Monday, April 17, 2006

On Dead Geraniums and Imaginary Spiders

Twelve o'clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

- T.S. Eliot, from Rhapsody on a Windy Night

Like millions of other adults, I faced this Monday morning with puffy eyes and a slightly foggy head, wishing I’d been able to get a bit more sleep last night and feeling mildly annoyed that I didn't force myself to get in bed two hours earlier and turn out the lights right then and there.

It’s just that I regard the night as such a seductive time, and while I mean that in every sense, I’m referring in particular to the heady sensation one feels, the pure freedom one experiences, when those who normally need something from you all day long are now slumbering peacefully, not needing anything. The dark world is your oyster. The possibilities suddenly seem endless: there are books to read, magazines to sort through (and toss), online articles to peruse, laundry to fold, a cable TV movie to watch all by yourself, a box of black Panda licorice that was nearly full when you last looked.

And there is always work. In fact, I get my best writing done “When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table”, to once again quote Mr. Eliot, surely a Night Owl if ever there was one. I absolutely adore the nighttime, its forbidden fruits and hidden endeavors, its grainy take on everything. Let other souls curl up in bed and wait for the sun’s permission to spring into action: I’m inspired right now.

Of course, this Night Owl proclivity of mine simply doesn’t work in a society where nine-to-five generally means starting in the morning and has been, for as long as I can remember, the standard template of American productivity against which just about everything to do with work and the hours in which one does it invariably get judged. And our culture’s attachment to residual Puritanism (thanks, Founding Fathers!) translates into those all-too-recognizable judgements about Other People.

It’s the middle of the night! Who on Earth is out and about now? What sort of things are going on at this hour?

Oooh, illicit, naughty things, that’s what.

Oh, come on.


When we were small, my brother and I were tucked in and read to while it was still light outside. We did not know to complain, and if we had known about things like nighttime television shows being infinitely more interesting than afternoon cartoons, or how the conversations of wine-drinking parents unencumbered by children could be educational—or even, I’m guessing, wildly revelatory—we’d have been much too afraid to rally for a later bed time anyway, since we were completely convinced that if we ever acted on the urge to challenge our parents about such carved-in-stone matters, enormous lightening bolts would rip through the roof of our house, setting fire to the naugahyde couch and ruining the pretty new wallpaper. So after our tea and baths, we did as we were told and went to our rooms, sneaking the latest installments of our respective book addictions under the covers and reading by flashlight (we called them torches—ha!) until we were caught.

But after a lifetime of this early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine, things changed. It was the summer that fell between my freshman and sophomore years at UF, and I decided I could no longer live without a car. Specifically, I wanted something used, small, and cheap, but solid enough to safely carry me back and forth from Miami to Gainesville. I would need to earn the money in a relatively short period of time, so I took a job as a waitress at one of my favorite places to eat, a semi-fancy Jewish deli restaurant in Coral Gables. There, I learned how to serve matzoh ball soup (the ball goes in the bowl first, then you ladle the hot broth over it), Reuben sandwiches (if you try to carry more than one at a time, chances are good the lofty stacks of corned beef will topple, making your customer very unhappy), and borscht (ask another waitress to serve it for you, because the crimson soup has this horrifying way of curdling the moment it hits the wad of sour cream and I, for one, do not have the stomach to hand someone a bowl of cold pink and white floaty bits and say Enjoy!).

I’d get to the restaurant at four in the afternoon and start in on the thrilling tasks known as “side jobs”, which could be something mind-numbing-but-easy, like stuffing the sweetener packets into their Lucite cubes, or mind-numbing-and-nauseating, like taking the tops off all the sticky mustard and ketchup bottles and scraping the clumps of dried product out of them with a bamboo skewer.

There were bright spots in my workday, though: the people. For example, there were Alex and Reggie, two warm, hilarious waiters—they’d been at the restaurant a record eighteen months—and Myra, a New York transplant and veteran “table banger” who taught me how to multitask as well as how to remember what everyone had ordered without peeking at my notes. It was Alex, Reggie, and Myra who took me out dancing in Coconut Grove one night. One entire night. The sun was actually coming up as I pulled the lime-green Volkswagen Dasher—Brought to you by...Borscht! The Other Red Soup—into the driveway of our house. My parents were none too thrilled.

But I had seen the night, and I had fallen for it in a big way. Music sounded better at night, I decided. The shrieking colors of disco fashion, clothes you’d never wear in the sunlight for fear of blinding oncoming traffic, brightened the cigar-smoke heaviness of Miami’s dark nightclubs. Night was exciting, night was exotic, night was right. We’d eat dinner outdoors because if you waited (or, like us, worked) until midnight, the air was agreeable and the cover charges were usually dropped. I discovered my Night Owl roots that summer in 1978, a while before hot old Miami became hostile (riots, anyone?) old Miami, and later, officially hot Miami (Vice, anyone?)

