Is there anything more depressing than temporary freedom?
Observe the June blog I never posted, raving about San Francisco re-opening after high vaccination and low infection rates saw us return to an almost normal summer of mask-free indoor dining, normal capacity limits for bars, and the reinstatement of limited cultural events.
I never posted it because shortly after its completion, my father passed away.
Then COVID-19’s delta variant started doing its worst. Because of it, Dad’s memorial had to be indefinitely postponed.
Meanwhile, wildfires across the American West have put grimy skies over some of our best-loved natural wonders at a time we most need an emotional recharge from nature. One colleague of mine took his family on a great American cross-country road trip, only to find they were coping with smoke as far east as the Dakotas.
Worse than any of these facts alone is an unspoken understanding on the part of my peer group that it’s all downhill from here — that if you think it’s bad now, friendo, just wait til next year and the one after. And don’t even think about the 2030s.
My mind has been oscillating between two songs lately, and I’m a little embarrassed to reveal what they are: “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a TV theme generally unknown to U.S. audiences called “White Horses.”
At first glance these two songs have nothing in common. “White Horses” was the theme to a 1960s adventure series about a young equestrienne, filmed in what is now Slovenia and aired mostly in Europe, called Ferien in Lipizzi. It’s a light, shuffling air sighed out by British pop star Jackie and sweet enough to mortify the modern six-year-old with its dreams of running away to candy-floss clouds on snowy white horses.
The other song is a drug-dripping freakout reportedly penned by John Lennon after a much-speculated-on weekend in Spain with smitten producer Brian Epstein.
“Fields” consistently rates as a lysergic masterpiece with music critics and historians, while “Horses” sounds so silly to the current ear that it captures a certain hipster fascination. Indie duo Dean & Britta covered it in the 2000s (but Britta’s kitteny whisperings are such a put-on I can never make it through to the end — it’s not a torch song, for God’s sake), and that’s just one of dozens of covers over multiple decades.
And yet most importantly, both songs are massive escape anthems: admissions that sometimes life just gets to be too much. A mental retreat (temporary, we hope) into childhood wonder is not just normal but necessary if we’re going to hold on to our marbles in the long run.
There is something very analog, very endangered, about all this. For all of the current Stanford-approved blatherings on “creativity,” we seem to be losing our capacity for plain old imagination as it relates to our lived lives.
The difference between creativity and imagination? Creativity as understood by the Innovation Mafia means imagination as, ultimately, a profit center. Something that doesn’t necessarily belong to you at all unless you’re lawyered up. Thus the tremendous emphasis on collaboration, and some clever person gets to capture and monetize your marvelous ideations.
Imagination as I conceive it inherently belongs to us as individuals; maybe is the natural us to a large degree. In the years before social media there used to be much more talk of “the commons,” those things that belong to no one and yet all of us, that can’t be bought or sold: the air, the ocean, and so forth.
When these songwriters grew up, childhood — whether full of joy or horror — was part of your personal commons. More than anything else perhaps, it belonged to you and you alone, defined who you were, yet everyone had one and nobody could take it away. It was an elemental repository of you before the boundaries and disappointments set in.
How true is that anymore? My neighborhood is filling up with Bluetooth screamers pushing baby joggers loaded with phone-staring toddlers. Not one of these souls seems particularly grounded in adulthood or childhood but a kind of hot, connected nowhere that submerges me, the bystander, whether I care to be submerged or not. My mental health does not benefit. I can’t imagine what it does to theirs.
Even if they realized they needed imagination, an escape that was theirs alone, could they access it? I doubt it.
Regressive escape into the spiritual beauty of childhood is a legitimate coping mechanism. I think that’s why “Strawberry Fields Forever” continues to haunt us, and “White Horses” has gotten nearly 2 million hits on YouTube, as well as being honored with “best television theme ever” by the Penguin Television Companion.
I hold on to these two songs like a kickboard in a pool. Their assumed cultural irrelevance makes them somehow more mine, lets me grip them harder and flutter-kick my way through a pretty awful summer.
And I do like the idea that perhaps John Lennon, knocked sideways by the fame, the drugs, the clothes, the glamour, the women, holed up in some six-star hotel in Zurich or Rome in 1967, tuned in to an episode of Ferien in Lipizza.