In Praise of Napping
I should say in advance that if you turn your nose up at napping, you take issue with Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK and Jackie, and Ronald Reagan. You also question geniuses like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali.
With such an illustrious list of practitioners, you’d think that what the Spanish call a “siesta” would be beyond reproach. Not so. Back in 2011, when fatigue in airport control towers caused a series of near misses, Federal Aviation Administration chief Ray LaHood said, “We’re not going to pay controllers to nap.” Even when presented with proof that sleep breaks would be beneficial, the chief remained humbug on the idea.
For LaHood and millions of Americans, the phrase “caught napping” conveys what we really think. The first word all but accuses the second of laziness, lack of ambition, even delinquency.
Home economics guru Martha Stewart damned naps with faint praise when she said, “I catnap now and then, but I think while I nap, so it’s not a waste of time.”
As an armchair expert and connoisseur, I can assure Stewart and all novices of the simple arithmetic. Reclining + Cogitating = Insomnia. And Insomnia ≠ Napping (feline or otherwise).
I have too much empirical evidence on my side to be swayed by detractors. Still, why does lying down on the couch in St. John’s pastor’s study for what Margaret Thatcher called a “zizz” embarrass me a little? The short blasts of rest that kept Thatcher sharp during the Falkland Islands War should embolden me.
As should her legendary predecessor, Winston Churchill, who actually put on pajamas and slid between the covers for at least an hour, usually longer. He claimed the rest helped him squeeze 1.5 workdays into 1.
His rationale was almost poetic: “Nature had not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”
He was arguably the world leader most responsible for defeating Hitler. In retirement, between midday oblivion and glasses of Johnny Walker Red with a splash of water, Churchill wrote a 1,600,000-word history of World War II that earned him the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature.
If you’ll admit that I’ve built a solid case thus far, I’ll return the favor with my own concession. Some recent studies have indicated a connection between long naps and premature death as well as the eventual onset of diabetes and heart disease. If you want to follow up on these leads, be my guest. I can’t help but wonder if some folks whose siestas drag on until dusk are dealing with major, health damaging stressors.
If you don’t think stress can plunge you into full-drooling REM sleep every afternoon, let me bend your ear. I first acquired my taste for naps thirty years ago when a series of challenges pointed out my limitations in every theater of life.
When some situations demanded emotional chops, I had a glass jaw. When others called for firmness and discernment, I employed what one Buddhist teacher calls “idiot compassion.” As a young father, for example, I mistook permissiveness for easy-going wisdom.
In short, for a good thirty years I lay my beleaguered self down, as did baseball great Yogi Berra, who took “a two hour nap from 1:00 to 4:00.”
Thankfully, realities that used to sap my spirit have mostly gone on hiatus, and looking a full day in the eye no longer requires hiding my head under the covers halfway through.
Rest at midday has become a sweet blessing. A few weeks back I had a late lunch at daughter Elena’s house. Grandsons Cole and Killian were deep in their usual dramas of make believe, so it was a surprise when the former said he would join me for a nap.
We sprawled on his single bed, my eyes closed and his fixed on a Magic School Bus cartoon. Occasionally I watched his features in profile, his delicate eyelashes and waves of red hair.
After fifteen minutes, he said, “I’m getting up, Pop,” and headed to the living room.
Ms. Frizzle and her students talked on the bus. My loved ones laughed and chattered down the hall. I wasn’t tired at all, but kept still in gratitude for an old habit begun out of desperation and aged into surprising joy.
And I saw that it was good.