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Sleep, a twin-sized hobby

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Scott Gardner

When I was starting out as a teacher in Japan, I often asked students to introduce themselves, including their “hobbies.” When discussing hobbies I always ran into the same two problems. The first concerned “natural” usage: framing questions about hobbies in a way that sounded normal (to me, at least). Perhaps as a new teacher you too may have gone through a stage where you winced every time you heard students starting a dialogue with the question, “What is your hobby?”—like “hobby” is interchangeable with “name” or “tax bracket,” and you can only have one at a time. The other problem was a semantic one, because certain activities that I hesitate to call hobbies kept creeping into the discussion. “Sleep” appeared most frequently. Technically, sleeping is a body function as basic as breathing and blinking your eyes. Biologically prompted efforts to stay alive shouldn’t be considered hobbies. But I suppose in another sense sleeping can be a perfected skill, and people who develop that skill may deservedly pride themselves in it. Take for instance those who can sleep while standing on a train, or those who can sleep through a trigonometry class without the teacher noticing. These are not easy tasks, and there is a beauty in them that also appears elsewhere in nature. For example, some animals that routinely find themselves at the lower end of the food chain have developed patterns on their bodies resembling huge eyes, so that even when they’re asleep they give predators the illusion of being wide awake and perhaps quite dangerous. (Allegedly one rare species of moth in South America has markings on its wings that spell out the word “boo!”) And horses can also sleep standing up, although they prefer to lie down when playing concentration-intensive games like mumblety-peg. Sleep is the “Dark Continent” of history. We know oodles about what happened in the world during the waking hours of the last two or three millennia, but very little about what happened at night, while everyone was asleep. I wonder how many decisive battles in history hinged upon one or another military leader’s attitude toward sleep: First Officer: Emperor Napoleon! Wellington and his armies have marched double-time all day to arrive here and do battle with us. They are weary. It may be a good idea to attack them tonight in their sleep before they recover. Napoleon: Sneak attack at night, huh? That sounds like it just might work. Tell you what—prepare an outline of what you have in mind and we’ll call an officers’ meeting first thing in the morning to work out the details. And since you’re just standing there, help me pull these boots off. Scientists talk about certain severe forms of sleep disorder, where people actually go out and do daytime activities while sleeping, like drive a car. I’m of the opinion that this sleep state could be a desirable and tremendously efficient one. It would certainly be nice if I could go to school and teach my first-period class without having to wake up. In high school we studied REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the stage of sleep where the sleeper’s eyes dart around as if they’re playing a video game in their dreams. But we never learned about VEM sleep, the Violent Elbow Movement stage. My wife and I occasionally suffer from sleep disturbance during this stage. To remedy the effects of VEM sleep my wife had what she thought was a great idea: place the mattress a few centimeters away from the wall side of the bed—her side—and stuff some pillows along the wall to fill the gap, thus creating a bit of extra sleeping space for both of us. While I appreciate her effort, the mattress shifting project has had two negative effects. One is that the newly created space between us has been claimed by the cat, who suffers from bouts of RTM (Rapid Tail Movement) sleep. The other is that the widened mattress space, lacking corresponding bed frame structure underneath, results in a gentle downward slope along my edge of the bed, which if I turn the wrong way can roll me right out onto the floor. You’d think I’d be quick to reject this “wide bed” arrangement, but unfortunately, with the cat involved, the vote is two to one in favor. My only option is to try to turn my plight into a practical skill of some kind: “What’s your hobby?” “Falling out of bed. What’s yours?”

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