Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Did I Tell You?

Most mornings, Cait is up with Walt, but a few times these last few weeks, I have taken him for early-morning walks through the neighborhood. We hit the pavement a little after dawn. We see squirrels, birds, the guy throwing newspapers out the passenger window of his Civic. Sometimes, the woman who walks four dogs. Everyone seems to water their lawns around that time, so it smells like rain, the air is clean and crisp. I carry Walt in my arms (he hates the stroller), and every couple of minutes, I switch him in a different direction. We name flowers, stop to look inside cars. Just down the street, there is a conversion van with expired plates and a policeman's benevolence sticker parked in the bushes, a box of Cheerios in the front seat. We make it around the block in fifteen minutes. Then it's back inside for breakfast, toddling, and eventually, the morning nap.

This book I have been reading about sleep and rest says the first step to getting on a reliable sleep schedule is to wake up every morning at the same time, and then exercise in bright natural light. The radiation resets your internal clock and wakes up your brain, while the oxygen jump-starts the organs. In later chapters the book is thoughtful about meditation, stretching, the nature of rest. Left to my druthers, I think that I would go to sleep around 2am and wake up a little after 10am, but this morning routine has me rethinking things. I certainly feel more rested early in the morning, although it cuts into my late-night writing and work time. I tend to believe that self-help books, by nature, are a bit of hokum, a tad under-conceptualized, but I like this one and the other one I read four years ago for their practical and condensed thoughts on daily living. I appreciate the help, even if I can think of a couple of other books (and here) that work better for the longer-term, metaphysical challenges that inspire these day-to-day symptoms.

This morning, Walt sounded the alarm around 4:15am, so we left him in his crib. We listened to him cry for about 20 minutes before he konked out again. We have moved his crib to the corner of the room, and put up a curtain, so that when he wakes and stands in the crib, he can't see us. These early morning cry-it-out sessions, when they happen, are absolute torture. He works up a good head of steam. The pitch and tone of his screaming sound like cries for help, which I suppose they are. What does he know about sleep, except that he wants to get up and start the day? Anything before 5am is too early for us, and bad for him. It makes him cranky in the morning and he doesn't nap well. Everything for a baby, and I suppose his parents, comes down to predictability, schedules, and making educated guesses. We trust that Walt will fall back asleep, and feel better for it.

This morning, as he cried, I thought, He must be very cold. We have turned off the space heater for the season, and I was deep in the covers. Walt sleeps in a fleece sleep suit and a cozy sleep sack, under one or two blankets that he tends to kick off during the night. Typing that now, I think it's actually quite a lot of insulation, but this morning, I decided, As soon as he stops crying, I'll make sure there's a blanket on him. I dozed in and out of sleep. I dreamt that I was starring with Jodie Foster in an update on Barfly, and my crucial scene was to tie my shoes in such a way as to convey deep meaning and loss. Walt stopped crying. I popped out of bed. He was on top of his blankets, so I pulled one out slowly, and just as I got it free and laid it on top of him, he woke up and started crying again. I don't think he saw me; I dropped to the ground and crawled back to bed, through the curtain, and waited him out again (no dreams). When I went back to the crib, he was again on top of the blankets, so I left him alone. He woke at 6:45am.

I got out of bed, made some coffee, stood outside for a few minutes taking deep breaths (radiation: check, oxygen: check), then took everything out of the bathroom and scrubbed it ceiling to floor. Blankets, towels, washcloths, area rug, all hung out on the line to dry. Litter box, cleaned and changed. Commode, sink, shower, and floor, swept, bleached, and rinsed. I wiped down the glass and mirrors. There was a terrific amount of dust and a few wasps in the light fixture, so I took that apart and cleaned it, too. The bathroom looked good. I caught up on some of my podcasts, zoned out to music, and whammo--clean bathroom.

