There was a time, not all that long ago that, if I grew tired, I would simply find some place to lie down and go to sleep. This was not an expression of sleeping around. It was a simple fact that, like my father, I had no problem sleeping whenever I needed to.
My father could sleep standing up. He acquired this talent as a soldier in WWII when he was being shot at on a somewhat regular basis. Apparently, he could lock his knees much like a racehorse, lean against a wall or a tree and catch some ZZZs. Later in his life, he could sleep in a variety of sitting and prone positions, most notably during evening newscasts of the day’s events.
I, on the other hand, don’t fall asleep watching the news that comes on at 5:30. I wait until the ten o’clock news because it’s local to a place I don’t live (Billings) and reports of the current rodeo standings really don’t interest me all that much.
I’m scheduled to soon become 70—an age about twice what I thought I would ever attain considering the lifestyle I chose to pursue when I was about 18. So eager was I to experience every chance, opportunity or possibility, I taught myself to sleep a mere three hours each night. Why, I reasoned, would I want to spend a third of my life sleeping when eternity awaited me? When I lived in New York, I would retire after work at 3 am and awake to watch reruns of “Rocky & Bullwinkle” at six. This was a purposeful use of one hour each morning.
It was only when we moved to Montana (I was 42) that an extra hour appeared in my sleep routine. I assumed it had something to do with the altitude.
But back to sleeping around.
I was at Gatwick Airport in London in 1977, awaiting a flight to Los Angeles, when some sort of labor dispute put a stop to air travel. I was traveling with Geri and for three days we wandered aimlessly around the terminal, sleeping on the cold tiled floor with our heads resting on carry-on bags.
I thought of it as building character, much like wearing a felt hat in the rain. Geri was more than eager to move on to Scotland by train.
Now that I’ve grown older, sleep has become a lot more involved and demanding.
The litany begins with the damage done to my ulnar nerve in my left arm. Being right handed, I assume this was caused by leaning on bars, back when there were still ashtrays. The ulnar nerve is part of the brachial plexus system and gets its name for its proximity to the ulna bone. Fascinating, huh? That nerve starts in the neck and travels through the shoulder and down into the wrist and fingers.
In my case, the ulnar nerve meets my carpal tunnel at the base of my hand, before numbing my pinkie finger and the aforementioned tunnel.
There are surgical options for both of these conditions. A surgeon I spoke to about the ulnar problem, in a moment of refreshing candor, advised against it because he said that a lot of the time it doesn’t work.
Carpal tunnel surgery has a better success rate, but I’ve been advised that I’ve yet to suffer from the syndrome badly enough so it’s really not an option. Why is this not good news?
The first steps in my bedtime routine involve taking a handful of pills to deal with my ailments as I sleep—only one of which is supposed to help me sleep. It doesn’t. Next comes the challenge of removing the knee-high compression socks that keep the veins in my legs from decompressing (?) during daylight hours. Putting them on in the morning is so arduous a task that I frequently fall awake reading for an hour or two before getting out of bed.
The nightly routine continues with the slipping on of the elbow brace—an expensive article of medical fashion that seems only to make the inside of my elbow sweat. Next comes the semi-rigid wrist brace which tightens with a boa constrictor’s grip via three tabs of Velcro. The brace was manufactured in China. A label warns against ironing it. For the life of me, I don’t know why one would.
I’m glad that I don’t have nerve or tunnel ailments in my right arm and hand. If I had to wear braces on both wrists, I’m not sure I could muscle up enough strength or finger-curl to pull up the covers.
I used to smoke cigarettes, then cigars, then cigarettes again. My lung problems—caused by a rare disease called Mycobacterium kansasii—are unrelated to my inhalations of tobacco for half of my lifetime. I’m certain they didn’t help, however. I enjoyed smoking, although I would advise that others not start. Most all of my friends are ex-smokers, but I can practically guarantee that if any one of them noticed that their “use by” date was Thursday, each would buy a carton and chain-smoke until, well, sometime on Thursday.
I have sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder in which my breathing repeatedly stops and starts. That does strike me as serious, if not downright deadly. To stave off death for as long as possible, I have taken to sleeping with a contraption called a CPAP, an acronym for what the machine provides: continuous positive airway pressure.
The machine features some tubing that wraps around my head like a halo designed by a committee. It’s connected to a humming device by a flexible hose. There’s a soft-plastic thingy that covers my mouth and nose. The whole thing is secured with straps and magnets and Velcro.
It’s like sleeping in full scuba gear, minus the flippers.
To keep me tethered to machinery, I now have oxygen which is delivered through forty feet of a sinister-looking iridescent green hose that seems to be a self-coiling trip wire. They still haven’t delivered the adapter hose to allow me to use it in conjunction with CPAP, but I’ve been assured it’s on the way.
The indoor unit is about the size of a clothes hamper with casters. When you first turn it on, it lets out a deafening shriek before settling down to the quiet rumble of a ’59 Buick. The portable tank is in a shoulder bag, designed to look like a drummer’s stick bag, except for the plastic tubing that connects the bottle inside to your nose, which announces to the world that you’re no longer adept at breathing and to not light a match anywhere close. The six bottles they delivered are still full because I’ve yet to venture out of the house since having started to inhale manufactured air.
With all the accoutrements that accompany me to bed these days, I’m afraid that I might spill a glass of water in the middle of the night and be electrocuted.
But the good news is that I was recently diagnosed with essential tremor disorder, a neurological condition that causes my hands to shake rhythmically—but only when I’m doing something active, like using a kitchen knife or eating soup. I don’t know what’s so damned essential about these tremors, but there are both medicinal and surgical remedies.
The good news part is that Scotch is also a remedy. Works like a charm.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
A Buck Two-eighty Soup
I love soup, and like most cooks, I can craft several from the odds and ends lurking in the recesses of the refrigerator and pantry. They usually take about 20-30 minutes from start to finish, and are almost always tasty and nutritious. They are also inexpensive, hence the name: my father’s stock answer to how much something cost that he didn’t think was anyone else’s business.
I always start with small amounts of chopped onion, carrot, and celery (mirepoix) as a base, sauteed for a few minutes in equal amounts of butter and oil. Sometimes I add some minced garlic. Then I start the adding the fun stuff. A small potato, peeled and cubed; a leek if I have one; a mushroom or two, chopped; a handful of torn spinach or salad greens; whatever. Don’t get carried away, however. Add only stuff you can identify.
From the freezer, I grab a few tablespoons of peas, corn and/or Lima beans and add them to the pot. Then I add 3 cups or so of water, a tablespoon of chicken or vegetable base, and maybe a 1/4 cup of uncooked rice or orzo. A can of white beans is a welcome addition. My favorite herb is thyme, so I add a couple pinches, along with a bay leaf (if I remember), salt and pepper. Top with a favorite cheese or some oyster crackers.