Monday, July 14, 2008

Review: Sleep Buddies

I vaguely remember a time in my life when going to sleep meant nothing more than going to sleep. Now going to sleep requires preparation, and gadgets, and investment. Add to all that the threat of sleep apnea - the creeping, invisible killer that chips away at the minutes and hours of REM I get each night, weakening my heart muscle, chipping away at my oxygen levels, pushing me, in undetectably teensy increments, towards congestive heart failure and sleep-deprived insanity - and you begin to understand the importance of these little tools listed below.

Earplugs come in many guises. You want the ones shaped like little tin cans (E.A.R. Classic, $22.76 for a box of 100). Be sure they're rated NRR 29dB. Don't buy wax stopples (Flents, $2.77 for 6). Stuffing wax putty in your ears is for rubes and suckers and people living in the 1700's. Foam cones (Milwaukee, $23.50 for a box of 200 ) are permissible in emergency situations, but really; if they're smaller on one side, doesn't it follow that they'd be less effective on that side?

Before I used ear plugs to induce unconsciousness, I spent years relying on them to perform live with bands. Once or twice my earplugs fell out mid-performance, and I found myself submerged in a paralyzing, disorienting roar, like standing directly behind a jet engine. I occasionally catch myself reflexively checking my earplugs at night to make sure they're snug.

Earplugs can only do so much. If indifferent neighbors blast DMX or neglect their car alarm, for example, you may find yourself trapped in an anger loop - too tired to take action, too angry to sleep - and no amount of squishy foam will save you. Even nonhuman proxies can trip the switch; my own earplugs are basically useless against the dogs in the next yard. I hear that yalping, yipping, simpering canine bullshit and I'm instantly awake and seething for another hour. In moments like this, it is important to remember that bad dogs wind up in animal Hell, which is much, much worse than human Hell.

Most stores and catalogs refer to these as "ear defenders". Not caring for that name, I pointed and grunted when I bought mine (Peltor, $14.99) at Home Depot. These are the same basic heavy plastic headphones worn on firing ranges and airport tarmacs. I don't know enough about the weird world of logarithmic scales to understand why defenders of the ear only rank NRR 23dB (6 decibels less than ear plugs?). But these are indeed the heavy duty mothers. Combine these with earplugs and you will find yourself immersed in a total, spooky silence not unlike being buried alive. That's good news if you like to sleep. It's not such good news if you get creeped out by the sound of every insistent heartbeat softly marching you closer and closer to your eventual death.

This is another item I don't know the proper name of. Airport gift shops call them "eye masks", "sleep masks", or "sleep masters". I used to associate these with priggish old ladies on overnight flights. Now I can't sleep without one, even in total darkness. Mine, a pair of luscious black cloth lips that fit tight over my slumbering eyes (Lewis N. Clark, 2 for $16.99), must be washed once a month, lest it stink of sloughed off face skin and eyebrow sweat. Combined with the ear plugs and ear defender things, the entire getup can best be described - in that crummy way terms of atrocity quietly seep into everyday usage - as "Guantanamo Bayish".

My alleged snoring has brought tension into my life. A former guitarist, forced to share hotel rooms with me and my alleged problem, once described my alleged snores as "angry and sexual". Without admitting guilt, I have sought help. I've taken pills (SnoreStop, $12.74 for a box of 80), slept on experimental pillows (Sona Pillow, $129, received as gift), and spritzed minty medicine down the back of my throat (SnoreStop Extinguisher, $16.99, plus $175 for a trip to the E.R. after my windpipe swelled shut). Nothing worked.

The jury is still out on nose strips. These springy, elongated butterfly-bandages (Breathe Right, $12.99 for a box of 30) adhere to the nose just below the bridge, flaring the nostrils and increasing air flow. The packaging features photos of slumbering spouses, so the company could be shooting for some sort of placebo effect. In both design and planned obsolescence, however, this is the product to beat. The nose is the greasiest part of the body, and a Breathe Right strip, once used, can never re-anchor itself to this same surface (although it will have no problem clinging to dirty laundry).

43 cents a night is a lot to pay for sleep. I save these for special occasions. My wife claims that Breathe Rights actually facilitate snoring, so it turns out the happily sleeping spouse is me. By my logic, she hasn't woken to find herself a widow due to sleep apnea, so everybody wins. The only real risk is in not paying attention to the mirror in the morning and then the next thing you know you're driving around town with a Breathe Right strip on your nose like a dumb guy. I may have done this.

Discussions of elective snoring surgery (San Dimas Surgical, $3,495) had been taking on an alarmingly urgent tone when I read of the Sleep Wizard. If anyone could help, I thought with deep gratitude, it'd be the Wizard Of Sleep. I would beseech him directly.

Turns out the Sleep Wizard ($74.99 from is not a kindly old man holding a staff of wisdom. The real world Sleep Wizard is a tailored lycra strap secured by Velcro. It fits over the head and secures the chin like a restraining head bra. I admired this common sense approach - don't want to snore? Then shut your mouth! - but when I tried the thing on it hurt. A lot. The thought of trying to sleep through the pain put me in a wide awake anger loop. It had the feel of a scam.

And a scam it was. The manufacturer, of West Palm Beach, has been assigned an "F" rating by the Better Business Bureau, and the impotent rage of past customers reverberates throughout consumer rights message boards. The toll free phone number for now runs a message for some sort of phone chat dating service. I see my own Sleep Wizard every now and then under different pieces of furniture, covered in cat hair and unloved, and I think up yours, sleep wizard.