The giant fork

A giant forkYou'll have to read down to the last story in this collection to find out why this entry is illustrated with a picture of a fork.

Sleeping in my bed as a child one summer evening, I woke up (sort of) to find my legs paralyzed. In a half awake state, I found this disconcerting, but I actually wasn't sure if I was awake, or was dreaming. What was going on?

I now know that there is a phenomenon called "Sleep Paralysis", defined as, "... a period of inability to perform voluntary movements either at sleep onset (called hypnogogic or predormital form) or upon awakening (called hypnopompic or postdormital form). Note 1  But as I became more awake, I started to perceive the problem as a substantial weight pressing down on my ankles and lower legs. Then, I began to hear a purring sound. "Oh", I thought, "it's only the cat, sleeping on my legs."

As I awoke further and reflected on this, I thought to myself, "But we don't have a cat." With a bit of effort, I kicked my legs, and heard an annoyed "meow" as, in the dim light, a large cat jumped off the bed, and dashed out the open window. Apparently, a neighbor's cat had come in my window, and decided to go to sleep on my legs.

Sleep is an odd thing, if you think about it. From an evolutionary perspective, it's particularly curious, because a sleeping animal is highly vulnerable. While sleep may have some advantages, such as slowing down an animal's metabolism during periods of inactivity, overall, it seems like a rather dangerous state to be in. There are lots of thoughts on this - a Google search on the terms "evolution" and "sleep" (without the quotes) produces over seven million hits. Somehow, evolution does not seem to be able to produce a brain that doesn't need sleep. A sleep-like state seems to exist even in roundworms. Note 2

In the very early hours of the morning on Friday, July 4, 1969, I again half woke up, suffering a wave of nausea and extreme weakness. I couldn't stand, and instead rolled out of bed onto the floor, and dragged myself to the bathroom, where the tile floor felt good on my cheek. It at first seemed clear to my feverish brain that I was dying. Too bad - I was so young, only 27. But as I got a bit more awake, I figured out that I had just come down with an intestinal "flu", and that I had a high fever. Note 3

July 4 is a holiday in the US, of course, "Independence Day". I had plans to go to the beach with Margie, whom I had met five months before, and had been dating ever since. Our anticipated day on the sands of Wingaersheek Beach was obviously now not going to happen. I waited in my bed until a decent hour of the morning to telephone, and asked her if she would come over and take care of me. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I half expected her to go off to the beach with other friends. But she gave up her day in the sun, took the risk of catching my "flu", and tended to me for the entire day. This was one of many episodes that made me realize what a giving person she is, and perhaps it was one of the things that led to our marriage about a year later.

Another episode of fever occurred years later, to my younger daughter Sara. Margie brought her into the Wayland library one snowy day. Sara, bundled up in a snowsuit, suddenly collapsed and went into convulsions.

Now, the Wayland library is right next door to the Wayland Public Safety Building, which houses the Emergency Medical Services ambulance, among other things. But Margie was afraid to lose time if they were out on a call, and thought that it would be better to go directly to our pediatrician's office, a bit over three miles away, in the neighboring town of Weston. As she grabbed Sara and ran out the front door of the library, she barked out the phone number of our pediatrician's office, which she knew by heart, saying, "Call and tell them we're coming in with an emergency." Then she threw Sara and Elissa into their car seats, and screamed off down Route 20 (passing a police car on the way). En-route, she asked Elissa how Sara was doing. Elissa replied ominously, "She's sort of sleeping, but not exactly."

Margie screeched to a halt in front of the pediatrician's office, to find all three of the practice's pediatricians waiting on the front steps. They whisked Sara off, taking her out of her snowsuit on the way. That was the problem, of course. Sara had developed some sort of virus that had caused her fever to spike, and inside the snowsuit, her temperature had reached levels that her brain could not tolerate, provoking what is called a "febrile convulsion". Once out of the snowsuit, they brought her temperature down with cold water, and she quickly recovered. There were no long-term effects.

And now for the fork, an event that occurred when our older daughter was about three years old. She woke up screaming one night, having apparently had a nightmare. I went into her room to calm her down, and found her crouched on her pillow, looking down on the bed, from which she had thrown most of the covers. "There's a giant fork in my bed!", she told me.

I looked to see if there was indeed anything in the bed that she could have interpreted as a giant fork, and found nothing at all. "Look, Elissa", I said, "there's nothing here. The bed is empty. There's no giant fork." Elissa was not mollified. "It's a giant fork! There's a giant fork in my bed!"

After this went on for a bit, Margie apparently concluded that I was not being effective. She dragged herself out of bed, and came into Elissa's room. With a look of great annoyance on her face, she looked at - me! "What are you doing, arguing with a three-year-old?", she said. Then, to Elissa, "Where's the fork?" Elissa pointed vaguely into the middle of the bed.

Margie reached down to roughly the point indicated, and closed her hand around the imaginary fork. She then made a tossing motion, opening her hand at the far end of the motion as if releasing something. "OK", she said to Elissa, "I threw it away."

That's ridiculous, I thought to myself, that can't work. "OK", Elissa said, climbing down off the pillow and lying down in the bed, where we pulled the covers over her, and she promptly fell asleep. Margie rolled her eyes at me, and went off to bed herself. This left me standing in the room, mystified. I thought it over for quite a while, but I never did understand it.

But as Mark Twain noted, "Truth is stranger than fiction; fiction has to make sense." Note 4


Next in blog     Blog home     Help     Next in memoirs
Blog index     Numeric index     Memoirs index     Alphabetic index
© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted September 30, 2010

Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   This definition if from a Stanford University web site. They also have an updated page on Sleep Paralysis.   [return to text]

Note 2:   See the article Snoozing Worms Help Penn Researchers Explain the Evolution of Sleep   [return to text]

Note 3:   The term "flu" is not really correct here. This condition is really "viral gastroenteritis" - it's not caused by an influenza virus. The true "flu", influenza, is a respiratory disease. The name, by the way, is an Italian word meaning "influence", apparently from a belief that epidemics were influenced by the stars.   [return to text]

Note 4:   I've also seen this quote attributed to Leo Rosten.   [return to text]