Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How to Tell a Good Dream

I ran into that old familiar complaint again yesterday, the claim that no one is interested in hearing about your dreams. As a writer who works frequently with dreams, naturally I find this idea to be dismissive and obnoxious. But in a way, I do understand where they’re coming from. We’ve all been there. Someone tells you about a dream they had where the dog had their grandmother’s face and they were pulling carrots out of the ground in the back yard but they turned out to be giant AA batteries. Our eyes beginning to glaze over. Our attention wanders. There’s no point of entry for us. We weren’t there. We weren’t mystified by the oddness of the experience. We have nothing to gain or learn. To the dreamer it’s a baffling enigma, invested with all sorts of peculiar emotions. But to us, it’s just random nonsense, noise.

Some people pin our disinterest in other people’s dreams on the fact that they didn’t actually happen. I doubt that’s the case. The truthfulness of a story has very little to do with how interesting we find it. Granted, if a story ends with “…and that’s how I found this huge sack of money that I’m going to split with you”, then we’d be plenty interested in how true it is. However, I believe our interest in a story qua story bears little regard for the facts. No, I think the problem here is primarily in the telling. We aren’t interested in the dream that we’re being told because the person telling us isn’t involving us, drawing us in with the evocative details of the experience. They aren’t finding common ground where the dream becomes relatable. It’s just their dream, and they aren’t giving us more than just a report of the bare oddities of it.

Consider, for instance, if a passing acquaintance told you that their mother had died. You would express whatever sympathy was necessary for the sake of politeness. You might even feel whatever token sympathy you would for any human being in that situation. But if they told you nothing more than the basic fact of their mother dying, then it’s unlikely that any deep emotions would be evoked by the news. However, if the person sat with you over coffee, went through the details of the experience, those last fleeting expressions, if they drew you into the room, if they expressed what their mother meant to them personally, the things that she had said, the things she had done for them, made her become real to you as a person, then you might beginning to feel something about this woman’s death.

This is what any good story-telling is about, and it’s no different with dreams. It’s true that dreams don’t always seem to have that necessary through-line that connects it with common experience, but you have to find it in the details, bring it to light, cultivate it into something, tweak a detail here and there. Let’s say, for instance, that instead of the dog having the grandmother’s face, let’s say that it simply reminded you of your grandmother in some uncanny way. There was a turn of the head, a look in the eyes. There was a sense that her spirit was somehow inhabiting the dog, and it reminded you of that time when she scolded you as a child for stealing something from the cupboard, and you were afraid. And now you’re feeling this same fear of the dog. It wants something from you. You shut it up in the room, but you can hear it in there, growling, scratching at the door.

Now you begin to peek your listener’s interest. The idea of a hostile dog inhabited by someone’s dead grandmother is plenty odd enough, but yet it taps something visceral, something common. We can understand how unsettling the experience would be. Given enough detail, we begin to see this room, the dust hanging in the light, the metal frame of the twin bed. We hear the dog’s sharp nails on the thin wooden door. We see the dreamer in the dark hallway, out of the light, listening, on edge, trying to figure out how to satisfy this dog.

So you connect the carrots with the dog, so that the dream begins to take an almost narrative shape. Now you’re digging up the carrots to feed the dog, but when you go to pull them out of the ground, you find a never ending network of electrical cables buried under the soil. You can almost smell the loose dirt as you try to pull them up, but there’s just more and more cable, stretching out in all directions, as though they went on forever, circling the Earth, as though you had found the nexus of all the power lines on the planet. You pull and pull, but you know it’s futile. You’ll never get it all up. You’ll never satisfy the dog. It’s all connected. You’ll never get a piece of it free. You tug and you tug, and then you hear it behind you. A calm comes over you. A breeze comes through out over the garden and the morning sun. You drop the cables, loosen your shoulders, and you turn to face the menacing dog, ready for it to lunge at you. But the dog just cocks its head in that friendly way, and you know it’s going to be alright. The dog comes to nuzzle against you, and you wake up in a flood of tears and relief.

Now, that’s how you tell a dream.  Of course, you don't even have to necessarily change and embellish the details in this manner.  Nine times out of ten everything you need will be right there in the dream itself.  You just have to bring it to life.  But when you get right down to it dreams are really just a bunch of lies to begin with - wonderful enchanting lies, but lies all the same - and if you're going to lie, lie big, lie your ass off.   

Thursday, September 20, 2012

No Martians in the New Total Recall

A few months ago they came out with a remake of the 80's action movie Total Recall.  The special effects and the cinematography were, of course, light years beyond the original, but the story...well, it kind of sucked.  The main problem was that they took Mars completely out of the story, and they didn't really bother to find anything else to fill the gaping hole left in the plot.  Below is a list of reasons why this is such a problem.  It would probably help immensely in your quest to understand this post if you've seen the remake ...or the original ...of if you just get out and see a movie once in a while.  What's wrong with you?  (Anyway, yeah, spoilers and all that.)    

