Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Insomnia, part III - this is getting to be a habit

There was one semester of college where I couldn't sleep.  I had recently moved to Chicago, I lived in a studio apartment with the best cat ever and about eight hundred roaches, and I really didn't know anybody.  I had transferred schools halfway through college and everybody seemed to already know each other.  I went to Columbia College when it was still a commuter school, there were no dorms or campus housing of any kind, so it was hard to break into the social scene.  I couldn't sleep at night, and instead I stayed up late watching reruns of St. Elsewhere on my giant, 1984 color TV that had no remote, so if I wanted to change the channel I had to get up from a reclining position on my futon and change it my damn self.  They aired St. Elsewhere at 2 or 3 in the morning, and ran 2 or 3 episodes in a row, in sequence, so I'd follow along and feel nostalgic for Boston, where the series is set, and isn't that far from the school I had transferred from.  Sometimes even that didn't work, so after the last episode of St. Elsewhere had wrapped up I would go for walks along Broadway, Clark Street, Halsted.  My husband tells me that his first clear memory of me is when he and his roommate were walking home from a late night out and ran into me at 4am.  I was friends with his roommate, who asked me what I was doing out.  "I can't sleep," I explained.  I remember that my husband - well, the man who would many years later become my husband, leaned in and hugged me when I said that.  I didn't expect it, and was uncomfortable.

At some point in the early morning it would seem ridiculous to try to go to sleep, so I'd plan on staying up all day, going downtown for class, and sleeping when I got home.  Invariably, I would fall asleep at around 6am, sleep right through class, and wake up at some point in the afternoon.  It was a cycle I couldn't snap out of, and I got terrible grades as a result.  I even failed a class for not handing in my final report.

In retrospect, I know what was keeping me up at night - I was trying to run away from myself, but it wasn't working.   At around that time I read Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and there's a line in it that I'll paraphrase, or maybe the Internet will find it for me (bless you Internet - first web site that popped up in a Google search had it!):

[W]herever I sat - on the deck of a ship or at a street cafĂ© in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.  ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 15

I'd left Boston thinking that I would be happier somewhere else, but the truth was I was simply unhappy, Chicago wasn't going to change that.  I'd been running from my own head, reinventing my life in an attempt to change who I was.  

The week my husband and I got back from Montreal, I couldn't sleep 3 nights out of the first 4 that we were back.  I know why I'm not sleeping, I'm just not sure what to do about it.  

As it turns out, it shows that I'm not really invested in my job.  My boss had a talk with me my first day back - a kind of pre-annual review (dear God, have I really been there for a year?!) and told me that concerns had been raised about my performance.  I couldn't lie to her - it has been hard for me.  I never thought I'd be working there, would never have even applied for the job if it weren't for my circumstances, and throughout my unemployed year I was able to distract myself from my job loss by immersing myself in other things - travel, volunteering, writing.  It wasn't until I accepted a job that was not just a step backwards but a whole staircase of steps backwards that I felt the enormity of what I had lost.  I'd done the best I could with the situation at hand - got to know my colleagues, lost 20 pounds, grew triceps where no triceps were before; but the truth is, I never meant to be there, certainly not this long.

I actually really appreciated my boss calling me out on my performance, for a long time it felt like I could do a great job or a crappy job and nobody would know the difference.  It feels like we've crossed a divide, and become more honest with each other; it feels better to go to work... sort of.  Sort of.  

What kept me up at night in 1992 and 1993 was my brain working in overdrive, trying to figure out my life, and I guess it's not that different from what's keeping me up now.  For some reason I'm unable to follow through on my own instincts - search out new opportunities, pursue them, find more meaningful work.  I'm just so tired of looking, and so tired of interviewing, and so tired of rejection, but the alternative is insomnia, and it's really not doing much for me. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Don't Stop Believin'

As my husband and I approached the farm, the Canadian classic rock station in the rented car began playing the 1981 monster jam Don’t Stop Believin recorded by Journey at the very zenith of Steve Perry’s tight jeans and white sneakers period.  My husband and I were visiting Montreal, celebrating 10 years of marriage, and I had convinced him to drive south of the border for an afternoon so I could see my high school boyfriend for the first time in fifteen years.  I’d been referring to him simply as “my boyfriend”, ever since I found out where he lived thanks to the book that his wife wrote about their first year running an organic farm together.  It had been quite a mental journey, I’d become a kind of time traveler within my own life.  I hadn’t thought about him in years but suddenly I couldn’t stop visiting my own past.  Despite the fact that I’m not a small town girl – I grew up in Brooklyn, and my boyfriend wasn’t born and raised in south Detroit – he grew up in the megalopolis of New Paltz, and neither of us ever took a midnight train going anywhere, it felt significant that Don’t Stop Believin’ was playing on the radio moments before our reunion.   

