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"First Essays, Full of the Heat of Youth"
THREE WEEKS, VOLUME 1 ISSUE 8 - MARCH 23, 2002

"Vivas to those who have failed."

Cover
On Sleep, by Henry William Brownejohns
Notices
A Moral Observation on Losing
Message from a Solitary Traveller, by Ephrain Underhill
Letter from a Sympathizer: Brief Treatise Upon Sleep, or the Lack Thereof, by J.M. Tyree, Esq.
The Biennial and The 'Tribute in Light', by Henry William Brownejohns
A Love/Hate Relationship with Sleep, by Alexander Swartwout
The Eavesdropper
The Weather, by Eliza Anne Bonney

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ON SLEEP

A UNIVERSAL HUMAN VICE EXAMINED

 

Another Scholarly Discourse on a Topic of Seemingly Obvious Ordinariness

 

A Third of Your Life Poorly Understood

  

by Henry William Brownejohns 

The world is a multifarious place, far too vast and elaborate to be approximated by a handful of words, drafted by a quartet of editors, however qualified they may be.  But this paper, in spite of the Sisyphean impossibility of achieving such a goal, nevertheless intends to be analogous to the diversity of the universe in its content, and to bring its needful readers a fair sample of the variety of nature and human society, within its pages.  I have discovered that lesser periodicals frequently lean upon the crutch of the ‘theme issue,’ by organizing all their content along a similar topic, and turning blind to the infinite other developments in the world, which from here is a betrayal of that very diversity I have written of.  THREE WEEKS has never aspired to perform such lewd intellectual favors for the public, but is instead dedicated to enforcing the eclecticism of existence upon them, by scampering about from subject to subject, as its editors’ whims and interests dictate.

But, though the stars themselves are arranged randomly in the sky, in them we still see patterns; similarly, the workings of a dozen disparate minds will now and then converge upon an identical idea - a phenomenon Mr. Jung attributed to his semi-mystical Synchronicity, but which I am content to credit the fundamental homogeneity of humanity for, and the inevitably similar firings of trillions of indistinguishable neurons. 

Just such a serendipity has occurred here at THREE WEEKS this time around, as, for whatever reason, the singular topic of Slumber has been upon every mind - either because we are getting too much or not enough, or because we require a meditation upon such a simple and fundamental concept to relieve our crania of the strain of considering the greater complications engulfing the globe.  Mr. Swartwout has penned a few reflections upon his ambivalence to the state, and, unprovoked, epistles from our local circle have drifted in with other reasonable theories on the same subject.  And as a steady night’s sleep has for so long eluded me, it has begun to weigh more heavily upon my own mind, and so I have attempted to organize a plethora of drowsily scribbled notes into a coherent discourse on that necessary stupor, dear soft sleep. 

So this issue contains several author’s thoughts upon a common topic, yet this is an example of nothing more contrived than that same coincidence that is also responsible for the alignment of the stars in Orion’s belt, or the resemblance of many peninsular landmasses to boots and mittens.  This, nor any other issue of THREE WEEKS, shall be intentionally arranged around a ‘theme,’ per se, beyond the most general one of Human Civilization, and its limitless novelty.  My excuses made, and our dedication affirmed, I present to you what I know and think about Sleep.

 ---

To lapse into unconsciousness once every twenty-four hours seems as natural to any human being as to shiver in the cold, to pull one’s hand out of the fire, or to step away from the edge of a precipitous ledge.  But it must be more objectively considered if we are to make any sense of it, and in doing so, one may realize that sleep is not a prerequisite for life.  There are hundreds of species even upon this planet that do not need to sleep, and the metabolisms of which are perfectly capable of operating consistently through the day.  And so it mustn’t surprise us, on that day in the far future, when we are shaking hands with the first visitors from another world, that when asked if they are tired from their trip, they say they don’t understand the question - sleep, while universally human, is hardly universal.

Organic cells are quite able to go about their business on a twenty-four hour schedule, and so the causes of our periodic drowsing must be sought at a higher biological level.  Our intuitive rationale for needing sleep - so that our bodies and minds may rest - is not grounded in any cellular fact.  ‘Rest,’ as you and I know it, and though welcome when it comes, hasn’t really got anything to do with the replenishment of living cells.

Such empirical realities startle when first encountered, and, being no exception to the effects of novelty, I needed a nap just to ponder over these facts.  Why am I so inclined to sleep, if it doesn’t serve any universal biological need?  Why aren’t we humans graced with the stamina of an algae or an amoeba, and allowed to do our good works all through the night?  And where in our evolution did we first taste the ecstasy of daily unconsciousness, never to return?

 ---

For all of the college students it has recruited in its name, the study of sleep remains stalled, as rife with uncertainty as most religions, and thus the ugly duckling of the scientific community.  The questions I pose are, to a large extent, unsolved, and are the breeding ground of tentative hypotheses, rather than well-grounded theories.  For a subject the domain of which is the very noggin that seeks to understand it, an astonishing amount of secrecy remains.  Still, some facts worth mentioning are known, and the basic mechanisms, though their purpose and origin may be misunderstood, have been outlined, thanks in part to those armies of insomniac and impoverished coeds, attracted by free pizzas and fifty-dollar bills.

During the course of the day, the neurotransmitter serotonin is known to accumulate in the brain, and the levels of this chemical correspond directly to the subjective sensation of tiredness.  A typical human, and a good deal of atypical ones, are prone to an inescapable circadian rhythm, during which serotonin levels in the brain increase dramatically before about 1 a.m., and begin to diminish after 4 a.m.  In addition to this, there is a secondary increase in serotonin, which takes place at 1 p.m., and drops off around 4 p.m., and which is largely responsible, in spite of a thousand wives’ tales, for the custom of mid-afternoon ‘siesta’ in many cultures around the world.  That Americans don’t enjoy the benefit of a mid-afternoon rest scheduled into their workday is not because of our climate or our cuisine, only our ignorance of physiology.  Convincing statistics have been collected which illustrate two sharp spikes in the number of sleep-related traffic accidents, between 1 and 4 in the afternoon and in the night, correspondent to the serotonin peaks.  In opposition to these periods are the serotonin lows, during which a person generally feels the least effect of fatigue; these occur between 9 and 11 a.m., and between 7 and 9 p.m. - a fact not lost upon the operators of television stations, whose highest advertising rates are charged for ‘prime time,’ or those evening hours when captive consumers in the audience are most attentive.

