Lewis Carroll did almost everything brilliantly, except sleep, and for his insomnia he devised several "entertainments for the wakeful hours," which are soon to be published as "Lewis Carroll's Bedside Book," a collection of puzzles, acrostics and riddles. These games, said Carroll, saved him from "the fruitless self-torture of going through some worrying topic, over and over again." And, believing that "an hour of calculation is much better than half-an-hour of worry," he invented such conundrums as "The Pig": "Place 24 pigs in four sties so that, as you go round and round, you may always find the number in each sty nearer to 10 than the number in the last." For Carroll, who was both a mathematician and clergyman, that was a problem.
For the rest of us, however, there are other kinds of problems for the wakeful hours. And with all due respect, I suggest it is precisely those topics of fruitless self-torture that offer the very best uses for the insomnious mind. At no time other than night and in no position other than prone, is the mind so wonderfully fuzzy and unreasonable. Why waste those hours with 24 pigs, or hundreds of sheep, when the monsters of torment and neurosis are waiting in hordes of millions for your quavering sign?
Here, then, are some different ideas on what to do when sleep comes hard:
1) Things You Should Never Have Said. Make a mental list of things you have said during your life that have had permanent damaging consequences in your relationships. Reconstruct the situations where you said those things; and work your way back to a point where -- had you but thought the better of it -- you could have changed the subject and sailed through the conversation. Then recollect, in slow detail, exactly how you blundered, recalling every feature of your listener's expression, and your own electric charge of mortification when you realized your mistake. When you've finished with adults, go over the things you never should have said to children.
2) Consider Artie. Or someone like Artie, the boy to whom I lost $20 in gin rummy in summer camp in upstate New York, 19 years ago last month. I never paid Artie the $20, dismissing it at the time as a mere gambling debt, unworthy of moral regret; and so for the past 19 years, I have only thought of it, say, a thousand times -- of Artie trying to buy a false passport in Russia, being $20 shy, or of Artie's family held hostage by Hell's Angels for guess-how-much. Do you have an Artie in your life?
3) Assess Your Financial Worth. Estimate the resale value of your property: hammock, car, TV, andirons, wooden labyrinth game, home darkroom set, electric sander, Mr. Coffee. Then add up all your current bills, including mortgage and charge cards. To this add future bills -- children's clothes, college tuition, dental -- allowing for the rate of inflation and the likelihood that you've earned your last promotion. Subtract the second set of figures from the first. Repeat twice, to ensure accuracy.
4) Try to Recollect a Name From the Past. Begin with historical names, such as Mme. Pandit's. Then zero in on names from your personal past, such as the name of that boy or girl you danced with just once at the prom, the one who looked in your eyes as if they were the treasure of Sierra Madre. Do you think he/she could still be living in your home town, looking just the same, only better? In the morning, why don't you leaf through that yearbook, and see if you can find his/her photo? Maybe you should give him/her a call. That's a good idea.
5) Write a Novel or a Song, and Start Right Now.
6) Dwell on a Physical Ailment. Such as the bump on your left thigh that the doctor coolly diagnosed as a cyst, although he turned away awfully abruptly for someone who had merely said "cyst." Or the rapid breathing at the head of the stairs -- what about that? You were never really strong. Was there not always an extra touch of alarm in mother's voice when you went out in the snow? Where are your medical records, anyway? Lou Gherig felt like a million, right to the end. And that bump. There it is. Larger. Definitely larger.
7) Is Someone Talking About You? Better still: Is someone plotting against you? You know who it's likely to be, but it also might be someone you least suspect -- he who, now that you think of it, has the most to gain by your collapse, although, of course, he has always acted as your dearest friend, concerned only for your welfare, which, naturally, should have been the clue to his perfidy all along, for who but a rat like that would have gone to such lengths to proffer friendship, when he was really scheming to do you in. But you're on to him now, so it's all right. All you need is a good night's sleep to prepare for the battle!
A good night's sleep . . .