Do Platypuses Dream of Eccentric Sheep?

Sleep; who needs it? And who doesn't? Isaac Asimov called it a waste of time, whereas John Lennon wrote one of his most mesmerizing songs in praise of it. My personal alliances are with Mr. Lennon, a warm bed to collapse into at night being one of life's little pleasures for me. On the other hand, some people I know sleep as little as they can get away with, either due to personal preference ( a la Mr. Asimov) or the demands of their jobs. Adult humans might spend anywhere from a third to a mere sixth of their lives in dreamland. But what about our fellow mammals? Who are the Asimovs of the animal world, and who are the (to me, far more sensible) Lennons?

Giraffes - These are critters after Mr. Asimov's own heart. Not only do they look like inhabitants of one of his more unusual worlds, they sleep less than the great man himself! In fact, they sleep less than anybody. They are the true Night Owls of the animal kingdom. They burn the midnight oil, are up with the roosters, catch the worm, etc. etc.; there's not a cliche about sleeplessness these guys don't have covered. For they get by on a mere ninety minutes of sleep per 24 hour period. And even that isn't all at once. Because these giant creatures are such an obvious target, they have to be on the lookout for predators almost continuously. So, the same evolutionary process that endowed them with those crane-like necks also rigged it so that their sleep needs are met by little naps of between five and twenty minutes or so. The next time you're on a safari, consider that the giraffe who's picture you snap might be the reincarnation of some workaholic ancestor of yours who thought that sleep was for wimps.

Elephants never forget, and they rarely sleep. What keeps the largest and strongest land animal on earth up at night, I can't imagine, but sleepless nights are the norm for pachyderms. Sleepless days, too. Rivaling the giraffe in terms of how little shuteye they require, our giant friends get by on around two or three hours of sleep per cycle. This is roughly the same amount as horses, who, like giraffes and elephants, sleep standing up. Rhinos get by on just a few hours too. They can nap standing up, but for their deep sleep periods they lie down.

How much sleep do our closest relatives (chimps, gorillas, orangutans) get a night, compared to our average of eight hours? Well, if you, like me, find sleep to be one of life's treats, then you may think you've ended up on the wrong branch of the Tree of Life. Our genetic cousins generally get between twelve and thirteen hours of quality time with the sandman. Which makes one wonder, if it's good enough for these guys, with whom we differ in less than ten percent of our DNA makeup, why isn't it good enough for us, and are we really the smartest apes?

Hippos are hard to pin down. These giant mammals spend most of their lives underwater, and yet they breathe through nostrils (they are in fact said to be the closest living land animals to whales, who have evolved an entirely different breathing apparatus). They have been observed napping on land, but as for their underwater lives, how do they sleep without drowning? First, they make themselves airtight; they fold their ears over on themselves and close up their nostrils before sinking into the water. Then, while asleep, their bodies rise several times throughout a sleep period for more air. But is it a sleepwalker's sleep, or is it more like getting up and going to the bathroom? If the former, then hippos seem to get about sixteen hours of sleep, far more than their fellow, earthbound, giants, the elephants.

Lions and Tigers and Bears - Oh, my! The living is easy at the top of the food chain! Anyone with a pet cat knows that their furry friends sleep like it's a lifelong calling, and it's no different for the big fellas. Lions average around fourteen to sixteen hours, with the lucky males sleeping up to twenty. Like all big cats, the females use tremendous amounts of energy when they are called upon for a hunt and kill. The male's job is to protect the pride, which means he has less to do on the average day. He sleeps all that time because he can, basically. Same for tigers, and big cats in general. As for bears, they seem to have it even easier; they get to "sleep" a whole season! Technically, bears don't really hibernate. Their metabolism doesn't change radically from normal waking hours in comparison to true hibernators like squirrels. Scientists call what bears do "winter lethargy", which means they basically just zone out during the cold months. Not a bad deal, right? When you're a bear, you don't even have to bother with Do Not Disturb signs.

The Platypus - Looking like it decided to go to a Halloween Party dressed as Darwin's Missing Link, the platypus has puzzled and perplexed people ever since it was discovered. It seems to be going out of its way to be an oddball in nearly every respect, and sleep is no different. For one thing, playpuses are said to be the only mammal that doesn't dream, at least not as indicated by the study of dreaming. They have the deep REM sleep associated with dreams (in fact, they rank first among mammals in this regard, up to eight hours, compared to two for the average human), but not the accompanying frontal lobe activity. On the other hand, not being platypuses themselves, can scientists really say for sure whether they can dream or not? Which raises the question: if they do dream, can they possibly dream of anything more unusual than - a platypus?