It was believed even by Aristotle and the inquisitive Greeks that sleep was caused by the accumulation of vapor in the brain, although in their system, the source of this vapor was the digestion of food in the stomach, the by-products of which rose up into the head like helium filling a balloon.  Serotonin accumulation is a nice approximation of this theory, the same way the Standard Model is a nice approximation of Lucretius’ particles of matter, but it does not offer either a cause or a direct result for sleep.  We have all been drowsy, and we have all fought it off when necessary.  The dissipation of serotonin-induced fatigue around 5, a.m. and p.m., whether we have slept or not, will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has kept a sleepless vigil.  Serotonin aids sleep, by notifying the corpus what time it is, but it is not the cause, or its elimination the purpose, of sleep.  If we are to give Nature any of the credit she normally deserves, we must presume this elaborate little chemical cycle has been developed for a more practical reason, and isn’t just one of those unfortunate oversights like our lack of wings, our excessive attention to sex, and our occasional retention of a vestigial tail.  If sleep were useless, it would be a costly flaw - a third of our time in this mortal coil is spent in its embrace, and we are inclined to grow fond of it.

The periods bounded by increased serotonin levels, incidentally, are also the most common time of death.  The Greeks were equally attuned to sleep’s likeness to death; they were twin brothers in the pantheon, Hypnos and Thanatos, the sons of Night.  And it is not insignificant that the circadian rhythm puts us to sleep at night - and while I risk stating the obvious to those more acute readers, let me remind the rest of you that night is a period of darkness, and for three and a half billion years prior to Mr. Edison, it was a perfectly useless period of time, unless you possessed sonar, like bats and dolphins, or reflective retinas, like cats and owls. 

Thus we might simply presume that we sleep to kill time until daylight - though not only does the mid-afternoon serotonin spike discount this theory, but the inventive genius of evolution makes it not much more than an impractical behavioral cop-out.  Enough organisms exist in a nocturnal state, and others, as mentioned, in a continuous state of activity, to suggest that our propensity to slumber has other origins - otherwise, why shouldn’t we have evolved incandescent fingertips, to compensate for our planet’s maddening revolutions from light to dark?  Surely Nature favors us over jellyfish and fireflies?

Further evidence for a functional explanation of sleep can be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom, where various species go to extraordinary lengths for the sake of a few snores.  The fur seal has developed a sleep habit that makes this author utterly crimson with jealousy - the little pup can swim out to sea, and put half of its brain to sleep, while the other half remains in a state of reduced wakefulness, just enough to paddle one flipper and keep the fellow’s nose above water.  When the one hemisphere of the seal’s brain is rested, it wakes, and the other half goes to bed, and the opposite flipper takes up treading duty.

Perhaps equally impressive is the ability of several species of migratory birds to take naps only as long as 5 to 60 seconds, and to accumulate, over the course of a day, eight hours of restful sleep in this way, without ever needing to perch and doze for any greater length.  Now, such a fact will surely get the semi-educated into a snit, and persuade them that the naturalists are pulling their legs.  How can we know a bird is asleep for 5 seconds at a time, they will ask, hands outstretched, faces sneering, minds entangled.  To answer, we must settle on a more technical definition of the condition.

When we begin to doze, the cumulative voltage of our brain enters into an oscillation known as an alpha wave.  Though we are still quite conscious when in this state, this is the first necessary step to extinguishing wakefulness.  During alpha waves, we are drowsy, possibly distracted, in a bit of a reverie.  After this, we enter a transitory period, which might colloquially be known as ‘drifting off,’ but to the geniuses in the laboratory is known by its indicative brain-wave pattern, theta waves.  During this time, our eyes, quite involuntarily, are rolling slowly around in their sockets.  Once this transition is over, sleep formally begins, because the brain begins to hum in a steady, low-output pattern, known as slow-wave, or delta sleep.  Slow-wave sleep is the deepest period of sleep, and if we are awoken abruptly from it, we are inclined to grogginess and disorientation. This whole sequence of mental transformation, from wakeful melancholic to slumbering layabout, takes on the average ninety minutes.  Once here, the brain makes one last adjustment, indicated by a slight variation in the electrical oscillation, and a sudden outburst of involuntary eye movement.  Here we reach that pop-cultural lodestar, rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM, during which dreaming most often occurs.  Oddly enough, this is not the deepest period of sleep, but in fact the brain-waves measured during REM sleep resemble those of a wakeful, if relaxed, person.  For this reason, a person who is abruptly woken during the REM period adjusts quite rapidly to being awake, and is far less sluggish than the poor sap who is jolted out of slow-wave sleep. 

These REM periods last about twenty minutes, and then the brain goes back and begins again with theta waves, slow waves, and another round of REM sleep.  This is the lap the mind traverses, over and over again, possibly eight or nine times a night, and these are the signals by which we are able to recognize sleep, in all species that engage in it.

So our migratory birds, cooperatively attached to an electroencephalogram, indicate tiny bursts of slow-wave sleep, during which time their wings stop beating, and they glide - as mentioned, for as long as a minute, and as briefly as five seconds.  As creatures great and small have been helpful enough to show us their brain-waves during nap-time, we have been able to learn, if not the origins and purpose of sleep, at least its dispersal among species, and the variations prevalent and rare.

For example, no dog owner who has watched Rover chasing sticks in his snooze by the fireplace will be surprised to learn that most mammals are subject to REM sleep, and we can only presume, the dreams that accompany it.  Just as any herpetologist worth his salt can tell you that reptiles, on the contrary, tend to somnolate in a different sort of way - though there are those who argue even on this obscure point.

It seems that reptiles go direct from theta-type waves to REM-type sleep, although I personally find the prospect of lizard-dreams too ghastly to speculate upon.  This tendency is among the clues being pored over by the evolutionists, to determine the descent of the sleep habit, under the supposition that reptilian behavior often precedes mammalian behavior, even in the mammalian brain.

That reptiles seem to largely bypass slow-wave sleep suggests that slow-waves are a more recent evolutionary development.  Slow-wave sleep is, while the most restful, also the most vulnerable, if you are the type to lay out all night.  Some of the academics I am acquainted with speculate that slow-wave sleep couldn’t evolve until mammals, who started out almost exclusively as the prey of lizards and birds, got into the habit of burrowing and hiding during the day, and foraging at night.  Prior to this, when the only sleepers on land were the reptiles, sleep might have simply been a mechanism for an animal to remain motionless during the perilous night.  By skipping the heavy slow-wave phase, reptiles are able to sleep out on a rock, but remain vigilant enough to wake and escape danger.

This scenario proposes that our own night is spent first dozing off, and then entering our precious and cozy mammalian sleep - slow-wave - and then, as an artifact of our descent from reptiles, we have a little nostalgic fit of REM sleep.  Yet as all good things do, even this sturdy hypothesis grows more complicated.