1. In the original, Quaid has an inexplicable fascination with Mars.  He dreams of it.  He doesn't know why.  He wants to go there, but he's pinned down in a job and a marriage.  Meanwhile, Rekall is presented as a kind of virtual travel agency.  It makes perfect sense that he would go there.  In the new movie, Quaid feels that he was "doing something important" in his dreams.  So why would he go to Rekall for this?  And exactly what is Rekall in this new movie?  Even though there is ubiquitous advertising on both sides of the world, it's presented as a little, seedy, clandestine, back alley kind of place which seems to offer a service more akin to the "playback" in Strange Days than the concept in the original.  Remind me again why someone would go to a place like this when they had a yearning to do something important with their life.

2. The possibility that Quaid could just be a normal guy dreaming of an exciting adventure on Mars who pays Rekall to simulate that adventure, OR a secret resistance fighter all along, is the essential ambiguity that's supposed to be at the core of this story.  Now, it's possible that someone could just be a normal guy dreaming of "doing something important", but it doesn't really play out as well in the details.  An average Joe having exotic dreams of Mars - even if they are nightmares - has a simplicity that we can easily appreciate.  Being chased by faceless robots down generic sci-fi corridors?  Ummm, not so much.  In the new movie, there's never really a possibility that Quaid is just a normal guy with an exotic fantasy that he lives out in a virtual simulation through Rekall.  From the first scene, he's the cliched "man with a secret destiny haunting his dreams that he must uncover."  Not a whole lot of ambiguity there.

3. The original movie uses the travel agency idea to have the man from Rekall lay out a kind of itinerary for Quaid's trip, an itinerary which uncannily matches the subsequent events of the story, further developing the ambiguity.  By the time Quaid is facing a recording of himself telling him "Get your ass to Mars", we're either thinking, "Hey, just like the package he ordered from Rekall!  Hmmmm...", or, "Ohhh, so that's why he's been dreaming about Mars!  He'll find his answers there."  And the story can be taken both ways.  Then another man from Rekall visits his room on Mars and lays out a new itinerary.  This time not for the package he ordered, but for how the ensuing "schizoid embolism" will manifest itself inside his delusions.  And, of course, everything happens just as he says, carrying the ambiguity all the way to the end of the film.

What do we get in the new movie?  Quaid just tells the guy at Rekall that he wants to be a "secret agent" before the guy considerately allows himself to be murdered.  Then his friend shows up and basically just goes, "Hey, we're really at Rekall!  Trippy, huh?"  Yup, way to develop that ambiguity and expand on the movie's interesting premise.  Oh, and then he shoots the friend because...ummm...the girl was crying?  I guess?  And that proved it was all real, how? I think it was at this point that I realize that this movie made about as much sense as one of my shits.  It was like some simpleton was in charge of making this movie and they said, "Well, there was moisture running down someone's face in the original scene.  We need moisture running down someone's face in this scene."  Of course that's all the movie is really: appropriated pieces lifted completely out of context and "clever" reversals on details from the original.  It may be the first remake ever that's completely incomprehensible outside of it being a remake.

4. In the original, the radiation on Mars has created mutants, some of whom are psychic.  This establishes the need for Hauser and Cohagen's plan, which is the cornerstone of the entire plot.  Hauser has his own memory erased so the he can become the perfect mole, his true identity and loyalties a secret even from himself and thus hidden from the psychics.  He leads them straight to Kuato without even knowing it.  The new movie has...gas masks?  A techno beat?  The step-father from Shaun of the Dead?  I got nothing.

5. The original ends with Quaid CREATING A BREATHABLE ATMOSPHERE ON FUCKING MARS.  The new movie ends with Quaid destroying a glorified subway car.

I rest my case.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Bank Door

Today's post from Strangers Call Me Sunny is kind of hybrid of the posts I do there, as well as the kind of stuff I used to post over here.  So I figured that I would post this on both blogs, and use this as an opportunity to plug the other blog and try to bring some of you stragglers back into the fold.

Over the years, I've heard about plenty of psychological experiments which demonstrate our human tendency to conform to a group, as well as many of our other unflattering propensities.  There was one experiment I learned about in school where they put a subject in a room with two other people that were secretly working with the psychologists who were conducting the test.  The three of them were ostensibly left alone to fill out some paperwork, but the experiment was purposely set up so that at one point someone would call out for help from somewhere down the hall.  The two plants would just ignore it and go on filling out their paperwork like they didn't hear anything.  The test was to see what the subject would do.  More often than not, they would look up at the other two, see that they were doing nothing, and they would ignore it too and go back to filling out their paperwork.  Meanwhile, the subjects in the control group were left in the room by themselves and they almost always got up and went to respond to the call for help.

