They really do. I don’t mean the waking aspirations we all have, like, say, it might be your dream to retire to Tuscany one day – though those suck mightily too (I keep telling people, it’s the hope that kills you). I mean the literal dreams you have during REM sleep, which generally make very little sense and never really amount to anything you can understand once you wake up, supposing you remember them. If your nightly rambles through garbled dreamscapes strike you as mysterious, you aren’t alone. Nobody really understands dreams. We don’t even have any good scientific explanation for why we have them.
There are plenty of unproven ideas. Over the years, various theorists have posited universal archetypes and common symbols that purportedly allow them to interpret anybody’s dreams, as if there’s a sort of chart; find “king with sceptre” in the image column, then scan across the meanings row until you find an “X” under “urge to kill your father”. Freud and Jung thought their purpose was to explore repressed urges, which strikes me as pretty far wide of the mark, unless I have a repressed and unresolved desire for my frigging teeth to fall out. Neuroscience posits that they don’t have any meaning at all, they’re just the product of neural pathways lighting up, more or less at random. Evolutionary biologists think they might be a way for us to rehearse our responses to threats, and a recent theory suggest that dreams help us process and, in effect, deal with and file away our emotions.
We do know that people go insane if they don’t dream at all for any length of time, which you can prove by repeatedly interrupting their sleep so they can never enter the REM phase – just ask the CIA. We suspect that our mammal relatives dream too, which implies a purpose that has more to do with fundamental brain processes than anything particular to the human experience – or maybe your cat is lying there twitching on account of a repressed and unresolved urge to kill that stupid yappy Chihuahua that lives across the street. Say, I bet that’s it, actually! The little freak looks like a big rat, right? A big yappy rat. I dream of stifling it all permanent-like, so why wouldn’t kitty?
Whatever. All that matters is that for some unholy reason, it’s nature’s plan that following a generally unremarkable day of being (sort of) conscious, I should be made to live through a night of surreal plot lines that involve frustration, anxiety, humiliation and even outright terror. That’s pretty much all my dreams are about, and I bet yours too. There sure isn’t a lot of the much-ballyhooed wish-fulfillment going on while I’m all tucked in. I don’t have a whole hell of a lot of dreams involving Diane Lane, for example, and if she ever did show up it’d be so I could listen to her laughing her guts out at what a dork I am, before walking off in the middle of a clique of cool kids and flipping me the bird as she goes. They’re almost all like that. With a couple of exceptions, only rarely experienced, my dreams leave me wrung-out, depressed, angry, scared, and baffled.
I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of people I know experience certain recurring dreams that are almost identical to mine, which must mean something. Maybe Freud wasn’t so far off with his ideas about universal symbols, though from what I gather it isn’t so much symbols as whole scenarios that many of us share. The details may be different, and there aren’t any kings with sceptres and the like, but the general plots are pretty much the same. So O.K., show of hands – who out there has one or more of the following:
The Exam Dream
Oy. A classic! Any number of riffs can be played on this essential scenario, which involves a pending exam, usually either tomorrow or the next day, in a class that you never attended, having somehow forgotten for the whole academic year that you were even enrolled. It can be anything, especially subjects you never took in real life, like calculus, or advanced conversational French. Your situation may be utterly hopeless, or, as is often the way it plays out with me, there’s just a chance you can cram enough to pass, if you can only find the course materials, which will be locked away in a campus bookstore that isn’t open, or in the bottom of your locker, which you can’t seem to find as you run down hallway after hallway looking for it. In one iteration, I find the locker, but there’s been a flood, the water is several feet deep in the corridor, and I raft over to discover (of course) that the materials are drenched and illegible.
Last night, I came up with a new one – I’m well prepared, but as I begin writing the damned thing I can’t figure out the instructions on the exam sheet. I’m supposed to open up a book full of questions, and answer 4(a), 4 (b) (iii) and 5(d), only they aren’t numbered that way, and time is running out, and meanwhile my wife, who was always better at exams than me, is sitting in the next row tidying up her materials and getting ready to leave, because she finished long ago, and was just hanging around a while because it would make the others feel bad if she flounced out a couple of hours before anybody else.
The Phone Dream
Piss me off. I’m in the office, trying to use a complicated phone with screens and buttons and doodads all over it. I need to dial some absurd international number with about 90 digits, like 91825-117-41317-654443210998-579-820-910325-06. Punching the keys over and over, I get most of the way through, then hit the wrong one and have to start over: 91825-117-41317-654443210998-579-820-6 – Shit! …91825-117-41317-654443210998-579-84 – Fuck!… 01825 – God-dammit!… 91825-117-41317-6554 – Jesus H. Christ!! … 91825-117-41317-654443210998-579-820-7… Shit! Piss! Fuck!
This can go on all night.
“But I Don’t Know How To Do That”
This comes in a number of flavours, but it’s all the same bullshit; you find yourself tasked to do something, invariably in public, that you realize you aren’t even a little bit able to do. My own favourite involves a revisit to torts class in law school, which we held in a small group of about 18 people. It’s a two-hour class with a break in the middle, and just before recess the Prof. states, all calm and matter-of-fact, “OK, so that’s remoteness – after the break we’ll get into causation, but before that, Graeme here is going to do a number”. Hunh?? A number?? What in pluperfect hell does he mean, a “number”? We don’t do goddam “numbers” in torts…oh wait…right…
I look over to the corner of the room and sure enough, I see an upright piano. That’s right! Shit! We do numbers in torts! Every week! And it’s my turn! But I don’t have a number prepared! I can’t even play piano! Desperately, I approach the Prof. and try to get out of it, explaining I can’t even play, and he just says “Oh, it’s all right, just do something simple, like something from Guys and Dolls, or South Pacific maybe”.
