Before Sleep

I know people who can trip into a bed of gravel and fall asleep as they land, and believe me, I admire them that. For me sleep is a self-conscious act that comes only after deliberate negotiations, akin to picking a lock. Only success means that I never quite remember how I achieved it.

Not to sound too mysterious–most of the challenge is simply one of positioning. A perfect example is the sudden and bothersome awareness of my ear, which is never as unmanageable as it is when it’s folded wrong between my head and the pillow. I’ve tried–truly tried–to let things fall where they may, but the diabolical knowledge that I may be sleeping on a folded ear is enough to pull me from the very edge of sleep. The fingers of my free arm probe between head and pillow like night spelunkers, sweeping the ear back into a flat position, careful not to tug too tightly, for the ear must be in a neutral resting position.

It’s not to say that I’m obsessive about it. Generally I’m fine once I’ve established a normalized ear flap position.

A far more difficult challenge in my life has centered around the position of my jaw. As a child I would often lose up to an hour of sleep while I sought the precise position that would keep my mouth from snapping open wider than that of a plankton-sifting basking shark. The most frustrating aspect of this phenomenon was that it only bothered me when I became aware of it, and that was usually when I was having trouble sleeping. I knew that at some point I would have to become completely relaxed, but whenever I relaxed my jaw my mouth would open. So I relaxed my entire body except for my jaw, which I consciously kept shut under the barest trickle of power. But of course then the trouble was that I was aware of the effort required to keep my mouth shut, and after some minutes I could feel my jaw muscles straining, humming like old fluorescent lights. I would never get to sleep like that.

Eventually I resorted to holding my mouth shut with my hands, positioned like a squirrel eating a nut. And it actually worked a couple of times. Unfortunately, holding my arms in that position also caused them both to fall asleep, and I would inevitably wake up in the middle of the night flopping about like a tranquilized sea lion to regain sensation in my upper body.

Of course by now I have the benefit of several decades of experience, and finding the right position takes only a few minutes of procedural sheet folding, pillow primping, and limb positioning. After that it’s just a small matter of distracting myself with rudimentary fictional scenarios long enough so that I forget to ask myself whether I’m asleep yet. And mind games like these are by far the easiest to get right.

I have no idea if anyone else has had to go through these kinds of gymnastics just to ford their way beyond the veil of sleep, because it’s not usually something that comes up. “Man am I dragging today. Has anyone else become suddenly aware of how your knee joints press into each other when you keep your legs parallel? Just the thought of the skin compressed between my knees kept me up till dawn.” No, this is something best kept a secret from the entire world, and I’d just as soon not have it floating around in my mind either.

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