What Time Is It? An Essay by Larry Miller

By Larry Miller

Sorry, I asked. Here it’s two o’clock in the morning, and I am at the computer, writing down thoughts that are spilling out of an overtaxed, tired mental system. It is not where I would like to be. I’d rather be fully asleep and in control of my dreams.

But I am not in bed, from which I can hear the thrashing of my wife, as she, too, wrestles with the ogres of night madness. As Shakespeare said: “To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.’ Rub, indeed. As used in the good ol’ days, “rub” means hindrance, something that makes for more difficulty. And here am I, once more pondering what it takes to get a good night’s sleep.

Indeed! Falling asleep, these days is certainly far more difficult for me than it was when I was a young buck, if I may use the term. That Shakespeare speaks to the issue causes me to wonder if he had trouble sleeping. I admit it. I have troubles with my sleep habits. Or is it a matter of troubles with my awake-habits that is causing me the problem?

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I find it interesting that the people with whom I closely associate, and who are all labeled senior citizens, often comment about their inability to get that special, deep repose that goes under various names: forty winks, sleep, slumber, mind hibernation.

I don’t care what you want to call it. I just want it for myself.

I understand that, according to many studies, the problem of sleeplessness is an epidemic. I mention that fact so that we, you and I together, can feel some comfort in knowing that we are not alone. In fact, it is quite possible that it is two o’clock in the morning when you are reading this. I derive no comfort from that possible knowledge, although I do recognize the camaraderie of it all, which helps to make me feel that I am not personally targeted by those who make such studies a part of the general landscape of America.

But, an epidemic? Really? I mean, that’s a harsh word. Is it like the Black Death of Europe’s fourteenth century? Or the headline-grabbing flu of the early decade of the 20th century of America and Europe? Or the many measles epidemics that have cropped up sporadically?

Should I expect to be quarantined? Are we sleep-losers relegated to the hopes of various studies?

I have even considered making a study of my own, using the internet to probe the different takes on the matter. Nowadays, when questions arise, we need not venture onto a college or university campus. Nor do we need to submit ourselves to strange observers in special laboratories, who, I think, got their jobs by proving that they are the rarities in the world: deep sleepers.

Modern education does not begin with the professors of human behavior, at Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford. It begins with that most pedestrian of educational tools: The Internet. It is in that netherworld that we can search for helpful information on just about every subject imaginable. Not that the given information is necessarily reliable. But who is to say that the acclaimed professors of the universities are completely reliable.

When I made a cursory search for some help on sleeplessness, a great number of websites popped up. And so, it was that I turned to several of them, hoping that one or more of them would have answers that even a novice could understand. After all, I hate it when many so-called experts expound, in their particular fields, in what can best be termed as garbalese. Garbage, if you will.

Actually, as it turned out, most of them seemed to be together in their thinking, so I felt that there just might be a common answer, one that I could understand. One web site informed me that it is possible that I have what is called a sleep disorder. That particular study then proceeded to name the possible disorders that are available for me to identify with.

Disorder? The very term makes me feel like something of a freak. I don’t have a disorder, do I? I have my quirks, it is true, and certainly, I have my vagaries. But, I told myself, I have my strengths. Well, I do.

Well, it didn’t take long into the study for me to adopt, for myself, the very first listed disorder: Insomnia. After all that research, I find myself living with a problem that I knew existed without having to be told by people whom I have never met and most likely will never meet. Heck! I didn’t need experts to tell me the name of my affliction.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter. For quite a few years I have had trouble falling to sleep. Without going through the process of being studied by the staff of “sleep clinics,” something that my good friend John K went through, I already knew that insomnia was the problem.

My usual daily schedule often finds me feeling awfully tired while watching the ten o’clock evening news. Carol has her recliner, and I have the couch all to myself. About ten-twenty, or so, the first weather forecast comes on, and after hearing that there are no earthquakes or tornadoes to fret about, I retire to our bedroom, hoping to capitalize on the deep tiredness that has struck me, hoping to reach the depth of the glorious world of the unconscious. Then, for some unknown reason, I find myself struggling with trying to reach that same degree of tiredness that I had felt in front of the television set, only to find myself wrestling with the gods of the kingdom of slumber. And as all too often, in the past, I lie in bed, battling with those gods, until anger, or wisdom, forces me to go back out to the living room where I would seek the feelings of tiredness that I had felt hours before. It is a nightly battle, and common sense tells me that there must be a way to find relief. Which is why I decided to make a study.

