Then there’s this pretty Russian girl, like 22. She mostly keeps to herself and at first doesn’t seem crazy at all. But she’s prone to banging her head against the wall and stabbing herself with assorted pointed objects. She’s also mortified of falling asleep, and every night it’s an awful ordeal with the staff about it. When she first got in she was sly about avoiding medication and managed to stay awake for eleven days. She acted completely fucking bonkers for the second half of that stretch, but, well, this is a mental asylum, and she was new, so at first the staff thought this was just what her brand of crazy was like. But then she started going on incoherent rants while blinking incessantly. This gave her away, and so started the nightly forced intravenous tranqs just to make her go to sleep. Her name, coincidentally, is Natalia, but she goes by Natasha. I call her Tasha. She’s become my best friend here. Her story’s fascinating. For Tasha, it quote all started when she decided to finally quit smoking cigarettes.

She went on the nicotine patch and the very first night noticed a powerful side-effect: really vivid dreams. She got hooked on this side-effect, and the dreams were so vivid that during her waking time she was usually confused and out-of-it; this made her care less about quitting cigarettes so she kept smoking as she wore the patch. One day she slapped on all the patches she had left at once in order to have the most intense dream of all time. So she had a nicotine overdose, which is a real thing, and passed out, almost died. But she succeeded. While she was out she had the most intense dream ever; many times more “real” feeling than real life itself. In this dream, she lives in a world where mind uploading is a real thing. People periodically upload their minds to computer files, extension dot mind, so that if you die, your family or whoever could take your most recently uploaded dot mind file and activate it in an android 3-D printed in your likeness, and voila, you’re alive again, like nothing happened, except for a gap in memory as long as however long it was between your last mind upload and when you died, colloquially known as your WS-time, for “walking specter time,” which sounds a little too awkward to be something that would really spontaneously sprout as a culturally-adopted phrase, and besides, why isn’t the “time” abbreviated, why isn’t it WST, but then again, you can’t question dream logic on these sorts of things. In this dream she wakes up one day and is told she died and has been resuscitated in android form (you were required by law to inform the resuscitee). She asks how it happened. Turns out she killed herself in a suicide pact with some dude named Anatoliy. You’d think they wouldn’t re-animate you if you killed yourself intentionally, but in this dream society it’s a popular thing among rich kids who can afford re-animation to kill themselves for the experience. They do it a lot because since death always happens after the last upload (that is, the duration of a WS-time is never 0), they can’t remember what it was like, and so always want to do it again. With a lot of young suicides, if there’s no note indicating otherwise, family will assume this is what happened and re-animate.

Two things bother Tasha: one, she wasn’t suicidal, not at all, and couldn’t believe that she’d become so in a matter of a week and a half (the duration of her WS-time). Two, this Anatoliy character. Friend of a friend, barely an acquaintance, and she couldn’t understand why she would be with this guy at all, much less how she’d end up making a suicide pact with him. So she seeks him out and discovers that he escaped as soon as he was informed of his re-animation. Tasha thinks maybe he’s killed himself again, but then the family – who had hired a PI – tells her that he was spotted in Kansas City, possibly hitching his way over to the West Coast, and was consciously avoiding detection. He lost the PI’s tail and hasn’t been seen since. So Tasha goes on this detective road movie plot to find him that takes her all over the planet; and, just as she finally finds him, in a climactic scene in the basement of an empanada shop in Medellín, and is about to ask what he knows, she wakes up.

She cried for hours. Imagine that feeling when you wake up from a dream that’s so vivid that it’s hard to believe or understand that it was just a dream, and multiply it by nineteen fucking nicotine patches. She was released from the hospital and her best friend took her to a movie to cheer her up. This was summer 2010 so the movie was Inception. Watching the film Tasha concluded that its plot was too much of a coincidence, that she was now dreaming, that her unconscious had made up Inception to clue her in on this, and that her dream with the mind uploading society and the mysterious suicide was in fact real reality. She tried to pinch herself and flip light switches on and off, but of course nothing unusual happened. Yet, she reasoned – very reasonably I think – that auto-pinching and testing light switches aren’t really methods to check if you’re dreaming, but rather, details made up in this dream she was having. So she found this Anatoliy character and told him this whole story, that they were in her dream right now as they spoke, and would he help her wake up so she can find out why they committed suicide in real reality? He told her off, so she stalked the guy; meanwhile, she began hurting herself to jolt herself awake; therefore the banging head against wall and auto-stabbing I alluded to earlier. So she got sent to Woodstock.

The other thing is: Tasha took the plot of Inception as a set of clues as to the nature of her situation. From it she gathered that if she fell asleep she’d go into a dream-within-a-dream, and finding it so difficult to wake up from even just one dream, she didn’t want to have to wake up numerous times to get back to real reality. This is why she was so terrified of falling asleep – every morning she woke up, she thought she was one level deeper into dreamland than the night before, meaning one more level she’d have to cross on her way back.

She hasn’t told anyone else at Woodstock this story. No one has any clue why she hurts herself or why she avoids sleep. They think it’s because she’s crazy. Which I guess she is, but everyone’s crazy in their own way, and it’s sad to write someone off as crazy without bothering to follow the specifics of what’s going on in their head.

