Friday, October 12, 2012

What It Is Like To Have Insomnia

Have you ever really listened to the beginning of the song 96 Tears by Question Mark and The Mysterions?

Now, have you ever really listened to that song turned way way down while you sit quietly downstairs, alone in your living room, the baby monitor softly playing the boys' movie at 11:19 p.m. on a Friday night?

It's strange, this not sleeping.

It doesn't happen every night, for one thing.  Most nights, I'm lucky to stay up past 8:30 p.m.  But then, some nights, I lie in bed and I hear the sound of Sweetie sleeping and the sound of the cars up the road and the sound that the bed makes everytime I move and the sound of the TV playing something that I've put on to try to not pay attention to, and I think how sleep is like a wave: it's out there, and I can see it coming in, and I'm going to try to catch it so as the wave gets closer and closer I turn and begin swimming as fast as I can, in the same direction as the shore, and I feel the wave move closer and closer and it lifts me up and carries me but I don't quite catch it and as I sag back down into the trough and watch the wave crash onto the beach, I sigh and put on The Office.

They say you are not supposed to watch television if you are trying to get to sleep, but the real rule is don't watch something that you want to watch.  You have to live life like Dunbar, when you are trying to sleep, Dunbar being the guy in Catch-22 who wanted to make his life seem as long as possible, living longer than his years, so he sought out unpleasant activities like playing ping-pong with Haverford, was it Haverford? I remember it was the guy who ate peanut brittle and had flies in his eyes, and now Cinco De Mayo by what's-her-name, the rock girl who always got a lot of credit for being a rock girl, is playing in the background and the boys' movie has finished but if I go in and shut off their TV entirely, at some point Mr Bunches will wake up and be scared by the dark, the way he was scared by the spider back at 9 p.m.

"Daddy!" he yelled, and I had just left the room to go downstairs and turn off the kitchen lights, having helped Mr F put his pajamas back on after he went to the bathroom, so I called up "I'll be right there," but he wasn't satisfied with that.

"Daddy!" he yelled again, and I started up the stairs, there's only three or four of them, crazy how I don't know how many steps I have in my house, even though we've lived here, what, 10 years?  Crazy that I don't remember how long we've lived here, now, even though it's the only house we've ever owned.  We moved here, what the summer before Oldest started her junior year, and she's 25 now, so that was when she was 15 or 16...

...facts are slippery at 11:25 p.m. on a Friday night: how long we've lived here, how old Oldest was when she was a sophomore-going-on-junior in high school, how many steps there are up to the next level of the house.

"Daddy!" Mr Bunches yelled as I opened the door.

"What is it, buddy?" I asked him.

"There's a spider?" he said, looking at his iPad and not anywhere else.  Mr Bunches was watching a movie and reading a book and watching a video on his iPad, and he was actively engaged in all of them.  I took away the miniature model of the solar system from Mr F, the model we bought tonight at the book store to replace the model Mr Bunches had previously had, the one that Mr F had wrecked because Mr F likes to take things and tap them, and he'd taken the arms that held Jupiter and Saturn and the one for Neptune, too, and broken them off to use as tappers

He didn't do it to be mean; he just wanted to tap.

"Where is the spider?" I had asked Mr Bunches, and he said

"On the movie."  At first I thought he was watching a movie of a spider, but he pointed towards the wall, so I looked at the wall.  There was no spider. 

"I don't see it," I told him.  He pointed again.

"On the movie,"

So I took his lamp off his dresser and turned it on, shone it like a spotlight on the wall.

"I don't see it," I said.

He shook his head.

"On the movie," he said and pointed at the television, playing Despicable Me.  For a moment, I thought he meant there was a spider in the movie, but I've watched Despicable Me, watched it the way I've watched many of the movies the boys love, in parts here and there, eventually piecing the entire movie together in my head this part goes here that part goes there oh I see the plot, kind of the way I used to piece together movies I'd seen parts of when I worked at a movie theater when I was in my early 20s, back in Milwaukee, the Grand Theater, it was, in Milwaukee. 

The other night, falling asleep, I had tried to remember the names of the people I worked with at that theater. One of them was named Aristide.  I barely remember him.

