Like millions of people around the world who are following the Beijing Olympics, I’ve been watching a lot of TV this summer. Parked on my couch watching the events, it’s alternatively a new experience as well as a shot of nostalgia. Here, in 2008, I’m watching the summer games with my own kids. But I can’t help but recall a few decades ago, when I was the kid in the room, watching the events with my own parents, and Jim McKay in place of Bob Costas.
My network’s broadcast schedule means that I’m getting to bed late most nights. At least, late for people who have trains to catch and clocks to punch. Because I work at home, I have a little more slack on this issue, and so, for the past week or two, the Olympics have helped me reconnect with the deliciousness that is sleeping in.
But today was a different story. This morning, I got up at 5 AM. Unlike other people I know, who love to crow about how early they get started in the morning—how splendid the sunrise, how empty the roads are when they go for a jog at dawn—I am not especially happy about it. In fact, I’m not what anyone would call a morning person, and I’ve never quite understood this whole business of the worm giving it up for the early bird.
Who says that rising at daybreak is somehow the hallmark of an honorable, virtuous life? While I’m sure many glorious things happen in the world between daybreak and 9 AM, lots of good stuff happens for me between those hours, too, spending them, as I have been, swaddled in my bed, conjuring adventures in my dreams.
Last night, I drank a tall glass of water before bed. I paid for it this morning when I rose to pee and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I had loads of stuff to take care of today, and those niggling details nagged at me until I sighed, gave in, and un-swaddled. I was barely at my desk when my teenage son stumbled up to my office. It wasn’t yet 6 AM, and looking up to see him standing in the doorway, disheveled and swaying slightly, seemed as jarring as discovering a monkey in a baby carriage. It turns out he couldn’t sleep either, and, like a drowsy but friendly street person, he had wandered in to say hello.
Like me, Evan has a tendency to lie around, writ large as an unperturbed teenager. On a weekend, I might rise by 10 AM. But this summer, he hardly ever sets foot out of bed until the crack of noon. Seeing him there upright, as the sun crept over the horizon behind me, reminded me of a story my friend Scott told me recently about his grandfather.
The old man was a notoriously early riser, lulled to an early sleep, Scott said, by an afternoon spent busily throwing down tall glasses of whiskey. Come daybreak, he would be well-rested and raring to go. And when his grandkids would visit, it would irk him that others didn’t keep the same hours.
He’d rise at 5 AM or so, full of loving gratitude for the day and sipping his coffee in the kitchen while his family slumbered upstairs. But by 6 AM he was banging cabinets and slamming the fridge door. By 7, he was livid. So he took to positioning himself at the bottom of the stairs with a marine horn, fetched from the garage, the kind with a can of compressed air fixed to a plastic horn. They are meant for a distressed boater to use to signal the Coast Guard, or sometimes they signal the start of play at soccer or Little League games. Whatever the case, the horn is meant to sound loud enough to melt your eardrums. In Scott’s grandfather’s house, one long sound of the horn simultaneously shook the paintings on the walls—and the kids and his wife from their beds.
One year at Christmastime, Gramps retrieved the boat horn only to find the compressed air too cold to make the horn sound. Muttering, he tramped into the kitchen, running the air can under hot water and shaking the propellant loose.
I don’t know much about marine horns. But after Scott told me this story, I located one, and right there in the store aisle I read the text of a warning label that clearly said, “Caution: Contents Under Pressure. Do Not Heat.” I don’t know whether Scott’s grandfather, in his fury, couldn’t read or what. But the thing blew up in his hand, precisely as the Warning… well, warns.
What the warning doesn’t tell you is that when it blows up, it’ll boom loud enough to rouse anyone sleeping in, say, the room situated above the kitchen. I imagine that, sleeping there, Scott’s grandmother got quite a start, too, which was kind of lucky for Scott’s grandfather, since he needed a ride to the emergency room. He came back wearing a bandage the size of a boxing glove. But what really irked him at that point, Scott said, what really set him off and sent him bellowing back at the bottom of the stairs, was that Scott and his brothers were all still tucked under their blankets, invoking the sweet dreams of the innocent.
And so I wonder, in part for Scott in the 1970s and in part for me now, what’s so great about getting up early? For me, now, it’s 5 o’clock in the afternoon. And yet at this impossibly early hour for dining I’m irritatingly aware of gnawing in my stomach. I’m too young to eat dinner at 5 PM… but do you see how getting up early will age you prematurely?
It makes me wonder anew: Who says that rising at daybreak is somehow the hallmark of a virtuous life? Who came up with the notion that sleeping in is somehow lazy, slothful, weak, despised?
What about the merits of a soul that’s well-rested? What of the virtue of late-night camaraderie, or—this summer, anyway—the national solidarity of staying awake to the bitter end of the swim finals? What’s wrong with all of that?
Flickr photo: Brenda Anderson