Sleeping Outside of the Box

December 6th, 2014

Sure, eight hours is great, but it doesn’t have to happen all at once.

Sleeping in shifts

My wife and daughters snuggle in bed on an early vacation morning, snoozing in and slowly waking up at their leisure.

It’s 4:34 am.

I call this time “heh.” I’ve written about it in the past, back when my digital clock seemed to be chuckling at me. Turn 4:34 upside down and it says hEh.

Heh, you’re not sleeping. Heh, those thoughts racing through your brain are going nowhere fast. Heh.

I don’t hate 4:34 anymore. I’ve come to embrace it. I have the New York Times and David K. Randall to thank.

In a piece I read a few years back, Randall writes about “The tyranny of the eight hour block” of sleep. We’ve been told for generations that we must get at least eight hours of sleep each night in order to thrive, function, stay slim — and I don’t know — live longer. According to, it’s even supposed to help you “Be a winner.” hEh.

I generally agree that eight hours of sleep is great, but I can’t tell you the last time I got that amount in one chunk. Oh, I get eight hours I think. Or seven or nine, I don’t really keep track. It’s hard to figure out how much I’m getting when I wake up for an hour or two (or more) every single night now.

I don’t mind and neither did our ancestors. Apparently it’s only very recently in our human history that we felt the need to force all of our night’s rest into one continuous snooze.

“For most of evolution we slept a certain way,” says sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs.

“Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology,” writes Stephanie Hegarty in a BBC News article.

Randall tells about a Virginia Tech history professor who found references to something called “firste sleep” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That same professor, Roger Ekirch, says that references go all the way back to the writings of Homer, (the ancient Greek, NOT the Simpson).

In fact, according to Hegarty, Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past “unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern – in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.”

At Day's CloseOur ancestors would naturally wake up in the middle of the night. And instead of fighting it because they had to get enough sleep to survive modern life in the office or their morning commutes, they just went with it. They read, they meditated, they prayed, they wandered around, they had sex. They probably didn’t log onto Facebook or check the scores from last night’s games on their phones though.

And that’s part of it. Electronics, and more importantly, artificial lighting has led to bedtimes gradually getting later and later. In the past, we used to fall asleep a few hours after sundown, wake up a while later, then go back to sleep. Once European cities began lighting their streets, people thought it was fun to stay up later. These days we have something like that too; it’s called Jon Stewart.

The Industrial Revolution didn’t help our sleep much either. We used to nap during the afternoon. It was a normal part of our day. Try napping on the job these days. You’ll be derided at best, fired at worst. That’s in America. Other cultures understand napping. You’ve heard of the afternoon siesta in Spain. In other countries, businesses will actually shut down so their employees (and customers) can go home and nap for a while.

In Japan a brief nap after lunch is common and encouraged. Some workers push it too far and even fake taking a nap in order to look committed to their company. Seriously!

Realizing that it’s only natural for me to be awake during the wee hours has made my life so much better. I tell lots of people about it and they look at me a bit oddly. We are so conditioned to believe in a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep that I’m almost speaking heresy. I can’t tell you how many social media friends of mine have commented that I’m burning the midnight oil or have asked why I’m up so late (or early). I’ve sent the New York Times Rethinking Sleep link out countless times.

A good friend, Tom Gottfried, told me most of his coworkers are middle aged and are commonly awake at 3:00 am. He said there’s a joke going around his office that they should hold all their meetings in the middle of the night. I guess nobody would have an excuse for falling asleep during meetings then, eh?

Back when I was still in high school, I learned from my Psychology teacher that even if you’re not sleeping, as long as you’re lying down relaxed, it’s almost as good as heavy ZZZs. I’ve tried to follow that lesson throughout my adult life. Regardless of if it works or not, fighting the lack of sleep while you’re lying in bed, tossing and turning, is just so counterintuitive. Counterproductive too.

Speaking of not fighting it, I feel a yawn coming on. I don’t think it’s a good idea to fight the onset of sleep either. Usually.

Besides, as Homer put it, “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”


He’s not just anyone

November 7th, 2014

A bone marrow donor who thinks “anyone would do that”

Thorsten has a calm, easy-going sense of humor as evidenced by the poster on his apartment door.

