Friday, January 1, 2016

Eating pencils. (dreams)

This image is in the Public Domain. Acquired via Wikimedia Commons.

I've had a couple more repeating dreams about circuses and arcades. But now, I have a new repeating theme: pencils.

I walk into an indoor school carnival. It's a small and subdued event. The few signs separating the fair from the usual business in the college lobby are made on laminated printer paper. They look like they've been set out in the sun and reused- probably dozens of times judging by the wear on the corners and the moisture that had seeped under the plastic. The printer ink is bleeding, blotched and faded. The low-pile carpet is a faded cerulean blue. Small orange triangles impress upon the deep blue, giving the design more vigor. It looks exactly like an old movie theater's carpet. The light coming through the side windows is diffuse and just slightly cooler than I would expect from natural light. I wonder why that might be.

Probably because the windows are dirty.

As I take a closer look around, the entire room looks a little bit dirty, which seems unusual for the college. Los Angeles is an extremely dirty and poorly maintained city, and the parts which aren't tend to house clean, deeply suspicious, embittered people who have been through the ringer. The college is typically clean.

I had just been passing by this part of the building to get elsewhere, but I don't have much to do in terms of an immediate appointment. I decide to take a look at the games the carnival set up on some tables to the left.

The games on the table require that I spend money on tickets. They're  gambling games. That makes me paranoid about getting taken advantage of. But I allow myself to be lulled into feeling okay about playing the gambling games since I would have a chance at winning something back. Besides, there might be some charitable end to these gambling games... However, the off-chance that I might be donating a dollar or two to some charity doesn't factor into my decision to indulge.

Still, my cynicism for these kinds of games never left me since my first time at Chuck E. Cheese's. When I had an occasion to go to Chuck E. Cheese (I could redeem my report card for free tokens), of course I asked my dad for money to buy tickets at the prize redemption store when I ran out of tokens. Tokens were used to play games that gave tickets depending on how well you played. And of course, I wouldn't win enough tickets to buy what I wanted.

"You don't want to waste your allowance on a game that only lasts a couple of seconds, Naja," he would say.

"But I could win something. I could get something that lasts, like that!" I pointed to an absurd, snarling,  fluorescent green finger puppet made out of acrylic jelly.

"You could buy ten of those with the same amount of money it would take to win one here. You just have to wait for us to go to the store later."

Unassailable logic. But my little kid self was dying.

So two decades later at this school carnival, I wasn't going to spend any more than $3 on a game that lasted seconds and might get me a cheap prize: some sort of flavored cigar. I don't smoke, but the cigars on display were unusual and caught my interest.

I paid for my tickets, and the cashier handed me a tiny, bluish, cardstock form to fill out. I took a clean, new pencil from a bucket the cashier held out to me. I was surprised they were giving these pencils away.

I guess this will subsidize my costs a little more...

I wrote in my numbers on the raffle ticket.

The cashier looked at the numbers and compared them to something behind his counter. "Sorry," he said.

I keep the pencil and begin to eat it. It tastes terrible, but it was part of my compensation, and it is much better than eating nothing. I'm sure whether or not I should care if anyone is watching me slowly chew and swallow a wooden, #2 pencil. I don't see anyone else doing it. Then again, I don't see why I'm wasting my time caring what other people think or say or do. They're probably going to be jerks to me no matter what I do or say or think or feel, and that is that. No point in appealing to them.

I finish eating the pencil when I get to the games. The arcade games against the wall take tokens or quarters. They don't interest me much. I'm on a budget. But there was a simple physics demonstration that we could play with for free!

There are a couple of red buoys in a circular tank of about 2 meters, floating on top of a series of clear, lightly chlorinated waves. The water has the faint blue quality any swimming pool does. The water rocks back and forth.

The directions are hanging off the side of the tank. I read the directions for how to play the game, but they don't make sense to me. I just know that I was witnessing something simple, fundamental and magical. Ever-aware that there are dozens of people constantly passing by and that one of them might want to try the game before I have a chance to take everything in, I press a button which aligns the boats.

