My Ngoc To
For the eye has this strange property: it rests only on beauty; like a butterfly it seeks colour and basks in warmth. On a winter’s night like this, when nature has been at pains to polish and preen herself, it brings back the prettiest trophies, breaks off little lumps of emerald and coral as if the whole earth were made of precious stone. –Virginia Woolf, “Street Hauntings ”
The bike ride from Harvard to the East Campus of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center takes approximately half an hour from the Square. To ride a bike is to be in perpetual motion. The moment we hop on, the ground beneath us evens out, and the world transforms into an infinite landscape, no longer sectioned off into red lights, pedestrian crossways, or emergency stops. Rather, it is a continuous flux of scenery that flows together as images do in daydreams.
The bike ride to lab takes us from one world to another. One has to navigate past the chaos of the Square, past the hordes of pedestrians standing on the brink of the curb, past the taxi stands in front of the Harvard Coop, away from the traffic jams caused by construction, over the steep incline of JFK Bridge, across the intersection, onto the main bike path, and then finally along the Charles River for the next three miles.
On some days, when the journey starts at rush hour, this first part becomes particularly difficult, as there are twice as many pedestrians, twice as many cars, and twice as many ambulances rushing forward to overload one’s senses. The bike path, which stays mostly empty, is suddenly full of joggers and bikers also making their evening travels. With the onslaught of winter, the evenings are now shrouded in darkness, and the headlights of the cars travelling in the opposite direction are so blinding that they conceal the shadows of people in the distance.
On a good day, though, the ride there is utter beauty. On a good day, the weather is about sixty degrees Fahrenheit, and the trees are all shades of warm, popping out against the azure light of the sky. There are joggers, but they all smile slightly as they huff by, and the smiles somehow enter our expressions too. Or perhaps the smile we see in others is just a reflection of our own. The path twists and turns, widens and shrinks. On one part it becomes so narrow that we’re constantly afraid of hitting the pedals of other bikes when we cross, but it never happens—the disaster is averted, and we utter a small prayer of gratitude.
Every time we go, in the fall, the trees change color, first from a deep green to yellow, then to a brighter and brighter orange, until becoming a vivid tunnel that engulfs us. The next time we enter this part of the bike path, the leaves have started to fall off, and their crimson-blood color spots the black pavement. The wind feels inviting and crisp on our skin. We bring a jacket but don’t wear it. The weather reminds us of Halloween all those years ago, when the weather was just as brisk and reached through the thin costume fabric of our disguise.
Remember that time we went apple picking, and you were wearing that blue navy blazer with the gold buttons along with that worn black corset, and you were pleased because it was the second time you’d been in an orchard since you picked strawberries and peaches when you were ten years old?
Yes, yes, I do remember. And that year I was a ninja for Halloween.
To the left, on the side facing the river, couples, families, and those dreamy walkers, wrapped in their silence, admire the river. We can’t help but look on too, at the skyline, at the bell towers in the distance, at the occasional solitary rower. We once tried to scull, remember? And you got that swim card but never ended up going?
Yes, yes I do remember. And when I took that swim test I remembered how I love to swim.
The turn is coming soon, but right before it is the bridge. It is made entirely of wooden planks. Often people will stop here to lean over the railings and look at the view of Boston, to the right, and of Harvard, to the left. It is always quiet here—the water beneath the bridge is calm. This wooden bridge passes under a larger, square bridge, perhaps part of the railroad; above it is an even larger bridge that carries cars over the river. But at ours, below these crossing paths, the planks make gentle clucking noises under the wheels, and our motion is indicated, not just by the wind, or the change in landscape and shadow, but also by the shift in noise. We are moving—forward.
We have almost reached the end. Head straight off the bridge, and be sure to look both ways for cars before crossing. Turn left onto Common-wealth Avenue, and right onto Brookline: the East Campus of Beth Israel will be on the left. Enter the main entrance, up the elevators to the eighth floor, make a left, and go inside room 864. The sleep subject has finished the third session and is waiting in the Solarium.
This is a sleep lab. The head of the lab prefers to be called Bob. He is an ancient man with bright eyes, white hair, and a gentle voice. In his office is a plant that is almost bigger than a small child. It is an exotic plant, a spider lily, with two-inch stems that rise three feet and then end in a firework-shape of white flowers. There are three of these stems, and the base is adorned in thick, wavy leaves. In 1991, when he went to Mexico on a lab convention, Bob stood on the beach and found a seed washed up on the shore. He snuck it back to America and planted the thing, curious to see what it would become.
