Monday, May 11, 2009

Lyrics to The No Sleep Blues

by The Incredible String Band
Cracks rack the windows,
Howls hold the floor,
Rains rot the rafters,
And do you just have to snore?
It's a most inclement climate,
For the season of the night.
Is that mouse playing football? Oh
I thought they didn't like the light.

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking.
I am starting to grieve, man.
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
And I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you,
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

There's mayhem in this mansion,
Since the cows were coming home,
With delirium no sleepum,
In a cloud of nylon foam.
But release scours the outhouse,
And a hard rain sears the sky,
But if you let the pigs decide it,
They will put you in the sty.

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking.
I am starting to grieve, man.
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
And I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you,
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

I think I'll get a picture,
And I think I'll put it on a nail.
I think I'll get another one,
And put it in a pail.
But the pail got so rusty,
I called it red, red, red for fun,
And I laughed like a leaver
'Till you ought to seen it run.

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking.
I am starting to grieve, man.
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
And I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you.
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

The size of the future
Declared itself no part,
Aloof like a Sultan
In the autumn of your heart.
But the heart got so hearty,
That it pulled for the shore,
And the sailors fired a big salute,
And it made my ears quite sore.

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking.
I am starting to grieve, man.
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
And I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you,
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

I mixed stones and water,
Just to see what it would do;
And the water it got stoney,
And the stones got watery too.
So I mixed my feet with water,
Just to see what could be seen;
And the water it got dirty,
And my feet they got quite clean.

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking.
I am starting to grieve, man.
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
And I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you,
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

No Sleep Blues

I am lying on the bed, in the dark, trying to sleep. As usual, the very act of trying ensures that sleep will not come. There is a truism that should have been a proverb. It is certainly more true than "a watched pot never boils," which I have proven to be false by exhaustive study (a study initially inspired by the desire to prove the statement bogus, but now become a habit disguised as a Zen meditation).

I think about how the phrasing should be to achieve optimum effect and use. "Desired sleep never comes," won't work. "Desired" just doesn't flow and "come" now has irritatingly smarmy overtones. If I use "wanted" for "desire" it sounds like an FBI poster. Perhaps it is the multiple syllables in those words that is throwing off the rythm. Perhaps I should turn the phrasing around. "You can't sleep when you want to," is properly terse, but sounds like it should be in a song called "Safety Sleep."

That turns my mind to songs about sleep. The first that comes to mind is also the last. It turns into an earworm and for the rest of the night all my thoughts will be played to the happy, bouncing, jig-time, "No Sleep Blues".

They tell me sleeping's a gas
I want to lay down
But I'm sorry I woke ya
I really got the no sleep blues

"Cracks rack the window," says The Incredible String Band, but pain racks me. It's not even big pain, it's all sorts of little inconsequential pains that in union have found strength, like the ache of arthritis in the joints of both index fingers, the crackling, popping pain of my badly-healed shoulder broken years ago in a motorcycle accident, like the the throb of a healing cut on my arm, like the soreness of an odd bump that appeared today on my wrist and that I can't seem to stop touching ...

... and it's not just pains but sensations, like the feel of my toenails against the sheet, the way my t-shirt bunches and yanks against my body, the way the folds of flesh left after I lost a lot of weight adhere to each other, the feeling of finding the single crumb in the bed and feeling like the princess and the pea, the slight tightness in my neck and coppery feeling in my sinuses that tells me that there is a headache on the way.

Sound is part of it too. I hear the drip of the remnants of rain in the metal gutter, the scuttle of paws or claws in the attic (there's a mouse playing football), the constant off and on of the toilet down the hall with a leaky valve, a dog barks down the street, a baby turns over in her sleep in the next room, a car goes by, a train hoots in the distance, the peepers, the furnace ... it all adds up.

I can deal with the snoring, the rasping liquid gurgle as the air rattles the soft palate like a pea in a police whistle, from huge horselike snorts to faint kitty-purr rumbles. I can deal with that. (Do you just have to snore?) Over it all, louder in emotion than all else in volume, are the silences. On sleepless nights like this it is the silences which destroy me. I lie in the gloom and try to think of the proper metaphor.

