I’ve never lost a day. A few nights perhaps.
“Please bring a spray bottle of melatonin.”
It’s the day before we leave for Shanghai. My daughter is sending I forgot messages. I forgot Gabriel’s swim goggles. I forgot to pack the new baby monitor. I forgot the fenugreek capsules. Her tone is apologetic. She knows she’s adding to the anxiety of our pre-trip prep. In her WeChat message this morning, however, you can sense low-level desperation.
It’s the Please.
“Please, bring a spray bottle of melatonin.”
I’ve already packed 3mg tablets. I tell her that.
“Please. It has to be spray. The boys’ jet lag is killing us.”
Ah, sleep. Sayeth Macbeth, It knits up the ravelled sleave of care.
When kids can’t sleep, no one sleeps.
The time difference between Detroit and Shanghai is 13 hours. You have to cross the IDL. That will turn your world upside down. It’s day for night. Plus, you lose a day.
The International Date Line was discovered inadvertently by Ferdinand Magellan, when he circumnavigated the globe. Upon return in 1519, he realized he’d lost a day. The Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta chronicled the Portuguesee explorer’s discovery, noting:
The Spanyardes hauynge sayled abowt three yeares and one moneth, and the most of them notynge the dayes, day by day (as is the maner of all them that sayle by the Ocean) they founde when they were returned to Spayne, that they had loste one day. So that at theyr arryuall at the porte of Siuile [Seville] beinge the seventh day of September, was by theyr accompt but the sixth day.
I’ve never lost a day. A few nights perhaps. But never a day. Not like this.
Our plan is to spend one night in LA, fly out of LAX the next day. The time difference between Detroit and Los Angeles is three hours. Rather than flying 14 hours and losing the day (still difficult to comprehend) and facing the big lag in Shanghai all at once, we’ll ease into the new time zone, beginning with minor lag in LA. It just might work.
Except it won’t. And, really, it’s no minor lag. Lag is lag.
Furthermore, it won’t work because of the way I sleep. And don’t. I wake up early, every day. My new time to rise: 4:00 a.m. Detroit time. I’ve formed a habit. More than a habit, it’s become a lifestyle. So in LA I expect to be awake at 1:00 a.m. What will that be, 10:00 a.m. in Shanghai? Wherever I am, I will be awake at the wrong time.
My friend Rob goes to China on business—more often than seems humanly possible.
You want to know how to avoid jet lag?” he says a few days before we leave. Rob has answers. He really does. Lots of them.
Yes, I tell him, I want to avoid it. Or at minimum, at least minimize it.
“First, you avoid coffee two days before departure.”
“How would that be possible?”
“And alcohol for two days before departure.”
“Possibly even more impossible.”
“Listen,” he says, “this works. Two days, no caffeine, no alcohol. Then after you board, you immediately go to sleep, as soon as the plane takes off. Do you have a noise-cancelling headset?”
“Do you have a sleep mask?”
“Who doesn’t?” No, I don’t. But I think Delta usually hands them out.
“Don’t eat the dinner.”
“And don’t drink the drink, I assume.”
He says you sleep as long as you can. When you wake up, you have three cups of coffee. Really get yourself caffeinated. And you’ll need exposure to light.
“I like to go the back of the plane,” he says, “pull open the shade, and just stand there, looking into the sun.”
It pleases me, somehow, to think of Rob staring at the sun. He would be smiling. “For how long?”
“You have 7-8 more hours to fly. Soak up the light. Watch movies, read. Enjoy yourself. Go look at the sun. When you get to Shanghai, it’s evening. Get to the hotel. Go to bed.”
We’ll be checking in on the grandchildren, sleepless in Shanghai, and their bleary parents. So going to bed is unlikely.
Anyway I contemplate this strategy late at night, at my son’s, when we reach LA.
Note to self: When you spend the night in a strange house, locate the light switches before you go to bed.
True to form, I wake up at 1:00 a.m. Force myself to stay in bed another hour or so. When I can’t lie still any longer, I stumble into the living room where, along with everywhere else in the house, it’s dark. On the kitchen stove, the digital display reads 2:30. On the kitchen counter I know there is an espresso machine. I figure: Why not?
Another note to self: before you go to bed at night, locate the coffee can for the next morning.
Kitchens are tricky. I look for light switches, take a chance on one next to a door, figuring it’s safe, far enough from the sink. I flip the switch and of course garbage disposal comes to life. In the dead of night, its metallic whine is deafening. I give up on the coffee, take a seat in the living room, read daytime WeChat messages from the exhausted ones in Shanghai. An hour or so after I get up, I hear a helicopter roaring across the sky. It seems to hover in the near distance, it must be low, reminding me of the Los Angeles helicopters in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.” Or was it Michael Mann’s “To Love and Die in LA?” Life is mysterious at 3:00 a.m.
There’s a name for what I do, for my condition: advanced sleep phase syndrome. (Some researchers refer to it as a disorder. I prefer syndrome.) According to the National Sleep Foundation: “The sleep rhythm is shifted forward so that 7 or 8 hours of sleep are still obtained but the individuals will wake up extremely early because they have gone to sleep quite early.”
That’s me, all right, except for the 7-8 hours part. I’m 5-6. On a good night, 6.25 – 6.5 hours.
Recent research reported in the journal Neuron suggests I may be stuck with abbreviated sleep and slugfests with jet lag. As you age, certain mechanisms in the brain go on the fritz. I will never again sleep till noon, except maybe this week in Shanghai, which is unlikley.
Matthew Walker, a sleep and neuroimaging expert at University of California Berkeley notes, “Evolutionarily, sleep is about the dumbest thing you would ever do.” (Along with use “evolution” as an adverb.) Asleep, you are an your most vulnerable. You’re not hunting and gathering, or looking after your kids, or keeping a lookout for predators. It may be evolutionarily dumb, but sleep we must.
The syndrome is treated with BLT. No kidding. But not that BLT. (I wish.) The solution is Bright Light Therapy. There’s a bright light box, a bright light visor. These devices help tune your suprachiasmatic nucleus, and by association your circadian rhythms.
Which is why Rob drinks in the sun at the back of the plane. Sousing his suprachiasmatic nucleus. Reprogramming his circadian rhythms.
I might try it. But in these matters I am not an optimist. We’ll all be stuck in jet lag, unless melatonin in whatever form (mist, tablet, cocktail) delivers us. I can only hope.