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September 2012

Post image for It’s the tone, not the content

The car was skidding sideways now, for me in slow motion, and I remember having time to decide what to do. I felt the wheels beneath me leave the road’s edge, into the air above the ditch and I knew we were dead. Time stretched even wider, and I put my hands calmly over my face and waited.

There was no impact, just silence and softness and the feeling of tiny bits of glass scattering over the backs of my hands. It felt good.


I don’t talk about the meaning of dreams here much because it’s one of those topics that seems to attract over-reaching interpretations. Dream dictionaries rattle off one-to-one meanings as if they could possibly be the same for everyone. Dreaming about a lizard means you have anxiety about your libido, didn’t you know? Somehow it’s not supposed to matter who you are.

Not that what we dream about can’t tell us anything about what’s happening in our lives, even if we’re not conscious of it while we’re awake. They give us pretty strong clues sometimes, if a little general. We tend to dream about what we’ve been thinking about during waking life. This can include hopes and anxieties that only happen in the background normally, and which come to light when we’re asleep.

As random as they seem to be, if you look at what you tend to dream about over time you can get an idea of what might be occupying your subconscious in your day-to-day life, even over years. I’ve had thousands of dreams and certain specific themes and images have recurred consistently for long stretches of my life:

It’s the first day of school and I don’t know where my class is.

There is an exciting field trip about to happen and I miss the bus or it gets canceled.

My teeth become brittle and crumble in my mouth.

I lose my laptop and my heart’s in my throat until I find it.

I meet my dream girl and she disappears or turns into someone else.

I lose a body part violently, but rather than panic I just get kind of sad that it’s gone.

These aren’t all of them, but it’s amazing to me how consistently these themes have visited me over the last ten or fifteen years. You probably have your own, and looking at my own short list I can’t help but wonder what they have to do with me specifically. Why don’t I dream about laying comfortably on beaches or playing in the Superbowl?

It’s not that all my dreams are anxious or filled with the fear of loss. Some are euphoric, some are horrific. But the overall consistency of emotional themes seems to suggest that when my mind is left to its own, to create an experience without any external sense data defining the world for it — which seems to be the only difference between waking life and dreaming — that world is usually an anxious one.  Read More

Post image for Man’s search for meaning, and cell phone reception

The sun had sunk below the treeline and I was parked alone on a gravel approach, facing a field of dead sunflowers. I had just sped five miles out of the dead-zone town I was staying in, and finally I had mobile data again. As I watched my smartphone screen, two days of emails flooded into my inbox and I felt a physical ecstasy, a squirt of serotonin or dopamine or whatever it is that the body releases when an addict scores.

The rush was so conspicuous that when I was done checking my email I couldn’t help but reflect on how badly I’ve come to depend on invisible wireless networks for my senses of control and connectedness and possibility. I knew that my current situation — stuck working for four days in a town with no phone or internet — was bearable to me only because I knew it was temporary.

My employer had sent me and my assistant to a map-dot called Glenboro, two hours from the city. Accommodations had been set up for us at a green and white 55-dollar motel right on the highway. After we checked in, I jokingly referred to it as a “one-star hotel” — the one star being for, if anyone asked, “No visible mice,” but during breakfast on the last day I had to retract even that star.

I am a city person and have known that for a long time. Small country towns give me existential crises. They make me crave two things: my home city’s tap water, and a feeling of meaning to what I’m doing. I don’t know quite why. In small towns I feel aimless and self-conscious and disoriented, like I’m moving too fast and expecting too much. Maybe I am, and small towns make me confront that. Or maybe I just don’t like them.

Maybe because I was without telecommunications, my sphere of awareness filled with small-town minutae and it was almost too much sometimes. On our first day, this existential daze was settling over me when we finally stopped circling and settled on a place to eat lunch. It was a hotel-bar-restaurant but at least two of the three of those appeared to be permanently closed. The restaurant door was open but there was no other indication that anyone was there. We sat anyway.

We waited for quite a while, mostly staring, before one of us decided to make things happen. My assistant leaned into the door beside the till and called “Hello,” as if he were standing at the mouth of a cave. Nobody answered and he sat down again. Eventually a server appeared carrying two menus and a baby, and disappeared again for a long time.

During that long time it grew impossible to sit still and so I figured going to the bathroom might be slightly more interesting than sitting and staring. So I ventured into the cave, and looked for a bathroom, and I found one, but it didn’t look public. There was a bathtub and fish-pattern shower curtain. The toilet appeared to be unflushed but I would later learn that’s just what the town’s water looks like. At eye-level above the toilet tank there was an embroidered wall-craft that said “Nobody notices what I do around here until I don’t do it.” Below that was one that said “Jesus died for me.” Suddenly I felt like a remorseful burglar and retreated to the dining room.  Read More

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