Thwarted By Your Own Limitations
This is kind of like the “I don’t know how to” dream, but it doesn’t involve public humiliation, just bitter disappointment, when you arrive at the threshold of your highest aspiration and realize that you can’t pull it off. I’m an aviation buff, so mine involves aircraft. It’s twilight. I’m striding out on the tarmac, approaching my beloved mount, an F-15 Eagle all gassed up and ready to go. This is just a check-out flight, so I can make up my own flight plan, and I know just what I’m going to do. I’m going to light the burners, and take this thing up to 50,000 feet, and then I’m going to roll over on my back and look down on the world far below. It’ll be dark before long, and I can imagine how it will look. The sparkling lights of the Eastern Seaboard, visible for hundreds of miles in every direction from that height, will be arrayed beneath me like a mat of glowing diamonds, and I’ll exalt in the power of technology and the wonder of God’s creation.
Except as I start to strap myself in, and look at the instrument panel, it occurs to me that I have no idea how to fly a frigging F-15, because I’m not a pilot. I’m not even qualified to tool around in a Cessna in broad daylight. I sure as shit have no clue how to soar skyward at night in a high performance fighter jet.
Utter sadness. I was so close…
I Punch the Guy and Nothing Happens
For some reason I have a violent assailant, but I’ll be damned if I’m going down without a fight. I punch him right in the chops, as hard as I can, but it seems not to bother him. I keep whaling away on him, landing blow after blow, but it doesn’t hurt him at all.
In an extra special variation, I have a gun, but when I pull the trigger the bullet just dribbles out the end of the barrel.
I Can Fly!! Wait, Though…
I’m just sitting around when I realize that I can, by sheer force of will, levitate into the air. Amazing!! I float around near the ceiling, wondering how long I’ve been able to do this, before going outdoors and floating higher and higher. I’m looking down at the tops of trees, way below and shrinking from view as I gain altitude, when it occurs to me that I don’t know how to stop levitating, and I’m going to keep going up forever until I hit the airless upper atmosphere, and suffocate while simultaneously freezing solid.
Sometimes, it plays out so that I know I can keep from climbing higher and higher if I simply will myself to cease levitating, just as I’d willed myself to start, which would have been fine If I’d stuck close to the ground, but from up here I’m going to thunder in like an anvil and die horribly.
My Teeth are Falling Out!
As mentioned above. I assume this is just a replay of the rather disconcerting experience of losing all your baby teeth. Remember how they felt as their roots grew loose, and you could move them back and forth with your tongue? It’s obviously important to re-live that!
This is the only good dream, and I have it again and again. I’ll be sitting there in my house when I realize there’s a door over there that I never really noticed, and have never been through. Upon opening it, I see that a whole new set of rooms, virtually a second house, has been there the whole time. They’re big, and grand, but there’s dust and old junk everywhere, and badly cracked walls, and it’s going to take a lot of work, but still! This is great! It feels wonderful, but the standard interpretation is that this is your sub-conscious telling you that you’re missing out on a vast opportunity that you need to explore – so really, it’s a sort of benign anxiety dream. A world of possibilities awaits, but not until you notice there’s a door, and walk through it. I guess my sub-conscious figures I’ve missed out on a metric buttload of juicy opportunities.
Nuclear War/Holocaust/Plague/Alien Invasion
You all get this one, right?
I Can Write Music
The most beautiful original song will occur to me, and I’ll sing it in my head all night. Come morning, I’ll remember that there was a song, clear as day, but the tune will have vanished when the threshold to consciousness was crossed.
The Complete Enigma
Something extremely important within the context of the dream, some crucial fact or insight, will be revealed, only it’s actually completely meaningless when you wake up. I had one in which I was reading a textbook, and a chapter opened with: “It’s a sad indictment of our institutions of higher learning that very few students, including, most shamefully, very few students of international relations, have ever even heard the name ‘Sal Piscatella’”. In the dream, you’re a student of international relations, and it’s true – you haven’t heard of Sal Piscatella. Who the hell is Sal Piscatella? Why haven’t you heard of him? Better look it up, and fast!
This one was so vivid that my wife was sure there must really be a Sal Piscatella out there somewhere. Not a single hit in Google. You can come close – Sal Piscatello is a common enough name. But not Piscatella. The dream was emphatic on this point. It’s Piscatella. Recently, I’ve discovered an actor named Henke who played the character Desi Piscatella, in Orange is the New Black, but the show wasn’t even on, and the book it’s based on wasn’t even written, when I first had the dream. It can’t be Desi who was rattling around up there.
Sal, if you’re out there, who are you? What have you got to do with the study of international relations?
Shrinks and scientists can tell me all they want that there’s a point to all this. Baloney. I mean, there is, but not the way they think. The point is to make you miserable. That’s it. Full stop. This is a particular cosmic imperative if you’ve managed to get through your whole waking day without being all that miserable at all. In that case, time to crank up the heat while you sleep. Maybe tonight we can have you in the midst of being et by an anaconda. Or being drowned – that’s a good one. Falling from a high building, that’s always a winner. I hear there’s a new one where you come down with a dose of hemorrhagic fever – it might be fun tonight to make you crash and bleed out. Happy Ebola, sleeping beauty!
Whatever it takes. Listen, you gotta understand, if you were happy all the time the entire Universe would fall utterly out of whack. There has to be balance, you see. Don’t blame me. Take it up with the programmer.