You may recognize the words in the headline of this column as the title of Irving Berlin’s famous 1918 song about army life.
The Russian immigrant, widely considered to be America’s greatest songwriter (“God Bless America,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “White Christmas”) was drafted into the U.S. Army toward the end of World War I. But, like many Broadway babies, he was a creature of the night. For him, reveille was agony.
Same for me, exactly 50 years later, when I, too, was drafted. Getting up with the birds was not my idea of national service. My military career was nasty, brutish and short.
I have always been a night owl. As a kid, I’d stay up late, reading under the covers with a flashlight or listening to distant stations on my transistor radio. I was often late for school.
My sleep habits didn’t improve when I finished active duty and got a job. After too many missed morning meetings, I figured I’d better adopt a few coping strategies.
Stopped drinking coffee or tea in the afternoon. Married an early riser. Moved my alarm clock to a distant corner of the bedroom. I even trained my electronic concierge, Alexa, to roust me at the appointed hour, with limited success. My life remained an endless film noir.
To fill those late-night hours, I began reading about sleep. Science tells us that sleep repairs the wear and tear of the day, helps the brain process information taken in while we’re awake. In effect, as Shakespeare said, sleep knits up care’s raveled sleeve.
Nice to learn all that, but my problem wasn’t an inability to sleep. It was a propensity to snooze on my terms, not society’s. My circadian rhythm marched to a different circadium. I was at my best when the rest were at rest.
Nothing I tried could make me normal. White-noise machines kept me awake. Soothing sounds of running water made me want to pee. Melatonin pills had little effect. I tried dazzling varieties of mattresses, pillows and earplugs, to no avail.
One thing that has helped is retirement. I no longer have to be in an office every morning, so, I can stay up as long as I want. Problem is, I now hate getting up in the morning more than ever.
That’s because I know what awaits me: bad news. COVID is still killing thousands. Gun violence is soaring. Democracy is under threat. China is on the rise, Russia is up to no good, inflation is making a comeback, climate change is out of control. Who would want to get up?
Irving Berlin, or so it seemed. According to biographers, he was a model soldier — bounding out of bed on the bugle’s first blast and never complaining. But, deep down, he dreaded every dawn.
Maybe that’s why he was such a brilliant, prolific composer. A study by Satoshi Kanazawa, a psychologist at The London School of Economics, found that people who stay up late tend to have higher IQs. A University of Southampton study found that night owls tend to earn more as well.
One theory is that, around the time lesser mortals are sinking into the arms of Morpheus, the smart ones get an intellectual second wind. Maybe that’s why we creative types do our best work in the dark of night. (It’s past midnight as I write this.)
Like Irving Berlin. One day in 1918, his camp commander asked him to come up with a musical number to aid the war effort. Berlin was busy as a supply clerk all day, so, he had to work on the request late into the night. The result: “Oh, How I Hate to Get up in the Morning.”
The song went on to appear in three Broadway shows, a World War II movie and a 2016 McDonald’s commercial. Berlin never intended to make a penny from the song, but he received an instant reward. The camp commander, instead of court-martialing him for insubordination, gave him permission to ignore reveille and sleep in for the remainder of his Army days.
Maybe I’ll follow Berlin’s example — tell the world how I operate and let it do the adjusting. To paraphrase Berlin’s immortal ditty:
“Someday, I’m going to murder Alexa. Someday they’re going to find her dead. I’ll amputate her reveille, and step upon it heavily. And spend the rest of my life in bed.”