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The other day I was amused to find my husband walking back and forth in front of our bedroom window without any clothes on.

As we live in a forest and are surrounded by trees, we are not overly concerned about the view into our windows. It’s not that we don’t have neighbors. We do. Our houses up here sit on 1-2 acre plots and back up against Roosevelt National Forest. But the trees between us do create a natural privacy border of sorts. And still, if somebody were looking, they could see us.

On one side of us is a beautiful modern cabin built only a few years ago. The man who built it went to high school with Scott’s mom and sometimes comes over for drinks. There are a lot of trees between us and him.

On the other side of us – the bedroom side – is a rather large home inhabited by a couple which has recently acquired a dog. I point out this seemingly banal detail only because we have received several phone calls from them to inform us that our dog was over there sitting at their back door. Once we got a call from them to let us know that our dog was “making footprints in [their] dirt” and that short of calling the sheriff, they didn’t know what to do.

I’m admittedly curious to see how this new dog of theirs fares.

For the past several years, the man in this couple – I’ll call him Dave – has been actively involved in thinning out the trees surrounding his house. As there are hundreds of trees on his property, this is no small task. In the nine years we’ve live here, we’ve grown accustomed to the loud buzz of his chainsaw as it chews its way through the lodge pole pines between his house and ours.

Scott and I like to joke that he pulls out the chainsaw whenever he and his wife are arguing. Or maybe he is sexually frustrated and can only find relief by hoisting heavy logs. But really, we have no idea why he is so hell-bent on razing his forest to the ground.

When he is finished disassembling the tree into branches and burnable split logs, he stacks them on one of several giant piles surrounding their home. I have heard him say that the reason he is thinning his trees is for fire mitigation purposes – as if a massive fire in the surrounding trees of our properties would stop short because of a few extra feet between house and trees. My father-in-law is a catastrophe adjuster and snickers at this idea. He once saw an adobe house in the middle of the California desert that had caught fire from embers that blew from several miles away. At any rate, the massive dried out woodpiles around his home would most certainly compensate for any gap left between his structure and the forest. Even burning through the wood during the winter, he has at least a 15-year supply of fuel out there. Possibly 20. We are talking about at least a dozen cords of wood, conservatively.

A few weeks ago I dreamt that I woke up to find that he had taken out all of the trees between us and that we could see into each other’s houses as clear as if we lived in a Denver McSuburb. A couple days later I awoke to find that the US Forestry Service was on the forest border thinning out trees at an alarming rate. The dream followed by the reality…it was sort of a Simon Smithson moment.

For several days they were out there raising up a mighty chorus of chainsaws. Every few minutes someone would shout and another tree would come crashing to the ground. I wanted to cry.

Occasionally, I would glance out the bedroom window to spot “Dave” next door staring wistfully toward the forest. I can’t be certain, but I think I spotted a glint of jealousy at the sheer chainsaw power so close, and yet so out of his reach.

Once I looked out to find that they had brought in a prison work crew to help them with the project. I am no genius, but it seemed odd to me that anyone would mix convicts and chainsaws. We made the kids go inside.

As this was happening, I was getting madder and madder at what they were doing to the forest. Our forest. We hike out there all of the time and know those woods well. They have become a part of our lives and daily experience. And now – because of a leftover George W. Bush policy – forests all over the nation that run along private property are being mowed down in the name of fire mitigation.

It sounds good: fire mitigation. But let’s be serious. If we have a forest fire behind our house, there will be no saving it. Our house is built from stone and cedar planks. We have a dried out shake roof from 1967. We have frequent lightning storms accompanied by upwards of 60 mph winds without a drop of moisture to be felt.

 

Smokey the Bear would definitely not approve of our domicile.

 

Smokey the Bear would definitely not approve of our domicile.

But even more to the point, the Forestry Service did not clean up after themselves. After glutting themselves on chainsaw grease and sawdust, they left the trees felled on the ground, stripped of their branches, which they then threw into giant 10 ft. piles.

Here is a picture of the piles they left:

 

Every 20 paces, you will run into another one. They are everywhere within the 200 yard cutting zone, which incidentally is not barren of trees – only thinned. They are giant bonfires waiting to happen. Branches waiting to kick up in one of our infamous windstorms and head straight toward our roof.

When my husband walks naked past the window for the 10th time in a row, he smiles smugly at me and winks. He knows he can’t stop the legacy of Bush and yet another poor policy decision. That glory train has already been set into motion. What he can do is hope that through the trees the neighbors catch a glimpse of his march. And when they see his raw determination, they will agree to put down the chainsaw and give a man some peace.

