It is hard going east. It is harder going east with small children. It is hardest going east with small children into the gloom of a Swedish winter.
The planes are fast but the adjustment is slow, and I get caught in the gap between. This seems true of so much of modern connected life, but especially with kids, who ground me in their urgent and eternal needs, and in Sweden, with its fundamental tyranny of light and dark.
I’ve always taken jet lag as something to either cure or endure. But this proves impossible with my children, who cannot, or will not, fight the time shift. Instead, we linger in our altered state, and it is not fun, and it evokes death and madness but also transcendence, all at 2 a.m. as the little ones jump off the couch on a dangerous quest for buried pirate treasure.
In mid-January, for the fourth time in five months, my wife and I dragged our five- and three-year-old children across nine time zones. On this last leg, we flew from the Pacific to the Central European, meaning from Oakland to Seattle and then Seattle to Reykjavík and then Reykjavík to Stockholm, 24 hours door to door.
We're a good traveling clan by now: The kids sleep (though fight for leg room), they are good in the security lines (they play TSA guard when they get home), and they love the rare treat of Happy Meals and Happy Meal toys (as many as they want if it gets us home in one piece).
In this wobbly, deceitful dusk, reality gets thin, or maybe stretched.
No, it is not the trip but the circadian rhythm sleep disorder that we dread, the jet lag. Traveling west simply means we wake up early—perhaps obscenely early, like 1 a.m.—but with our day intact. But going east we sleep when we are not sleepy and wake in the middle of the night. Then our bodies scream for the deepest, dream-producing REM slumber. We wake, or try to, and float through the day hungry, sleepy, wired, and nauseated.
The first days recovering from an eastbound flight are like molding a new reality out of pancake batter. Take one nap and you’ve missed the short Scandinavian winter day, only six, seven hours, with faint light often hidden behind deep clusters and walls of gray.
In this wobbly, deceitful dusk, reality gets thin, or maybe stretched. It is nothing conscious or concrete, but I am enveloped by a sense of foreboding quiet, no matter how noisy it is, and I see risk everywhere—fire, ice, water—even though Sweden may be the safest place on earth, even in winter. It seems clear that our bodies are not made for jet travel and that we should not be flying 35,000 feet over Hudson Bay at midnight, but instead running across a heath or, at most, sailing slowly across the North Atlantic in wooden boats.
The first mention of jet lag that I can find comes from 1965, when the fashion columnist Eugenia Sheppard quoted an unnamed source in a short syndicated article—I found it in the Mason City Globe Gazette—about how jet lag was the chic new ailment of the rich and famous.
Jet lag is “like feeling there is a huge sheet of plate glass between you and the rest of the world," the source said.
In October 1958, the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation and Pan American World Airways made a big fuss about launching trans-Atlantic jet flights between New York and London. That’s five hours lag. Not tremendous in the era of the 9,500-mile, Newark-to-Singapore nonstop, but more than enough for the “pioneers,” right?
Except let’s remember that this was the Cold War, and those pesky Soviets were always upstaging us at things like space flight … and passenger jets.
Two years before that New York to London flight, in September 1956, Aeroflot had kicked off regular jet service on the Tupolev Tu-104 from Moscow to the Siberian metropolis of Irkutsk. That’s also a five-hour jet lag. So the first jet-lagged baby (with suffering parents) was likely the child of Soviet soldiers or apparatchiks headed to Siberia.
I wonder if there are KGB files on how that turned out.
Once upon a time, still in the adolescence of jet lag, so to speak, each experience of it held a mystery for me because each trip lifted off into the unknown. It started with Buffalo to San Francisco when I was 7, then San Francisco to Detroit, then Los Angeles to Philly. In college I graduated to what I now consider “real” jet lag, and the mysteries deepened. Who knew what the Los Angeles-to-Budapest jet lag would be like? How about Zagreb-to-Spokane (with four connections)? Or Stockholm-to-Delhi (and back the next day)?