The spider was crawling along the edge of the TV, a little whitish one.  Gross.  I watched it as I grabbed for something, found the DVD case from the Baby Einsteins "World of Words" DVD that we had bought Mr F the other day.  Mr F likes the Baby Einstein DVDs, but Mr Bunches doesn't like them as much and is more vocal about it, plus they are only 29 minutes long, and both of the boys like to fall asleep watching a movie, but if we put a 29-minute movie on they probably won't fall asleep before it is over.

Tonight, they didn't go to bed until 8:30.  We let them stay up a little late because we took them, after the Homecoming parade today, to the PTA "Spaghetti Dinner" at their school, joined at the dinner by The Boy, The Boy's new girlfriend, and Oldest.  At the dinner, Mr F had been nervous and energetic and demanded that Sweetie hug and kiss him a lot.  Mr Bunches was more out of sorts: the entire time we were waiting in line, lined up in the middle-school cafeteria waiting to get a tray of macaroni with meat sauce, some lettuce, and a dinner roll, plus a cookie, Mr Bunches had made me hold him, and he'd cried and insisted that we should go outside to play on the playground.  He didn't want to be waiting in line in his lunchroom at 5:50 on a Friday night, waiting to get spaghetti served on foam trays, and truth be told, neither did I, but there we were, having decided that we should do this, maybe for us, maybe for the boys, maybe because sometimes we think maybe parents should do these things.

Mr Bunches cried and tried not to cry and I kept assuring him that we'd eat quick and go outside and play on the playground, and the only thing that made him feel better, before going outside, was when I told him he could pick out our cookie: we were sharing a tray, as neither of us were going to eat the food, anyway, so I let him use the tongs to pick out an M&M cookie.  He grappled with the cookie for 2 or 3 minutes, wrestling it over to the tray before becoming dissatisfied, at which point he picked up the cookie and put it back in line, then started over.  This time he was better at it, grasping the cookie and placing it down on top of the pile of lettuce I'd felt compelled to take because they were serving it.

"Don't you want salad dressing?" The Boy asked.

"I'm not going to eat the salad anyway," I said. We all went outside, me and Sweetie and The Boy and the new girlfriend and Oldest and the boys, and I ate the cookie and dumped the spaghetti dinner into the dumpster and watched as Mr F spun on one of those little individual merry-go-round seats, the kind that look like upside-down flowers, almost, and Mr Bunches climbed on the jungle gym, and afterwards, as a reward for being so good at the dinner, we took them to the bookstore to replace Mr Bunches' solar system, and Mr F got a replacement set of alphabet books because the old set had gotten dirty in an accident one day.

I crushed the spider, and said "I got it," and showed Mr Bunches the dead body on the outside of the DVD case, because I know that when there's been a spider in your room you've got to see the corpse before you can relax, and then I told them goodnight and that they had to turn off the light and definitely go to sleep, and I threw the DVD case away because I know that once something has touched spider it's no good for human use anymore, but it was a good 2 hours before the boys both drifted off to sleep.

Sweetie is the lucky one, tonight: she fell asleep three separate times, waking up when I had to go in and help Mr Bunches find a video on his iPad and waking up when Mr Bunches wanted to "take a break with Mama." He comes into our room, sits in the bed for a few minutes, enjoying the feeling of being in our room, and then goes back to bed.  He does that two, sometimes three, times a night, usually when a scary part of his movie comes on.

The scary parts are hard to predict: for example, he's scared by the credits, but only the ones in the beginning of movies: he doesn't like the parts where they tell you which production companies are responsible for the movie you're about to see.  He tries to stand out in the hallway at the beginning of movies, not sure what images and words might flash on the screen before the movie itself starts.  He won't let me leave the room at night sometimes until the movie actually is playing.

But both he and Mr F enjoy the credits at the end of movies.  They sit and watch them, listen to the songs, stare raptly at the screen until the last of the words has rolled up the screen and the DVD goes back to its main screen.  They won't let us stop the movie and put something else in until the credits stop.  If you are a gaffer or best boy or have helped with the animation or are simply someone who lent a location and got thanked for it at the very end of the credits, rest assured: Mr F and Mr Bunches know about you.

