"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Nighttime and the dark as hazy buffer time

Does your mind work differently before the sun comes up? Do you even have a chance to test this, or are you simply too harried? Do you traipse off zombie-like to your worldly commitments, shortly after the sun comes up? Hopefully you have a chance to drift.
Time can seem suspended in the hours before daylight. It's like a relief zone from the so-called real world. At least that's how I find it. Today there's an increasing need for relief from the harried pace, from the need to check all your electronic devices all the time etc.
My own electronic assets have remained minimal. I use public computers. I don't use Facebook. I blog because I'm a lifelong practitioner of long-form journalism. I have two free email accounts.
The 20-year-old Brian Williams of 1975 would be startled reading those last two sentences. Blogging and emailing would have been mind-boggling in the disco decade. And yet, those two platforms are just scratching the surface for what people do today.
Heck, we would have been startled just learning of VHS tapes. It'd be a miracle punching in a movie and watching at your convenience, and watching it again. If there was something "hot" on TV then, you had to sit down at the advertised time and make sure to watch it then. You might not get another chance! Imagine that.
I used to go to our Morris Public Library to read Time Magazine. We'd use the "card catalog." The tech advancements have virtually crushed boredom.
We see the Butch Patrick character in "The Phantom Tollbooth" looking incurably bored in the 1960s movie. People my age can relate to him. He drags himself into his house at the end of a school day. There is no special stimulation available for him. If that movie were to be re-made today, the approach would be 180 degrees different: the Patrick character would need relief not from boredom, but from all the pervasive and tempting electronic distractions all around him, and on him.
"The Phantom Tollbooth" is a fascinating story much like "The Wizard of Oz." The movie uses mostly animation. A re-make would have real potential although with that different emphasis from the original. Butch Patrick, incidentally, played the little boy in the classic TV series "The Munsters."
In the '60s and '70s we never could have foreseen that boredom would someday be eliminated. It's one of the great miracles of history. Because the development proceeded slowly, we didn't notice it all that much. We grasped at each new development and then felt we were entitled to it - we expected them to get better too.
We erased from our minds those memories of when we had to get along without all that stuff. Time Magazine at the library! We had few tools for really asserting our own identity - our own creative talents. We had to accept creative people and what they fed us from a separate world, a world centered in the Northeastern U.S.
Stimulated as we are today, we need a respite now and then. We may have a hard time even finding enough time to sleep. We hear about sleep-deprived drivers. We hear about distracted drivers causing horrible, even fatal accidents.
Maybe we need to covet sleep more. Maybe we should take a long look at how we plan our sleep. Even with 10-12 hours of repose in each 24-hour cycle, we are left with plenty of time in which to energetically pursue our worldly aims.
Keep in mind that our sleep doesn't need to be continuous. It is fascinating to awake in the middle of the night and to rustle around, pondering some of your life's issues without the harried atmosphere of daytime pressing on you. The world can still be a most placid place, a place where time can actually seem suspended.
I have developed a pattern of retiring early at night. It might even be before 9 p.m. I awaken at 2 or 3 a.m. I brew some instant coffee and usually do some writing, by pen in a good old-fashioned spiral notebook. I'm quite contemplative at that time. It's a state of mind that can't seem to be duplicated at any other time of day. In experiencing this, I'm duplicating a lifestyle that was quite typical in a long-ago time.
Part
of the experience is to return to slumber as morning approaches. This I do on the davenport. Finally ol' Sol comes up from the horizon. That middle-of-night episode seems as if it happened in another dimension.
Back in the days before gas and then electricity, my rhythm of night-to-day was standard. Nighttime projected a whole different atmosphere. It called for different sleep patterns. We were forced to slow down considerably. That's not to say our minds couldn't be engaged - they were engaged in a different way.
The forces of order were forces of light. Chaos reigned in the dark. The early modern period saw Europeans living in two worlds, one marked by light and the rules of society, and the other blending anxiety and fantasy in a dreamy kind of community. Terrors and dangers were courted when the sun went down. People got lost and fell into ditches. People could fear the mysteries of darkness even when inside, behind walls and shutters.
Candlelight spelled a fire danger. Can you imagine being dependent on candlelight? The North American colonies experienced this world. Nighttime was an alternate reality for a substantial portion of the pre-industrial population. Darkness could provide an alluring freedom. Just watch out for ditches.
People slept differently in those long-ago times. It evokes the same fears we might have when reading The Brothers Grimm. Our circadian patterns had not been altered by the persistence of light beyond sunset. Like yours truly today, people had a "first sleep" after which they'd awaken for a time, shuffling around and perhaps attending to minor business, and then go back to snoring for a time.
Modern lighting has altered the state of our biology, as well as our society. A character in "Canterbury Tales" decides to go back to bed after his "firste sleep." A doctor in England concluded that the time between the two sleep periods was "the best for study and reflection."
No LEDs or wall sconces. We seemed to follow the more natural rhythm of God's creation. Let darkness surround us, and let us adjust, even with some anxiety.
Maybe we weren't meant to totally conquer darkness. Maybe we're supposed to be humbled by it. Maybe darkness is the hand of God insisting we feel some humility at the force of his creation. Maybe he's telling us to just hunker down in a more limited world. Maybe defying or denying the dark is a way of dissing God's creation.
We hear so many people complain of sleep problems. Gas and then electricity has changed the nightscape into an extension of our worlds of work and play. Sleep was once segmented, whereas today we have the "consolidated" model for sleep, also called "mono phasic."
Some medical researchers think the old way was better. An academic named A. Roger Ekirch has researched and written about this. His main tome: "At Day's Close: Night in Times Past." It came out in 2005.
Ekirch
pored over old diaries, medical books, court records and literature. People referred to their "first" and "second" sleep. The references vanished over a relatively brief time in the late 17th Century. Street lighting was improved. People who were uplifted by tech became more time-conscious as a result of efficiency.
So, we have the world of today, where people stream around zombie-like constantly connected to all the electronic stuff. We are totally caffeinated, all the time. We can forget it didn't used to be like this.
Boomers like me can forget. We forget boredom and the stupid things we used to do to deal with it.
Butch Patrick's character found escape in an animated fantasy world. "Digitopolis" was a city built on the importance of numbers. Another city accented words. Which was more important? We were made to ponder. An orchestra director would get on his podium and "direct" the sunset. There was no wicked witch, otherwise this world seemed much like Oz.
Today the escape place would not be from boredom and the mundane demands of a boring world, rather we'd need escape from the caffeinated reality we find ourselves in during daylight. We need a reprieve. We need a new approach to nighttime.
Maybe our ancestors benefited from the limitations they lived with.
Maybe we ought to feel a special fascination with nighttime. Let it cast its eerie spell on us. Let it humble us. Maybe that awakening period affords us a better chance for thought and reflection. Forget the hands on the clock. Let nighttime prevail with its distinctive, albeit somewhat scary spell.
But don't fall into ditches.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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