Say Goodnight, 2006

With a grateful nod to Ann Althouse, I will commemorate New Year’s Eve with an 11-month-old New York Times column about sleep.  

Ever since I was a child, I have called myself an insomniac.  I’ve always envied those who could fall asleep “when my head hits the pillow.”  My insomnia is a sporadic visitor who won’t leave.  I will be unable to sleep for several nights in a row, interrupted by a night or two of recuperation, then more nights of insomnia, with the pattern repeating for several exhausting weeks. Then, without fanfare, it goes away and I sleep fine for awhile, but the problem always returns.  But during these phases, I always fall asleep when I don’t want to; when my wife and I start watching a DVD for example. Then I awaken.  I feel deeply rested, even if I’ve only slept 20 minutes. And I can’t fall back to sleep for hours.

I’ve tried so many things to deal with it.  Medication, a ban on caffiene after 2 o’clock, yoga-like meditation…. For years I went to sleep with all-news radio, particularly with announcers like Beach Rogers, who could describe a nightful of murder and mayhem in a voice that never strayed from calm rationality.  All in pursuit of the critical eight hours of altered consciousness we are said to need for our health and sanity.  

I figure there must be a Darwinian logic to insomnia.  It’s so common.  I’ve wondered if it has something to do with our ancestors’ need for vigilance against attacks from rival tribes or wild animals.  Maybe my vigilance hormone runs a little hot.

It turns out, according to University of Virginia history professor Roger Ekerch, that I’m misinformed.  Those eight solid hours we’re told we need and feel entitled to… didn’t used to be so solid:

In all likelihood, we have never slept so soundly. Yes, the length of a single night’s sleep has decreased over the years (upward of 30 percent of adults average six or fewer hours), but the quality of our sleep has improved significantly. And quality, not quantity, sleep researchers tell us, is more important to feeling well rested.

This is not to minimize the torment of insomnia over the course of a restless night. But for most of us, slumber is reasonably tranquil — especially when compared with what passed for a night’s rest before the modern era. Despite nostalgic notions about sleep in past centuries, threats to peaceful slumber lurked everywhere, from lice and noxious chamber pots to tempestuous weather.

Worst in this pre-penicillin age was sickness, especially such respiratory tract illnesses as influenza, pulmonary tuberculosis and asthma, all aggravated by bedding rife with mites. One 18th-century diarist recounts that asthma forced her husband to sleep in a chair for months, with “watchers” required to hold his head upright. Among the laboring poor, whose living conditions were horrendous, sleep deprivation was probably chronic, prompting many to nap at midday, much to the annoyance of their masters.

As if these maladies were not enough, we now also know that pre-industrial families commonly experienced a “broken” pattern of sleep, though few contemporaries regarded it in a pejorative light. Until the modern age, most households had two distinct intervals of slumber, known as “first” and “second” sleep, bridged by an hour or more of quiet wakefulness. Usually, people would retire between 9 and 10 o’clock only to stir past midnight to smoke a pipe, brew a tub of ale or even converse with a neighbor.

Others remained in bed to pray or make love. This time after the first sleep was praised as uniquely suited for sexual intimacy; rested couples have “more enjoyment” and “do it better,” as one 16th-century French doctor wrote. Often, people might simply have lain in bed ruminating on the meaning of a fresh dream, thereby permitting the conscious mind a window onto the human psyche that remains shuttered for those in the modern day too quick to awake and arise.

This should make you sleep a little better in 2007, no?  If you can manage to sleep through the night, it’s because you are thankfully free from foul odors and lice anxiety.  If you can’t, maybe it’s because you have some business to attend to, perhaps romantic, perhaps psychological, perhaps sacred.

It’s only due to the influence of light that we have “consolidated” our sleep, according to Ekerch’s column.  The light keeps us awake longer.  In pre-industrial times, we would succumb much earlier to a “first sleep,” and then arise from it in a complacent state caused by a rise in the hormone prolactin — the same hormone that “allows hens to sit happily upon their eggs for long periods.”

That’s contentment.

Ekerch cites Dr. Thomas Wehr, a sleep researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health as suggesting that “some common sleep disorders may be nothing more than sleep’s older, primal pattern trying to reassert itself — ‘breaking through,’ as Dr. Wehr has put it, into today’s ‘artificial world.'”

