I set the stove timer for twenty minutes, which is much easier than fussing with the alarm clock. By the time I’ve taken five steps toward the great room, Gracie–who has been fast asleep all morning on one of the kitchen chairs–has wakened, dashed down the steps past me, and is waiting on the back of the couch. I unfold the quilt as I shake my head at her. “You could have just stayed where you were, you know, silly one.” She purrs richly. “OK. Nap time!” I announce as I lie down and draw the small quilt over me. Gracie curls herself up on my knees in what is now the warmest place in the house for her. Within moments we are both asleep. It is one of our little daily rituals.
When I first retired, I felt guilty for sleeping during the day, as though I were being lazy, wasting time, and all of the other things our culture thinks about workers/people who are being unproductive. Even though I was no longer teaching, I should at least put in a day’s work at something, I felt, whether writing, gardening, reading, chores, recreation, or some combination of these. Eventually I just gave up the guilt and admitted that I am one of those people who needs a daily nap, and that this is no character flaw. There is no Nappers Anonymous.
It turns out that I am in very good company. Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Salvador Dali all found daytime sleep important to them, as did Yogi Berra, who once said, “I usually take a two-hour nap from one to four.” I understand that completely.
The majority of other mammal species are polyphasic sleepers, meaning they sleep for several periods in the course of twenty-four hours. It is no accident that Gracie sleeps so much: in the wild, lions will sleep for up to twenty hours every day. My little lion doesn’t rack up that many hours, but apart from getting up to eat, to sit on the windowsill and give the birds and squirrels the stink eye, to explore the cellar and greenhouse to discover whether anything live and chaseable has gotten in, and to tease me into playing with her or chasing her (either way is just fine with her as long as she’s getting my attention), Gracie sleeps. I am envious sometimes because she looks so darned comfortable.
Until fairly recently, humans were thought (at least by Western science) to be monophasic sleepers, our days divided into two distinct periods, one for sleep and one for wakefulness. Increasingly, however, sleep science now suggests that if we weren’t regulated by clocks and schedules, we would more likely be biphasic sleepers, spending eight to ten hours in slumber at night with another period of sleep sometime during the afternoon. The siesta, far from being merely a cultural adaptation to the afternoon heat of Latin countries, may actually be the sleep pattern with which we are all hard-wired.
I got to thinking about the importance of napping when I saw a piece on the evening news about sleep pods being installed in some high schools in New Mexico so stressed-out kids can nap for twenty minutes before taking a major exam, or during last period study hall when they know they have an away game and won’t be home until very late at night. It’s a good idea, though I will say the cost of the high-tech pods just to give kids a place to snooze is staggering. After all, teens (and their exhausted teachers) have been putting their heads down on their study hall desks for a lot of years now, and apart from some snores and drooling, it works out just fine.
The trick of napping is not to sleep for too long, however. Many people wake from a midday snooze feeling groggy, and it may take awhile for them to feel alert. Apparently the difference between awakening refreshed and waking up just the opposite has to do with the stages of sleep. Stage 1 is the drowsy state in which the sleeper is aware of gradually relaxing and drifting off. It lasts about ten minutes, and is followed by Stage 2, in which the person has crossed over into actual sleep. At this stage much of the information processing and memory consolidation we do during sleep happens, which is why the trick of reviewing class notes, then sleeping for twenty to thirty minutes before taking a major exam is probably working for those teens in New Mexico. The optimal time to wake from a nap is at the end of a Stage 2 cycle. If the napper sleeps on into Stage 3, which is deep sleep, he or she is much harder to waken (if you’ve ever shut off the alarm in the morning and not even remembered doing it, you were probably in the middle of a Stage 3 cycle when the alarm went off), and wakes up groggy and probably grumpy, too. Better have the coffee ready.
Congresswoman and civil rights leader Barbara Jordan once said, “Think what a better world it would be if we, all the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.”
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?