Where We Are–and why can’t I sleep

I forgot about New Jersey last night.

On a typical night I am awake around 3:00 a.m. Tizi wakes me up, or I wake her up. We’re very quiet about it, being awake at 3:00 a.m., very considerate, very careful not to disturb each other, even though I have already disturbed her, or she has already disturbed me, and there’s nothing to be done about it now.  Except wait.

I lie there in my preferred sleep position. And wait. And ruminate.

I’m a left side sleeper. When I was in fourth grade a classmate named Gregory Gay announced one day that sleeping on your left side could be fatal. We were standing in a throng of kids one morning on the steps of the old North Building. Gregory Gay did not cite The New England Journal of Medicine. He just pointed at my chest and said, “Your heart is on your left side, so, you know. . .” “What?” “So,” he said, “if you don’t want to die, don’t do that.” Since then I’ve wondered occasionally, I’ve been mildly, negligibly curious–nervous?– about being a lefty. But when it comes to sleep, you do what works. Right?

Here’s what works, every night. I get into bed and read for ten minutes, then shut off the light. I read five more minutes in the dark, on my Kindle, then shut that device off. Rolling left in bed, I fold my right leg at the knee, raise my right foot, and press it gently into my left knee, making my body into a number four. Picture Eka Pada Pranamasana (the one-legged prayer pose), a standing yoga position. Only in this case I’m doing my yoga lying down. I haven’t tried any other numbers or investigated bed yoga. This position works every night. Within minutes I am asleep.

When I wake up (or am awakened) at 3:00 a.m., though, number four no longer cuts it. There’s no point in going for the four on my right side. That just doesn’t work.  So I roll to the right and lie on my back.

Lying on my back is a resignation position. I’m resigned to the fact that I’ve got work to do, to keep myself from thinking, to get back to sleep. 

Since Covid, to get back to sleep I’ve been listing the fifty states of the union in alphabetical order. I’ve worked out a protocol. I start on the west coast. Alaska, Arizona. Then head to the South.  Alabama, Arkansas. Then back west, California, Colorado. And so on. I know there are eight M states, eight N states, four W’s. Some nights I get all the way to Wyoming and I’m still awake. Lately I’ve been forgetting Wisconsin. 

Around the time I started this, for months I got out of bed every morning and went to the New York Times website to check Covid statistics. They reported national numbers (new cases and new deaths) as well as individual state numbers (new cases and new deaths). When I clicked on the link for individual states, there they were, all lined up. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas… I would scroll down the list, searching. Virginia! I forgot about Virginia last night.

While I recite names of states to myself, some nights I also listen to an imaginary metronome ticking, and I count: 1-2-3-4. 1-2-3-4. Maine-2-3-4. 1-2-3-4. Maryland-2-3-4.

How about that, I realized one night: there’s only one one-syllable state in the US, Maine.

And one L state: Louisiana, five syllables.  

Lots of four-syllable state names with the third syllable stressed: Arizona, California, Colorado, Indiana. 

Two-word state names: the News, the Norths, the Souths. And Rhode Island.

Lying awake one night, trying not to think– Illinois, Iowa, Idaho–it occurred to me: so many state names in the US aren’t really English. Yes, you’ve got your Washington, your New York, your Maryland and Georgia. But what about Louisiana? What about Florida and Nevada?

More to the point, what about Connecticutt? It looks English. Or Englishy. In whatever grade I memorized state capitals, I noticed the “connect” in Connecticutt and thought, I know that word. Why don’t we pronounce all thee C’s in Connect–i-cutt? And what’s with the spare T on the end? 

I’m grateful now they didn’t spell it “Quonoktacut,” the Indian word from which the name derives. 

In fact, of the fifty, 26 state names are derived from an Indian term. 

They sound like English–they sound like our English, American English–but in terms of word origin, they are not. Massachusetts, one of the original thirteen, comes from the Algonquin “Massadchu-es-et,” meaning “great-hill-small-place.” Kentucky comes from a Shawnee word meaning “head of the river.” Illinois’ origin is the Illini Indian term for “warrior,” to which the fussy French attached the -ois. Louisiana is named for a French king. In a country that sometimes obsesses about a national language–English only, please–we have linguistic egg on our face.

In an early iteration of replacement theory in the US, actually reverse replacement theory, you can imagine a group of heavily armed white men saying to indigenous folk, “Okay, we’re replacing you. We’ve drawn a few lines on our map, which we’re going to call ‘state lines,’ and we’ve reserved an area for you all to live. We know it’s hard to see, but trust us, it’s on there. You have to promise to stay there and not make trouble. In return, if you don’t mind, we’ve decided to use your word for this state and call it Oklahoma.”

Ditto Kentucky. Ditto Montana. 

Ditto all over the place.

Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi.

Another night, when I wanted to be asleep, stuck in the K’s at 3:00 a.m., I wondered if, in the interest of linguistic and ethnic purity, as part of a national language movement, a committee of heavily armed white guys might decide to replace names of states, Anglicize them, make them more American. 

States with foreign names would lose their original name (Texas, that means you too) and become their nickname. Alabama, the Yellowhammer state, would no longer be called Alabama. It would be Yellowhammer. Ohio, the Buckeye state, would become Buckeye. Oklahoma, Sooner. Tennessee, Volunteer. Wisconsin, Badger. Oregon, Beaver.

It would be the ultimate affront, the final ripoff, to tell the indigenous people of Alaska, for example (a name coming from the Eskimo term “alakshak,” meaning “great lands”), that the Frontier State would henceforth be called Frontier. Good-bye Alaska.

But, finally, what about America, that most American name, derived from Amerigo Vespucci? (Just think: we could have been called the United States of Vespucci.)

No, we can’t go there.

You can’t just go changing names. I can’t get up one morning and say to Tizi, “I’m sick of being Rick. From now on, I’d like you to call me Lyle.” That would be out of the question. The name is the place. Like the name is the person.

Another night, the metronome clicking. Awake at 3:00 a.m., I’m missing an M state. I thought I knew all the M’s. In my mind, I try to visualize and scan my mental map of the US, coast to coast, searching for the M state I forgot. But the map is all a blur. My mind wanders. Next thing I know, I wake up from this 3:00 a.m. interlude, happy see that it’s 5:00 a.m. It worked. I went back to sleep. Now I am awake. 

I go downstairs, open my computer, click the Times, Covid news, and states. Of course, Missouri. That’s the one I was forgetting. Missouri, “an Indian term meaning ‘muddy water,’” the Show-Me State. Great state. Great name.

1 Comment

  1. Oh my, very interesting facts about the United States, but, I think you’re keeping yourself awake.

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