It seems almost unholy, or at least not wholly appropriate, to name the Sloth after one of The Seven Deadly Sins. Though long thought to be champion sleepers (up to eighteen hours a day) a recent study led by Dr. Neil Rattenborg reveals that these slow moving critters manage a mere ten, not that much more than a human. And this on a diet of leaves so poor in nutrition that they are forced to conduct their waking activities at an exceedingly slow pace. "Lazy", indeed! They are just coping with their environment. Perhaps the true sloths are the folks who live on a diet of chips and suds when much healthier alternatives are readily available, but that might be taking us into Gluttony territory.

We come now to the Sultans of Somnolence, the champion sleepers of the mammal kingdom. I am tempted to give the award, with no further research necessary, to my own pet ferret, Rosie. Rosie not only sleeps more than ninety percent of her life, she has developed sleep into an art form. She can sleep in any position, from pretzel like contortions that make it impossible to discern how the body parts connect, to stretched out like a bear rug. She can sleep just about anywhere, including my head (I have a picture of this if you want proof)! Furthermore, she seems to never tire of finding new places around the home to sleep, which means precautions must be taken before throwing anything away. In general, though, although ferrets certainly rank in the higher echelons of sleepdom (at sixteen to eighteen hours) they don't get the blue ribbon. That honor goes to the little brown bat. These little guys get plenty of, er, "beauty" sleep (of the "eye of the beholder" type, it seems), managing a mere two to three hours of wakefulness per cycle. They have company; koalas and armadillos are animals with low metabolisms that sleep about twenty hours out of twenty four.

So there you have it. On a mammalian scale, we humans and our roughly eight hours end up pretty much smack dab in the middle. We share the world with creatures who make do on far less, and others who couldn't imagine life without at least twice as much. So if you worry that you're sleeping your life away, remember the lions and bears, kings of their realms, mostly dozing. And if you're frazzled from too few hours in bed, remember the stately giraffe, ever alert, ever watchful, going through life with eyes wide open.


They Shoulda Been Contenders!

Live from The Chicago Municipal Opera House, bequeathed to the city by Charles Foster (Citizen) Kane, it's Oscar Night! Tonight is a special ceremony, wherein we honor the Best Pictures to NOT win Best Picture. At what other venue could we possibly hold this auspicious event? Citizen Kane is more than just a great film that got snubbed by the Academy. It is widely regarded as one of, if not THE, greatest motion pictures ever made. In fact, so laden with accolades is Orson Welles' groundbreaking triumph, it seems unnecessary to award it with  something as trivial as an Oscar at this point. Better perhaps to allow the film that bested it, How Green Was My Valley, that one link to immortality. Leaving "Kane" aside, let us now focus our attention on some of the other masterpieces of film that were robbed of their Art Deco paperweights. 


Goodfellas (1990); When The Departed won Best Picture in 2007 (it was released in 2006), most movie fans considered it to be little more than a face saving way to present a Lifetime Achievement Award to its director, Martin Scorsese. It may have been his goriest crime drama, but it was hardly his greatest picture. This is the man who gave us Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, after all. Both of those films merited an Oscar, but it is Goodfellas that must be looked upon as the master director's greatest epic. The best gangster movie ever made? With its release in 1990, it certainly muscled its way into that conversation alongside Oscar winners The Godfather Parts I and II. Goodfellas is a cinematic tour-de-force, dazzling us with one unforgettable scene, camera angle, and performance after another. Surely every movie fan has riffed on Tommy's  (played by Joe Pesci) "Funny How?" monologue at least once. So, what movie did the Academy decide to laud as the year's best in its place? Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves. While not a bad movie, Costner's politically correct Western amply demonstrates that the freshman director knew less about making grandiose, sweeping epics than Scorsese had forgotten (which would be confirmed by later Costner "epics" The Postman and Waterworld). Early in Goodfellas, when the narrator, mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), introduces us to his mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert Deniro), one of the first things he tells us is that "Jimmy loved to steal!" One cannot but wonder how Jimmy feels when the shoe is on the other foot, because he, along with his wiseguy cohorts, wuz robbed!