Not being - most of us - reptiles anymore, our REM sleep is therefore of little physiological use (such ‘use’ of any sleep still being debatable, but some form of replenishment and precautionary immobility being favorite possibilities).  Enter the mammalian cerebrum, unwieldy tool of conquest, and harbor of untold and untidy secrets. 

Any honest man can tell you that evolution has not prepared us for our own brains.  There is a trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry based on this proposition.  And one of the most glaring examples of our poor self-understanding is the enigma of dreams.  Long discussions of dreams and their significance, being the realm of far flakier literary men than I, do not terribly interest me; but their function and their origin, being proper scientific questions and not esoteric campfire ones, does.

It is apparent beyond the need of mention that dreams have some pertinence to the state of our mind, our circumstances in life, and our memories and our ambitions.  All of these psychological phenomena can be described, reductively, as neural pathways that have been established and memorized by the mind, and so we can’t feign such shock that our brains have access to our dirty secrets even when we aren’t awake to give out the combination.  Some psychologists believe that the brain, in dreaming, is trying to “come to terms” with the events of the day, by replaying them, and sorting them into the proper categories of memory.  Others are proponents of a more aggressive theory, which supposes that the brain is actually attempting to relive those events, towards a similar aim, and that this accounts for our sensation of participation in dreams.  And others, inspired by some theories of Dr. Crick, who put the twist in the DNA double helix, actually feel that the purpose of dreams is to selectively forget any information that is repetitive and redundant, so the memory banks of the mind can operate at their most efficient - dreams being a review of that information, some of which is retained, and the rest, already stored somewhere, is discarded.  What the majority of these cranks can agree on, though, is that dreams serve a therapeutic purpose, taking up the slack for our overwhelmed subconscious, and trying to account for the staggering consequences of self-awareness, which Nature didn’t really prepare us for.

What can be fairly stated, unless your are seated around the ritual bonfire of a desert peyote festival, is that dreams are merely a consequence of our brain’s inability to wind down.  The mind is a sort of flywheel, buzzing with its own inertia, and even when the cerebellum puts the body to rest, the cerebrum is still spinning, neurons firing, neural networks aglow.  How dreams develop and how they are controlled, however, is and shall for now remain, a mystery to sell books with.

But it seems apparent that this all-important facet of our consciousness has taken up residence in a vestigial phase of sleep, the REM period.  While it is true that reptiles experience REM-type brain-waves, in lieu of slow-wave sleep, they don’t generally move their eyes - which some researchers have speculated means they aren’t dreaming by our standards, only sleeping with REM-type, or reptilian, lightness.

In contrast, mammals, who possess more highly developed cerebrums, do experience eye movement during their REM-type sleep stage, suggesting that with more cerebrum, comes more psychological baggage, and thus more use for dreaming.  It is a fascinating prospect, though a fairly distressing one, to think that our loyal dogs and cats, so seemingly carefree, are actually working out their problems while they sleep, as surely as we are sorting through our own subconscious’ dirty laundry.

Some support for this whole specious construction can also be found in a simple correlation between mammalian brain size, the time it takes to achieve REM sleep, and the time spent there.  From field mouse to elephant, as a rule, the smaller the mammal, the shorter the sleep-cycle, and the briefer the REM stage.  Our average sleep-cycle time of ninety minutes falls near the top of the chart, as one of the longest, since it is our relative cerebrum size that differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  Only whales and elephants take longer to reach REM sleep.

Part of the explanation for this little detail may lie in the typical habits of small-brained mammals.  A mouse, for example, must spend his entire waking period moving, to forage for food, build his nest, socialize with other mice...  and then, to save himself the trouble tomorrow, he must hurry up and conserve his strength.  For this, he sleeps.  A mouse, with not much cerebrum for higher thinking, simply doesn’t have any use for standing still and thinking.  Therefore, when the mouse sleeps, his primary goal is to replenish and conserve his hard-won energy, and of course to keep from being eaten.  His conscience, being miniscule, doesn’t require much time to clear.

For my own part, unlike the mouse, I can testify to the pleasure a human can take in sitting still and doing nothing.  Thanks to the composition of our brain, and the invention of the hammock, I am able to conserve my energy, and replenish my physic, even while I am awake.  Our energy is much less precious - and yet our cerebrum is far more active.  In this case, our cerebrum is analogous to the incessant motility of the mouse, and while we are able to rest our bodies while we are awake, it is impossible to shut down our noodle.  We fret even while we watch the sun set.  Only in slumber can our conscience recoup, and it utilizes the REM stage for this high purpose, bequeathed to us by our scaly forebears.

This is a great and teetering hypothesis, but in many ways a satisfactory one.  It leaves no shortage of unanswered questions, open ends, and possibilities for revision, but it does unify the strange behavior of a large limb of the evolutionary bush.  To go through all the trouble of developing higher life forms, and then to have them spend such a great portion of their time in a torpor upon lumpy mattresses is simply too much of a contradiction to leave unexamined.  By the time a fellow is seventy, he will have slept 200,000 hours away - a not insignificant prelude to death.  So it had either better be immensely pleasurable, or utterly necessary.

 ---

And the efforts of a century’s worth of entrepreneurs to wean themselves away from sleep have thus far proved fruitless.  Prior to the age of electric light, nobody made much effort at eliminating sleep from their schedule.  But ever since, it has been a cottage industry for those who would improve the lot of humanity, night and day.  I would frankly have this industry outlawed, as they do nothing but worry those of us who want to sleep but feel guilty for it, and wear everybody else out needlessly, by taking away something they have needed for three billion years.

A dog, it so happens, kept awake for eleven days, will die.  It seems that Homo Sapiens is slightly more resilient, but without much use.  A seventeen-year-old named Randy Gardner set a world record by staying awake, without chemical stimulant or interruption by catnap, for 264 hours - about eleven days.  After just two, though, his dexterity and mental acuity were amply compromised, and by the end of the thing, he was hardly more functional than a dead dog.

Inconsistent thinking is often the first symptom of sleep deprivation - sentences left incomplete, thoughts half-finished.  Symbol recognition becomes impaired, and dyslexia is often experienced, where letters and numbers are placed in the wrong order, even by subjects who never suffer from that condition normally.  Gaps in logic appear, and memory is compromised.  Paranoia precedes hallucination in most cases, but by this point, such distinctions are academic.  Different individuals will maintain different levels of physical coordination and awareness of self, even after extreme deprivations like Mr. Gardner’s, where they may be able to touch the tip of their nose with their fingertips, and walk a straight line, but they are essentially low primates by then, and whatever it was they are staying awake for, they are probably going to botch it up, because the abilities that make them human are vanished.

