KR OnlineFiction

The Conservation of Sleep

After dinner remarks:

Rather than outline and delineate our extensive research methods over the past who knows how many years, let me just start with the results, startling as they may be, and I don’t mean to ruin an otherwise perfectly satisfactory dinner with startling results, or startling anything. I’m not here to startle you, but I need to say to those of you who are susceptible to being startled, get a grip because we need to tell you some news about sleep.

Well, I will say, we did exhaustive research in the great sleeperies across this country in other places, maybe some foreign countries. It was hard to tell because it was dark. I know we were in Utah for a while. We used the most modern scientific methodology as well as computers, Bunsen burners, and two big sets of calipers. I mean we looked in windows at people while they were sleeping. We also watched some people who claimed to be awake. Anyway, the results are in.

Here it is: there is only a finite amount of sleep available to the residents of planet Earth and this includes all the big mammals, reptiles, human beings, marsupials, birds, and insects, though most of the bugs we studied did not sleep that much. All of the creatures on the Earth must share this one supply of sleep. Our findings are surprising, I know, and they have implications for everyone in this room.

We looked into how this sleep supply is distributed. Do you see? We had no idea when we started this project, and we started this project because we, frankly, were tired and we needed more sleep. We weren’t sleeping too well and we wanted to know why. Everyone we met was a little cranky and we knew it wasn’t just the weather. We thought we would look in the windows at the people who were sleeping, sleeping so beautifully there that they didn’t even care who was looking in the window at them in their pure state, some of them snoring, some of them dreaming, we guessed. Some of our research was guesswork; who doesn’t make a guess from time to time and go from there?

But slowly it dawned on us. Dawn is a verb. Things can dawn on you. It certainly dawned on us that when some creatures went to sleep, other creatures were forced to wake up, and vice versa and vice versa and like that. It was a groundbreaking discovery, whatever that means. We’d found out something new.

For one thing, we watched a lot of babies. Now babies are a special case, as we all know. Let’s be frank just to save a little time here: babies are sleep pigs. They’re hogging a lot of sleep all the time. We watched them until our foreheads against the glass window went numb, and what we saw were babies sleeping. Night and day. We didn’t understand the consequences of this until we held a few of the babies up close. This was empirical research. And face it, there is nothing as empirical as a baby in your arms; it is an empirical fact and makes you feel empirical. It did us.

We held the babies and we listened to them. We put our empirical ears right up next to the baby’s mouth and what we heard was astonishing, though that is not a word we used in our report. The word we used was this phrase: groundbreaking, whatever that means. What we heard, faintly in each breath, was a friction noise we recognized, but we could not place at first. Ah-ha. Then we put that sound into the computer and we found the match for it. These are some computers. The match for the baby’s breath is the sound of a double semitrailer motoring across the dark prairie of Wyoming on I-80 any midnight. Stand off on a hill among the sage and the few grazing antelope, which also are awake at that hour, and listen: you will hear the baby’s breath. These babies were using the truck drivers’ sleep!

And then we watched the truck drivers closely, riding in the big rigs as they hauled lumber east on I-84, and by using the most modern methods of communications including cell phones and facial expressions, we saw that when these kings of the highway pulled over into Betty’s Macro Gas and Go Truck Stop and Internet Café and fell instantly asleep over the wheel of their Big Rig, a baby, cozy as cucumber on the vine (I’m using scientific terminology here) woke up and started crying! She was crying—we see now—because she had been boosted out of her nest by some truck driver as tired as you get to be. You’d cry too if some guy in dirty jeans and a chain on his wallet came into your room and pulled you out of bed so he could lie down. But, this is the way, we determined, that sleep works.

Further studies revealed mind-boggling parallels. We weren’t originally going to use the word mind-boggling in our report, but then we looked closely at each other and the way we had been behaving, and it went right back in. Our minds have been, believe me, boggled.

We found blackjack dealers in Reno coming home at 7:00 a.m. and going to sleep at 8:00 so that nursing students in New Jersey could get up and get to class. We found paperboys in Opelika, Alabama, getting out of bed at 4:00 a.m. so that hooligans (again a technical term) at a bachelor party in Bangor, Maine, could crash out. We found long-distance pilots for FedEx who stayed up an extra two hours on flights from Anchorage to Chicago who were preventing some folks in the Holiday Inn outside of Dayton from waking up in time for their bus to the Wright Brothers Museum.


It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? When you woke up this morning, who fell asleep?

In my case, I know. I’m wired and attached at all times to important and intricate spectrographs and things like that, including one toe sensor and an electronic tattoo, and so we know that the guy who was sweeping the back terrace of the Taj Mahal, which as you know was a wedding present so long ago, this guy gets back there in the cool shade after a long day sweeping and wiping things down, keeping the place clean, and he sits down and he nods off, so I instantly opened my eyes. I was a little groggy, but OK, I thought, and I got out of bed. Then later this morning I was in the dry cleaners picking up the beautiful yellow curtains from the research center lounge. They really add a nice touch, so bright with a nifty pattern of ducks and geese. We sit in there and have coffee when we need to wake up. Anyway, I had my wallet out and wham, I’m out like a light, face first in the curtains, and snoring like a chainsaw. Our research shows that the sweeper at the Taj Mahal woke up and found his broom and headed for home. Meanwhile, there I am crushing our beautiful curtains looking up into the face of Captain Horatio Henderson, a big EMT with a moustache for the record books.

So why have I come here with this groundbreaking report, whatever that means?  Why? Well, we wanted to disseminate our findings. We considered a vanity press, but really, who has that kind of money. And as for online publications, you put “sleep” in the title and it’s a slippery slope, all of a sudden you’re looking at the wicked girls gone wild in Sleep House 3000, and who needs to see that.

Besides, I wanted to stop by tonight, before my trip over to the Taj Mahal, and offer a practical word. Well, it’s just fine to do pure research, but where does it apply? How can we use it in our lives? Alfred Tupper found a way. He just didn’t invent rubberized dishes that you sat around all day burping. You put that lid on and it keeps the lettuce fresh. How could our exhausting research and our empirical findings and all the darn groundbreaking we did, have any use to you?

This way. Pay attention tonight. It’ll be a few hours from now, but you’ll be home from this fine dinner by then scratching your belly, looking in the fridge wondering why that piece of salmon at our fancy dinner wasn’t just a little bigger, and you need to know the following. You’ll be getting ready for bed, for sleep, and I’ll just tell you right out: don’t stay up late watching television or looking for the cat or laying out your wardrobe, such as it is, for tomorrow. Get in the bed. Just get in. Our research has shown us there is a group of about 190 people, men and women, who need to get up soon. They’re sleeping deeply right now, but they need to get up and finish setting up the temporary seating for the grand opening of the bridge over Two Rivers in central China. They’re almost set, but they need to staple the bunting on the speakers’ platform and they need to stretch the big red ribbon across the span, and it’s going to take four of them to carry those giant scissors. I hope they don’t run. But they are going to need to be awake.

So you get to sleep. There’s no need to dream about the Bridge. It’s a good bridge and will only lead to greater commerce and understanding. When they cut that ribbon you need to be sawing logs.

Ron Carlson is the author of six story collections and six novels, and his fiction has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Harper's, and many other magazines and journals. He is the director of the Graduate Program in Fiction at the University of California, Irvine, and lives in Huntington Beach, CA. Photo credit: UCI Communications Bureau/Christine Byrd.