From the Archives: On Not Sleeping

Hey, man, what can I say? Sometimes these posts write themselves, and sometimes they’re ripped into the world, bloody and oozy, like a rotten tooth extracted from a big cat’s gaping maw. Mmm, veterinary dentistry.

I’ve had a troubled relationship with sleep most of my life adolescent and adult life. Interestingly, despite the energy I spent sleeping, or lost when not sleeping, I never gave it much thought, perhaps because sleep has been an “invisible subject” until the current century. I say “invisible” because it’s an everyday thing, taken for granted. We’re increasingly aware, though, that getting sufficient sleep is a problem for many people, if not because the media periodically tells us so, then because of advertisements for increasingly advanced mattresses and pharmaceuticals.

Dreamland.

Dreamland.

Sometimes I’ll go to bed, and, although my mind is fatigued, my body, specifically my hands and feet, will exhibit a fidgety sensation, a need to move. I’ve come to recognize this sensation very quickly, and now get out of bed at the first sign of it. Often, drinking a glass of milk and sitting up for half an hour will clear the way for sleep.

Sleeplessness runs in my family. My favorite family story involves my Gramma (that one). My mother and father were living at Gramma’s house for a few weeks as they tried to figure out whether or not to put her in a nursing home. My dad, unable to sleep one night, went downstairs to lay on the couch. My Gramma was a notorious insomniac, and was known to go to and from the bedroom every half hour all night, puttering around the house, eating, watching TV, deciding that it was time to clean out this drawer or that cupboard… On this night, though, my dad dozed on the couch, and didn’t once hear her emerge from her room. When morning came, my dad commented to my Gramma upon her apparent inactivity. She insisted she hadn’t slept a wink. My dad asked her what she did. “Well, I sat quietly on the edge of the bed all night,” she replied, an image I found so amusing–this old woman sitting upright on the edge of the bed, staring into the middle distance, occasionally checking her watch–that I immediately incorporated it into my repertoire. When someone asks me how I slept, I tell them that “I didn’t. I sat quietly on the edge of the bed all night.”

One year ago today: I wrote about my relationship with sleep and insomnia.

Words, words: Quote, October 20

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“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood.

I was under the impression that this quote, attributed to Murakami, was apocryphal, but extensive Google research (I visited two pages, yay library science degree!) indicated that I was wrong. Had I been right, I intended to say something clever, like, “Had Murakami not said these words, we would have had to attribute them to him.” I can’t say that now without ironically nesting it in several layers of commentary, which I may or may not have successfully accomplished here. You’ll never know. This whole paragraph has become a twisting Ouroboros that you’re unable to comprehend through the weekend fug hanging over your mind. Welcome to Monday.

murakami

Definitive Response to the Present Controversy

Things can get a wee bit testy here on the Internet. With so many people jabbering, and so much information available, people not only disagree with one another, but do so violently and with great relish. It is not merely facts that can be wrong, not even opinions that might be wrong (which might seem illogical, but whatever), but entire people can be wrong. Personhood may be invalidated by saying or thinking the wrong thing. To prevent this kind of unpleasantness in future, I unveil the “You are entitled to MY opinion” card:

mine

When played, the “You are entitled to MY opinion” card should be considered definitive. The person who plays the card wins the argument; his or her opinion rules, without question. Reason is not involved. It has no place here. The card may be played once per day, per controversy, but only once per day per player.

On “Weird Gramma”

A reminiscence in the spirit of the season.

I loved my Gramma. I’m man enough to say it. And Gramma loved me, too. She was everything a good grandmother should be: Patient; kind; and she spoiled me, as grandmothers are wont to do with their grandsons. I was sad when she passed away. I think about her sometimes, and I still miss her.

But this is not about that Gramma. This is about the Other Gramma, like the “Other Mother” from Coraline. We’ll call her “Weird Gramma,” a different side of the same woman. This is the Gramma who, when I pointed out to her the ailing dogwoods in front of her house, responded, “Yes, they’re dying, just like we are.”

One of my earliest memories of Weird Gramma dates to when I was no older than six, and probably younger; my memory is fuzzy. But this moment has remained with me throughout the years. My grandmother, mom, and I were all sitting at the kitchen table, and Gramma was telling a story about how, the previous night, she and Grampa got lost on some back roads. They were driving around in the dark. While driving down a lonely stretch of road, Gramma and Grampa passed an old woman holding a lantern and an old man digging in a ditch. Gramma hesitated, and glanced at me. “I’m not sure if I should say any more,” she said. My mom, merrily smoking a cigarette, gestured with her hand. “Go ahead,” she said. “Well,” Gramma replied. “I think they might have been gnomes.” She went on to say something about them hiding their “treasure.”

In my mind’s eye, I see my child self’s eyes get big as saucers. I remember thinking in that moment, “This is not right.” Even then, my child’s mind knew that adults did not say the kinds of things my grandmother had just said. Worse, although my only exposure to “gnomes” at that age could have come only from cartoons, like David the Gnome, I understood that these were not those kinds of creatures. Almost as if my mind tapped into an atavistic knowledge of folklore and superstition, of knocker attacks in the mines, I conjured up an image of a stooped old woman holding high a lantern while her mate dug a hole–in which to hide gold, or a body, or some other mystery?–their eyes glittering. Although humanoid, they were not human, and the thoughts that uncoiled in their minds were alien, malevolent things. These impressions all occurred within moments, of course. I remember my hair standing on end, but I cannot recall how the rest of the conversation went.