It's like being in an airplane with the hum of jets and fans simultaneously annoying but providing audible feedback that everything is working properly, that I am safe. Then suddenly the sound stops. My hearing becomes focused. I listen for things to start again and as the silence goes on I start to panic, to plan, to extrapolate. Adrenaline kicks-in. Where I was merely alert before, now I am hyper-alert ... waiting for the sound of engines, waiting for the yellow masks to drop.

I hover on the edge of consciousness. Through the open window I hear the wind hissing through the branches, I watch the shadows of their dance cast by the streetlight gently oscillate on the ceiling and I hear the rumble of her snores as she lies next to me. I start to sink into a kind of trance, when ...

The snores stop. Suddenly, in mid-snore they stop and it is such a wrong silence that I am immediately stark-raving awake. I am so awake that my muscle fibres are quivering as they wonder if they need to be ready for a fight or flight response.

I listen for breathing. I hear none. I poke her ... nothing. I shake her once ... twice, and then at last there is an implosive inhalation as her soft palate unseals with almost a glottal click, it pops open, the air rushes through with a snore so loud that it wakes her up.

She looks over at me and glares. Her skin retains the memory of my poking and shaking her. I have woken her. I am the enemy.

"You were snoring," I tell her. It is untrue, but I have to keep the information simple so she can parse it, decide that I meant well, and go back to sleep. I want her to sleep. One of us should be functional in the morning.

The adrenaline is still perking through my system. The sharpness that it brings will keep me awake for a while. (Her snoring stops. I wake her up.) The flavor of danger mixes with my blood as the extrapolation begins and I think of everything that can go wrong.

This stopping of breathing, this apnea, is why she's tired all the time, why she sleeps so much every day, it helps intensify depression, it leads to stroke, it's why ... Oh God ... it is so much "why". I know this because, when I realized that sleep was slipping away from me, I hung my own elephant trunk mask beside the bed and turned off the pump.

All of this goes through my head as semi-consciously my brain tries to figure out why all that adrenaline is floating about and making trouble. Unwanted extrapolations both logical and not, twisted in some cases by love, fear, even selfishness, thoughts start weaving and intertwining like a knot of snakes. In rapid succession I wonder how I'd deal with things if she had a stroke. How she would. (Her snoring stops. I wake her up) How she'd deal with lack of control. How could she stand it if her hands were incapable of controlling a brush or a pencil. Would she finally get treatment. Why can't I persuade her to get treatment now, so that the chance is more remote.

Once started, this reaction perpetuates itsself. The thoughts weave and hiss and feed on themselves releasing more adrenaline and more worry and the knot of snakes gets larger and angrier. I twitch and ache as I realize that I can't tell her about these thoughts without bitterness, without the edge created by my insomnia and the guilt (Her snoring stops. I wake her up.) I feel for nearly killing my family by falling asleep at the wheel so many years ago and fear that she might put herself in the same ... and I know that she won't do anything about it because I've asked her for years to do something about it and she never ...

And because it looms so large in the dark, it becomes the repository of all problems, all the petty annoyances, the irritating quirks, the phobias, all of them get jammed into the shadow of that silence. That fearful cessation of breath.

Slowly, I try to back out of it. These are irrational fears, I tell myself. I just need to watch her and be careful and hope for the best. I can't make her decisions for her. She'll be okay.

My head is buzzing as the snakes skither over one another. The hissing in my ears, the pressure at the back of my skull, the throb of an approaching headache all factor into my next actions.

I get out of bed. I go to the bathroom and piss. I wash my hands, then I wash my face to calm myself to cool down. I rub some Tiger Balm on my temples and forehead to help quell the headache and pop some acetaminophen. I go to the kitchen, butter a slice of bread and eat it as I lean against the counter in my underwear. I look at the clock ... it is 3:23 am. I wonder if I should wait until it is 3:33 before going back to bed. Would that be a good omen? Then I dismiss the thought since there are four clocks in the kitchen and each shows a different time. I briefly think about averaging them, but decide that it's too much work.

I walk back to the bedroom carefully trying to avoid squeaking boards in the hallway outside the room where my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter sleep. The baby makes a sound in her sleep as I pass and it lifts my spirit a bit.

I switch on the light by the bed, fumble for my reading glasses and the book that I'm not really enjoying. Three chapters later and it is 4:07.

