August 20, 2019

Observing Sleep

At a relatively young age, say 20 something, I watched several minutes of Andy Warhol’s five-hour film “Sleep,” showing only a nude man sleeping through the night. There were no explosions, no trysts, just frame after frame of a nude man sleeping. Although critics determined to catch the avant garde wave insisted on making a fuss over this contribution to Warhol’s self-made mythology, I found myself bored and walked out of the theater.

And later, when friends asked what I thought about “Sleep,” I just couldn’t bring myself to engage in a serious discussion of the film’s purported outrageousness, its capacity to irritate or the commentary some thought Warhol was making about contemporary film.

Perhaps influenced by the last word in Hobbes’ famous assertion that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” I concluded that watching a man sleep for five hours was a waste of a most precious commodity. And, truth be told, I really didn’t care at all about the man in the film.

Now watching a dog sleep is quite another matter. Recently, my wife and I took in a friend’s sweet, not overly active companion for several days, while her caretaker was on yet another south-of-the-border holiday. Friendly and loving, this dog clearly desires nothing more than a good sleep–on carpet or tile, splayed full-length or with her head propped on a window sill. Sure she fights to keep her eyes open when she suspects something interesting is happening or might be
about to happen, but she finds her greatest joy in quiet surrender.

As she sleeps, there aren’t many of the twitches and spasms most dogs exhibit, signs betraying their deep-seated suspicion that all may not be right with the world and that even in sleep, a wise dog should be wary of the skulking coyote or smiling devil. While I could walk out of a theater to avoid Warhol’s study of sleep and return the dog and her sleep mysteries to her owner, I have not figured out a way to escape the sleep of reason that, unchecked, can take this nation–and me with it– into a sleep state from which we cannot awake.

Of course, there’s Canada, but it’s cold there. And China, but the languages are impenetrable. Or New Zealand, but the airfare is frightfully high, and they’re been known to paint their America’s Cup boats black.

So I’m here with everyone else, counting backwards, watching the drip, drip in the tube, waiting for the anesthetic to take full effect.

My eyelids slide closer together, and Montana comes up on my internal screen. The land looks empty, pristine. I have a vague awareness that I must be looking at pictures from long ago. A blanket of clouds quickly dulls the striking blue of the big sky and the purple water of deep lakes fat with fish. Leaden skies and dead water provide a backdrop for lonely billionaires’ fortress ranches and private air strips.

While I cannot remember the words of all the poems I memorized in school, for some impossible reason I can remember how Malcom Gladwell paraphrased Jared Diamond’s description of the aftermath of Norse settlement in Greenland. The Norse had a pride that would not allow them to eat the plentiful, nutritious fish simply because it was a food staple of the Inuit, whom the Norse held in contempt.

And, when the archaeologists looked at the animal bones left in the debris, they found the bones of newborn calves,  meaning that the Norse, in that final winter, had given up on the future. They found toe bones from cows, equal to the number of cow spaces in the barn; meaning that the Norse ate their cattle down to the hoofs, and they found the bones of dogs covered with knife marks, meaning that, in the end they had to eat their pets. But not fish bones, of course. Right up until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.

What was the lesson? That pride is more important than life? That suicide is preferable to eating fish? That people in a collective–like a country–can do really stupid things and wake up dead?

The doorbell rang, and I swam in a slow crawl from the depths, knowing I would never again break the surface. Opening the door, I was assaulted by my friend’s dog–the dog I had watched sleep. She was fully awake. I was not. My friend said the dog has missed me and had insisted on a visit.

I stroked an extended paw.

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