Column: Reckoning with the lost third of my life

Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JONATHAN STABLEFORD

For the Valley News

Published: 11-19-2023 5:00 AM

Lately, the notion of sleep, particularly the discovery that I seem to need more of it in this stage of my life, have been rattling around in my mind. I understand that my body needs sleep, and I’ll admit to a cowardly surrender to it at the end of a busy day; but isn’t sleep a scandalous waste of precious time?

This radical thinking is not new to me. Some 70 years ago, when I was a boy, I remember spending the night at my grandparents’ house so my grandfather and I could get an early start the next morning on a fishing trip. My excitement was almost unbearable, and when it was time for me to go to bed, I complained that I hated sleep. My grandfather smiled benignly and said that one day I would change my mind. He was a wise man, the kind of person people listened to, and I waited and waited for his words to come true.

Some 45 years later, at a small party to honor an uncle who had just turned 80, I heard some more wisdom about sleep. My uncle put down his glass after a toast and reflected on the changes that had come to him with age. The part that struck me most was the new pleasure — “sensuous” was his word for it — that he was experiencing in sleep. Today, as I approach his age at the time, I’m wondering if and when this second prediction will come true. I appreciate the refreshment that comes with sleep, and morning is my favorite part of the day; but what about all the books I could read if I could stay up all night?

Growing old is so much about loss, and for me the dissipation of the energy I once took for granted seems to lie at the heart of it all. When I was in college and graduate school, I did my best work at night between 10 and 2; it’s likely there, in the lonely quiet of those hours when weariness finally overtook me, that I distilled this personal notion of lost time. Think what I could accomplish — fluency in a dozen new languages, for starters — with six or eight more hours to my day!

Scientists will shudder at this frivolous dreaming, because without sleep there can be no life. Who doesn’t know that weary muscles regain strength overnight and that an exhausted mind wakes to renewed clarity? Just a little reading about the maintenance and tuning that the brain undergoes in sleep will make a skeptic into a believer.

But knowledge doesn’t always affect behavior. I spent most of my career teaching at a boarding school, and every year faculty meetings would devolve into despair over the sleeping habits of our students. We could talk like experts about circadian rhythms, but we could make no progress because our students were, after all, teenagers. The one place where I did have some success talking about sleep with teenagers was with the distance runners I coached. They all learned painfully that the quality of their sleep the night before a big race could mean the difference between 1st and 15th place.

Nearly a decade ago, at my 50th reunion at Williams College, I heard a funny story about students and sleep. My wife and I arrived early enough to attend a lecture entitled “The Neuroscience Behind a Good Night’s Sleep,” from a biology professor named Matt Carter. His words were fascinating and especially compelling to people our age because there is a connection between sleep and the body’s defenses against dementia. His real students, of course, were too young to worry about dementia; so the science they learned from him had little effect on their behavior. Still, he recalled one moment when they appeared to become believers. They were people, he said, who were socially active and careful about their personal hygiene, the kind of people who would shower at least once a day. When he described what happens to brain cells during sleep — a process like night cleaning in an office building where dirt and germs are scrubbed from the floors and surfaces by the maintenance staff and the daily trash is removed — he had their full attention.

So here I am, hopelessly stuck in the human condition, thwarted by a troubling paradox. One side of my brain understands the value of sleep, and the other mourns the loss of a third of my life to idleness. One way to ease the tension between the two sides is to be brutally honest about how productive I would actually be if I never had to sleep. Let’s look at the hour gained each fall when we set our clocks back. More than half a century ago when I was in college, we had a 2 a.m. curfew on Saturday nights when house parties had to stop, and our dates (fewer colleges back then were co-ed) had to return to the boarding houses or motels where they were staying for the weekend. On that particular Saturday in the fall when we moved our clocks and watches back an hour, 2 a.m. suddenly became 1 a.m., and to our minds, that meant the music could play on. Our reasoning back then could be attributed to youth and alcohol, but it’s likely too that grasshopper behavior has something to do with human nature.

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The Romantics believed that truth lay in the innocence of children; Wordsworth wrote, “The child is father of the man.” The Friday before this year’s return to Standard Time, our two granddaughters came to our house after school, and at some point my wife mentioned that we’d be setting our clocks back and gaining an hour on Saturday night. The 3-year-old, completely unfazed, continued a nonsense song while she rearranged her toys on the floor; but the 7-year-old perked up. “Good,” she said, “That means I can stay up an hour later.”

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.