The jet lag archipelago

Last word Crossing 16 time zones in two weeks between Abu Dhabi and New York, Peter C Baker considers the circadian netherworld.

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Crossing 16 time zones in two weeks between Abu Dhabi and New York, Peter C Baker considers the circadian netherworld.

A few nights ago, I was sitting at home doing nothing at all when I realised that I wanted a falafel and a Coke. Grinning with pleasure that I simultaneously knew what I wanted and knew how to get it, I put on shoes, stepped outside and started walking to my neighbourhood falafel place. I was almost there when I realised my plan's fatal flaw: it was 3:30 in the morning, and everything was closed. I shrugged, and instantly decided that I would much prefer a bar of chocolate from the 24 hour Adnoc. On the walk back home, I smiled at a man walking his dog. He eyed me and my Kit Kat suspiciously. "Jet lag!" I called out by way of explanation; he responded with a wary wave.

Three weeks ago, I flew westward across eight time zones from Abu Dhabi to New York. Upon landing, my internal clock remained on Abu Dhabi time; despite being in America, my body produced hormones, changed temperature and allocated resources on its UAE schedule. I've been jet lagged before. But this time was different, perhaps because I'd been away for so long. In America, I didn't just feel jammed in the wrong time zone; I often felt transported to another era, one in which people worry aloud about their job security, and radio stations play a song called My President Is Black. This all took getting used to - jet lag experts estimate an adjustment period of one day per time zone - and just when I was feeling up to speed it was time to fly back, cutting short my re-engagement with the American mood and re-upsetting my body's stubborn rhythms in the process.

Both at home and back in (oddly familiar) Abu Dhabi, I woke at odd hours, feeling neither tired nor awake. Sitting up in bed, I felt oddly conscious of my jet lagged body as a pile of things hooked together by relatively tenuous connecting bits. I experienced sudden and sharp desires - for an ice cream sandwich, for falafel and Coke, to kick a football, to buy and read a newspaper - and did my bemused best to satisfy them. Usually I failed, because of either the hour or my dreamlike distractibility. Pointed journeys to the store (probably closed anyway) turned into meandering walks and drives through quiet streets. Similarly, attempts to read great novels yielded to early-morning television marathons. Trying to catch up on e-mail, I wrote nothing, and found myself revisiting correspondences from years ago, then straying onto the never-sleeping internet, where I flitted between blogs from around the world, watched old TV shows I had never heard of on YouTube, laughed overly loud at the jokes, downloaded My President Is Black, and read compulsively about jet lag.

I read a Los Angeles Times article from 1966 that declared: "If you're going to be a member of the Jet Set and fly off to Katmandu for coffee with King Mahendra, you can count on contracting Jet Lag." I read a 1980 report on circadian rhythms in aviation commissioned by the US Congress (conclusion: they're real, pilots should get naps on planes). I read about Sarah Krasnoff and her 14-year old grandson, who in 1971 took 160 consecutive flights between New York and Amsterdam in a zealous attempt to escape a nasty custody battle, and stopped only because Krasnoff died from the strain. I read Pico Iyer resolving that "Because jet lag is so much a part of my life now... I will make the most of it; attend to it; enjoy its disruptions, as I would those of a geographically foreign place." I read John Updike declaring dramatically, of his lagged self: "All the habits and illusions that protect me from the fact that I am 66 and nearing death had fallen from me."

I learned that professional athletes worry quite a bit about jet lag, and have all sorts of convoluted personal regimens for combating it. I learned that a few scientists - chronobiologists, they're called - are intent on quantifying and ameliorating jet lag's effects. Artificial light boxes seem mildly useful, fasting for 16 hours preflight just might work, changing your watch before you leave doesn't seem to make a difference, the hormone melatonin has potential but hasn't been tested in any systematic way, and Viagra wakes up artificially jetlagged mice. I learned that most jet lag studies involve mice. "When old mice experienced artificial jet lag," one Science News article proclaimed, "their death rate increased." I learned that I could take a free trip to the French countryside, courtesy of a jet lag study group, so long as I was willing to be hooked up to all sorts of monitoring devices on the flight and for most of my time there.

For all my searching, I could not find the great novel (nor great short story, nor great film) of jet lag. William Gibson's Pattern Recognition features a lot of it ("her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here"), but all in the context of sci-fi mystery, not modern life. This surprised me. The thrills and pitfalls of the globalised world are perennial favourite topics for storytellers in search of Big Themes. International markets, total connectivity, satellite phones, casual jet setting between shiny cosmopolitan hubs - these are the things that aggressively current narratives are made of. Our world is flat!

Well, maybe, but it is also very wide, and sunlight still moves across it in a set rhythm, and when we try to skip ahead or behind or pretend that there is no meaningful rhythm at all, we feel funny. I'd like to read a novel about that. Someone should write one, if only to give millions of jet-lagged souls all over the world something to buy on an airport whim, promise to read, then leave on a park bench at dawn. Actually, looking back over my notes from my trip, I see that I've already written half a page of exactly such a book. But I've been back for a full week now, and I'm awake again, so it makes little sense to me.
Peter C Baker is the deputy editor of The Review.