 

Way back in 1971, the strangest thing started happening to me.  Whenever I was tired or trying to sleep, it felt as though there were ants crawling in my legs.  I told the doctor.  He said it was all in my head.  Believe me when I say that I was carrying around enough crazy as it was; it didn’t help for people to also think I was imagining bizarre symptoms.  Over the years, I would mention the symptoms to doctors now and then but I always got the same “you must be a nutcase” reaction.

Finally, decades after it began, I went to the doctor when my mom was slowly killing herself on purpose.  I told him I thought I could get through her whole protracted suicide thing, raise five children, take care of the dogs and the cats, keep my husband mollified, get dinner on the table at 5:30PM every night, if he could just stop the ants crawling in my legs. I didn’t really have much hope, but still I was hoping he’d give me some pill that might help me cope.  Surprisingly, this doctor sent me to a sleep specialist and I got a small dose of medicine that is ordinarily given to Parkinson’s patients.  The sleep doctor gave a name to what I had: Restless Legs Syndrome. It really was inside my head.

RLS is a sleep disorder.  Whenever I was tired, or sitting in one place for a long time (such as an airplane or in bed trying to relax to go to sleep), I got the feeling that there were hundreds, even thousands, of ants crawling inside my legs.  I could stop it.  I had to get up and move around and it stopped.  The problem was that I couldn’t go back and relax in bed because the ants returned as soon as I stopped walking or dancing or doing the treadmill.  I barely got any sleep until I got my glorious medicine.

Another component of RLS is Periodic Limb Movement Disorder. Here is this wrinkle: even after I took the medicine to combat the RLS, my legs or arms started kicking or flailing about, usually while asleep, but it could also happen when I was awake.  If PLMD didn’t wake me up, it still jiggered my sleep from a deeper stage to a shallower stage.  For this reason I woke up tired, even if I thought I slept. I took more amazing medicine for this.

Once, I was on an airplane bouncing my legs up and down in my seat as usual.  Suddenly my right arm flailed out and slapped the lady next to me right across the face.  She didn’t speak English.  It was awkward.

I just recently managed to cross into a whole new stage of the disease that I didn’t even know about before.  I don’t even know what to call it yet.  (I’d at least like an acronym.)  For now I’m going to call it New Muscle-Cramping Thing, or NMCT. When I have taken enough medicine to help stop the ants and the flailing, there is now the muscle- cramping component.  If I relax in front of the TV in the evening, for example, after a few minutes the muscles of my feet and toes and my hands and fingers will start going into painful spasm.  Now I’m on an outstanding medicine for that.

You would think that all of this would be enough sleep disorder for one person.

But no.  There’s Victor.

Victor is another of my sleep disorders.

Victor is buckets of fun when he is awake.  Just look at how sweet he looks!




Victor is very bossy in his sleep.  He’s been sleep-bossy for 41 years.

At least three times a week, Victor yells at me to do something while we are both asleep.  I sleep lightly, but since I am asleep and not thinking straight, I always think he is telling me to do something for a good reason.


“Sit up!”

I sit up and ask why I have to sit up, but he’s asleep.


“Get out!”

He pushes me right off the bed.

It’s a high bed.

I ask him what’s wrong, but he’s asleep.


“You don’t belong here!”

He shakes me angrily and hard.

I ask him what’s wrong, but he’s asleep.


“Dial 9-1-1!”

I leap off the bed and grab the phone.  I ask what I should tell the operator, but he’s asleep.


“Who do you think you are?”

He pokes his index finger in my chest repeatedly, seemingly furious.

I tell him I only think I’m me, but he’s asleep.


“Stop that right now!”

I ask stop what? but he’s asleep.


“You have no right to be here!”

I explain that I do, but he’s asleep.


“Where’s Irene?  Irene should be here!”

He pulls my arm until I’m sitting up.  I tell him I’m right here, but he’s asleep.


Last night it was:

“Get away from me!”

Victor shoved me right off the bed again.

Last night was a bit worse because I had thrown out my back several days before.

The landing wasn’t any fun.


Victor sleeps like a baby through it all.  He never remembers any of it.


Forty-one years.


I never get back to sleep.


There is no medicine for Victor Sleep Disorder, or VSD.


TNB TV

The book trailer for Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon’s acclaimed novel about the unlikely intersection of three disparate lives. The book, he says, “can trace its roots back to my childhood, to the stories and novels that I loved when I was a child. I grew up in a very tiny town in Western Nebraska, one of those villages of the great plains that grew up alongside the Union Pacific railroad line, with a tower of a grain elevator at the center and a little smatter of houses around it. Population, approximately 50.”


