Eyes Wide Sleepy

(photo from stock.xchang)

Because my readers, umm, reader (thanks, Tal!) demand it:

Hoo, it's been an interesting last few months.

Sidebar 1: One of the cliches of fanzines -- the old ink-on-paper productions where I got my start as a informal-essayist/raconteur/critic-at-large/public-jerk/etcetera -- and blogging is "The Pain Story", the great and not-so-great tellings of injury, sickness and suffering in the writer's life.

"Pain Stories" tend to get old pretty quickly, especially when they start to be the writer's most frequent subject. And I've already had a pretty major Pain Story here recently, writing about my night in the ER and the hip bursitis that followed.

So I don't want to over-do it on the medical-issues stuff. But there have been some major developments on that front for me lately, and a lot of thinking about them, that may lead to some major lifestyle changes. So this is Important Stuff, to me if not necessarily to my occasional commenters and vast hordes of lurkers. (There... there are vast hordes of lurkers out there, right? Raise your right hand if you're lurking. No, the other right.)

So bear with me a bit on this. Thanks.

Over the last year, I've been having increasing problems staying awake during the day. Particularly during the workday. Particularly while I'm out on the street delivering mail. Particularly...

...ohhhhhhh shit, this is NOT good...

...while I've been driving my postal van.

As I said, this has been creeping up on me over about the last year or so.

I've been getting along on five to six hours of sleep per night for... a long, long time. Years. Decades.

I'm getting old enough, mid-fifties (though this has certain benefits; see below), that I figured my body was catching up to its systematic abuse over the years.

There are reasons I've been a chronic undersleeper for so long, but the most important reason is this: When you're asleep, you can't do the Shit That Needs To Get Done. (Henceforth, "STNTGD".)

There are various categories of STNTGD. The first category is Normal Shit; this includes things like your day job, and normal household chores and paperwork.

Then there's Gorilla Shit. This is stuff you need to do because of the 800-pound gorilla you have to live with. The 800-pound gorilla in our case is Hilde's SDRA (Severe Degenerative Rheumatoid Arthritis), which she's had for forty years, and which has slowly disabled her to a greater and greater extent. So the Gorilla Shit is not only the stuff you have to do to care for someone you love, but also to do the things that would have been Normal Shit for her before the disease.

Sidebar 2: We try and shift some of that other Normal Shit onto other people; we've always had housemates, and part of their "rent" has always involved helping out Hilde. Tabbi is Hilde's current daytime caregiver, and gets free room & board, plus a pittance of pocket money (a lot less than she'd get doing the same things professionally); it doesn't hurt that Tabbi is also sweet and amusing. But there's still a lot of things Tabbi can't do, that I have to do for Hilde myself.

And that 800-pound gorilla never goes away. In some ways, it's like being in a three-way relationship where one of the partners is an abuser. Except you can't get rid of it. You can't evict it, you can't divorce it, you can't call the police on it, you can't set fire to its bed.

You can mollify it somewhat, with drugs and surgeries and emotional support. But the gorilla is always there. Always.

And then there's the Fun Shit. The Fun Shit is the stuff you want to do. It's what you do in your leisure time. Reading. Writing. Blogging. Watching movies or television. Exercise. Cooking. Gardening. Building things.

The Fun Shit is the expendable shit. It's the stuff that gets dropped when the Normal Shit and the Gorilla Shit become overbearing.

Which happens a lot.

So one of the reasons I've been a chronic undersleeper for years is that I've always resisted having to cut back on the Fun Shit. I have had to cut back; most of my fiction reading is actually done on my lunch and breaks at work, television and Netflix is frequently less than ten hours a week, and actually getting out to a movie theater is a once-or-twice a year event.
Sidebar 3: Hey, go see Stardust. You'll thank me.

