I have become reluctant to go bed. I don’t mean I have difficulty falling asleep. I have developed a resistance to turning out the lights and calling it a day. This isn’t a new thing, but with children the need for sleep is so acute and every minute counts. It’s become conspicuous. I stay up late, sometimes working, more often in a vague state of anticipation, as though my mind is a ship that will set sail just as soon as the fog clears. It is late, but I hang on. Recently I have started to nod off.
Nodding off is not a nap. It’s more sinister. Sometimes it comes on like anesthesia, a heaviness. Sometimes it’s a velvet hammer, a blow. I see stars, then blackness. After some time has passed, I jerk awake. I am alone in my own home yet there is that vulnerable, almost shameful feeling one has after having fallen asleep on a crowded train with your mouth open.
This happens to people all the time, tiny narcoleptic intervals in life’s flow. I’ve been thinking of its many variations.
A partial list follows (and please let me know what I have left out):
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The Bored To Death In Class Nod-off 1 of 9A classic of high school and junior high school. Sometimes preceded by inappropriate thoughts in either the sex or violence category, though that applies to most thoughts in high school and junior high. If it happens in college, without any chemical or medical reason, not a good sign. Professors who teach seminars, which are like dinner parties with everyone in a circle, do not have to deal with this, for the most part.
The Movie Theater Nod-off 2 of 9Since nodding off has only become an issue since you've become a parent, nodding off in movie theaters is rare because you are so rarely in them, and when you are, it's a thrill. However the pressure on the movie to be good is immense, but that is another matter.
The On A Moving Train/Subway Nod-off 3 of 9Very dangerous for two reasons: the swaying of the train, the low hum of white noise, the banality of the commute, all conspire towards nodding-off. And nothing is less pleasant than waking in a crowded space realizing you have been asleep with your mouth open. On the other side of the coin, it's not the worst thing if some stranger falls asleep on your shoulder. Until it's your stop.
The Opera-Theater-Ballet-Modern Dance, Any Esoteric Live Performance Nod-off 4 of 9Made more likely by the faint awareness that falling asleep in such a setting would be both rude and also indicative of a certain cultural philistinism, which in turn creates an unconscious anxiety which is exhausting and leads to nodding off.
The Booze Nod-off 5 of 9Often practiced by older, seasoned drinkers who can drift into a brief, regenerative nap while sitting upright, often with a drink in their hand, only to jerk awake after a few minutes, restored and ready to continue. (I will take this opportunity to mention my favorite heavy drinking movie outside of John Cassavetes, who owns the genre: Trees Lounge, directed by Steve Buscemi, cinematic Poet Laureate of Long Island along with Eric Mendelsohn and Hal Hartley.) Anthony Haden Guest was a champion of this move, back when he was still drinking.
The Reader Who Can Now, At Last, Sit With The Book He Is Reading And Take It In, Except He Cannot Choose From The Many Books He Is Reading Nod-off? 6 of 9Now we get closer to the psychological as opposed to physical reasons for nodding off--choosing can be exhausting. And then there are the complicated, passive aggressive relationships you are likely to have with your books, best summarised at the Start of Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night, A Traveler." Except he is standing in a bookstore, whereas you are on your couch.
The Writer Who Has A Moment To Sit And Write But Is Terrified Of This Liberty and Responsibility Nod-off. 7 of 9Naps are one of the great boons to the creative process. It's no accident that many artist colonies have cots in their studios or work spaces. Even in a library a brief narcoleptic episode can the mental palate and rejuvenate. All hail nap! But can you take a nap after midnight? Alas, unless you have the explicit intention of working for hours upon waking, it is a nod-off.
The Driving Nod-off 8 of 9There is something so total in the fatigue that can come over you when you are driving a car. It is enveloping. Surely there are scientific studies devoted to this. Is it the vibration of the car? The hypnotic element of the road or the landscape? The ambient noise? The seated position? Whenever I am hit with this driving Nod-off — and, like the accident it presages, it has an impact, it hits you fast — I open the windows. I slap myself on the face and chest. I take quick, deep breaths. As a last resort, I pull over. I don't do it right away, though. I fight it. Of the times I have pulled over, I can remember the feeling of sleep that came over me. A thick velvet blanket, both suffocating and comforting. A blissful, narcotic effect, with the accompanying feeling of doing something forbidden, illegal. The hum of traffic becomes a kind of white noise, the world going about their business while I sink into a nap. What is it about driving a car that does this? Could the depth of the nap have something to do with the disaster averted? Could it be caused by the need to erase the guilt one feels about having let it go that far, head falling forward and eyes almost closed before you jerk upright in horror? You pull over only to find you can not sleep, because as soon as the car comes to a stop you are revived, and sit there testing your awakeness to see if you can start rolling again.
The Narcotic Nod-off 9 of 9By narcotic I mean heroin. That slowing, stilling, as though the person who has just snorted or injected the white stuff is now being embalmed. Known exclusively from the movies, of course, most of them set in 70s New York: The French Connection, Panic in Needle Park, (co-written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne). And maybe 70s cop shows. Did they have junkies nodding off on Kojak? On Starsky and Hutch?
But these late at night nod-offs of mine are a category of its own. What to call them?
The Daddy Nod-off?
The Parent Who Is Caught Between Feeling Totally Excited At Having Time To Himself And Being Exhausted Nod-off?
And why now? Why, when everyone else is asleep, does staying awake seem so appealing?
I think I’m afraid of my dreams. I haven’t even had bad ones, recently. But just the fact of dreams is frightening, really. You spend so much energy trying to control what your kids are exposed to–their media, the environment, their school. You have to accept (or even embrace) the randomness of the world, it’s vagaries and cruelties. Bit the idea of getting an unpleasant news flash from your unconscious, the vulnerability that comes with receiving this information from within, may be too much.
Or maybe, as Marcelle Clements suggested, in her comment, we are waiting for a sense of familiarity with ourselves to return. We wait and wait. And while waiting, we nod-off.
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