of running from myself (the gym, the cafe, the trip). But it did not rob me of my ability, my desire, to go inside myself, to hide there, and to project out an ideal world both forward and back—an ideal, yet completely passive, self.
It didn't rob me of my lust for dreams.
The Risk of Making Friends in Youth
Here is how I will paint this story. Let’s call it the climactic day of my childhood. See me as this: a quiet child, internal—dreamy. Kind, but shy. Intense, but on his own. And then suddenly: friends. It was 6th grade. We were 12.
At this time, Disneyland was just Disneyland: no secondary parks, massive city developments, no “downtowns.” Just 160-acres of theme rides, novelty stores, manicured lawns, soft frozen lemonades, and other sweet amusements. It cost $18 to enter, for local kids. And the way they ascertained your local status was by asking you, at the ticket counter, to recite your zip code by heart. That’s how simple it was.
We had the day off from school—one of the prosaically magical “Staff Development Days.” It had been raining all morning (it rained only two dozen times a year). We each had $50, a hoodie, sneakers. Our parents dropped us at the entrance, we recited our zip code (“92714,” changed later due to a population explosion). And we went in.
The day was perfect. Four friends—two boys, two girls—no sex, no tension, no parents. Just freedom and play.
I struggle to narrate here what made it feel special, because the clarity of the image of four children playing all day in an amusement park lacks the dramatic arc of a story: we did not fight, we did not fall into or out of love. We floated in glee.
Because of the morning rain, the lines were short, and we had access to all the best rides right away; because we were 12, we enjoyed it without pause, without worry, without self-consciousness.
Did we understand that we were entering a new moment: a moment when such freedom would be more common, but would not remain so unencumbered, so light, so pure?
And why tell this story?
Besides the fact that Disneyland is a useful metaphor for idealization—a perfect miniature of a carefree world? Besides the fact that I like to tell old stories (that urge to dream backwards in action)?
It’s because something about that singular and joyful day—while meaningful as, say, a right of passage, as a culminatory experience symbolizing for my young self what friendship could feel like; as a first taste of the freedoms of adolescence, which are themselves an intimation of the freedoms of adulthood; this day at-large, this day of safe freedom, this day imbedded within the closeness of a perfect social connection (two sets of two, two boys, two girls, four friends, no entanglements, no confusions, no motives, no distractions)—became an ideal I could not let go of for years to come.
Toward the end of the day, in a toy store, we found four figurines of Snow White’s Dwarfs, and each selecting one (“I’m Doc—no, you’re Dopey!”), we pledged to always return, to come back every year and relive the same quartet. I took it seriously. Some part of me remained.
But we never did. The next year, we were at four different middle schools. Then at different high schools. Then living different lives.
For years, when I rode my bicycle to school, or to Target, or to a friend’s, I imagined running into them: “Hey! There you are!” When I sat alone at lunch, or walked home from school, or hung with a group of kids who hardly felt like friends, I imagined the four of us reliving that day. “You’re still Dopey—no, I’m Doc!”
I felt I’d had it, and lost it. And I struggled to let go of that ideal.
In school, we learn that conflict is kept within folders: man versus man, man versus society, man versus self. They say these categories, forged by generations of English professors and evangelized in high school classrooms the world over (including my own at one time), come from Aristotle's concept of agon (literally: struggle, contest) — the root of all story. Which is to say that all of our stories are rooted in struggle, in agony, in anguish.
For me, so much of art-making has been a project of engaging with an idealized past in order to understand these self-struggles, in order to make sense of, and to make beauty from, these moments of personal anguish.
But so has it also been an effort to dream into reality an idealized future — to convince myself that such a future is possible, probable, even inevitable: the future of being an artist. An artist who created a bright future from the anguish of the past.
Dreaming, however, is not doing. It’s more akin to waiting around. Or reading a recipe while munching on a bag of chips.
If 2020 took anything from me, it was my ability to lie to myself that dreaming alone was enough. The last bit of self-deception: that if I wanted to write, I would. That if I wanted to “be a writer,” I would, ipso facto, be one.
I have always wanted to make something that lived outside myself, but showed my absolute inner value. Such art would have a positive effect on the world, sure; it would give others the experience I’d often had with great art.
But that wasn’t the point—to be the one to make the thing was the point.
In other words: an idealization of what it meant to be a creator. To be a “god” (small ‘g’) among Gods. And who doesn’t want to be among Gods (Nietzsche notwithstanding)?
It was another dream. And as long as I kept moving (the gym, the cafe, the trips), it could stay that: a perfect idealization—alive, compelling, elusive.
2020 forced me to sit still and work on making that dream into something real. The challenge with the real, of course, is that it’s almost always too pale or too bright, too drained, too harsh, busy, imperfect, frustratingly mundane.
But that’s a life; a life lived onward—
to creative joy,