Blogging, both reading other blogs and writing on my own here, has probably been the most time-using Fun Shit I've done for the past several years. Not all of it's been fun Fun Shit; I read a lot of the political blogs I do to try and keep up with what's been going on in the United States and the World (more a case of self-protection than actual fun). So one of the things I've tried to do the last several months has been cut back on that blogging time, and the main casualty has been posting to UNDULANT FEVER; a lot of other peoples' blogs are being skimmed more rapidly and commented on less.

I'm not happy with this state of affairs, but I've had to take some steps to try and make more time for more sleep, to try and do something about the overwhelming sleepiness during the day.

(It's not just "sleepiness", a feeling of being about to fall asleep; there have been episodes, too many, where I've had "mini-blackouts" of a second or two at the wheel of my postal delivery truck. This is not good. This is, in fact, very very bad.)

I've managed to squeeze a little more sleep-time out of the day; I'm probably managing six to seven hours a night (tho' usually closer to six than seven) recently, rather than five to six.

I've also seen my doctor, who's prescribed me a medication called Provigil. Provigil is one of the drugs given to Top Gun pilots to help them stay awake and alert on long or repeated missions, so I call it my "Tom Cruise pill". (Alas, it doesn't seem to make me "Sexiest Man Alive", although, hey, the idea of an evil space alien named Xenu being behind all mankind's problems... that seems reasonable.)

The Provigil has worked pretty well the last several months. It doesn't keep you from feeling tired, but it feels like that cloud of exhaustion wrapped around your head and brain has been displaced about a yard up and to the right, hanging off in mid-air where you know it's there but it can't directly affect you. One pill generally lasts me about fifteen hours.

("Generally" in this case means that I hope it isn't losing it's effectiveness over time. It seems to have been less effective over about the last week, and Friday and Saturday I had to take two pills to get thru the workday. This is... worrisome. [And hopefully not a sign that all this is actually more than just long-term sleep-deprivation; "Helloooooo, narcolepsy!" is a phrase I'd rather not add to my vocabulary, thanks.] If this continues, I'll try to move up my next doctor's appointment.)

So, trying to squeeze out more sleep, combined with the Provigil, seems to have brought things back into a normal range (or, at least, for own own peculiar range of "normal") for the moment.

But in the long-term, I've come to the realization that we really need to make, eventually, some major lifestyle changes.

Basically... I need to retire from the Postal Service.

I mentioned above that I'm now in my mid-fifties; I turned 55 earlier this month. Fifty-five is the minimum age at which one can retire from the Postal Service.

Until recent months, my plan had been to retire in early 2010, when I would be 57 and a bit. By that time, the house mortgage would be paid off (we've been making extra payments on the principal for quite a while, so it's been shrinking pretty quickly), which would give us the financial leeway to be able to retire. (Not luxuriously, but at about the level of turnip-squeezing we've done for years anyway.)

The recent problems with the sleepiness and mini-blackouts have made me wonder whether I'm going, at this rate, to make it to 2010.

So I've been trying to pull together all our financial data, and examine all the options, to see whether I could possibly retire sooner, rather than later. We've been talking to our mortgage company and insurance agents to see if things could be rearranged to better advantage.

Some of the information has been encouraging: We could refinance the mortgage, and consolidate our credit card debt and the loan on the new car we recently purchased into it, and still have a minimum mortgage payment about two hundred dollars less per month than the current mortage. And our insurance agent tells us there's "additional cash value" on our insurance policies that could be turned into a monthly annuity.

But... if I retire right now, I'd only get about 61% of my current base salary, a drop of about, ohhhh, twenty thousand dollars a year. (If I worked a couple more years, that percentage would raise to its maximum of 65%.)

And... whenever I retire, that will mean the Postal Service no longer kicks in the lion's share of our medical insurance premiums. Meaning our monthly cost for medical insurance will go from less than three hundred dollars a month to nearly a thousand. Ouch.

Sooooooo... a full retirement isn't looking too likely.

I've been trying to figure out if retiring from USPS, and getting a part-time job (probably at a lot less per hour than USPS), will enable us to make ends meet. I'm still working on researching figures and juggling numbers, but even with a part-time job, the prospect looks pretty damn iffy.