My husband is heavily tattooed and I look fairly Semitic so people seem to have this idea that in our relationship I’m the one who civilized him but that’s an illusion.  I was the one who freaked out when we got engaged and flew to Amsterdam with my friend Joanie and got really stoned.  On our wedding day I realized only after I’d gotten my hair and makeup done, and after I’d gotten dressed that it had been a while since I’d shaved my armpits.  My dress had short sleeves, and I noticed there was about a quarter to half an inch of growth that was visible when I lifted my arms.  “Is this a big deal, I mean, is this okay?” I asked.  “No, it’s not okay, it’s terrible!” He said.  “Well, I’m already dressed and I can’t pull my clothes over my head without ruining my hair,” I said.  “Fine, I’ll shave you,” he said.  We stood in front of the bathroom sink, my husband dressed in a 3 piece suit, me in my wedding dress, and I watched our reflections in the bathroom mirror as he lathered up my armpits and shaved them – not for me so much, but so that he wouldn’t have to face the humiliation of showing up to his own wedding with a hirsute bride.  

This wouldn’t be the last time he had to deal with my depilatory issues.  A couple months ago I explained to my friend Lois that I’d discovered that since I don’t grow much hair on the back of my legs that I thought I could get away with just shaving the front, but my husband didn’t share in this opinion.  “I’m beginning to think,” she said, “that you’re very lucky to have him.”  

I’d gotten in touch with my boyfriend a couple months earlier, we’d spoken on the phone only once – our schedules are very different, he gets up at 4 and goes to bed at 9, and in planning our trip to Montreal I noticed that on the map, at least, it didn’t look very far from his farm in upstate New York.  He doesn’t have modern conveniences like email or a facebook account, so I left a message on what I’m sure is probably an actual answering machine saying that we were going to be in Quebec and was it a long drive?  I really didn’t know if it was a big deal to cross the border or how long it would take to get there.  He called back the same day and said “We’d love to see you, Montreal is about a 90 minute drive, I’ve got the dates penciled in on our calendar, let me know.”  It was only then that I approached my husband about making this side trip.  

I chose my words carefully.  “Here’s the thing,” I began, when we visited L.A. a few years ago, we saw not one but two of your exes, and when I first moved back to Chicago and we started dating, it seemed like every girl you were friends with had slept with you at some point.  I didn’t have a lot of boyfriends, and this is as close as I’ll ever get to his farm, you have to give me this one.”   

“It’s not him that I have a problem with,” my husband said, “I get freaked out by farms.”  I knew this to be true, having dragged him to my childhood summer camp in the wilds of Vermont a couple times, where he tolerated the wilderness that I so cherished and that I credit for making up a good part of my character.  It was the first time he’d ever been away from electricity and indoor plumbing, and I had to give him his props – he stepped out of his comfort zone and actually managed to enjoy himselfIn the end we agreed to make a day trip out of my boyfriend’s farm. 

And then a strange thing started happening, I had stress dreams about the visit.  In one, I was visiting my boyfriend, and his wife met me and was perfectly friendly, but he didn’t want to talk to me, he just sort of stood there and looked away from me, and wouldn’t make eye contact, and they put me up in this dilapidated outbuilding that was full of cats and cat litter and cat shit, and then his wife asked me if I’d like to meet with her to talk about writing, because she’s writer.  When I told my husband he said “first of all, I think it’s hilarious that you didn’t recognize that the dilapidated house full of cats and cat shit is our house, and secondly, I think you’re more interested in talking to her than you are in talking to him.”  He’s a fucking genius.   

Then I had a dream that convinced me that my subconscious is an egomaniac, I dreamt that my boyfriend called and told me not to visit him, because he was still in love with me, and it would be just too difficult for him to see me.  

Throughout this whole process I’d been referring to him as “my boyfriend, to the point where everyone else was too, even my husband.  When we discussed our travel plans, he began sentences with phrases like “so when we get to your boyfriend’s farm…” and I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to introduce him any other way, it’s just how I know him, and what I’d been calling him.  I don’t think my husband would have a problem with it, but it probably wasn’t a great idea to do that in front of his wife, who I’d never met, and maybe my boyfriend would think it was a little weird. 

He recognized me through the car window, we were probably the only visitors he was expecting that day, so it wasn’t too hard to guess who we were He walked to my side of the car, looking pretty much as he always has – tall, lanky, a little more rugged from years spent working the land, dressed in a straw hat, a button down shirt, and jeans.  “I’m so glad you’re here,” he said, “everyone’s been asking me ‘when is your girlfriend getting here?’” 

He was having lunch outside with his crew, a small group of awesomely filthy men who looked to be somewhere in their twenties.  There were visible dirt lines on their calves where their pant legs ended, with everything below caked in various shades of farm dirt.  They asked my husband about tattoos, and asked me what their boss was like in high school.  Feeling suddenly shy, all I could come up with was: “well, he wasn’t a farmer.”  A nine month old baby girl crawled at my boyfriend’s feet.  Somehow she’d managed to get a piece of old, dried up chicken shit in her mouth.  “Oh man, that is the worst thing I’ve ever smelled coming out of a baby’s mouth,” he said, removing the offending fecal matter.  Turning to my husband, he said: “So I hear that you’re a real nature boy and that you can’t wait to roll up your sleeves and dig in.”    
“If you want to know word for word what he said to me,” I asked,  
Yes, I do.” He answered. 
“He said: I will go to the farm with you, but I do not want to be involved to any part of the circle of life; I do not want to see anything get inseminated, I do not want to see anything get born, I do not want to see anything get killed.  I will hang out on the porch, I will sip mint tea, and I will pet the dog.” 

