I’ve been sleeping outside lately. I’ve never done it much before, but the weather has been so beautiful and tempting that I got a cheap tent on my birthday. Initially I had it set up inside the skeleton of my half-complete garage so my daughter and I could play in it, which we did, but in order to get some sleep, I’d need to get serious and put some pegs in the ground somewhere and whatnot. So it’s set up right outside my bedroom.

I don’t know the mechanics of it, but I sleep fairly well out there when I’m actually asleep, and I’m actually asleep a larger percentage of the time I’m laying in the tent, compared to in the house. Sure, I still wake up, and sure, it can take a while to settle in, but it’s better. I get back to sleep quicker when I do wake up, and the process of drifting off is pretty quiet and relaxing, not the tense “anything-might-happen” affair that can go on in my real bed 10 feet north. Sure, when the wind picks up, or when a little rain hits the area, I wake up, but it’s not a big deal. It might be the crickets that ease my entry into sleep, or the fresh air blowing through all night, more or less gently even when it’s gusty because it’s set up right next to 2 walls in a corner. It’s been good. But…

It’s not perfect. In the house, tons of things wake me up. 1, 2, or 3 dogs sharing space with me on the bed, the snoring of the Danish, nightly visits from the little person I live with, cat madness, fan squeeking, “you’ve got mail” bells on my computer, refrigerator noises. But outside, some of the stuff that happens can feel a little more dramatic because I’m more exposed. It doesn’t happen as often, though.

For example, night one outside, I heard coyotes. They weren’t anywhere close, and at least I was safe from the new black cat that’s in our house. I had set up the tent outside my wall under some fruit trees, and with nothing but nylon tent material between me and a pack of coyotes out there somewhere, I lost the innocent wonder of sleeping under the stars and switched into “what was that sound?” mode and went from deep, restful sleep into a tortured half-awake state where every tree groan and grass rustling got a little attention, and probably warranted. My wife and kid had actually joined the adventure earlier on day 1, but after about 20 minutes of sleep, my dogs started barking and howling because we were 18 inches out of their reach on the other side of the wall. Damned dogs. Wife and kid went back in. But until the coyotes, it had been more or less restful, and just like everything else that happens in the middle of the night, it didn’t bother me quite enough to actually get up and do anything about it, like go in the house and stop worrying about it. And I’d had as much as 80 or 90 minutes of peace, even though it was non-contiguous. This was promising.

So I moved the tent inside the walls. My next attempt was more or less good, and I left off the rain cover so I could see the stars. For some reason, I forgot about 30+ years of myopia, and as pleasant as the breeze was, I didn’t get much out of the stars themselves. It was tricky and drawn out to actually get to sleep, though. One of the cats was running around, curious, and the little bell on the collar was keeping me awake. Sheba, one of my dogs, was pacing back in forth in front of the unfamiliar structure for a while, but it wasn’t bad. Still promising.

I was in there on Saturday morning. At a pretty early hour, I heard shoveling. I knew it was my neighbor, she’d had a load of gravel dumped in her driveway. It woke me up, but I didn’t have any of the rage that would have come with a shovel-awakening if I’d been inside, and I started to drift off again, my safety unquestioned. Sheba showed up outside the tent where she could see the shoveling and started growling and barking. From inside the tent, I hissed at her to shut up. She didn’t hear me. I used my dad-voice and said, “Sheba!” A deep male voice responded from maybe 6 or 8 feet away. “Sheba! Sweets! Sweets! It’s OK Sheba!” I went from half awake to fight-or-flight in milliseconds. I’ve yelled at the dogs lots of times when they’re out barking, and a male voice has never answered. I knew I didn’t have my glasses inside the tent, and my head was throbbing with the pain of sudden awakening and all the unanswered questions. How were my dogs talking to me? Why does Sheba have the voice of a middle aged man? (My neighbor is a woman who lives alone.) Why did she call me Sweets? What the hell was going on? I fumbled with the zipper and stumbled out of the tent, and there was noone and nothing there as far as my feeble peepers could see. Sheba had stopped. So my day began a couple hours early with a crack-withdrawal headache and a bunch of mumbled, unanswered questions. It turned out that the neighbor’s friend had brought his new dog, Sweets, over while he was helping shovel, and she had run up to the fence when she’d seen Sheba and he had come over to get her. By the time I was up to check things out, he was in the back yard. Mystery solved, headache eventually over.

