Monday, May 10, 2010

Michel Gondry is Directing My Dreams

One of the fringe perks of living abroad that I didn't mention in my last post is this: you will have the weirdest dreams of your life. Dreams in which you rattle off complete nonsense in Polish, dreams in which you juggle German, Spanish, and Korean in a single sentence; dreams in which you find yourself in rural Sichuan and suburban Nebraska all at once; dreams in which your American college cronies make cameos in your Chinese classroom, and vice versa. Most of my dreams are pleasant and thought-provoking. But they are sometimes too intense for comfort, and at the far end of the intensity scale are what sleep scientists call hypnagogic hallucinations, or what I am inclined to refer to as waking dreams. You are awake, but dreaming. You are fully conscious but you can't move. The unreal is superimposed upon the real in such a way that you can tell the two worlds apart easily enough, but your nervous system cannot. So your body responds accordingly, and all you can do is sit and watch the madness unfold. Waking dreams tend to be, in a word, terrifying.

The Chinese word for a waking dream is 鬼壓身 (gui ya shen), or "ghost pressing down on body." The Korean term translates into something like "being squashed by scissors." The Mexicans call it subirse el muerto or "dead person on top of you," and the Germanics chalk it all up to a succubus named Mahr, from whence the word "nightmare" is derived. Having spent much of my early twenties on Wikipedia, I was already well aware of all these facts before I experienced my first waking dream, so when it happened, I knew exactly what was going on. But that foreknowledge didn't make the experience any less horrifying.

I was living in South Korea at the time, in a dingy four-room apartment that was much too big for my liking. My bedroom window faced the east and had no curtains, so I was constantly waking up at 6 AM against my will. Late one night, insomnia-crazed and thoroughly fed up, I stuffed a bathtowel in the window frame and draped it down over the glass. Then, awfully pleased with my MacGyveresque ingenuity, I curled up in my usual fetal position and drifted off to sleep.

I woke up with the sun and rolled over in bed to glare at the ineffective towel - and there in its stead was a shimmering blue alien.

Now, I knew myself well enough even then to know that I wasn't schizophrenic, and I was fairly certain that the mushrooms I'd eaten for dinner were not of the magical sort. So I concluded that I was experiencing my first waking dream. But there is nothing more distressing to me than aliens - the cliche garden variety aliens, the hydrocephalic big-eyed ones - so even though I knew the whole thing was just a dream, the sweat was already streaming down my face and my heart began to gallop at a Secretariat pace. While I sat there motionless and gasping for breath, the alien hissed and started walking towards me. I can't tell you how scared I was. My body was frozen solid and there did indeed seem to be a German succubus sitting on my chest, a ghost pressing down on my body, Korean safety scissors squashing my head, a dead person on top of me. I couldn't move and I couldn't breathe. All I could muster was a feeble stream of profanities as the hideous blue thing started bitch slapping me across the face.

Wake up, I told myself, wake up, wake up, wake up. The alien was glowering over me, hissing and spitting, bitch slapping me across the face. I was so terrified that I very nearly became religious right there on the spot. But instead, I willed myself into wakefulness, slowly dragged my body upright, and finally, I was able to swing my arms loose of sleep. I lunged at the alien and caught it by the neck, at which point the alien transformed into an unwashed bathtowel. I held it in my hand for a moment, then threw it against the wall and flopped back into bed. I lay there murmuring the words "holy shit" until I was soothed enough to risk going back to sleep. Well, I said to myself, at least I'd gotten that out of the way. According to Wikipedia, most people only experience one waking dream per lifetime, so I passed out, relieved that I'd never have to deal with what sleep scientists call hypnogogic hallucinations ever again.

Until last night, when I awoke from what I could've sworn were twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep, only to glance at the clock and find that it was 3:30 AM. I sat up in bed but could not move my legs. Panic flared up in my brain. Not this again. Anything but this. I looked around me: there were my legs and there was my bed, and there was my east-facing window, and there was my wardrobe and the space heater in the corner and two weeks of underwear on the floor. Everything was in its right place. And yet nothing quite looked the way it should have. The film was grainy, the angles didn't line up, objects were flickering in and out of existence - and I was just beginning to wonder where I was when the bedroom door shot open and no fewer than twelve people came rushing in. Before I could get a word out, they rolled me over and ripped the sheets out from under me. Then they arranged themselves in a circle and stretched the bedsheet over my head. The circle rotated, the bedsheet began rippling: I laughed - they were playing the parachute game we used to play in third grade P.E. class. I sat under the parachute for a minute or two, watching it roll and ripple above me, and I laughed, and the people laughed, and for a moment I felt like a third grader again. Then the blanket deflated, the people flipped me over and made my bed for me, tucked me in, and hustled back out the door as quickly as they'd come. I sat there giggling for a while, giggling and waiting for whatever was to come next.

Suddenly, a trap door dropped from the ceiling and a clear plastic tube came snaking towards me. I gave it a tug and a showerhead flopped down and mechanically positioned itself in front of my mouth. I reached up and poked at it, then pushed it away from me. There came a hydraulic hiss from the bathroom and the showerhead switched on, blasting me in the face with ice cold Chinese tap water. I gurgled and laughed. The showerhead wiggled this way and that, and after a couple minutes of delirious giggling, I noticed that my bed was sopping wet and that the floor was flooded.

I thought immediately of my third floor neighbors. "Shit," I said, and got up to fetch a towel - and then everything evaporated, everything except my bedroom and the underwear strewn across the floor, the east-facing window and the wardrobe, and my bed, unmade as usual. I searched the ceiling for a trap door but found none. I ran out to the living room but my visitors had vanished. So I shrugged and climbed back into bed. Well, I said to my brain, that was fun. Let's do it again sometime. And I lay there for a few minutes marveling at the human brain, this three pound mass of pink stuff that can create worlds that are as real as reality. And as for reality: the brain creates that, too. But that same three pound mass drives us to drink and smoke cigarettes, goads us into cheating and telling lies, dupes us into working 47 years at that soul-sucking insurance company we hate with every fiber of our being. What a funny thing it is to be human. Aw, hell. Oh, well. I curled up in my usual fetal position and sank into a dream where I was seated comfortably in the backseat of a Nanchong taxi, and all's I had to do was tell the cabby how to get me home.

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