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Dream On

Last week, when I was visiting son Dan in San Diego, I had my usual anxiety dream and was telling him about it, somewhat bemused because here I was in La-La-Land, having a wonderful vacation with not an obvious care in the world. Anyway, I refer to “my anxiety dream” in the singular because it really has been the same dream with just minor variations for the past fifty years. Always the setting is some school and I am probably an undergraduate. This time the nasty was a term paper that I had completely spaced out and that was due the next day. Sometimes it is a course I had signed up for and completely forgot about and the semester is almost over. Sometimes I can’t find the classroom. Sometimes I am naked into the bargain.

I remarked on the fact that we all seem to have this same anxiety movie that we play in our sleep: school setting, some obligation that we have spaced out, etc. Dan replied that that simply wasn’t true. He never cottoned to college: instead, he got a job bussing tables in high school, went on to become a server and then a waiter, and has been a bartender for the last several years. HIS anxiety dream has him assigned the usual complement of tables to wait on. But then suddenly it is not, say, ten tables, but thirty tables, spread over three floors of this crazy restaurant! And, yes, sometimes he’s naked.

Of course this makes perfect sense, and I felt rather chagrined to have been so parochial. Maybe I don’t hang out with the wrong crowd, but clearly I hang out with the same crowd, of academics and other professional types. I asked the Long-Suffering Diana what her anxiety dream is. It has to do not with her undergraduate days but with her current life as a second grade teacher. Sally admitted to the undergraduate dream but added that she too has anxiety dreams set in her past as a professor. If you check anxiety dreams on the internet, however, you will find, over and over, people citing the “undergraduate” dream that I always have. Exactly the same dream, I daresay.

My guess is that anxiety dreams grow from seeds planted when we were at our most vulnerable, when we were desperately trying to prove ourselves and find our lifelong identities. And who is more desperately vulnerable than a student, with grades hanging over his head and with—he thinks—all the world’s eyes and expectations focused on him? Dan went to a different “school,” but his dream makes perfect sense in that context. This is why I am a bit puzzled by Diana’s and Sally’s extensions of it. I never have that teaching anxiety dream. Does that mean that I am more secure as a teacher? I doubt it. A puzzle, surely. But a logical extension of one’s school days.

And naked. Ah, yes, naked. Books say it reflects embarrassments in our past (like looking stupid in front of the whole class? like being a totally bungling waiter?), but you would think we would get used to it by now (“You lookin’ at me?” says [a naked] Travis Bickel). In my dreams I often have the false comfort of an undershirt. False comfort because when I pull it down to cover my privates, up it goes in the back to bare my fanny. And of course vise versa. Fiendish. Come to that, why don’t we recognize our anxiety dreams after all these years? Why don’t we say, “Hello, old friend, shall we just entertain each other until the alarm goes off?” Beats me. I do know that I quite often AM aware that I am dreaming.

I remember my dreams, often (and) vividly. I had a loosely connected and mundane dream last night. I give my unconscious a C+ for it. There was one feature of it worth noting, however. I don’t think I have had a true nightmare since I was a kid. I mean the kind where the monster under the bed gets loose and chases you to hell and gone, the kind where your only recourse is to awaken. (Whoever said “Make me a child again just for tonight” hadn’t thought things through.). The one feature that still sometimes crops up in my dreams is acrophobia. In waking life I have a decent respect for heights, but they don’t terrify me. In a dream, however, any precipice will send me scuttling back from the edge on my belly like a crab, trembling.

Anxiety dreams for testing, nightmares for terrifying. So aren’t there sometimes good dreams? Of course there are. Dreams of flying are often cited (do birds dream? have they any need to?). I have had those dreams. But then I had a dream maybe twenty years ago that will always be with me, and not with me. The dreamscape was a mountain of sorts, a switchback road climbing it. Near the top were trees and a tarn as blue as the cerulean sky above. Reading over that description, I realize that it seems as schlocky as the paintings in many a motel room. And yet…and yet a peace washed over me that stopped up my breath and started my tears.

Ever since, I have tried and tried and failed and failed to magic back that dream.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is


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