Manners February 2002

Early Riser

The joy of getting out of bed and down to work

Talking to a friend not long ago, I paraphrased a remark of Einstein's: "Only a monomaniac gets anything done." "No," replied my friend, "only people who get up at five A.M. get anything done." I happen to be both a monomaniac and a five o'clock riser, so why, I wonder, do I continue to feel so slothful? Before attempting to answer, let me say that though I'm not someone who bounds out of bed like a wide receiver breaking from a Notre Dame huddle, I do look forward to getting up early. I like the darkness, I like the silence, I like the company I encounter at that hour—which is to say, I enjoy the hour or so of solitude. And as a grateful pessimist, I like the fact that I have made it—still alive!—through another night.

I also immensely like my morning regimen. I turn on the stove under the tea kettle, fill the tea ball (alternating Assam Extra Fancy one morning with Irish Breakfast the next), and await the whistle of the kettle while I make out a list of the day's errands, meetings, and responsibilities. Then I sit on a high stool at the kitchen counter and read, more often than not from some thickish book having to do with something I have promised to write. I sip tea, I take notes on my reading, I await the sunrise.

Sometimes I am accompanied by music from WFMT, Chicago's last remaining and splendid classical-music station, though I turn it off if the music becomes too dramatic, thereby interfering with my reading and my sense of a day's calm beginning (not much Beethoven, no Wagner, and scant Richard Strauss permitted at this early hour). I hope no one will think me nauseatingly sensitive if I add that I used to be joined by a striped cat, now dead, named Isabelle, who, after I fed her, sat beside my book, always on my left, demanding no attention, content to be nearby and to look elegant. During baseball season I turn on an AM station at 5:13 to get the previous night's scores and, while I'm at it, the weather. No phone rings; I generally do not turn on my computer, allowing e-mail, and hence the outside world, to invade my morning. For the same reason, I wait until 6:30 or so to go to the door for The New York Times, in which I turn first to the obituaries to see who has been taken out of the game. I could still be sleeping— a pleasure I do not slight—but I really am happier awake.

I am happier awake because I am a man who has long been on a schedule. What put me on this schedule I do not know, but on it I have been for most of my adult life. I waste money, food, energy, and doubtless much else, all fairly lightheartedly, but I do have a bad conscience about wasting time. Not that I don't waste plenty of time, too, gassing away on the phone with friends, looking for excuses to take me away from my work, indulging in magazine-reading binges, taking long lunches. But wasting time abed I cannot do. If I sleep as late as seven o'clock, even on a weekend, I feel the day is lost.

As for this unwritten schedule, I'm not, please believe me, madly intent on achievement, keen to produce fifty books before I die or determined to earn 20 percent more this year—every year—than last. I'm not in competition with anyone, living or dead. My schedule is entirely self-imposed. It calls for my getting something useful done every day, and useful, for me, means writing two or three or—if the planets are in perfect alignment—four or five decent pages. When I read years ago that Thomas Mann, a prodigious—and famously slow—worker, settled for a page a day, this petit Chicago bourgeois was much impressed by that haute Baltic German one. Of course a page a day, knocking off only on Sundays, means a respectable-sized book a year.

I began getting up early not because of conscience or because of the intrinsic pleasures that doing so has subsequently come to give but because, as a man then in my middle twenties, married, with a house full of children, dogs, cats, and other livestock, and working at a full-time job, I found that was the only time I could get any writing done. So I began waking up at 5:00 A.M. After splashing cool water on my face and revving myself up with coffee and cigarettes (in those days not yet considered death in the afternoon), I staggered over to my old Royal Standard and began tapping away.

Getting up at five wasn't all that easy at first. On cold Chicago mornings I kept my psychic furnace stoked with guilt. Having struggled to get up, and having then accomplished little, left me feeling stupid to a very high power. I would tell myself that I hadn't hauled my carcass out of bed to write one wretched and ill-made paragraph: Concentrate, type, form words into sentences, remember that sentences make paragraphs and paragraphs pages—keep things moving, kid. Self-scolding in those days worked well for me. No longer, I fear; nowadays I have only shame to spur me on.

Presented by

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, with Frederic Raphael, of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet.

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