My friend John, whom I mentioned above, suggested that perhaps it would be good for me to go through the sleep study that he had undergone, which is administered in the local hospital. He proceeded to explain the process, as well as the result.

I asked him about the process, which he explained was a matter of having wires hooked up to various points of my body, and then being observed by the staff of the clinic.

Personally, I can’t see myself lying on a strange bed, hooked up to all kinds of wires, and trying to sleep, all the while under the probing eyes of strangers. I wouldn’t want to go through the ordeal even if the observers were friends or family. There is no way that I want to try to fall asleep under such nosiness. I would probably feel much like a guinea pig, except I wouldn’t have a revolving wheel for me to exercise on.

Just the other day, my wife, Carol, was speaking to our granddaughter Laura, about the troubles we were having. I was half listening to their conversation, and half paying attention to a book about the history of the Plantagenets-please don’t ask me about them or what I would tell you would probably put you to sleep. Anyway, apparently, Laura suggested to my wife that “Grandpa”- that’s me – should stop taking afternoon naps.

Give up my naps? Give up my naps? Ay, there’s the rub, indeed. I love my naps. They usually come around two or three o’clock in the afternoon, during which I take a book that I am presently reading, such as the one about the Plantagenets, and lie back on the couch, a pillow propped behind my head, and my mind ready to once again take up the story of one King Richard. Not the Lionhearted.

Well, it is a given that three or four minutes into the book, I find myself in deep concentration about the problems of English royalty, so deep, in fact, that a strange feeling comes over me, and I succumb to the calling to those strange gods that I alluded to earlier.

Now, the experts say that a brief nap of about twenty minutes is actually good for the body, especially for those of us who find ourselves on the far side of the ages listed on the insurance company charts. But my naps rarely are reduced to such lengths as fifteen or twenty minutes. A nap of such short duration would merely be a tease. Thus, it is that I am more likely to adhere to the admonition of the great poet Robert Bums, who said: “I charge you, disturb not my slumbering fair!”

In other words: Let me sleep.

Laura probably never heard of Robert Bums. But I am sure she meant nothing but good for me if I were to change my habits. So, it was, the other day, That I went without my daily nap. I kept myself busy, around the house, going for a little shopping, reading until my eyes grew too tired to continue. Whatever activity I could think of to stay awake. I accepted it as a supreme punishment that was to be administered for “my own good.”

That night, I retired to my bed at the usual time, and, wonders to behold, I fell asleep within a few minutes. I did not awaken until about two o’clock when my over-sized prostate gland woke me up with its need for relief. When I returned to bed, I fell asleep almost instantly. The same need took place three more times during the night, and each time I was able to find myself back with those gods of slumber.

I hate to admit that Laura is probably right. And the only way I can affirm that truth is to attempt the same schedule that Laura recommended.

In some ways, I look forward to being rewarded with peaceful slumbering. At the same time, I think I would miss those daily communications with the world of easy thinking when our brains shut out the commonplace when all our difficulties are taken from our consciousness and assigned to a world in which they are given their proper title: trivialities.

I suppose I should get back to what I started with: the idea that sleep disorders are an epidemic, and that our nation needs to pay attention to what is going on. Or should I say: What is not going on, and that is a peaceful sleep.

I surely hope that the studies were not carried out by a governmental agency. Would you trust something that was produced by those whom you have elected into office? Okay, Forget I asked that. One should not ask stupid questions.

I am not about to carry out a wide-ranging study concerning sleep habits. I couldn’t care less if the ordinary person in China has problems with sleep. Nor do I intend to navigate my way through Lithuania, or England, or the Yukon, asking the same question. I don’t have the time. Nor do I have the inclination. Although I will admit that if anyone wishes for me to carry out a worldwide trek in search for the elusive answers, and will pony up a few million dollars to finance my journey, I might at least give the idea a little consideration.

At best, I can regale you with stories that come to mind, stories about people that I personally know. Or stories told to me by people whom I can trust. And none of those people work for the government. Thank God.

My wife knows of an acquaintance who does not have a bed. Apparently, the lady sold the bed years ago, having discarded the bed in favor of a recliner that is remote-controlled.

