t about quarter till nine Monday morning, heading back to the office after a big lunch of barbecued chicken and rice, I realized how much of my life I’ve lived under the influence of jet lag. I had spent the weekend at a conference in Belgium. My flight from Brussels had got in at 8 p.m. the night before, which meant 2 a.m. in my head. I gave my family the usual greeting (“Hello! Goodnight!”) when I crawled up the steps. I settled into bed with a book and read half a sentence (“One of the strange things about the—”) and then clonk! went the book on the floor. Next thing I knew the dog was barking psychotically at something in the window, most likely her reflection. The clock said -1 a.m. My body, however, said, “Rise and shine! Don’t sleep the day away!” Downstairs for a bowl of Cheerios.
I was made for jet lag. I managed to suffer from it even before I flew on jets. Almost everyone retains a vague memory from his college days of one raucous night when he stayed up past dawn and then, to his horror, slept until dinner. I woke up from an all-night party one evening in January of my sophomore year and didn’t manage to get back on a regular schedule until May. The logistical challenges of this schedule were considerable. I would wake around 7 p.m., in time to make it to the dining hall for my “breakfast” of steak and soup or fried chicken. Then I would hurry to the liquor store for beer, because it would be closed at the “end” of my day, when I needed a “cocktail” before heading back to the dining hall at 7 a.m. for a “dinner” of waffles and maple syrup.
Why did I put up with this existence? Well, to say I am good at forming, and bad at breaking, habits is to tell the story of my life in the most succinct way possible. I didn’t just put up with it, of course. I indulged it. I tramped around the city self-destructively in the freezing cold, the pockets of my ratty old overcoat filled with books by writers who had tramped around self-destructively in the freezing cold with books in the pockets of their ratty old overcoats: Dostoyevsky, Nerval, Knut Hamsun, John Berryman . . . those types. It sounds pretentious, I know. To the person I am today, it sounds sad. But it is probably good training for going one’s own way, which is not just the main requirement for being a writer but also the main reward. It was certainly good training for being unemployed.
As an adult I have spent an awful lot of time reading in foreign hotel rooms at 3:30 in the morning, including about half of the unabridged Gulag Archipelago during one week in Amsterdam where I never did quite manage to get on the local clock. On transatlantic flights, I generally resort to sleeping pills. Two Advil PMs will generally drop me like a sack of grain for about five hours, especially when they are washed down with a cup of tea with cream and sugar, which always fills me with thoughts of deep armchairs, exciting novels, crackling fires, and the weight of a sleeping dog’s head on one’s foot.
The only time I forgot my Advil PMs I went into a pharmacy in Rome to ask for something to help me sleep. The pharmacist gave me a brown-glass vial with a hand-applied label and told me to take one at bedtime. It was filled with tiny, dusty pills—a kind of smoke halo rose out of it when I unscrewed the top.
Well, cripes, if the people who do the Harry Potter movies ever make a pornographic film about Hell, I think it will look like the dreams I had that night in my crummy Roman hotel room. I remember turning on the bedside light in a sweat of fear and hoping (but rather doubting) that the psychedelic death bat with which I had been doing battle for the last half-hour was a figment of my imagination.
I read that hand-printed label. It informed me that the pharmacist was a homeopath (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course) and that the pill’s active ingredient was belladonna. I don’t know whether it’s a root or a spice or a poison, but it smacks of the Middle Ages. Women take it in Shakespeare’s plays either to dilate their pupils or to fall asleep for 60 years.
It shows that while jets are new, jet lag is for the ages. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll just put on my pajamas and go to lunch.