Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Insomnia rarely is much of a problem for me, but, like most folks, I have the occasional night when sleep hovers out of reach but just close enough that getting up and doing something else seems like a bad idea. Too much evening caffeine is usually the issue in my case, though frets and worries always contribute. Eventually the windows brighten, my cats (far more reliable than any alarm clock) demand breakfast, and I get up to face the morning in even more than my usual daze.

These sleepless episodes don’t worry me too much. I know slumber will arrive in its own good time. I learned this as long ago as 1974. That was when I clocked my personal record for continuous time awake – and with the aid of no stimulants stronger than coffee. On a Tuesday morning in that year, I was acutely aware of a deadline. Two research papers, one of 5000 words and the other 10,000, were due on Friday, one at 11 a.m. and the other at 1 p.m., for two history classes at George Washington University, located in downtown Washington, DC. Both papers still needed substantial work.

I spent the next 75 hours awake doing research (sans internet, in those benighted days), writing, editing, typing, and also attending other classes. I took breaks for snacks and meals but did not sleep a wink. At 10:40 a.m. on Friday morning, I finished typing the very last bibliography entry, quickly sealed each paper into its respective cover, and hurried out of my dorm. I still recall the sensations as I strolled along F Street. I didn’t actually feel sleepy. Sleepiness per se had departed 24 hours earlier. Instead, my vision was fuzzy, all the sounds of DC traffic were muted, and, as my feet trod the pavement, I could have sworn that big soft pillows were strapped to my shoes. Door handles felt as though they were made out of foam rubber, and it surprised me that they didn’t bend when I pulled on them. I remember how far away the voices of my professors sounded in classes that day, and how it didn’t occur to me to listen to what they actually were saying.

The papers were delivered on time. They were page-turners: The Impact of a Vulnerable Grain Supply on the Imperialism of Fifth Century Athens and A History of Land Use in the Township of Mendham from Colonial Times to 1974. Fear not, I have no plans to post either here. Though writing these did not put me to sleep, reading them must have been a soporific experience for my professors – assuming they did read them. Each paper received an A-, which leads me to suspect they didn’t; I wouldn’t have scored either so highly.

After class, I returned to my dorm room, which was about the size of a walk-in closet, but was at least roommate-free. The clock read 2:20. I dropped onto the bed. When I awoke the clock read 9:35. My first thought was, “I must have left the light on.” I didn’t. It was not, of course, 9:35 Friday night, but 9:35 Saturday morning. I had just set another personal record, this time for hours of continuous sleep.

I never tried to break either record since then, and don’t intend to do so in the future. I do know, however, that, sooner or later, sleep assuredly will come, and so will the morning.

Scene of the crime:

My dorm room at GW.

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