Notes from a Handbasket #01

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I never wake up fewer than half a dozen times each night. Perhaps it is more correct to say I never really sleep. Either some form of injury wakes me up or a shot of adrenaline does, caused by the background processing of thoughts. Adrenaline will wake you up from sleep as effectively as a prison guard turning on the overhead lights in your SuperMax cell just to fuck with you. It works every time. In the aggregate, never sleeping is a little like breathing hydrochloric acid fumes, which eat you from the inside out.

That’s why I like that picture of Frankenstein's monster (for economy’s sake, I’ll just bow to convention and wrongly call the monster, which he wasn’t, Frankenstein, who he wasn’t). The two best Frankensteins of them all were Mary Shelley’s original, and Boris Karloff’s in the 1931 masterpiece. The stories weren’t the same at all. Shelley’s monster was endowed with superior brainpower and not just superhuman will, but strength. His creator, Herr Doktor Frankenstein, left out of his intricate calculations the possibility that such a creation might think for himself. So he did, and the result was the monster’s relentless pursuit of the hapless Doktor to punish him for having placed his human lust for God-like power above any ethical concerns for his creation’s well-being. We last see the Monster from a distance as he chases the Doktor across the frozen tundra and into the world beyond. You could say that the monster was the more powerful individual. A body handcrafted for strength and agility. The mind of a genius. A capable enough thinking man to realize that the Doktor had to go before he got the chance to screw the entire world up as much as he had the Monster.

When I wake up, the first thing I do is look down to see how Roo’s doing. She has a specially built space for her bed on the floor next to me. Unless something is scaring her, she’s always fast asleep. She prefers not to be disturbed overnight, and I never do. To access the fragments of sleeping pills I keep beside me, I have to twist around in the corner where the head of the bed is instead of just reaching up because my damaged shoulders can't hack it. Every movement in this tiny camper necessitates careful maneuvering at all times. For example, switching on a lamp requires a carefully choreographed, angular foot placement past jutting corners and finally a handhold on a wall to lean in to where the switch is. Getting something out of a cabinet often requires getting on one’s knees and then placing one’s head on the floor in order to achieve the leverage and balance necessary to reach inside.

When I’m turned in that direction, I see what is in the accompanying photograph. In the foreground is a little statue and in back is a production still from the 1931 movie, Frankenstein. That’s Karloff in his iconic performance. I never tire of that picture or that photo. 

Now, Frankenstein (the so-called monster) was actually a good guy. He was just misunderstood. He didn’t mean to throw the little blind girl in the pond. He loved her. Because she couldn’t see him, she wasn't terrified of him. His inability to speak was to her just a handicap like her own. She befriended him and included him in her pastime of casting flower petals in the water. Frankenstein had been taught nothing. He was just a big lug in platform boots, and it was only because his first taste of human kindness made him exuberant. He mistook the little girl for a flower petal. He didn’t know anything about drowning. If it takes intent to commit a crime, he was as innocent as any little blind girl. Next thing he knew, the whole village was out carrying flaming torches and pitchforks and scythes and coming after him. He was going to have to pay, even if he was only there in the first place because Colin Clive decided to play God and stitch him together from a pile of black market corpses and then run 10,000,000 volts of lightning through him to wake him up. Something was bound to go wrong. In the picture beside my bed, he has been crushed by beams of timber when the inevitable destruction occurs. I don’t like that picture because I take any pleasure out of seeing him crushed. It’s because I know how he feels.

When I found that picture in a Hollywood junk shop or used book shop or something like that a long time ago, I identified with it not just because I always liked him to begin with, but because I had being crushed in common with him. And, being crushed was how the whole not sleeping thing began. 

It's not like I have never gotten a good night’s sleep in the past 30 years. Of course I have. I remember the exact date: December 16th, 2007. On that occasion, for reasons that when in future I share them with you you will find hard to believe (but I will and you should because they will be true), I slept for an uninterrupted 15 hours. But other than that, never. Well, come to think of it, that’s not true either, because I was under anesthesia once for eight hours for something else, if that counts.

I don't know if not being able to sleep any more started with having had my head bounced fore and aft on the steel of a jeep and the Himalayan rocks where this happened, or whether it was from breaking both legs and an arm.

That night, a repetitive nightmare set in. It began in the hospital, after I was hefted eight feet up to the driver's compartment of an orange bus covered with handpainted Hindi movie stars and Hindu gods on a sleeping bag for a stretcher, and brought to a hospital in Kathmandu where I was deposited on the floor several hours later. Eventually they moved me to a bed. Any of you who have been banged up know that in those circumstances your body demands sleep. There are things it can only do when you’re not looking. 

The trouble was that the second I closed my eyes I instantaneously entered a REM state. None of the usual sleep cycling. Just eyes closed and BANG the dream launched. It would be the same every one of the hundreds of times I closed my eyes, repeating itself ceaselessly for several days.

