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In Praise Of Jet Lag

Of course it's unsettling to feel out of sync with the world around you, but instead of complaining about jet lag, maybe it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Author Adam Sachs Illustration Clare Mallison


I was in tokyo a couple of weeks ago. After clearing customs in Narita, I did what I normally do when I get to Tokyo. I did something really stupid.

It’s become a little ritual of mine, though I mix it up to keep myself guessing.

Sometimes I leave my wallet on an airport chair. Or I buy a ticket for the wrong train, heading away from the city.

This time, I got my exchange rate mixed up and tried to extract $15,000 from several wisely unwilling ATMs.

Luckily I never got the cash, or I’d probably have found a way to leave a fat wad of yen on a chair somewhere.
Later, at dinner, as I was nodding off into a tumbler of Yamazaki whiskey, my friends said what people usually say to me in Tokyo and elsewhere in the world: “You haven’t adjusted yet. Your body is still on New York time. For you it’s yesterday.”

When you travel a lot, you get used to people always reminding you what time it is for you. As if everyone can peer inside your brain and read a little personal clock there that shows all the data about why exactly you’re feeling sluggish, the time of your last meal and which side of the bed you woke up on. And the diagnosis is always the same.

Driving the rental car the wrong way out of the airport? Jet lag! Wandering the streets hungry at 4 a.m.? Jet lag! See, it’s okay. The world understands why you’re lost, cranky, distracted or dyspeptic (or, as happens more often than we’d like to admit, all of the above). Your clock just needs resetting.

And I know the world is basically right. My readings are haywire, my compass is off, night is day. I’m either alert at the wrong time, or not at all. Scientists even have a nifty name for this condition, desynchronosis, which makes it sound like a medical disorder of some kind even if it’s simply a natural response to being suddenly plopped down far from home. We are all governed by circadian rhythm, or a 24-hour cycle that tells us it’s breakfast time in our home continent even though the sun is setting before us now. But I’m not quite ready to attribute the condition entirely to something as banal as my scrambled sense of time.

After all, anybody who’s seen me dance at a wedding knows my rhythm isn’t great under the best of circumstances. And where are these experts when I feel exhausted at home?

How to explain my general habit of working in the middle of the night, eating at the wrong hours and dreaming all day about naps? With 24/7 media overstimulation coming at me from every corner of the planet, do I really need a jet to throw me off my sleep schedule? Trust me, you can forget what day it is even without a passport.

And why do we insist on blaming the flying itself? Sit me upright in an easy chair for 13 hours, replay the Bourne trilogy three times, ply me with gin-and-tonics and let me doze off with my chin tucked into my clavicle…. I’m pretty sure I’d wake up feeling weird without ever leaving my living room.

The main thing, though, is this: Tokyo is really far away from New York. Thousands-and-thousands-of-miles far away. Around-the-bend, other-side-of-the-world far away. And when I get there—when I finally arrive and somehow restlessly fumble my way out of Narita and into that big, overwhelming city—I experience the rush of displacement all over again.

Tokyo is thrillingly, exhaustingly, wonderfully foreign to my everyday 
life. Sure, part of the reason I’m at Tsukiji market at 5 a.m. on my second day there, watching men cut up giant tuna and looking forward to my beer and sushi breakfast, is because my body just won’t let me sleep. But it’s just as true to say I’m awake because I’m so excited to be here. Giant tuna! Homicidal motorized carts speeding everywhere! Beer with breakfast!

I say, enough with the whining: It’s time to give jet lag a second look. Yes, it’s sometimes inconvenient to feel grouchy or lost or incoherent, but that lost feeling is a significant part of travel, a reminder that distance is real, that miles aren’t just something we tally up in our frequent-flier accounts. Sitting at home at the computer, soaking up the news from a TV, it’s easy to believe that the world is small. But it doesn’t feel small when you’re out in it. This, it seems to me, is one of the profound gifts of being alive now: the ability to get up and go everywhere, to experience the world in a kind of rush that previous generations couldn’t have dreamed of. We should savor that rush, take it in the way a dog sticks his head out a car window and feels the wind in his face. A sense of dislocation comes with the territory. Indeed, it’s part of the fun.