There were trips when I was moving, trips when I was working, and trips over long weekends with no sleep, lots of booze, and some sort of doubled-back, magnified jet lag on my return home. However, two stand out both for their misery and their sense of unreality, of the feeling of tumbling into the dust devil, and landing in a place from which I’ve never come back.
Oct. 31, 1995
I fly from Los Angeles to Chicago to pick up my girlfriend for a flight to Geneva, where I immediately come down with a sinus infection. We wander the hilly civilized streets for hour after hour with the coordinator of our volunteer program, trying to beat the jet lag and sort of still pretending that we are not a couple, just like we had during the orientation for the earthy churchy organization. In a dark restaurant, I hunch over a fondue pot full of cheese that makes me gag, pretending and sick and gearing up for the overnight train to a Balkan war zone.
After a night of 18 feverish trips to the bathroom, we end up in a smoky bar in what passes for a tourist corner of Zagreb, my head burning as another volunteer tells us all about blown-up, fucked-up Croatia. Two days later, still jet-lagged, now separated by four hours from my girlfriend, I am living in a house with no glass in the windows with English anarchists, Polish hippies, and a Bosnian refugee, spending my days in ruined apartment buildings hacking at pipes with a dull saw.
Jan. 12, 2004
When I fly to Sweden the first time, I travel standby from JFK to Stockholm via Reykjavík, hanging around the Iceland Air counter for hours, pestering the staff with questions about their waiting list. I make the flight—middle seat—and land in Iceland in the middle of the night, peering into the gloom through hobbit-like round windows. Then we glide low over the endless Swedish forest in the weakest morning dawn, and I get fidgety and scared by the emptiness. I ride local buses two hours north, further into the dark, to Gävle, and over the next week I never come close to getting over the time difference, stalking my girlfriend's cat with my camera, going on hazy, melding walks in dark snowiness, and bouncing on a bus trip from Gävle to Stockholm for a party at night that felt like midafternoon.
Or maybe it wasn’t jet lag that time. Maybe it was burnout from my newspaper job. Or maybe, probably, it was love wrenching me more out of phase than any jet lag could. Four months after that trip, I moved to Gävle, and it was spring, and the light seemed right, even if the bitter spring cold did not. So started the steady drumbeat of Stockholm to New York, Stockholm to Bangkok, Stockholm to Tucson, Newark to Stockholm, Stockholm to Chicago, Stockholm to Delhi, and now Stockholm to San Francisco (well, Oakland).
Even though the jet planes are not any faster and grow less comfortable by the year, instant digital connections spur us to travel, to jump at the suggestion of an extra summer trip, just this once.
If we had lived in Sweden a century ago, we would have seen my California family once, maybe twice over the course of my kids’ childhood. In the 1950s and 1960s, my dad grew up in Europe, and my grandfather hated flying, so they took a boat home to America every couple summers.
Today, we see my mother and father twice, sometimes three times, a year.
When you add in all the video calls, we feel much closer to my parents and my sister and her family than we are physically. So even though the jet planes are not any faster and grow less comfortable by the year, these instant digital connections spur us to travel, to jump at the suggestion of an extra summer trip, just this once, because we tell ourselves it’s not worse than a long car trip to the southern tip of Sweden.
But here jet lag works against the digital daydream, keeps us tied to reality. I am not a byte; this is not timeless time. I cannot travel physically in the space of flows. And for all the rewiring in my brain from Spotify, Facebook, and my smartphone, I must still face the sun and find my place on this spinning earth.
Or do I? Isn’t jet lag an escape from all that, if an unpleasant one?
Doesn’t jet lag take all of us behind the curtain, a long, strange trip after the speedy journey? It is no accident that Hermes, the Greek god with the winged feet and the winged cap, transported the souls of the dead from the earth to the underworld and also served as the god of luck, fraud, and ambiguity, among many other transient, boundary-shifting qualities.
