Monday, October 31, 2011

Not Sleeping

“He hates wasting time—a category that includes, for him, sleeping.”

Sam Anderson writing about James Franco

I once heard an interview with an Israeli artist who had just won an international award for her art and activism. She was also the mother of two young children.

“How do you find time to do everything?” the interviewer asked.

The woman laughed carelessly. “Oh, I don’t sleep very much,” she said, as though this fact were amusing. “Four hours a night or so.”

This glib treatment of sleep is part of the mythology of the superheroic, those people who seem to achieve more in a day than is humanly possible. It makes sense. If you want to sleep for eight hours, then you must fit your job, your hobbies and passions, your family and friends and love life, your exercising and cooking and eating and house cleaning and showering and brushing your teeth all into sixteen hours per day.

I am always overcome by guilt when I hear these superheroes boasting about their inhuman feats of wakefulness. That is why you can’t seem to balance work, writing, kickboxing, seeing your friends and family and cleaning your apartment, I scold myself. I’m sleeping too much.

Look at actor James Franco. He did four years of college in two years, attended four graduate programs at once while filming about five movies and publishing a book of short stories—none of this is an exaggeration. He thinks sleep is a waste of time. Just think of all the awesome things I could get done if wasn’t wasting all that time being unconscious.

For most of my life, I too considered sleep to be a waste of time, some need my body was trying to impose upon my mind, as though it didn’t realize that my mind had more important things to be doing. I pulled regular all-nighters starting in middle school, drinking endless cups of microwaved instant coffee, blasting cassette tapes to keep from getting too sleepy or too depressed as I lay awake studying on top of my unmade bedcovers.

In college, I used to haunt the recreation room of my co-op into the early hours of the morning with my textbooks and my electric word processor, writing the endless string of essays that were my lot as an English major. At 3 a.m. I would take a coffee break with the speed freaks and architecture students, the only people who stayed up later than me.

I knew it wasn’t good for me. I had a friend in college who somehow got eight hours of sleep every night, until he started hanging around with me and some other night-owls.

“I feel horrible,” he told me one day. We had stayed up until four studying for our morning classes. “I’ve never felt this depressed. I feel like the whole world is horrible and disgusting.”

“Oh, that’s just because you didn’t sleep enough,” I told him cheerfully. “I always feel like that.”

I remember how my professors never seemed able to comprehend how sleep deprived most of us were, especially in graduate school. After a night seminar, one professor asked us if we were going home to watch the same TV show that she was planning to watch.

Our jaws dropped in disbelief. She thinks we have time to watch TV?

“No, we have to study,” one of us said.

“What, now?” she asked in horror. “It’s nine-thirty!”

Another, crankier professor chastised us for our distraction during the last week of the semester, the week when we all had four twenty-page term papers due.

“What’s wrong with you people? It’s like you’re all on speed,” she said, in a stern voice, not a joking one. From the way she said it, it was clear she did not think this was an actual possibility.

Now I am the clueless professor, relatively well-slept and herding a flock of exhausted students of my own. Lots of the time they can barely keep their eyes open. They lay their heads down on the desk, lifting them only to send frantic text-messages and enjoy their breakfasts of candy and energy drinks.

If you ask them to make a time-management schedule of their week, you’ll see why they’re so tired. Their schedules are packed from morning to night each day. Lots of them work two jobs. These jobs might only total twenty or thirty hours a week—that seems to be a typical amount—but that’s enough to suck up every available hour that they could be studying. They go to school from nine to three, start work at four, get home at ten-thirty at night.

“When will you do your homework?” I ask them.

“At eleven,” they say.

“Do you think that’s actually going to happen?”

They smile grimly. “Probably not.”

Often it doesn’t, and they come to class with their work half-done. But for something important like an essay, they do stay up and work, and they come to my class angry, disgruntled, hating the world like I once did.

It’s my job to cheer these students up and get them to do things. I use my perkiest voice, trying to buoy the room with the helium of my enthusiasm.

Come on, wake up! It’s ten o’clock! That’s not even early!

This semester, though, I signed up to teach too many units. I have classes and meetings all day long. There seems to be enough time in a week to prepare for my classes or grade my papers but not both. I am back to the old student way of life, where there are twelve time-consuming things to do before Thursday and perhaps enough time to do three of them. I’ve been sleeping five or six hours on weeknights. In college, this would have been a good amount of sleep, above average. But now I have much lower tolerance for feeling horrible and hating the world, so it seems like pitifully little, especially as it adds up over the course of the week.