I read for a while tonight, reading an article in The New Yorker about Mitt Romney and his background, but I didn't finish it because my Kindle ran out of power.  I am always forgetting to charge my electronic devices, and so frequently I am using them and they flash a warning that they are almost out of power, and it becomes a race against time: will I finish this article, this story, this book, before the power gives out?  "Real" books never need to be plugged in to finish them, but "real books" cannot stop being this book and start being that book on a whim, and sometimes you don't want to read about Mitt Romney anymore, you want to go read a short story by John Cheever, and you want to be able to do that with a few flicks of your finger.

And you want to be able to read in the dark, too, sometimes.  Just before she fell asleep the third time, Sweetie said "You can turn off the light," and I said, as I've said for 16 years, "I'm going to read," but then I added "But, I can read in the dark," and Sweetie asked me if my Kindle has a light on it.

"See?" I said, and turned of the bedside lamp and turned on the article about Mitt Romney, the screen glowing with backlit words about Bain Capital.

"Neat," she said, and she'd learned something about me.  Not something major, maybe, but after 16 years there are still surprises, even if they are small.  Her husband can read in the dark, she might have thought, and he could, at least until the power ran out and he was left watching television, watching The Office and The Daily Show, but not the interview part because mostly those are kind of boring.

Now I am typing in the dark.  There are no lights on in the house, only the computer screen.  Only that's a lie.  There are lights on in the house.  There is the little green light on the baby monitor, the one we still use with the boys because we can't leave their door unlocked at night, because they will get up and wander around the house, we worry, and given the entire night to work on it, Mr F will surely get a door or a window open and will get out, and we wouldn't hear him.  We would wake up in the morning and he would have six, eight hours of a head start, off alone in the world headed in some unknown direction, so we keep their windows in their room locked and we have the locks duct-taped shut because we didn't want to put bars on the windows, that would look bad, and we don't worry about how the duct-tape looks because we're used to it and anyway, if your son will wander away without telling you about it, worrying about some duct tape on the locks is the last thing on your mind.

We were going to start trying to keep their door open at night, see how they reacted, whether they would get up and horse around or try to wander away.  The night we'd decided to try it was a Friday night, in August.  We'd talked about it that week, on Tuesday and Wednesday:  this week, this weekend, we'd decided we'll leave their door unlocked.

(It's just a little lock: it's a hook-and-eye on the outside of their door.  If they wanted to they could pull it open.  I've seen Mr F do just that.  They're not trapped, but they are dissuaded.)

We'll leave their door unlocked, we'd decided and we'll just monitor them that night, see how they do, and we were going to start it that Friday but as it turns out we didn't because the Friday we were going to start it was one day, exactly, after Mr F fell off the counter and hurt his head and needed surgery, and so the night that we had been going to allow them the freedom afforded to any other 6-year-old we didn't do that because Mr F was in the Intensive Care Unit with me sitting up in a chair beside him making sure he didn't pull out his IV, while Sweetie was at home with Mr Bunches coming into our room to take a break with Mama.

So we had bigger things to worry about, and now their door gets locked at night but we have a baby monitor in there so we can listen to them, and we go in there a lot anyway.

Sometimes, I will wake up at 2, or 3, or even 4, a.m., and listen to the baby monitor.  It will be quiet in our house except for that baby monitor, which will usually be quietly playing whatever music plays on a "hold" screen on a DVD.  The boys -- I almost typed the Babies!, which is what I used to call them but they're 6 now, and they're tall, taller than 2nd or 3rd or even 4th graders, today at the Homecoming parade I saw that, they're not Babies!-- the boys like to fall asleep watching movies and after the movie ends there is the "start" or "hold" screen and that plays all night.  It's become their nightlight and they won't let us shut off the movie.

Sometimes, I will wake up in the middle of the night and hear that and I will quietly get up and go down the hall, and unhook their door, and go in their room.

I will see Mr Bunches sleeping on his bed, his covers half over him, a Buzz Lightyear next to him, his airplanes on the foot of his bed. 

