Night Magic

Anyone who has ever exchanged email with me probably has noticed the hours I keep. Time stamps tell them I am a confirmed owl. East-coast larks and I often cross days, as they start their days as I am ending mine.

Rather than calling myself an owl, now and then I say I have vampiric tendencies. (After all, I do write fantasy.) I get some interesting reactions to this statement, especially from non-science-fiction/fantasy fans. But whatever term you use, the fact remains: my personal circadian rhythms and schedule are effectively out-of-phase with the sun.

Some people share Ben Franklin’s low opinion of late hours. Or should I say Poor Richard’s? After all, Mr. Franklin was quite the bon-vivant in his day, which hardly seems to match the Puritanical tone of “early to bed and early to rise.” But science has come to the rescue once again! More and more research seems to be saying that it’s not my fault. (I’ve been saying this at intervals for years about all sorts of things, but no one listens.)

This recent article in the New York Times shows there’s a hereditary component to this. Despite past generations of farmers on both sides of my family, I think I get my owl tendencies from my mother. Even though she’s past eighty, I do not worry about calling her after nine pm her time. I know people three decades younger where that’s a problem. True, I can’t call Mama at two am, but I also don’t worry about getting six am calls from her. In fact, I suspect she’d resent them almost as much as I do.

In addition to the Puritanical Poor Richards, you’ve got another strain of Puritan Luddite who wants to blame technology for the very existence of us owls. The alleged logic goes that without electricity, we’d all still be going to bed with the chickens and getting up with the roosters. Aside from the fact that this sounds dreadfully uncomfortable (ever been in a chicken coop? and roosters crow at any hour), this shows a lack of common sense and an ignorance of both geography and the effects of earth’s axial tilt on the seasons.

I don’t think anyone would call Berlin or London Arctic cities. But both those great cities, fonts of history and culture and our modern world, lie north of the fiftieth parallel. (Berlin at 52 degrees, 19 minutes north and London at 51:30.) One can calculate how much of an effect these northern climes will have on the day/night cycle of Berliners and Londoners, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can get exact times. Here’s the site I use.

It turns out that on December 22, the shortest day of this year, the sun will rise at 8:15 am and set at 3:56 pm in Berlin, and at 8:04 and 3:54 in London. Allowing an hour for dusk at dawn and sunset, that means that night, in the sense of full darkness, in those cites will last about fifteen hours!

Does anyone actually think people who lived before electricity in those regions slept for fifteen hours? What of areas even closer to the pole? So what do they think people did during those long hours of darkness? Aside from sex, that is; I know that’s the first response many people will make to that question.

Other possibilities include working, by candle or fire or moonlight, or standing guard, or caring for children, or studying the stars. I’m rather fond of that last myself. People who pretend that all people’s circadian clocks are set to the same time also seem to ignore the vast store of visual astronomical data that has been amassed over millennia by people who stayed up at night. The vigils and canonical hours of the pre-Reformation Church went on year-round, and I’m certain that priests and priestesses in the temples of Rome and Greece and Egypt and Tenochtitlán had similar duties.

And I’m equally certain—not able to prove it, mind you, but certain—that many of those people with such duties were as happy with their schedules as I am with mine. I’m sure they learned to savor and enjoy the same things I love about the nighttime. The silence, the peace, the lack of mental static from all those busy human brains. The endless beauty of the night skies, so much kinder to the eyes than the harsh glare of the sun. The feeling of rest lying upon the world that is more restful than sleep itself. The cool respite from heat in a hot climate. And the sense of ownership.

We own the night, we owls. We welcome tourists from the daylight hours, but the magic and beauty of night’s depths belong to us.




Night Magic — 4 Comments

  1. I used to be a night owl, but with two small children, it isn’t feasible anymore. I’ve switched around my schedule entirely these days, getting up at 5AM in the morning and going to be as soon as I can. One thing I enjoy about this is that I still have that feeling of ownership you mentioned. The wee hours of the day are mine and mine alone. It’s perfect for working. I can get in 2 hours or so of writing before having to rouse everyone else. It’s become my favorite part of the day.

  2. Ah, you’re a lark, then. The larks are the ones who get up before the sun rises and retire early. (See that article I referenced; it’s quite good.) We probably do overlap on some days, when you’ve gotten up a bit earlier or I’ve gotten to bed a bit later. Larks and owls are the far ends of the bell-curve on human sleep patterns. I don’t know where weirdies like Winston Churchill fall on the curve. He seldom spent more than a couple of hours in bed, just catnapped round the clock.

    I pretended to be a lark for a few years when the kids were young. But fortunately my husband worked at home, and when the time the kids were both in school and about fourth grade, he took over the morning shift.

  3. I am a natural owl in a lark’s situation: my husband is a natural lark and starts to get grouchy if I sleep too late; too, with his new job, he has to be out of the house by 7 or 7:30, which means he’s up at 5:30 or 6. Try as I might, on a work day I’m awake by quarter of seven. And then there is the younger daughter to shovel out the door (the older one, who is the vampirest of vampires, is not around as much as she used to be, and thus not so much my problem). After they’re all out of the house, I have my coffee and try to remind myself of what I was thinking thirty seconds ago. But really, I’m not awake until nearer to noon–I’ve just learned to fake it pretty well. Not well enough to do any writing until the fogs have cleared, however. And I start falling asleep earlier than I like, because my body has been fooled by the 6:45 am thing.

    Going to bed late has always been a self-defining activity for me; I love being the last one up in the house, rattling about reading or watching TV or making notes for something, hearing the shifting of the sleeping family members and dog. I have the most flexibility, work-wise, and so I’m the one who trims her schedule to fit the school and work schedules of the family, but I really miss the late night shift.

  4. I just read a book on brain research (not a very well-written book, I’m afraid, but it did provide an overview) and discovered that I, like about 80 percent of the population, am a “hummingbird” — that is, neither a lark or an owl.

    I spent 22 years getting up for a 7 AM Aikido class without becoming a morning person just because I prefer to exercise in the morning. And I do find that I’m better at making decisions and finishing tasks in the early hours. But I’m not cheerful when I first get up — if I lived with a true lark, I’d probably develop homicidal tendencies if the person was foolish enough to whistle or otherwise express happy thoughts in the mornings.

    I never got into work before 10 (unless there was something I had to do earlier) back when I had to go to an office, not because I was sleeping in, but because I liked to do my own stuff in the mornings. I’m most productive at work between about 3 and 7 PM, probably because if I get it done then, I don’t have to do it tomorrow.

    And I can stay up late to do something that has to get done, as long as I get past the mid-evening lull when I get sleepy after dinner. If I get a second wind, I’ll find myself up until 1 or 2. But not every night.

    It’s interesting, how these patterns vary among people. I find sleep patterns, like the different ways people learn, to be a strong argument for individual approaches. Yes, there are jobs that require people to be there at certain times, especially ones in customer service and retail. But there are other kinds of work that can be done at any time. And education should be adapted to the best learning skills of each student. The more we adapt to what we know about how human brains work, the better work we’re going to get from human beings.