By REG HENRY
One of the great pleasures of life is the daytime nap, but it remains a guilty pleasure in our American culture. A person in bed around noontime is considered lazy and good-for-nothing — can’t think why! — particularly if that person is somebody’s husband.
Perhaps this is because the country was founded by Pilgrims who kept obsessively busy, chopping down forests, plowing fields, attending to daily devotions or washing up dishes for days after Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrim men folk wore funny hats but they could not get a laugh out of the women, who were very severe and reminded their husbands at all hours that they were in the New World to establish a Protestant work ethic, not a Protestant napping ethic.
Indeed, men found in a hammock had a scarlet “H” affixed to their tunics. “I do not care if thou art tired out from wearing a large hat,” a Pilgrim woman (probably named Priscilla) would say to her mate, “get thou sorry posterior out and paint the stocks!”
To this day, at least in my sleepy experience, most American women believe that it is an actual sin to nap during the day. They are, of course, hypocrites, because they nap, too, except that they say they will “have a little rest on the bed.” To cover their shame, the word “nap” is not mentioned and they also make a point of avoiding the sort of manly snoring that sucks curtains up the nostrils.
This anti-napping attitude represents a terrible enduring prejudice, although fortunately it is not universal. In some cultures, civilization has reached such an advanced stage of perfection that a man can sleep several hours in the heat of the day and not be reviled by a woman for being unconscious.
Yet every year brings a fresh wake-up call that the grand tradition of the siesta in countries such as Spain is being turned out of bed, so to speak, by the march of so-called progress. Personally, I look upon this development with horror.
And now, just as the blinds are being raised on the siesta, comes news from the world of science that gives hope. According to a study conducted on 23,681 Greek men and women over six years, taking regular midday naps is associated with reduced risk of death from heart disease.
The effect was most marked among working men who took midday naps — they had a 64 percent lower risk of death from heart disease compared with non-nappers.
But according to the report, which appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, napping is good for all adults, with sleepyheads who took a siesta for 30 minutes or more at least three times a week having a 37 percent lower risk of heart-related death.
You can mock all this if you are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You can say that those inertia-loving Greeks are no better than the cartoon Mexican who sleeps at noontime with his sombrero over his head. But that Mexican is sensibly resting his heart. That Mexican will probably outlive you and may even go to your funeral just to spite you for your stereotypes, provided, of course, that you are not buried during the noontime siesta.
In terms of this study, the question, of course, is whether the Greek experience could be replicated in these frenetic United States. Greece is the cradle of Western civilization and cradles are good places to relax, or so I dimly remember. Although naps no doubt helped the Greeks in the study reduce stress, perhaps worry-beads, ouzo and bouzouki music also put them in mind for a bit of shut-eye.
(In 1973, I spent two months living in a cave in western Crete and I became so relaxed, slow-moving and stress-free that people assumed I worked for the government. Actually, my critics still believe that I live in a cave, but that is just the sort of observation that makes their lives so wretchedly stressful.)
While napping is clearly much needed here in the United States, how could we working stiffs ever relax enough to take a healthful siesta? Only in Congress can a person sit on a bench and catch 40 winks during the day. In order to become even drowsy, busy people must read newspaper editorials or perhaps the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Well, they do say — what’s the old adage? — beware of Greeks bearing gifts of pillows, but I still think that this scientific report can counter the current bias against napping. Excuse me now, it’s time to lie down on the bed and rest my heart.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)