People get an odd kick out of sharing these kinds of things - myself included.  I freely admit it.  There's a mischievous satisfaction in deflating people's pretensions about themselves, in telling someone something like, "They did an experiment where 80% of the subjects drowned in their Alphabet Soup after all the letters except for the Q's had been removed.", and watching the ground give way beneath them.  In this particular case, we'd all like to believe that we'd respond to a call for help.  We'd all like to think that we always act on our own judgment without being so easily swayed by a group dynamic.  But the above experiment suggests that a good many of us are wrong.  That's a sobering thought.  We all like to think of ourselves as the hero.  No one wants sheepish conformity on their resume'.

Ah, but there's where the plot thickens!  Because you have to wonder: Why is that?  Doesn't that indicate another, mitigating, tendency, one where we all like to think of ourselves as trail-blazing rebels, where deep down we tend to believe that only fools trust in other people's judgment?  Isn't there some test for that?  Well, as it turns out, I have seen such a tendency in action.  I may not have the funds or the inclination to conduct my own experiments, but sometimes, if you keep your eyes peeled, the world can serve as your laboratory, and life itself can set things up perfectly.

Before my bank changed their hours, I used to show up early and I'd often find myself standing around with a group of people, waiting for the bank to open.  As I stood there, I would watch whenever someone new walked up.  Almost every time, they would stride right past everyone like they weren't there, and they'd go right up to the door and give it a nice hard jiggle to see if it was locked.  And it was like, what were they thinking?  Did they just assume that the rest of us were idiots and none of us had hit upon the brilliant idea of checking to see whether the door was still locked?  You begin to see how this scenario mirrors the experiment above.  In the first case, the subject was intimidated by the thought that everyone else knew something they didn't.  Here the subject boldly charges forward under the assumption that they know something everyone else doesn't.  They're special.  They have important business to conduct inside the bank, while the rest of us bumpkins are apparently just standing around waiting for the Salvation Army to come along and pass out free cheese.

It's not so easy, after all, is it?  It's not just a simple matter of charging to the rescue when you hear someone crying out down the hall.  There are conflicting forces at play.  It's a double edged sword.  We ignore the calls for help because no one wants to be like the asshole that jiggles the door handle.  On the other hand, we jiggle the door handle because no one wants to be like the chump that sits there while someone's calling for help.  Ain't that a bitch?  And the sad thing is that we ended up fucking it up on both counts.  I guess if there's one consistent message in this, it's that people are a lot bolder when it comes to their money then they are when it comes to helping people.

So hopefully you'll remember this the next time you encounter a crowd standing around waiting for the doors to open.  Hopefully you'll realize that jiggling that door handle is a big "Fuck you!" to everyone there.  Or maybe, just maybe, it's one of those experiments you always hear about.  They get 15 people to stand around, and they wait to see if anyone tries the door.  You don't want to end up as some statistical footnote to the embarrassing traits of the human species, right?  You don't want to be the perennial punchline passed down through the ages, the loser who stood there with a group of people around an unlocked door.  You never know.  You better give it a little jiggle just to be on the safe side.  There, don't you feel better now?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Death Bed

Consider the following scenarios.

1.) A man is on his deathbed.  He is a wealthy man; a man with the means to hire the best minds on the planet to come up with some way of prolonging his life.  One day his most trusted adviser comes to him bearing good news.  He tells him that they have found a way to clone him (as a young man of course), and more than that, they found a way to imprint the clone with the man's thoughts and memories.  Ah, but the adviser has made a crucial misstep.  A clone has already been made, imprinted with the man's memories as fresh as the past 24 hours.  The adviser makes the fatal blunder of bringing the clone to the man's bedside to introduce him.  The man beholds the clone in horror.  He sees in it, not a continuation of himself, but rather a replacement.  He knows that the clone is not really him, because although it possesses the imprint of his thoughts and memories, he can not see out through the eyes of the clone.  It's mind is closed to him.  It is something other...different.  It is every bit as much a stranger to him as anyone else in the room, or even the world.  He orders the clone destroyed and lapses into deeper despair.

