Dear Hypocrite: An Advice Column
“Dear Hypocrite” is a monthly advice column, with questions answered by a rotating cast of hand-picked counselors. Got a problem? Send it our way: hypocriteadvice AT gmail DOT com. The theme of the next advice column will be “Argument.” Discretion guaranteed.
I have a recurring dream-setting with a train in it. The dream has a zoomed-out, map-like point of view. The train tracks always go like this:
The movement of the dream is usually from the northwest to the southeast; sometimes there is a return. Sometimes the fork is a problem. Often there is a hill on the west side of the dream.
The narrative of the dream is never the same: sometimes I am stranded, sometimes I am moving along happily, sometimes I am late or lost, sometimes the train is not the main issue in the dream but just the setting. Once I had to lay the tracks myself (rabid colleagues, electric fences, post-apocalypse). Once I was a little boy organizing the stars into a dance for my mother. Another time I was stuck at an art opening in Coney Island (southeast end of the tracks). Once I dreamt about how as part of the war effort all the girls in town signed up to perform oral sex on surgery patients during surgery. I got three patients; the first went well but was more emotionally taxing than I’d expected (had I illegally gotten drunk? Had I drawn blood somehow?). The coy girl who was my patient came just at the right time, left nice comments about my smile. But I realized I was going to miss my train back up the hill, miss my second two appointments.
I have consulted Freud and he says train dreams are about death. This is unhelpful. I would very much like to know how best to interpret my train dreams. Are they a message about the past or the future? What is with those same tracks all the time?
Midnight train aquarius
Dear Midnight Train,
Recently, in an effort to quit smoking, I have taken to wearing a nicotine patch. Having a few times accidentally fallen asleep with the patch still on, I was astounded to discover the effect: my dreams became brightly colored, somewhat frenetic, and grossly physical. They all involve the body somehow falling apart, in visually stunning ways. Now I do it recreationally a few times a week, and I warmly encourage you, Midnight Train, and you, dear Readers, to give it a try. Last night I was treated to the spectacle of my molars drying up and scabbing off, along with a section of gumline, in one great hunk. I suspect that a session of chemically-enhanced slumber would make vivid to you the emotional tenor and the stakes of your favorite nocturnal scene. But you wrote us asking for an interpretation, not a prescription. First, a few observations:
- None of these dreams is about death.
- Your sleeping eye is capable of shifting perspectives, of zooming out and in, and of keeping track of cardinal directions. Impressive!
- Your mind is extraordinarily productive of narratives, many of them intriguingly cinematic, which is to say action-packed, coherent, and logically consistent.
Wikipedia’s article on dream interpretation notes that it is first described in the Epic of Gilgamesh. There, Gilgamesh dreams of a fearsome axe that falls from the sky; before the adoring gaze of his people, Gilgamesh picks up the axe, throws it at his mother’s feet, and embraces it “like a wife.” What juicy stuff! Gilgamesh’s mother offers this interpretation: soon there would arrive a powerful adversary, with whom Gilgamesh would struggle. He would fail to defeat him, but they would become great friends and accomplish much together.
Clearly, Gilgamesh’s dream was in fact all about his psychosexual hang-ups surrounding his mother and phalluses. Gilgamesh’s mother—who was, after all, a goddess—was just taking advantage of the opportunity to warn her son that he’d gotten a little too uppity lately, and would at some point have to learn to play nice.
While Gilgamesh’s dream presents him with a clear problem—why, Mother, am I lying at your feet, cuddling a man-sized axe?—yours does no such thing! Sure, you are a little too certain that your sexual attentions possess curative powers—but aren’t we all? I suspect your train tracks, with their promise of forward motion, their landscape spreading in all directions, their unpredictable offerings of travel and happenstance, are trying to tell you this: that you enjoy linear narrative a great deal, and are skilled at its production. Your subconscious has selected a fruitful setting, and decided to dwell there for some time. It sounds to me like an enviable position, for the dreamer and the dream.
