Waking dead

Here's a statement you rarely hear a young person make: "I slept wrong."

The average college kid can pass out at 3 a.m., sprawled over a beer keg, naked, one leg bent at a 120-degree angle, both arms tucked firmly under his back, and his nose packed full of shaving cream that's slowly hardening into concrete. He'll bounce up from this night of hazing and raucous behavior, after snoozing for 12 straight hours, and he'll be fresh as a daisy. Ask him how he slept, and he'll say, "Great!"

"Sleeping wrong" is the province of us older folks, the ones in middle age and beyond. I can turn in for the night at 9 p.m., spend the next eight hours in perfect sleeping conditions, and still wake up looking and moving like the Elephant Man.

I stumble into the kitchen, desperate for coffee, all my joints creaking, my body wracked by mysterious pains, my hair plastered into a rooster's comb, and the conversation goes like this:

Wife: "My God, what happened to you?"

Me: "I slept wrong."

The paradox here is that those of us who are older have had much more practice at sleeping. Years and years of it. We should be darned good at it by now. But, once in a while, we "sleep wrong" anyway, and we awaken to find the evidence. Aches and pains. One leg suddenly shorter than the other. One whole side of the body flattened like the bottom of a Hershey's Kiss.

We need the sleep more than youngsters do. Dozens of studies have shown that American adults go around sleep-deprived all the time. We're too busy to spend enough time in bed. And, once we're there, worries and physical ailments and nightmares and snoring interfere with proper rest. Add in the occasional night of "sleeping wrong" and it's no wonder we're a nation of zombies.

I expect sleep-deprivation to soon become a popular defense strategy in court, right up there with insanity.

Judge: "Sir, you mowed down 17 people with your car before whamming into a light pole. Officers on the scene said you were babbling, unable to control your bodily functions and your hair looked funny. How do you plead?"

Defendant: "I slept wrong."

Judge: "Oh. OK, you're free to go. Try to get some rest."

Sadly, scientists report that sleep problems get worse the older you get. Each passing year makes correct sleeping more difficult. By the time you're in your 80s, there's no point even going to bed.

We in middle age do everything we can to avoid "sleeping wrong." We buy the most comfortable beds, set the household temperature just right, block out all light and noise, try to erase troubling thoughts from our minds. But somewhere along the way, we make a mistake. And, having "slept wrong," we spend all day trying to recuperate and fervently praying that the next night will go better.

Young people, on the other hand, can sleep most anywhere, anytime, including during classes, underwater or while standing up. It's just not fair.

When my sons were younger, they would sometimes sleep on the rock-hard floor "for fun." They'd build a nest of blankets and linens, splay out over some randomly placed pillows, and get a wonderful night of sleep. I think they were showing off.

When I'd find them sleeping peacefully on the floor, I was so envious I was tempted to wake them in some vicious way -- banging pans together like cymbals, ice water, a swift kick.

Child abuse, you say? No problem. I'd just tell the judge, "I slept wrong."

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