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The Atlantic Monthly | February 2002
Pursuits & Retreats
alking 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.
The joy of getting out of bed and down to work
by Joseph Epstein
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.
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.
Up to the age of twenty-five or so, I was susceptible to neither. From my late adolescence through my early twenties my weekend modus operandi was to come in at around five in the morning and sleep heavily till three or so in the afternoon. Dreams when I was young seemed richer, less complicated; they were more about the future than the past, about promise rather than loss. One quarter at the University of Chicago when I had only morning classes, I stayed up nights and slept days all week long, which worked out beautifully, providing lots of time to get schoolwork done along with reading of my own and ample goofing off. When young, I could bounce back quickly after a poor night's sleep or a full night's revels; the elastic wasn't yet worn out. Now I feel I almost need to go into training just to get a decent day's work done.
"Beddy-bye," W. H. Auden used to say to his hosts at 9:30 P.M., or to his guests when he was the host, for he was a 6:00 A.M. riser and required a full night's sleep for a full day's wrestle with language at his cigarette-ash-laden and untidy desk. Auden never wrote at night, believing, as he told his friend Orlan Fox, that "only the 'Hitlers of the world' work at night; no honest artist does." Not quite true. The novelist John O'Hara claimed later in life that he got to work only after the last television show was over. Balzac worked through many a night, nicely wired by vast quantities of coffee. Edmund Wilson, on the other hand, according to his daughter's testimony, used to stay up late at night drinking and then trudge off to bed with a full tumbler of Scotch, but most mornings he showed up at his desk ready for a full caseload of literary judgments.
By 9:30 P.M. put a fork in me, I'm done. I try to be in bed by ten. Sometimes, I'm told, the forms that matchmaking services ask their clients to fill out include a question about whether they are morning or night persons—a sensible query. Fortunately, my wife is on roughly the same timetable as I, sleeping only an hour or so later most mornings. The mornings after nights that we stay out late feel like a punishment—that damn elastic again.
I used to joke that as I grew older, the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, continued to feel as long as ever; it was only the decades that passed more quickly. But now the days have begun to seem shorter. FedEx, e-mail, Internet downloading, and much else are supposed to be saving us vast quantities of time. I think they've only heightened expectations for a faster response. With all these marvelous conveniences added, the load somehow seems heavier. Where once people fell behind in their correspondence, now they can't keep up with their e-mail, while still owing letters.
Living the good life as a member of the so-called enlightened classes (or are we by now the masses?) entails some form of working out, careful shopping and cooking, keeping up with high and popular culture through watching the right movies, listening to the right music, reading the right books, traveling to the right places. Let us not speak of the relatively new expectations regarding fatherhood and motherhood, wifehood and husbandhood. Anyone who attempts to do everything on the list in a thorough way had better block out another few hours a week for visits with a therapist. One of the chief reasons that I—quite possibly along with you—feel slothful is that our greatly sped-up life, with all its new conveniences, has raised my expectations, has led me to think that I ought to be turning out much more work than I do, has left me to feel at the end of so many days that I ought to have done better.
But at 5:00 A.M., waiting for the kettle to boil, contemplating the book before me, with thoughts floating lazily in my head, it gives serious—I only wish I could say abiding—pleasure to know that I still have three or so hours before having to get, even in my mildly engaged way, into the fray. One of the reasons that nineteenth-century writers and intellectuals and scientists seem to have gotten so much done—monstrous oeuvres of novels, poems, diaries; thousands of letters; scientific exploration and widely varied experimentation in two or three fields—is that they didn't have all the conveniences we do. For "conveniences," of course, one might read "distractions." Many of those people must have felt as if they were living their lives at 5:00 A.M. all day long. Lucky them.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2002; Early Riser; Volume 289, No. 2; 84-86.