I will see Mr F on his makeshift bed in the closet, the closet that doesn't have a door anymore because he took it off the hinges last week, accidentally, we think, but we can't have him knocking doors down so we took it off.  He sleeps, Mr F, with his head pointed away from the room and his blanket coiled around him like it is giving him several hugs at once.

I look around their room and watch them sleep, their eyes closed and their mouths open, bathed in the soft glow of Despicable Me or Toy Story 3, and I will lean down and press the Play button.

You're not supposed to let your kids watch TV to fall asleep, but you're not supposed to lock your kids in their room to keep them from wandering out of the house, either, and you're not supposed to feed your kids mostly cheese puffs and bananas, but it's 2 or 3 or 4 a.m. and all I know is that if they wake up, I want them to not even have to get up and press the button themselves, to not need to call for me.  I want their movie going so that if they wake up, even in the middle of the night, even if it is just for a second, everything will be just the way they want it, because I can't bear the thought that life, already hard and confusing enough for them, might be harder or more confusing for even a second.

I go back to my room, then, on those nights, and I turn on my own TV, quietly, setting the sleep timer for 2 hours, and I watch CNN or reruns of Family Guy or The Colbert Report, laying on my back, listening to the TV and the baby monitor and thinking, and if I'm lucky, I will dream about something really cool.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A tinier stegosaurus goes for his annual tinier physical.

View more great photos with more great non sequitur titles at Briane Pagel: PWNST.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

So I have started a comic strip.

So I have started a comic strip.

This is it.

You can probably click on the pictures to embiggen them and that may help. 

I call it "Monty, The Part-Time Grad Student Who Is Also A Mountain And Who Maybe (Possiby?) Will Save The World!"

There'll be more installments in the future as I buy more crayons.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

15,842 New Words, Word 3: If I may foreshadow a bit, what's the deal with X?

If I may foreshadow a bit, what's the deal with X?

Put more clearly, why is X a letter?

If Pluto is not a planet any longer -- teach the controversy! -- then can't we sometimes demote letters down to, I don't know, phonetical symbols or something?

I'm sure this has happened before, that we demoted a letter, because there are things that I remember learning about in school that seemed to exist in other people's consciousness but did not exist in mine and which therefore must have at some time been a letter only weren't anymore; people talked about them in the way that people talk about a lot of stuff that I vaguely recognized as existing, but which I had no clue about, really.

That was life for me as a kid (and, mostly, still, as an adult): people talking about things that they all take for granted as existing and knowing about them, while I am completely lost.

I spend about 84% of my daily life not knowing what the heck people are talking about.  It was a higher percentage when I was a kid and would routinely get on a bus for a field trip to the Octagon House or something and not really know what was happening because I'd forgotten about the field trip (or, more likely) hadn't known about it at all.  Sometimes I would have a bag lunch with me, indicating that my mom had remembered the field trip and remembered to send the lunch with me, but also indicating that I not only didn't know I had a field trip but also I didn't remember carrying my bag lunch to school.

The mere fact that I've made it to 43 is amazing in more ways than ten.

Consider the schwa.

Pictured: schwa

To get back on track, here, just think about a schwa for a while.  We learned about the schwa in some grade or other, I'll just say it was the third grade because it doesn't really matter and I want to move on with my thought.

That's one of the reasons I never know what's going on or what the heck you are talking about, really: because you make me agree to stuff just to get the story going, because you are boring.  I don't mean that to be offensive (but it is), it's just the truth.  Here's how the vast majority of stories you tell go:

You:  Hey, you know that guy, Artie Johnson?*
*this is a made up name. But I think it was Marge Simpson's boyfriend in school, too.

Me: No.

You: Sure you do.  Artie was that guy who ...

*my mind fades away wondering, perhaps, whether it would be possible to make Macaroni and Cheese Balls on a stick, and whether that's a thing that people would want to eat, because I would want to eat it*


You:  ... and that's how you know Artie Johnson.

Me: I still don't know who he is.

You: Sure you do.  He was also that guy...
That's how they all go, and that's annoying because the important point of the story is (I assume) from your perspective not whether I know who Artie Johnson is, it's something Artie did or said.  (I say from your perspective because from my perspective the important point of the story is not to talk to you at all; I was just going to get coffee and you cornered me.)