In the dream, I was surrounded by nothing but deep, black, velvety, infinitely textured space. I was coming to the top landing of a staircase, standing on a floor of lustrous black marble with white green and white veins in it. It was polished to the smoothness of a cut diamond. I was going to have to go down that staircase. I had no more choice about it than any of us do about eternity. The stairs seemed only to descend into more space. I never saw where they led.

I was wearing slippers with sheepskin soles. It was worse than ice, because at least on ice there's always some crunchy inconsistency. Not on this. Nothing could be more slippery. It was only a couple of steps to the stairs, but I had to approach as gingerly as a cat. There were bannisters on both sides and if I could only inch up to them and get my hands on them, I could steady myself. I did, and it was a huge relief. Now I could concentrate on establishing perfect balance so that I could take the first step down the marble staircase. It was going to have to be perfect not to slip. I lowered my right foot with the focus of an astronaut who had to chance his one remaining gram of fuel to correct his trajectory to a distant star—or else drift for rest of eternity.

Every muscle in my body was taut and I winced with the precision I was trying to bring to lowering my foot. On that slippery marble, any sideways motion at all and I knew I would slip. The instant the sheepskin contacted the marble, though, my foot shot out from under me. I tried to regain my footing, but that only made the other foot slip, too. 

Out of the dream, on the bed in the dingy grey cinderblock room of the Kathmandu hospital, when I slipped in the dream I would start flailing my real-life broken legs. Both of them had been crushed to powder and needed to be kept still, but the more I tried to regain my footing on the black marble, the more I flailed. I kicked my broken legs so hard that they came off the bed and thrashed in the air, flopping around where both shinbones were pulverized.

Another patient was lying in the bed next to mine. He was an impoverished man who had reached his life expectancy of 35 or 40 and whose grim illness made his family spend their life savings on having him wheeled to the city on a wooden-wheeled cart pulled by its barefoot proprietor. It was too late. He had tuberculosis of the peritoneum and it had gotten out of hand. Somehow a gash had opened up on him, from his crotch to his throat, and his swollen guts were bulging up through it. An effluvia dripping from him puddled onto his mattress and from there onto the floor. He was having to endure the stench of his own death. It was the custom in Nepali hospitals then, possibly a matter of caste, for his family to clean it up. The nurses gave them a stringy old mop and a plastic bucket. It was too much to ask. Buckets they had been carrying their family's water up the hills where they lived forever. But experience with a mop or a floor made of anything but pale khaki dirt? No. His wife and daughter tried, but mopping it up was as alien an idea to them as not standing barefoot in the blood and shreds of cut fur of the hundreds of goats and chickens sacrificed on holy days in the white marble blood basins of the temple. They just swished it around while my roommate was dying as hellish a death as anyone ever had. I don't remember how long it took him to die. I only remember the way his family looked when he did.

My girlfriend Mana, uninjured in the wreck, stayed awake by my bedside for all those days, trying to catch me nodding off in time to drape herself over my legs and hold them down. The constant need to sleep was the goddamndest devil of the thing. No matter how scared I was of going to sleep and finding myself back at the top of that staircase where I would end up trying to tear my own legs off with that stumble into space, there was nothing I could do.

At some point, the nightmare stopped, and my legs and arm went on to heal. My short-term memory, which I unsurprisingly wasn’t at first aware of having lost, took a few weeks, during which every question I asked I asked over and over again twenty times, to return. But I stopped dreaming for a long time, and then, I only dreamed about being chased through the air over rooftops and trees before suddenly losing the ability to maintain flight and falling. Everyone knows the feeling of falling in a dream. What better way could there be to teach one not to risk it in real life. But these were only terrifying until I learned that in them I could remind myself that I was not really going to hit anything and so why not enjoy the thrill. I began to look forward to them. It must have rubbed whatever made them happen the wrong way, because after ten years or so, they stopped, too. In the 20 years since then, I doubt I've had a dozen dreams, all told. The only one I remember was on the night my dog Orville died and later I saw him in a dream. He was a white Labrador and he looked young again, smiling in a gold picture frame. Smiling.

If you look at that picture I took last night of my nightstand, you also see a small statuette that my friend Diane Pernet brought back for me from the Himalaya not too long after I cracked up there. Look at the statuette's hand and Frankenstein’s. Funny the way little things line up. The statue means a lot to me, and so I brought it along with Roo and me on our travels in the camper. It's good to be reminded of Diane all the time, because she is an actual angel. 

And in his way, to some of us, anyway—maybe more so to the kinds of kids who would end up going on long, desperate trips by themselves—so was Frankenstein. As a kid I would stay up to any hour of the night to watch that movie. 

They stopped showing it a long time ago.