So I've also been considering the idea of retiring from USPS and then getting another full-time job. In that instance, between the retirement money and the new income (even if it's at only half the pay-rate I'm getting at USPS), we probably could get by.

"Wait a minute, Bruce," someone asks, "If you get another full-time job, how will that help with the sleep-deprivation?"

Good question. And the answer is that if I only work 40 hours a week, I'll be saving a lot of time over my current hours at the Postal Service.

In nearly thirty years with USPS, not counting annual leave or sick leave periods, I think I've had two paychecks that didn't include some amount of overtime pay.

Usually, the overtime per paycheck has ranged between four and eight hours. But this has been growing in recent years. Part of this is that postal management has been, more and more, following the policy that it's cheaper to work your current employees more hours at overtime rates than to hire new employees and pay them benefits.

(real workplace conversation: "Do you think they're actually trying to KILL us?" "Probably.")

Within limits, this is okay. A few extra hours a week, I can manage. And that overtime money has largely been what's made it possible to pay down the principle on the mortgage as much as we have.

But it's gotten to be more than a few extra hours a week. This entire past summer, not only was I working several hours a day overtime, but I was forced in to work on almost every one of my scheduled days off.

This gets real old, real fast. For one thing, that kind of hours means you're pretty wiped out by the time you get home, so the Shit That Needs To Get Done that you would have done after a normal eight-hour day ends up not getting done. And when Sundays are the only day you can depend on having off from work, it means that even more STNTGD is left undone.

So, even if I have to take on a new full-time job after retirement from USPS, I'd still be working fewer hours than I have most of my postal career. (And a lot less than I have in recent months.)

There'd be another advantage to taking on a different job: I was hired on at USPS thirty years ago, so I'm still under Civil Service guidelines, which means I don't earn credits towards future Social Security payments. Credits from previous employers will only bring in about $500 a month, once I'm old enough to collect SS payments; so retiring from USPS and getting a different job would earn additional SS credits, and eventually higher SS payments.

And there's still another reason, even beyond health concerns, why I'd like to retire from the Postal Service: I'd like to try and start doing my fiction-writing on a regular basis. If I could, I'd like that to be the part-time or full-time job I end up doing in retirement.

Sidebar 4: Writing has generally tended to be something I've done on a "when available" basis. A lot of writers have day jobs, but have managed a degree of success by treating writing as their second job, and working at it regularly.

In my case, I not only have a day job, but my second and third jobs are as housekeeper and caregiver. So writing has been, at best, my fourth job.

For a fourth job, I think I've actually done pretty well, with about a dozen short stories published, a television script sold, and several anthologies edited.

(The most productive writing period I've had was during the early 1990's. The money from the script I sold to Star Trek: The Next Generation made it possible to take my name off the "Overtime Desired" list at work, so I worked a lot less overtime for four or five years. Most of the writing I did during that period was on movie scripts, trying to follow up on the success of that TNG script, but though I got called out to Hollywood for several meetings with production companies, no one ever actually put money on the table for a script of mine. [THE FOOLS! THE BLIND, IGNORANT FOO-- *ahem* A couple of those scripts were pretty damn good, if I may say so.]

I would not at all mind being the F.M. Busby of my generation. (Busby was a long-time science fiction fan, who didn't start writing fiction until he retired from his mundane job. Did pretty well, with quite a few novels and shorter pieces published over the several decades between his mundane retirement and his death.) Not at all.

So, to sum up on what's turned out to be a very long post:

I'm having some medical concerns right now, that may make it imperative that I retire from the Postal Service in the near future. Retirement, if we can swing it financially, may actually bring about some improvements in lifestyle and time-management. Things are still pretty much up in the air right now.

I'll try to post updates here, when there's something to report. I'd like to post some of the more normal type of blogpost I've done here previously, but the time for that may be iffy for a while.