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Late Night with Richie

01.17.2008 | SOCIETY

The National Institutes of Health reported in 2007 that up to 70 million Americans have some sort of sleep problem. Researchers pulled an all-nighter completing the ten thousand word article posted on the NIH website, much of which, ironically, will put you to sleep. The bottom line, however, is that we are a very, very, busy nation—far too busy to sleep. And now we must add the purchase of expensive sleep remedies to our endless to-do list.

You know there's an even deeper problem when the best things in life are no longer free. Water, sex, now sleep. Air is next. I can no longer afford to live. If only I could afford to die. Sleep aids occupy an entire aisle at Walgreens. Sleep centers with "pods" for controlled somnolence are beginning to dot our urban landscape like McDonald's. I'll take fries with that nap, please. And a Frappuccino. Any day now they'll be putting Starbucks and sleep centers next to each other and letting them slug it out.

Which is not a bad metaphor for why this particular American problem is less likely to get solved than the subprime mortgage crisis, the energy crunch, and the national debt. Going to sleep at this point seems downright un-American. It feels a lot like withdrawing, pulling out, or aborting. There is a job to do, and we have to stay in there until that job is done. The whole idea of surrendering control is anathema to the U.S. It's better to feign control and eventually careen off a highway than give in to those irrational, elusive thoughts that crowd one's mind at the onset of slumber.

But you've got to start somewhere, and for 2008, I decided to start with myself. So last week, I came out. Not as a gay man. That's been done to death. I came out as an insomniac. If only there was someone else awake to tell.

At bedtime, I always think there's one more thing to do. Unfortunately, that thing is going to bed. That's okay, though. Working the de facto graveyard shift means less chance of being assaulted by a bill collector or sales call. As an East Coast insomniac, I prefer friends and clients on the West Coast. West Coast insomniacs are ideal.

How late is late enough? If The Learning Channel hasn't started running infomercials, I've turned in too early. Nick at Nite is the soundtrack to my life. Just another few minutes, please. It's never too late to start Googling random phrases to see what comes up.

When do I usually call it a night? When other people call it a morning. My too late and your too early are separated by about thirty minutes. When I hear my kids' alarm clocks go off, I know it's time to start winding down. I've seen thousands of sunrises, but from the wrong end. For good measure, I call people's office answering machines just before I go to bed to make them think I got up early. People tell me I'm missing life. I tell people they're missing the 3 AM rerun of Hardball.

Counting sheep doesn't work. Sometimes I count Leave it to Beaver reruns. I use a homemade over-the-counter soporific consisting of melatonin, NyQuil, Excedrin PM, valerian root, tryptophan, and a shot of vodka. I'm not addicted to this stuff. I just can't go to bed without it.

It's all good, though. In this world, a lot of pain occurs between the hours of eight AM and noon. I prefer to skip it. I am not a vampire, though having to get up for a lunchtime meeting sucks. My life is full of adventure and surprise. When I wake up and see a clock, my first thought is, "AM or PM?" When my wife asks me at dinner how was my day, I say, "I don't really know. It just started."

Truth is, I'm not exactly an insomniac. I get eight hours. Just not in a row. Sometimes it's spread out over several days. Sometimes it's at a stoplight. You do what you can. Naturally, I rely on frequent naps. When I say I'll be out this afternoon, I mean out cold. I can do anything on three hours of sleep except go back to sleep.

But eventually I do fall back asleep for another three hours. And that's what we call insomniac math—three plus three equals eight. Did I ditch my day job so I could live this way, or do I live this way because I ditched my day job? Does it matter?

I may be a rebel, but in this case there's not much of a cause. The central question is whether these are the only two viable alternatives—regimented sleep deprivation satisfying corporate America or unregimented sleep deprivation governed by one's own neuroses? The answer may lie in the Third Way. Allowing technology to take over for a few hours—voicemail, AutoReply, TiVo—may be the most patriotic gesture of all. The tricky compromise between survival and duty necessitates being there without really being there. Matter of fact, it's about 4 AM, now—time to hit "send" and doze off. I'll be checking my inbox around noon.

About the Author
Rich Herschlag is the author of a new book, Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk About Growing Up and Turning Hard Times Into Home Runs (HCI, 2007). His other books include Lay Low and Don't Make the Big Mistake (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and Women Are From Manhattan, Men Are From Brooklyn (Black Maverick, 2002).

Also an engineer, he runs a consulting business, Turnkey Structural, that specializes in the rehabilitation of residential and commercial buildings. Also a radio commentator, he can be visited at

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