My son’s favorite teacher has been in the audition process for real Jeopardy, and it’s a bid deal. You have to be fast and smart and alert and normal and a little quirky and, yeah, that’s not what we’re talking about here. The fantastic news with Insomnia Jeopardy is that anyone can play!! Okay, not anyone, but anyone who has seen the early morning hours a few too many times and practiced these categories over and over from, let’s say 3:30am to 4:55am. And you thought you were wasting your time thinking about all those jerks who wronged you though the years. Well, wrong. You were just practicing for Insomnia Jeopardy!!!
A six-finger night means success!
Let’s take a minute to talk about night math. If you’re a kindred spirit in insomnia, you already know what it is, but you’ve perhaps never named it. Allow me:
Counting sheep? That’s for getting to sleep. Night math is counting sleep.
Counting sleep is what happens when you wake up early in the still-dark hours and want to know how much sleep you got. So you turn to your fingers to do the figuring. It goes something like this.
Hmm, well, I went to bed around 10:30am, so, 11:30, 12:30, 1:30. (You’re holding up three fingers, but now have to skip forward because you non-voluntarily took two-plus hours off from sleeping between 1:30 and 3:30.) So, 4:30, 5:30, 6:30. Okay, 6:12am is the actual time, but when counting sleep you always round up just to feel like you’ve had more. In this case, you award yourself 18 bonus minutes of sleep.
If you’re using two hands, that’s probably a good night. So you look. Two hands. Six fingers. Six hours of sleep. Success!
That’s what I mean by night math. Well, that and so much more. Keep reading.
On the mornings like today when I’m too under slept to write, I slip on my boots, throw a coat over my pajamas, and wander down the Minuteman Bike Path behind my house. With only the light of the moon to guide me, I look for things, lost or dropped, twinkly or bright.
I’m not above picking up shreds of candy wrappers, broken ear buds, or an empty nip bottle—one cinnamon-scented wiff takes me back to high school like Proust and his madeleines—and pennies that wink at me through the darkness. Even jagged shards of glass, like pieces of fallen stars, go right into the pocket of my worn wool coat.
Above are some of my recent finds, all plucked from the ground and added to the box in the back of my closet, my trove of found things found that has been growing for decades. When we pay close attention, clues appear in the oddly clarifying midnight of our lives.
This morning as I walked and searched, the inky black bike path opened into the muted light of Spy Pond, a popular spot in our town for recreation and reflection. A steady drift of pond visitors plus two million people travelling this path annually means plenty of dropped items: bottle caps, beads, game pieces, belt buckles, baby shoes, doll heads. I have discovered some of my best clues along this stretch, often in these early morning hours.
And here is what I found on the bike path this morning: a tarnished three-ring gold earring, true treasure. I often find bits of broken jewelry, but a whole gold earring has it’s own little magic that will go into my pocket and stay there in the daylight, like a promise.
I mostly love the Dark Alone of 5am when I’ve had enough sleep (read: 5-6 hours) and I can tiptoe downstairs to brew my coffee and stir together some words in the silence. But there are those mornings when a writer needs company, and that, my fellow insomniacs, is what a corn snake is for.
Meet Whitey Bulgie who received his name eight years ago, long before the infamous Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger had been discovered to be living the life of an unassuming senior citizen (albeit one with a stash of guns and crazy amounts of cash hidden in the walls of his Santa Monica apartment) and it seemed that he could be just about anywhere.
My son who was obsessed with South Boston crimes at the time gave our snake his/her (we have no idea what sex it is because that would require exploratory surgery) name based on the fact that 1. It’s white 2. It gets a huge bulge in its belly when it swallows one of the mice-icles we feed it. 3. Whitey Bulgie is a cool name for a snake.
In spite of the fact that this is our family pet, I’m really the only one who cares about it. But ask any human mother to a reptile pet. Reptiles don’t greatly intrigue and aren’t particularly interesting, until you’re hanging out together in a dark room and 5am. That’s when it gets fun to release your four-foot albino corn snake and play. See how cuddly Whitey can be.
Now here’s the other thing about snakes, they are a powerful spiritual symbol, a multi-faceted metaphor for rebirth. Think shedding of old skin and renewal. Serpent is also a symbol of that kundalini energy coiled at the base of your spine until it is beckoned upwards through the chakras, opening you to consciousness.
But we’re not going to put that pressure on Whitey Bulgie this morning. Right now my gender neutral snake and I are just hanging out, having fun.
There’s a lot you can do in the middle of the night, and I’ve been doing it for decades.
You can worry about death or your in-grown toenail. You can hate on your husband for having the audacity to not only sleep deeply but to salt the wound by snoring, or you can read your Kindle Paperwhite for a while without ever leaving the bed or turning the light on, but if that doesn’t put you under again, you can wander downstairs and snack on turkey which is full of tryptophan—the god of amino acids for insomniacs. While in the kitchen, you can drink milk right from the carton because no one is looking or you can check your phone, though it’s not advised since the screen will suck the melatonin right out of your body and that will be it. You’re up for good. Seriously. Checking your phone in the night is like making a deal with the sleep devil. Don’t. Do. It.
Back upstairs, you can make sure your kids are breathing, watch the moon from the bathroom window, worry about different ways you might die and wonder how drought-related dehydration would even work. Like is there NO drinking water left in the Greater Boston Area and you’re too thirsty to make it to Canada? You can check Facebook and see what friends in Europe are having for breakfast, or you can just stay in bed and do night math.
Night Math is the kind you do when you can’t sleep. A typical problem would go like this: I went to bed at a commendable 10:30am. It’s now 2:10am. So you count on your fingers (fingers are important because it’s 2:10am and you need the visual). 11:30. 12:30. 1:30. 2:30. (It’s only 2:10, but you always round up with night math). Then you figure you’ve had 4 solid hours of sleep. You also have 4 fingers in the air.
The next part of the equation is hypothesizing. If I get back to sleep by 3:30 and stay asleep until my alarm goes off at 6:15, that means (fingers again) I’ll get 4:30, 5:30, 6:30 (remember you always round up) 3 more hours of sleep. You are holding up 7 fingers and can rest assured that you will have had a good night sleep, provided you can fall back to sleep within the hour.
But that’s another story for another night. This one ends here with seven raised fingers and us going back to bed. Now. Sleep well, friends, and I’ll try to do the same.