A couple of years ago, when I had a weekly discussion group with three of my former students, my ostensible purpose was to see if I could get them to take a more creative approach to their learning. We had discussions on a variety of topics and read pieces that I thought might be illuminating to push the conversation in a variety of directions. One week the reading was James Thurber's original story published in the New Yorker, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The students were Asian, one from South Korea and two from China. They put a great deal of effort into their studies and were extremely grade conscious. That a professor would actually encourage them to daydream must have seemed more than a little odd to them. But I wanted them to take the suggestion seriously. To emphasize the point, I also encouraged them to watch this video with John Sebastian singing the famous song solo, after The Lovin' Spoonful days were over, looking a little tamer then but wearing a pretty wild outfit that seems to fit the situation perfectly. I doubt that week's discussion had much impact on the students thereafter. It was too far afield from their ordinary experience to create a change in their behavior, absent a lot of additional reinforcement on the same point. But it had a salutary impact on me. I became more conscious of my own need to daydream, so I could push on ideas that I deemed improbable if not totally impossible. I've been doing that ever since. Virtually all of these haven't seen the light of day, for I'm afraid people would think me even more of a nut job than I actually am. But I've recently had a change of heart. So here are two of these.
I've been writing a lot of blog posts as of late that are about our economy and/or about our national politics. We're in trouble and we need to find a way out. A lot of these pieces work through solutions that make sense to me, though truthfully I view them more as a prod for readers to think about, so they too can work through to a solution, even if it isn't the same as mine. Yet I only have a trickle of readers, so the main purpose these posts end up serving is to provide catharsis for me. If I didn't write them, I'd just keep stewing on the same idea, over and over again. Having written the post, I can move onto something else.
Suppose for one post it plays out differently. It piques the interest of the first readers, so they forward it to their friends. The friends too find it interesting, so they repeat the process and again the new readers find it intriguing. Then a few more iterations and the magic of geometric progression begins to take over. Soon thereafter the post has gone viral. Many people are talking about it.
It finds its way to some rather important people. One of those is David Remnick, who writes a personal note to me - Lanny, congratulations on the splash you made with your post. The New Yorker would be pleased to re-publish some of your other posts so our readership can get to know you as a writer. Can you select a handful of those for me to look at that you think our readers would also enjoy? Would you mind if our copy editors had a go at these to give them a bit more polish?
How many other fledgling writers have this same daydream?
In this case it is also meant to feed the next daydream. The viral post serves as a catalyst for a chain reaction that produces some desirable but at present highly improbable events.
This other daydream features Hillary Clinton, who turns the tables on just about everyone by leveraging her connections with Wall Street to deliver an incredible act of compassion and social justice. She gathers the heads of all the big financial houses into a sound-proof conference room where there are absolutely no recording devices and where each in attendance had to check their phone at the door. Then she gives them her spiel.
She begins - Rumor of this meeting is already out there from that viral blog post, which suggested that I get together with you to do something big and of social importance. Here is what I've come up with. This will be a project to buy back underwater mortgages. It will be a demonstration project only, there will be further projects on this in the future, but it will be big enough now to catch everyone's attention, to the tune of $10 billion. You will entirely self-finance this operation and do so by reducing the remuneration of your top earners. You will do this in a way where the burden is shared among you and where none of your star employees have incentive to leave their current job to work for another one of you, just so they can get more pay. You are going to sign an agreement to that effect, in this room, here and now.
She continues - Back in 2008 you were all in a lot of trouble and the system was on the verge of failure. TARP came to the rescue, stabilized things, and over time your financial health was restored. TARP was also supposed to help on getting homeowners in underwater mortgages out from under. On that score it was far less successful. It is time to remedy that. It's the fair thing to do.
But there are other reasons for doing this. The country is in trouble. Things seems to be spiraling out of control. We need some good news, now, to make things right. And if you read the tea leaves, the Democrats are likely to return to control, in Congress in 2018, and in the White House in 2020. They are angry now given how events have played out. They are apt to implement some punitive measures against you as a consequence. This is a way to get out ahead of all of that and retain some control. Plus, if and when the country does make a turn around and the system appears to be working for the little guy, you can readily dismantle this program as your continued participation is purely voluntary. It is the right thing to do. And it is the smart thing to do.
Mrs. Clinton had been standing while delivering her message. She then returned to her seat. One of the financiers speaks - All of us have been expecting something like this. We weren't sure exactly what you had in mind, but we knew something like this was coming. I am ready to sign.
The others in the room nodded in agreement. They agreed to hold a press conference the following day to announce the deal. They would use the time until then to alert their respective staffs about it, emphasizing that the announcement couldn't be leaked ahead of time and that leaking this news gave grounds for dismissal. They then each signed the agreement. There was some lighthearted laughter. The spirit in the room was upbeat, jovial.
At the press conference the following day a spokesperson for the group announces the deal. A fact sheet is distributed to the members of the press in attendance. Then Mrs. Clinton strides to the podium to make a brief announcement. She is smiling broadly. Indeed, she is beaming - I really enjoyed working with this group to put the deal together. It shows what is possible when there is the will to do the right thing and when people work together to achieve that. I would like to continue to broker such deals in the future. I can more readily do that as a private citizen. So I will not be running for office again, ever.
Still smiling, Mrs. Clinton steps away from the microphone. Her reputation has now been fully restored.
* * * * *
Daydreaming makes me smile. Considering reality these days, I feel quite different. I'm worried and depressed. I know I'm not alone in that. People are flabbergasted by President Trump pulling America out of the Paris Accords.
I am actually more bent out of shape by Thomas Edsall's most recent column. The Democrats are too divided now to be able to address the nation's ills, because the upscale voters who are part of the coalition continue to vote their pocketbook, even though doing that is socially detrimental.
Not knowing how to get out of this dilemma in actuality, I daydream a solution, one where doing so is no problem at all. Maybe if enough others did likewise and then shared their dreams, it could actually matter and produce an answer that is real.
In the meantime, I will keep daydreaming.