Sleep deprivation isn’t only the result of a conscious, if foolish, undergraduate decision.  Chimpanzees, unobstructed, will take nine to ten hours of leisurely sleep, before resuming their duties, and gorillas even prefer twelve.  Our species seems to prefer about the same as the chimps, if left in an uncontrolled environment, but I am once more venturing into the remedial and obvious by stating that few of us achieve it.  Besides the insomnia-inducing pressures of the external environment - better stated elsewhere in this paper - there are the things we do to ourselves, wrong-headedly trying to improve the utility of our waking hours, and maximize the efficiency of our ones in repose.

In the former category, we caffeinate ourselves, oblivious to the physiological effects of this, namely that caffeine generally takes seven hours to clear from the system.  Lingering caffeine in the bloodstream, if it does not keep us bolt upright in bed, will at least alter the wave-pattern of the slow-wave sleep stage, and tends to result, after a few days, in a cumulative sleep-debt.

Apposite to this, we may also try to sedate ourselves, and draw a sharp line in the sand between wide-eyed wakefulness and deep, refreshing hibernation.  Alcohol is often applied to the brain for such purposes, though its effects are surprisingly undesirable, and will sound familiar, I’m sure, to the vast majority of the readership.  While it indeed induces sleepiness by slowing brain function, the sleep experienced under alcohol’s influence actually lacks an REM stage, or contains a significantly reduced one.  Thus, a night spent asleep by the effects of liquor is one without the normal dream-stage, and one spent entirely within the murky, sluggish slow-wave stage.  So while it may incite sleep, whatever function the REM stage serves cannot be realized.  The sleep-cycle unfulfilled, we awake with a head full of clay.

 

The whole subject is interminable, and additionally, its study is so fraught with the peril of the power of suggestion that I fear my audience is already largely quiescent.  As sleep study is such a wide-open science, like its impossible uncle, neuroscience, and its unwelcome aunt, psychology, I will remind the reader that the validity of this essay is subject to change.  Still, nothing aggravates me so much as the prospect of an unexamined existence, and I am all too certain that the lot of you - in the very best case - are thus only 66% satisfactory to me.  And so I am content with this effort, not least because of its capacity to enlighten, but as well, because of its almost certain power to induce the alpha state.

 

ADDENDUM.

ON YAWNING

As I am a tireless student of life, and never bored by the spectacle of existence, I should have scant cause for ever yawning.  But this is not the case.  Frequently, I open my maw and draw in a superhuman breath, just as I see others do, and dogs, and mountain lions, and crocodiles.  The phenomenon was explained to me early as a signal that the brain was in need of oxygen, and that here was a special sort of breath that somehow delivered the surplus.  But experiments in carbon dioxide-rich rooms suggest that yawning is unrelated to oxygen depletion in the brain, and may even be a kind of stress response.

It has been observed among soldiers waiting to make their first parachute jump that they yawn incessantly.  The rationale, if one can be formulated, is that a yawn is a stretch of the lungs, the throat, and the jaw - not to provide any extra oxygen for the brain, but to prepare them for the increased capacity they might require under duress.  Thus, when we try to conceal a yawn by keeping the jaw shut, we tend to think we’ve been short-changed.  If the goal were just oxygen, a shut-jaw yawn oughtn’t to seem so unsatisfactory.

Perhaps, says I, but I have yet to come across a satisfactory explanation for the very real effect of yawn contagion.  (I doubt very much that the reader, even, hasn’t already yawned by the strength of suggestion.) I am offered this by the stress-yawn theorists: we should react to stress preparation in our company by experiencing stress ourselves, just as any member of a pack would react to signs of trouble amongst his associates.  I will take it for now, but I want something better, and soon.  Once again, I just can’t tolerate the thought that my yawning dog isn’t just lolling about carelessly, but is preparing for action.  For my own well-being, I need to believe Rover is care-free.  I want a dual-purpose explanation for the yawn, or I don’t want one at all.  In fact, in a perfect world, I would just let some of these things go on without explanation.

In any case, the reader is wished a good night. 3W

 (home)


 

NOTICES

 

THE VOYAGE OF MS. BONNEY

To compensate for the dearth of reportage received by the editors from their alleged colleagues overseas, it has been decided to send one of their own abroad.  Ms. Bonney sportingly volunteered, and so she departs for Europe on the date of this issue’s publication, and, unless she is afflicted with the same procrastinatory influenza as the rest of our foreign correspondents, she should have a report in by our next number.  Her exact destination upon the Continent has not yet been determined, nor has the duration of her stay.  As with all decisions made in these offices, those will be determined by practicality, pragmatism, necessity, and economy.  Ms. Bonney will also probably lobby for a meager consideration of pleasure, and as she is a persuasive debater, we don’t expect that to be dismissed, either.

As for the condition of those foreign correspondents - those readers who are thorough and who do not doze over our sentences will recall that in the last edition, Mr. Brownejohns reported having received an enveloped from our acquaintance in Berlin, but was too ill to get around to opening it in time for publication.  It is just as well, as the letter contained little of interest to our readers or humanity in general, and was mainly occupied with complaints about the help around the diplomatic mansion, including a cleaning woman (or putzfrau) who had lost her inspiration to do a decent job of mopping in the corners.  Mr. Brownejohns has replied in haste, requesting a report of more philosophical or political substance.  We are assured such a report is pending.

In any case, we know that with Ms. Bonney abroad, at least one studious mind will have America’s ignorance in its sights from beyond the borders.  Cynics abounding around here, we half expect a flood of belated foreign correspondence to arrive, now that we have committed our resources to sending Ms. Bonney out - and so possibly the next issue will contain nothing but reports from around the globe.  As our newly mortal Mr. Brownejohns reminds us, though, this is a dicey business, and we aren’t going to promise you anything.

 

GRATITUDES

Having brought up the subject of Mr. Brownejohns, he has said he would like to express his gratitude to those readers who sent along any type of get-well wishes, in light of his late  illness, as rendered in the last issue.  He is feeling much better, thank you, and is even reconsidering some of his long-held and hard-headed opinions on the general public.  Then again, he reasons, the kind letters hardly came in a deluge, and haven’t come close to outstripping the unkind ones.

But the rest of us are happy to know that we aren’t alone in our tenderness for Mr. Brownejohns, though occasions for its expression are rare.  We shall watch after his health, both for the sake of our jobs, and as our duty to that small sliver of the public that evidently wants him to stay vigorous.