2.) Okay, now this scenario is the same as the first, the same man, the same cloning technology, ect.  but without the adviser making the fatal blunder.  In this case the adviser simply comes to the man and tells him that they have found a way to transfer his mind into a clone as soon as he dies.  "Transfer his mind", those are the words that the adviser uses, but he really knows nothing more about these metaphysical mysteries than anyone else does.  He only knows that the man's thoughts and memories will be imprinted on the new clone.  He just says, "transfer your mind" to the man to reassure him.  And it does reassure the man...for a while.  But at night, when he's left alone with nothing but the beeping and pinging of his medical equipment, he begins to have doubts.  He ponders his own essence.  Will this clone really be him?  Will he really be there, or will he be gone, leaving someone else to live his life with his memories?  This "not being there" tortures him more than the thought of death itself.  He stares up into the dark.

3.) Okay, let's leave the dying man aside for a moment to consider a hypothetical proposition.  Suppose that our consciousness isn't the continuum that we think it is, connected from birth until death.  Maybe every time we drift off to sleep or fall unconscious our consciousness dies.  Maybe it disintegrates when it's not actively sustained.  Then when we wake up, it is with an entirely NEW consciousness which has simply inherited all the memories of the old consciousness.  In other words, every time we wake up it's as an entirely new person who just thinks they're the person who went to sleep simply because we remember being that person.  This is an unfalsifiable theory...or at least apparently so as this point.  Still, it's not completely far fetched.  What reason do we really have to think that our consciousness maintains a continuity with our identity?  Perhaps consciousness is just an abstract commodity, accessed when needed.  When you turn your computer on, you find the same stuff in memory, the trusty icons arranged the same way on the desktop, but yet you wouldn't think that this was being powered by the identical electrons in the electrical current, right?  What if the vital spark operates in a similar fashion?  The dream may even be a kind of booting up process, a side effect of the new consciousness accessing the memory.  This would kind of explain why we can never remember our prior waking lives during the dream.

This is, of course, highly speculative.  But you notice that it bears a similarity to scenario 2.  We've only removed the concept of the clone from the equation.  Just like the man on his deathbed, we face the possibilty of "not being there" when we wake up, but somehow it isn't really troubling at all, is it?  Why exactly would that be?

4.) Consider an even wilder hypothesis.  Suppose that a few years back you sat at the bedside of a dying friend.  We'll call him Freddy.  You were with him at the very end.  Now what if, at the moment of death, the essence of Freddy's consciousness leapt from him and into you, due to your close proximity.  This consciousness either supplanted your own or blended with it.  But it was only his consciousness, none of his memories.  Once he was in your brain, he only had access to your memories.  So in effect, from that day forward you weren't "you" anymore, you're now Freddy, but you only remember being "you", and you talk act just like "you", and so you never noticed that anything was different.  Again, we're in highly unfalsifiable territory, but yet the idea isn't all that disturbing, is it?  Whether your "you" or Freddy or the King of Siam, you're still HERE, still able to breathe the air, and feel the sun on your face, and be thankful for it.

5.) Okay, final scenario.  Let's return to our dying man.  The adviser comes to see him and tells him that he has found a mystic who claims that he can transfer the man's consciousness into someone else's body, but only his consciousness, none of his memories.  The adviser brings a bright-eyed young man to meet the man on his deathbed.  He tells him that when he dies he will leap into this young man's mind, seeing through his eyes, but only ever remembering being the young man.  The adviser, naturally, doesn't know whether this mystic is a fraud or a fool or the genuine thing, but he senses that it doesn't matter.  If the procedure is a success, no one will ever really know for sure.  The man on his death bed senses this as well, and he drifts off, his mind finally at ease.


Saturday, December 31, 2011

State of the Blog 2011

First of all, Happy New Year from everyone here at the nuclearheadache staff.  Of course, that staff is mostly just me.  So, I guess that means Happy New Year from me.

There are some benefits to running a one man operation.  I can make my own hours, set my own terms, and come and go as I please.  So, I suppose this is as good a time as any to announce that it's time for another break here.  I'm not sure how long.  It could be a month, or maybe more.  At the very least, I'll probably start posting on the Night Owl blog in the early spring.  The change in the weather always seems to put me in a sentimental mood.

In the meantime, I'm trying to work on some ideas for a Kindle series, something fictional, something serialized.  I'm open to suggestions.  Also, I'm sure I'll be kicking some nonsense up onto the FARNC from time to time.  And although I've neglected my Encyclopedia of Sheep for the past few months, I always hope to have some dreams to report over there.

So you won't be rid of me completely.  I'll still be around, reading everybody's blogs.  I just need to kick back for a while, go into a low power mode, amass my ideas and get my ducks in row.  Maybe I'll work on my metaphors a little.  I'd be a little more specific about time tables and such, but that's the point, I need to be a little unspecific for a while.  I need to relax.  Anyway, rest assured, one way or the other, in one capacity or another, I'll keep blogging and writing.  I can promise you that.

And finally, this blog topped 30,000 pageviews this morning!  Thank you slender man, wherever you are!   
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