10. Enemies of Sleep

October 2020

Three more days until the election, and it feels like holding your breath until you’re dizzy. I try to do my work, but I’m mostly wandering in the weeds of polling websites, studying color-coded maps that look like half the nation is burning and the other half is freezing. I compulsively refresh the numbers from Pennsylvania and Arizona, hunting for revelation. The data looks encouraging. Maybe we'll put an end to this sorry chapter when we let a vicious clown take the wheel. It’s an awful feeling, being afraid to hope. But I’ve relied on pessimism as a protective measure for too long.

On Election Day, I’ll report to a middle school at five o’clock in the morning to help set up the machines. I’ve been trying to reverse my night owl nature. It's not going well. But I managed to see the sunrise the other day. For a moment, I briefly understood the pluck of morning people, the wholesome quality they achieve when they advertise waking up at dawn. Then I took a nap. I’m no longer kidding myself. Accepting that I’m nocturnal in my bones brings the same relief as walking away from a bad party. I’ll probably pull an all-nighter.

So this is dedicated to the nighthawks and enemies of sleep. Strange, how staying awake past midnight feels like rejecting the premise of wholesome citizenship. Thought leaders and self-improvers love to crow about waking up at six o'clock in the morning; nobody brags about waking up at ten. There's a moral dimension here that must be destroyed. Recent sleep studies suggest our circadian rhythms are deeply ingrained, that the “night owl gene” plays a critical role in the survival of animals that live in groups. These species fare better when some members watch over the others at night, protecting them from predators, a trait that has persisted from the ice and stone ages through these days of neon and sodium lights. I think of the “sentinel hypothesis” as a love poem to the long-haul truckers and security guards, the swing-shift nurses and factory workers, the insomniac writers and music-makers. We are proud descendants of the honorable night watchman.

Here in New York, it's been damp and gloomy. Deep autumn is finally here. I went for a rainy run, pausing on an empty street to admire how the skyscrapers vanished in the fog. The grey light and spectral towers reminded me of an afternoon in Michigan, maybe ten years ago. It was the last time I saw my grandfather. I picked him up from the nursing home to see the old sights, the family plot at the cemetery and the little harbor where the Reeves once had a fishery. We drove through the flat soybean fields that stretched toward Saginaw Bay, a blank line of road I'd known since childhood. But now wind turbines straddled the fields, alien sculptures that left me feeling futuristic and a little uneasy. “Sometimes I think they are graceful like ballerinas,” he said as we drove. “Other times, I think they are wicked.”

This unexpected moment of lyricism from my grandfather has been looping in my head lately. How wildly our perception can change depending on our mood or maybe just a shift in the light.

C. and I rode the train to Green-Wood Cemetery, where we’re planning a project in its beautiful Gothic chapel that was designed by the architects who built Grand Central Station. We switched off the chandelier and watched the pools of stained glass light that glittered on the limestone floor. For a moment, I felt as if I was standing outside of time. Because it's such a rare quality these days: silence.

  • C. and I finished our book about Light the Barricades, a public installation that spanned four sites across Los Angeles in 2019. These electrified shrines served as spaces for contemplating the psychological barriers in our lives and collected over 3,000 handwritten reflections from visitors. This book collects hundreds of these responses, and it also includes the fables that appeared on the installations, an introduction to the I Ching, and notes on ritual in public life.

  • Light the Barricades was recently featured in Forward, a new publication by Forecast Public Art about the psychosocial possibilities of public art.

  • A friend sent me an article about a helmet you can buy that creates its own microclimate of filtered, customized air. It reminded me to rewatch Safe, Todd Haynes's 1995 film about a woman who becomes allergic to the modern world and maybe her life. She develops nosebleeds and has seizures. She blames the polluted air and the chemicals in the carpet. After joining a hermetic community in a "toxin-free zone" somewhere in New Mexico, she listens to their charismatic leader give speeches about cultural illness. They stop reading the papers and watching the news—not to protect their minds, but their immune systems. Everything is poison. She lives in a spare room like a prison cell, safe at last. Strange how the desire to flee the world is so deeply associated with cult logic; it's difficult to tell which way of living is more irrational. (It’s also oddly reassuring to remember that 1995 believed the modern world was poisonous. So did 1895. “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things," said the designer William Morris, “the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”)

  • “The television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye,” says Professor O'Blivion in Videodrome. “Therefore, the television is part of the physical structure in the brain.” David Cronenberg's 1983 film is a fever dream that's tough to shake, and it's impossible to watch without mapping it onto today's internet. How it has colonized our minds, steadily rewiring the real world until every snapshot, thought, and interaction conforms to its logic. Would it be possible to update Videodrome for the digital age? Television is unidirectional and, in the end, it's an object in the room. But how do you make art out of something as omnipresent as air? It feels like trying to critique the sky.

  • C. and I returned to the museum the other day. The pilgrimage to inspect a painting or ancient relic is inherently ritualistic, and it felt even more so as we stood before statues, scrolls, and gelatin prints in hushed galleries with masks covering our mouths. I'm always captivated by Louise Nevelson's monuments built from pieces of furniture painted black. They remind me of childhood, conjuring dim memories of playing among the legs of tables and dressers, of my first intimations of death. It's a specific feeling that I cannot quite connect to words, and perhaps this is why her work moves and reassures me. More and more, I admire this quote from her: “I have made my world, and it is a much better world than I ever saw outside.”