Monthly Archives: November 2007

Dreams in the News

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In late October of this year, The New York Times published a series of articles on sleep and dreaming which are worth checking out. Below are links to each of the four articles, along with highlights, anecdotes, and some commentary. If anyone spots other articles on dreams in the news, I’d love to hear about them.

“In the Dreamscape of Nightmares, Clues to Why We Dream At All” gets the prize for most disturbing graphic images, but if you can get past them the article gives some very interesting statistics on nightmares. Apparently we have more bad dreams than we realize, and the peak seems to come in young adulthood after which it tapers off as we age.

For an overview article it seems reasonably balanced between comments by prominent sleep researchers and dreamworkers. Kelly Bulkeley weighs in by noting that for Augustine in the 4th century, any dream with sexual content was considered a nightmare, as it threatened his faith.

Notions of what constitutes a nightmare vary culturally, then, and I wonder what to make of the fact that dream researchers report 75% of the emotions recorded in dreams are negative. Does that make those dreams nightmares? The article says very little about what to do with our nightmares. In my experience they always have some profound message for us, often of a variety that comes as very good news when the dream symbols are worked with. But it takes facing our fears and confronting the “other,” whatever form it may take in the dream and in our waking life.

“An Active, Purposeful Machine That Comes Out at Night to Play” talks about memory and how sleeping increases our cognition. It is the longest article of the series, and also gets the prize for containing the loveliest phrase, in a quote by Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley: “We think what’s happening during sleep is that you open the aperture of memory and are able to see this bigger picture.”

“The aperture of memory.” That’s a keeper. The article has a good history of dream research from the 1950s to the present, and reports accurately on the recent findings of several neuroscientists and sleep researchers.

So kids, instead of cramming all night for that test you didn’t study enough for, get a really solid night’s sleep. Guaranteed you’ll do better than if you go to class bleary-eyed and firing on just a couple cylinders. (And what will become of all our handy internal combustion metaphors once gas-powered vehicles are a thing of the past?!)

“The Elderly Always Sleep Worse, and Other Myths of Aging” is a fascinating look at sleep, aging, and pain. It turns out that poor sleep does not necessarily accompany aging, and that in general sleep does not change much from age 60 on. Most of the changes in our sleep patterns occur between the ages of 20 and 60. Problems with sleep among older people have more to do with illness and medication than with the aging process itself.

This article also highlights research on sleep and pain. Everyone knows that if you’re in pain it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep. But studies also show that lack of good sleep actually increases pain while decreasing our tolerance for it. I’m no scientist, but that doesn’t strike me as a helpful situation to get into.

“Eyes Wide Shut: Thoughts on Sleep” is a compilation of quotes, poems, and paragraphs about sleep and dreams. Interspersed with passages from Cervantes, Oscar Wilde and Emily Dickenson are a couple quotes from scientists that I particularly liked:

“A friend of mine once dreamed he was an elementary particle. Nothing came of it.” —Gino C. Segre, High-Energy Physicist

“I’ve…asked sleep scientists what happens to your brain in a three-minute nap that restores your ability to drive, teach, think and yell at grad students. They’ve never answered.” —Leon M. Lederman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics

I did my own unintentional dream research a week ago when I was laid up with the flu. It turns out that Sudafed gives me very pleasant dreams. At least it did the first two nights I took it; the third night I didn’t have such pleasant dreams so I figured it was time to stop the Sudafed.

That got me wondering whether anyone has tested different nighttime cold medicines and their effects on dreams. Now that sleep and dream research is once more awash in funding, can such a study be far away?

Women Publishing

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When I was in college back in Santa Cruz in the 1980s, there was a women’s poetry collective known as Moonjuice that held poetry readings and self-published their own poetry anthologies. That is how I became acquainted with the wonderful Maude Meehan, whose book of poems Chipping Bone I loved. When I was looking for Ellen Bass’s poem Then Call It Swimming to post here last year, I found it in one of the Moonjuice anthologies still on my shelves.

A couple years later, the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society came out with their first book of erotic short stories. Around that same time, the Women’s Songbook Project in Berkeley published the anthology Out Loud: A Collection of New Songs By Women. If I tried to recall all the grassroots women’s publishing projects I have come across from that era to this, I could go on for pages. In fact, just a couple weeks ago a friend sent me an announcement for a new anthology of women writers she’d been published in.

During the 70s and 80s, the idea of ordinary women writers getting together and publishing their work when no one else would was no longer a groundbreaking thought. Now it is even less so, with desktop publishing, scores of vanity presses, millions of women blogging, and compilation sites such as BlogHer popping up all over the net.

Publishing WomenStill, ’twas not ever thus. So when I had the opportunity to review Diana Robin’s fascinating history Publishing Women: Salons, The Presses, and the Counter-Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy, I jumped at the chance. And I am here to tell you, women back then had way fewer options for publishing than we do today. Why, it turns out that in the 1500s there were no women’s erotica anthologies at all!

Publishing Women is one of those rare works that investigates a previously overlooked subject with exhaustive, original research, and manages to synthesize the information in a way that is scholarly and coherent, with a narrative that is engaging for a general audience. Diana Robin highlights the vibrant groups of women writers that emerged in the Renaissance period across several Italian cities, and the network of publishers, printers and agents who had a hand in producing and selling their books.

