it can work magic

I come from a long line of accomplished nappers. My grandfather, after presiding over his generations at the family lunch on Saturday, would take to the couch at the far end of the one big room and, while the adults talked their loud talk and grandchildren one after the other let the screen door slam shut behind them on their way outside, would stretch himself out and immediately settle into a gentle snore.

My mother raised five children. For her the nap was an elusive dream, her pursuit of it a furtive obsession—then, later, luxurious reward for the hard-won empty nest.

So I’ve had ample opportunity to study the nap, to appreciate its subtleties and to try to clarify the several misconceptions that cloud our understanding of the thing.

First, who should nap? I would lay it down as a general rule that anybody who can nap should nap. Notice that lets out all type-A people—people who wouldn’t know a nap if it walked up and caressed their tension-wrung neck and shoulders, people whose apparent contempt for the nap (I don’t have time for that) actually masks a sad failure to contemplate the full-dimensional life.

It lets in all the rest of us, we who knew the meaning of balance long before the concept was co-opted by our consumerist culture. Take me, for example. I play golf, write a blog, and pet the dog. Sure, there’s a certain urgency about that kind of day, but I refuse to let any of those pursuits become so important that I can’t squeeze in a short one at some point during the afternoon.

So is that the best time to nap—the afternoon? There are no rules here. Many a mid-morning, when the caffeine buzz has calmed and the discordant jangle of the creative process has momentarily quieted, I have heard the sweet song of the nap. But remember—and this is a rule—you only get one nap a day. And since eating lunch is pretty much an irresistible inducement to nap, it’s wise to think twice about the prudence of the morning nap.

Any other rules we should know about? Yes, the nap is of a certain duration. It can work its magic in 20 minutes or less, but even at 40 minutes you’re still legal. Longer than that, no.  A friend of my daughter’s once told me that his naps lasted for three or four hours. I had to explain that that wasn’t napping; that was going back to bed, a far different kettle of fish.

Other rules follow from that one, and on the same principle. One, you’re not allowed to get under the covers to take a nap. If the room is chilly, throw a robe or light blanket over yourself, but understand that the nap is not something to be snuggled into. Along the same lines, it’s best to take your nap lying on your back. That way, you’ll snore yourself awake before you cross the line.

Don’t get me wrong. There are good reasons for going back to bed, chief among which is the hangover. We’ve all been there. We have to go to work. We get up. We try a little coffee and toast. We vomit. We go back to bed. Other, less devastating illnesses, like pneumonia, can also be reason enough to surrender for the day.

But under anything less than dire circumstances, going back to bed is unhealthy. It suggests depression. It suggests that . . . well, it suggests that you have no reason to be out of bed, nothing to do, nothing to live for. We all know people like this, people for whom the condition of being out of bed is a dark emptiness.

I wouldn’t presume to advise, but I’ve got four words: Golf. Blog. Dog. Nap. You talk about meaning.

Image: The Nap by Mattias Barthel via flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.
John Yow

John Yow

John Yow has written two books about birds, both published by UNC Press: The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds (2009) and The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal: The Secret Lives of Birds of the Southeastern Shore (2012). His blog, "From Pumpkinvine Creek" ( is generally concerned with the fate that awaits birds and all other species if we don't stop trashing the planet. Yow and his wife Dede live in the woods in northeast Paulding County.

  1. Trevor Stone Irvin

    I wholeheartedly agree with this methodology and philosophy – and I would have read the entire piece but I took a nap instead.

  2. Agree entirely — except with your attitude about going back/staying in bed. The bed is an excellent place to read and write. Moreover, the introduction of the lap top not only makes it unnecessary to turn up the thermostat for the entire room, but insures that aged fingers are kept flexible and warm.
    I don’t think humans were designed for sitting in chairs nor, for that matter, kneeling. Neither the knees nor the gluteus maximus have enough padding.

  3. I am convinced there are people whose metabolism dictates that a nap is de riguer. My father napped, necessitating his work continuing into the evening: he inspected, napped, then reported the results of his enginerial inspections at the expense of family time. My brother was MD of a publishing firm in London. In his office he had a chaise longue and his secretary was charged with fending off calls while he napped, ensuring his efficiency throughout the remains of the day. I napped whenever possible while raising five children, thus feeling refreshed and productive into the evening, feeding seven people wholesome home cooked food forever. In old age I continue to nap, in my super-comfortable recliner, awaking more refreshed from 30 minutes around 3 p.m. than I ever feel in the mornings. There must be a species worthy of the title “hunter-gatherer- napper.”

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