(home)


 

A MORAL OBSERVATION ON LOSING 

Some people, when a few inches away from losing an arm wrestle, will let up the fight, and afterwards perhaps blame an old war injury by way of an excuse.  Others on the same brink of defeat will resist into futility, and then at last throw a fistful of dirt in his opponent’s eye with his other hand.  Both of these types lose; one, though, sees shades of gradation within defeat.

(home)


 

ASTRONAUTICS

 

MESSAGE FROM A SOLITARY TRAVELLER

PIONEER 10 ACKNOWLEDGES US, AND DRIFTS ON

A Bittersweet Ritual at the Wane of the Space Age

by Ephrain Underhill

One or two times a year, for the past five years, the impeccable men of NASA hold what amounts to a latter-Space Age séance, and send an interrogative transmission to the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which is, biologically and bureaucratically, not among the living.  And every time this has occurred, Pioneer 10 has responded, though not so much by levitating the chairman’s table, as merely beeping its beepers, and rattling off a few bits of data in the direction of Earth.

This is remarkable because Pioneer 10 reached its scheduled date of obsolescence five years ago, on March 31, 1997.  And yet, even as you this moment pick at your ears and crease our pages, the thing is adrift, 7,500,000,000 miles from its origin, thirty years past its nascence as a spacecraft.  During its official tenure, Pioneer 10 became the first craft to pass beyond the asteroid belt, the first to make close-range observations of Jupiter, and the first object crafted by the hand of Humanity to leave the area bounded by Pluto, and thus the solar system - in 1983.  Since then, it has continued to drift in the direction of Taurus, its instruments alert, its sensors engaged, and its radio beaming all of its machine-dreams home.  And then came that fateful day in spring, and the Pioneer 10 program was completed. 

Morbidly curious by necessity, the chaps at NASA began their annual querying of the ether, to see whether Pioneer was still out there, and if any of its parts still worked.  And like a memory too fond to be forgotten, Pioneer has always materialized, every year a few hundred million miles more distant, and reporting charged-particle impacts of ever decreasing frequency - a sign that it was departing the Sun’s influence.  As of last spring, and the last time Pioneer 10 could be communicated with, only its Geiger-Tube Telescope and its thermal electricity generator were functioning - enough only to estimate its distance from the Sun, take a particle reading or two, and transmit a weak signal home.  NASA figured Pioneer had finally finished its correspondence with humanity.

As a lark, and I think symptomatic of their profoundly ambivalent relationship to their own creations (is this tough love, or smotheringly affectionate abuse?) NASA sent another signal out this month, and once again, after thirty years adrift in space, and the 22 hours necessary for a light-speed signal to traverse the solar system and return to Earth, Pioneer 10 responded, still quite operative.  Its reply, when translated from the binary ticks of mechanical discourse into human language, was that it was very far from home, and extremely, extremely cold.

This all while the nation, in a paroxysm of understandable grief and unforgivable aliteracy, was commemorating the six month “anniversary” of the September attacks.  The contrast served to point up how little progress we can boast of in our worldly affairs, even while our robotic proxies, built in a more idealistic age, whirl away at undiminished speed into ever greater reaches of space.  Yet Pioneer’s increasing distance is also in perfect proportion to our own departure from that idealistic age.  On Pioneer 10’s body, there is a gold plate, engraved with diagrams of human beings, and mathematical clues of our abilities and our location in space, intended for any unlikely extraterrestrial interceptors who might wonder what type of litter they’re encountering, and who threw it at them.  The optimism of such an act, of pronouncing ourselves to any and all occupants of the universe, now seems itself seven billion miles away.

And more personally, if I might indulge the reader’s inertia, the miraculous posthumous utterance of Pioneer’s sensors struck me as a profoundly sad farewell.  The engineers are overjoyed that their thing has outlasted its warranty, but they ought to feel equally heartbroken that Pioneer 10 is now so forsaken.  It will drift, long after its resilient mechanics are silenced, and is only scheduled to reach the vicinity of the most proximate star, Aldebaran, in two million years.  It is irretrievable, imminently incommunicado, and as it said itself, very far away, and very, very cold - the words of the dying.  

Philosophers of technology will chastise me for anthropomorphizing a machine, and those who have a dim view of the future will say that that will happen in truth soon enough, and we ought to enjoy the uniqueness of our intelligence while we can.  But as a member of the particular species that built and launched Pioneer, I am I think rightfully prone to a sense of propriety and pride, and as with any artisan and his device, I have a faintly irrational attachment, beyond utility.  So I know by Pioneer’s feeble utterance, and by NASA’s typically unequivocal press release, that this might be Pioneer’s last word with Earth, and another step away from that era of hopeful interplanetary wanderlust, which has given way to this one, where our only use for the vastness surrounding our planet is to hold a litter of satellites, doing nothing but reflecting our bad news about ourselves back to ourselves.  The web of communications craft now encircling the Earth is not much more than an unflattering mirror, exacerbating our narcissism, and doing nothing to improve our inborn myopia, which the clunky craft of Pioneer’s generation were meant to correct. 

It is indeed a long argument to only reach a point as wistful as “Alas,” but this is often the only point to be discovered.     3W

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CORRESPONDENCE

 

A LETTER FROM A SYMPATHIZER

A Mr. Tyree Outlines a Broad Theory

As has been said, this paper is not inclined to corral its reader’s minds into the penitentiary of ‘themes’ to simplify the content of our issues, but something near to it has happened all on its own account this time around.  Not only ourselves, but our circle of consociates, seem to have been remarkably preoccupied with the subject of slumber, and so we felt it was right to print this missive from our Mr. Tyree of Astoria, who proposes his own formulation on the effects of sleep and its absence.  Mr. Tyree had been doing quite well for himself - though in which profession we haven’t ever been entirely certain - yet he reports that he now finds himself unemployed, half by circumstance, half by inertia.  Thus it’s proven that the best of us are subject to the same dire machinations of social turmoil as the worst of us.  In any case, it has provided Mr. Tyree time to reflect, and to rest, and so we here present his

 

BRIEF TREATISE UPON SLEEP, OR THE LACK THEREOF

by J.M. Tyree, Esq.,

somniac and idler

To those of us whose recent lack of professional occupation provides enough idle hours for contemplation upon the habits of our fellows, it is manifest that our city, among other ills, presently suffers from a want of sleep.  Those eight hours of rest and dream recommended by the medical scholars are considerably less than the ten or eleven commonly taken prior to the invention of the incandescent light-bulb.  And even those precious eight are all too often slighted, broken, cut into, and otherwise interrupted by an endless variety of familiar aural pollutants, viz., trains, flight paths, traffic, horns, garbage trucks, car alarms, human shouts, beeping clocks, telemarketing, et cetera.  To these must be added, in the case of sensitive individuals, the fact that plain fear, induced by such noises, is often productive of insomnia, frayed nerves, nightmares, and racing thoughts.  Ours is an era of night-time clamors and fitful sleep, such as was formerly experienced only by animals amidst predators, night-watchmen at sea, or soldiers expecting to be startled in their trenches by bombardment or sniper-fire.

