My graduate work at UCLA was difficult no matter how you might care to look at it. The subject matter was obscure and mostly useless: Semitic languages—specifically, Akkadian (two dialects: Assyrian and Babylonian; written in cuneiform, a writing system consisting of about 600 polyvalent logographic symbols), Aramaic (three dialects: Imperial, Biblical, and Syriac—and two separate alphabets); and Hebrew (Modern, biblical, and a closely related Canaanite dialect, Ugaritic, written with a cuneiform alphabet). On top of that, I managed a year of Ancient Greek, a couple of quarters of Ancient Egyptian and two full years of Sumerian. Not to mention having to learn French and German, since a master’s degree in my field required a familiarity with one modern European language and the PhD required a familiarity with a second. There was also a course in epigraphics where I somehow managed to also study some Phoenician and become fluent in Moabite (no great feat: all that survives of the language is one short text, which happens to be very similar to Aramaic; once you’ve read that text, you’ve learned pretty much all the Moabite that still exists).
I was usually taking between fifteen and seventeen units at a time and it was not uncommon for me to be studying four different languages at the same time. This was not as confusing as one might think: I never once got mixed up, though admittedly I occasionally had trouble coming up with the words I needed for the class I happened to be in. For instance, I remember once in a German class needing to say something and only being able to remember how to say it in Hebrew. But I knew it was Hebrew, not German.
At the same time I was torturing myself in this way, I worked thirty to forty hours a week at the Burbank Airport driving a shuttle bus to and from a parking lot. And remarkably, during the three years of graduate work, I somehow met my future wife and dated her. Many of our dates consisted of late nights at Denny’s eating French fries and drinking coffee while we both studied—she was studying to become a school teacher.
Now, think about the time requirements for this madness: five days a week in class at UCLA for fifteen to seventeen hours per week, commuting time to and from UCLA, home and work I was spending two or more hours a day just driving to where I needed to be. Obviously I was still young and foolish.
Unsurprisingly, sleep deprivation and I became close friends over the course of the three years of graduate study. I averaged just a bit over four hours sleep a night during the school year, though I managed a bit better during the summer and holiday breaks. Somehow I avoided falling asleep for any extended period while I was driving, though it was a close thing.
When my wife and I got married, we took a two week honeymoon in a cabin next to Lake Tahoe. I spent the first week of that honeymoon mostly sleeping: I had a lot of sleep to catch up on and it had been years since I’d had a vacation.
I have learned since then about the dangers of sleep deprivation. We tend to think of sleep as wasted time—I know I did when I was at UCLA. I had hopes that coffee would somehow keep me from feeling exhausted but I learned it was completely ineffective for that. Sleep deprivation can cause depression, heart problems, high blood pressure and weight gain. Sleep is not a luxury, it is not laziness: it is necessary and I was crazy to keep the sort of schedule I kept. It’s a wonder I survived, let alone successfully graduated and got married to my wife of now thirty years.
I had hopes that once I had completed my graduate work my days of going without adequate sleep would be behind me.
I forgot to reckon with children.
When they were infants, they would require attention at the most unpleasant hours of the night and so I became reacquainted with the feeling of graduate school, stumbling through my days.
Since they have become teenagers, they mostly stopped awakening me in the middle of the night—until my youngest began manifesting the mental illness that she still suffers from.
Now, she is generally well-medicated, but she still has mild episodes that are problematical, and she requires more care and supervision than a normal teenager would, given that her overall maturity level is that of a child of somewhere between eight and twelve, even though she is seventeen.
During much of the day, I have to help her with her school work: she’s on independent study and only goes to her high school once a week for testing. This means sometimes my writing work has to be done during the early morning and late evening.
But now I’m aware of the dangers of inadequate rest. I no longer view sleep as time wasted. I recognize that it is as important as eating right, exercising, and work. Despite the temptation to stay up longer or get up earlier, I have trained myself to never get less than an average of seven hours of sleep per night. I refuse to reignite my relationship with my old friend, sleep deprivation