Working forever for free, or Why I’m so tired, part 2 ~

Talking about dreams is a chancy enterprise. Armchair dream analysts are a dime a dozen. I’ve always had lots of repeating dream motifs, like tornado dreams (relatively common, I’ve found), sliding-off-the-top-of-the-Gateway-Arch dreams (this motif from my childhood seems to be an original), and so forth. But who wants to unwittingly reveal something embarrassing, like the fact that they have the “teeth dream” motif? (Oddly, to my knowledge I’ve never experienced this. When I read what all the variants supposedly mean—see—I’m surprised I don’t have this dream running like a tape loop in my head every night.)

So I figure it’s always dangerous to write about dreams. But people tell me to take more chances in life. And I do have a problem.

I worked as a writer, graphic designer, and webmaster for a research university. Since my early retirement in 2009, I have dreamed about work in some manner every night. Let me put that the way someone half my age would: Every. Single. Night.

One nightmare that, thankfully, doesn’t recur too often, and that long preceded my retirement, is the one in which the printer delivers a seriously flawed publication. In most cases I start paging through a sample copy and realize that I don’t recognize any of the material. Sometimes the material actually changes as I peruse it, becoming more and more unfamiliar and bizarre.

Given the inevitable problems with printers, this nightmare is pretty rational. In real life, I was once looking at a sample copy of our research magazine only to find that the ink had largely washed off one of the spreads. Another time I was paging through a copy delivered to my home, flipped by an illustration of a fish, and then a few pages later flipped by an illustration of the same fish. Wait. What? WHAT?! Indeed, the copy had one missing signature and one repeated signature. Because the campus’s mailing center got its shipment from Central Receiving before my office got ours, and because they had been exceptionally efficient, hundreds of copies had been mailed out before I had seen one. I spent a sleepless night not knowing if EVERY SINGLE COPY was screwed up. (Sleuthing later revealed that perhaps only a couple of hundred copies were, but those included copies delivered to legislators’ offices.)

If I had this dream every night I’d surely be in a mental institution by now. Fortunately, I only have it on occasion.

But back to retirement. Initially, for two years or so, I had dreams in which getting to my office was a labyrinthine exercise. Older readers will probably remember the overturned-ship disaster movie “The Poseidon Adventure,” where the floors became the ceilings and survivors had to negotiate upside-down staircases and improvised passageways. A great many of the dreams were like that.

Or I would find the office only to see that it was completely renovated in a confusing way. Or that my office had been moved to a bizarre place. Or that we had hired new people working in a far-off corridor whom I never saw and whose names I never learned. Each one of these motifs, plus a few others, made dozens of nightly appearances.

But the one that’s troubling my sleep the most over the past year or two is this: I’ve continued to work voluntarily, without pay, and I can’t stop because the research magazine is not quite done. It’s almost done—just a few more design editing changes to make—but I can’t get in touch with the designer. (In my job I did a multitude of publications and websites, most of which I designed myself. But in my dreams the reason for staying at work is always the research magazine, which took pride of place in real life and required collaboration with an honest-to-god, truly good designer.)

Until recently in these dreams I had worked voluntarily for a year or so, something that even my boss didn’t seem to recall. Lately—alarmingly—the time has increased to two years or even more. Sometimes my dream self wonders in a panic how I’m supposed to make a living when I’m not getting paid. Sometimes I wonder if I should lobby for a way to get paid retroactively, but I know this is impossible. Sometimes I remember that I can walk out the door any time I want without repercussions, because I’m not employed. But I always come back.

Clearly I feel I’ve lost my identity without my job. Clearly I feel I’m still needed. In fact, the publications portfolio I’d built up over the course of 20 years was largely dismantled after I left, and the research magazine is no more—ripe grounds for a sense of futility. You’d think that, since I understand what the dream means, it would stop. But no. Last night I had been working voluntarily for almost three years.

How long am I going to be slaving away when I’m supposed to be sleeping? I’ve done it for two years already. I’m 55; let’s suppose I make it to 60. Must I endure this dream 1,800 more times? Will it eventually reduce in frequency, like the others have? And if so, will something even more nightmarish come to the fore?

I can hear the advice most people would give: I should get myself to a shrink as soon as possible and exorcise this demon.

It would have to be pro bono, though. After all, I haven’t gotten paid for quite some time.