April 17, 2016 was one of the finest New York Sundays in recorded history. A Sunday so glorious it could’ve actually been God’s very own birthday. The real-life manifestation of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Or maybe L.A. had Airbnb-ed New York City for the day, and this was its way of saying thanks. A day lit so artfully Spike Jonze could’ve eBayed his camera equipment and retired forever. The kind of day that launched a thousand High Line Instagrams with hashtag #nofilter.
However, I was not at the High Line.
Instead, I was indoors at Casper’s’s first “Sleep Symposium.” Casper, the e-commerce company that will ship you a mattress that comes folded in half in a cardboard box. TueNight had asked if I’d cover the event for their “Sleep” issue. Now, why did I answer “sure, why not” as opposed to making up some bullshit excuse? I have no clue. It was pretty out of character considering I’m EXTREMELY lazy, and I like to spend my Sundays in almost complete monastic silence at home, with my primary activities being brushing my teeth eventually, and then, hours later, forgetting whether I actually brushed them, engaging in an internal debate over the non-issue, then giving up and taking a nap.
Nevertheless, hoping to learn more about sleep, health, and to engage the part of me that’s always willing to participate in anything that could grow my personal mental stock of Jeopardy question-answers, off I went to a trendy Chelsea event space — the kind with intentionally rustic industrial-chic floors and exposed beams and blindingly white walls. The kind used almost exclusively by companies with a LARGE amount of capital to spend on such events.
Shortly after completing my third coffee of the day (don’t wanna get drowsy at a sleep symposium), I got in line — because it’s New York and there’s a line for everything — and heard a woman behind me say, “I have to WAIT IN LINE like some PLEBEIAN?” Because even at a sleep symposium there’s a caste system. Or at least entitlement. Damn. This girl sounded like she could use a nap.
In the morning, she meditates and sets her daily intention, and she never uses the snooze button, which she referred to as “barbaric.”
I soon began to question — as I would many times throughout the course of the event — why I was there and why one would pay to attend what was basically a corporate marketing event that felt like a punchline on the show Girls. (Note: I was given a press pass to the event.) The room was predominantly populated by white hipsters who looked like they had strong opinions on Ira Glass and Serial, probably know at least three people who work at Vice and could talk to you at length about flax seed and fresh juices. Later, I opened the gift bag, WHICH FUCKING CONTAINED A BAG OF CHIA SEEDS. I CAN’T EMPHASIZE STRONGLY ENOUGH THE FACT THAT I’M COMPLETELY NOT MAKING THIS UP, and that I thought of the flax seed joke before I saw the chia seeds. This entire serendipitous realization made me feel even more like I was attending the kind of event you’d see lampooned on Broad City or Silicon Valley.
The co-founder and COO of Casper, introduced the event promising to discuss “the intersection of sleep, art, science, and music.” (Which felt very general and extremely broad, but whatever — it was his show, and that guy probably made more in the past hour than I’ll make in my life.) There was no context, no goal, no overarching theme beyond questions that loosely related to sleep.
Speaking of caste systems, the event and space were divided into an upstairs and downstairs. Upstairs was the “VIP” section with gift bags, chairs, and the ability to sit in the same room with the day’s dignitaries: Arianna Huffington, actor Michael Rappaport, musician/ actor/ comedian Reggie Watts, the editor of Motherboard, and a guy wearing an antennae that I think was implanted into his head. More on that later. Everyone else had to watch on a screen downstairs. I’m not kidding.
First up was Arianna Huffington. She has the extremely expensive silhouette of Martha Stewart with hair the honey-colored hue of Mariah Carey on her “Butterfly” album. As you may know (unless you don’t care), she (Arianna, not Mariah) wrote a book called The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, about… sleep. (Though if Mariah Carey wrote a book on sleep, I would DEFINITELY read it. Hell, I would read ANY book written by Mariah Carey.) She mentioned millennials almost immediately, as apparently they’re the most stressed out and sleep-deprived population. Probably because people won’t stop talking about them.
She reminded the crowd (of many millennials) that in 2007 she collapsed from sleep deprivation and “exhaustion.” She then embarked upon a journey and crusade to dispel the myth that if you’re successful you have to forgo sleep. I don’t really understand why that’s a cliché because if you’re wealthy you can afford to pay people to outsource much of your life, so successful people should be racking up the most Z points of all. But not Arianna, who’s referred to sleep-deprived people as “losers” (like people who lose sleep commuting to their jobs, parents or caretakers, students, and people with illnesses that prevent them from sleeping — you know… LOSERS!) She worked until she crumbled and now wants to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to you.
There was only discussion of how privileged people sleep because they have the privilege to make privileged choices about their sleep.
