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Limited Chaos

I have two recurring dreams. One is none of your business.

Illustration by Penelope Gazin

I have two recurring dreams. One is none of your business until I make it your business and the other you’re going to hear about even if you don’t want to: It’s about a familiar-since-forever kind of weekend beach party cum bacchanal, a performance of chaos.

It always takes place at dusk or later, and there is either a lingering supernatural streak of hot yellow, like the horizon’s take on Joseph Beuys, or just the noncommittal graying black of summer nighttime. Through dreamy static dust I see me wearing some apple-meat-white cotton-eyelet summer-dress item—this part doesn’t matter to you but it feels so right—and a coalition of people I’ve funned out with since the pre-dawn of my party consciousness are with me, storming the breaks fully clothed, carrying what I guess are bottles in brown paper bags, sort of endlessly entering the water and screaming and then stopping and then going again, pause-rewind-play, again and again. This contained, primal undoing—dreamed or otherwise—is probably spring break.


Working backward, spring break is, then, a perfect metaphor for and example of what I will call “limited chaos,” which is the basis of the certain kind of fun that we think about when we think about partying, about a break in something, about breaking off of something. Spring break might be the only example of this, actually, because spring break is the only sanctioned time for a collective of people to do, have, and create chaos, without something else, some expectation or restriction—a summer job, a New Year’s kiss, a family meal—interrupting one’s interpretation of “vacation” or other conscious, common removal from normalcy. (Touring, too, is sanctioned chaos; it’s also how a few generations of men, mostly, have approximated the experience of going to war, but not everyone gets to be in a band.)

Actual spring break is for, I guess, college kids—but who cares, really, because anyone can put a SPRING BREAK 4-EVER banner on their swamp boat and let it rip—and exists for everyone else as a theoretical ideal, only occasionally and often randomly realized, of aggressively indiscriminate choices around sex, inebriation, social codes, whatever. The spring break model is a socioculturally approved ataxia of glow-sticked dicks and sidewalk-puking thirtysomethings and parking lot naps and the bad-news hallucino-hookups that nobody talks about after. This kind of chaos—in whatever form it takes—is so much more important than it gets credit for in a society that is inclined to experience chaos as just a few extreme behaviors or to experience it secondhand, on TV or in a dream.

But equally important to knowing some chaos is that such chaos be limited, within a framework of when, how, and how much, and not in the sense of weekend warriors purchasing prepackaged “Fun” to feel part of the world or beyond it; “limited” as in a predetermined and resolvable transgression of normalcy. This is why high school, generally, is not only fun as hell but exists in the individual, collective, and Hollywoodian imagination as defining and determining our version of and relationship to chaos. It’s the essential structure of a culture, a job, a family, an established sense of self or anything that creates both a boundary (ideally, a boundary that is warming and functional and encouraging) and an opportunity to periodically jump the fence and adventure outside of that boundary (ideally, nothing that terminates the structure entirely but definitely opposes its fundamentals). What is missed in all of this is why something like Friday-night beers isn’t sufficient: It might slowly erode a boundary instead of explicitly defying it, and as an act of rebellion, it doesn’t really work. There’s no reflection, no learning, in half measures. Instead, doing whatever opposes but doesn’t explode the boundary, doing “approved chaos” in whatever form it takes (common examples: professional risk, binge shopping, physical danger, anonymous sex, out-of-body drunks, whatever is situationally and personally appropriate), amplifies the necessary chaos itself and the eventual and total return to the confines of normalcy: After all, spring break lasts for a week, maybe two.

Both states of being are required: inbounds and out. Living without both, and remaining mired in either state, explains how unhappy people tend to live without rules, restrictions, or forms of release—in other words, no kind of chaos. (Spring break-style limited chaos, remember, can only be defined in relation to the personal state of nonchaos: My chaos is isolated, boot camp-like stretches of truly hard work.) Adults are like children in just this sense: The way toward growth and happiness and fun of whatever stripe is importantly found by leaving one’s life, and then coming back.

Kate Carraway writes the weekly Obseshes column for

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