Thorsten — a German student  — has a calm, easy-going sense of humor as evidenced by the poster on his apartment door.

Thorsten isn’t comfortable with me writing this. In fact, I’m not even sure if I’m allowed to tell you about him at all. But I’ll risk it. You see, he’s a hero of mine.

I met Thorsten last month. He’s a young German student getting his second degree. His first career path — being a corporate lawyer in Stuttgart — didn’t really gel with his ideologies. Making money for corporations and helping them retain it didn’t seem to sit well with him.

He’s back in school now, studying at Trinity College in Ireland, rooming with my daughter and a few other intelligent, fun, incredible leaders of the future. He knows more about America and our politics than most of us do. But as I found out, he knows more about Australian politics and Finnish politics than most Aussies and Finns do too. I’m going to call him brilliant and hope that it somehow gets lost in translation for him.

(It probably won’t. The guy’s English is flawless. Even the word “onamonapia” makes him hahaha, teehee, chortle or snort).

A few years back, someone phoned Thorsten saying his bone marrow type matched a cancer patient’s. That patient needed a transplant. Let me pause here. Before finding out that somebody matched him, he had to become registered.

“It was just a simple cotton swab of my mouth,” he explained. “Anyone would do that.”

Well, not “anyone” Thorsten. Even taking that first step is a significant, altruistic move.

When he heard somebody needed his stem cells to help them regrow their own bone marrow,  his only question was, “how soon can we do this?”

He didn’t know the person in need and that didn’t matter.

So they checked Thorsten into the hospital and gave him drugs to greatly multiply his own marrow. He spent a few days as a patient before they drew his blood and the excess stem cells out of him. A few hours later, the primordial concoction of Thorsten’s stem cells and blood were being flown across town, across the country or across the world to a patient in desperate need.

“It was a pretty easy procedure. All I really had to do was lie in bed,” he said. And then he said again, “Anyone would do that.”

I’m glad he thinks that way, “anyone would do that.” My brother, the firefighter who gave me HIS stem cells, said the same thing. I politely dispute Thorsten and my brother. There are many, many people who wouldn’t dream of doing that. There are entire religions who believe giving or receiving blood goes against biblical doctrine (I’m looking at you, Jehovah’s Witnesses).

So no, not “anyone” would do what you did.

Thorsten’s blood saved the life of a patient somewhere in the world. Interestingly, he doesn’t really care if he meets that person.

“They would probably make a big deal about it,” he said. “I’m no hero.” And again he reiterated, “anyone would do that.”

Sorry Thorsten. You are a hero, like it or not. Not only are you my hero, you’re also the hero to that anonymous patient, his family, friends and the one million others who have successfully received a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.

I’m not saying you should run right out and greet your new blood brother, but I’ve spoken to enough transplant patients who personally would love to thank their donor. They feel your life-giving cells flowing through themselves every darn minute of every darn day and they are honored to continue on with your legacy of courage and selflessness. Heck, Thorsten, let ‘em buy you dinner or at least a beer. I can guarantee they’d love to say thanks in person.

Anyone would do that.

Go See Pride

October 19th, 2014

When lesbians and gays helped out the coal miners

Pride movie starring Bill Nighy

You should know, by now, that if a movie stars Bill Nighy, I’m going to have something to say about it. Although Nighy takes a backseat in Pride, his role is fun, perfect and integral to the story.

But this isn’t about Bill Nighy.Pride movie poster

This is a movie — based on an extraordinary reality — about a time in 1984/1985 when a small group of lesbian and gay Brits chose to help out Welsh coal miners who were on strike. I couldn’t believe it was a true story; subsequent research showed me it was. Part of the movie was even filmed in the same small town in Wales where the events of the 1980s originally took place.

“Mining communities are being bullied, just like we are,” says one of the lead characters. In truth, both parties shared three common foes; the police, the Thatcher government and the tabloid press. Even so, it seems remarkable that LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) jumped in to help back then.

“We’ve been through some of the same things you’ve been through,” is the common theme.