I’d go so far as to say that an essential component of my love for Tokyo is the simple fact that I always feel so gloriously messed up and out of my element when I’m there. The world is big, and frankly, it should wear us out to try taking it all in. We should be righteously freaked out by all the traveling we do. We should be dizzy with awe that these big planes deliver us to faraway places, and at the wonders that we find there. And while I’m all for making it to meetings on time and not drooling in public, maybe we shouldn’t try so hard to fix the unfixable nature of living in an exhausting time.

Everyone’s got a cure, of course, a pill, a routine, a bit of trusted quackery that promises to take the edge off, knock you out inflight, get you on your feet when you land, uncramp your muscles, march you through customs, order room service and tuck you in at night (see Time Bandits). Admittedly, I long considered Ambien a trusted friend, until the time I woke up from my slumber on a long flight and, in a zombie state, punched up You’ve Got Mail with unidentifiable subtitles on my personal inflight entertainment system. What kind of friend lets you do that?

Recently I got a press notice about a British juice drink called Mile High. It modestly claims to eliminate “any negative side effects of frequent flying and long haul travel such as fatigue and nausea” through the power of antioxidants. Not having joined the Mile High drink club, I can’t say for sure, but my guess is what causes fatigue isn’t oxidants but lack of sleep.

A scientific journal from the International Society for Computational Biology reported recently on tests to fight jet lag by exposing test patients to “interventional light stimuli.” By the time I got to the end of the article, my eyes were strained and my head was throbbing—not unlike my response to a typical transatlantic red-eye. I wouldn’t be surprised if scientists do someday manage to alter the body’s rhythm with light—I’ve heard the same technique works wonders on egg-laying chickens, to say nothing of marijuana plants—but flashing lights on and off during sales meetings might not be quite what it takes to close a deal. So, no thanks. While science chases a cure, I’ll stick to wandering around gaga before passing out cold and sleeping dreamlessly through the night.

Returning from Japan last month, I was in New York for a couple of days before flying down to Louisville, Kentucky, then over to London and around the north of England, back to New York and on to Denver. To see these cities in these quick flashes in less than a month made me light-headed. I was struck by a kind of geographical dizziness. Staring out the window of a shuttle bus from the Denver airport heading to Boulder, I had strange, dreamy notions. Hey, I didn’t know they had Chuck E. Cheese’s in Yorkshire…I wonder if the big mouse talks with an accent?

Clearly all these time zones had left me more than a little unhinged. But I liked the confusion. It felt like a modern ailment. A little sleepiness, a touch of bewilderment, I realized, even as I nodded off, is nothing more or less than a normal, rational, authentic response to the still-astonishing fact of being flown around the world. To chalk this all up to something as mechanical as the resetting of an invisible clock seemed absurdly reductive, but more than that, it seemed to miss the point of travel altogether. We don’t need a cure for jet lag, I thought, my eyes flickering shut as the bus rumbled onto the Northwest Parkway. We need a nap.

Travel writer Adam Sachs has no idea where he is half the time, but he can usually find out by checking adamsachs.org.

Time Bandits

Can jet lag be “cured”? Probably not, but it seems as though everyone has a trick to mitigate its effects.

Sunshine on your shoulders – Not only can it make you happy, sunshine can theoretically “reset” your body’s clock. It’s as easy as going outside.

Melatonin – Taking small doses 
of this natural 
sleep-inducing hormone may help you fall asleep at the proper time 
(or, depending on what country you’ve flown to, it may get you arrested).

Whetting your whistle – Stay hydrated by drinking plenty 
of water and avoiding caffeine and 
alcohol—which, to some of us, sort 
of defeats the purpose of vacation.

Getting in touch with nature – Some New Age types insist that walking barefoot on the earth or swimming in the ocean can help by “grounding your electromagnetic system.”

True west – It’s claimed that jet lag is less severe on westward-bound trips. (And just imagine all the frequent-flier miles you can get flying from Chicago to New York via Tokyo.)

Viagra – A 2007 Argentine study showed that small doses of the impotence medication helped hamsters recover from simulated jet lag. The effect on their sex lives was not reported.

Light visor – Defy darkness and make Trekkies jealous by donning a geeky, programmable light visor that shines bright light on your face in sync with the daylight pattern of your destination.

Make believe – Some imaginative fliers claim that simply pretending they’re not on a plane lessens the problem.

—Peter Koch




One Response to “In Praise Of Jet Lag”

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