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The sexual roots of shared dreams

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I have this recurring dream where -- have you stopped reading yet?

If you're a guy, I bet you have.

If you're a woman, I bet you're saying, "Oh, please, just wait until you hear my recurring dream! I've had it since I was six. It only happens if I'm stressed plus I've eaten cilantro. Fresh cilantro. The dried stuff doesn't do anything and it's never really as good; I don't care what they say. But tell me about yours first because my dream takes a long time."

If there are any men still left in the room, by this point they're tying ropes to lighting fixtures because they're planning to hang themselves. They're thinking that death might well be quicker and probably significantly more pleasant than waiting for these two to stop talking about what happened when they were asleep.

Haven't you found men to be less than fascinated by the detailed recollections of the unconscious and haphazard experiences that constitute dreams? For a few years, I had a male shrink. Even he didn't want to hear my dreams.

And when recurring dreams happen over, say, 10, 20 or even 30 years of marriage and are ritually recited over breakfast as if they were somehow "breaking news," I've known men to get downright irritated and take their coffee to another room.

(That's where he is now: the other room. I told my husband what I was writing about and he decided to go to an entirely different section of the house. It's not as if I was reading out loud or sounding out my words. I wasn't asking him how to spell "labyrinth" or "polyp" -- although both appear regularly in the dream, in case you're interested.)

Men don't want to hear about dreams. When somebody says, "I was playing Barbies with Madeleine Albright and we were either in a circus or a brothel when suddenly I started to cut my hair with manicure scissors and Albright says, 'Shouldn't a priest read you your rights before he hears your confession?' which is what she always says in the dream but this time I answered, 'These are not my walls, but my paintings are on them,'" the natural question is, "What do you think it means?"

And a lot of men don't like to analyze things.

I've rarely encountered that problem with women: We crave the kind of weird details dreams deliver. We want to hear when old boyfriends and dead relatives show up; we want to decipher possible prognostications and omens.

Maybe this reflects my Sicilian and French-Canadian background -- maybe WASPs haven't done this kind of thing since Hawthorne was writing -- but my aunts used to gather over morning coffee and talk over their nocturnal visions the way Wall Street financiers talk about the market forecasts.

In part, they also did it for the same reason: They would play any combination of numbers that appeared in somebody's dream. Aunt Rose would start, "Last night, I was back at 3072 Emmons Avenue..." and before she could get in another word, Aunt Clara would yell, "I'm playing those numbers! They're mine!"

Since most of the family lived in walk-up tenements, I don't think dreams turned out to be as reliable an economic indicator as either, say, the Dow Jones or the price of copper futures (which the aunts measured by use of the penny jar), but that didn't undermine the seriousness or regularity of the daily review.

It also didn't prevent them from regarding any information they received from the "other side" as entirely reliable.

Somebody dreamt a toddler died in a car accident? That poor kid didn't leave the house for a month. The fact he didn't die was then used as proof -- proof you could not dispute -- that the dream saved his life.

I used to think that was hilarious. Now, if I have a dream about falling down the stairs, I hold onto banisters.

Perhaps the dreams that come to us even while we're on this mortal coil should at least occasionally give us pause -- if only just long enough to write down the numbers.

(Look who's come back into the room. Hi, honey! Column's done!)


Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 A17

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