She went over some basic sleep facts — of the same ilk as any basic facts you’d read in a watered-down women’s magazine listicle: basically, you should get more sleep if you want to be healthier. She low-key shaded us for taking better care of our smartphones than our bodies. I zoned out by fucking around on my phone, and then mentally tuned back into the room to hear her promote the fact that she teamed up with Airbnb and turned her SoHo apartment into “a kind of sleep paradise” and that plebeians like us can enter to win a night’s stay in this somatic shangri la — which includes a dinner, cooked by Arianna with “the right” foods to help you sleep, including no spicy foods. For some reason I imagine this dinner with “the right foods” to involve Gwyneth Paltrow delivering cucumber spa water to your door and then kneeing you in the face and punching you in the side of the head on your way down when she sensed that you were thinking about carbs and/or your phone. Also, who would sleep at Arianna Huffington’s Airbnb? I’d be too busy going through her drawers and Snapchatting the shit out of them.
In case you’re curious about Arianna’s sleep hygiene, which fucking rules because she’s a fucking Sleep Beast, she takes a hot bath with candles and finds water to be a cleansing demarcation between the day and her upcoming blissful ZZZ zone. She used to sleep in her gym clothes BUT NOT ANYMORE! If she wakes up in the middle of the night, she meditates herself back to sleep. In the morning, she meditates and sets her daily intention, and she never uses the snooze button, which she referred to as “barbaric.” (Considering snooze and I have been in an extremely intimate relationship for about 20 years, I guess that makes me a total savage).
Also, another thing that might be considered barbaric — the fact that Arianna Huffington sleeps like a baby while her freelance writers can barely pay their rent, as writer Danielle Bacher succinctly pointed out.
Arianna encouraged us to stop reading email 30 minutes before bed (okay, fair — BUT AGAIN, I DON’T HAVE SOMEONE TO READ MY EMAIL FOR ME!!!!!!), explained that her book contains a menu for better sleep rituals and that she’s teamed up with Marriott (plug plug plug pluggity puhlug), and all of their hotels contain little sweet-nothing notes with her tips for better sleep hygiene on every pillow. Can’t you just imagine the housekeeper being like UGHHHH ONE MORE FUCKING THING I GOTTA DO?
During a Q&A, a guy named Kevin tried to flip the script by asking Arianna if she has any rituals not for sleeping but for waking. Oh, but Kevin, you CLEARLY FELL ASLEEP, because HAD YOU BEEN PAYING ATTENTION, you’d recall that she CLEARLY told the sleep symposium earlier in her talk that she meditates and sets her intention for the day when she wakes up. Ugh. That’s so Kevin.
Finally, Arianna concluded by inviting us to share our personal sleep journey by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org — she won’t be reading your email before bed, natch — and encouraged us to be an ambassador to the sleep revolution, help change cultural norms, and concluded with “Viva la revolution.” Yay! I’m a change agent for sleep! I’m adding this to my LinkedIn ASAP.
Okay, how do you follow that up? With a real cyborg, obviously. And why wouldn’t a cyborg be part of a panel on entitled “Slowave: Isn’t Sleep More Than Socio-Economic?” This panel made very little sense, and I was hoping we’d finally get into the fact that people living near the poverty line or working multiple jobs or shifts often don’t have the luxury of creating a sleep paradise. That lack of sleep could clearly be connected to lack of sleep as a health epidemic, which Arianna Huffington referred to in her keynote. But that exploration didn’t really happen short of science writer Theresa Fisher talking about Appalachia being one of the most sleep-deprived parts of the U.S. Adrienne Jeffries of Motherboard added that good sleep hygiene should be taught at a young age along with proper nutrition. Yes! Totally. More on that! But a bunch of well-rested privileged people sitting in a fancy room — literally on the same block as a massive public housing project — would, in sum, touch upon luxury pajamas, the sleep quality of Michael Rappaport, and the artistic statement of how a cyborg sleeps.
In the morning, she meditates and sets her daily intention, and she never uses the snooze button, which she referred to as “barbaric.”
Oh, but more on the cyborg: he’s an artist with an antenna implanted in his head that has expanded his sensory experiences, and people can email him colors. “There are five people in the world who can send colors to my head” is both the answer he gave an audience member, who, understandably, asked him to explain, and probably one of the most next-level phrases I’ve ever heard in my life. I honestly have NO idea what else to make of this, but at least now I can say I’ve seen a real cyborg.
The next panel was the “celebrity” panel, and it consisted of Michael Rappaport, Reggie Watts, and the chef from Roberta’s. Amongst the three of them, I firmly believe it’s the chef who should be the most strongly lauded for creating a market opportunity for hipsters to wait three hours for pizza in Bushwick. Reggie Watts was wearing a red velvet Scrunchy and talked a lot about weed and his dreams, and Michael Rappaport talked about sleeping with socks on and shared a recurring dream about the NBA. Also, the funniest point of the day — Michael Rappaport saying that he sleeps with a humidifier when he’s in New York but “that probably could be because I’m Jewish.” Truth.
At this point it’s like two hours in, and I realize no one has used the word “disruption” yet. I consider this a surprising coup for all involved.
