Category Archives: insomnia

Pornographic Nocturne

At 3:00 AM this morning, I wake up with one of the flash fevers I thought were over a week ago. My slight “walking” case of post-Bangkok bronchial pneumonia doesn’t seem so slight when it’s walking through my pores in the small hours of the morning. I’m shaky, covered in sweat. I can literally feel the waves of heat coming off my body and because pleurisy is one of the symptoms, I get a wonderful stabbing shank pain in my lung every time I take a breath. Straight-up Texas misery, that. When one of your lungs decides to be the Lone Star State all by itself in South East England, you’ve got a problem. You should go see a doctor, get some meds. You probably would if you didn’t hate going to the doctor more than the pain of bronchial pneumonia. Tea, you think to yourself, what I need is more tea.

The good thing is that, as usual, it goes away after 30 minutes of sitting on the edge of the bed trying to breathe. It will undoubtedly happen again. But I’ve noticed that the sudden fevers are becoming infrequent. I’m coughing less. And I imagine my disposition must be slowly improving as well. Soon I’ll be able to speak to other humans without it requiring an enormous amount of willpower and angst-suppression. Because there’s no sleeping after this, I take a shower, put on some fresh pajamas and my rabbit slippers, make a cup of Thai ginger tea, and open the blinds.

There is a canal three stories below my window. Most of the time, it’s pleasant. But someone is always staggering along the narrow path in the middle of the night and no one ever imagines that an insomnious American might be up there in the dark. Still, Oxford is a magical place. In the years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen things that would curl your hair faster than a Sultra Bombshell. So maybe there are people who would imagine things even stranger than yours truly, all in white, sitting in the window like Great Caesar’s Ghost. But I’m fairly sure none of those people are the ones staggering three inches from the water, yelling, “I’m a fookin’ gangsta!”

This happens in Oxford. Maybe I find it easy to accept that not everyone here is named Reginald and wears a crested cardigan because I’m from San Diego. When I was a kid, I had to spend most summers up in Fresno, which is a hellhole in central California known for raisins, gang murder, and PM3 particulates. Fresnians would always say, “Man, you live in San Diego. What do you do all day, tan? You surf? How come you don’t say, dude? How come you’re pale?” I never had a good answer to any of that because I never had a good answer to anything as a kid (I dislike the sun? I’m inherently morose? I’m an introvert? I prefer books to people, especially to those who ask me stupid questions?). But such interactions did teach me about civic narcissism and stereotyping: everyone from San Diego must either be an empty-headed Baywatch beauty or Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The reality is that San Diego has all kinds of people–immigrants, an enormous service class, gang bullshit, powdered Republican suburbia, a pro-circuit martial arts community, a tatted-up hipster infestation, occultists, a persistently gay arts-and-humanities neighborhood, redneck neo-Nazi trailer fantasia, at least two massive homeless encampments, and yes, a very aggressive and territorial surf culture. So what? Every place has everything if you look hard enough. Humans are like that, even if they only wear their clown makeup every second Sunday.

I’ve seen some special cases here in Oxford. For every smug Draco Malfoy, there’s a toothless guy trying to sell Big Issue outside the coffee shop. There’s a 17-year-old drug dealer with a sag in his pants and a cap on sideways. Hordes of infantile tourists from every part of the world. Serious fast-walking grad students with tension headaches. Bow-tie wearing dons who look like they just had their star student give them a full-frontal oil massage. Housewives straight out of the 1950s in pencil skirts and sweater sets. Visiting professors trying hard to look like Aldous Huxley for at least two terms. All sorts, some of whom you will inevitably see at night weaving down the canal before you can finish a cup of ginger tea.

Weaving because this is England and that’s what you do after 9 ales. But my gangsta runs more towards sitting up quietly when I can’t sleep, thinking regretfully about the past, and wondering if I’m dying. This is why I’m so much fun to be around and why I have so many friends. I obsess. I’m still ruminating on the work students did for me three terms ago, three teaching positions ago, three lifetimes ago. I never forget. I’m still wondering what the hell happened during my PhD, about whether my second story collection is going to get published, about why my father lost his mind. I’m still mad at the world. It’s the extent of my charm.

Immersed in my thoughts and feeling wrung-out physically, I’m not sure I’m even completely in my body. You know the feeling, when you’re so elsewhere that you could be sitting on a pine cone and not even know it. Often you’ll discover you actually are sitting on a pine cone. But the sort of revelation I have this morning has nothing to do with the reproductive cycle of monoecious conifers and everything to do with porn.

There. I said it. PORN. I struggled with whether I should write this because it puts me a bit at risk. I won’t name names, but I’m fairly sure my neighbor could figure out who I am with a bit of research. And given the resources that most homeowners must have in Oxford, it is not inconceivable that he could import some shaven thug from Manchester to float me down the Cherwell. Nevertheless, one lives on the edge, right?