Especially with kids, jet lag breaks down all the routines and games and rules that keep life steady, that civilize or socialize. As we struggle to regain our mundane routines, our bodies float in the fourth dimension, confused, searching for the sun at midnight. The physics of jet engines not withstanding, flying is magic. Why not treat it as such?
How often do I get clipped out of the everyday, legally, at no extra cost, having made no effort beyond sitting for hours in a small chair watching bad movies and eating mushy food? Jet lag is literally a trip to Oz, or down the rabbit hole, or, to be more modern, taking the red pill, not the blue one, from Morpheus. It is lunching at 3 a.m., which is not the same as a middle-of-the-night snack after a night out. It is midnight dreaming at noon. It is to see life in a fun-house mirror: not fun, perhaps, but epiphanies are not often sparked by the pleasant and the everyday.
I do not explain any of this to the children, of course, even in language they would understand. I have trouble handling the change in my own head, and they’re kids. Their world is already dripping with morning dew and mystery. It doesn’t need shaking up.
In 2004, Pico Iyer wrote a lyrical ode to jet lag in the New York Times. He tells himself to “make the most of it; attend to it, enjoy its disruptions, as I would those of a geographically foreign place.” So in California he goes out for lunch at dawn, and in places like Shanghai or Hanoi he owns the Asian night.
But it is still hard, and Iyer is, above all, coping: “Jet lag, in some ways, is … the neurological equivalent, I often feel, of some long, gray airport passageway that leads from one nowhere space to another.”
Then there are the opening lines of William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition:
“Five hours' New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.
“It is that flat and spectral non-hour, awash in limbic tides, brainstem stirring fitfully, flashing inappropriate reptilian demands for sex, food, sedation, all of the above, and none really an option now.”
In the book, Pollard careens all over the world—London, Tokyo, London, Moscow, London—feeling like her soul trails behind her, lingering over the North Atlantic while her body (and the plot) inhabits London or Tokyo for a few days.
Both Gibson and Iyer seem to be saying that we are incomplete when jet lagged. But I say our anonymous fashionable source got it right way back in 1965. With jet lag we remain whole—still visible and within earshot—but just out of reach, on the other side of a pane of glass.
If I really let the dark win, the only story about jet lag that gets to its inherent otherworldliness is Stephen King’s short story “The Jaunt.” It isn’t a story about air travel but about teleportation and a trip to Mars. In the story, set in the 24th century, travelers must be unconscious to teleport, or “jaunt.” If they go in awake, their bodies come through almost instantaneously but their minds endure millions, billions of years of all-white limbo.
When that endless purgatory finally collapses into reality, these poor souls either go raving mad or instantly die. In the story, a 12-year-old boy holds his breath instead of taking his anesthetic, and this is how he looks in his near-eternal jet lag:
“The thing … bounced and writhed on its Jaunt couch, a twelve-year-old boy with a snow-white fall of hair and eyes which were incredibly ancient, the corneas gone a sickly yellow. Here was a creature older than time masquerading as a boy; and yet it bounced and writhed with a kind of horrid, obscene glee …”
I read this story when I was 12, and I have never shaken it. Because while I am often paralyzed by my fear of oblivion, I am equally frozen by this alternative: endless nothingness, the threat of eternity experienced in the same way we experience the world alive.
I am caught between two impossible endings.
As a species, we paper over the existential darkness with the rhythms of the day and the night, the season and the year. Unadulterated jet lag—the kind you get with toddlers—throws us out of balance with the earth spinning in time. Iyer tells a story in his essay about a 74-year-old woman in 1971 who—in the midst of a custody dispute involving her grandson—flew with the 14-year-old boy between NYC and Amsterdam 160 times in a row.
Then she died.
Jet lag is a small taste of death, which is the ultimate wrench in time. It sets us down a few steps off our well-worn path through the deep, dark woods of our lives. But instead of marching blindly back to the path, maybe we should take a look around this mirror world, hope no monsters emerge from the trees, and see what we can see.