The Topic At Hand: Lost and Found

When I was eight, we moved to the suburbs and into a big, creaky, beige house. I got my own room, with my own walls on which I painted a giant rainbow above my bed (a move that I was to regret when I hit my teens, though not as much as my brother was to regret the rainforest wallpaper that he chose for his). We had a big yard where the neighborhood kids and I regularly smacked each other in the head with a tetherball and where I convinced the younger/gullible ones to act in brilliant super-8 melodramas — as well as blocks of adjoining yards that we also claimed as our territory, and quiet streets on which I finally learned to ride a bike. These were something of a contrast to the streets of my former ‘hood, Newark, where my dad had once been jumped while walking with me and my mother and brother by two guys who stole all of his Rolaids (like any native New Yorker, he never kept money in his back pockets).

For a long time, though, all of my dreams continued to take place in our old apartment. Except it was never really our apartment, it was an unfamiliar endless series of dark rooms through which I would wander trying to find my favorite stuffed animal, a giant moth-eaten yellow felt mouse named Mousy, or, failing that, my parents. The dream I still remember best was the one where I arrived at those big picture windows, from which I’d always observed my favorite neon sign that flashed different colors as it urged you to buy cigarettes, and watched, terrified, as the city went up in flames. Oh, and GI Joe was there, still with plastic hair but life-sized, and he was somehow responsible. The main feelings behind these dreams, though, was not knowing how I got there or what to do — reflecting, of course, my nascent confusion about life in these strange new environs called suburbia. Eventually, my subconscious and I settled in and the stress dreams became about things like the wiener dog in the yard next door who was now the bane of my existence, except it had a yellow balloon for a body that allowed it to fly through the air as it chased me down the street, yapping.

Scary unfamiliar dreamscapes from hell.

Scary unfamiliar dreamscapes from hell.

Why was I even having stress dreams at eight years old, you may ask? Well, the ability to generate free-floating anxiety has always been one of my special skills. Back then, it floated around being liked at my new school or nuclear war or having some weird disease (I was permanently traumatized by catching a piece of The Andromeda Strain when it was broadcast on television in 1973), or the newly-discovered factoid that my parents were going to die some day. These days, it hovers between having no work or too much work, my documentary, my IRA, and the fact that my parents are still going to die some day. As a result, insomnia quickly became another one of my special skills. And when I do sleep, I have these kinds of dreams.

They’re not the only dreams I have, of course. I do occasionally have the good sensual dream, where you’re making out with Jude Law, and while you’re disappointed that you have to wake up, it does make you want to have morning sex — which can be either good or bad depending on the situation. I also do sometimes have the ambiguous happy dream, when you wake up feeling like all is right with the world but can’t for the life of you remember why. In fact, for years, I’ve only remembered maybe a third of my dreams. I heard once that if you write them down as soon as you wake up, you’ll remember them, so I tried that once and it worked: I remembered I’d had a dream about taking a bus trip with some of my high school friends. I even remembered some of the visuals, like who was wearing the lime green sweater. But when I looked at what I’d written down, it was way more detailed and bizarre, with scrawled phrases like, “And then Peter wanted to pet the cat named Pinocchio.” Plus, if you already aren’t a great sleeper, there’s nothing like having to get up and grope around for a pen and the back of an envelope on which to write down the details of a nightmare where you’re buried in a snowdrift and being attacked by sharks to keep you awake for the rest of the night. So I kind of stopped doing that.

For a long time, most of my stress dreams were school-related. I arrive late for the big math test or the SATs and I haven’t studied or didn’t even know there was a test, and I don’t have a pen, or I have a pencil but it keeps breaking, or I can’t find a seat, or a test, or my hands are covered in peanut butter. And at least part of the time, I’m also naked and trying to hide behind or under the desk. Everyone has these dreams in one variation or another. The only unique one I can remember was when, around the time I was finishing film school, I dreamed I was back at my college graduation, frantically trying to find my place in this endless line of people in robes and mortarboards that snaked up a very Gothic-looking spiral staircase, when a woman – who oddly enough looked like Condoleeza Rice – found me and put me in the right place. It’s the only stress dream I can ever remember having that had a happy ending.