J.E. & J.C. talk to Dan Chaon
 
Dan Chaon is enjoying more success than ever with his critically acclaimed new novel, Await Your Reply. (And for those of you who don’t know how to pronounce his name, it’s pronounced Shawn.) Recently, Jason Chambers and Jonathan Evison interviewed Mr. Chaon for their celebrated lit column Three Guys One Book, which is now a regular feature here at The Nervous Breakdown. The results—the first batch, anyway—can be found right here. Look for a second round with Dan Chaon soon. In the meantime, go out and read Await Your Reply. You’ll be glad you did.


Berlin Elegy

By Stefan Kiesbye

Essay

During the summer of ’89, I took my lover on walks along the Wall. I failed to tell her I had another girlfriend and she kept quiet about her affairs. Susie’s hair was dyed black, and her skin was so pale it almost looked green. Both of us were Grufties, Goths, black swans, sad to the bone, dwelling in a deep and peaceful melancholy mixed with profound half-truths and shiny morsels of philosophy. We were grouchy children of the Cold War, knowing that if Russians and Americans decided to go to war against each other, they would do so in Middle Europe. We were self-indulgent, sorry for the times we were living in, pitying ourselves and taking for granted that the world would soon come to a violent death. Sex we gave freely, as if handing out tissues to mourning friends.

I had met Susie three months before. Getting off the subway train at Leopoldplatz after a day of working as a movie extra, I saw a girl in front of a poster for a pedigree show. She stood slightly stooped, her head raised to inspect the two dogs. Her knees were slightly bent and knocked together. I stopped at the photo booth to check on the blood in my hair and on my forehead. The blood lent me a dramatic air, I decided, as if I had just barely survived a car-crash. It had been my last day as an extra for a TV mini-series about the Third Reich. In the past two weeks I had been a boss of industry supporting the development of the radio, a soldier in the German Navy, and today I had played a servant being killed in a bombing.

“Which dog do you like best?” the girl asked me. I answered that I didn’t like the dog with the bow on its head, but she disagreed.

“I think it’s a beautiful red; it’s a rather beautiful bow.” She nodded her head slowly and smiled as children do when they let you in on a secret. She had a high forehead and her black hair looked like a fantastic crown, a dark version of the Statue of Liberty. She smiled as though embarrassed when I asked her where she lived, and pointed vaguely in the direction of my own apartment. She bared her gums ever so slightly in a smile that ended abruptly.

As it turned out, we lived only a block away from each other. Walking along the cemetery on Turiner Straße, I pointed to my building, which stood overlooking the park-like yard. Bullet holes from the war, which nobody had cared to repair, were still showing in the facade.

“I have a grave here,” she said, a smile touching her face. “I’m taking care of it. It was in really bad shape, and I thought, ‘This grave needs some care.’ Maybe you’ve seen me before.”

Her apartment, to which I followed her without invitation, was cold despite its being a warm evening. Susie took pink champagne from the fridge, crunching bread crumbs and cereal with every step. A dried pancake with a face drawn on it hung above the stove. Greasy spots had soaked the white paint.

Three walls of her bedroom were covered with flowered wallpaper, orange and yellow blossoms. The fourth wall, a bed at its foot, had been left bare except for an enormous eye, taking up the whole space, painted in black and white. A large tear hung in its corner.

Clothing lay humped on the small black desk, on every chair, on the bed and all over the floor. Worn pantyhose, sweaters, and a dirty-white bra. Half-empty bags of gummi bears and potato chips were scattered on and around the mattress.

Sitting down on her bed, I pulled her closer, but she wriggled free of my embrace and laughed. Something in that laugh made me push her onto her back. Susie kept laughing till her head landed on the mattress, then her face froze with anticipation. I put my tongue in her mouth, but she bit me and started laughing again. I pressed her face to one side and bit her neck. Suddenly her arms were around me, and she gave little moans.

Pressing her down with one hand, I pulled off her long skirt with the other. Then I grabbed her pantyhose and slip and pulled them down too.

Stop,” she said, sitting up and panting. When I did, she unbuttoned my shirt, undid my pants, watching me curiously. “You have a good body,” was her judgement, “but your stomach could be flatter.” Then she took off her black sweater and shirt and pulled me close, further inspecting me. “You have nice hair; it’s soft. Like a little duckling’s fuzz,” she whispered. Her body was lazily curved, her skin colorless, showing blue veins. She seemed as naked as someone’s laughter in church.

***

Susie had attended a high school for the super-talented, for those students who in normal institutions perform poorly because they grow bored with the pace of their classes. After receiving her diploma, her Abitur, she enrolled at the Free University of Berlin, in German and Philosophy. But there, her struggles started all over again. Reading Adorno or Kant over the course of weeks bored her into drowsiness; writing papers which were not challenging enough and which she could draft in minutes, led her to never finishing them. She never handed in a single one, then dropped out.