So to combat that I have developed a defense mechanism that is the oral equivalent of a chameleon (or an octopus since they are better at it) changing its colors to match its surroundings, and so whenever you tell me a story about a guy, I immediately agree that I know that person, which goes like this:

You:  Remember Margo Timmins?*
*I think she is the lead singer of Cowboy Junkies.  I'm not good with making up names.

Me: Yes!

You:  She knows Artie Johnson, too...

It is not a perfect system.

We were talking about the schwa, which for purposes of this story is something I first heard of in third grade, and I heard of it because my teacher wrote an upside-down e on the board:

Pictured: schwa

and went on like nothing in the world weird had just happened, talking about this and that and stuff, and everyone in the class was acting like it was perfectly normal that Ms. Wilhelmi had just written an upside-down e on the board and then later on she said it was a schwa and people like Derrick Van Orten just acted like this was a thing and I recall staring at my soft, pulpy, grayish-yellow paper with the rows of solid blue lines with the dashed-blue lines between them forming the minimum height requirements for lower-case letters to join the word, a feeling of resignation forming in me as I longed to just be back at home in my room reading comic books and not dealing with letters that couldn't possibly exist but everyone knew about them.

To this day I do not know what the schwa is supposed to be, or do, or say, and I have for about 35 years (how old is one in 3rd grade?  That's another thing I can't recall.) suspected that it was an elaborate practical joke because my only other alternative is to admit that here is another part of society that I am clueless about, which would put the schwa in the same not-so-exclusive club as girls, women, females, and everything else that isn't Green Lantern.

(I also do not know that much about Green Lantern, either, because I only just recently found out that Earth has, like, thirteen of them and there's only supposed to be one per sector.  Having too many Green Lanterns is worse for me, far worse, than blinking Ewoks.)

The schwa, according to Wikipedia is:

the mid-central vowel sound (rounded or unrounded) in the middle of the vowel chart, denoted by the IPA symbol ə, or another vowel sound close to that position. An example in English is the vowel sound in the second syllable of the word sofa. Schwa in English is limited to unstressed positions, but in some other languages it can occur as a stressed vowel.

 And now I know less than before.  But it gets worse: Wikipedia notes that the schwa is imported from Hebrew where sometimes it was used to

either the phoneme /e/ or the complete absence of a vowel
 So now we have a letter that is used to indicate the complete absence of a letter.

Dizzy yet?  I am, but, then, I've been drinking coffee and repeatedly rebuilding the Lego TIE Fighter I built Mr Bunches yesterday so that he could re-enact the scene in Lego Star Wars where Lego Darth Vader crashes his Lego Tie Fighter onto Tatooine, which Mr Bunches has mistaken for Mars.  Because that is the only scene Mr Bunches re-enacts (Lego Darth Vader crashing on Mars), I am called on to rebuild the TIE fighter a lot.

Schwa also has been around for over a hundred years, now, and as such it's picked up a lot of uses, as Wikipedia says that it can sound like the u in but, or

  • like the 'a' in about [əˈbaʊt]
  • like the 'e' in taken [ˈtʰeɪkən]
  • like the 'i' in pencil [ˈpʰɛnsəl]
  • like the 'o' in eloquent [ˈɛləkwənt]
  • like the 'u' in supply [səˈplaɪ]
  • like the 'y' in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]

And now I'm really made because of that backwards 3 in eloquent's phonetic spelling.  So we can just make up letters now?  And what's that superscript h?  Can't math just stay in its own enclosure?

This is all because of x, and specifically, x is for box.  Which it isn't, but I'm getting ahead of myself, which is tough because I'm already beside myself with confusion.

Yesterday, Mr Bunches was singing a song about the alphabet that he'd learned from Youtube, where he found a video about the alphabet.  The song is kind of catchy in that mindless way that many children's songs are; I recall clearly the line for O:

O is for octopus
Ock, ock, octopus.

All the letters go like that.  And, as all alphabet songs have to, eventually the song gets around to X, at which point the song says:

X is for box.
Bah bah box.

