Saturday, March 6, 2010


Twice this week I told people about dreams I had where they played a central role. One was my cousin, the other a co-worker. Nothing strange or overly creepy, just a standard basketball game that had a lot of bizarre occurrences and a drug deal involving mistaken identity and undercover police officers. Standard stuff.

Whenever I do this - and it's not a daily thing, or even weekly or monthly - I usually feel the need to preface it with, "Now, not to freak you out but..."

On the other hand, I usually feel a bit honored when someone tells me I appeared in one of their dreams. Hey, I made an impression! I seeped into their subconscious. Someone in this world is thinking about me, even if they are envisioning me being the cruel manager of an underwhelming produce section in a small grocery store, as one dreamer recently revealed to me.

I wish there was a way to chart how often you pop up in the dreams of others. It could boost self-esteem, or give an early heads-up that you're the target of a stalker. Like a Google Dream Alert, complete with movie-style ratings so everyone's aware of the potential content. For all I know Google is actually already testing something like this and will soon reveal it to a cheering world eager to give up even more privacy.

I've met numerous members of that strange breed of people who claim they never remember any of their dreams. I don't know whether to pity these dreamless souls or envy them. Think of the excitement they miss. On the positive side they never experience nightmares, or at least none that they're aware of. But they also never get to experience the thrill of flying. They don't know what it's like to be shot at and to be able to stop the bullet with nothing more than a thought. Or do those things only happen in my dreams?

I have the same rotation of dreams and there's not much room for variety, like a classic rock station that will break out "Stairway to Heaven" and "Satisfaction" a few times a week.

I've previously written about my final high school basketball game and I still dream about it and still lose every time. A while back we actually won in the dream and I thought that might be the end of it. But it reappeared a short time later, again with us losing, so I guess that one will continue as long as the actual waking memory remains. Mostly it's about themes that consistently crop up. Several times a week I'll have a dream where my shoes don't fit, always too small, never too big. Significance? Meaning? Interpretation? Hell if I know, although I'm assuming it dates back to a college basketball game where I played with a pair of shoes that were two sizes too small, owing to the fact I forgot my own shoes on a broken-down team van.

Or the shoes fit but they're both for my left foot and I never get the right one in time for the start of the basketball game.

Often my legs don't work in my dreams. Other times I jump up for something and suddenly find myself in mid-flight, soaring over the towering homes of Janesville's elite. It's sort of scary up there. Seemingly everyone, no matter their age or education level, has dreams that center on classroom failure, a near-universal fear. An old standby is walking into a class for a final and then realizing you haven't been to class the whole semester or forgot to study for the test. Depending on a person's psychology and past, they might also be naked. It's up to the individual to decide if that's a nightmarish development or no big deal.

My school dreams always center on math, primarily because it was the one class that tortured me from eighth grade through college. If I'd known how my shortcomings in algebra would torment my dreams two decades later, perhaps I would have tried harder. Or at least never even thought about signing up for college calculus. What was I thinking? My subconscious would like to know.

In the past few years a new sports one has joined the party: tennis. Despite not playing for eight or nine years, I'll be out on the court, always serving. Unfortunately, in the dream I'm rarely hitting the serve. Instead I toss the ball up, swing and miss. Time and time again, while my opponent grows bored and I panic. Again, the hidden meaning to this eludes me. It's been so long since I played tennis, I've actually started to wonder if this actually happened to me the last time I was on the court. Maybe my brain isn't simply creating this as a metaphor; perhaps I'm remembering an on-court trauma. I don't think so. Maybe someone who played against me in the past can remember if I foolishly missed on 10 straight serves during one of our matches. The saddest thing about this dream is that I possessed a damn good serve, a little Boris Beckerish. Now I've been reduced to an on-court joke.

Work dreams are fairly common. And as they have been since I entered the publishing world years ago, most of them center around missed deadlines.

"Where's that story," my nightmare co-worker will ask, or they'll say, "That page has to be done in 2 minutes," and only then do I realize I haven't even started.

It's time like those when I feel fortunate that I'm able to occasionally know when I'm dreaming, while still in the middle of a dream. It's called a lucid dream. For me it usually only occurs during nightmares. In the middle of it, I will realize that it's only a dream and I can actually tell myself to wake up. Sometimes I scream it in the dream, sometimes only whisper. There are countless theories on why this happens. Some people who are in therapy because of their nightmares are actually trained to do this, with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, I rarely experience this while in the middle of a good dream. In other words, I can't tell myself, "Stay sleeping, enjoy." Scientists, I implore you: figure out a way to make this happen.

Of course all dreams are fleeting, the specific details forgotten within a day or two. But those themes will eventually return. They always do. I'll fail a math class, lose my shoes, miss a serve and sometimes fly. Only the cast of characters will be different. And if someone I know makes an appearance, I might let them know. So return the favor. I won't be freaked out, and I might even be honored.


Mike said...

We study lucid dreams in my Psychology class. A psychologist at Stanford, Steven LaBerge, invented lucid dreaming goggles. You wear them when you go to sleep and when your brain enters REM, when most people dream, the goggles sense your eyes moving back and forth and flash lights into your eyes. This alerts the person that they are dreaming and after a couple of weeks they can alter the outcome of the dream. They only cost about $500! They have been using them on veterans that have war flashbacks.

Shawn Fury said...

If I continue to have problems with my tennis serve, I might invest in those, to stop the damage after the first miss. Using them for veterans does sound like a great use for them, if they actually work.

Marcia said...

During a lucid dream, the part of your brain that deals with logical reasoning is active, when it is not active in "normal" dreaming.

See for details.

Maybe when you are having a nightmare, the anxiety you feel causes that part of your brain to wake up, because you need to figure out how to get out of that situation.

In waking life, are you the kind of person who reacts to a frightening situation by thinking clearly and figuring out what to do, rather than panicking?

Shawn Fury said...

I usually only panic if the Lakers are down 6 with 30 seconds to go in a game, so maybe that does explain it. Thanks for the link. It's all pretty fascinating, which, again, is why I feel bad for those people who say they never remember a dream.