I resolve, therefore, to stop worrying about insomnia in 2007.  I sleep just fine. 

Happy New Year!


Lace ’em Up, It’s Boxing Day!

boxing.jpgI’ve been doing a little research on Boxing Day, which might or might not be today, December 26th.  The most commonly-used phrase about Boxing Day?  “Its exact origins are obscure.”  Also: “Another theory is…” 

Most sites that purport to explain it take pains to disassociate the holiday — it is a holiday in the U.K. and many Commonwealth countries including Canada — from “pugilistic competition.”  But they don’t have a better explanation.  It seems a bit strange that millions of people have this day off from work, but there is no reason for it.  How do you celebrate Boxing Day, other than staying home?  What if you grew up in a country that celebrated Boxing Day, and moved to one (like the U.S.) that doesn’t?  If your boss doesn’t give you the day off, can you claim discrimination?

There are a few other holidays that celebrate nothing in particular.  Most companies give their employees the day after Thanksgiving off, although I’ve worked several places that require you to use up a vacation day.  You know you’re still considered entry-level if they make you go to work the day after Thanksgiving.  New Year’s Day barely qualifies as a holiday.  “Hey everybody, look.  We can finally use the new calendar!”

roseparade_01_01_2005_20.jpgCompared with the day after Thanksgiving, however, New Year’s is loaded with tradition, especially in Southern California.  That’s right, we own New Year’s Day out here.  Except when it falls on a Sunday.  Luckily, we won’t have to deal with a Rose Parade on January 2nd again until 2011.

Boxing Day is often prized as a workday in the U.S., I’ve found.   “I love the week between Christmas and New Year’s,” many former colleagues would tell me.  “Nothing happens.”  They spend the week getting caught up.  I suppose there are two types of office workers in this country.  Those who like getting caught up during the last week of the year, and those who think they’re so important, they try to time their vacations for when things aren’t busy.  For companies that end their fiscal year on December 31, however, the week after Christmas can be stressful.   

According to this site, here are some things you can do to celebrate Boxing Day:

  • STEP 1: Attend a sporting event. In England, horse racing, regattas, football games and the Brighton Swimming Club’s annual dip into the icy English Channel are just some of the events that take place on Boxing Day.
  • STEP 2: Remember those who have provided a service to you during the year. The postal delivery person, the newspaper delivery person, and employees of your household or business should be remembered with a tip, bonus or gift basket.
  • STEP 3: Remember those in need. Tradition has it that on Boxing Day in Victorian England, the poor went from house to house bearing boxes that were filled by compassionate home owners with food, clothing and gifts. Give canned goods, clothing or your time to organizations that help the needy.
  • STEP 4: Go shopping. Shopping is a popular Boxing Day activity, and the malls are usually filled with people taking advantage of after-Christmas bargains.
  • STEP 5: Celebrate with friends. Provide food and drink, or organize a potluck get-together for friends and family. Make it low-key, as Boxing Day should be less hectic and more relaxing than Christmas Day.

Frank Capra Was Right

wonderful-life-poster.jpgIn Saturday’s LA Times there is a new look at Frank Capra’s, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a film so associated with Christmas that it only appears on television twice a year, on Christmas Eve and the Saturday before. That he was making a Christmas classic came as news to Capra and RKO:

Oddly enough, the film was unceremoniously released during Christmas week of 1946. Never mind the yuletide flavor, the wintry snowdrifts in Bedford Falls and the holly wreath George Bailey carries slung around his arm — this Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed romance was originally scheduled to open in January 1947. But RKO Studios knew it had something special and rushed it into theaters a few weeks early to meet the deadline for Academy Award consideration that year.

Capra shot much of the film on a specially constructed quaint-town set located at RKO’s ranch in the San Fernando Valley — a site that has long been overtaken by property development. In media interviews at the time, Capra did not portray it as a holiday film. In fact, he said he saw it as a cinematic remedy to combat what he feared was a growing trend toward atheism and to provide hope to the human spirit. In a moment of possible revisionism decades later, Capra said that he also realized that with the holiday season comes an inherent vulnerability in all humans, and that this uplifting tale might just ride on that sentiment.


