Explaining Dreams to an Alien

I'm sitting in therapist Gayle Delaney's Marin County office about to begin a session of Delaney's innovative "interview" method of dream interpretation, which I told you about in my last dispatch.

"Remember," she says, "I'm an alien from another planet, and I know nothing about people or life on this planet. So my questions might seem very basic, but they'll force you to examine the details of your dream in very specific detail."

The Dream Described

I offer a friendly Earth hello and begin to tell her my dream: I'm flying down a snowy ski slope on a toboggan that somehow rides on steel tracks buried in the snow. About halfway down the slope, the toboggan jumps the tracks and begins to fall apart, sending me headlong into a nearby snow bank. I brush myself off and go back to the toboggan, which has broken apart into long wooden planks. I gather up the planks and begin to trudge back up the mountain. It's tough going, carrying those clumsy planks, and I have to dodge other toboggans dashing down the hill.

Delaney nods as I finish. Her first question, from the alien point of view: "What's a toboggan?"

"It's a flat thing you sit on and ride down the hill when it snows."

"Why do people do that?" she asks.

"It's fun, it's exciting," I reply.

She nods. "Tell me about snow."

We go on like that for a while, with Delaney asking one simple question after another — What's a ski slope?, How does it feel to be cold? — your basic Rain Man line of inquiry. But time and again, the conversation returns to the moment my toboggan comes unglued, and I am trudging up the ski slope with an unwieldy bundle of planks in my arms.

"Why can't you just leave the planks behind?" she asks.

"I don't know," I answer, "it doesn't seem to be an option."