Because of these women and their male colleagues, for the first time in Europe’s history women’s writing made it into the public sphere. Women established literary salons, published their own anthologies, and promoted religious reform in Naples, Rome, Florence, Vienna, and Siena. For anyone who is interested in book history, the appendices Robin includes are invaluable: an index of all the authors, editors, publishers and dedicatees of the anthologies; a physical description of the anthologies, many of which have not been published since the Renaissance; and a chronology of the key events in the history she describes.

Predictably, this movement provoked the ire of the Church. I won’t give away the story, but let’s just say the Council of Trent and piles of burning books were involved. But that was not the only problem that beset these literary women.

By the 1570s, war, plague, typhus, as well as Church-led persecutions left the Venetian publishing world a shadow of its former self. It would take a new generation of writers and publishers, working under very different social strictures in the 1580s and 90s, to revive the literary culture and in some instances reprint the writing of these early women writers.

This book illuminated for me a period of European history I knew nothing about, and ultimately left me feeling hopeful. Against all odds, creativity erupts. Groups coalesce, people figure out how to work together, movements form, cultures shift and change. Sure it all eventually dies, but even for movements such as these, left in tatters with only one or two copies remaining of many volumes, all it takes is one intrepid researcher with patience and a keen eye to make it live again.

It’s Not Over Yet

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This Samhain season has had more than its share of sturm und drang, and I attribute much of it to the general sense of fatigue shared by everyone I meet. We are tired of war, tired of hearing of young people killed or injured in these endless struggles. We are sick and weary from corruption, pollution, environmental disaster.

We are working too hard, paying too much, bearing up as best we can under difficult times. With a stalled economy and soaring fuel prices, there are very few people who are not feeling in some way stretched to the limit. We are managing, but winter is coming and who knows what that will bring?

Samhain gives us a chance to mourn our losses, remember our dead, and by sinking deep into the bones of our ancestry, remember who we are. Down there in the marrow, spirit mixes with matter and makes fire, the blood that keeps us warm and alive. If we are lucky, our descent brings us finally to that place where the spark of life is re-kindled within us for another year.

Everyone I know has been diving deep this year, facing Death in its many aspects, pulling the life support from memories, dreams and habits that no longer serve us. This is bloody, painful work, not for the faint of heart. And it’s not over yet.

The moon is still waning, the Samhain energy is still winding down, and will continue to do so until Friday afternoon. At that time, the new moon in Scorpio will be the perfect time to lay these inner dead to rest.

So all of you who have feted the ancestors, cooked their food and sung their songs, take some time now to listen for the things within you that are ready to go, too. Find a box, fill it with symbols of what needs to cross over, and give it a proper burial on the 9th. Dig a hole in that fertile loam or rocky soil, and really let it go. Give it up, send it down, let it find its own way to the Underworld.

And then, we shall see what arises in the Spring.

How to Diss an Elder, the Dead, and Everyone Else

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As it happens, this trifecta of disrespect is not all that difficult to accomplish. This is after all the feast of Samhain, when opportunities to ritualize bad manners abound. At Samhain the veil of etiquette is thin, as we all know, and the living and the dead co-mingle like ants around a sugar skull.

Let’s say, for instance, that you are part of an organization that each year puts on a big public ritual to celebrate Samhain. At first glance it seems like an improbable time to be disrespectful, since the whole intention is for respectful celebrants to celebrate the dead together, respectfully. Yet the lead-up to such an event is in fact the perfect time to set the trifecta in motion.

Of course you will want to ask for volunteers to take on various roles in the ritual. If a certain elder in the community then heeds your summons and requests her favorite role, performed faithfully and well for many years, you should first tell her that her requested role has already been spoken for, then offer her a smaller role instead.

This in itself is a perfectly respectful thing to do—or it would be, if what you told her was the truth. But it isn’t, because no one else has stepped up to ask for that role. In fact, as the weeks fly by and the ritual draws near, you hastily contact at least three other people, all friends of the elder, and ask each of them if they would like her requested role.

These people will have already heard from their friend that she was denied her habitual role because it had been spoken for. They will realize she has been lied to, and realize too that the invitation they received was a tainted one. For one reason or another they will all decline your offer.

So far we have disrespect of an elder, and a few other people, but what about the dead? Here’s where you can get really creative. In this ritual to honor the dead, it might seem that the most weighty part would be the calling in and naming of the dead. The Ancestors, the Mighty Dead of your lineage, and the Beloved Dead of the community might all get a spot of attention, a few minutes apiece, to be remembered fully.

Instead, why not lump all three groups together, and budget two minutes maximum for calling in the lot of them? This is, after all, a ritual which is famous for being long. Shortening it is good, especially if it can be done at the expense of the very spirits it claims to honor.

You are nearly there! All that remains is to disrespect everyone else, and as it happens the perfect opportunity for this will be reached shortly after the ritual, when people compare notes and start to speak up about what happened.

The tone you want to take here is moral indignation. How dare these people accuse you of dishonesty and deceit, when you are a small, hard-working group of dedicated celebrants volunteering countless hours on this ritual, all for the good of the community! For anyone to accuse you of intentional deceit is not only morally wrong, it is downright disrespectful.

And there you have it. Play the victim card and the trifecta is complete. Accuse others of what you yourself have done, don’t admit to any transgressions, and the next year you will be an even smaller, harder-working band of celebrants. Well done!