I realize the guy behind me looks like modern-day Patrick Bateman. He is talking INCESSANTLY to the guy next to him, and I wonder if he’s talking about murders and acquisitions. The woman in front of me is wearing headphones, watching a piano concerto on YouTube, and leans over to the man next to her and says “why does anyone care about what they think?” The man shrugged.
There’s a break to participate in a group meditation, and I was like OH FUCK no, because as much as I enjoy meditation, you know when something’s just too much? This was just too much. I go downstairs where there’s an opportunity to lay on a Casper bed and experience a guided meditation through virtual reality. Unfortunately there was an hour-long wait to experience this virtual bliss, so I passed. There was also a woman who’d draw your dreams, and I passed on that too.
At this point I grew weary of asking myself why I was there, so I turned to the guy next to me and asked him why he was there. He made it very clear that he didn’t want to tell me what he did for living (WHAT ARE YOU HIDING? ALSO I DON’T WANT TO KNOW!) before telling me that he was in the mattress business (a.k.a the BIZ!) and also didn’t understand this event. “I don’t see the value,” he told me, before explaining that women are the predominant consumers of mattresses, so this event should’ve been geared toward them. BURN NOTICE. Also, TRUTH TEA. This is a middle-aged WHITE MAN firing gender shots. Love, actually.
The final panel was a sleep hygiene panel populated by fancy-looking white dudes who look like they do those Aspen Institute things on the regular. There was a sleep doctor who looked like Eliot Spitzer. “Now for the good stuff,” I thought, hoping for a generous helping of my second favorite food (besides all pasta) — WEIRD SCIENTIFIC AND MEDICAL FACTS! He used the word “quiescence,” which sounded science-y. This guy would likely move away from me if he were sitting next to me at a dinner party because I’d be plowing him with questions about sleep stuff. Fortunately he had some interesting things to say, including:
1. Don’t use the snooze button. (OKAY FINE!)
2. Get bright light in the morning.
3. Napping is terrible for insomnia.
4. You can feel worse if you nap too long (note: never happened to me ever).
5. Between 1 and 3 p.m. your core body temperature dips to make you feel sleepy, so you should go outside or on a walk (or have your 90th coffee if you’re me).
The designer Steven Alan was also on this panel (???), and he talked about fabric and sleep — OK, but not sure I needed a fashion professional to tell me that my PJs should be comfy and unrestrictive. He also mentioned that Steven Alan PJs have glow in the dark buttons.
So, what did I learn spending the most beautiful April day in recorded history in a windowless room with Arianna Huffington, a cyborg, Michael Rappaport and a bunch of bored people on their phones?
1. HOLY FUCKING SHIT snooze is so bad for you.
2. Arianna Huffington does not advise that you have spicy food before bed. Or check email.
What I didn’t learn: why the extensive CDC study on sleep was barely touched upon.
Why there was no discussion of how to create systemic change to improve the public’s sleep hygiene and overall health. There was only discussion of how privileged people sleep because they have the privilege of making privileged choices about their sleep. The Casper COO is also a co-founder of WaterWalla, a sustainable organization that’s creating solutions to the global clean-water crisis, so he’s ostensibly concerned with social good. Yet his Twitter account briefly referenced an overwrought exploration into “Slowave” and several Tweets complaining about a tear in his Moncler jacket. Though perhaps you’d be pissed too if your $1500 jacket was falling apart at the seams.
I respect that Casper is taking risks and venturing… off the mattress… as a brand. You sure as hell don’t see Sleepy’s or Serta talking about the relationship between sleep and health… or bringing you photo opps with Michael Rappaport. But the missed opportunity to actually talk about socio-economic issues (again, we were literally next to a massive housing project complex), felt like a brand talking to itself. While the event of course didn’t say “this is solely an event for the privileged,” having a VIP option, holding a socio-economic panel that barely touched upon the black-white sleep gap and racial inequality (this Atlantic article on the role socio-economics, income and race play on sleep and health is fascinating, depressing, and speaks to the kind of true public health programs Casper could align themselves with) seemed more like a celebration of status than an open dialogue about the very real health risks that poor sleep has on people who don’t have the luxury of dreaming of hedge fund wealth on posh mattresses after an Arianna Huffington-approved organic meal — non-spicy, of course.
Sleep — and ultimately health — are universal rights, not just promissory notes made to people who can afford Steven Alan pajamas (or Moncler jackets). There’s nothing wrong with luxury products, but products and brands that purport to align themselves with public health should be make an effort to concern themselves with the health of all of the public, not just the 1%. And while I didn’t go into this event with an altruistic agenda, the longer it went on, the harder it was to ignore the self-congratulatory undertones of an event by the privileged, for the privileged.
When the event ended, I burst out into the sunlight. Not sure if I’d participated in a long, slow, and completely un-self-aware real-life commercial or a social experiment or both, I went home, took a much-too-long nap on my 11-year-old store-bought mattress, and woke up only after hitting snooze twice. Like a loser.
(Photo from Casper Sleep Symposium)