When I was in eighth and ninth grade I used to lie in bed until the wee hours listening to the college radio station from Connecticut, WPKN, and thinking about punk rock and the knowable knowns of the universe.
Insomnia is how I personally discovered the philosophical truth that “I think therefore I am,” a couple of years before I heard the name Descartes and “Cogito, ergo sum” at boarding school. (“Hey!” I said aloud in the classroom. “That’s my idea!”)
I can thank green box iced tea for my early philosophical leanings. You know, the sweetened, lemon-flavored iced tea in the green box with the windmill on it — dubbed Bonac Tonic by some anonymous wit — which used to be made by Schwenk’s Dairy of Southampton? My parents thought-fully kept gallon cartons of it in our refrigerator, and I would glug it down, and it wasn’t until I was in college that I put two and two together and realized a pint of the stuff contained enough caffeine to keep me awake for approximately a week.
In eighth and ninth grade, my green-box years, I got so little sleep I was a walking zombie before noon. I remember Mr. Budd, my geometry teacher, calling my name repeatedly as I stared out the window, at the November leaves as they fell, in a sleep-deprived trance.
So I was surprised to discover, belatedly, that I’m not naturally an insomniac. The green-box iced tea business was sold at some point in the 1980s or 1990s, and I don’t like the after-taste since its manufacture was transferred to the Hampton Dairy company of Calverton. I am middle-aged and prudent and never allow myself tea or coffee after 4:30 p.m.
Maxim Gorky — the writer usually described as the “greatest proletarian in Russian literature” — describes very well the dead-of-night sleep disturbance that is more my style: when your brain wakes you between 2 and 5 a.m. because it wants you to open your eyes and see the horrors of human existence, the grim realities of the life cycle, stripped bare. In my 20s, possibly because the hours between 2 and 5 were when the gin and tonics wore off, I used to frequently wake up to consider that our bodies are in a constant process of decay, that we are born to be alone, and that youth was receding like a ghost on the opposite auto-walkway at the airport.
(Annoyingly, I cannot locate the passage from Gorky in which he more elegantly describes this particular form of night disturbance, but, if you haven’t read him, I’d recommend “Fragments From My Diary” or “My Childhood.”)
Now that I have crossed over the bar, so to speak, of 50, my sleep is once again less than satisfactory, but it’s not because my brain is too active or my subconscious too preoccupied with mortality. It’s because my lower back hurts. My family’s health has not been — blessedly and so far — impacted by Covid-19 except insofar as we are all far too sedentary now, and our office chairs are insufficient. Someone could make a mint marketing ergonomic chair-and-lap-desk sets for Americans consigned to remote work. Are sales of Bengay on the rise?
In the week before the election I did have some interesting dreams, including a thinly veiled Trumpian nightmare in which I had to hide under the stairs as a member of the Resistance because there was a not-jolly giant stalking Long Island, eating everything, like the Fleshlumpeater from Roald Dahl. I also had a very vivid and bittersweet one on Monday night that took me back, time-travel style, to Woodstock, where I experienced the sweet, sweet idealism of America circa 1969.
One of the greatest gifts of parenthood is that it forces you to stop navel-gazing and indulging in adolescent existentialist angst at impractical hours of the night. The physical world — of hair that needs brushing and cheese sandwiches that need grilling and boo-boos that need kissing better — pushes away the primordial night thoughts.
My son, at 11, is a grand-champion sleeper, untroubled — he says — by dreams. He is not allowed green-box iced tea but wakes naturally between 5 and 5:45 each day to begin his cheerful morning patrol of the house. When I am unceremoniously awoken, instead of visions from Edvard Munch to the tune of “Wo alle Straßen enden,” I hear him brightly singing anime theme songs to himself in the living room.