Within the same week a few months ago my parents had nightmares about their former jobs. It’s unsettling because they’ve both been retired for a while. My mother worked in the insurance business for nearly 51 years before retiring in 2003 at age 70. My father worked for two different printing shops; starting when he was 17. He got laid off in 1994 from the last one. They’re old school; in their day, you went to work for a company and stayed there for decades. Thus, I’ve had some trouble explaining my career as a freelance technical writer to them. They each worked roughly the same number of years I’ve now been alive.
But why, after all these years, they have occasional bad dreams about work is beyond my comprehension. I suppose they gave so much of their time and energy to those places that it’s dug an emotional trench in their respective souls like a gunshot wound.
I’ve only had three dreams about work. The first occurred in the late 1980s, when I worked for a retail store. I was being harassed by a manager who already had a nasty reputation. Strangely, though, (and what dream isn’t strange?) my parents were at the store with me. They knew I’d been having a tough time with that asshole of a manager and had come to help me out. When he shouted at them, I lost my temper and screamed at him. My own yelling woke me up. Not long afterwards, that manager was transferred to another store. I guess someone in the company’s echelons of power heard me yelling.
The other two dreams came within months of losing my job at an engineering firm in the fall of 2010. I had been so stressed out there in the last few months it was almost a relief to get laid off. It even cost me a back tooth. Just a few weeks earlier I had begun experiencing pain on the left side of my mouth. I didn’t know what to think when I realized that tooth was loose. Neither did my dentist. But, by the time I visited him, I knew my job was the crux of the agony.
“You have two choices,” he told me. “I can pull it or try to do a root canal.”
“Pull the bitch,” I calmly told him, thinking of my then-supervisor and then-manager. As he wrangled it from my jaw, I tried to think of ways to make it look like that supervisor and that manager had freak accidents. At work. On the same day. With no one else around.
Stress does that to a person – especially work-related stress. It makes them physically ill and emotionally drained. At various times during my eleven years working for a large bank, I felt the impact of job-induced stress. Back aches and short bursts of rage were the most common for me. Back then, though, I was able to fight it off because of my strict exercise regimen: pushups and crunch sit-ups in the morning; weight-lifting; jogging; and taekwondo. In one martial arts session, I almost beat the crap out of a close friend. We were fully padded up, so neither of us felt much. But he told me afterwards that I literally scared him. I apologized, but he just laughed. I explained to him what was happening to me at the bank, and he understood. Still, at that moment, I felt angry enough to send Chuck Norris screaming from the room. Despite my tenure at the bank and all the crap I endured, I never once dreamed of the place.
So, it’s still a mystery why I let my eight-year stint at the engineering company affect me in the nocturnal hours.
In the first dream, I was at corporate headquarters in Southern California with my former project manager, Dagwood*, who had hired me in 2002. He was a quirky character who’d joined the company right out of college. But I liked him and stood up for him, whenever I felt another associate was disrespecting him. In the dream, the building sat right along the coastline, separated from the water only by a strip of sand and a road. Dagwood had been there many times, but this was my first visit. And everyone was on edge. A major quake had pummeled the seabed a few miles offshore, and local officials anticipated an equally massive tsunami. The coastal areas had already been evacuated, and building management had informed us they were monitoring the situation closely. When the first wave approached, they’d sound the alarms, and everyone on the lower levels would flee upwards, which in real tsunami reactions, is known as vertical evacuation.
I’ve always been fascinated by the more extreme elements of the natural world and recall being fascinated with the prospect of witnessing a tsunami up close. But I was also frightened, since I’d never been through something like that. Dagwood had, though; a similar incident had occurred a few years earlier, he told me, before I started with the company. A massive seaquake had struck, and a tsunami was expected. But it was almost a false alarm; the tsunami waves turned out to be merely inches. This time, however, officials anticipated a real disaster.
“Don’t worry,” Dagwood reassured me. “Just stay with me, and you’ll be alright. When those alarms go off, we’ll just head upstairs.”
Cool, I thought. I felt better.
Then, as I labored over my laptop, seated right beside a window overlooking the beachfront, the alarms went off. I heard a loud thundering sound and looked out the window to see the first monstrous wall of water rushing towards us. I panicked, as I leapt to my feet and began looking for Dagwood. He was nowhere. Some people started screaming in fear, as others headed towards the stairwell. Where was Dagwood? I kept asking. He’s supposed to be here. Good God! Did he just abandon me?
I ran from one office to another, searching for him, thinking surely he wouldn’t be so cruel towards me. Several other people were also scrambling around; consumed more with hysteria. But I still couldn’t find Dagwood. Finally, I just stopped and, as the sound of the encroaching tsunami drowned out every other noise, I turned to the ceiling and said, “Fuck him.”
I proceeded towards a stairwell, and – amazingly – everyone else stopped screaming and followed me up the stairs. We all made it safely and could only watch as the water rumbled over the sand and the road, before tearing into the building’s ground floor.
But I kept asking myself that question over and over: where was Dagwood? He was nowhere to be found. What had been trepidation just moments earlier turned to anger. He really did abandon me.
I woke up.
In the second dream, I was back in downtown Dallas, at the government agency where I’d worked most of the time I was with the company. We had an important meeting; one where we’d learn our fate under the new contract. I simply couldn’t be late. As the meeting time approached, I was trying desperately to finish a critical task. I finally tore myself from my computer and headed towards a nearby meeting room. No one was there. I darted to another conference room. It, too, was empty. Where is everyone? Where is this damn meeting being held? I can’t be late!
I began scampering about the building; running into every conference room I could find. They were either empty or occupied by someone else. But, by then, I’d realized something even more disconcerting: I was stark naked. At some point, my clothes had come off. That usually happens only to porn stars and politicians, not to technical writers. And not in a government building! No one seemed to care, though, and I was only slightly bothered by it. I was more concerned with finding out where that damn meeting was being held. I finally gave up and sauntered into the break room. I dropped into a chair, still butt-naked, and resigned myself to an uncertain fate.
I woke up.
Both dreams are rife with symbolism. I know what they mean to me, but you can make your own inferences. Yet, once I recovered from that second dream, I vowed never to dream about work again. It wasn’t worth the aggravation. No job is. After years of dealing with bully bosses, hostile coworkers, office gossip, impossible deadlines and paltry raises, I want to occupy my mind with something far more significant and meaningful than a fucking job.
And it’s worked. I haven’t dreamed about the engineering company again. I told my parents they need to let go of their old jobs. “That was years ago,” I said. Those places shouldn’t hold such a strong grip on their minds.
We spend so much of our lives at work, or doing something work-related, and we don’t always get something positive after expending all that time and energy. People, especially men, have often defined themselves by what type of career they had. Blue collar, white collar, no collar. Whatever they did to make a living is who they were. One of the first questions people ask when they meet someone for the first time is, “What do you do?” And, of course, they don’t really mean, ‘What do you do in your spare time?’ Or, ‘What do you do every third Saturday of the month?’ They mean, ‘How do you make yourself a valuable part of your community?’
But I know people are generally worth more than the way they earn money. I define myself as a writer; always have and always will. So I proudly tell people I’m a technical writer. That’s how I currently earn my living. Eventually, I hope to make a living from my creative writing. Regardless, I know for damn sure that slaving over a hot keyboard is not all that I am. And whatever type of job or career you have, dear readers, should not be all who you are. We’re worth a hell of a lot more than that.
And, next time I’m on the west coast, I may see a real live tsunami, but I won’t be thinking of Dagwood.