Monday, I figured I’d leave the door flap to the tent open; maybe one of my dogs would join me, the breeze would be nice, and the cat sure had been curious. As far as I knew, none of the dogs checked on me more than once, but the cat kept coming in and rubbing against my face and purring and pushing me around. It kept me awake several times, but it was fine, a little bonding with the new animals shouldn’t hurt. But then she kicked fully into night mode and started jumping on me from outside the tent and clawing the back of my neck to attack my necklace and stuff. I heard her stretch forward and start to claw my inflatable mattress, and I had this half-awake vision of it popping like a ballon and me squirting around the inside of my tiny tent on top of a deflating air mattress while it let out a giant Bronx cheer and figured enough was enough. You can take my sleep, you can claw my neck, but if you mess with my air mattress, it’s all over. So, out. Zzzzzzzzip. I slept fitfully the second half of the night, but the first half of the night was so choppy that it wasn’t totally fulfilling. 

Last night I stayed up late. I was up late the night before, too, because I realized there was an eclipse happening and I couldn’t fully go back to sleep when I knew I could be witnessing the unusual. So I figured I’d sleep in the tent where I could at least zip out dogs and cats and kids for a couple hours, it’s still better than sleeping on the sofa or floor inside once I’m inevitably squeezed out of the bed. I knew if I was lucky that I could get 7 or even (don’t jinx it don’t jinx it don’t jinx it) 8 hours of sleep even settling in late. I had just started “100 Years of Solitude” and couldn’t put it down anyway. I slept pretty well. I still woke up periodically, but drifted easily back to sleep. I really woke up for the first time at the first signs of daylight, probably 6:00am or so, and it didn’t bother me – I knew I still had as much as 2 hours of sleep available, no pressure. Seconds later, I hear a strange, electronic beeping, irregular and percussive. I figure it’s my neighbor putting her car keys in and getting ready for work, you know the beeping and stuff cars do when you first put the keys in the ignition? But I realized that that definitely wasn’t her car’s sound, this wasn’t regular, it was like a cross between some kind of beeping and the clicking and borping of an old video game. Puzzled enough to really start waking up, I wondered where that kind of noise would come from so early. 

Then the throb of a UFO engine (as my addled, half-asleep brain provided as a possible option) jolted me fully awake. Not panic, but the heart rate picked up and I got the pre-headache head throbbing. Then I remembered – I’d left on my computer and keyboard, and the cat had probably hopped on it. All the windows are open, so the sound would have been crystal clear in the tent as well as in my bedroom. I wrestled with the zipper in the early morning light, not too bad, and on the way through, I dumped my blanket and pillow on my bed where my wife, daughter and at least one big dog were sleeping. Not a creature was stirring, though, which was pretty weird. The dogs can hear the Fedex truck and bark at it from two miles away, but throbbing UFO sounds INSIDE THE HOUSE at fairly high volume don’t even warrant a growl? Was I the only one who could hear it? I’m clumsily assembling the facts in my head as I stumble toward my office. I’ve even recognized the sound now – it’s a Roland TR808 drum machine patch, the sounds had all been the beeping and clicking of a vintage analog drum machine. The initial beeping had been a TR808 cowbell, it was starting to add up. The throbbing sound came from several bass notes, roughly one small cats’ worth, being mashed at the same time.

What I couldn’t figure out was what was keeping them sustained? It wasn’t the first time she’d hopped on one of my instruments, but surely, loud pulsing bass notes would chase the cat off. So the notes were somehow stuck, or maybe she had also stood on the computer keyboard as she was escaping and accidentally recorded the throbbing? I walked into the office without glasses on and squinted at the keyboard. The creamy blob of Mocha’s shape was frozen in the middle of the keyboard. She saw me (didn’t hear me first because of the flying saucer rumble) and bolted, and the sound instantly stopped. She’d been doing it ON PURPOSE. When she saw me, she snapped into “I’m an insane, young cat and will now run as fast as I can around the house and vacinity” mode. We all have a job to do, i guess. My wife got up to see what it had been, and the day has officially begun. 

I looked at the clock. 6:18am. If I didn’t count the time I was awake last night, I got 5 hours sleep. But since I wasn’t asleep while I was awake, I won’t count it, and I know the real number is probably closer to 4. I’ve had nights like this for almost 14 years in a row, and I keep wondering when and how it will catch up with me.

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