What hath night to do with sleep? ―John Milton, Paradise Lost
One of the cruelest and most arbitrary displays of grown-up power has always seemed to me our approach to jet lag. Post red-eye, a child is diminished and cranky and disoriented. Almost sick with fatigue, she falls gratefully into deep slumber on the first bed offered, maybe after killing several unpleasant hours until that bed is ready, perhaps fully understanding the privilege of sleep for the first time. And then, a scant hour later, she is shaken briskly awake by some grown-up. Can’t sleep too long! They tell you. Have to fight the jet lag! Must get on local time! And the day—you’re wasting the day!
At least, that’s how it always was in my family. Even then I knew—knew!—that I could have slept five, six hours and still, come evening, have gone to bed whenever they wished me to. How cruel to be deprived of this newly discovered treat, sleep! And I knew that whatever we saw would be through a haze of sleeplessness, and that as a result all my first experiences with new places were exhausted, resentful, and aggressive. My heart twists for the miserable little children I see disembarking from a long-haul night flight, and the drawn, exhausted faces of their parents.
As traumas go, this is not a serious one. On those few occasions we traveled to other time zones, it was thrilling, exciting, and I knew well that there was much to do and see: museums and the homes of historic figures and (if it was California) relatives. And how much worse for a parent to schlep around a furious, cranky infant. How quixotic, really. And how profound their commitment to forcing that child to overcome jet lag, to experience a new place on its own schedule.
Besides, much as I resisted it, I knew that this was just how travel worked: the same way we started all our road trips at four A.M., and the way we listened to poetry books on tape from the library while we drove. I think back on it with great fondness, the fondness of a grown-up who will take a longer nap when she reaches her destination.
And yet, when I boarded a red-eye flight and—passing through first, business, premium, and extra or whatever class en route to my own row—saw a complacent little kid clad in expensive headphones, looking very much like a Roald Dahl child-villain and stretched out on one of those fully reclining deluxe seats, I was indignant. That little boy didn’t know what it was to travel! He would sleep soundly in his bed-like seat, in his fancy sweatpants. (He was wearing those expensive sweatpants people wear nowadays.) He’d wake up refreshed and then probably be allowed to nap as long as he wanted! Well, I thought, his parents certainly aren’t building his character. But had mine? I was sitting there stewing resentfully about a ten-year-old boy.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.