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Austin Chronicle The Majestic Napster

In the Somnolent Company of Oneself ...

By Jay Hardwig

JULY 24, 2000:  When I was in college, I wrote a paper titled "Laziness, The Majesty of the Nap, and the Sacred Right to Inertia." Despite its languid title, I recall it as a bombastic, strenuously argued piece, full of the spit and vigor common to college days. It was written in response to a passage in Confucius which greatly offended me: "Tsai Yu was in bed in the daytime. The Master said, 'A piece of rotten wood cannot be carved, nor can a wall of dried dung be troweled. As far as Yu is concerned what is the use of condemning him?'"

I knew already that Confucius was a severe man, and if he hadn't phrased it so piquantly (dried dung!), I could have forgiven him. Instead, I fought back with all the rhetorical power my slumber-lovin' mind could muster. And while I may have stepped on the toes of the Master, to this day I don't regret it.

That same year I had a friend from New York who would often drop by my room in the late afternoon to find me prone on my bed, sometimes napping, sometimes staring vacantly at the ceiling. This always vexed him, for he was an energetic fellow, and not much accustomed to personal uselessness. He wondered if it was a Southern habit, this laying around in bed in the middle of the day. (Apparently he hadn't heard of Tsai Yu.) I couldn't speak for the South, I told him, but it was something of a personal preference, perhaps even a family tradition. My father used to turn on Saturday afternoon football games, I told him, for the express purpose of falling asleep in front of them. (My dad was an unqualified expert on which teams played tough in the opening quarter, but if he ever made it through to a final score, I wasn't aware of it. I wonder if he feels good that his youngest son is proud of him, not primarily for his active mind or professional success, but for his almost Olympian ability to take a nap.) After a couple of minutes of such lazy banter, my New York friend would invariably leave in search of less somnolent company, and I would relax back into the silence, sometimes sleeping, sometimes not. It did not much matter.

For in my considerable experience at the craft, I have learned this much: A nap cannot be forced. A nap may be intentional, but it is never deliberate. A fine distinction, admittedly, but one that every high-quality napper knows deep in his bones. This is why your best nappers do not try to sleep on planes or in cars; even if one does manage to doze in such unfavorable circumstances, it is with great effort, and generally rewarded with an aching neck and twisted spine. It is not worthy of the name "nap," such a tormented affair, and for my part, I feel a pinch of communal shame every time I see some unfortunate soul shifting uncomfortably in his or her economy seat on the Austin-Houston shuttle. Naps are not battles to be fought and won, but romances to be slowly savored.

For that same reason, naps should not be taken in inhospitable climates. I am not in favor of the covert nap, because in that case, a certain fear dominates the proceedings. I never napped in school, to be awakened by the slap of a teacher's yardstick upon my desk; I never nap at work, curled in the uncozy recesses beneath my desk, hiding from the eyes of my boss. (I must admit to a certain fervid admiration, however, for a young fellow I once knew who scampered up ladders to take workplace naps, perched a precarious 15 feet in the air and away from lines of supervisory sight -- a remarkable feat, but not the nap for me.)

For my part, I prefer a guilt-free late afternoon nap on the couch. I do not mind overmuch if I drool on my pillow. Drool does, I concede, have its unpleasant aspects, but it is also the sign of an exceedingly good doze.

That I signify the couch is no mistake. A couch is, without question, the best place for a nap. During those dark periods in my life where I have had no couch, I am pleased to report that I napped quite successfully on my bed, and found nothing disagreeable about it. But now that I own a couch of my own, I find it is the only place to go when the inspiration hits. It is warm and welcoming without being too seductive, deep and meaningful without losing its playful, even transient nature. Getting into bed, we all know, is a much more serious and elaborate affair, often involving the injunction of alarm clocks and at least partial disrobing. If I let myself under the covers during the day, it could be three or four hours before I wake up. That is no longer a nap, strictly considered. It is an out-n-out sleep, a full-bore REM thing, and its relation to the nap is more taxonomic than experiential.

I realize that this isn't a particularly bold stance to take, a defense of the nap. The nap has many loyal adherents; no one, I suspect, will read this essay and say, "Naps! That Hardwig is a genius!" But the nap deserves defense anyway in this rather hurried age, where every motion must have a purpose, every moment a meaning. To lie on the couch, sometimes dreaming, sometimes not, awakened by birdsong, a passing car horn, or a dog licking quizzically at your fingers which have fallen off the sofa and lie drag-knuckled on the floor, seems a most curious indulgence in this postmodern age. Which is all the more reason to do it.

To the couch, my friends! We all, every one of us, deserve it. And don't let Confucius tell you different.


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