If I had a car its bumper sticker would say I'd rather be sleeping. I am a congenital, incorrigible glutton for sleep. Sleep-bingeing is my last vice, and I won't give it up. There's nothing I can't accomplish, physically or mentally, provided I've clocked enough hours slumbering: 9 hours are good, 10 are better. If I haven't logged enough time dormant, I lose my bearings, my mind and body fail me at every turn, and I wake up resembling an exhumed relic from the Ice Age. Like a miser greedily counting his coins, each night before going to bed I add up my hours of sleep. As a result I rise significantly later than the rest of the world. I live in New York, but I'm on California time.
My entire life is constructed around my voracious appetite for sleep. I became a writer so I would never have to work office hours—the morning ones. I married a man with similar habits. My mother told me all this would change once we became parents. But our daughter, left to her own diurnal rhythm, awakens at 9:30, unheard-of for a preschooler. Should anything interfere with her innate body clock, her sweet disposition transmogrifies into an Attila-like temperament and her eyes puff up like a newborn kitten's.
Because I am a light sleeper, anything can awaken me—a sliver of light slicing through imperfectly closed curtains, the sound of a distant door closing, the aroma of an early riser's bacon cooking (a pitfall of houseguesting). Stimulate any of my senses even faintly and I'm up like a shot, with no hope of returning to sleep, or of feeling remotely vital the next day. Marcel Proust withdrew into a cork-lined chamber to escape the world's obtrusive sights and sounds. I retreat behind a sleep mask and earplugs. Thickly padded and adjustable to all skull sizes, good masks now come in an array of designs—iridescent purple satin, ocelot velour, and, of course, basic Holly Golightly black. Bucky of Seattle creates top-of-the-line masks; they are haute couture compared with the flimsy, dismal eye patches dispensed on airplanes. The most effective plugs are fabricated from malleable, adherent silicone the color and consistency of modeling clay. My brand of choice is Mack's, recommended by an American Airlines attendant who struck up a conversation after falling over my chair at the sight of Brad Pitt boarding our New York-L.A. flight. For good measure I often place a down pillow over, as well as under, my head (I always ask hotel housekeeping for extras). I also own an environmental-noise machine, which can be programmed to simulate the lullaby melodies of a rainstorm, turbulent ocean, calm ocean, speeding train, babbling brook, or, my favorite, Niagara Falls.
I wish my Niagara were portable for travel. I never, however, leave home without my other sleeping paraphernalia. I pack several sets of plugs and a few sleep masks in my suitcase, and stow similar equipment in my carry-on. Naturally, I approach travel with a certain amount of trepidation. My two greatest worries are: What strange sounds and light sources are going to sabotage my sleep?and Will I ever survive jet lag?Overseas flights, I hardly need say it, are sky-high hell. While the rest of the cabin sleeps like babes in bunting, my back contracts into more knots than a Kashan rug, my neck cramps, my teeth ache, my eyes throb, my stomach distends, and my legs go numb. It is a relentless, Job-like torment. In spite of the fact that the starstruck New York-L.A. flight attendant good-naturedly cautioned me about germ infestation (and worse), the nasty acrylic airline blankets usually end up over my head as well as my body. I spend the whole evening wondering whether next time I should succumb to drugs—the one time I tried them I ended up comatose but still not asleep—or maybe the Concorde.
At a hotel, I drift from floor to floor with the bell captain, looking for the quietest spot. Is there a construction site nearby?Perhaps right within the Hotel Extraordinaire itself?A hotel is an auditory minefield of clanging, banging elevator shafts, back-alley garbage collections, 24-hour room-service stations, nightclubs with dance floors pulsing a few feet overhead, alarm clocks set for sunrise by the room's previous occupant. You never know what perils await until you actually spend the night. At a hotel on Rome's Via Veneto, my husband and I discovered we shared a hall with a South American soccer team when the fellows, after an evening on the town, transformed our corridor into an impromptu playing field, with our door as a goal.
Whenever I've traveled a long distance, before turning in, I arrange for a massage (the next best thing to a nap, which is never a possibility for me) and a meal, then barricade the room against intrusion. The Do Not Disturb sign goes outside the door; the breakfast order card is filled out for the last possible moment of service (I agree with Oscar Wilde that only dull people are brilliant at breakfast); and all telephone lines are blocked Until Further Notice. You would not want to be the inattentive maid who knocks on the door despite the multilingual warning, or the room-service waiter who arrives ahead of schedule with his brioches and newspaper, or the feckless operator who allows an early-morning call to slip through! I will never forget the rural innkeeper who was so determined to make my husband and me feel at home that he let himself into our room at dawn, sat on our bed, and, cheerfully ignoring our outraged mumblings, proceeded to pass around the coffee and scones.
Whenever possible I return not only to the same hotel but to the same room. Even in a somnambulist's stupor I can negotiate my way nimbly around my favorite suite at the Meurice in Paris or the Breakers in Palm Beach. In these familiar quarters interruptions can at least be anticipated, if not entirely thwarted. On the other hand, one occasional pleasure of traveling to a new place is the discovery that I actually sleep better at my destination. In fact, I remember certain hotel stays and holidays wistfully, not for the food eaten, the sights seen, the people encountered, but for the blissful, uninterrupted sleep I was at last able to attain. Two hotel visits in particular stand out—one at the Ventana Inn in Big Sur, California, 12 years ago, and the second at the San Domenico Palace in Taormina, Sicily, in 1995. What did they have in common besides spectacular settings and salubrious climates?The Ventana is a kind of sybaritic New Age mission devoted to mental and physical well-being—a fact announced in no uncertain terms by my room's prominently displayed list of a dozen varieties of massage therapy available to guests. Similarly, the San Domenico, in its former incarnation, had served for centuries as a monastery; my room had once been a monk's cell. If the massive walls and vaulted cloisters of the 15th-century building had for so long provided Dominican friars with the tranquillity necessary to contemplate God, then surely they could offer a haven serene enough for a peace-seeking secular sleep junkie.
Perhaps more to the point, both hotel rooms had windows with heavy wooden shutters that, when closed, completely obscured invasive early-morning light. The rooms also, of course, had excellent mattresses and lovely bed linens, but as an old German proverb states, it is a good conscience that makes the best pillow. And that is the most packable sleep aid I know.