Wednesday, March 29, 2006

"I'm on Tokyo time."

Woke the 12 year old for school this morning with my usual jokey, "Time to get up! It's morning in America," which surprisingly hasn't yet been answered with the nearest hard object being winged at my head.

"It's morning in America," I cried cheerfully.

And from under his covers the 12 year old growled, "Yeah, well, it's sundown in Tokyo and I'm on Tokyo time."

I feel for the kid. His school day starts at 7:30 and he has a one hour bus ride, so he has to be up, dressed, combed, brushed, and fed by 6:30. That means waking him at 5:45 so that he's out of bed by 6. It's physically painful for him some mornings. It was worse in the winter when he had to do it in the cold and the dark.

He's never been an early riser, for a kid, and as he approaches adolescence I expect that he'll be even harder to dislodge from his slumbers. Because as every one knows, teenagers need more sleep.

Well, as almost everyone knows.

Coturnix, who runs the indispensible science and politics blog called, um, Science and Politics, is a biologist working on his Ph.D. and he has a second blog, Circadiana, devoted to his field of research, sleep (snooze-ology?). He has a good introduction to the subject of sleep and sleep patterns in adults and others here, Everything you always wanted to know about sleep (but were too afraid to ask), and a follow-up here, ClockNews---Adolescent Sleep.

Upshot, somewhere around the time they turn 30 most adults fall into a sleep pattern they more or less stick to for the rest of their lives. Some people are night owls, going to bed late, sleeping late, or as late as they can. Others are larks, rising to sing before the dawn and nodding off ten minutes after the supper dishes are washed and put away. Most everybody else falls somewhere in between, with idiosyncratic variations.

I'd call myself a night owl, except that I rarely sleep in, even when I don't have to drag a surly 12 year old out of his bed. In fact, the happier, better rested, and better exercised I am, the less sleep I need, so that when I'm down on Cape Cod I barely bother to close my eyes.

But I'm also a napper. Weekends and on vacation I can sleep less at night because I sleep for a good hour or two in the late afternoon. Naps, or rather the absence of naps, is one more piece of evidence that America is a barbaric country. When I was a kid I thought the idea of a siesta---the whole adult world stopping everything in mid-afternoon to take a nap?---was the most civilized concept I'd ever heard of, and I haven't changed my mind.

So I'm a night owl who cheats. And as it happens I believe that one of the ways God punishes sinful people while they are still alive is by marrying them off to spouses with exact opposite habits and zero sympathy for the sinners' quirks and peculiar needs.

The blonde isn't a lark, but she needs her sleep. She sleeps long and she sleeps deep. Logs, stones, the dead, the just, bears in winter, newborn babes, and the clear of conscience are light sleepers next to her, nervous, jumpy, easily startled types who shoot out of bed with wide-open eyes at the merest pindrop of sound like alarm clocks, telephones, screaming children, and the occasional firecrackers going off right next to their pillows.

Sleep comes to her like an old friend at about 9 or 10 o'clock, they embrace, and stroll off to the bedroom together, and there's no stopping them, and don't you dare interrupt them, for the next 9 hours exactly.

I knew what I was getting into. Back in college, before we started dating, we worked on a class project together. One night our group had a meeting at our apartment. The meeting lasted a few hours and we finished up about midnight, early by college student time, I thought. But after seeing the gang to the door I returned to my room to discover that one of us hadn't left. One of us was sound asleep on my bed.

At this time I did not know that the blonde and I were going to wind up married. She hadn't even informed me yet that we were going to start dating soon. At that moment I had no particularly warm feelings for her at all. I felt a mild, friendly pity. "Poor kid," I thought, "Guess she's had a hard day. Better wake her up and send her toddling on home."

I gave her shoulder a gentle shake.

I spent the night in a chair.

In the morning she couldn't understand why I was so grumpy and rude or why I wanted to crawl into bed and not go skipping off to my first class. Since that happened to be the class we were in together she guilted me into going with her.

That's been our life ever since.

I was telling this story to my pal Margot the other day. Margot's a borderline insomniac like me. Turns out her husband is like the blonde. When it comes to sleeping, he's a natural.

Like I said, this is the kind of joke the Almighty likes to pull on the wicked.

The blonde is one of those rare birds whose sleep patterns have remained constant throughout her life. Most people, to get back to my original point, change their sleep patterns during adolescence, because of the simple fact that teenage bodies and brains are growing and changing wildly and the whole process is mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting.

Everybody knows this.

Everybody except, apparently, school administrators who schedule their districts' school days exactly as if the opposite was true, starting their high schools' days at the crack of a winter dawn. There is absolutely no good reason for this.

I've heard it suggested that it's a left over from the days when most people lived on farms. Not true. Farm kids do have to get up early---to do chores. In farm communities school days started later and ended earlier to give the kids time to do those chores.

Chew this one over: School days used to be shorter, summer vacations longer, and kids learned better how to read and write and cipher. I'm thinking class size figures in this, but also all the rote memorization and reciting out loud helped.

I've heard it suggested that the early start has to do with transportation costs and logistics. But the current school day has been in place for at least three generations and seventy years ago most schools were neighborhood schools and the kids walked (up hill, both ways, in the snow).

I've heard it suggested that it's so that the day can end in time for sports practices and extracurricular activities. But 70 years ago most schools did not have big sports programs and offered fewer extracurriculars, and besides what would be so bad about having play practice between 4 and 5:30 instead of between 3 and 4:30?

Ezra Klein had a post on this very same subject back in January, Death to the Morning! Lots of interesting speculation developed in his comment thread but no conclusions were reached or persuasive answers given.

My guess is that the day is as it is because of assumptions about the maturity of high school students and Puritanical beliefs in the need to start treating them like grownups who have to learn sooner or later that life is stern and earnest and they'd better get used to being miserable all day just like their parents.

Amazingly, I might be right. Coturnix wrote the other day, "The shift in sleep-phase of adolescents is one of the best documented and most studied phenomena in human chronobiology." But that doesn't mean that the right people are reading the studies:

I am often alarmed at the levels of ignorance still rampant in the general population, and even more the negative social connotations of sleep as an indicator of laziness.

Nothing pains me more than when I see educators (in comments) revealing such biases in regards to their student in the adolescent years. Why do teachers think that their charges are lazy, irresponsible bums, and persist in such belief even when confronted with clear scientific data demonstrating that sleep phase in adolescents is markedly delayed in comparison to younger and older people?

What's this? There are teachers who don't like their students?

Of course there are. I've known a few, even though being a teacher and disliking students would seem to be a matter of not liking to teach, period.

But there are teachers who don't like to teach. And there are lawyers who don't like to argue, doctors who grow woozy at the sight of blood and think their patients are whiny malingerers, politicians who hate public speaking, truck drivers who don't like to sit still and bus drivers who don't know the meaning of the words traffic safety, art critics who are philistines, movie stars for whom acting is an embarrassing chore, priests and ministers and rabbis who don't believe in God, engineers who can't do the math, misanthropic philanthropists, anti-authoritarian cops, vegetarian butchers, acrophobic airline pilots, agoraphobic socialites, spendthrifty bankers, cowardly generals, and lactose-intolerant dairy farmers.

Why, down in Washington, there's a whole passel of journalists who don't like to report the news.

There are even bloggers who get sick of the sound of their own typing.

Time to end this.

Anyway, I need a nap.


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