Whrrrrrr! The buoys fight the current and squirt water at each other as though they're fighting, then arrange themselves in a circular pattern. They go back to floating. I play with the water a little. Then I look at the "educational" explanatory card. This card was attached to the game using Scotch tape, and is wet and bleeding too. I had a hard time understanding the explanation for what was happening when we started the game up, and I still do. It has something to do with magnetism.

Shit, I should know that... I felt very concerned about my lack of recall from the last semester and leave the games thinking about the fact.

I moved past that initial building until I started moving through the school, built exactly like my elementary school had been. The ceilings are low. The lighting is much too yellow. The fluorescent lights seem to be putting off incandescent light. They flicker and buzz. The projects on display seem much, much too simple- like I've done them all before.

The cafeteria is filled with junior high kids. I enjoy watching them. Many are eating or socializing, but most are playing basketball. I don't want to interact with them.They seem too young for me to want to interact casually at this point. I'd feel too obligated to take the high road all the time. I couldn't just be myself and explore what I want to explore and say what I want to say. Too often, I'd believe I have to withhold what I think about their paths so they can make their own mistakes. It's an odd feeling since so many can easily outperform me academically. I realize in that moment that it doesn't change the enormous impact of personal experience over time. I feel distant. The distance certainly does bring out the differences in them. It's easy to see what their backgrounds are and how their parents have influenced them. It's surprising to recognize their emotions in my own past at the same age.

I can smell the watery chocolate milk inside of little cardboard cartons. I can see the skid marks of thousands of rubber soles tracked on the gymnasium floor. I leave the cafeteria and exit the school, unsure of how to get started on all the work I have to do, eventually.


Overall, the dream seems to be a design that allows me to explore many of the same feelings I've had so often during my return to college as an older student in a system that doesn't have many non-traditional students.

I can recall the floor pattern as being very similar to the pattern of the carpeting on my municipality's bus seats. The games seem like the objects in a room I had volunteered in for a scientist at my college who I grew to distrust. And... I'm eating a pencil (I can still taste it, and it's god-awful) and gambling for flavored cigars when I don't smoke.

I think I'm eating the pencil and playing for cigars because I've been thinking a lot about a kind of stinginess I've been harboring in my emotional system in terms of forgiveness. I'm typically fairly sparing in the number of "passes" I will dole out to people when they ignore or violate my values.

I think I've been feeling as though my values and experiences will vanish or be destroyed if I don't hold people and keep accounts. Speaking rationally though, of course I can understand that I will feel better overall if I am more generous with people and forgiving of perceived faults and slights. It will liberate me to be more generous with myself too. In the present day, there's no objective base from which morals can be measured, so it hardly makes sense to take personal values too seriously or apply them too universally. There's always the chance that even with the answers that seem right today, those same answers could be proven wrong on another day in the future.

The cashier took my money, which symbolizes a piece of my time or life-force, for a return that I wouldn't have found satisfying no matter what. This symbolizes giving over precious moments of my life to something rather dissatisfying: being in this school I hate and having my own increasingly bitter biases proven right.

That's also how I feel my adventures in theatre have been over the past several years. I never figured out how to make it work for me, and even if I had, it would have been a very unsatisfying prize. I found it interesting enough to try, and I paid too much in terms of my time and energy for something that was one shade away from turning myself and almost everyone I went into the program with into "monsters."

When I'm eating the pencil, I feel like I have to do it because I had lost some of my own and needed to reclaim something nutritious back into myself, even if it's completely dissatisfying. I've been feeling that way a lot about a lot of people who have offended me in recent years. It hardly seems worth it to eat the pencil, and the dream is trying to remind me of the fact. For one thing, there's a productive use for pencils (negative experiences) and I don't seem to feel as though I am using them productively.

What's also interesting is how the dream is pointing out my limitations (in the dream, I am on a budget). As I get older and start to lose a bit of my energy, I realize that it's increasingly impossible to think that I have the time and energy to run around trying anything and everything. There is a cost. I don't have whatever it takes to play all the games and attempt to get all the prizes before the carnival ends.