I’m in the shower, with the water at my back. I turn around to face the shower rack. My loofah is … not there. I turn around again. It’s not on that side of the tub, either. I look to the floor. There’s just my feet and the water.
Did I throw it away, I wonder? Did someone take it? That doesn’t seem very hygienic. I look behind me one more time. It’s just not there. “Huh,” I think. “I guess I need a new loofah.”
And then I wake up.
If what we are is what we dream, then what I am is very boring.
In most of my childhood dreams, as I recall, I was a prototypical Cassandra, the character always yelling about some imminent disaster without ever being heard. The sun was falling out of the sky, but I couldn’t get anyone around me to care. It felt like I was fighting a battle against nihilism. Then I hit puberty and became a nihilist myself, dreaming at 15 the world was ending and thinking only, “I guess this means I’m dying a virgin.”
These days, my dreams seem more like items in a day planner: I dream I need a new loofah. I dream I’m getting my B-12 shot. If I dream I’m on a date, it’s not sexy. We’re just ordering drinks, and those drinks are ice water.
Friends tell me about the monsters in their dreams. If there’s a monster in my dream, it’s usually me: I’ve rear-ended a car, or I’ve ruined an ex’s wedding. It’s as if I’m watching The Twilight Zone, but only the episodes in which “man is the greatest monster of all.”
I know it’s odd to be jealous of other people’s nightmares. But it taps into something for me: I’ve long been afraid that I have no imagination. I work in the “creative arts,” and what chance do I have if I can’t even dream creatively?
I’m talking to a strange man. He is not menacing. He is not attractive. He’s just a man.
“They’re rebooting “Frasier,'” he tells me. “But this time it’ll be in Seattle.”
‘“Frasier’s” already set in Seattle,” I say.
“No, it’s set in Boston.”
“No,” I say. ‘”Cheers” was set in Boston. “Frasier” was the spin-off about a Freudian psychiatrist in Seattle.”
“That’s only the later seasons,” he says.
“You’re wrong,” I say, “but I’ll look it up on my phone to show you.”
And then I wake up.
Sigmund Freud believed dreams were an expression of subconscious desires. I know this because I wrote an essay about Freud in 9th grade. He claimed to have discovered this on July 24, 1895, after having a dream wherein he helped a patient he hadn’t been able to help in real life. I know that because July 24th is my birthday, and being 14 and self-absorbed, I included the date in my essay.
I still don’t know if I understand Freud, but I don’t know if anyone else does, either. Dream analysis seems to have trickled down into a kind of trite pop psychology where magazine writers and self-help gurus and acquaintances who later try to get you to read Ayn Rand (maybe that was just me) tell you that what you dream is what you are. It’s the true you, a divine message, a vision of things to come!
Personally, I believe there’s nothing supernatural about dreams. And my personal belief is echoed by many researchers who’ve taken on the challenge of studying dreams. Dreams come from our minds, nowhere else, and dreaming something doesn’t necessarily mean you desire it. If a dream comes true (and mine often do), it’s just a coincidence.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t meaningful, though. Dreams can reveal truths. It was in a dream that I realized my “admiration” for my friend Monica had been a full-fledged crush. She’d appeared in a dream about my then-current-crush Luke, and I noticed I felt the same way about both of them. It’s rare for my dream revelations to be anything life-changing, though. Mostly they’re about musicals: “You know you’d be a terrible Louise in Gypsy even if you’d really love to play her,” or “You don’t like Cole Porter shows because the songs do nothing to advance the plot.”
I appreciate this. Dreams are the ultimate safe space. They’re where I could safely question my sexual orientation. They’re where I can talk about musical theater for hours, and no one will tell me to shut up. They’re where I can learn the truths I already know.
I’m at the store, walking down an aisle. There’s a box of garbage bags on the shelf, and I reach for it.
“This is good,” I think. “I really need garbage bags.”
And then I wake up.
But I already know the truth. My dreams are my father’s fault.
He doesn’t need to apologize; there’s nothing traumatic to hash out. But there is something you need to understand: My father is an engineer.
Yes, “engineer” is his job title, but it’s more than that. Engineers are a type, and while a person might never build a bridge or plan a city or design a circuit, they can still have an engineer’s brain. To have one is to be analytical, reflective, and above all, practical. Meyers-Briggs calls it INTP, I call it “Dad.” And more and more, I call it “me.”
In my nihilistic teenage days, I didn’t believe I had much in common with my father. In my 20s, I realized we shared a favorite pastime: breaking things down and analyzing them. (Although for him, it’s things like motherboards, and for me it’s things like horribly embarrassing mistakes I want to avoid repeating.) In my 30s, I feel like I have become half-engineer in much the same way I’m half-Jewish.
People like me and my father aren’t creatures of habit, we are creatures of efficiency: We know what we like and we know what works. Yes, we will go to the same restaurant twice in one day, because the tacos were great and it wasn’t expensive and the owner Jo was so nice to us that, damn it, why wouldn’t we go again? Our hearts are pragmatic organs, above all else.
Maybe my dreams are who I am. Yes, I’d love to be someone who has imaginative dreams, but I’m not. Though that wouldn’t actually make me more artistic. The only thing that makes someone an artist is making art. And we all know what’s needed to do that: careful planning and a healthy dose of practicality.
There are fringe benefits to being practical. My analytical outlook has seeped into all my dreams, even the scary ones. When a dream disaster happens, I go into pragmatic mode. Hit a car? Swap insurance info. Ruin an ex’s wedding? Hand the mic back to the Best Man and promise never to see any of them ever again. My dreams help me work through my fears. And maybe they also help me accept that I’m boring.
My dreams aren’t a divine message, they’re more like a loofah, scrubbing off the residue of my day. Or maybe they’re like a garbage truck, taking away what I no longer need.
We need our dreams. And maybe we need pragmatic people, too.