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Requiem for a Night Owl

Five more minutes, Ma. Translate that into Latin and hand-letter it onto a scroll beneath a heraldic shield, and I’ve got a coat of arms. See, I’m just not what you’d call a morning person. I’ve tried, I really have, but I think biology is conspiring against me. I’m pretty sure I’m naturally nocturnal.

And battling biology can be a rough assignment. I’d guess it’s not impossible; I can’t be the only one rigged like this. But rush-hour traffic, and the infrequency with which I encounter it, suggests that many of you fellow sufferers are doing a far better job than I overcoming or recalibrating your Circadian rhythms. The aversion to those early hours—and the related affinity for the later ones—is certainly more psychosomatic than it is hardwired in any biochemical way. To the best of my knowledge there is no medically recognized allergy to 7 AM, nor any exclusively antemeridinal syndrome which groups together as symptoms: blurred vision, headache, anxiety and situational Tourette’s. Furthermore, my scientist friends tell me that the genes responsible for various behavioral traits are often probabilistic, rather than deterministic; so my fatalism re: DNA-based prohibitions of productive early mornings doesn’t really hold up.

In some cases, clearly, biology can be trumped; misanthropy, on the other hand, is a scrapper.

See, to me, mornings seem like a common area, the day room of a psych ward.

There’s all that bustle and noise, and—in the forms of drive-time radio, bumper stickers and the headlines you have just enough time to scan—the most miserably depressing or ridiculously shallow, crassly mean-spirited or stunningly ludicrous points of view imaginable, all in abundance.

And, the kicker is, it all seems so purposeful. So orchestrated. So orderly. So unanimous—and, frankly, unanimity spooks me a little bit.

The standard morning ritual is braying and abrasive and coarse and—I suspect—ultimately not much more satisfying for others than for me, but it’s the rule. It’s the way. It’s like the institution has recognized his motivational abilities and offered R.P. McMurphy a full-time gig as activities director. And, now—all the ruckus notwithstanding—everyone’s taking their medication on time.

Those hours between 6 AM and 9 AM sometimes strike me as a frightening display of coercion; and the commute like a parade of collusion.

Of course, on the occasions when I see it, I’m usually still only half-awake, at most. So, that’s probably more than just a little over the top.

But by comparison to that mass morning ritual, the late hours—say, 2 AM to 4 AM, or so—seem deeper, more peaceful and contemplative. They’re open, unclaimed hours, frontier hours. It’s not that they don’t have their fair share of crazies (if you’re inclined to spend them in public), but there seems more mobility. They’re less-trafficked hours, and therefore less policed hours (in a metaphorical way, I mean). They’re decentralized hours, as opposed to the top-down daylight structure.

This was made symbolic to me when I was in college in Washington, D.C. My school was located in the northwest section of the city, along with the federal government. Come 4 PM, that sector drained—the pols bugging out for their homes down the road in Georgetown or in suburban Virginia or Maryland—and the neighborhood was left almost entirely to the students. The government went home to make room for our carousing. When I moved into downtown Albany after that experience, I noticed the same dynamic reiterated on a smaller scale.

It was a feeling of ownership, not so much of the city—though there was a cliquish, youthful territoriality, I suppose—but of one’s place in the city. At night, you were free to cut your own path, however its patterns might intersect, interrupt or erase the ghostly trails left behind by commuters and daytimers.

And, of course, there was the appeal for the affectedly disaffected young adventurer of watching the lifers—the drunks, the drug users, the prostitutes—in their nocturnal comings and goings. There is a thrill for the dilettante bohemian at being asked, “You looking for a date?” that must correspond with . . . with what? With the early bird’s good parking space? The luxury of the second English muffin?

I’ve got nothing against morning people. Some of my best friends are morning people—seriously. It’s just that this scheme, this vocabulary is new to me.

Yes, new to me. I’m trying to take it on.

It’s a challenge, because I’m not sure I understand the motivations. I get the pressure; I am, after all, in a sense caving to it. But I’m too stubborn to cave quietly, and too affected to conform without some private and self-aggrandizing rationalization. So, I’ve been asking around, trying to get some insider to hip me to the aesthetics of 7 AM. On my own, I’ve been studying it from every angle, holding it up to my nose and blurring my eyes but I can not see the damn sailboat, yet.

And I need to see the sailboat. Not the tugboat, not the garbage scow, not the Staten Island Ferry. Arguments from practicality or productivity—for better or worse—fall on deaf ears, I’m afraid. I need this to be beautiful, please. I need to see something in this.

So far, the closest that I’ve come is the recommendation of a runner friend who pointed out that if you get up early enough to run before work, you’ve probably got the city to yourself. There is after all, it was contended, little difference between 4 AM and 5 AM. I did not at the time point out that there is, however, quite a difference between running and not. Still, there’s something to that thought that I’m going to investigate.

In just five more minutes. I promise.

—John Rodat
jrodat@metroland.net


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