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Writing in the Dark

Confessions of a literary night owl.

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The moon is maybe one sixteenth full—or empty, really, thin as the rim of a shot glass, clear and high in a very black sky. The stars are out in layers, not like the desert or the mountains but unusual for the northeast, millions of distant acquaintances amassed behind the more familiar constellations; Orion in his swaggery stance, Cassiopeia watching sideways from her chair in the sky.

Not that I am seeing any of that, now. I keep my eyes on the ground. I’m moving fast, and it’s dark, and I don’t want to fall. There’s a hill in front of me: up, and steep. I hear my feet and my breath. They should disrupt the nighttime quiet but instead they amplify it. Up, up, up, up, and then a sharp turn, then rocks and gravel, louder underfoot; then a downhill dip, the black hulks of two familiar trees, a flagstone patio, a door. I stop in front of it, lean against it for a moment, let my breath slow, look up. It is one-fifteen in the morning. I have just come home from a run.

***

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a night owl. As a kid, I read in bed until hours that would have horrified my parents, had they known. I can recall staying up until 2 a.m. to finish (of all things) Ballet Shoes—a cliff-hanger, apparently, when you are 8 years old. A few years later, I stayed up past three reading The Mists of Avalon, my usual late-night alertness enhanced, no doubt, by the sex scenes. I pulled my first all-nighter halfway through sixth grade. I was 11.

There was no particular reason for it, that first time. I didn’t have homework, wasn’t behind on any project, wasn’t in the grips of preadolescent angst. I just wasn’t tired. I read for a while, then put U2’s Joshua Tree into a tape deck, turned the volume as low as possible, and—okay, yes, I realize this is going to sound insane, but I was teaching myself to juggle at the time, and so I did: three and four soft, hacky-sack-like objects, conveniently quiet when I goofed and they hit the ground. The music was quiet, too. It’s a funny thing about music, something I’ve had occasion to observe many times since then: When you are the only person awake in an otherwise silent house, you can turn the volume so low that it wouldn’t register on a VU meter—so low that it becomes impossibly, asymptotically close to off—and you will still hear it just fine. I was listening to “One Tree Hill” for probably the fourth time when I realized that the sky outside my window was paling over to day.

Predictably, getting up in the morning—not that morning; every morning—was a misery. By seventh grade I walked to school, and I was never not late, which was unfortunate, because I hate being late. (As an adult, I am scrupulously punctual; but then, I also scrupulously avoid early-morning meetings.) On weekends, liberated, I routinely slept until eleven or noon. My oldest childhood friend, a kind of temporal negative of me, often slept over at my house; without fail, by the time I woke up, she would be dressed, breakfasted, and 140 pages into a book she’d started that morning. This annoyed me. Even more annoying, though, were family vacations, when my parents, sister, and I would all share a hotel room. In the mornings, called upon to rouse myself, I would burrow under the covers and play dead. I can recall my father, who is among the most congenial human beings ever to walk the planet, throwing pillow after pillow at my buried, groaning head.

I should have thrown them back, because sleep patterns are genetic, and my father is to blame for mine. Once, wide awake at 3 a.m., he ambled downstairs and scared the daylights out of a would-be burglar. He was indulgent about my bedtime infractions, partly because he is indulgent by nature, but also because he’d committed plenty of his own. As a teenager, he once stayed up all night, chain-smoking, to finish Heart of Darkness, then moved on without pause to Lord Jim. At least I didn’t smoke. In my own teenage years, I would occasionally look into the living room in the middle of the night, find my father watching TV, and plunk down to join him. I currently have, in my in-box, an e-mail from him time-stamped 1:54 a.m.

Like father, like daughter: For how many generations, I sometimes wonder, has this internal clock been keeping my relatives awake—and why? In his book Internal Time (which I review in this week’s issue of the magazine), German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg advances some speculative but plausible evolutionary explanations for the existence of night owls. Across cultures, early birds get all the credit for hard work—catching worms, etc.—but according to Roenneberg, the real bacon was likely brought home by night owls. Some of our natural prey is nocturnal, and some of it’s just easier to catch after dark. One reason warm-bloodedness was such a triumph of mammalian evolution is that the ability to regulate our body temperature meant we could function at night, when the air gets cooler—and our cold-blooded predators, competitors, and prey get sluggish. Night-owlishness was a further adaptation, a chance mutation that proved useful for feeding the tribe. I sometimes think about this when I find myself staring into the fridge at 2 a.m.


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