Pen Ultimate Sheep Passing in the Night

Who came up with the idea of counting woolly animals as a method for inducing sleep?

Winter mornings have this effect on a person: You wake up and know you must get up and behave like a productive member of society, and yet you peek out from under the covers and barely see any light outside - as if it is still the wee small hours of the morning. And you're dying to go back to sleep.

One then wonders: Exactly which are the "wee small hours of the morning"? Merriam-Webster defines "small hours" as "early morning hours." "Wee small" is a double diminutive that means "very small" - in this case, the "very early" hours of the morning. Depending on how you look at them, they could also be the "very late" hours of the night.

What makes the hours "small"? Maybe if it's really late, you're having fun and time flies, the hours do seem small - that is, short. If, on the other hand, you have trouble falling asleep, the clock's hands don't seem to move and time drags on interminably, the hours loom rather large.

Why is it that, when Frank Sinatra had trouble falling asleep after things began to go sour with Ava Gardner (for you youngsters, they were the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of those days), he decided to call his 1955 "concept album" (in this case, a collection of similarly melancholy ballads, arranged by Nelson Riddle) "In the Wee Small Hours"?

The title track of the album, written especially for Sinatra by David Mann (music) and Bob Hilliard (lyrics), was actually self-explanatory: "In the wee small hours of the morning / When the whole wide world is fast asleep, / You lie awake and think about the girl, / And never ever think of counting sheep. / When your lonely heart has learned its lesson / You'd be hers if only she would call. / In the wee small hours of the morning, / That's the time you miss her most of all."

My problem, at least on one recent wintry morning, was not Sinatra's. On the contrary: I wasn't suffering from insomnia. I awoke at the prescribed time, felt like it was still very early and desperately wanted to go back to sleep. Being conscientious, however, I knew - while trying to steal a few more precious moments under the covers - that I had to get up. I'll count to 100, I decided, and then I'll rise, but I definitely won't shine.

I began to count numbers, but quickly my mind drifted on its own to counting sheep. By the 16th sheep, I almost began to hum the very popular Israeli song of that name (from a book and cult concept album of the same title, written by Yehonatan Geffen and composed by Yoni Rechter), when I realized that the whole process might lull me back to sleep. Which made me wonder who had come up with the idea of counting sheep as a method for inducing sleep - and why.

That was intriguing enough to prompt me to sit up, set up the laptop and google "counting sheep." Predictably, the first entry was Wikipedia, which declared: "Counting sheep is a mental exercise used in some European and American cultures as a means of lulling oneself to sleep. In most depictions, the practitioner envisions an endless series of identical white sheep jumping over a fence, while counting the number that do so. The idea, presumably, is to induce boredom while occupying the mind with something simple, repetitive and rhythmic, all of which are known to help humans sleep."

What about the sheep themselves, I thought: They must also be bored, forever jumping around in countless insomniacs' minds.

While this extremely common concept could not be linked chronologically to any one source, Wikipedia did provide a reference from 1832. It came from the seventh chapter (called "Too Late") of the seventh volume of "Illustrations of Political Economy," by Harriet Martineau. She describes a landowner observing how sheep owned by an impoverished farmer crossed a fence in his own field: "It was a sight of monotony to behold one sheep after another follow the adventurous one, each in turn placing its fore-feet on the breach in the fence, bringing up its hind legs after it, looking around for an instant from the summit, and then making the plunge into the dry ditch, tufted with locks of wool. The process might have been more composing if the field might have been another man's property, or if the flock had been making its way out instead of in; but the recollection of the scene of transit served to send the landowner to sleep more than once, when occurring at the end of the train of anxious thoughts which had kept him awake."

It seems Martineau hit the nail on the head: What made the man sleepy was the futility of counting sheep, which jumped from nowhere to nowhere. If trespassing or an escape from some horror had been part of the story, the landowner would likely have been shaken out of his reverie.

In any event (again, according to Wikipedia, and a few other sources), Ms. Martineau was born in 1802 and died in 1876. A controversial English journalist, political economist and philosopher, she was also an abolitionist and a life-long feminist. Indeed, she has been called the first female sociologist and the first female journalist in England. When I checked with some of my best feminist friends, it turned out that her name and fame were news not only to me.

I spent the next couple of hours reading about Martineau, and was interested to discover that at one time, her writings - on sociology, politics, economy and education - sold more copies than the novels by her contemporary, Charles Dickens. But she did not have any illusions about her success, and was quoted as saying: "Readers are plentiful: thinkers are rare."

Apparently, Martineau aspired and succeeded to be "a free rover on the breezy common of the universe." She supported herself by journalistic and literary writing, and traveled to America and pondered the fate of women there, wondering: "Is it to be understood that the principles of the Declaration of Independence bear no relation to half of the human race?"

What made me admire Martineau most, however, was the obituary she composed for herself: "Her original power was nothing more than was due to earnestness and intellectual clearness within a certain range. With small imaginative and suggestive powers, and therefore nothing approaching genius, she could see clearly what she did see, and give a clear expression to what she had to say. In short, she could popularize, while she could neither discover nor invent."

I'll settle for one like that.

Finally, at this point, I was ready to get up, and brace myself for yet another day. I recalled American Jewish humorist S.J. Perelman's response to a cab driver, who parted with him on a New York street by saying, "Have a nice day." Perelman's retort: "Young man! I'm 74 years old and I shall have whatever sort of day I like."

And may the sheep jump on.