I started talking to her, I admit, because she’s mad cute. I have very little competition here, sexo-romantically speaking. They don’t let you hang in the co-ed rooms if you’re some Don Juan kind of character, if you have any history of violence obviously, or if you’re like this guy Marvin who goes on all day about how everyone!, let’s not kid ourselves now, we’re in safe company here, we all jerk it to fantasies of our aunts! Resulting in that the guys that have any access to the ladies are pretty asexual or terrified enough to be harmless. Luckily, I’m the perfect balance – just innocuous enough to set loose on the girls, and just sane enough to still have the drive in me and know how to call on it when an opportunity merits it.

It took a lot of repeat attempts to get her to tell me her story. Like I said, she’s used to being written off as crazy and that’s that, so she’s shy at first. But you know what they say about Carnegie Hall, and I finally earned her trust enough to hear the full story. I decided on the spot that I’d try to help her out with her situation, and believe it or not I have. I’ll tell you how it went down.

During our early chats Tasha had told me that though philosophy was priority one in her life, she didn’t know much about it. She’d studied it as a late teen, but within a year discovered Jeremy Bentham’s An Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation and decided that from it she got all she needed from philosophy, called the matter settled, and moved on to other interests, which I’m almost sure is the first time that has ever happened in the history of philosophy ever. Principles is the book that introduced the world to utilitarianism and this gave me my idea on how to help her.

Like most utilitarians, Tasha thinks that the greatest ethical value is happiness. I don’t agree, but it’s a common view, even outside utilitarians. So I told her: break up your life into independent moments: temporal experience units (TEU’s). For each TEU, you could in theory calculate the level of happiness you felt at that TEU. Naturally, you feel a lot of things during any given TEU, but there’s always a happiness component – you’re always either feeling well, or not well, or something in between, in addition to whatever else you may feel. So say “neutral happiness” is zero, sadness gets you into negatives, and happiness into positives. I argued: if happiness is the greatest ethical virtue, then a successful life is a life where the sum of all your happiness levels at all your TEU’s is positive; the higher the number, the more successful the life. This is nothing other than utilitarianism limited to the individual. Tasha said she agreed.

In dreams you also feel either happy or sad, so as far as life-success is concerned, there’s no difference between reality and dreamland. The numbers still factor into your total happiness sum. It follows that we should be just as concerned with happiness in dreams as in reality. If we aren’t, it’s because we can’t control dream experience as well as we can reality experience, so we don’t bother trying. Again, she silently agreed.

Now. It’s well known that time is dilated in dreams – what feels like hours can take place in five minutes of quote reality time. So really, dream happiness matters more, because in dreams more experience gets crammed in per objective time unit. As Inception tells us, this effect is magnified exponentially every time we enter a deeper level of dream-within-dream. For someone in Tasha’s situation, someone who’s in many levels deep, happiness in dreams is waaaay more important than happiness in reality, since the time dilation is so extreme. Her total waking experience time is a tiny dot compared to her total experience time in dreams. We’d normally think this is bad news, since we can’t control dream happiness. But Tasha’s a special case because she’s not just dreaming, she’s lucid dreaming – she knows she’s in a dream (according to her own delusion, of course, but I didn’t mention that). This awareness gives her power over her dream experience. At this point I said, “here, look,” snapped my fingers next to her ear, then said, “you’re happy.” She popped a smile for an instant, and then reverted to a blank stare. I worried that I might be making things worse but I had no choice but to keep going. I concluded with that she had the most incredible opportunity conceivable: the opportunity to be the most successful person ever. If she could accept and embrace her dream state, go as many levels deep as possible, another level every day, and be happy throughout most of it, she would achieve not only experiential near-immortality, she’d also accumulate the highest total happiness sum ever, by like galaxy to grain of sand orders of magnitude.

She seemed somber when I finished my spiel and said she wanted to think about what I’d said, then went into her room. A few hours later she was asleep. The staff checked to make sure she was okay because this was the first time she’d fallen asleep voluntarily in all her stay at Woodstock.

The next morning she woke up all perky and that was that. She stuffed me full of hugs and said this was the greatest dream anyone could ever have, and yes, she would embrace it, and yes, she would have the most successful life of all time, all thanks to me. She stopped resisting sleep after that, stopped trying to hurt herself, and was always in a happy mood. She developed some odd but innocuous behavioralities – she switched to a polyphasic sleep pattern, meaning six twenty to thirty-minute naps throughout the day instead of one long sleep, because this would multiply her total levels of dream-within-dream in her lifetime, thereby gaining exponentially more total ETU’s to be happy in. She can also be caught – not too often, maybe two or three times a day, usually discretely – snapping her fingers next to her ear and suddenly perking up. But these cute quirks are quite worth what she’s gained: a purpose to her days that makes her smile.

Not long after I began to feel guilty, like I’d duped my friend. Duped her into happiness, yes, but duped her all the same. The guilt intensified until I caved and told her I’d tricked her and that she wasn’t really dreaming. She laughed it off and told me she knew I thought that, of course I would think she was crazy, everyone did. She wondered aloud why her unconscious mind was so obsessed with presenting other people in her dreams as skeptical of real reality’s existence. But it didn’t bother her; she accepted it, she said because she’d promised me she’d embrace every aspect of her dreams.


NEXT: 7. The Philosophy and Talia’s Plot