Thoughts on Time

The Thinker by Rodin

Traveling by jet today has me ruminating on the flexible nature of time. I like to think of time as something that is permanent and unchangeable. However, it is really more like a spring: it can be compressed and it can be expanded. According to Einstein, its changeable nature is the law of the universe. His two theories of relativity lay out the details. For us human beings confined to this planet, such abstract theories are irrelevant. Skipping across time zones, on the other hand, makes us realize that time is fluid.

I am in the middle of a bicoastal flight. It took off from Los Angeles around 1 PM and is heading in a beeline for Washington Dulles International Airport. It will land close to 9 PM on the east coast. The travel time is about five hours, but because of this rapid west to east flight, three hours will get sucked out of my 24-hour day. It is unlikely I will be too anxious to head to bed upon my arrival, which makes arising at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning somewhat a daunting thought.

For a trip this short (leave Monday, return Wednesday) I try not to become too attached to the local time. Unfortunately, my strategy does not work that well. I find myself naturally awake at 4 or 5 a.m. local time. However, the people on the west coast are on different schedules. I must accommodate their schedules. Even if I can ignore my body clock, the meals all arrive three hours later than my body prefers. So in the course of adjusting my meals, my body falls mostly into Pacific Time. I am hopeful though that by rising before dawn on the west coast the transition to Eastern Time will be a little less distressing.

Either way there seems to be a cost in sleep to jet travel. Traveling east to west is usually easier, but if I travel more than two time zones, I arrive fighting sleep. Even with a non-stop flight, getting from coast to coast consumes pretty much a whole day of travel. So I found myself on Monday landing at San Francisco International Airport, awed by the breathtaking view of the bay, but nonetheless rubbing my eyes from the bright sun. A nap on the plane can help ease the transition, but it is not a given on any flight. Flight attendants are often trying to force pretzels and bottled beverages on us. I catch naps if I can.

Traveling west to east feels weirder. I can handle up to two time zones with almost no problem. However, add that third time zone and my body rebels. I call it a short day. Something is missing from it. I arrive on the East Coast and unless it is late summer and I have caught a very early flight I arrive on the East Coast in the dark. Who turned off the sun? What really annoys me is when I have to get up at my regular time the next day, which I must do tomorrow. When flying west to east, the body wants to sleep in late the next day.

I wonder how airline pilots and flight attendants cope with it. I guess you can get used to any pattern if you do it often enough. I do it infrequently enough where it still feels weird. To me jet lag is a price that has to be paid for the privilege of high-speed travel. No matter what strategy I try, there seems to be no getting around it.

Bicoastal flights annoy the body’s clock, but overseas flights play havoc with it. In 1987, I got my first taste of massive jet lag. I flew on business from Washington to Tokyo. I had to change planes in New York. From there it was nearly fourteen hours nonstop on a 747, scraping the Arctic Circle much of the way. All these years later, I can still remember the weirdness of the flight. It was a very different flight because of the northern latitudes. What really impressed me though is that we followed the sun the whole way to Tokyo. Essentially, we arrived at Narita Airport about the same time of day that we left New York (except it was the next day). It was such a long flight they needed two sets of pilots and flight attendants. After three movies, I could not take it anymore. I could not take another meal and another movie (Was it four or five movies? I lost count.) It was too much. I had no idea an aircraft could even stay in the air that long.

It took four days before my body adapted to Japan time. For days I woke up at 3 a.m. For days I yawned at work … no wonder, it was the middle of the night back home. (It was surreal seeing President Reagan giving an evening address to the nation in the morning.) After a week near Tokyo I spent another week in the Philippines. Finally, I made the trek back to the States. That is when jet lag took on a new and unexpected meaning.

I passed eleven time zones on the way back. The thing that really weirded me out was that on just two flights I went through two sunsets. I left the Philippines shortly after dawn, stopped in Osaka, and then flew nine hours over the Pacific. The sun rose about midnight according to my body clock. In this state I was thrust into San Francisco International Airport and had to deal with dogs were sniffing my luggage. On a flight back to Dulles, I arrived just as the sun was setting. I have no idea how long I was in transit (about 24 hours, most likely) except crossing the country all I wanted to do was sleep. However, on that last leg I was afraid that if I slept I might not wake up. The weirdest part was that I was so exhausted by the time I returned I went almost immediately to bed, woke up the next morning and felt nearly back on local time. Therefore, for me if I travel far enough from west to east the fatigue of traveling will make the jet lag minimal.

My wife is a big believer in the red eye. We took a red eye home from Hawaii a couple years ago. I have to say, I now agree with her. If you have to travel more than three time zones from west to east, this is the way to go. Yes, I still arrived home bleary eyed and exhausted, but the pain of traveling was over quickly. Within a day, I was back on Eastern Time.

I find it difficult when I travel to not think about what time it is at “home”. For so many years, my body chronometer has been set on Eastern Time that no matter where I am the local time zone never feels quite natural. I have to plan to spend more than a week somewhere to turn off that part of my brain. It worked in Hawaii until a day or two before we were to leave, when the thought occupied my mind again.

I figure this is likely to be the year where I challenge many time zones. Aside from business travel, which is likely to take me to the west coast again, there is also the likelihood of a summer vacation in France. This is what my wife has promised our daughter if she can pull excellent grades. (She wants to study overseas and perhaps even live in France.) I have never been to Europe but I think I have an inkling now what to expect from my body. I have heard that taking melatonin can reduce the symptoms of jet lag. I may experiment with it if we make it to Europe. Nevertheless, I do not think there is any cure for jet lag. The body will adapt to it in its own sweet time. Mind over matter does not seem to work for me. Therefore, I must learn to surrender to the reality of time shifts.