Lack of sleep has become so widespread that it may account for an alarmingly high percentage of the most bewildering, baffling, and bizarre aspects of what is commonly called “the culture.”  If this postulation proves correct, insomnia may provide a thread connecting widely disparate phenomena, as well as suggesting an obvious and simple remedy to a not inconsiderable number of the nation’s ills.

Considering that most employers believe a strict adherence to the eight-hour work schedule is of infinitely grave importance - generally without regard to the quality of the employee’s mental acuity or overall state of restfulness or well-being - it can hardly be surprising that inferior, over-hasty, or shoddy workmanship abounds in America.  Inferior customer service, bad data, bungled orders, software bugs, false transit information, security fumbles, garbled news presentations, incoherent company-wide e-mails, co-workers’ memory lapses, irrational outbursts among friends and lovers, inane newspaper columns, typographical errors in apparently reputable periodicals, fact-checking gaffes, and the rambling, repetitive gibberish of our governors and elected officials may all be more deeply connected as manifestations of simple physical exhaustion.

The problem is easily identified in the example of the mass media.  A jobbing columnist, such as the Post’s Mr. Steve Dunleavy, for example, stares down a blank page, contemplating the horror of the void at three in the morning.  His copy is due, but the exhausted man has nothing to say.  The result may be a column like September’s extraordinary “Simply Kill These Bastards,” which calls for the suspension of our prohibitions against assassinating heads of state like Saddam Hussein.  This startling idea, which would result in a worldwide bloodbath if implemented and - were the subjects of his vitriol U.S. citizens, could result in his immediate imprisonment for inciting their murder - is then distributed to millions throughout the city.  Such a flagrant breach of reason and civility strongly suggests that no man, not even a wordsmith of Mr. Dunleavy’s apparent Ciceronian stature, can produce good work to deadlines in a semi-somnambulant condition.  That the Post is obliged to run the thing anyway only testifies that their editors must be similarly sleep-deprived, as are all the other columnists who could not fill in while Mr. Dunleavy recovered his inborn senses.

Another fruitful avenue for the study of insomnia’s effects on public discourse might be an examination of Mr. Bush’s apparent intellectual shortcomings.  Granted, some men are never blessed with natural eloquence.  And whatever gifts he may have originally possessed were gradually eroded by a combination of bad upbringing, a neglect for his education, youthful alcoholism, and an alleged proclivity for inhaled stimulants.  Be that as it may, I propose that his slurred speech, bumbling delivery, sniffling irritable whine, and well-documented grammatical follies may be due more to sleeplessness than any other factor.  Used to part-time work in Texas, Mr. Bush may have been inadequately prepared for the physical rigors of his new job.  In a recent appearance, Mr. Bush used the word ‘evil’ to refer to America’s real and imagined enemies, and he did so fifteen times in a ten-minute speech.  Paranoia and repetition are both classic symptoms of insomnia.  It is eminently plausible that Mr. Bush’s unfortunate aura of sluggishness stems from his being simply too tired to know what he’s saying.

 

A recent visit to the illustrious American Museum of Natural History brought to my attention the existence of a South American tribe indigenous to the basin of the Amazon rainforest.  These ingenuous folks get their living by spearing fish; gathering all the food they need takes two hours a day.  The rest of their time is taken up with leisure, love-making, art, conversation, and cat-naps in hammocks.  Now, I do not wish to sentimentalize an exotic lifestyle that I barely understand, or under-rate my own happy access to life-saving and -prolonging medical technologies and other marvels that make our society so unique.  But in a lucid moment in that museum, I indeed thought I might seriously consider exchanging mosquito repellent, open-heart surgery, a flag on the moon, underarm deodorant, cable television, satellite telephones, photographs of distant galaxies, and the undeniable advances in dentistry, all for a shorter lifetime of two-hour workdays, each well-rested, sharp-eyed.  Barring the advent of that profound decision, the enforced leisure of unemployment will have to do for a temporary retirement into the ambrosial realms of idleness, clear thinking, and blessed mid-afternoon sleep. 3W

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AESTHETICS

 

THE BIENNIAL

and

THE ‘TRIBUTE IN LIGHT’

 

 

THE CITY HOSTS THE PROFOUNDLY DETACHED, AND THE INCONSOLABLY EARNEST

by Henry William Brownejohns

Despite a raft of gloomy developments, and the best efforts of our self-destructive officials to cut short the era of inhabitability upon the Earth, human beings have continued to make things, for naught but the sake of pleasure and subjective significance.  Such trivial industries would seem futile in a climate like today’s, but either the overriding optimism or the irremediable naivete of the race has us all going about it anyway.  Just as no fragile leaves of THREE WEEKS would survive a fiery apocalypse, neither will the cacophonous junk at the Whitney, or the humble doodles in the margins of a bored teenager’s math notebook - but we are people, and the beauty of us is that we must make what we are compelled to make.

For my own part, I am compelled to make this newspaper, both by a sense of purpose (made stronger by the disintegrating humanity observable elsewhere around the world) and by the persuasiveness of my oversized wall-calendar, marked with deadlines and belittling mottoes.

And so I offer the reader a few reflections upon two remarkable displays currently being made in our city, though I shall not offer too many - to do so would to behave too much like a critic, and a critic is a sort we don’t let through our doors.

We know, being well-read sorts, that criticism is one of two things: either the solitary blow-hole of some embittered and illiterate leviathan, or a trivial topic upon which a respectable literary fellow can construct one of his more leisurely essays, without much fear of tarnishing his reputation, or coming upon any themes too weighty for a Sunday afternoon.  The vast majority of the genre is the former, unfortunately.  Here, I shall hopefully practice the latter, and I shall use restraint, lest the reader think I am trying too hard, or care too much.  It is a service upon you that I render, and not much more; I just think you ought to be aware of your surroundings and the goings-on about the town.  As for my opinion of them, that will be impossible to restrain, but for my reputation’s sake, I shall not be too thorough.

 ---

Perhaps the only institution - other than the macadamia nut industry - that maintains a more unconventional schedule than this paper is the high art world, which straddles the boundary between commonness and preciousness by holding its definitive events only every other year - the biennials.  Here in Gotham, which is the only place that really matters to the black-clad, the host of this spectacle is the Whitney Museum, landed off the sidewalk of Madison Avenue like a slab Freemason’s temple by Mies van der Rohe, among stately office buildings.