Four years ago, June was the month that Katie and I were waiting out the last of her work before we came home from Romania. Three years ago, I thought, Just get through the death anniversary and deal with whatever happens next after that. Two years ago, it was, Well, it certainly won't be as hard as it was the first year. Last year: So, this is what it's going to be like. And now, this year. It starts again. I don't know whether I am describing grief or trauma; probably, some mix therein. The fact of Katie's death and her absence from the world and my life, and the sheer terror of witnessing her death, bubble up in very strange ways, periodically, and then go away. "Bubble" is the right word for how it takes shape, gets bigger, bigger, bigger, pops, and starts again. This is the time of year that I start compulsively apologizing for no reason. I worry about the minutiae of life around me. I work hard to hedge against certain feelings. Everything is some kind of study in inadequacy. I know that June is largely a matter of enduring, rather than reacting, of getting through rather than trying to counteract. I feel fragile this time of year. Nothing surprising there. There is nothing to say, or do, or tell anybody, which will change anything. Here I am again, writing feverishly through the middle of the month.

The challenge, I think, is finding some new aspect within the familiar, which I suppose is a very American, self-help-driven kind of consciousness (when life gives you lemons...). It's also at least somewhat literary. What is the combination of interpretation, exegesis, catharsis, that will make this time of year both meaningful and endurable? Does one exclude the other? It doesn't make sense to ask all of the same questions each year. There are new questions. And there is so much recurrence. It's not unlike rereading a favorite story or poem: you know the broad gestures, the outcome, so if you read it to find out what happens next, you'll be underwhelmed or disappointed. But do you like the story still? The writing? Do the technical gestures and strategies impress you in the same way? Is there a meaning or feeling that comes through for the first time?

A few months ago, the New Yorker ran this profile of Dave Eagleman. Apparently, the brain processes time cumulatively; it often either does not or cannot make a distinction between past and present. Dreams, especially, are occasions for sequential jumbles, but also illness, terror, and trauma. And, the experience of time itself speeds up and slows down depending on how the brain processes it. In one of the first studies of how the brain processes time, from the early 1800s, a A physiologist had his semi-delirious wife (flu, fever) count off sixty seconds while he was out of the room. He then compared her estimate with a stopwatch. The higher her temperature rose, the shorter her time estimate. "Like a racing engine, her mental clock went faster the hotter it got."

I find solace in distraction, the ridiculous. Watching a recent episode of Between Two Ferns With Zack Galifianakis, I found this silly video short, "Cool Baby, Lame Baby with Vanessa Hudgens." It's kind of brilliant, for its 58 seconds. Hudgens is a former Disney child actor, who evaluates the relative hipness of babies based on their photos. The joke is, I think, five-fold: 1. that babies either are or could become pop objects 2. the inanity of asking celebrities to judge anything; 3. that there is value in the lame-cool baby binary; 4. that said binary is authoritative and exclusive; 5. that we photograph our babies in such strange, judgment-friendly poses. A friend sent around the Screen Junkies' Inappropriate Laugh Track video series, which tweaks, in a somewhat juvenile manner, the mindless authority of laugh tracks by pairing canned laughter with purposefully unfunny material. The result is asinine, but still subversive, willing at least some kind of new reaction to well-worn, familiar movie moments that, on their own, insist so much solemnity, as to leave room for little else.

In June 2008, I downloaded Yo La Tengo's greatest hits collection. I didn't know the band at all, except by reputation. I wanted new music for my last few walks around the Indiana suburbs. Here is my formula for enjoying rock music. I have to be able to hear the lyrics. I have to like the lyrics and want to memorize them. The music shouldn't get in the way of the lyrics, and also shouldn't grate on my nerves, at least for more than a few choruses. It is a fairly narrow formula but it works for me, and the few exceptions only prove the rule. I have been reading through an anthology I will use to teach creative writing to middle schoolers this summer. I know much of the work it contains, but the anthology itself is new to me. In its essay on "the art of poetry," it cites Marilyn Chin's definition of a poet's mission, "...to inspire and to illuminate; and to leave behind to our glorious descendants an intricate and varied map of humanity." It pitches a bit to the middle, but the latter part feels right to me. It's a solid starting point for talking about what writing can do, and often does. The Yo La Tengo song I absolutely love is "Did I Tell You?" For greatest hits collection, "Did I Tell You?" is redone in a quiet, thoughtful manner. I found the original track recently; it is much louder and more confrontational. The lyrics in both versions are clear and beautiful, resigned and optimistic.


Anonymous said...

As always, I am amazed at your insights.

Karen C. said...

For the first months of both Carter and Desi's lives, I 'forgot' that their temperature management was my job. I know they woke up hot or cold at times and I didn't realize that was it.

Purple Rain is playing at the Castro this Friday. I know you want to come.