But shared experiences and shared goals don’t necessarily make for harmonious relationships. Tensions ran throughout the movie. There was tension not only between the coal miners, their families and the Brits trying to help them, but also interpersonal tension and humor between all the different factions involved.

There’s something for everybody in the film. If you like humor you’ll find plenty of it. If you like 80s music, sure, there’s a great sound track. Dancing, check. Your favorite British stars? How about Moriarty from Sherlock (Andrew Scott). How about Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter (Imelda Staunton). There’s Richard Burton from Burton and Taylor (Dominic West). If you saw The Book Thief, Ben Schnetzer plays that German-Jewish prisoner that’s hidden in the basement. He’s really an American and in Pride, plays an Irishman living in London. That’s some impressive range. And as always, there’s the incomparable Bill Nighy.

If you need to categorize movies, think of this one as Kinky Boots meets Billy Elliott. Those two movies were eventually made into very successful plays. Pride’s director, Matthew Warchus also directed the stage version of Matilda. I’m not really a gambling guy, but you can bet people are already talking about bringing Pride to the West End or Broadway.

I was lucky enough to see this a few weeks early, while visiting my daughter in Ireland. Skye has always been an advocate for LGBT causes, including helping get the Troy, Michigan mayor kicked out of office for her homophobic remarks. During the movie, we laughed a lot and, yes, cried too. Mine were mostly tears of joy during the closing sequences and subsequent credits.

By the way, there is absolutely no reason for this film to be rated R. Reviewers and activists speculate that the Motion Picture Association of America is a bit homophobic itself.

This is one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year and will undoubtedly make my year-end list. As I said in the title, go see Pride.


Belfast: Coming back from the brink

October 13th, 2014

Tensions remain, but the Northern Ireland city is thriving.

Northern Ireland 1

As the sun sets on Belfast, young people walk past the murals on The Falls, a road where violence was once commonplace.

The Troubles.

That’s what the conflict in Northern Ireland has been called for generations. We’ve been told that everything is fine now. The violence has ceased and both sides, Irish Catholics and English Protestants, are getting along fine.

Our taxi driver painted a slightly different picture. With visits to mural after mural, we were told that there is trouble just beneath the surface. Homes and businesses in Belfast have large, colorful murals painted on them. They depict the struggle throughout the decades, in many cases from both sides of the story, the English and the Irish.

The walls are full of murals. The walls have sides too, one protects the Unionist Protestants from the Nationalist Catholics, the other, The Nationalist Catholics from the Unionist Protestants. They are a long series of barriers separating the two factions in Belfast. Incongruously, they’re called peace walls. They are generally open during the day and closed at night, walling each faction off from one another.

A large majority of the city’s residents say the peace walls remain up because they remain necessary, even though the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, eased tensions.

Three quarters of the island that makes up Ireland is ruled by the Irish. But the six counties to the north, Ulster or Northern Ireland, are ruled by the British. Half of the population, the Protestants, are fiercely loyal to the crown. The other half are Catholic and align with a united Ireland.

There are signs everywhere, though, that point toward a relaxation of the conflict. First and foremost is commerce. Belfast is booming, and not because of the bombs that used to rip apart neighborhoods. The downtown area, that used to have soldiers on every corner, now have coffee shops and restaurants instead. Tourism is back and international companies are investing heavily and often.

The second sign that things have improved are the youth. The further they get from The Troubles, the more it becomes their parent’s problem, not theirs. Instead of joining paramilitary organizations as teens, Catholic and Protestant kids do what all kids do; hang out, text each other, flirt and get into trouble — but not Trouble.

Northern Ireland 2

One of the peace walls, on the Catholic side, displays “martyrs” from the decades long sectarian violence.


Northern Ireland 3

Our tour driver shows supposedly benign plastic bullets that have injured or killed neighbors.


Northern Ireland 4

In 2012, to commemorate the great ship, The Titanic Experience opened it’s doors. Created to look like several of the ship’s hulls, the museum was erected on the exact site the Titanic was built, helping raise Belfast from the depths.


Northern Ireland 5

Displays, scale models, interactive exhibits and even a ship building ride show visitors everything before, during and after Titanic’s sinking.


Northern Ireland 6

A Belfast town father looks out over the city center, now a thriving metropolis.