Just let me sleep!

December 5, 2010 at 4:34 PM 2 comments

A computer scientist I know reportedly gets by on four or five hours of sleep a night. By four in the morning, and often earlier than that, he is at his computer working out an algorithm, answering e-mail or reading the blogs he follows. Much to my dismay, I just waste my time when I can’t sleep, and the only thing I manage to accomplish is a higher state of anxiety.

My most recent bout with insomnia came over Thanksgiving at my parents’ house. I got into bed around 11:30, which is more than an hour earlier than I usually go to bed. By two I was wide awake, tackling my problems, humanity’s and the world’s.

I should have gotten up to read. Fifteen years ago when I had insomnia, I read Crime and Punishment, Washington Square and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I was freelancing back then and didn’t worry much about slogging through the next day in a stupor. I used to wonder what I would do when I had to work at a full-time job. Sure enough, at IBM, I had plenty of sleepless nights, and some afternoons I had to sit with my head in my hands while I dozed for a couple of minutes. Even more challenging was my rush-hour drive home on the Saw Mill River Parkway. I got to know a lot of music by Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen, Eva Cassidy and Schubert really well because they helped keep me awake.

At my parents’ house, though, I didn’t get out of bed to read. I lay awake thinking about everything that is wrong with my life, humanity and the world.

Gee thanks, Assange

The deficits in my life are few but provoking: No man, no second novel, and in a couple of months, maybe no job.

Humanity? I wouldn’t go back to sleep until I understood why the German people who were so bloodthirsty in my parents’ generation are so cooperative today that they are even willing to bail out Ireland. The fact that they do so begrudgingly doesn’t matter. So, they’re irritated. But nobody’s talking about putting the Irish in concentration camps. I was awake until seven in the morning and I didn’t come up with an explanation for the German psyche. What a wasted night!

The world? The problems here only underscore how powerless I am to solve global warming, a nuclear Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, an uncompromising Hamas and a weapons-amassing Hezbollah, to name a few dilemmas that gamboled across my mind. The fact that even people with power and influence do not have answers for any of these problems didn’t help me fall asleep, and I only have Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to thank for that.*

Oh, and by the way, is there a God? Ask yourself that at two in the morning and chances are you won’t fall asleep until the new year.

Getting to the bottom of insomnia

On my sleep-deprived trip north on the New Jersey Turnpike, I tried to look insomnia square in the face. I decided my mistake was to tamper with my routine. Besides going to sleep earlier than usual, I also had skipped exercising in the morning and evening. I had sat in traffic on Thanksgiving morning, which added an hour onto my trip. And I ate meat twice in deference to my mother who insists that vegetarianism, even for one meal, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Maybe if I stuck to a routine, I would be able to get through any night with my eyes closed and my mind shut.

How’s that working out for you, you may ask?

Comes 4:30 this morning, after three solid hours of shut-eye, and good morning! I was able to fall asleep again, but I couldn’t turn off a dream about looking for my car in Manhattan. I scoured my parking receipt for an address, but this was a mess-with-yo-mind receipt, Dreamland’s specialty, and I couldn’t find it.

In charges my conscious mind with sensible advice: “You’re dreaming. Wake up!”

Hello, Conscious Mind! I’m an insomniac! Don’t tell me to wake up!

So, I’m fighting my conscious mind, which gives my unconscious mind an opportunity to butt in, and the next thing I know, I’m dreaming about a terrorist aiming a bazooka in my direction. People on the street duck for cover, and slowly, slowly, I do too. The terrorist looks black and somewhere between my unconscious and conscious mind, I realize I’m a racist. I can’t deal with that, so I start counting backwards from a thousand. By 5:00 I am blotto and still awake.

With three hours of sleep, I’m not ready to take on the day, so I do what I often do: I listen to WNYC. Even though I like the programs, I can count on the BBC World Service, the annual Hanukkah Special and Krista Tippett’s Being to tire me out. It’s one thing to worry about yourself, humanity and the world in the middle of the night, but who wants to think about them first thing in the morning? You might actually have to do something — and action in the real world is so tiring… zzzzzz.

* Here’s the SNL segment about Assange.

The photo credit in this post belongs to LOL Pups.


“Insomnia” by Jorge Luis Borges

Of iron,

of bent struts of enormous iron the night must be made

to hold in all the things that have crowded my eyes

ll the hard things that try unbearably

to burst her sides and bottom.

My body has roamed through levels, temperatures, lights:

in cars on long trains,

in a banquet of men who hate one another,

on the jagged edge of the suburbs,

in a warm villa with dripping statues,

in the full night where man and horse abound.

The universe of this night

is as vast as oblivion, as precise as fever.

In vain do I try to distract myself from my body

and the vigil of an incessant mirror

which multiples it, lying in ambush,

and the house that repeats its courtyards

and the world that extends to the last broken-down


of clumsy mud and alleys where the wind grows tired.

In vain do I await

the disintegration, the symbols that come before sleep.

Universal history goes on:

the tiny course of death through the cavities in our teeth,

the circulation of my blood and of the planets.

[I have hated the crapulous water in a puddle,

the bird singing in the early hours.)

The tired, incessant miles of this suburb in the South

the miles of garbage-strewn, obscene Pampa, the miles of


refuse to leave my memory.

Flooded lots, slums huddled like dogs, puddles of fetid silver;

I am the hateful watchman of those unmoving placements.

Wire, embankments, dead papers, scraps of Buenos Aires.

Tonight I believe in fearful immortality:

no man has died in time, no woman,

no dead person, for this inevitable reality of steel and mud

has to traverse the indifference pf all who are dead or asleep

— though they hide in corruption and in the centuries —

and condemn them to a ghastly sleeplessness.

Rough clouds the color of wine lees will stain the sky,

and dawn will come to my tightly closed eyes.

From Poems of the Night by Jorge Luis Borges, a dual-language edition with parallel text. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Efrain Kristal. General editor: Suzanne Jill Levine. “Insomnia” was translated by Christopher Maurer.

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Entry filed under: Family, God, Insomnia, Love, Politics, Race, Religion, War, Working. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Pesha  |  December 6, 2010 at 10:14 AM

    Just reading about insomnia tires me out!

  • 2. Sara Bennett  |  December 6, 2010 at 12:35 PM

    I really relate to this. I used to get so much reading done in the middle of the night. Now, I’m too lazy to reach for a book, so I just try to relax my mind instead. I think I should go back to reading. At least it’s rewarding.


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