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Callaloo 24.4 (2001) 1058-1060

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Better Than Counting Sheep

Charles Johnson

Although it embarrasses me to talk about my problems, I feel I have a responsibility to share with others the specific nightmare that took hold of my life one month ago, to share the condition I tried to keep secret but which was so obvious to everyone--especially to my colleagues and students in the Classics Department--to share the curse, if I may call it that, which began during the first week of classes this fall at the university, and how I discovered a cure.

Forgive me if I seem a bit evasive. My gift is not for gab but instead for solitary research, and it's not in my nature to talk overly-much about myself. In fact, I've always dreaded being the center of attention, especially at professional conferences, where the thought of delivering a paper, with all those eyes grabbing at me, only magnified the shyness I've suffered from since I was a child. On the whole, and in general, I'm happiest when I'm quietly absorbed in study or solving an arcane puzzle of scholarship. So yes, it's true: I've always been a rather fubsy, bespeckled man with Chesterfieldian manners and more than a little resemblance to the late actor Burgess Meredith, or so my colleagues tell me, and for three decades my life has consisted of shuffling back and forth between my classes on Plato and my carrel at Suzzalo Library--lost in the campus crowd as I usually am and prefer to be--then returning to my one-bedroom apartment on Queen Anne Hill, crammed ceiling-to-floor with books, where each evening I fix myself a simple bachelor's dinner and, while relaxing in my pajamas and slippers, study the newspaper or a few journals like Arion and Hellas (to which I contribute) through my large, round reading-glasses, and then around midnight I at last turn in for bed.

Here is where the problem began.

The long and short of it is that I could fall asleep easily enough, but only for a short time. After only two hours I was suddenly wide awake, staring into the darkness, as alert as if I'd drunk five cups of Starbuck's coffee in a row, my mind chewing on all sorts of cultural and scientific conundrums--for example, I could not stop thinking about the Poincare Conjecture (the Clay Mathematics Institute will pay anyone $1 million if they solve it). I kept brooding on questions like, What does it mean that water has been discovered on Mars? Will the Human Genome Project lead to genetic engineering? What are dolphins saying to each other with all those clicks, whistles, barks and screeches? Were they talking about us? Will the e-book replace paperback novels? And just what are the ingredients that make the gooey blob inside Lava Lamps bubble and burble the way it does? [End Page 1058]

These sibylline mysteries, as you might guess, can keep an old-fashioned humanist awake until daybreak, pacing the floor and pulling at his hair, and that is exactly what I did. Without sleep, I felt like a fried egg all during my morning and afternoon seminars. I drumbled home to my apartment in a daze. I fell asleep--yes--but only for two hours once again. This purgatory went on for thirty days.

By the eighth day I was desperate. There were puffy, dark pouches under my eyes. My sleep-deprived brain felt like one long smear along the inside of my skull. Yet, I had not truly been awake for that past week. Time felt fibrous, each moment unlocked from the next. Sounds, as they came to me, were faint, yeasting in the distance, a pate of noises that blurred into an indistinguishable hum. The world looked like it shimmered behind a haze of heat. Insomnia, as others have pointed out, is a kind of waking limbo, a dreamlike realm between the beta-wave state of wakefulness and the theta-wave state of...


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