I had dropped out for other reasons. I wanted to become an actor, yet didn’t want to do away with my Robert Smith hairdo and make-up. I was undisciplined and worked in obscure off-off-mainstream projects where young and not-so-young men and women worked without pay or success.

Susie seemed to make her own time, was never distracted and always gave me the feeling I was her only lover, even when I knew I wasn’t. On run-down heels, she staggered along the Wall, pausing to slip a hand down my pants, or show me that she wasn’t wearing a bra. Time followed her awkward steps, never running off or out.

To us, the Wall was like an odd, but good friend. We had been born twenty years after the war and unlike older generations or people with relatives in the East, we had never had any trouble with the existence of the two Germanys.

The German Question, as everyone called it, was no question for us. What kind of question was it anyway? In my eyes, Germany had not deserved any better. Time had slowed down after the war, leaving the country, its culture and arts, in shambles. It should have stopped once and for all in Germany, but time, just because she wasn’t trained to do anything else, went on, aimlessly and off pace, like a disappointed runner who knows that she has already lost.

What had happened to Berlin after ‘45, we appreciated deeply. West Berlin was a country of its own. The presence of the Allies’ armed forces, the division of the city into sectors, assured me that the Germans were kept at bay. “The Germans” were those who did not live within the confines of the Wall, those who were responsible for the Holocaust and two World Wars. West Berliners felt that the war had been forced upon them and that the Nazis had conquered and raped the Weimar metropolis. Now they stood surrounded by the Evil Empire, and were therefore absolved from all guilt. Their city was the last holdout of the free world, the last enclave of the brave and undefeated in the heartland of communism.

A strip several yards wide in front of the Wall — on the western side — was still Eastern territory. This was mostly ignored by Westerners, but to Susie and me it made our walks all the more exciting; it added the flavor of danger. We would ride the subway to a point close to the border — often to Gesundbrunnen in the north — and then walk, sometimes for hours, until we’d be close to another subway or Stadtbahn station.

At certain intervals, there were tiny doors in the Wall, which East German soldiers could open from their side to patrol in front of the Wall, and Susie assured me that, in fact, they did this frequently at night.

I was shocked to hear this, I didn’t want to imagine that my island had porous walls. The sense of peace I had felt during the walks with Susie vanished. Like a King being told that the Barbarians are threatening the borders, I had to see for myself how bad the situation was. So one night we decided to walk to the Reichstag and take a close look at the Wall.

During the day, people played soccer on the huge lawn in front of the Reichstag, called the Place of the Republic, and Turkish families held their barbecues there in summer. Busloads of tourists came every day to have a look at the museum inside the Reichstag and at the Wall. The city had even erected wooden scaffolds to give tourists a better view of the Wall and what lay behind it. At night, however, what was left of the crowd were empty film-wrappers and overflowing trash cans. The area was dead, with only an occasional police car patrolling.

Susie wore a black skirt, fishnet-stockings and black pointed shoes with several straps and shiny buckles, which gave off a jangling sound. She looked like a queen, dark and regal. We walked halfway around the Reichstag and closer to the Spree river, so we could see the Wall running directly behind the building. A Death Strip stretched between the Wall, as could be seen from the West, and a smaller, less imposing inner wall, which stood entirely on Eastern territory.

We climbed the stairs of one of the scaffolds facing a concrete watchtower

inside the Death Strip and waited. To the right, through the trees, we could make out the gleam of lights where the Brandenburg Gate stood, and we could also see the torchlights of the nearby Soviet Honor Monument. Even though the monument was placed in West Berlin, two Soviet soldiers paraded in front of it, day and night. In front of us, jeeps were patrolling the Death Strip, going back and forth between the numerous towers along the Wall. Yet none ever stopped near us.

Susie had brought along a bottle of Valpolicella, and we drank and watched the watchtower, and, when nothing happened, she crawled over to me, sat down in my lap and asked, “Do you think they’ll come if we do it?”

They didn’t. But during the second night we went to the Reichstag, three soldiers in a jeep took off from the watchtower driving toward the Wall. When they came close to reaching it, they disappeared from our view. After several minutes we saw the Wall open in a place where I hadn’t been able to see the door. Two soldiers, their weapons tightly gripped, came through the low opening. For a moment Susie and I stood frozen, expecting the soldiers to shout at us. But they walked a few yards to the left to inspect something we couldn’t see, while a third soldier guarded the hole in the Wall. This man lifted his eyes and he must have seen us, but didn’t show any reaction. After only a few minutes, his two comrades returned, and one soldier after the other passed through the door and disappeared. The door was shut; the Wall was seamless again.

My favorite graffiti was one near Bernauer Strasse. It read “Fighting for Germany’s reunion is like fucking for virginity.” This walled-in city was my place and nobody would be able to take it away from me. Any other thought was ridiculous.