A good friend has a habit of waking in the early hours of the morning and writing correspondence on his computer. When he told me about that, I replied that I personally had never received any correspondence from him. “Oh,” he said, “I write the letters, but I don’t send them out.”

I gather that it is therapeutic for him. Which is good for him, but certainly not for yours truly. Just in case you have been following all that I have written, let me say that this part of the essay is being written a few days after the day that I wrote the opening lines. It is not, actually, 7:05 in the evening and Carol is watching Wheel of Fortune, and I am putting down new thoughts.

Before all of you, my readers, go off on a tangent and announce that the affliction of sleeplessness is not total in collecting victims. I had a good friend, one Lee M., who announced to me when asked, that he was dead asleep within five seconds of his head hitting the pillow.

“Oh, golly,” I said to him, “you are blessed.”

And I have a relative who can sleep anyplace, anytime. It even has happened to him while driving.

Oh, I know. It sounds funny. But it really is not funny. So far, and he is 80 years old now, no one has died as a result of his sleeping. What scares me is what I learned from a study made by AAA. According to their findings, approximately twenty-some percent of the drivers in the United States have fallen asleep at the wheel of a car. And I admit that I have come close to having the same thing happen to me, a few times.

With tongue in cheek, I pass on to you a piece of helpful advice, in case you find yourself fighting fatigue at the wheel. A friend said that if you wanted to keep awake at the wheel when you are fighting that fatigue battle, then take a $20 bill and hold it out the open driver’s side window. According to my well-meaning friend, that fear of losing the $20 bill will be enough to keep yourself awake.

Wow! I later thought. You mean a person’s life is only worth $20?

Carol plays bridge with a large group of wonderful women friends. There have been a few times when I found myself at home when they were in both the dining room and the living room, enjoying themselves at both the game of bridge and the art of conversation. And it was during those few occasions I picked up on the fact that most of the women were fighting that battle for sleep.

I realize that such isolated cases do not make for a complete picture, but the fact that the matter is being discussed among them tells us that, at least to them, there is a problem concerning sleep.

The symptoms are many. Irritation. Lack of energy. Multiple naps. Frustration. Change in character. Less efficiency in doing tasks. Weight gain. The cure is difficult.

My doctor tells me that I should not drink caffeine drinks after three in the afternoon. I also am supposed to cut down on my sugary treats. Limit my naps, or cut them out altogether. Go to bed at a reasonable time, and maintain regularity in my activities. Apparently, each one of us has what is called the “internal clock.” Thus, it is necessary to set good parameters and stick to them.

Easy to say. Hard to do. We all have heard those sayings. But they are true.

My wife makes the best apple pie, in the whole world. It is so good that I cannot wait ten minutes for it to settle, but instead I will plunge a huge serving spoon into the dish and begin dining with the gods. The serving spoon is necessary to capture the richness of the apple juices, mixed as they are with cinnamon and nutmeg, whereas much of the juice would run through the tines of a fork. By the time that first piece has been consumed and is sitting in splendor inside my thankful stomach, I use the fork for a second piece.

All my friends know of my sweet tooth. Sweet tooth, indeed. I don’t have a sweet tooth. I have a sweet body. My whole being craves for that apple pie.

I firmly believe we will eat in heaven. At least it is strongly suggested by Jesus himself. Thus, it was that I told Carol that after I die I will ask God to hurry Carol along so that I could share once again in God’s bounty. Carol replied that she is in no hurry.

Oh, yes, we were supposed to be talking about sleep disorders, and I seem to be off the subject. The point that I was trying to make is that I can give up many other things, in hope of sleeping well, but I will not, repeat, will not cast away something that gives me so much pleasure. One can only endure so much.

Let’s get back to that personal survey. In talking it over with many of my good friends, I do not hear of many who have no troubles sleeping. If they are any indication, the problem is indeed widespread.

So, I don’t know what you are going to do about it if you are in that group of seemingly helpless victims. And maybe you, too, will find yourself out in your den, at two o’clock in the morning, moaning about the inability to find sleep.


Larry Miller was born and raised in Port Huron. Author of two novels loosely set in Port Huron: “When Life Was Good, Sometimes,” and “Haunted Youth.” Larry and wife Carol have three children, seven grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren. Larry is a graduate of Central Michigan University. He taught English and American Literature at Port Huron Northern High School.

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