On napping

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“The Army Rolls Out a New Weapon: Strategic Napping.” That was the headline on an October 1st article in the New York Times. I found it very heartening that the army, that repository of so much of our culture’s machismo, was lifting the stigma from an activity that has been seen as a sign of weakness, of – God Forbid – femininity. The army’s announcement joins those from various college campuses and businesses that have even proposed setting aside spaces where people can indulge in this heretofore forbidden pleasure with the full support of the powers that be and without being labeled “weak,” the worst epithet one could receive from our current president.

For me this change in the public perception of napping rises to the level of the legalization of marijuana. Napping is a secret pleasure, one I no longer have to keep under wraps. In fact, I’ve recently heard myself publicly offering advice to others about the best length for nap times – about 25 minutes. After that you move into a different stage of the sleep cycle and are likely to awaken groggy and a bit out of sorts. More about that in a minute.

One of the pleasures of my retirement has been the inclusion of a nap time as regularly as I can manage it. Before the quarantine, I tried to structure my days so that I could be in classrooms or individual meetings into the early afternoon, return home in time for a late lunch and a nap, followed by whatever other public business was on my agenda from mid-afternoon on. Now that much of the outside world has been canceled, scheduling naps is easier and more fluid. They can happen at any time during the day, whenever my body signals the need. If I have slept badly during the night, a nap after breakfast will make for much more efficient writing, like what I’m doing right now. (The truth is that I’m fighting off a desire to nap at this moment. I’ll let you know if I succumb.) If it’s past mid-afternoon, my body may still be calling for a nap, even though indulging that late in the afternoon might threaten my regular nighttime sleep schedule.

Indulging is the wrong word for the kind of napping I’m talking about, which is more like a physiological necessity. If I don’t attend to my body’s call, I’m likely to doze during reading or stare aimlessly at a blank screen while I’m writing. Napping restores my ability to work effectively. The need for naps depends on the kind of work you’re engaged in. When I was in the classroom through a school day, napping was as far from my mind as it is for a forester trimming trees all day. Activity and a constant drumbeat of responsibility for others chases away thoughts of sleep. It was only when I left the classroom for the different rhythm of office life that I found everything slowing down to the point where I needed to put my head down on the desk at times. What I was doing did not have the urgency of keeping 25 students engaged. Half an hour’s removal from the office work at hand would cause no harm and would likely go unnoticed.

It’s also the case that for many people their nighttime sleep patterns preclude the strong need for napping that I experience. I don’t get anywhere near the recommended eight hours of sleep. My wife has drawn me into her lifelong night owl routines, so we are usually not asleep till 12:30 AM, and I, in turn, have accustomed her to waking around 6:30. Factor in the greater frequency of sleep disruptions that come with age and you have the definition of sleep deprivation that can best be addressed either by napping or caffeine. Since I gave up the use of caffeine many decades ago, napping stands alone as the only solution to inadequate sleep time, short of upending the total rhythm of my daily schedule.

So, here’s what it looks like when I hear the call of napping. I set the timer on my cell phone to 21 minutes and slip it under the pillow on my couch. I don’t nap on my bed. Crawling under the covers is an invitation to a longer sleep than I need. I take out my hearing aids and remove my glasses and place them in a bowl on the coffee table out of the reach of my curious cat and with that the world recedes.  Apart from rare failures, I’m usually asleep within a minute of my head hitting the pillow. I will admit that there are occasions when I’m acutely sleep deprived when the 21-minute signal fails me, and I sleep on for twice that long. It’s those times that confirm the physiologic wisdom of limited napping spans because I almost always awaken groggy and worse off than I would have been without the nap.

The resistance to napping seems to be deeply ingrained in the Protestant ethic that continues to hold sway in our culture. When our family began traveling to Spain and Italy in late 60s and early 70s, we were exposed to siesta cultures where it was assumed that people would head home for a lunch substantial enough to almost force the need for a nap before returning to work around 4, ready for a work day that lasted into the early evening. In the words of Andre Aciman in Call Me by Your Name, “Who can resist sleep at 2 or 3 in the afternoon in these sunlit parts of the Mediterranean?” I remember how astonished we were on a visit to Seville in Spain when we watched – and smelled – our neighbors preparing their dinners at 11PM. That kind of schedule further reinforced the need for that delicious afternoon nap. It reminded me of the schedule our night owl daughter fell into in high school: stay up till 2AM, return from school around 4PM and almost immediately head to her room for a nap. And repeat.

So, if the life you lead allows it and if your body cooperates, I encourage you to put aside the bad rap you’ve heard all your life about this pleasant reprieve. You may not be impressed with the elegance of what I’ve written, but if it has any merit, mark it up to the naps that have fueled it as I worked on it over these past two days.

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Marv Hoffman

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