Spider lilies only bloom at night. This ability is called nyctinasty, and it occurs because nature has matched a specific set of flowers to nighttime pollinators: bats, moths, and rodents. Color is of minimal importance at night, so these flowers tend to be light colored. To attract their pollinators, the flowers wear strong fragrances. Their petals stay closed during the day to prevent the perfume from evaporating, but when the sun has set and the pollinators have awoken, they bloom.
It takes less than two seconds for a spider lily to bloom. The petals are held together by a little locking leaf, and when that leaf releases the whole flower springs open. In the entire time that Bob has had the lily, he has only seen it bloom twice.
It’s amazing what can happen in a day. We wake up every morning new, the trouble and anxieties of the night before having dissipated along with the dreams. Something happens during sleep that renders them less important, as belonging to a different world; something that refreshes the mind, restores the brain. Since this is a sleep lab, people come here to dream, to be deprived of sleep, to nap. Some will stay here for several days, sometimes an entire week, to participate in a particular study. Ours is less costly—the subjects don’t have to stay overnight and instead stay at lab from morning till night. Sometimes, when they take naps, we record the activity of their brains.
There are four stages of sleep, and each one has its own special pattern. At a waking state, the brain waves are tiny and dense, jittery and sporadic. When people close their eyes, however, the pattern immediately sooths out, and a wave-like image starts to form. When the brain waves even out enough, they have officially entered the first stage of sleep. If they were to be woken up now, they would not recall ever being asleep.
After roughly ten minutes, though, something strange starts to happen. The spacing of the waves becomes a bit wider, loosening up, becoming slower, until suddenly, they spike up into an enormous tsunami and then sinks into a trough. This is a K-complex, and it is a major indicator of Stage Two sleep. Occasionally, the smaller waves will seem to condense, as if a hand is squeezing them together. This is a sleep spindle, and it is another defining landmark of Stage Two.
The rise and fall of the K-complex will grow more frequent until the reading screen becomes filled with only these large waves. They come much more slowly, like gentle, rolling giants, and once the brain activity is composed entirely of these, we know the person is in slow wave sleep.
The final and most fascinating part of sleep is Rapid-Eye-Movement. All at once, the canyons and peaks shrink to tiny, fast, schizophrenic waves that resemble those of the waking state. Yet the subjects are asleep, and at this point their eyes are rolling in synch, and their bodies have absolutely no muscle tone. They are dead yet alive at the same time. This is the point at which dreams occur.
Every person, no matter how old, how sleep deprived, or how intelligent, will go through these exact sleep stages in the same order. A full night’s rest will exhibit multiple cycles of these sleep stages, each with its own unique chemical make-up and function.
At ten at night, the subjects have finished the last session for the day and can be checked out of the clinical research center. We’ve forgotten to do this a few times, to the consequent scorn of the night nurses, but today we remember.
The ride back at night is quiet. Back down Brookline, only now we turn left onto Commonwealth Avenue, right onto Silber Way.
This bridge crosses the main highway. At the top of the crossing, one can stand and look at the six-lane highway from either end, wondering where all these cars are coming from and where they are headed next. We are at the point between two worlds, the space between night and day, but instead of choosing one over the other, we simply continue heading home.
We leave Silber Way behind, biking ahead of a slow couple walking down the same bridge, and join the bike path once more.
By now the Hyatt hotel has its lights turned on, and the red zigzag of its outlines ripples along the river to the right. We are alone on this path. The trees line up on either side of the road, and their branches reach across and hug each other under the sky. Cars drive past along the left, and we feel pity for the drivers stuck inside their metal containers, unable to feel the night against their skin. We pass through the tunnel of trees and ride past the sailing house, now with its doors closed and boats harbored to the shore. We slow down to make the sharp right turn onto the wooden bridge under the bridge under the bridge. Again, the wheels of the bike make clanking noises across the wooden panels. Halfway across, we pause to look at the water. It is especially calm tonight and shines like obsidian under the moonlight. With eyes closed and hands cupped and resting on the balcony, we close our eyes, our brain waves soothing out.
After an entire day of seeing and looking, of observing, distinguishing, choosing, our perception has become twisted and unfocused. Our brain is like an offset scale, and to restore it to normal, we will have to sleep. Dreams will first flood our brain with exaggerated simulations of reality, testing the springs of our scale. After dreaming will come slow wave sleep that realigns the spring bit by bit. These two stages of sleep will work together to test and adjust, test and adjust. After several cycles, the brain will be fully recalibrated, and we will wake up again, reset.
When we open our eyes—the world is still there. Up above, the moon glistens. The water shines with globes of blue, green and red from the land lights. Somewhere, a night flower is blooming.