the octopus

Karyn told me that my sleeping is uneasy, that I imitate our dog. I have this thing where my legs will twitch; it comes and goes. But this time she said it’s different; it’s like when the dog is having a dream that he’s chasing a ball or running after a bird or something. I’m doing the same thing, moving my legs, frantically, methodically, chasing something I can’t catch.

Strangely, it’s actually reassuring to hear this.

Lately I’ve been exhausted. I haven’t been getting huge amounts of sleep, but I’ve certainly had less. Moreover, I’d been able to sleep in over the holidays, yet I still look at bloodshot eyes and a creased brow in the mirror. I don’t feel sleepy, but my body seems to feel tired, spent, wrecked. I can’t understand why, or I couldn’t understand why. Now, though, knowing that I’m running around in my bed all night long . . . well that might explain something.

But now the question is: What the fuck? Really. Who moves around so restlessly in his sleep that he gets out of bed and is still feeling like he’s ready to fall over? And why? Am I chasing a frisbee?

Before Karyn told me that I slept like our dreaming dog, I was beginning to think that either I was ill, chronically depressed, or so completely over-exerted that I couldn’t even evaluate the over-exertion. The latter actually seems the most reasonable, but:

  1. It’s not like I haven’t done this (“this” to be explained below) before.
  2. There are people around me who are recovering from heart surgery, taking on extra classes because of others dealing with heart surgery, or are married to me (i.e., have to deal with me, which must be more stressful than actually being me). These people work at least as hard and long and stressfully as I do. They seem fine, mostly. At least their eyes aren’t bloodshot as far as I can tell.
  3. I have one of the best jobs in the world, I’m sure. And, I’m not hungry, cold, sick, or otherwise put out. I’m in pretty good shape. My biggest problem is that my shoulder hurts and, well, the sleeping-like-a-running-dog thing. In the big context, that’s not so bad.

Okay, then. So why is it that when -S walks by my office she has to ask, “You okay, there, Dr. Johnston?” It’s a happy, whimsical question, but it undoubtedly comes from the crease in my brow and a perhaps a pained look on my face. I don’t mean to make such a face, it just happens sometimes.

So here’s my running hypothesis. I think I’m a metaphorical octopus. The variety and breadth of things going on just happens to be such that I can’t think of any two things at the same time, but I have to hold on to all eight things with eight tentacles simultaneously. I really, honestly, picture myself as a slimy cephalopod, each tentacle holding onto a piece of fine china that’s otherwise bound for the floor and the resulting shattering into pieces. One plate is classes, the other a retreat I’m organizing, another a meeting I go to to fill for the person who isn’t going to work here next year so I want and need to go; there’s a fine teacup that is the consultation with the New York Times reporter which was delightfully fun; and there’s the dessert plate that is the project investigating students’ understanding of science as an institution versus science as a human endeavor and the extra seminar that we scheduled for Friday afternoon; and there’s . . . .well, frankly, there’s more. And, no, it’s not too much. But each of these things requires a different tentacle.

When I was finishing my dissertation I was also teaching, full time. It was exhausting. It was amazing. It was hard. It was so easy. I remember, so vividly, writing that last chapter. It was such a wonderful, gratifying, fulfilling “moment.” I say “moment” because it just happened. It was a short chapter, but it was a summary of the other 300 pages of that beast, and it just wrote itself. It took a second or an hour or a moment or it just became, borne out of the ether. I wrote it in a closet of an office on a makeshift desk that was really an old lab table on an old hand-me-down-piece-of-shit-computer and it was beautiful. I couldn’t do that now, honestly. I could sit there in the closet office and I would sit and stare; and not because I didn’t have the material to write or the time or the energy but because I couldn’t spare the tentacle to do the typing.

I’m starting to realize that I have to organize my days so that I can think more clearly about one thing at a time, check it off, move on. Part of the challenge is simply a part of the job, but I’ve complicated it by having two different roles; and then last Saturday I was extending my week doing another workshop for teachers. And then there’s the colleague who’s losing her job so we fill in the balance because we can’t let that plate shatter on the floor. And then there’s the other things that should be done because who else is going to do them? I need to visit the student teachers. I need to visit the schools. And I need to plan that retreat. There was an NSF grant that got submitted last Thursday. There’s other stuff with the State Office of Education to make sure is kept track of. And then there’s the classes. None of these are too much. I just am not used to having quite this many appendages. I’ll get better. I promise I’ll figure out the printing problem in the first semester lab.

I haven’t heard about England. I’m not going to ask until I have a free channel in my psyche.

This is all to say that I’ve figured out what I’m doing in my sleep. As best as I can imagine, without my consciousness taking any part in any of it, I’m not running like my dog, but instead I’m reaching out to grab those metaphorical plates falling from shelves. Each tentacle holds to each one, with zeal and some faith that those little suction cups will hold tight while I flail another tentacle to grab the proposal I need to put some work into, and perhaps there has to be a quick juggling act of another tentacle as I make sure we have a seminar series lined up. It’s all doable. People around here help me grab some of these falling objects or sweep up pieces. (Thanks.) And, it is strangely comforting to imagine that my dreamless sleep is actually filled with some other world of being an octopus.

Or maybe a dog chasing frisbees.


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