. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Father, Can’t You See I’m Burning?

I’m converting a cafeteria to a café—Valois just got wi-fi and I wanted to be in a capacious space, light with big tables and no soundtrack. It’s empty, almost, mid-afternoon. A few old people are sitting around schmoozing as they will, and we look after each other’s tables when we need bathroom breaks or a refill. After a few hours a father and son come and sit two tables up. The father, young, instructs his son relentlessly: on how to use a laptop, how to play a game, how to sit, how to be quiet, and how to eat without smacking his mouth. I am working with my head down trying to drown out the noise. Then at one point I hear him say to his son, why do you want to give up on your dream, why do you want to give up on your dream of being a football player? Kid: I want to draw cartoons. Father: you also want to be in the NFL, why do you want to give up on your dream? Kid: I want to draw cartoons, I have lots of stories to tell. Father: tell me, why do you want to give up on your dream?

A piece of paper falls off the table. It has boxes drawn on it and word balloons. The figures they’re attached to look better than stick, but there’s a not lot of detail. His father says, Don’t you see, when you’re 35 and you’ve been in the Super Bowl, you’ll have the skills of a 35 year old man, not a 9 year old boy, and when you’re 35 and a cartoonist, you’ll have the skills of a 9 year old boy?

They call it a skill set, the father says.

The father’s friend joins them at the table and they begin to write a statement for a grant. They’re tossing sentences back and forth, throwing the dough high. The language of the grant sounds like the lesson the parent learned once and is trying to impart to his son, to fulfill the demand of the world to produce optimism attached to plans. The kid puts his head on the table. He’s long faced and wiry, with no fat I can see. The father’s friend looks over and says, get up! You have to focus to get anywhere in the world, here, let me give you something real to do. Write down the first thing you think. The boy says something soft, I can’t hear it. The friend says to the father, you’re raising someone who can’t think? And to the son: You have to think on your feet in this world. The boy looks around wildly, and you could call it a smile if his mouth weren’t so wide open and mobile, like those Claymation mouths I remember scooting around from childhood. He’s not looking for escape, or dreaming revolution. He is scanning the space without focus. I put my fingers loudly in my ears to make them shut the fuck up. They look at me hard, and pityingly, I thought, thinking, what a buzzkill old woman asshole, which, in reality, I was trying to be.

You have to know that in Hyde Park this is a common café occurrence, a man or woman on the make taking up the aural public space and giving everyone within earshot a shot of philosophy and self-publicity. As the recession’s expanded, this man or woman could be any adult, in any city café, thrown onto entrepreneurialism and holding onto a dream through an insistent twisting of talk. I come from a family of café dreamers, as my grandmother used to joke, with big plans. All you need for the precarious present is a Bluetooth headset, a laptop, and a pitch. In the office the café has become, the capitalist dream finds succor, attracting the creativity of people desperate to demonstrate that they already have the life for which they are scrambling. They’re selling real estate, or have a pyramid scheme, or a program for youth. They make music videos and shoot weddings on the side. They can’t lose, they have an idea for a cross-platform citywide computer game that kids could first play online, later converging face to face. They’ve made it into a board game too, here take a look, take a copy, here is my card. All of these Eleanor Rigbys are keeping the business card industry in business. They have a fantasy to enhance the fantasies of others by showing up with a monetizing plan. Everyone wins, and they’re the hero, distributing scenarios everywhere like a fairy looking for wishers.

But the kid, what’s the kid going to do? I thought about giving him the card in my wallet for 10% off at the local comics store. I thought of saying, as I have done in the past–when I’m working in a café and talked to by a bored, wandering kid  who’s often waiting for a working parent, or an adult who’s on the phone–do you want some pens and paper to draw (I always have lots of pens)? But my meter ran out, and there I was, left to give the kid a grin and a low five when he walked by to get some free ice water from the trays stacked in the back.


Cheers to my Facebook friends for the discussion that followed the first post from this event. Normally I spend many months on a post, but this time I wanted to capture the collective mood of its prior circulation. People wrote great phrases about “parental pronoun confusion syndrome”: Kid: Why do you want to give up on my dream?; Kid:  Dad, Why did you give up your dream to play in the NFL?; Kid: Dad, I am not your dream.  Father: Son, you are my dream.; Kid: “If only I had a father like that. Maybe I would have come to something”; “Send the kid secret hand signs that say: “Escape!”

