The Sleep of Sharks

I stopped writing in this blog seven months ago when I got sick.

I got better in a few weeks, but somehow I just couldn’t get back into the discipline of writing, at least in a form that others might read. I did keep writing, but in my journal, for myself. (Of course, this distinction in readerships existed only in my mind. Most of the people who get to this site have come for the image of Bacon’s Crucifixion that I included in my post The Circus Comes to Exarchia)

I was talking to Dieter about this and he told me that blogs are like sharks. I had heard this once myself but about software and relationships and possibly even stirring polenta, actually anything, I suppose, whose success or very existence relies on continual movement, development or growth. Stop moving, and you asphyxiate or drown or whatever it is that happens to you when you’re a shark and you stop swimming and oxygenated water is no longer swooshing over your gills. Likewise, so the saying goes, you stop writing, and the blog dies. Which more or less happened. And the longer I stayed away, the more monumental the task of posting an entry seemed. The blog wasn’t completely dead, of course—folks still came by for the Bacon painting, which apparently keeps appearing in the Google search results, like a listing in an out-of-date guidebook for a restaurant in a now desolate neighborhood whose prior residents have long moved out. But I had lost the habit of writing for the blog, the daily askesis of shaping a text out of the images and scraps of conversation and experience I recorded in my notebook.

Out of shape and out of my element, just as when I started swimming again (literally, I mean). The first few times in the pool the water felt almost viscous. I just couldn’t get comfortable in the water and had to content myself with paddling along like a duck on phenobarbitol. “Use it or lose it”, I discovered, isn’t true just for cardiovascular fitness. I realized it was true for the blog. Maybe it’s also true for sex. Though Greeks would say, trogontas erxetai i orexi, appetite will come when you start eating again. Or as Dieter put it, “Just hook onto something and start writing, even if you think it won’t lead anywhere.”

One thing that puzzled me about these sharks swimming for their lives was how they slept. I asked Dieter about this. I guess I could just as easily have looked it up, but I figured he’d know, since it was the kind of question one of his fifth-grade students might have asked, and anyway we were talking about my disappearance from the blogosphere so it seemed apropos. “So how do sharks sleep if they’re always swimming?”

“Maybe the same way dolphins swim and sleep,” he replied.

I waited a few seconds for him to finish his explanation, but none was forthcoming. “Ok, that’s not terribly enlightening,” I said.

“Oh, you know, one cerebral hemisphere at a time.” He said it in a way that implied that this was something that even his students would know.

I thought this one hemisphere sleeping thing was a marvelous idea and I was peeved with nature for having gypped us on this. It would certainly work wonders for my insomnia, because while I was tossing and turning, trying to get to sleep and getting all anxious about not sleeping and worrying about how I was going to get through the next day with only four, oh three and a half, no three, hours of sleep, I would actually be sleeping, or half of my brain would. And as every fifth grader knows, one-half of something is more than zero. Unless the something is chlamydia or a kidney stone.

“Or, wait,” Dieter said, “Then there’s this shark, what’s it called, you know, the one that swims with its spinal cord?”

“You seriously don’t expect me to know that, do you?” I said.

“It’s… ach, you know this shark… They use it in fish and chips sometimes,” he said, somewhat impatient with my thick-headedness with matters zoological.

“I’m not English and I never eat fish and chips,” I reminded him.

“Ach, es liegt mir auf der Zunge!” Dieter would lapse back into German when he was frustrated or excited or (thinking back to the days when this was still possible between the two of us) horny. But he never used German when he was angry. Once when I asked him why, he said he didn’t want to turn his language and anger into a weapon, and besides, getting angry in English meant he wouldn’t say things he’d later regret.

“Dornhai!” he exclaimed. I looked up the English equivalent for this later to discover it’s spiny dogfish. Which was also an unknown word for me. “Their spinal cords coordinate the swimming, not the brain. So the brain can go to sleep.”

“Doesn’t it need to look where it’s swimming to?” I asked.

“It’s the ocean, Stefan! What is it going to run into?” he said, again with that das-weiß-doch-jedes-Kind fifth-grade teacher tone of voice. I could have said a reef or another shark or an offshore drilling platform but instead asked him about his recent vacation with his nephew on the North Sea coast. (He and I are trekking along parallel paths of discovering our inner father, me with my godson and he with his nephew.) What I really should have done, though, was to thank him for getting me unstuck.


Image: Magritte, Man from the Sea, 1927



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