My memory fails me, as it so often does. My next recollections come from when I was much older, but I can’t quite place them; I may have been a senior in high school, or it could have been even later than that, perhaps around 2002-2003. In any case, Weird Gramma managed to freak me out.

Gramma had told me stories over the years of waking up to find someone choking her. She couldn’t fight back, or move, or cry out, but the person had broken into her house in the middle of the night and was attacking her. I had experienced these symptoms myself, and heard similar stories from friends, and recognized this as a common phenomenon, a kind of nightmare or sleep paralysis. Indeed, these are just the modern manifestations of a long tradition. During the Middle Ages, sufferers of these phenomena referred to succubi. Later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was said to be witches who tormented their victims, hence the term “hag ridden.” (Presumably the witch literally “rode” the sleeper through the skies.) Gramma was skeptical of my attempts at rationalism.

In any case, Gramma upped the ante when she suffered a fall in the winter of either my senior year, or, possibly, 2002-2003. She slipped in the bathroom, fell on the side of the bathtub, broke several ribs, and punctured her lungs. Gramma was not in her best health even then: Blind in one eye, diabetic, with heart disease, she was lucky my cousin found her when he did. It was touch and go, but Gramma pulled through; she was nothing if not a fighter.

It was not Gramma’s accident that was disturbing, though. Rather, it was what she described after she had been treated and began to heal. When asked how she came to fall–as if it’s somehow unusual for an old person to lose his or her footing–she said that it felt like someone had pulled her to the ground. Fair enough; losing one’s balance can feel that way. She continued. A “monster” had done it to her. (I received this second hand.) “A monster?” my father prompted her. Yes. He came floating along the ground, and appeared to be wearing a “ragged robe,” and had “skinny arms,” and he caught her and pulled her to the ground.

Granted, this sounds like the talk of someone on too much pain medication. I’d be inclined to attribute it to that, too, if she hadn’t brought it up repeatedly afterward. (Disconcertingly, she had at least two more falls in the same spot, neither quite as severe, one of which she also attributed to the “monster.”) I remember riding in my car as my mom related this story to me. Gramma’s description of the “monster” brings to mind a fairly obvious image. My mom and I talked around it. Neither of us wanted to say it. Finally, I said, “Her description of it sounds like Death.” “That’s what I thought, too,” my mom said. Again, my hair rose on end. To hear another person say that she, too, was struck by something so outlandish, gave it a credence that, on its own, it would never have possessed. That, if Gramma ever made the connection between the “monster” and the Grim Reaper, she never mentioned it. Her obliviousness added to the story’s intrigue.

Later that week, on a dark January evening, I stood outside of my Gramma’s empty house. I had been tasked with delivering to my dad a bill that was sitting on the dining room table. I stood in the driveway, facing the dark house, and, despite every fiber of my rational being saying to me, “It’s fine. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I had one hell of a time working up the nerve to enter the house. I got in and out. Quick.

In retrospect, of course, I know that my grandmother had an overactive imagination, and, later perhaps, she was on too many medications for her own good. But the impression has been made. What’s most disconcerting is the knowledge that our rational minds are just pretenses. We’re playing at being more than we are. Faced with even the most unlikely of dangers, we revert, we give in to superstition and base fear. There is a gap between what we know and what we experience. The latter will always trump the former.

Inbox/Outbox: October 12-October 18

Psst. I bought some books this week. You know how some people eat their feelings? Yeah, I do that, too, but I also buy books. Watch as I try to fill this bottomless pit of existential despair with cheap paperbacks. See you soon on Hoarders!

Inbox

 

The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire made waves a month or so ago and was a Kindle Daily Deal earlier this week, so I couldn’t pass it up. Yes, I truck with Amazon! Don’t look at me!

The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond

The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond

I snagged this li’l beast from the Barnes & Noble bargain bin, which, admittedly, bodes poorly for the book. That said, I read (and enjoyed) Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, so I’m crossing my fingers. No doubt, many years from now, you will see my review for The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Of course, by that point, blogs will have become defunct, and we will all beam our thoughts into one another’s brains. Also, I like that the subtitle is a question. I look at it and am all like, “Hey! What can we learn from traditional societies? Besides, ya know, eating bugs and rubbing dirt on ourselves?” (That’s a joke, sensitive-types. I don’t really think that about traditional peoples.)

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?: A Writer's Guide to Transforming Notions Into Narratives, Fred White

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?: A Writer’s Guide to Transforming Notions Into Narratives, Fred White

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?: A Writer’s Guide to Transforming Notions Into Narratives, by Fred White, is the real standout for me. (Note that, here, the title, rather than the subtitle, is a question. I’m not sure I how I feel about that nonsense.) You might say that the answer to the titular question is obvious: It’s where you’ll also find the Lindbergh baby, Jimmy Hoffa, and socks that go missing in the laundry, which is to say, Hell.

On a side note, I think most people have the “ideas” to which the title refers, but perhaps don’t realize it. One of the things White (and many other writers) recommends is keeping an “idea journal,” in which one writes down one’s ideas as soon as they pop up. I think this is effective because it’s an “interruptive habit,” a mechanism one can use to cultivate a certain type of thought (and/or behavior).

Outbox

onwriting

I reviewed Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. Ironically, I enjoyed more than I have most of his fiction. I recommend it, if only for some insight into the practices of one of the most successful novelists of his generation.

I’m working on a number of other books right now, too, but skewing my attention towards Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters, which is, to be honest, kinda dark. I mean, I need some hugs or sunshine or somethin’.

Until next week, pickles.