The Whitney is known as only the latest in New York art museums seemingly designed to make art secondary to architecture, and anyway to make it exhausting to see.  Thus any comment upon the work on display within must be considered against the antagonistic context of the building.  Still, I am pretty sure that the biennial is a mess.

Having been two years ago, though, I can also say that it is a vast improvement; and having been around prior, I can say that whole endeavor is going against a rather impossible current - contemporary art is as thorny as contemporary politics, and seems as unsolvable.  (The argument that contemporary art only suffers from cultural nearsightedness, just as Impressionism did and Cubism after that, is unpersuasive, and presumes that exemplars such as myself are incapable of objective historical and aesthetic judgement.  Well I am not - at least I don’t think so.)

The curation of this biennial is noticeably more stylish than any previous - if nothing else, go and see what cable television will look like in the next two years.  The artists, largely, are younger, and the search is evidently heated for a new thing.  When surveyed, artists to a one speak ill about the biennial, and the Museum in general, though I find they also would unanimously accept an invitation to participate.  All of this offers us sophisticates at least a sense of familiarity in among the predictable galleries - this is stuff we know.

But the art of the generation is quite as guilty of the same crimes as the generation itself.  For one, there is little evidence of what planet any of this material was made on, or what the creatures who did it look like.  (There aren’t any drawings to be found anywhere, which, now that I think on it, there never are - how odd.)  I found myself calling on an awful lot of my own intellectual resources to appreciate any of this work, and don’t think the Whitney galleries would be worth a damn to a Martian on an anthropological expedition.  This is typical of the detachment of the current middle generation, a group of decent enough people who aren’t sure if they’re content or not, and if it were up to them would seemingly rather not be.  The Whitney, actually, has brought together a hundred or so artists who would just as well be invisible, or unconscious.

Along the same lines, most of the work is perched precariously upon its own identification card, which all too often is the only key to comprehension.  It is, I know, terribly old-fashioned to seek instant gratification - pray, even plain beauty - from the walls of an art gallery, but it has always been an effective method of holding my attention, until a deeper meaning may make its way through the skull.  In the Whitney’s sturdy halls, little will attract the eye by its merit, and only the best of the wordy explanations on the curator’s cards will tickle the intellect enough to garner a second, cognizant look.  For the most part, the biennial houses a lot of unimpressive ideas, holding up untenable objects of no particular interest.  In a few gratifying cases, the ideas are good, if only entertaining (as is cable television), and the unattractive work based upon them is redeemed.  And only once or twice is the idea secondary, or equivalent, to the presentation - where aesthetic quality is immediate, and seeping some insight, as ripe art will.  All in all, the biennial will seem an improvement to disgruntled veterans of the Whitney’s lethal little stairwell, but still not a tremendously encouraging sign for the state of the civilization.

 

 ---

 

At this writing, we’ve had about ten days to look at the so-called ‘Tribute in Light’ being beamed from the lower extremity of Manhattan, near the site of the World Trade Center.  So-called, because the project’s original and more logical title, ‘Towers of Light,’ somehow managed to offend the survivors of the tragedy, by implying that we are memorializing the buildings over the occupants.

There is nothing I can write here that won’t be heresy in this climate anyway, so I shall venture boldness: it is the buildings.  There is no shortage of grief for the victims, and there isn’t a Knickerbocker in the boroughs who might forget about the terrible human loss incurred in September; but the public memorial should, rightly, remember the buildings.  We are not so incapable of abstract thought that we forget that buildings are full of people, and the missing towers - beside being a stark visual memory, and a potent symbol of the assault on our city and our civilization - the missing towers are the vessels of the dead.  We will remember the dead when we remember the buildings - that’s their very iconic power that the attackers were attempting to tap in to by destroying them on. 

We are, as human beings, all to one degree or another aware of our mortality.  We know we are not going to live forever, nor are our loved ones.  But in our society we find continuity, and in our children, our neighbors, our customs, and our creations.  Buildings, relative to human life (even in New York), possess a kind of immortality.  Thus to have lost two such monumental ones is to have witnessed the death not only of scores of compatriots, but of their deathless stone-and-steel surrogate.  So I see nothing shameful in mourning the buildings.

The ‘Tribute’ is only due to be lit through April, and then something new will take its place.  Though I have scoured the semantics for hours, and cannot find anything strictly in error, I still find the concept of a temporary memorial somehow obliquely oxymoronic.  In truth, though, it just wouldn’t do to leave it as it is - it is a terribly impractical spectacle.

Perhaps this is crass criteria for art and symbolism, but I stick to it - sculptures that get in the way are less beautiful sculptures; installations which release ear-piercing shrieks will have less appreciators; and statues that reek of musk-ox will find fewer homes in rock gardens.  As such, the ‘Tribute’ is a massive drain on electricity (donated, of course), a punishment to migrating birds and amateur astronomers, and a terrible nuisance to its neighbors, who are already craving the darkness that the nights of May promise.  And we can’t blame them for complaining - the light beams are hardly impressive from so near by.  And though this is a criticism in a sense, it is also a commendation of the metaphor inherent.  That the beams cannot be neared, lest they be lost, is one of their better features.

All in all, the thing is more impressive on paper.  I have seen dozens of photographs of the lights taken from all around the boroughs (their elegance seems to be enhanced by distance, as is Manhattan’s in general - a secret known only to we of the outlands), and I have gone and viewed the ‘Tribute’ from the very spots upon which those snaps were taken, and I cannot see how it was done.  On paper, the lights are blue and bold and broad and true, while to my eyes, they are somewhat wan and pale, and always being troubled by the lousy atmospherics of the city.  High above, they are smudged out on the clouds, when I want them to somehow propel their way through to the sky.  Either the photographers are cheating our perceptions with their variable shutter-speeds and color-enhancing films, or I am looking at the wrong twin beams of light streaking heavenward.

But is it beautiful?  Quite so.  And is it sincere?  Drippingly.  It is a tribute to the buildings, and as much of a mixed blessing as they were.  And it is a salve to the survivors, which is the least they can be offered.  Like so much of the detritus on display eighty blocks North, it could have been done better; but unlike that rarefied uptown display, it is, for a moment, essential.     3W

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TOPICAL VENTILATION

 

A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH SLEEP

AMBIVALENCE IS DESCRIBED AT LENGTH

 

An Essay Likely Penned on Ill Terms with Slumber

 

by Alexander Swartwout

There are the sort of people who resist and deny fatigue as adamantly as if it were a terminal disease, and they keep themselves busy late into every night and worship the dark hours with mystical devotion; and there are also the sort of people who cannot wait to give in to Nod, who succumb to its promises like docile children, and who try beyond all reasonable effort to remain unconscious for as much of the day as possible.  By the beautiful cruelty of Nature and her predilection for balance, the one type usually becomes in short time the other, though they resist the change.