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Here we have a movie so unusual, so utterly unique, so creative, so visionary, so unlike any other movie ever made that it basically changed our perception of the medium. To be sure, there were "art films" before (and no doubt inspiring) 2001. But it was 2001 that first dazzled us with the technology of filmmaking, the "special effects" that opened up doors undreamed of to directors and studios. If Jaws (1975) was the movie that ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster, it was 2001 which revealed the potential of what such films could look like, and the impact that makes on an audience. You don't watch 2001, you experience it, which was exactly what director Stanley Kubrick was intending. Plot? Secondary. Performances? Who needs 'em? The best lines, every single one of them, went to the disembodied, hollow voice of a malfunctioning supercomputer. What supplanted all of that was a VISION; Kubrick was out to entertain our subconscious minds, not the part of us that decides to get up and buy some popcorn. So, what beat out this cinematic work of the finest art? Well, it wasn't even nominated (though Kubrick was nominated for, and lost, Best Director), so you could say that all the nominees did. The award went to Oliver!, but Funny Girl and The Lion in Winter were also picked as better films. HAL 9000 wasn't the only thing malfunctioning in movie-land that year, it seems.

May I have the envelope, please? We now come to my personal pick for Best Picture Not to Win Best Picture, Sunset Boulevard (1950): Director Billy Wilder was firing off on all cylinders with this masterpiece,  directed from the height of his powers. Combining black comedy and noir mystery with a subject  he knew all too well about (Hollywood, with its egos and fantasy worlds), this, among all his works, seems his most personal statement. Did Wilder see himself as the writer played by William Holden, losing his soul to the gaudy seductress Norma Desmond (played to perfection by Gloria Swanson) who represented, better than any other role in history, Tinseltown itself? When Norma haughtily proclaims, "I'm still big! It's the pictures that got smaller!", is it her ego Wilder is poking fun at, or his own? Perhaps he himself didn't know for sure, but with this claustrophobic, surreal tragi-comic nightmare, he gave Hollywood its most searing and unflinching look at itself. Nevertheless, it's hard to fault the Academy this time. "Sunset" was bested by another great movie, featuring another stellar performance by the female lead. All About Eve is perhaps Bette Davis' finest film (and performance), and unquestionably deserved its Oscar. The only problem is that Sunset Boulevard deserved it too, even more.

Clearly, the Academy has made some dumb, historically indefensible decisions. Worst Picture to Win Best Picture? Hard to be objective in such matters. Some people see art where others are left shaking their heads. Did Titanic deserve its Oscar? This movie, perhaps seen by more people in the world than any other motion picture ever made, certainly delivered the goods in terms of spectacle and scale. But with its two dimensional lovers, and one dimensional villain, it is doubtful that it will be talked about in years to come as a masterpiece. Preachy Crash is a movie whose Oscar provokes many a temper tantrum by serious movie lovers. But for me personally, the "honor" can only go to Chicago!, which won in 2003 (released in 2002). Chicago! is a soulless, unabashedly amoral piece of doo doo. In Roxie Hart (played with neither charm nor sex appeal by Renee Zellweger) Hollywood gave us perhaps its most annoying anti-heroine ever. Featuring unwatchable dance numbers (literally, because they are shot so dark or cut so rapidly), pathetic lyrics, lousy performances, and an utterly bleak and sneeringly cynical viewpoint, in its defense I can only say that  some of the costumes are nice. Kind of. But Best Picture? Fugeddaboudit!

Maybe Norma Desmond was right. The movies really did get smaller. Consider that in 1972, Cabaret, a movie musical far superior to Chicago! in every conceivable way, lost  Best Picture to an even greater film, The Godfather (consider also the competition between Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve). 2001 would never conceivably be released by a major studio in this day and age. Hollywood is in a pretty bleak state right now, content to crank out superhero movies one after the other, or gory splatter-fests, or Will Smith special effects extravaganzas - noisy movies lacking the intelligence or wit of the films mentioned above. Great movies are still being made, just not with the regularity with which they once were. They are like oases in the desert, rare respites, refreshing reminders of the possibilities of filmmaking for we, as Norma puts it, "wonderful people, out there in the dark....."


Live At Gamuso

Last Saturday I was up on stage at a great event held in Gamuso, a live house in Asagaya, western Tokyo. Asagaya is a fantastic neighborhood, an both an area and an era - the 60s! It's an artsy, bohemian area with a happening street life and lots of little places to hear music. I was there as part of an organization called JAMBO International's www.jambointernational.com biannual musical event. Normally, I sing my own songs, but last week I felt like singing older, well known songs. So I went for "Over the Rainbow", "Amazing Grace" and "Let It Be". The latter is what you see me up there singing, alongside Yuki Band. (Yuki is playing keyboard on the right). 


Animal Farm

Here is an image I did of George Orwell, author of the dystopian novels "1984" and "Animal Farm". I will probably have a color version and essay to post along with it soon.