Insomnia? Who, me? – – and you too?

Insomnia

Sleeping has always been my strong suit. I may have long failed at math and technology, never finished a full marathon, and accumulated an impressive pile of rejection letters; but I have forever taken great pride in my ability to fall asleep. Anywhere, anytime. Occasionally at inappropriate times. And once asleep, the ability to stay asleep has been one of my outstanding skills.

So where did this insomnia come from? Geezerhood? Global angst? Oneness with humanity – since so much of humanity seems afflicted with insomnia? Beginning a year or so ago I have turned into an early-morning insomniac.

Worse (or maybe better, in some complex, comforting sense) it seems to be a universal condition. This theory was reinforced by New Yorker writer Patricia Marx recently in one of her classic explorations of a topic and its related market. “In Search of Forty Winks” (The New Yorker, February 8 & 15) takes readers on a wide awake laughing tour of the gadgets, contraptions, medications, programs and assorted products currently being employed by the thirty+ percent of us regularly struggling to catch a little shut-eye.

It does not help to know you’re not alone.

It does help, a tiny bit, to know you’re not spending the hundreds, often thousands of dollars your fellow insomniacs are spending on headgear, eyewear, electronic gadgetry and bedding while trudging along their sleep-deprived paths through life. But maybe they know something I don’t know.Insomnia - clock

Me? Telling myself stories has always worked as a way to put myself to sleep. (Which may say something about my short stories, but we will not go there now.) I have a few stock stories that end with achieving some great literary goal, or involve wandering off into the sunset on a romantic beach, or, well, whatever. Sketching them out in my head always puts me to sleep midway through. They are not working.

Instead, my brain – that same organ often prone to fuzzing over at random, inconvenient moments – kicks in at 3, 4 or 5 AM. It says things like What are you going to do when your husband’s neuropathy worsens? Does that kid/grandkid/distressed friend need help? When are you going to finish that (fill in the blank)?

The first two by themselves are good for at least an hour, since they are open-ended to the point of the ridiculous. But the third is the killer. It evolves into an argument with myself about whether to go ahead, get up and make some actual progress on the unfinished whatever, or whether that will just make things worse because I still won’t finish it; either way, the rest of the night’s sleep is shot.  Insomnia complications

There are, of course, answers out there. There is a National Sleep Foundation website with rolling banners and tabs about common causes, diagnoses, symptoms and treatment. There are WebMD’s helpful “natural sleep solutions” (lavender oil baths, half a banana with peanut butter 30 minutes before bedtime) and Prevention’s “simple steps (yeah, right) to a better night’s sleep” – all sprinkled with useful data about how sleep loss leads to high blood pressure, weight gain and potentially fatal accidents. Data that’s already keeping you up nights.

Maybe we could worry about it all in the morning? After 7:30 please?

Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

I’m in mourning for Mavis Gallant.

You don’t remember Mavis Gallant? If you’re older than 14, you shared a century with her characters. You would have passed them on the streets of Manhattan, or Montreal, or Paris. They were people you recognized… even if you might not have stopped to talk with them. Where you really got to know them was in the pages of The New Yorker, which published 116 of her stories over a span of 40 years.

Mavis Gallant died recently at the entirely respectable age of 91. She produced sharp, beautifully crafted and highly readable short stories for more than half of those years. Collections of her stories were published in 1956 (The Other Paris), 2009 (The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories), and a dozen more collections appeared in the years in between — it boggles the short story writer’s mind.

And here’s the rub for me: In addition to the mourning, there is envy, admiration and — to be honest — a dash of literary despair. On the one hand is the shimmering example of a writer — a woman writer at that! — still writing great stories well past the age of, ahem, this octogenarian writer. And on the other is the sheer heft of her oeuvre. One volume of collected stories alone ran to 900 pages. We are not talking pages of tripe.

Mavis Gallant understood the abandoned and deceived; her own mother deposited her at a boarding school when she was four, saying, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” She also understood the displaced, having left her Canadian home for France, briefly wandering elsewhere in the post-World War II years when displacement was a fact of life for much of Europe and Asia. As a woman who defined the phrase “living by one’s wits,” she turned those wits to short fiction in a singular way. She also wrote novels and essays, critically acclaimed nonfiction.

But here is another rub: On top of the lack of maternal love and affection, Gallant endured other unimaginable emotional assaults and upheavals, realities that underlie her fiction. As a girl of 10, she was lied to about her father — she waited two years for him to reappear because nobody told her he had died. She was briefly and unhappily married, and heart-breakingly betrayed by her literary agent, who pocketed the money from the first New Yorker stories while Gallant struggled with hunger and despair in Spain and France. Gallant took it all in, survived and turned her life to short fiction, to the benefit of us all.

The rubs boil down to this: Suppose you’re a writer with a plain old happy childhood? You’ve already watched with envy — sometimes admiration and way more than a dash of despair — the flood of memoirs documenting addiction, abuse and aberrations of every conceivable kind, most of which inhabit bestseller lists for months. And here are the obituaries for one hugely admired short story writer, with the news that she too has a personal depth of Shakespearean tragedy to mine. Bless her battered heart.

At least she shared it all with us, in those dozens and dozens of marvelous stories. And kept at it until the end of her 91 eventful years.

Rest in peace, Mavis.

 

The bewildering curse of face blindness

You have trouble remembering a name? Imagine being unable even to remember a face.

Oliver Sacks, the remarkable physician/writer/author/professor of neurology — what does he do in his spare time? — wrote a long and fascinating article in a recent (August 30) New Yorker in which he details a lifelong affliction with face blindness, officially known as prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. What Sacks doesn’t do in his spare time is socialize comfortably. It’s hard to be comfortable when you might walk right past your best friend. (Or greet a perfect stranger you think is your next-door neighbor.)

I had made it through seven decades (Sacks and I happen to be the same age, but that’s about where the similarities end) without ever hearing of face blindness. Then one day renowned artist Chuck Close turned up on PBS NewsHour, discussing a new biography. At some point in the program Close mentioned that he was face blind. Come on, I said to myself and the TV screen. A creative genius known worldwide for, among other things, his remarkable portraits and he doesn’t know faces? Close went on to talk of how he works from photographs, largely because once he reduces a face to two dimensions he can commit the image to memory.

Sacks theorizes that the “flattening” allows Close to memorize certain features. “Although I myself am unable to recognize a particular face,” Sacks writes, “I can recognize various things about a face: that there is a large nose, a pointed chin, tufted eyebrows, or protruding ears.” But he is better at recognizing people by the way they move, their “motor style.” He is “reasonably good at judging age and gender, though I have made a few embarrassing blunders.”

Sacks writes that he avoids parties, conferences and large gatherings as much as possible in order not to have the inevitable embarrassment it brings. Consideration of how difficult it has to be to negotiate through life with such a problem makes the common complaint of, say, blanking on an old friend’s name (and don’t we all!) so trivial as to be embarrassing itself.

Sacks cites the work of research scientist Ken Nakayama, who “is doing so much to promote the scientific understanding of prosopagnosia.” Nakayama heads the Prosopagnosia Research Center at Harvard, on whose Web site one can learn about symptoms, causes, history and where the name came from (the Greek word for face: prosopon.) You can also find, on the site, tests and questionnaires to assess your own face recognition. Sacks is particularly appreciative of a notice posted on Nakayama’s own site which reads: “Recent eye problems and mild prosopagnosia have made it harder for me to recognize people I should know. Please help by giving your name if we meet. Many thanks.”

A very small gesture, for those who take face recognition for granted.