Resting, Period

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I Googled “are Americans sleep-deprived?” and there were so many results, that I couldn’t decide which one to link, so I’ll justĀ let the reader do the work. Many articles confirmed my suspicion – something I’ve known about myself for years – that about 35% of Americans are not getting enough sleep. Many doctors, including mine, as well as researchers at the CDC, recommend adults get at least seven hours of sleep regularly. The thing is, sleeping through the night is not that easy, and, when you look at human history, it may not have been possible, at least for some groups. People who followed herds across vast plains may have needed to pick up and move at a moment’s notice. Also, the threat of lurking predators might have required sleeping with one eye open. A modern study was conducted on present-day hunter-gatherer groups, all in the equatorial area or in the southern hemisphere. It found that those groups’ sleep patterns were very much like those of industrialized cultures. These modern hunter-gatherers live somewhat cut off from other societies, with no electricity. The thought was that they would closely resemble our ancestors going back about 10,000 years (granted, they couldn’t reproduce every facet of the environment). So, if we are to accept the findings, all our electric lights, smartphones, monitors and screens of every kind, they are not necessarily to blame for the general sleep-deprived state of about a third of us. So why are we so exhausted all the time?

Everyone is different. I have a friend who really only needs about 5.5 hours of sleep every night. As for me, I am useless with less than 8. Lately I have found myself getting very sleepy, in spite of sitting in front of my computer, around 10:30. What I discovered is that since I have been working out more, especially training on hills, I’ve found I need more sleep. Apparently there is some science to this, but I was only getting results from body building sites when I Googled it. But I can say that after an intense workout (intense for me, a middle-aged office worker) I get sleepy earlier than usual, and I sleep “harder”. What I mean by this is my sleep is more resilient, more sound. My dreams tend to be more vivid, and I wake up with no soreness now. It seems that healing is among the benefits of sleep. The morning after a workout, if I’ve had enough sleep, I do not feel any pain I might have experienced while exercising, not that I’m pushing myself that hard, I’m just clawing my way back to a semblance of fitness, and I have a way to go.

About 15 years ago I decided to perform an experiment. I went without the use of any kind of alarm clock. I started this while I was on vacation, as it were, so I didn’t have to risk being super late for work if it went awry. The first morning was interesting. I woke up a little earlier than usual. I spent my day doing stay-cation kinds of things. That night, as I had pledged to do, I went to bed when I was sleepy. The next morning, I woke up, completely alert, at 5:25 am. That night, I was in bed around 9:45. I mean, I was out. That’s the thing about me: I have never had trouble falling to sleep. I just like to find things to do to keep my mind occupied. I continued living without an alarm clock for several months. That lasted until my job changed and I needed to work nights from time to time.

Sleep is kind of a waste of time. If we are to get 8 hours of sleep each night, that’s a significant portion of our time. Sure, we have artificially divided the day up into blocks of 60 minutes, regardless of how much daylight there is. 24 hours is non-negotiable in our society. So if I need more sleep than someone else, I feel cheated. Given the difference, I might waste the extra time. Maybe not. I’m guessing that the researchers who compiled the sleep data on those hunter-gatherers probably lost some sleep, working overtime. I hope they got paid well.

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How to Eat Breakfast

One summer ago, we had our roof re-shingled. Some people call it having a new roof installed. I think that’s a strange saying, because I envision a crew removing the rafters, the physical framework of the upper part of my house. But in this case, they simply mean that the shingles and the underlying protective layer are being replaced. Here in Texas we have extremes in weather, intense sun and heat, high winds, and hail. These elements really do a number on asphalt shingles. We hired a small crew to install the new roof, and they arrived every morning for four days, shortly before sun-up. As soon as there was a hint of daylight, several men, and one woman, were on our roof, stomping around, dragging cases of shingles and tools across its surface. There was no way to sleep through this.

I was never what you would call a “morning person.” I typically spend late nights working on little projects, writing, sometimes playing video games. Occasionally I stay up late with work. But I’ve always found something to keep from going to bed at a decent hour. But then here came these roofers, plodding riotously just above my head. Since there is a logical flow of events beginning with the emergence of daylight and culminating with the clamor of office work – phones ringing, chatter, and the tell-tale nervous laughter of hyperextended workaholics – once awake, I needed to get up. That time in between, thisĀ morning Thoreau spoke of, is meant to be relished, accepted with joy and dare I say, exhilaration, because morning is truly inspiring. Just ask all those dead poets and philosophers. Yeah, I thought so.

Inasmuch as I am a night owl, mornings do hold a certain mystique that I am still learning to appreciate. Things happen in the morning that you cannot reenact. One of these is breakfast. Breakfast, from the late Middle English for break and fast, in other words, a meal following a brief fasting period, albeit only 10 hours or so, is truly intended for mornings. I’ve had breakfast foods – omelette, waffles, etc. – at various times of the day and night. Yes, night. Something about IHOP at 11:30 pm is just kind of cool, or dorky.

My wife and I, therefore, were compelled to have breakfast together each morning. And even though this clamor of rooftop ballet lasted only a few days, we have continued to make and eat breakfast together every morning ever since. Breakfast in the US usually consists of eggs and bacon or ham. Some prefer pancakes. Our regimen includes oatmeal with fruit, coffee, and grapefruit juice. I prefer steel cut oats, but they take 30 minutes to cook. We sit at the kitchen table and actually talk about things – the expectations of the impending day, weird dreams we might have had, stuff we want to share – and we eat said breakfast.

I used to say that I didn’t have time for this, even though the idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day has been drilled into my consciousness for decades. Whether or not this is true, the ritual of sharing a morning meal has enriched my life. We carry it into the weekend, where additions are afforded, like sausages and eggs. on rare occasions, waffles. Each morning, preparations are made, and time is carved out for the spectacle. We talk about what’s going on with us, what plans we’ve made for the day. We compare schedules and talk about upcoming events. Quickly then, we clean up, and I get ready to leave. But I’m not in a hurry because I’ve carved out this time. It’s our time, not theirs. And that’s the beauty of breakfast.

I know very few people who have this luxury. But I see it as a necessity. Not the food, but the time spent relaxing and enjoying it; the ritual, the act of breaking bread. My perspective has in turn made it less of a luxury and more of a right, a privilege. I feel entitled to having a meal. I mean, food is a human necessity. Why do we feel we have to defend ourselves for making time to eat? I see my coworkers actually skipping lunch because of work. They say they have no time to take a lunch break. Not only is this absurd, but it is actually in violation of OSHA standards. There’s that precious time, that elusive time, the subject of many poems and songs. Why do we deny ourselves what is our fundamental right?

I still don’t think of myself fully as a morning person. Caffeine is a main source of my morning energy. But I have become somewhat of a creature of the morning now. The night still calls me, but lately I’ve found I actually look forward to sleep, and the following morning with that reward of coffee and and English muffin. Suddenly, the night has less appeal. It’s strange to see such a change in oneself. But these things happen. And I don’t lament saying goodnight to my old ways.