But perhaps you should ask your mother, in a figurative if not literal way. The question, after all, is not what the dream means but which of its meanings might be most psychologically useful to you, at any given stage. Gilgamesh’s mother told him just what he needed to hear. What do you, Midnight Train, need the dream to mean?
If all else fails, it is a fact insufficiently publicized that Amtrak will carry you across the entirety of our great nation for a measly $227.00. Perhaps you will find somewhere your dreamscape brought to life, and all will become clear in one instant of thunderous recognition.
i don't know what to do! my parents are always spending their money when they get it. i mean, i don't want to be judging, but i'm worried! they don't seem to be interested in saving, and they don't do any of those grown-up things you do with money, like investment. i'm not convinced they are prepared for anything unexpected. what is going to happen when they are old and broke? i am nervous about it. i feel like, it's ok for me to be financially precarious, but i wish they were not. what do you do if your parents don't have the skills for real life? as their child, what claims can i make on their spending choices? i am definitely in no position to support them later on so they better shape up.
also does this mean i am doomed in my own economic future? if i inherit no assets from them i may well inherit habits....
Mad and Out Of Money
Yeah, it is pretty hard to talk to your parents about their mortality. But that's where you're headed here: your parents aren't going to be able to work forever, because they'll be too old and weak sooner or later. After that, they'll get sick in ways not only deeply unpleasant and humiliating but horrifyingly, excruciatingly expensive, quite possibly for years on end--and then they'll die. You describe all this as "unexpected," but brother, it's anything but: your parents will almost certainly go through this, and you along with them. They should be worried about money because soon they won't be making any and will be needing a lot, and your quasi-parental concern over their financial irresponsibility is a harbinger of the time when they won't be able to take care of you or themselves, and you'll have to take care of them if you're able. The whole thing is depressing as fuck for everyone concerned, and for them even more than for you.
So it's a tough issue to broach over dinner.
Here's the thing: why aren't your parents saving money? If you think they haven't thought of all the medical expenses and so forth, you're a fool: they're a lot older than you, they've seen lots and lots of people get old and die, they know how that works way better than you do. My guess: Saving when you're middle-aged is just no fun. When you're in your twenties you're saving and thinking "Someday I can have a house with a nice backyard to have kids in!" When you're old and you're saving money it's like "Someday I can afford copays without going bankrupt!" It's just kind of depressing; why not spend $2000 on a sweet vacation while you can enjoy it? They know it's really a bad idea but it's unpleasant to think about so they just don't think about it. Perhaps you know how they feel.
But is all of this any of your business? Like who the fuck are you to tell them how to live their golden years, junior? Well, you're their fucking family, that's who, and what "family" means is that you're going to be on the hook if they screw the pooch financially. It's like this: whether they're asking for it or not, you are going to help them out financially to the extent that that's possible, because you're their son and you love them and you owe them for 18 years of total financial dependency. So their financial exposure is your financial exposure: if they can't afford their mortgage and their copays on just Social Security you're going to find a way to help out. Which means that you get to, not so much tell them what to do with their money, as guilt-trip them about what to do with their money. Remember all those times your parents said "if you don't feel like being responsible and safe for yourself, do it for my sake"? Now it's your turn.
But it's important to be delicate here. Don't start nagging--how well does that ever work? Instead, say something like "I've decided to be a little more responsible about money, and that means thinking about your financial future since I will be partly responsible for that. Can we have a family meeting where we all put our cards on the table, discuss income and assets, and think about the future?" Come armed with info about how much you're supposed to be saving for retirement, and come prepared to compromise, be insistent, and be nice.
Oh and: Start thinking about your own financial future with your parents in mind. Somehow no one tells 20-year-olds this, but talk to anyone over forty and you'll discover that making sacrifices to take care of your parents (whether it's paying their bills or moving across the country to help take care of them) is one of those things adults very often have to do. Caring for the old is enormously expensive, in time, money and labor; a civilized society would take measures to socialize that burden, but here in America it will fall squarely on your shoulders. If you're in no position to manage it now, start thinking about changing positions.