Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell

Sleepers Anonymous

 [p.68]I had my golden birthday recently—the big five-o. For some reason, birthdays don’t depress me. I seem to have an oriental perspective on age—I consider each passing year as another notch on my belt (and of course, that may literally be true, but we won’t talk about expansion here). I go around announcing my age the way other women in my actuarial group announce new grandchildren. That habit does not endear me to myoid classmates, who resent my spilling the collective beans, but that’s their problem.

I celebrated my birthday with three different parties. For one, I had asked guests not to bring any presents, but to bring cards of their own design or choosing if they liked. One friend tottered in with a computer scroll that was—this is serious, now—seventy-five yards long. Took half an hour to read and half an hour to roll back up.

 It seems fitting to commemorate the half-century mark with such documents. So,


 I herewith declare my emancipation from other people’s asceticism. Especially in regard to sleep. People in this culture seem to be in a perpetual contest to see who can sleep the least. I have many friends whose regular bedtime is 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.—which wouldn’t be so objectionable if they were dancing or playing 21 or otherwise burning a party candle. But no, these folks are up in the night cleaning out basements for contributions to Goodwill Industries and baking zucchini pretzels. And these same folks boast of arising at unmentionable hours. When I was on a high-powered committee a while back, several women said to me on different occasions, “If you need to reach me, call any time before seven in the morning.”

Look, may I be frank? I consider that kind of schedule in the same category as foot-binding. I have read (impelled by guilt, of course) many, many studies on the matter, indicating that most healthy adults, if left free of the bizarre restrictions of self-denial and nocturnal stay-upsmanship, will sleep between seven and eight hours a night. If nature has set our inner alarm clocks for an eight-hour tryst with the Sandman, what kind of masochism seeks to cut short the night?

Sleep is non-fattening. It produces no cholesterol. It doesn’t pollute the atmosphere or consume the lungs. It doesn’t result in hangovers or smashed vehicles.

So why the guilt? It used to be that if someone telephoned and found you a bit groggy at your end, she would say, apologetically, “Oh, I’m sorry. Were you sleeping?” The gaffe was hers, not yours. Now, if someone says, “Were you sleeping?” it usually comes through as an indictment, an accusation, and you have to tap-dance and say, “No, no, I’ve just got a frog in my throat, a touch of the croup. Who? Me? Sleep? How dare you even suggest such a thing?”

I know astonishingly few women who would allow themselves to spend an hour comfortably relaxing in a hammock (let alone sleeping in one). Now I’m going to crawl way out on a limb here, but I’ll stick by my precarious position: I don’t think the female sex will produce a great philosopher again until somebody learns the uses of a hammock, and idleness, and creative sleep.

One last study to ponder. Extensive research with people [p.70]who have had long, healthy lives—90 years plus—failed to come up with any constant common denominator. The very old include drinkers and non-drinkers, smokers and non-smokers, city folk and farmers, meat-eaters and vegetarians—on and on. No single constant. And then some researcher asked the right question. And by overwhelming numbers, the figures showed that virtually all of those who lived long and prospered had, throughout their entire lives, slept well and soundly for seven to eight hours.

So if you’re on a 90-calorie diet and a four-hour sleep regime, look for applause elsewhere. And if you phone me and I sound newly-wakened, hang up softly. I’ll recycle newspapers and use unleaded gas and conserve water and I’d never even consider buying anything made of animal fur, but folks, I’m going to keep regular hours with that healing old Sandman. And who knows—maybe by the time my next birthday flips up on the calendar, I’ll be on some nationally televised talk show defending my controversial new book, Sleep Without Guilt.