The Dream

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 2005

A week or so ago I was sitting at my computer, wearing old clothes and thinking about taking a bike ride in the beautiful spring weather. I happened to look out the window, and what I saw sent an electric jolt through my body. Sitting in my driveway was a familiar-looking limo – the one that always takes me to the airport.

They’ve come on the wrong day, I screamed silently! I was supposed to go to a big university on the next day to deliver a speech, which I hadn’t yet prepared. Hurriedly, I grabbed my calendar. Sure enough, the calendar said that the talk was the next day. Whew! I’m going to complain to the limo company, I told myself. But even then, I had a dreaded sense of apprehension. With shaking hands I dug out the folder that had been prepared by the travel agent for my trip. Yikes (expletive deleted)!! It was now!! I was supposed to be going to the airport right then to deliver a speech I hadn’t yet thought about!

Frantically, I changed clothes into relatively anything and threw arbitrary stuff into a suitcase. The whole world was a blur in front of me. I had no idea what I was doing. Out of breath, I jumped into the back seat of the limo. “You’re not going to believe this,” I started telling the driver.

On the way to the airport I tried to calm down, but without much success. I was hyper. It wasn’t so much that I no talk ready, or even the rush I was in, as it was that I just wasn’t mentally ready to be traveling. Life has a certain rhythm, and every trip or task has its predictable rise and fall, its preordained sequence of programmed events. After so many years of being scheduled for everything, I had fallen into the comfort of routine. Now that routine had been shattered, and I was at sea, adrift without a rudder. I was supposed to be out riding my bike, and suddenly here I was – on my way to somewhere or other to do something that I had forgotten what it was. My only coherent thought was wondering whether or not the airport was expecting me.

On the airplane I tried to focus on thinking about what I might say in the speech, but my thoughts were a jumble. On top of the jumble something else was hanging over my head. It took a little while to identify it, but when I did I moved into the twilight zone. It was a sense of déjà vu. I was living out a dream that I had experienced several times in the past – a dream where I’m supposed to give a speech, but I’ve forgotten to prepare anything. In years past, in keeping with the pre-Powerpoint era, I had variations of the dream where I had forgotten my slides, or I had brought the wrong ones.

I would have pinched myself, to see if this was only a dream, but I’ve never heard of anyone actually pinching themselves – it must be a just figure of speech. But the strange experience of being in the middle of a dream starting me thinking about that other dream that periodically visits itself upon me – the “college” dream. In this dream I’m facing a final exam in some course that I’ve never attended, possibly because I had forgotten that I had signed up for it, or possibly because I could never find the room where the course was given. Unlike most other dreams, this one doesn’t just melt away like the morning fog with the rising sun. Instead, it lingers throughout the day, imparting a vague sense of dread.

I understand that this is a fairly common dream. On occasion I’ve asked friends if they’ve had some version of this dream. Based on a miniscule sample size, I have a conjecture that engineers experience this dream more than graduates in other disciplines. It’s a dream that I continue to have about once a year in spite of the fact that it has been many, many years since I was in college. The dream is so real that even now I’m not sure that there isn’t some final exam in the next couple of weeks in some course that through all these decades since college, I’ve forgotten to attend.

It is a curious dream, since I’ve never heard of anyone ever having had this experience in real life. Moreover, if I hadn’t attended a class the whole semester, it seems unlikely that I would be expected to show up for the final exam. However, the most curious thing about my college dream is this: my college never had final exams! So where does this dream come from? I’m wondering if this isn’t some socially-communicated ancestral memory. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

That was enough musing; I had a speech to think about.

Robert Lucky