In keeping with my pre-established tradition of dreaming in the past, these nightmares continued to receive a high volume of play — like Bravo reality shows do — long after my school days were over. Then, at some point, my stress dreams became mostly about work. I’m on set and suddenly I realize I have no equipment, or my recorder has stopped working and I have no tape and the radio mics aren’t working, or I have to go somewhere to find batteries and I can’t find them and then I can’t find my way back for hours, knowing all the while that everyone back on set is waiting on me, or I’m being forced to work with a Nagra 3 (yes, that experience is a nightmare all unto itself). Of course, all of these catastrophes have happened to me, even the part about being lost trying to find my way back to set; those Law & Order soundstages at Chelsea Piers are one giant maze of prop rooms. But they have never all happened at the same time, or while I’m naked – which, yes, also continued to pop up from time to time. It’s interesting how in most of these dreams I’m recording sound onto tape, very often reel-to-reel analog. But of course it makes sense, not only because it’s consistent with the stress dream time lag, but because the most horrible memories of my career come from that time when I was first starting out as a sound mixer, had no clue what I was doing, and still thought floppy disks were was as far as technology was going to go. I remember my first job recording on a feature, for instance, when I had to do a scene on a beach and all I was getting was wind noise and radio mic interference. I called my former sound teacher in a panic and he calmly told me that I’d have to have the production rent me something called a “windjammer.” It worked like a charm. Which, I now know, is why, while they may call it “the dog” or “the rat,” every single sound person I’ve ever met has one of these furry zeppelin covers in his or her kit.

And who hasn't had a nightmare about evil clowns?

And who hasn't had a nightmare about evil clowns?

A few years ago, I started taking some long trips in foreign countries. Somewhere during that time, the stress dreams about traveling took over. Sure, I’d still have the occasional boom pole breaking or hitting a light causing it to explode into flame dream, and even the I’ve completely forgotten to take the one class I needed for graduation dream. But more often, it’s that I’ve have missed the right bus or gotten on the wrong bus and every time I try to speak the language my tongue swells up, or I’m driving around with my back seat full people I don’t really like (generally because they make me neurotic) trying not to let them know that I actually have no idea where I’m going and narrowly avoiding several accidents, or I’m at some seriously awful dive hotel where the walls are filthy and the sheets are just crawling with roaches and scorpions, but I have to stay there because I can’t find my luggage. Again, all of this is reality-based stuff; I have missed plenty of buses, found cockroaches in my sheets and boots and toiletries (I was staying in a swamp at the time), and been on a few road trips with people I never should have gone on road trips with.

And this is the thing that makes my nightmare life especially unpleasant if not particularly complicated. As you can tell, I dream very close to the top of my brain. Sure, sometimes I get into wacky territory, like where I’m having a tea party with Godzilla (too many Japanese monster movies in my youth), but most of the time, it’s very clear to me where my dreams come from and what they’re about. These were all stressful situations for me, even if I successfully survived them. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the anxiety is basically mix-and-match, so that the math test dream is still, really, about being afraid that I’m going to fail at my job, and the travel dream is really about not knowing where I’m going with my life. And being naked, in any situation, is just about being afraid that people will see these insecurities underneath my calm exterior, along with all of my flaws and shortcomings, and will find them either appalling or laughable. I mean, as much as I like to think of myself as a complex and nuanced person, it’s not deep, it’s Freud 101 at best. Maybe that means that, thanks to years of therapy, my subconscious and conscious minds are separated only by one layer of nerves that has been worn thin and cranky. Or maybe it means that I was a more interesting person when I was eight.

It’s funny, though, that after my last trip abroad, the travel stress dreams seem not to have started up again in force, as I would have expected. In fact, they seem to have stopped. And they haven’t been replaced by work stress dreams or school dreams, both of which have also tapered off a lot. Not that I haven’t been having nightmares. The other night I had one about being lost in a modern art museum where I had to put back all of these pieces of art that my nephews had managed to roll (they all seemed to be round) into the wrong galleries, while keeping track and taking care of the little boys because they were both sick and seemed to have shrunk in size, making them even harder to keep track of than little boys usually are. I think this probably had something to do with my anxiety about my ability to juggle work and family, and potential future childrearing. Again, not very hard to interpret, and excellent fodder for hours and hours of unproductive worrying. But on the positive side, maybe my subconscious has decided that work and travel and school are no longer the fodder as they used to be, and has therefore found new issues to mull.

Now if only I could get my conscious and unconscious to cooperate a little more, like I somehow did with that reassuring dream about graduation and Condi. Although I still, for the life of me, don’t get it. Why would that nightmare, where I’m chasing my place through the endlessly spiraling existential line of life, end with me finding it? What does my subconscious know that I don’t?

And it better not be that my destiny lies in becoming a Republican, because that’s not going to happen.

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    One response to “Naked, with a Nagra”

    1. Jendra says:

      That was hilarious! I was laughing out loud so often I had to stop eating my cereal so I didn't choke!

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    The Author


    BTL is a New York-based filmmaker and writer who listens to stuff for money – aka, works as a sound mixer and boom operator on movies, TV shows and commercials. She blogs anonymously not to build her own mystique (which she's been told she already oozes) but to make sure she gets her next job. BTL is currently working on a screenplay, a novel, and a documentary, none of which she can tell you anything about — but she can tell you that she likes travel, platform shoes, and bacon-infused bourbon.

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