Capra, an Italian-born filmmaker who gave us such early classics as “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” died in 1991, but not before witnessing “It’s a Wonderful Life” take on iconic wings of sort when television began airing it regularly in the 1970s.

The movie transcended time and soared well beyond his imagination.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud … but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

I remember the first time I saw it. A college roommate forced me to sit and watch it on the tiny TV we had in our kitchen. He was shocked I’d not yet seen it. At 19, I thought it was pretty corny, and couldn’t figure out what this sentimental mish-mosh of angels, Charles Dickens and Horatio Alger had to do with us, a couple of Berkeleyites in the mid-1970s.

Maybe the screen was too small. Within a few years, I realized “It’s A Wonderful Life” is simply one of the greatest movies ever made, on every level.

Watching it now, the first thing I look for are the faces. When has any film director captured and choreographed more memorable faces and facial expressions? Capra’s animated representations of people are like an unlikely combination of Norman Rockwell and Max Beckmann. Think of the “Why don’t you kiss her?” guy, or the anguished apothecary.  

Then I listen for the dialogue, which, contrary to popular belief, is almost entirely unsentimental, even brutal. You could probably get a little buzz if you knocked back a shot of whiskey every time a character growled, “What’s the matter with you?”

George Bailey to Mr. Potter: “In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider.”

Potter to George Bailey: “Merry Christmas…in jail!”

George Bailey courting the future Mary Bailey: “Now you listen to me. I don’t want any plastics and I don’t want any ground floors. And I don’t want to get married *ever* to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do.”

George Bailey, loving father: “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?”

Truly, this movie earns the sobs it always wins from me at the end. George Bailey doesn’t just think he has a lousy life. In many ways, he does have a lousy life. He’s lucky to be married to Donna Reed at her most beautiful, but otherwise, Potter pretty much nails him in the cigar scene:

George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He’s an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man — who hates his job –– who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man…the smartest one of the crowd, mind you, a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he’s trapped. Yes, sir, trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters. Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?

The whole first half of the movie is nothing but one twist of fate after another that prevents Bailey from living the life he planned for himself. Few people are as definite about their wishes as Bailey is — and none of them come true. That’s the secret of the movie’s power. Confronted with one final twist — his idiot uncle misplacing cash that Potter is going to falsely allege Bailey stole to give to the floozy Violet Bick — he is finally done. Nothing has gone his way, and so much is arrayed against him.

He resists — mightily — the message the angel Clarence tries to teach him. He absolutely denies that, if he hadn’t lived, his brother would be dead, the sailors on his ship would be dead, his mother would be a bitter, impoverished boarding-house keeper, his wife would be a meek “old maid,” and the main street of the town now called Potterville would be one sleazy business after another. It can’t be true he was so important.

In fact, the kindness of one person — even if that person him or herself is desperately unhappy — can make all the difference in each life they touch. Like a drip of acid, that truth finally burns into George Bailey’s brain. This can be a rotten world, but kindness saves it. And when you need it most, the kindness you give comes back to you. This is something I’ve learned myself in the past few years. It’s not a secret — I’ve had my share of serious disasters, and have many times felt powerless over the pulsing flow of events into the rocky shores. But every time — every time! — the kindness of the good people in my life has saved me.

For at least 20 years, I’ve choked up at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” in good years and bad, at the same moment — when George’s face finally registers the truth about life and love that, through his endless frustrations, had eluded him. Then more faces, the amazing and strange people of Bedford Falls, glowing with love as they lift up their fallen brother.

It’s a Giant Squid…but it’s a Baby Giant Squid

giant-squid-video-capture-copy.jpgI realize this has already been on Drudgereport, but since the giant squid from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea appeared in so many of my childhood nightmares, I couldn’t help but share this with you — the first video ever taken of a giant squid.  (You have to click on the link, not the picture.) 

Disappointingly, this is actually a juvenile giant squid, only about 10-12 feet long.  They can grow to 60 feet long.  The preserved, frozen carcass of a 22-foot adult giant squid can be found at the Melbourne Aquarium.