News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

January 23, 2012

MIKE LUNSFORD: Hoping to master the art of taking a nap

I got away from work as early as I could one day last week. It was a cloudy day, filled with grayness and rain, and my head felt as if I had inhaled my pillow the night before. My throat suggested I’d swallowed a wood rasp, too, and my eyes felt as though I was looking through someone else’s glasses. Yet, I had work do, this column being on the list of chores.

I made it home and through the front door, crawled out of my teacher duds and into a pair of jeans, plowed through our kitchen’s medicine shelf to see if I could find a miracle drug that would make me feel better, and headed out to my cabin desk and chair, which on that day was about as inviting as a bed of nails.

Plodding along my keyboard at a sloth’s pace, I considered taking a nap and leaving the writing to another time, perhaps another day altogether. I simply wanted to drop what I was doing, head to the house, furl myself into a corner of our family room, and drift off. I thought it would do me a great deal of good to have shut my eyes for a while. I think it would help all of us to do the same every now and again.

Eventually, I let my story, the teetering stack of ungraded papers, and a few other odd jobs go undone. I moped to the house and grabbed a half-hour of sleep, knowing that the way I felt, the down time wouldn’t disturb my night’s rest at all.

I hope to someday master the art of napping, and I have good reasons. For instance, I recently read a piece in Newsweek titled “31 Ways to Get Smarter-Faster,” and coming in at No. 6 was “Sleep, A Lot.” Who am I to argue with science? Who am I to doubt Harvard researchers who are saying that long after we go to sleep, our brains “continue to process memories…”? I can’t comprehend The Theory of Relativity; taking a nap, I get.

If anything, I am a student of history, and the subject tells me that some of our greatest leaders and thinkers were also nappers. Margaret Thatcher was a napper; so was Albert Einstein, who supposedly napped with a pencil in his hand. When the pencil dropped to the floor, he jostled himself awake, ready to tackle other dimensions. It was said that Thomas Edison never really slept at night at all, surviving instead on a series of catnaps throughout the day; no one ever complained about his productivity. Ronald Reagan napped well before he got into the untimely habit of dropping off during Cabinet meetings, and fellow presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were also known to catch a few minutes of shut-eye during the workday. Bill Clinton says he naps, too; I’ll take his word for it.

Winston Churchill slept often during the day; he was known to do paperwork, write, even paint in his bed, and he did it in his pajamas so that when he felt a nap coming on, he’d be dressed for the occasion. Florence Nightingale took frequent naps, too; so did Napoleon, and the story goes that when two assassins tried to get to Harry Truman while he lived in the Blair House (the White House was being renovated), he was still in his underwear after the commotion woke him from his nap.  

The truth is, napping has a bad reputation, but that may very well be changing now. From Dagwood Bumstead, who is often found on his couch by that pest of a neighbor, Elmo, to Seinfeld’s George Costanza, who went to great lengths and expense in one episode to have his work desk built with a hidden bunk installed, the general impression of napping is that it is for the lazy and uninspired. I beg to differ.

Bob Hope was a napper, and he lived to be 100; Johannes Brahms literally slept at his piano and said that he dreamed of tunes he would later write down. Who, then, could deprive this poor writer a nap before he sat down at his keyboard to write a few paragraphs?

I already have a documented personal history of napping. My mom used to remind me that I napped as a kid with our old gray cat, Tom, and that I used to sleep near the blowing heat of our furnace’s registers. Noticing that I was a bit too quiet, she’d eventually investigate, only to find us, basking together in the warmth that only fuel oil could provide, a tacky old green and pink cotton blanket pulled up to our chins.

It’s a fact that many companies these days — Google and Nike being two of them — often provide their workers places to nap during the work day, primarily to hone their creative blades. I saw a television program last year that showed Google’s napping areas, complete with futuristic sleeping “pods” that offered ambient sounds, temperature controls, soothing colors, even aromatherapy. I have put in suggestions for such a place where I work, but my administrators haven’t gotten back with me yet.

According to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek from the summer of 2010, writer Jasha Hoffman says that short naps have been shown to “improve alertness, memory, motor skills, decision-making, and mood.” I don’t know about you, but I sure would be in a better mood if I got to take a nap at work every day about 1 p.m. In my opinion, pre-schoolers have it right: get me on a mat on the floor some afternoon, and I’d be out like a light — no crackers or milk required.

I have had bouts with insomnia over the years; it is my understanding that about 30 percent of all Americans struggle with it from time to time. Although I sleep better now than I did for much of the last decade, I am known to sometimes be in bed by 11 p.m., only to be awake by 1 a.m., spending the next four hours or so staring at the illuminated dial of my watch through bloodshot eyes and enviously listening to the measured breathing of a wife who recharges her batteries without moving a muscle all night long. 

I don’t care whether it is Stage 2 sleep, short-wave sleep, or REM (rapid eye movement), I need at least 40 winks (an idiom that has a disputed origin), or I get a bit crabby. Happily, the nap I took that late afternoon must have done the trick. I awoke to grade papers and eat supper and act like a decent human being the rest of the evening. 

This afternoon, after work, my wife and I walked a while at school, then I came home to work a bit in the yard, and bag trash, and fill our bird feeders, and repair a little wind-blown siding on the house, and, yes, to write this story. 

No nap was needed, but it’s always nice to know that I have the hang of it now.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com.  He will be speaking and signing copies of his newest book, “A Place Near Home,” at the Marshall, Ill., Public Library at 6:30 p.m. (CST) Feb. 23.

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