I turn out the light. Outside the sky is getting lighter. (And the dawn comes sneaking up when it thinks I'm not looking.) Her snoring stops. I wake her up. I get up, get dressed. I make a mug of espresso and take it into my office. I plug in my headphones open WinAmp and select "The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion" by the Incredible String Band. I listen to "No Sleep Blues".

And the dawn comes sneaking up
When it thinks I'm not looking;
I am starting to grieve, man,
I used to know but now I believe, man.
They tell me sleep is a gas,
and if I want to lay down,
But I'm sorry I woke you,
I mean I've got the no sleep blues.

Then I start to write.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


In the 1960s my father received a grant to do research at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy. I was in my early teens, relatively competent at languages and excited by the adventure.

Arrangements had been made. My father's lab was ready, a local housekeeper had been recommended and hired, and soon a very nice apartment would be available. Soon ... but not immediately. So the first month we were there we stayed in a small pensione (hotel) very close to the Mergellina, a strip on the bay where cafes and restaurants jostled for a view of Vesuvius across the bay.

It was also close to the large downtown park of which the Stazione, which doubled as the city aquarium, was the central jewel. It was also, of course, in the middle of the city. The park was a long green lozenge of grass and trees, an oriental rug studded with statues, gazebos, and bandstands. It was lined with walks and its border was a ring of wide streets from which narrow alleys drifted like a grimy fringe.

The pensione that we lived in was about three blocks from the park on a main street. It faced the bay, there were restaurants nearby, It was like living in a postcard. But, within a few yards, back in the alleys, there was another world, the real world of Naples.

Even back in the 60s the economy of Naples was depressed. Some estimates put the unemployment rate as high as 70 percent. It was a given that the largest sector of the economy was the black market. Even the wealthiest Neapolitans seemed to have a hand in it. There were dozens of shops on every block where you could buy smuggled goods, and it wasn't just the dingy, tiny storefronts, some of the ritziest shops had legitimate goods on sale above the counter and smuggled or stolen goods below. It was organized crime, but on such a massive scale that it was more like a shadow infrastructure.

I didn't know this when we first arrived (though eventually I made friends with many of the locals and even went out on a speedboat smuggling run or two). I was kept busy the first few weeks learning my way around the area and getting to know the people that my father (and I as occasional lab assistant) would be working with.

The third day at the pensione, I noticed that my transistor radio was gone. As I was looking for it I realized that I was also missing a pair of sneakers, and my favorite jacket. My parents, alerted by my flurry of searching suddenly realized that many of their possessions were gone as were those of my brother and sister.

My father demanded an explanation of the owner of the pensione, who shrugged ... of the police, who shrugged ... of the consulate, who shrugged. So, we bought replacements for things that we needed ... and they disappeared.

At the end of the first week, it seemed that the only posses ions we could retain were those that we were actually wearing. My parents were so caught up in the administration of getting things straight and talking to authorities and figuring out what to do, that I was pretty much left on my own.

So I went down and helped the guy who made hand gestures to help people park their cars. He was in his early 50s and had a yachting cap that he wore to show his official status as owner of the parking gesture franchise for the eight parking spaces at the front of the building.

I will call this gentleman Enzo. He had grace, style and wit, but at the same time you knew that cars under his care would be there when you returned and that goods left in the car would remain there, though perhaps somewhat disarranged. He was 'someone to be trusted' and his service/protection franchise was a fully owned subsidiary of the local gang.

How do I explain this business to you?

Imagine that you need to park in downtown Boston. You drive slowly down the right lane looking for signs of incipient departure when a neatly dressed man (well-shined shoe, slacks, white shirt, tie, sports jacket, peaked hat) steps out from between some cars and motions to you. You roll down your window and he tells you that the red car three spaces ahead will pull out in about two minutes, and will leave more than 15 minutes on the parking meter, and, if you would care to wait, he will make sure that you can pull right in to that spot.

The red car pulls out, and with the helpful gestures of the gentleman, you pull in. He then informs you that he will be glad to make sure that no-one bothers your car, and that, if you would like, he will feed the meter for you. "How long do you think your errand will take you sir?"

