John Lennon sang about it. Hamlet got suicidal just thinking about it. I shut off the phone and close the drapes so I can do it when I please. Sleep is my chief luxury. I am jealously protective of my sleep routine -- not just the duration, but the timing. I will sleep when I choose. You're not the boss of me.
Early in life I noticed that I was not one of those blessed souls who could function on three or four hours a night. I aim to get eight; will settle for seven. Any less and the effects are noticeable. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. My back goes out. The gambols of laughing little children make me homicidal. The top is shaved from my emotional responses and my surroundings are drained of colour. My cockpit warning lights will flash. A mechanical voice will sound: "Pull up; pull up…"
Can't… make… the… controls… work….
More researchers are pointing out the benefits of sleep, and the societal dangers of getting too little. A recent study of medical residents published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that sleep deprivation can be more debilitating than alcohol consumption. "People think it's macho to get by on small amounts of sleep, then wonder why they're groggy and exhausted by mid-day," says James Maas, PhD, a psychology professor at Cornell University. "At some point people started thinking eight hours of sleep is slothful, which shows enormous ignorance of sleep's benefits. Just an extra hour or two causes huge rebounds in happiness, productivity and creativity."
Go to bed, Steve
A quick scan of current sleep research mostly serves to highlight how little we know. Researchers frequently admit that they are only guessing at the purposes and benefits of sleep. One gets the impression that the state of sleep research in 2006 is comparable to the state of psychiatry circa 1930 -- it's a field that is still groping in the dark.
Many people demand a good night's sleep to function well. My issue, however, is not just with quantity of slumber. It's when I sleep. I am a confirmed night owl. Generally I hit the sheets at 3:30 a.m., awake at 11:30 a.m. I shut off the phone so that the world cannot upbraid me for my maverick snooze routine. Freedom of the sack demands its prerogative. I will sleep free or die.
I don't actually mind being up bright and early once I'm forced into it. It's going to bed early that kills me.
There is probably a lot of little boy in all this. I have a near-pathological hatred of being forced to go to bed early. It is a rebuke to my hard-won adulthood. I run my own ship -- I decide when to sound "Lights Out." The knowledge that some pending commitment will force me to alter my routine does not just ruin my day, it can ruin several.
People underestimate the difficulty of drastically changing one's sleep pattern on short notice. It's not a case of simply going to bed early. Unless you're popping sleeping pills (almost always a bad idea) it's my experience that drowsiness does not arrive until at least 15 wakeful hours have passed. I can't simply go to bed at midnight and sleep. You can't change your patterns overnight. An unavoidable morning appointment can play havoc with my week.
But I'm a late sleeper. Late sleepers get no sympathy. They are bums. The fact that I am awake and productive long after most folks are snoring means nothing. Those who waste the sunlight hours are judged slackers, whether they spend more hours in bed or not. I know this by now. Any complaints from me about having to rise early will be greeted with scornful laughter. Best to make some other excuse. (At least on the west coast I get a little more sympathy -- most of us have suffered at the hands of those arrogant Torontonians who pay no attention to the three-hour time difference when they start making their morning phone calls.)
The vicissitudes of travel have toughened me a little. I've learned to get by for long periods of wakefulness. Like a camel in the desert, a traveller must tolerate dry spells. Eventually though, the oasis must be found. Until I get a solid nine- or 10-hour makeup sleep at some point, no matter what country I'm in, things will start going south. I once got into a one-sided screaming match with a giant security goon in Rome. The argument was about access to a stairway, but the real cause lay (wide awake) elsewhere. This argument ran on jet-lag fuel.
It wasn't Mr. Goon's fault that trucks full of garbage cans rattled past my cheap Roman hotel at 6 a.m. every morning. And I do appreciate the fact that he didn't pummel me into tourist jelly.
Sorry, Signor -- it was just lack of sleep screaming.
Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture critic. After he stayed up late writing this, he took off to sample some of Europe's best beds. You can read his first dispatch here.
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