So porn. Not the creepy ghost-porn you see on a widescreen in the middle of the night when someone forgets to pull the drapes. The real thing. Or as close to the real thing as it gets when your neighbor is loudly choreographing sex with his girlfriend and leaves the window open. This is what some people probably do on that second Sunday when they get the green hair and the red sponge nose just right.

If furries exist, clown fetishists certainly exist. I know clown porn does. And that is what I picture when I hear his nasal schoolmasterish voice: “Now lift up. Now put it behind your head.” He grunts. She squeaks. The bed hits the wall eight or nine times. Then more directions. More squeaking. After a while, I have an impossible mental image: she’s got one ankle tied to the chandelier and the other swinging down as a counterweight while he moans, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and peels one off. Then they do a Chinese fire drill and juggle. Bliss.

It just makes me wonder at the inherent weirdness of life. Weird, not because people have a domineering style in the bedroom or sound like bloopers from an X-rated Cirque du Soleil, but because I know this guy–a hyper-conservative, pot-bellied, somewhat bewildered clone of Gomer Pyle. He’s a gamer. He’s really into grilling. And he’s passively racist and classist in the way of those who’ve never lived far from where they grew up and have never had to adopt uncomfortable points of view. I sound judgmental, but I don’t necessarily dislike the guy any more than I dislike most people. He has his issues. We all do.

Nevertheless: clown sex in the dead of night. And here I am, 41 years old, sick, unable to sleep, working obsessively again, worried about my writing, about the future, about the past. A friend of mine once said that some people get exactly what they want in life and the rest of us become philosophers. That might be true. It sounds good, at any rate. But I don’t think I’m a philosopher. I do think the world sometimes likes to tell a joke with a moment like this as the punchline. One lesson Oxford teaches after you’ve lived here for a while is that not everyone can be special, but everyone can be weird.

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Up All Night

This is a tale of vampiric propagation. We don’t want to sleep. We want to make you just like us. And we want to live forever.

In a hundred years, when most of what we know is gone and everyone we used to worry about is either dead or getting there, we’re going to look back at all this babylon and laugh. We’ll still be around. We won’t be a teenager-climbing-out-the-window kind of around or some vagrant-watching-you-from-the-porch-across-the-street kind of around. But we’ll be around nonethelesslike an ear worm, like the sock that’s been at large under the chaise lounge since before you moved in, like some colorless, odorless gas you might decide is there if you’d only take a moment to consider it.

But, of course, you don’t take a moment. You don’t consider. And, in the meantime, we’re still here, hovering up around your rafters, slipping down your hallways, drawing unflattering conclusions about the fish in your fish tank, promulgating cruel theories about the various states of your affairs. We’ve gone down through the night, through boredom, through obsession, like going down to the river to pray, and insomnia is the little god that answered. Insomnia has made us eternal.

Let’s be honest. Every vampire story is a story about love. And every story about love is a story about starvation. Privation. Domination. Lust. Hunger. Different kinds of rebellion. Violent symbiosis. A certain pervasive irony. We can admit this now that we’re eternal. We don’t have to prevaricate anymore. We don’t have to tidy up our emotions and sanitize them. Instead we can tell it true. It comes down to this: the less we sleep, the more we fall in love with the possibility that we are no longer human.

In 1965, Randy Gardner, age 17 and ostensibly healthy, stayed awake for 264 hours as part of a science fair project, simultaneously setting the world record for sleep deprivation and stupidity. We find such amateurism distasteful. The professional accepts insomnia as a lifelong commitment, as a calling, a cruel master, an over-soul that at all moments strives to make us less animal and more idea. Rather than depriving us of dreams (as most non-insomniacs believe), insomnia makes all life into a waking dream.

We find ourselves asking, did I actually say that? We hardly remember imprisoning Jonathan Harker, feeding on his blood to sustain our hideous undead existence. The Harkers of the world think we’re monsters. They know nothing. When Randy Gardner finally slipped into unconscious oblivion, we were still up, our firefly thoughts, our half-aware fugues, the open-eyed blackouts in which we wrote pages of rambling fiction on legal pads that went unremembered for weeks until we found them in a cabinet. The sudden memory of what we’d done made us cry.

No one said this vampire life would be easy. Still, you could be like us. Get obsessed. Get to work on a book. On three books. On three books and four scripts. Get a job. Get some coffee. Realize you don’t need caffeine to stay up. Your brain chemistry alone will punish you into perpetual wakefulness. And witches’ sabbats under the moon. And the sad beauty of the night. And the slow dissolution of who you think you are into who you will always be: while good society is asleep and all the world is quiet like the dead—that thing on the balcony staring wistfully at an unchanging sky.