If someone scratches your car by pulling in too close, he will get the license number name and address of the offender. He may even work out a payment so that when you return he can point out the damage and hand you a wad of money from the other driver as compensation. So, when you come back to retrieve your car, he tips his hat and you tip him for making your life a little less stressful and smoother.

The generosity of your tip affects his memory. The next time you are in need on his block, he'll remember you and the level of your appreciation of his efforts will determine the availability of a parking space, and safety of your car. The fact that these are public parking spots on a public street does not factor into this equation at all.

The reason that this works in Naples, is their sense of honor. There is, unfortunately justly, a suspicion in the UniStatian culture that assumes that anyone who is trying to make your life easier without presenting a contract and stipulations with non-fulfillment penalties and schedules of payments is probably a con man who is trying to rip you off. The sad truth is that all that paperwork makes no real difference. There less honor and honesty in our documented transactions than in the verbal, almost implicit, Neapolitan agreement. The legal foofaraw just gives you a nice warm fuzzy feeling and forty pounds of paperwork to store and haul around with you for the next 20 years.

Although engaged in a what our police would call a protection racket, the Neapolitan car parker treats his occupation as a real job. He doesn't, and, more to the point, his customers don't think of it as a scam. He provides a service, and one that is both useful and pleasant. Were he to fail to protect your vehicle he would consider himself dishonored. That may not seem important to many of us in the US but it is desperately important to him and it is why you can trust him.

But now let's get back to my story.

Since I have been in Naples for a week, and noticed how the locals dress and carry themselves, I have tried to assume some protective coloration. I'm trying to blend in. Part of that is learning the language. I've spoken French for years and had a crash course in Italian at Berlitz to prepare me for the trip.

But Enzo doesn't speak Italian ... he speaks Neapolitan. Neapolitan is the 'Spanglish' of Italy. Some theorize that it is the bastard child of Italian and Romanian, others opine that it is just a degraded dialect of the unlettered south (and where have we heard that before?). I think that it is an elegantly compressed form of Italian.

Neapolitans, more than any other cultural group other than the deaf, talk with their hands. They can hold impressively long discourses at a distance in a noisy environment without saying an audible word, so when the need to speak arises, they run their words together hoping to get through the ordeal quickly. Naples was known for its noisy marketplaces and an entire vocabulary was developed, far more sophisticated than it seems from the caricatures we are generally fed of hand waving intermixed with a few unsavory gestures. I am going to resist going off on this tangent now but perhaps, another time, I'll get back to the topic.

So I left the pensione and went down to the street. I sat on some steps and watched Enzo work and listened to him talk. It was hard to understand but there was enough classical Italian to help me work out meanings from context. I'm making this sound very deliberate. It wasn't. As I have said before, I'm a compulsive communicator and I am driven to understand what people say and what they mean and whether they're the same.

Enzo seemed amused by my attention. He started talking to me switching back and forth from Neapolitan to what he called Roman (no not Latin, Roman as in how they talk in Rome). At one point, he was so caught up in explaining a word to me that he had me walking with him as he did his job. Since I was in my early teens and fairly good-looking (most people thought I was Italian) there was a slight upward trend to the tips.

This amused Enzo greatly, so the next day he took me on as a kind of apprentice, bringing me a cheap yachting cap. He showed me the parking car gestures, but even better he started to explain some of the Neapolitan gestural speech,starting, of course, with the swears. By the end of the day I had learned among other things, how to call some one a half-wit, ask what the Hell they thought they were doing, and a series of gestures that I didn't understand the meaning of but seemed to get the recipients very ... very ... angry all without opening my mouth.

The tips were rolling in. The area was dense with European tourists and they seemed to think that Enzo and I were a father and son team and tipped extra for the cuteness and warmth that it implied. Enzo was pleased.

The next day I showed up without my hat. Enzo wanted to know why. I explained, as best I could, that while my parents and I were out to dinner, the hat had disappeared. Enzo shrugged, a shrug that seemed to say 'it happens'.

By now I was 'Davio' and, on the strength of two days worth of conversation, a friend ... almost family. That's one of the things that I love about the people I met in Naples. They were quick to befriend you if you just left yourself open to the possibility.

Enzo was as curious about my extended stay as I was about his language.

