I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately.
Through most of my adult life, I didn’t have what you could call a normal sleep schedule. It started when I was hired at 18 by a McDonald’s franchise to work the breakfast and lunch shift for the summer. This was in the mid-seventies, when the company had just discovered how profitable Egg McMuffins and pancakes were. When I told my father my hours would be 6am to 2:30pm Monday to Friday, he gave me a second alarm clock and warned me to set it along with my primary one, because neither he nor my mother would be up to wake me.
I got the message immediately, and am proud to say I was never late to work. On the weekends, however, I turned off both alarms and had no intention of seeing the letters AM on the clock. This desire was often scuttled by my mother banging on my bedroom door around 10am. She would ask, “Are you going to sleep all day?” To which I would snarkily reply, “I would if you’d stop banging on the door!”
This didn’t seem nearly as funny several decades later when I was the parent and had to wake up my own kid for school. I’d knock on her door to no answer, then walk in, saying her name, getting progressively louder until she awoke with a start and immediately yelled at me for being so loud. Believe me, I told her, I understood — but at least she was up.
During my years as a morning radio personality, I had a completely different relationship with sleep. Because I woke up at 4:00 or 4:30am (depending on the length of my commute) to be on the air 5:30-10am every weekday, you’d think I would have hit the sack relatively early in order to let my brain get seven or eight hours to recharge. But I couldn’t live on that schedule. Because my show was always very topical, I wanted to be awake during the evenings to watch whatever the must-see-TV shows were, or go to a movie screening, or see some news or sporting event I’d have to talk about the next day. In the years before the internet and DVRs, if I didn’t witness these things live, they were gone.
So, I broke my sleep into two segments. I’d get 4-5 hours of shut-eye at night. Then, every day, I made sure to take an afternoon nap. And believe me, I relied on those two or three hours. If my head wasn’t on the pillow by 2pm, I’d start dragging my whole body like Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”
What’s the secret to living on a schedule like that? You just have to acknowledge you’ll always be tired — but I knew all I had to do was get myself together for those four-and-a-half hours of live radio each day. And I was really good about jumping out of bed. There was no hitting the snooze button or having an alarm clock that woke me gently. I needed the jolt of a loud beep-beep-beep. By the third beep, I’d hit the off button, throw my legs over the side of the bed, and get into the shower, where my brain would be fully engaged, already thinking of things to talk about on the show that morning.
Life is very different in retirement. I don’t have anyplace to rush off to, so I never set an alarm. Living in suburbia, the only question at this time of the year is whether I’ll be able to get enough sleep before the drone of lawnmowers in the neighborhood wakes me up.
But there is one carryover from my years as an early riser. As the clock rolls towards 2pm many days, I still get the urge to crawl back into bed and take a nap for a couple of hours.
And my wife knows not to come banging on the door to wake me.