I have always dislike alarm clocks: they wake me up when I do not want to be woken up, to go somewhere I do not want to go, to do something I do not want to do for the sake of someone I do not want to see. Recently, an enterprising Swede has come up with the best reason to hate alarm clocks. Go to minute 3.18 if you do not wish to see the preamble.

This image (sent by SD) at Amazing Lookalike! reminded me of a childhood fantasy.


The figure on the right is the Mekon, the arch-enemy of sci-fi hero Dan Dare. Are they related? Asks Amazing Lookalike!

Probably not, but what about that childhood fantasy? At times I imagined that I was a massive social experiment by superior alien beings. They were trying to create a completely different environment to breed a new kid of species – less intelligent and capable than they were. So everything around me was a construct, a fabrication by these aliens. My parents, my siblings, the trees and animals, the towns and cities, language, and so on. I even tried to see glimpses of the alien presence, when they let their guard down and showed the reality beneath the fabrication.

Just a little narcissistic, of course, since I was the sole focus of this immense experiment. But I have been told that in some form or another it is not an uncommon childhood fantasy.

On my recent overnight flight from China to Australia, I found myself seated in a row of four with two seats free and a woman at the other end of the row. Dinner was eaten, a movie watched and then each of us sttempted to get comfortable for the night. We tried to stretch out on two seats each, without much success. So I suggested she stretch out her legs and lie against the seat backs and I would stretch out in reverse and lie down in the remaining space. So we were able to lie down at full stretch, heads at either end of the row of four seats. I found a pair of smelly socks close to my nose, my consolation being that my socks were even more aromatic beside her nose. But I soon fell asleep. Some hours later I woke to find my hand resting on her somewhat ample thigh. I sheepishly removed it and smiled a good morning.

I was not quite sure what to expect: a slap or a kiss good morning. Instead, she was keen to talk and asked me what I did. I mentioned writing on Marxism and religion, researching in Australia and teaching in China, my children, travel etc. She, it turned out, was the head of a major company, married and with a brood of children. To top it off, she was a fundamentalist Christian who had found the command to obey her husband immensely helpful – she told me with Bible in hand. She was used to calling all the shots, so it was a relief to be able to let him do so some of the time. So on we chatted until the plane landed. But neither of us mentioned my wandering hand or her thigh. At least it broke the ice.

At this time of year, more people than usual tend to stay the night for whatever reason. The polite thing to do as a host is provide clean sheets, clean towels, and a clean bathroom (at least). But then you have to wash the whole damn lot after they leave. So may I suggest a more practical approach: save the washing until after they have left. Who will notice that the sheets have been slept in already, that the towels are a bit on the nose, or that the bathroom has scum and streaks all over it? Alternatively, it may be more practical to keep some linen for guests – just wash it after, say, a dozen guests have used it.

The more I hear this one, the more I am skeptical: ‘I need only three hours sleep a night’. The catch is that you can do that only with the cursed alarm clock. And you might be able to kid yourself after many years that you are operating at your best after that brief horizontal stretch. But not so, zombie. Most people know that sleep goes roughly in 1.5 hour cycles, ranging from deep sleep to rapid eye movement sleep (REM).

But it also changes after about 3-4 hours. The deep sleep of that first phase does all those necessary things to your body – process alcohol, repair wounds, muscles and nerves, ease those wrinkles. But then you get hit with the second phase and all its REM. This is the time for grand voyages, scary moments, horny dreams, and whatnot. It’s when the brain processes a whole pile of crap, solving problems that seemed insurmountable the night before. Get that sleep and in the morning you’re carvin’ it. Miss it and you get distracted and cranky, make mistakes, manage mechanical tasks but not sustained thought. In other words, life is crap and you feel like death warmed up.

All this reminds me of the triple-8 campaign by the unions. It wasn’t a campaign for the 8-hour day; it was for 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep and 8 hours leisure. I guess it all comes from living in a solar system with one sun, on a planet that does its impressive spin roughly every 24 hours. It would of course be somewhat different if we had two suns and different cycles, but we’re stuck with this one.

I come across more and more people who claim they can manage perfectly well on three or four hours sleep a night. Some people, it is pointed out, simply need less sleep than others. I’m an eight or nine hour man myself, so am happy to grant this desire for less sleep to those less fortunate than me. But I can’t help noticing the permanent bags under the eyes, the deep wrinkles around eyes and mouths that are normally associated with those in their sixties and seventies, the short fuses, the curious accidents that seem to happen when one is running on adrenaline and chronic lack of sleep. This short-sleep thing seems more prevalent among those who like to exercise some sort of power (however small), feeling perhaps that the extra hours of wakefulness will give them the edge over their rivals.

Actually, I suspect this zombie phenomenon has been assisted magnificently by the Western addiction to caffeine. Since I have not been able to imbibe caffeine or alcohol, I have noticed how prevalent are those takeaway mugs in the hands of people rushing to work in the morning, the various caffeine soft drinks knocked back with impressive speed, the scruffy burnt-finger baristas plying their dubious craft on nearly every street corner, addicts hanging out for what claims to be the best coffee in town. And then, having wound the body up into crisis mode with caffeine, in comes the alcohol in the evenings to wind down – the suppressant to negate the stimulant of earlier, beating away at the heart’s sino-atrial node. Come to think of it, Hitler had a liking for uppers and downers … and look what happened to him.

So what would the West look like if coffee were suddenly banned? A massive sleep-in to catch up, an impossibly irritable population, a revolution? Nah, revolutions need more substance, but I’d love to be the one enacting the ban.

As some of you may know, I have recently spent a week in Transylvania with some of the best hosts in the world. It began in Bucharest, from where I took the ‘express’ to Baia Mare, the second last stop on the route.

‘Express’ meant it stopped at every second station, and in between it rolled along at a very leisurely pace – absolutely the best way to travel. 14 hours it took, for 690km:

Once in Transylvania (Maramureş to be exact) I enjoyed the mating rituals of the locals:

Was intrigued by the burial practices:

Was drawn to diabolically spicy Reformed churches:

And even more alluring Orthodox churches in the villages:

I even went to a rock concert:

But what really intrigued me was the fact that students and professors have different toilets – the professors a type of unisex arrangement:

Throughout this time, I kept being offered clear liquid in plastic bottles, which I naturally thought was water. Ţuică is its name, I was told, although I couldn’t figure out why it was served in small earthenware vessels and had a rather fiery taste. Which is probably why I thought this was the main road home:

By the time I realised I had been swilling the 60% proof plum-brandy, the locals were ready to celebrate my departure with gay abandon:

Can’t wait to return …

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