Then I realized that throughout I must have been haunted by the phrase that provides this post’s title (“Father, can’t you see I’m dreaming?”/Why do you want to give up on your dream?”)  Much has been said about the dream of the burning child that Freud relates, and Lacan’s revision of its meaning. They converge in the rhythm of the phrase, the transmission of desire in the form of a loving/punishing superego, the association of maturity (and masculinity) with a pedagogical realism that has borne, but can’t bear, its own lesson, in the spectacle of the father facing down the picture of his own paternal/parental non-sovereignty and the need for him nonetheless to repeat it in the son, so that the son must die again in the dream so that the dream can keep off the present. Needless to say, additionally, anyone who has ever attended, overheard, or paid attention to her own office hours would also face this scene with an uncanny shiver.

14 Comments so far
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I love it (and I love “Why did you give up on my dream?”). I love your phrases “the demand of the world to produce optimism attached to plans” and “staging the creativity of people desperate to demonstrate that they already have the life for which they are scrambling.”

This makes sense to me if you think of work, or activity, as means to get the world to recognize you as someone worth its time, rather than a means to do something good. I feel like I struggle with this constantly.

But I also think: what is optimism without plans? Could that even be a thing?

Comment by Tom Perrin

Rereading the last paragraph of your post I think I also mean, what is burning?

Comment by Tom Perrin

But a thing, or even then plan, can be something we (even studiously) have no idea about. (This would be something like the obverse of the repression enacted here, where the thing is brutally produced as a spectacle.) But what is optimism without repression?

Comment by Weg

But Adam, what are your “buts” objecting to?

Comment by supervalentthought

I thought I was replying to Tom Perrin’s post, but my buts were a shell-game (and a bad one) for a speculation–not unlike the child being burned. I regretted them, and my bearing. after I posted. There is no “edit” function. (Objection!) (Nor is there a way to reply to ST posts.)

Comment by Weg

too bad that by the time the child grows up to realize the violence of the father’s dream, he might already be living in it, or a nightmarish version of it. it’s sort of like how by the time your life affords you a view of yourself, you are already locked into certain angles of vision and spectrums of (in)sight.

Comment by Ali Altaf Mian

You saw him. He saw you. I think this is important.

Comment by Julie Rak

You’re a writer, Lauren.

Comment by Susan M. Schultz

So one of the things that I find really enticing about your post, is wondering whether this is fiction or non-fiction. In fact one of the problems with even asking the question of fiction/non-fiction is that the story is no less true whether or not it actually occurred.

From this initial reaction of mine comes a second reaction which also wants to ask, even if you were retelling an “actual” event, one that I could have also witnessed, the way it has been retold is implicitly shaped by an ethical dimension of narrational judgment around what the narrator encountered.

I’m not trying to misunderstand the narrator, nor am I implying that this is not a proper ethical framework among frameworks within which to retell the story, but what I’d really like to know is why I am so vexed by the question of fiction or non-fiction? On top of that vexation I’m also intrigued in how my perception of someone telling or retelling this fiction/non-fiction occurrence has implications about the ethical framework that I have in judging the ethical framework of the narrator here.

I’m also troubled by the masculinity of my line of questioning; but, adieu, I’ll leave my commentary there.

Comment by Dave Bennett

What frustrates me every time I am in a scenario like this where I think the parenting is bad and there is no way or hardly any way to intervene, is charged with my hopelessness about how I couldn’t effectively intervene – have an effect on, name, correct – the bad parenting I also got, though one tries (I first wrote tires), lord knows one tries. And then spends one’s adulthood trying to unlearn the strain of trying to correct bad parenting by trying so hard to be a kid that could somehow solicit good parenting from, say, a total addict or narcissist or whatever. Cartoons forever; fuck football.

Comment by mirandamellis@gmail.com

I love your post! When I read it, I was researching TAT (projective psychological test in the genre of Rorschach)
In Thematic Apprehension Test, a subject is instructed to interpret a picture: describe the depicted scene, what lead up to the scene, what will develop from the scene, and the thoughts and feelings of the depicted characters. Presumably, it is instrumental in diagnosing schizophrenia, personality disorders. . .
I came across an example of a response by a young schizophrenic patient who “failed” to produce an adequately realistic narrative explanation, and in response to the question of what the characters were feeling, he said :”they feel as if they are a picture.”
Anyway, this impasse made me think of the impasse in your post, and inadequate forms of realism . .

Comment by Mara Fortes

“They feel as if they are in a picture.” How beautiful. A line of poetry worthy of Sylvia Plath.

Comment by seymourblogger

I love this so much. It makes me think many things, but I don’t want to make it more (which would make it less) because it’s so perfect (so generative without being binding) as it is.

Comment by Mandy Berry

Nossa! Muito massa realmente esse post sobre psicologia! Parabns. Gostaria de saber se voc j entrou nesse blog de psicologia tambm… blog[ponto]psicologiaparatodos[ponto]psc[ponto]br . Desculpe colocar assim mas estava dando erro se eu colocasse o endereo certo do blog! D uma olhada l! Voc vai curtir tambm!


Comment by blog de psicologia

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