Sleep fetishists, by virtue of their excessive rest, are sentenced to consciousness late into the night, and addicts of wakefulness soon lose their spirit, and doze both night and day, accomplishing nothing.

I happen to belong to neither group exclusively, but to a third, the indefinite mundanity of which convinces me that it includes the vast majority of us.  Between Sleep and myself - as between any irrational beauty and her homely, serious, confused fellow - there is a hot and cold, love/hate relationship.  At its two extremes it is as severe as the permanent condition of either of the types described at the beginning of this essay.

When I give it much thought, as when I would dwell all day on a paramour’s enigmatic words of either chastisement or good-natured teasing, I begin to fill with resentment.  Sleep, I realize, robs from me a full third of my time here on earth.  During the time I am asleep, I am incapable of thought or reaction or the production of frescoes.  Unconscious, I am not worth even what an idle sponge is worth - I am worse, even, as I am wastefully radiating energy off into the universe, and hoarding oxygen that could be put to better use by a conscious poet, or even an industrious dog, turning the soil in the garden in search of his bones. 

But if I do not think about it, and instead allow the infinite other burdens of the world to accumulate behind my eyes, then sleep becomes a sanctuary I cannot reach soon enough.  By lunchtime, I already can’t wait to close my lids and disappear into stupor, and stay there until things improve on their own.  I spend the day cursing the daylight and the alertness that holds me hostage. 

When I am in the first mood - that is, covetous of my time here on earth and spiteful towards sleep’s incessant seduction - I unfailingly lapse into an accidental mid-afternoon doze, and wake before dinner swearing and miserable.  When I am possessed by the second, and sick of thinking and remaining awake, I am invariably abandoned by sleep and must suffer the purgatory of limitless wakefulness.  I resent her when she arrives, I long for her when she will not show.  I am only grateful to my typographical ancestors who devised the grammatical slash so that I can approximate our ambivalent affair.

I see no solution to being human and requiring sleep, other than voluntary recourse to Slumber’s older, sterner matron.  The nature of a fellow’s relationship with her, however, is quite out of the range of this feeble essay, and can surely not so easily be summarized with a single mark of punctuation between two general, unscientific terms.  Therefore I quit here, and rest.     3W

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THE EAVESDROPPER

 

-Did you see what I was doing on the subway?

-Hm?

-I said did you see what I was doing on the subway this time?

-No.  What?

-I wasn’t looking out the window.

-What’s that?

-I wasn’t looking out the window.  I was just sitting normal.

-Oh.

-You remember that I always used to look out the window when I rode the subway.

-Yeah?

-Well now I don’t look out the window.  I just sit normal.   Do you know why?

-Why?

-Cause I’m older.

-You are.

-Yeah.  I don’t need to look out the window anymore, cause I’m older now.3W

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METEOROLOGY

 

THE WEATHER

WHITHER RAIN?

The newspapers tend to fall into habits, as they have the past few months, running nearly daily photographs of the upstate reservoirs, as they now appear boasting their rocks and their muck, and nary but a puddle in the middle.  I am told I must ask for a glass of water from my waiter, or else I can’t expect to get one.  All the signifiers are among us, including downtown seminars on how to make one’s toilet more efficient - a drought is on.

Which is difficult to conceive, for two reasons.  One is that New York has been our home for a good long time, and it is springtime.  This might not seem sensible to a neophyte, but it is perfectly logical.  New York is not an arid place, and spring is not a stingy season.  The mere mention of ‘April’ makes my skin damp with cold, by the power of suggestion, or the force of habit - I’m unsure which exactly.  So to be persuaded that it has not rained, is not raining, and will not rain, and that the water is low and the earth is parched, I must first overcome a lifetime of conditioning, and remember that ‘April showers bring May flowers’ is not quite E=mc2, but more ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’

The second reason drought is difficult to conceive is that it just rained.  A whole day, big drops all morning, tiny misty droplets suspended in the air all night.  I do not need the meteorologists to tell me that single day’s rain isn’t enough to compensate for six months of dry weather, but it isn’t an intellectual question, it is an instinctual one.  For some reason, rainy days are more significant.  One rainy day is more memorable than five sun-blanched ones, and it is probably that very uniqueness that sets it off.  But when a waiter, responding to my impatient spoon-tapping, finger-snapping, finger-pointing demand for water, reminded me there was a drought on, I still thought, Well but it rained just the other day.

It will turn out, I imagine, to be a common theme in these pages, how ill-prepared our instincts are to function in the natural world.  Left to our raw wits, we would shower ourselves until the  rivers ran dry; we would eat ourselves to the roots of the trees; and we would strangle the ecology beneath the stilts of our beachfront homes, if first we weren’t plunged into the depths by the tide.

Drought, in such a removed-from-Nature society as ours, is an almost impossible concept to translate.  The newspaper photographs of the exposed reservoir beds, being run as often and as repetitively as they are, are surely meant to address that, but they only make it that much more remote, by losing our interest through redundancy.  There is, after all, water in all of our taps; every flush does its work; and though we might have to ask, the waiters still bring it, begrudgingly, gratis.  Indeed, our metropolis is still just shy of an emergency, but there must be some way to sting every individual with the real barbs of Nature.

Just as the gaping maw of the ozone layer will singe each of our hides, and bring home to us the distant fact of atmospheric disintegration; and just as the saltwater tides lapping at our inland doorstep will soon confirm to every soul the faraway reality of slushy arctic climates; so too should the water shortage find some way to parch every throat, just a little, and put us back in touch with the petty moods of Nature.  I propose that valves be installed on every household faucet, equipped with some kind of randomizer, like the spinning barrel of a revolver in a game of Russian roulette.  As drought conditions worsen, each of these valves should be activated to a proportionate degree of chance, so that the thirsty consumer only has a one in three, or one in four, or one in five chance of actually getting a stream.  With the worsening state of the reservoirs, each of our precious showers would become, probabilistically, all the more precious.  Families might gather in their kitchens, all equipped with empty glasses, hoping that this time, daddy might tap the well, and the liquid will flow.

Needless to say, I shall not participate in such a society, but I would deeply admire their desire to be touched by Nature’s every whim. Elza. Anne Bonney

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