“When others might applaud, gasp or weep, I fall asleep”

Novelist and short story writer Elizabeth McCracken on why her journeys always end up in la-la land
“When others might applaud, gasp or weep, I fall asleep”

Wendy Fox

When you are as good at falling asleep in public as I am, you may come to see this as an athletic ability. I have fallen asleep in the great cities of the world, and the small towns. I have been jolted awake by train conductors, and slept beyond my bus stop more times than I care to count. I am so good at falling asleep on planes that I like to see if I can’t do it in the moments between taxi and take-off. I always win this challenge. You are a baby in a buggy, I tell myself. Then it’s dreamtime.

My greatest skill — or perhaps deficiency — is my tendency to fall asleep in theaters. I don’t think I’ve seen an entire movie in my adult life. But this is a victimless crime. It’s worse when I fall asleep in front of live performers. I did this at a Boston Symphony Hall production of Handel’s Messiah, during the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the rest of the audience standing up around me. I did it in front of a wall of speakers at a Pat Metheny concert in Rhode Island. And I did it during Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre in Prague, where Mozart debuted the opera centuries before.

I did not fall asleep at a circus in the suburbs of Paris, but my late father did (somnolence runs in the family), just as a baby elephant began to bat a ball into the audience, who batted it back—elephant, audience, elephant, counter-clockwise around the tent. As the ball approached my dozing father, I felt a level of suspense I have failed to match since. My mother, who is the most gifted public sleeper of us all, once napped on her mobility scooter at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s dumb luck that she didn’t crash into anything.

I don’t blame her. There is something about motion that makes our condition worse. This is why I avoid bus tours, ocean cruises, gondola rides, tuk-tuk trips and scenic helicopter flights. It’s highly unlikely I will ever travel on the Orient Express, for the simple reason that I don’t like the idea of spending $15,000 for a snooze.

It isn’t that I want to fall asleep. It’s just that I am happy to be wherever I am. I feel comforted and cheery, and then—no matter how interesting the aria or the passing countryside—I realize that nothing, nothing in the world will feel better than drifting away, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow audience members, my fellow travelers. I trust them. They will watch. They will let me sleep.

This backfired recently when I fell asleep in London at an excellent but sparsely attended production of The Dresser. I meant to stay awake, but my head lolled. I woke up and fell asleep and woke up again. Maybe the lolling was obvious. Maybe I snored. Perhaps I quoted Shakespeare in my sleep, but suddenly an usher in a white shirt—all I know of him for sure—shook me and said, “You have to stay awake!”

Did I? Do I? There I sat, in the dark and yet exposed.

Still, I don’t regret it. How can I? It is the truest part of my personality. I travel far. I sit in an extraordinary place. And then — when others might applaud or gasp or weep — I let the dream of travel join my own dear dreams.