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NOTE: I originally posted this on Medium, on January 4th, 2022. The version below has some very minor edits.

The following recounts a very real dream/nightmare that I had in the early morning hours of Jan 4, 2022.

There's a game I play with myself whenever I get up to pee at night, I guess what time it is, I look at my phone and I see how close I came. This night, I guessed 2 am; it was 2:09 am...but I digress.

Sometime after that, and before 5:41 am when I starting to outline this piece, I awoke feeling a bit terrified/scared, as if what I just dreamt had really happened; but it had not, yet I felt in my mind as if it had; fear, worry, wonder, questions. Here are my recollections, vague in some respects, but detailed in others.

I'm working in an office somewhere in a technical role.

There's a PC on my desk with an old style CRT display.

IBM PC from the 1980s

Photo by bert b

A foam wrist rest sits in front of the keyboard.

It also seems that I smoke cigarettes. Thankfully, I didn't and still don't.

A well-known Princeton professor also worked there (wherever "there" is), or consulted, or something like that. This professor is someone who I know in real life as I had worked at Princeton University for 3 years back in the mid-2000s.

It seems that I had left two lit cigarettes resting on the foam wrist rest while I had gone to the bathroom. Not one, but two!

a burning cigarette sitting on a ledge

Photo by Andres Siimon

When I returned to my desk, I found a small piece of cigarette ash on the floor from one of the two. The cigarette from which this ash came was nowhere to be found.

The second of the two was still burning, with a slight red ember, sitting on the foam wrist rest.

I went into a "holy shit!" mental state…but one of relief, that nothing bad had happened and I extinguish the burning cigarette.

And then there was this note; and I'm not remembering if it was a written note or an email. The only thing I'm sure of is that it was written by the aforementioned Princeton professor.

In it, he implores me to write up a case analysis of whatever the actual outcome is of this clearly precarious situation.

I think that it's here that I begin to wake up…but slowly…as I can remember my mind going through a number of questions: Why would he write a note after seeing this situation and not remove the cigarette to prevent a possible fire? How could that possibly be the right thing to do? He instead writes me a note? I am baffled by this. If the place had burnt to the ground, I never would have seen such a note; but in the dream, I did see it...and I wondered.

At the same time, I consider the prospect of writing up the requested case analysis, starting to think about research into the flammability of said foam wrist rests and that of the surrounding environment, along with how I'll fare when this case analysis is ultimately written and turned in to whoever I'm expected to turn it in to. Strange stuff.

I finally come fully awake and roll all of what I've written here around in my head; I explore the fear that consumed me as I wake…it feels remarkably real.

The event I've described finds no box in which to land in my brain. I’m baffled and still afraid of this sequence of events that had not actually happened.

I start to consider writing about this and what I might say; my mind races. And after looking at the clock, it's clear that I won't be able to go back to sleep; nor will I be able to get this out of my mind.

So, I grab my iPad from the nightstand and start writing this piece that you’re now reading.

I consider how I'll write about this professor and whether or not I should name him. He really is well-known and I like him. I even consider saying a few oblique things about how I know him, convincing myself that no one would be able to identify him from these personal facts:

  1. Before moving from California to New Jersey in 2000, I had written to him to ask about startup company activity in the Princeton area (though it wouldn’t be until 6 years after moving to Princeton that I would work at the university). He replied. It was short reply, but he did reply.
  2. My son attended a boys' school in Princeton and his daughter attended the "sister” girls' school.

I then consider the fact that in today's fraught social media universe, the idea of identifying this professor explicitly could cause him potential harm, regardless of the fact that all of what I'm describing happened only in a dream, what I’ll from hereon consider a nightmare.

Shortly before grabbing the iPad to write this, as I'm wrestling with the idea of writing anything at all, I am reminded of a blog post that I read just yesterday (which as of now, no longer appears where it was so I am unable to link to it) about starting to write. I also recall a close friend suggesting that I start writin; these two thoughts result in my grabbing the iPad and writing this.

One last thing; as I briefly consider how long this is getting, I pose one last set of questions to myself: (a) Should I write a piece about this experience and publish it? (b) Or should I simply take this exploration and publish it directly without any substantial editing? (c) Or should I do (a) first, and append these outline notes to the end as some sort of author's note?