The Miracle of Jet Lag


Yes, this is one of those Andy Rooney posts.  In my defense, well, I'm jet-lagged.  A friend informs me that the Japanese word for jet lag literally translates as "time difference senility".  Which is a good term for it.  This morning I spent twenty minutes looking for my car keys, before remembering that I'd parked the car up at my sister's house while I was away.

The enduring mystery of my jet lag is how picky it is about when I sleep.  China time is 13 hours off my current and normal time zone, so why would my body care whether I go to bed early, or woke up late? Either way, I'm off by just about the same amount.  

Stupid body.  In China, I snapped awake at 4 am every morning, and nodded off during dinner--the first night I apparently gave a rather impassioned defense of American exceptionalism that I (blissfully) can't quite remember.  Now I'm back in the states, I can't get to sleep before about 3:30 even with the help of Ambien.  This was tolerable over the weekend, when I didn't have to get up for work.  But you can imagine how chipper I was this morning.

My body is really rather remarkably set on its circadian rhythms.  I normally get up at the same time every day, regardless of how late I was up the night before.  And when it's time to sleep, I go to sleep.  As a toddler, I had to be fed by five o'clock, because at 5:35 I'd be passed out facedown in my steamed carrots.  As a grad student, I disconcerted people with my habit of falling asleep in unlikely situations, such as standing against the wall in a Mexican night club.  
This has perhaps made me more sympathetic to the arguments that people who struggle with their weight are in the grip of a powerful biologic drive that can't simply be overcome with "willpower".  I know what it's like to have a body whose blind, mute will is far stronger than my own.

Now that its rhythms have been disrupted, the body's will is just as strong; it's just that now it's also pathological.  And extraordinarily long-lasting.  Five days home, I feel as if I just got off the plane a few hours ago.  Consider this post a symptom of the pathology.  At least I'm not talking about American exceptionalism.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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