Which it clearly isn't, as I said.  And I couldn't help but wonder, why not go with the traditional things that X is for, which are, judging by my extensive research into this consisting of thinking about it while I type this line:

X-ray fish.

And that's all.

That's all X is ever for in the alphabet, and I don't know why the song didn't just go with that, because in every other case the letter was for something and what it was for was a word it started with, like

L is for lion
La la lion

 Until it flipped at X.

That, in turn, caused me to wonder why we bother having X as a letter at all, given how useless it is.  Do you have any idea how few words in the English language (best language EVER! YAY ENGLISH! GO USA USA USA!) start with X?

I do not, either, because my Dictionary on my Kindle doesn't let me skip to that page; apparently, to look up a word in that dictionary I will have to page all the way to it page by page, which makes it a not very helpful book at all.

But there's nothing that X does that can't be accomplished by a couple of other letters working together.  We don't need to have an X-ray, we can simply have an Ecksray machine, and fish, and we could store stuff in bockses, which is more than one bocks, and if you think that looks silly, then consider that you are probably right now wearing socks and on your door there are locks and when someone wants in they do a couple of knocks which if they are loud enough will give you shocks.

We'd get use to having bockses, is my point and after a while we probably wouldn't even miss "X" and it could go back to just being used to mark the spot and possibly for tic-tac-toe which, did you know that in Rome they played a version of that game which wasn't boring? In Roman Tic Tac Toe, which was called Terni Lapilli you got three pieces and had to keep moving them around to try to get three in a row or to block, making it more of a strategy game than I would have guessed, and I just now thought how awesome it would be to quickly, before Christmas gets into full swing, to manufacture Terni Lapilli desk games, classy little versions in velvet boxes with silver O's and gold X's, three of each, and market them.  That would, I bet, be a zillion seller.  It also would make a remarkably fun app for a phone, and I might be better at that than I am at computer chess, because I have never beaten the computer even though I have it set only on medium strength.

(The problem is I don't plan far enough ahead, and also I am pretty careless with my queen.)

(The bigger problem is I am not very good at chess.)

Plus, if we dropped X we'd have 25 letters, which seems like a better number of letters: we could do 5 rows of 5 when laying them out, instead of always having an awkward set of letters hanging off the tail end, standing around near the edge of the party while the other letters all ignore them.

(High school really left a mark on me.)

Today's word that I didn't know is aardwolf.  It is, according to my dictionary

a nocturnal black-striped African mammal of the hyena family, feeding mainly on termites, with its origins being Dutch South African, combining the dutch word aarde (meaning earth) with wolf (meaning wolf).

That latter definition being sort of cheating, if you ask me.  The Dutch have a word that means wolf, and that word is wolf?  Seems like you're not really trying, there, Netherlands.  Especially when you consider that the word aardvark means Earth Pig, because vark is Dutch South African for pig.

Aardvarks are also called antbears, which made me think of bugbears from my D&D days.

This is an aardvark:

Pictured: aardvark, probably.

And this is a bugbear:

Pictured: bugbear

And this is an aardwolf:

Pictured: aardwolf.

And it looks tough but remember, it mostly eats termites. And also, the aardvark looks a lot like an armadillo.

I looked ahead a bit and so I will just tell you that the next word I came up with that I didn't know is Aaron's rod, which is "another term for the great or common mullein."

This is a mullein:

Pictured: not a fish. Not even a little.

Which seems weird.  I'd have guessed a mullein was a kind of fish.  I'm going to go with that.  Mulleins are henceforth fishes, schwas never existed, and X is demoted to phonetic symbol.  If we ever need a 26th letter, we can always call up that superscript h.  I think he's ready for the show.

UPDATE:  Sweetie has corrected me. The song does not say "bah bah box," it says:

X is for box
ks ks ks

Making a kind of kiss/hissing sound like you're saying X but don't want to.

Which we agree is worse.

Sweetie also pointed out that X is for xylophone, too, so now X stands for three things and we still don't need it because you could play a zylophone if you wanted.  When I run for President of Earth, I will have as my main plank Demote X, and as my secondary plank, I will call on the Green Lantern Corps to reduce its numbers to a reasonable amount of one.  They can keep this one:

Pictured: Artie Johnson.