I never got over them—the Night Owl roots, I mean.

I’ve always loved to study at night, work at night, paint at night, and talk on the phone at night. If you'd asked me, back then anyway, I'd have said that days were really only good for sleeping, hitting the thrift stores, or getting a tan at the beach (at night there is no sun, you see...). And perhaps an occasional “hello” muttered to one or both parents when coming in or going out. So imagine the shock to my system when I found part-time work as a substitute teacher and had to completely rewire myself in order to simply wake up in time, never mind figuring out how to take the attendance, refer any transgressors to the office, and run the projector—invariably loaded with movies like Getting to Know Your Digestive Tract—that beamed the day’s moving lesson onto a roll-down screen behind the lecturn. It was outrageously difficult. I’d become a Night Owl, and here I was trying to play Ms. Responsible-Day-Job-Girl with the Larks. Office-going Larks. Tie-wearing, pantyhose-tugging, early-to-bed Larks.

I never got into it.


One thing I learned about sleep, though, is that you can’t get too hung up on the actual time; rather, you must listen to your body, meaning you eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired. This was reiterated in what was probably the ninth baby-readiness book I read while awaiting Son One’s arrival (he turns 14 tomorrow). Sleep when you’re tired. Don’t worry about the housework—if the baby is asleep, you should be asleep. Oh, how I nodded with approval when I read that. The symmetrical logic of it! The Be Kind to Mothers approach! The permission to blow off housework!

And I truly was prepared for a bout of rough nights, really I was. Just not ten months worth of them. Ten months during which the longest spell of sleep permitted me was two and a half hours, and that felt luxurious.

It’s not for nothing that sleep deprivation is a favored torture technique used by interrogators. I do believe that in those days when I stalked about the Earth and hearth as Zombie Mama, you could have offered me nothing more than a soft pillow and a promise of babysitting and I’d have told you anything you wanted to know.

And sleeping so little not only gives you the dark under-eye circles of a Tim Burton caricature, it also makes you crazy. No, really. Crazy in ways that are, at first, subtle; later, though, the lunacy goes big and there’s no denying that something must be done.

One evening, when Son One was about nine months old and still cried on cue for his feeding every couple of hours, I saw a spider on the kitchen wall—a big, four-or-five-inches-wide bird spider. I asked Mr. Litbrit to come and take the spider outside (they’re harmless and beneficial; I just don’t need one to climb into my hair when I’m stacking the dishwasher, thank you). But when he came into the kitchen, the spider was gone. Nothing unusual—spiders are mobile little (or not-so-little) buggers; all the same, it bothered me that it had been right there five seconds ago, and *pouf*, now it was gone. A little later, the spider reappeared, this time over the stove. Ah! I called out to Mr. L: “I’m not moving this time. Come in here now, please!”

Of course the thing disappeared again. And after a half-dozen more sightings, my dear husband informed me that I had probably hallucinated the spider and would I please, please listen to the pediatrician and stop running to the baby every time he cried, all night long, because, you know, a mind is a terrible thing to waste and everything.


Exhaustion. Depression. Weight gain. Foggy-headedness. Short attention spans. Quick tempers.

All of these things, and more, are brought on, and then exacerbated, by sleep deprivation and sleep deficit, the latter of which is an insidious accumulation of “sleep debt”—night after night—that results in a chronic state of tiredness, high levels of cortisol (a stress hormone linked to obesity), and impaired mental function. When a human is awake for long periods of time, the body shifts into starvation/crisis mode, storing fat for some impending famine or natural disaster. The remedy? According to recent research on what British wags call “The Duvet Diet”, simply getting the right amount of sleep (as in, at least eight hours for adults) can restore healthy hormone levels almost immediately.

Thus ends Day One—and begins Night One—of my new regime. I’ll call it The Pillow Prescription. The lads must be in bed—as they are right now—with lights out, by 8:30pm. And I must be allowed to stay up all night writing and reading to my heart’s content.

Kidding! In reality, I have a ten o’clock date with my blanket and a Teddy Bear borrowed from Son Three. Okay, so maybe eleven is more realistic.

In any case, Sweet Dreams...

1 comment:

  1. Ah the strange pleasures of insomnia. I remember them well. For me it was not children, it was instead a period in my early 20s when I was... a little bit crazy. I did not want to sleep, and then became unable to sleep. It was fun, then terrifying.