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To Sleep or Not to Sleep

Is the Happy Monk fully awake? Is he enjoying the beauty of the morning?

The Upsides

The upsides of working the early morning baking shift starting at two a.m.:

  • Peace and quiet (no phones, computers, noisy neighbours)
  • Sunrise (when not cloudy)
  • Morning birdsong (Spring and Summer)
  • Simple tasks, mind floats on autopilot
  • The warmth of the oven
  • Aromas bread baking, cooling
  • Breadsong 1
  • Early finish to the day

The Downsides

  • Leaving a warm cozy bed
  • Cold, rain, snow, wind
  • Sweeping out the ash and dust from the oven
  • Darkness
  • Short-term fatigue
  • Long-term fatigue
  • Sleep debt

At least there’s no morning commute. Everything is ready to go: the dough is mixed, shaped, and fermenting in the fridges. The order lists are organized, bags are stamped. There’s still lots of time to get the bake done and the bread out the door.

A nod to that sleep-deprived baker

If these early morning bake shifts have taught me anything, it’s the knowledge that a muffin or pastry or a loaf of bread was baked by someone else while I was sleeping. That delectable product I’m about to bite into was made with love and some sacrifice. It’s worth a nod to that poor baker, slumping into a chair at the back of the bakeshop about to fall asleep.

That someone could be me.

There is a bond between bakers over the early morning shift. We have a mutual understanding and appreciation of the trials, fatigue, crazy thinking, mistakes, and joys. The nodding-off-to-sleep when you sit down for a moment, the rising stress of delivery deadlines, the next load of bread.

It’s addictive

There is something addictive about the early morning shift for all the above reasons. And when it’s all over, there’s a sense of triumph. And that pile of loaves before you is proof that it was all worthwhile. What seemed an impossible task at two in the morning (making all that bread), now lies before you, cooling and singing, and filling the kitchen with a heavenly aroma.

But it’s also something to dread. Hard physical work and nights with little sleep build a sizable debt in the body. It’s hard to make yourself whole over a few days, in time for the next bake. Long term, you feel as if you’ve fallen deeper into the hole.

After nearly six weeks of holiday, I’m finally feeling well-rested. Sleeping is easier now than it’s been for some time! Over the past week, I’ve strung together periods of sleep that might score 80% in terms of quality.

Remember, I’m in my mid-sixties and may not have a younger baker’s stamina.

What are you trying to prove?

Byron Fry is a baker probably half my age, with many more years of baking experience than I’ll ever amass. He’s the owner and proprietor of Fry’s Bakery in Victoria and has become a bit of a mentor to me, though he’s too modest to admit it.

“You should make your own schedule to suit you,” he told me when the Happy Monk Baking Company was just getting off the ground. “Turn your hours around so you can get a decent night’s sleep. What are you trying to prove?”

When I saw him a year later and told him I was still working the early shift, he shook his head in dismay.

“I get it! Working through the early morning is kind of addictive,” he said. “But I sure don’t want to be doing that when I’m your age.”

Catching up to your sleep

Maybe the problem is that I bake just once per week. That’s one day I push through on three hours of sleep. The rest of the week is spent trying to catch up!

A rule of thumb for recovering from jet lag is that your body needs a day to adjust for each hour between time zones. This means if you’re travelling from Vancouver to Toronto (four hours), you’ll need four days to recover. So if you lose four hours of sleep one night, does it take four days to regain some sense of normalcy?

Maybe a regular schedule of graveyard shifts is better than a single day of minimal sleep? The body adjusts to the late hours, one would think, if it’s the norm.

Sleep hygiene

From what I’ve read, good sleep hygiene requires consistency. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time. 2

Bakers who don’t want to keep consistent night-shift hours (me!) find themselves with a problem: If you are in one time zone five days a week and in another two days a week, can you ever adjust to one place? Or are you like a pilot forever flying between Tokyo and New York, never landing in either place long enough to get off the plane?

Byron’s words suggest that he’s tired, too, and after a decade or so in business, he’s looking for more balance.

Wearing thin

His advice echoes in my head these days. The romanticism of the early morning baker could be wearing thin. But I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to my morning bakes. As we head into the spring and summer, soon, I’ll enjoy being outside, pulling loaves out of Mildrith in the loveliest time of year.

I am lucky to be a bread maker. It’s one of the most rewarding vocations I’ve ever worked at. But maybe I’ve come to this work too late in life. Can my 66-year-old body sustain the physical and mental side effects of mixing dough and working through the night?

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” said the poet, W.B. Yeats 3. I can’t work the night shift and have an untroubled sleep at the same time.

Which way do I turn? It’s nothing a good sleep can’t solve.


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These corn kernels are headed to the mill to make cornmeal for Anadama Bread this week. It’s a bread with origins on the east coast, but that shouldn’t stop us west coasters from enjoying it, too, godanadamit! This is organic field corn from @fieldstoneorganics of Armstrong, B.C. … and the hard red whole wheat from Metchosin, B.C. make this Happy Monk take on Anadama a bona fide west coast phenomenon! Just sayin’!
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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries

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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries
...

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Morning Breadsong (volume up!) A pile of Salish Sourdoughs just out of Mildrith, the wood-fired oven. 
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#breadsinging #breadsong #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bakerslife #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #breadmaking🍞 #sourdough #sourdoughbread #coboven #earthoven #earthenoven #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries #penderisland

Morning Breadsong (volume up!) A pile of Salish Sourdoughs just out of Mildrith, the wood-fired oven.
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#breadsinging #breadsong #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bakerslife #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #breadmaking🍞 #sourdough #sourdoughbread #coboven #earthoven #earthenoven #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries #penderisland
...

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The 2kg Desem miche is out of focus, in the back ‘cause it would have drowned out the little 1kg Durum Sesame loaf in front. The miche is a monster but every bit as delish as the Durum loaf! The Desem’s coming soon! Won’t be a miche, though!

The 2kg Desem miche is out of focus, in the back ‘cause it would have drowned out the little 1kg Durum Sesame loaf in front. The miche is a monster but every bit as delish as the Durum loaf! The Desem’s coming soon! Won’t be a miche, though! ...

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  1. The cracking sound bread makes when it comes out of the oven

  2. Thus the ongoing dissatisfaction with Daylight Saving Time, a seemingly harmless one-hour clock shift that gave an advantage for farmers and their families at harvest time. The extra hour of daylight made a productivity difference in the wheat fields when Canada was one of the world’s great “bread baskets.” Now that time shift correlates less to productivity than to an increase in heart attacks and car crashes.

  3. From “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats

2 thoughts on “To Sleep or Not to Sleep

  1. Dear David, thrilled u are willing to sacrifice sleep for us…just FYI… We’ll eat your bread whenever u bake it!!..Esp if it’s ready for dinner with my pot of soup😊.

  2. A lovely read, as always. Thanks for your delicious bread, you are appreciated!

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