Sleepwalking, yoga, Bach, Schlosser on the nuclear precipice, and Spiegelman’s Maus

by Rob Tiller

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So I apparently had another bizarre sleepwalking experience. After what seemed like a normal night’s sleep, I got up to find several unusual things. There were two wine glasses full of beer on the coffee table – one sitting on top of my laptop. There was a bowl with popcorn kernels, and a lot of popcorn on the floor. In the kitchen, the light on the stove hood vent was on, and the microwave popcorn wrappers were strewn about.

My first thought was that we’d had a break in, but the various quasi-valuable things in the vicinity were still around, and the door was locked from inside. That left just two possibilities – Sally and me. When she got up, she verified she had not knowingly done any of this eating and drinking.

From my prior somnambulism, I figured it had to be me. But I had absolutely no recollection of any such activity. And I would never, ever put beer in a wine glass – or worse, set the glass on my computer! And I did not know exactly how to operate the light on the stove hood, which I never use.

It is very strange to think of such complex activity happening without any consciousness whatever. Eating and drinking without meaning to is bad, but it could get worse. Is there any safety module that keeps the sleepwalker from going over the balcony rail? And falling twelve stories?
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In the last few days, I’ve taken note of various waking automatic behaviors and strange forgetful episodes. I expect everyone has some. Did I take that pill already or not? I parked that car, but where? My foot is bouncing up and down, which I did not tell it to do. Sally had a good one: she couldn’t find the pomegranate juice, and looked high and low, before realizing she’d already gotten it out of the refrigerator.

So a lot of our behavior is taking place without our consciously knowing anything about it. This is at times surely a good thing, allowing us to save mental energy for where it’s most needed. Cultivating good habits is partly an accommodation to the reality that there’s just not enough time or energy to think about every behavior. We choose a template that we think is likely to be effective in different future situations and repeat it until it is automatic.

But still, sleepwalking is pretty weird.

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Some yoga

The weather for most of this week was unseasonably warm and sunny, but it turned cold and rainy for the weekend. So no golf, but I did get in two yoga classes. On Saturday morning Suzanne filled in for Yvonne at Blue Lotus, and led an hour-long open level vinyasa class. She kept things flowing pretty fast, which I like, and I did a reasonable amount of sweating.

On Sunday morning, based on the recommendation of Larisa (my personal trainer), I tried a class with Hayley at Evolve. Her style involved holding poses for longer, which was challenging. When she said we’re going to do hand stands, I was surprised, but game. I managed to kick up and stay up for a while against the wall. Then Larisa asked Hayley to give me some pointers, and I had another go and managed to have a fairly spectacular crash. But I learned something: Hayley theorized that I got a little surprised when I touched the wall and let my elbow bend. Onward and upward.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

On Saturday night we had a fine Italian dinner a Caffe Luna, then went to a performance of the N.C. Symphony and the N.C. Master Chorale of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I was not familiar with the piece, but liked it very much. The chorus sounded great in some very challenging choral writing. The four soloists had pleasing voices and style, and the orchestra played well. Our friend trumpeter Paul Randall had a very high and prominent part in the last cantata, and shined.

My only complaint was conductor Grant Llewellyn seemed overly metronomic — without much rhythmic flexibility. I guess that’s one way to do it, but it seemed to me Bach would have liked more expression. We went out for a drink with Paul and a couple of his colleagues afterwards. It was interesting hearing the younger musicians talk about the intense challenges of auditioning for orchestra jobs.

Command and Control — the Nuclear Weapons Precipice

Speaking again of sleeping problems, for several nights recently I had anxiety dreams, inspired, I think, by reading Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion o Safety, by Eric Schlosser. The headline is: for decades we lived frighteningly close to the edge of an accidental nuclear disaster. A hydrogen bomb could have exploded in any of numerous training or maintenance accidents, while the huge arsenal of missiles could have been unleashed through computer error or human misjudgment.

In the final chapter Schlosser indicates that the risk of an accidental explosion from a US weapon has gone down, but it may have gone up in countries like Pakistan and India. And we’ve still got the irreducible human factor – that is, imperfect humans are in charge of these incredibly destructive weapons, and they could make a bad decision that could cost thousands or millions of lives.

Even before reading the book, I was generally of the view that it is insane to build, maintain, and keep on alert nuclear weapons capable of destroying many millions of innocent civilians and much of the planetary ecosystem – ending, as they say, life as we know it. This was true in the cold war, but even more so now, when there is no existential military threat. Why would any rational person or society do such a thing? After reading the book, and learning more about the theories of nuclear war and the practical engineering problems of the weapons, it seems even crazier.

How can it be that de-nuclearization is not a high priority issue in national and world politics? Of course, we do much hand wringing about Iran’s potential for a nuclear weapon, which makes it even odder that we somehow mostly avoid discussing our own weapons and their disastrous potential. It’s like we’re sleepwalking. Perhaps Schlosser’s book will help us start to wake up.


On a cheerier note (ha!), I started reading Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel masterpiece about the Holocaust. It’s in part about Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, who was concentration camp survivor. The early pages are about his life in pre-war Poland, first as a bachelor and then meeting Spiegelman’s mother. It’s surprisingly sweet, but also direct and honest, and remarkably vivid. I’ve never read anything remotely like it, and I really like it.