“Alright,” my boyfriend said, “no sex and no death, I think we can handle that.”  He took us on a tour of the farm, stopping to pick stalks of asparagus for us to snack on, walking us through as much shade as possible, and making sure our water bottle was refilled regularly in the 90 degree heat.  Despite himself, my husband became fascinated with the enterprise, asking specific questions about things like mobile chicken coops that were moved daily to provide natural fertilizer to the fields, draft horses that pulled equipment that was made in the 1930’s by Amish farmers, and disease vectors.  “Well, we’re coming up on some pregnant pigs,” my boyfriend said, “but that’s sex, so I don’t know if you want to see that.”  My husband said that would be okay, and we watched the impressively sized sows enjoying the shade.  One of them turned her hind quarters toward us and started rubbing her rump up against the side of a corrugated metal structure.  “I think I’m going to start doing that,” I said.  “What?” my boyfriend asked.  “Rub my butt up against stuff when it itches.” 
“We’ve got dairy cows too,” my boyfriend said, “have you ever milked a cow?” he asked, directing his question to my husband.  “He has,” I offered, “and he was surprised that it was warm.”   

After the tour we met up with my boyfriend’s wife and their three year-old daughter in front of the farmhouse.  The three year-old was dressed in pink striped pants and a pink top, and was riding a pony that was tethered to a rope and being guided by her mother.  “Do you have any idea how many little girls would love to have a pony?” I asked her.  “No, she really doesn’t”, her mother answered.  To her husband she said: “we were inside and she was upstairs screaming and screaming, I went to see what was happening and it turned out her fingers were stuck in her tiara.”  “That happens to me all the time,” I said.  We were joined by the family dog, who leaned against me and looked deeply into my eyes until I started petting him, a pullet that had gotten loose from the pen next to the farmhouse, and the nine month-old, who began busily stuffing her mouth with grass.  “Don’t worry about it,” her mother said when I went to take the greenery from the child’s mouth, “it will come out one way or another.”  For a moment it seemed as if every life form possible was crowded together on that small patch of lawn, and I began to get an idea of how busy life must be for my boyfriend and his family, who, with a hired staff of five, manage to provide 200 people with 60% of their daily calories. 

We were invited to stay for dinner, and the food was amazing, having all come from right outside the door.  We started with cold asparagus soup and moved on to green salad and baked chicken.  “Mommy,” the three year-old asked sweetly, “was this chicken slaughtered this year?”  “No honey, came the answer, this chicken was slaughtered last year, it came from the freezer.”  I silently compared the moment to a story my mother in-law tells of her own daughter sitting down to dinner and asking “Mommy, why is it called chicken?” and getting really upset when she got an answer.  As it turns out, my boyfriend’s three year-old daughter who loves the color pink and wears tiaras around the house really enjoys watching animals get slaughtered, and plays a game called “slaughter” with her friends, where the ground rule is you can only pretend to kill animals, so they play with it the family dog, or whatever barnyard animals happen to be nearby.   

We’d brought Canadian beer and pastry with us, which we shared at the end of the meal.  We were invited to stay the night, I was on the fence.  There would be literally nothing to do once our hosts went to bed at 9, and they get up at 4, which didn’t sound great.  When the subject of our wedding anniversary, which was the following day, came up, my boyfriend said “we’re planting leeks tomorrow, what better way to celebrate ten years of marriage than by planting ten thousand leeks?  Also, there’s going to be a steer slaughter tomorrow – but that’s death, so you probably don’t want to see that.”  It seemed like a good moment to end the visit – we’d enjoyed each other’s company, but seeing everybody again at 4am, all bleary-eyed and irritable didn’t seem too appealing. 

My boyfriend packed us a bag of asparagus, lettuce, and homemade bread, and walked us to our car, where my high school boyfriend and my husband of ten years shook hands, momentarily fusing my past and my future.  “It was so great to see you,” my boyfriend said, and leaned in for a hug that was short enough not to get weird and uncomfortable, but long enough to acknowledge our history.   
On the drive back to Canada, my husband was quiet for a few minutes.  “I’d like to go back sometime,” he finally said.  “Yeah?” I asked.Yeah, maybe stay at an inn or a B&B in town for a couple days and uh, you know, work.”  “On the farm?” I asked.  “Yeah, I think that would be really cool.”  If I hadn’t been buckled into my seat, I would have fallen right out of it.   

We crossed the border back into Canada, where my civilized husband and I returned to our well-appointed B&B, where three course morning meals were delivered to our room every morning by handsome men, and complimentary slippers were provided at the front door.  The experience left me feeling not so much nostalgic as much as it felt like I’d time travelled, and was now back in the present, all grown up But mostly it got that infernal Journey song stuck in my head, so if anyone knows of an antidote – please, let me know.  Unless that antidote is “Oh Sherrie,” that’s ten times worse.