Why were we here? I explained as best I could.

He was amazed. "Your father is a Professore!? A Dottore!?" Trust me, he pronounced the capitals the exclamation points and the question marks.


"How long will you be staying?"

"Probably two years."

"Two years!!!!" Enzo was shocked. "You will be living here  in Naples for two whole years?"

The wonder of it overcame him. He lifted his eyes in disbelief to the sky as if imploring God to send a sign that this was not his imagination and that a miracle of biblical proportions was being revealed to him right here, right here, as he stood beneath the blue sky.

Then, since no further sign was given, he gave that shrug and sideways wag of the head that indicated his acceptance of whatever he was dealt, pushed back the brim of his cap, put his foot up on the bumper of one of the vehicles in his charge, and extracted a crumpled pack of Pall Mall cigarettes (part of a tip from a tanned young man who, a few months later would have me help him unload cases of cigarettes and whiskey from a darkened steamer onto his speedboat out past the tips of the bay beyond the limits of the Customs cutters) from his breast pocket. He extracted a cigarette, flourished a well worn Zippo, and blew out a stream of smoke as he gazed moodily and romantically across the road, past the seawall to the blue of the bay and the looming volcano beyond.

This wasn't strange behavior, far from it, this was how Enzo always smoked, especially when there were tourists with cameras in view. He did however seem more pensive and quietly amused.

The next day I found the hat in my room. It was in a place I had searched, but ... oh ... never mind.

Things were proceeding in my parent's lives. More and more of my time was needed elsewhere, but I did spend what time I could with Enzo and he patiently and wittily tutored me in the way of Neapolitan life. He introduced me to some of the fishermen from nearby Santa Lucia (yes THAT Santa Lucia), and waiters from Mergellina and some interesting people who didn't seem to have anything to do but hang around, teach me some Neapolitan songs, and disparage my young already baritone range as inappropriate to the purpose.

Every day though, more and more of the stuff we had thought stolen was reappearing in our hotel rooms. I couldn't help but wonder where it was coming from. By the third week, which was to be our last one at the pensione, there was more stuff appearing in our rooms every day; clothing, knick-knacks, electronics, etc., but now it was stuff that wasn't ours. Not a lot of it, but stuff we'd never seen before.

There was an excellent pair of butter-soft black shoes that were exactly my size that appeared at the foot of my bed. My mother wondered aloud at the scarf she'd found in her suitcase. My brother was unable to account for the wind-up toy speedboat that we found him testing in the bathtub, my sister had discovered a doll in a gypsy costume, my father never seemed to run out of his favorite brand of cigarettes.

Finally, our apartment was ready. We'd be moving all the way out to the Northern tip of the bay to Capo Posillipo. We were packed, but we had more suitcases than we did when we arrived and they were all full. My parents must have puzzled about it, but they were too caught up in everything else to pay attention.

While they were finishing up, I took the suitcases that were ready down to the front door. I sat on one of them. Enzo, when he had finished greeting the driver of a battered Fiat as if he had a Rolls Royce, came over and sat with me. We could see the crenellated towers of the building that I would be living in across the small arc of the bay to the north and I pointed it out to him.

"Nice place," he said. "Lots of pretty girls." He made the modified epicure's gesture. With the tip of the finger on the side of the upper lip and a quick twisting motion as if twirling a moustache, it meant good food. The same gesture made with the knuckle instead meant beautiful woman. "Go to the Riva Fiorita and dance with the tourist ladies. Let them think you are Napolitano, because now you mostly are ... and they will think that you are romantic and you will live in their dreams. You say it's so hot to dance ... niamosheh, let's go down to the beach. Then you roll around in the sand and who knows?"

I laughed, "I'd probably end up kissing a gangster's sister by mistake."

"You could do worse."

"I'll be working right down the street," I said, "I'll come back and tell you if I need protection."

I finally got the courage up to ask Enzo. Did he know what was going on with all the stuff? Where did it go? How did it get back? Where did the new stuff come from?

"Aahh stai'tzeet, shut up" he said. Indicating by gesture that he maybe knew something but no information would be shared. Then he shrugged, and I knew that he would tell me something, a small piece. He grinned and said, "someone probably didn't know that you were staying, paisan."