Now I remember what it feels like to be sleep deprived from too much work. It explains the flashes of resentment I see cross my students’ faces when I hand out their writing assignment, as though by giving them what they’re paying for—writing instruction—I am subjecting them to some horrifying injustice. They can’t help it. When someone asks you do to something impossible, it’s hard not to resent them just for a moment, even if you are ninety-five percent sure that you will eventually buck up and do the impossible thing.

These days I am just as resentful as they are. I hand their graded assignments back grudgingly and begin to ramble my way through the lesson I have been up planning since four in the morning. So what if I’m not explaining it very well; I only slept four hours. You can have me coherent and unprepared or prepared and incoherent—your choice. Okay, so I spelled a word wrong on your handout. I’m tired. I’m really, really tired. Screw you guys.

Part of my job is to uphold a system that causes our students to feel this way, not for just one bad semester but every semester. I feel guilty about this all the time.

“How can we expect them to sacrifice sleep and health when we’re not even willing to do it?” I ask one of my colleagues.

“They’re in college, we’re not,” she said. “We paid our dues when we were in college and now we have earned the right to get a full night’s sleep.”

It sounds like the simple logic of hazing, but it’s more than that. We really don’t think they’ll learn everything they need to know unless they have more work than is humanly possible to complete. That’s the logic of education: you need to cram in as much as possible, as much as can be done in eighteen or twenty hours of wakefulness. The future success of America rests on your shoulders, and every hour you sleep is time you could have spent working.


Bonny said...

It's funny how the students are so sleep deprived but sleep is absolutely critical in learning for the brain. I always feel guilty that I don't sleep (early) enough. But these days sleeping too early can also be considered lame! Lack of night life, getting old...etc. Here's an interesting science show on sleep that I found some time ago:

Again, love your post!

Karin Spirn said...

That's a funny coincidence. The hosts of radiolab were being interviewed on NPR this morning, and one of the listeners was saying how the episode on sleep was their favorite. I think I heard it a long time ago, because I remember it talked about people playing tetris in their head as they fall asleep, which I've totally done. (Also woken myself up doing boxing drills). I'll have to listen to it again.

Krystal said...

I used to say "I'll sleep when I'm dead", but it almost killed me. Now, I take my sleep very seriously, and I've cultivated a sensitivity to my mood and mental performance that encourages me to abide by good sleep habits. For me, sleep pays off in the enjoyment of my waking hours so much more than having extra hours but feeling drained would. I still experience the ingrained anxieties about going to bed, though. I battle it by diving gleefully into bed, looking forward to the wealth that my dreams offer. Sleep is not a waste of time. Dreams are therapeutic and entertaining. What are we if we cease to dream?

Karin Spirn said...

Yes, I too have come to value the sleeping. Right now I feel like I'm half asleep all the time. Evidently you need sleep to be really awake when you're awake, like you need sadness to know when you're happy.

My very smart friend talked me into dropping a class next semester, so this should be a temporary state of affairs...It's nice to be old so we can care about our health, isn't it?

Claire Nobles said...

Very well written Karin! I seriously agree with this. I resent my job all the time because I realize that it makes me work harder and takes up all of my energy so that when I get home and want to do my homework, I am far too exhausted and I fall asleep early. My boyrfriend and I have become like and old couple where 8:30pm is late for us! It's very aggravating. Some days I wish I could take a pill and be perfectly awake for a full 24 hours twice a week! That'd be so much easier.....

Karin Spirn said...

Hi, Claire! Yeah, like I said in the blog, I feel really guilty about having to make my students be sleep deprived, as though I am hazing them by putting them through what I went through in college. And you guys all work so many hours at your jobs; I can't imagine how you get your homework done. Hope you are getting a little rest this semester!

Adam Hunter Caldwell said...


Karin Spirn said...

Taking the same catnap each day and expecting the same result is literally the definition of insanity.

Melinda said...

I used to be a night-owl, too. But then I got a job that required me to wake up at 5:30am and all that changed. I suppose that getting married had something to do with it as well.

Like Claire, I somehow became the kind of person who thinks 8:30 is late and says things like, "I was up til midnight. Can you believe?" Getting up at 6:30 made me feel like half my day was gone.

Recently, though, I've been sleeping really really late, til like 9am sometimes, and this is kind of disturbing. I know I'd been exhausted for the last few months, but it's the first time in a long time that I've gotten what I'm afraid might be too much sleep.

Karin Spirn said...

Do you have to get up at 5:30 for your job now? That is hard to imagine. How do they expect you to go out drinking at all the bars that need to be reviewed?