Curiosity at 3 A.M.

An annoying photo Michael took of me from our bedroom window many years ago – me returning from the grocery store before he was even out of bed.

I’ve been trying to recall the point in my life when I stopped sleeping well. According to my parents, I was born a champion sleeper and stayed that way for my young life. My older siblings were so disruptive in the night that when I came along, regularly conked out for twelve hour stints, mom and dad took turns checking to make sure I was still alive. As I got older, I made do with fewer hours. I was also an early riser, preferring that quiet part of the day, when I often felt like the only conscious person on the planet. I was always awake before Michael and both my kids, even after my son, who was a dreadful sleeper, altered my steady rest forever.

Michael, asleep with one of our dogs, before we had kids.

Before anyone in the house had blinked sleepily awake, I had run all my errands, gone swimming and walked the dogs, getting back home in time for breakfast with the family until we took off for work and school. I’d never thought about this over-achieving routine as part of a life strategy. I think my internal clock was simply predisposed to this early morning schedule.

Michael and my daughter who snuck into my spot after I was long gone.

During our early years together, Michael and I quickly realized that his night owl tendencies did not align with my “up with the songbirds” habit. Over time, job requirements and kids helped us gradually adjust our schedules so that we could usually go to bed at the same time. As we got older, we both pushed ourselves to stay up a little later, anxious to spend our time doing things rather than sleeping. I found I could manage on about six hours of eyes closed. Michael needed more, so he supplemented with naps between work and dinner.

Michael catching an afternoon nap with our oldest grandson after getting home from teaching.

Ironically there started to be times when he was encouraging me to turn in earlier. I’d found that I needed the evening hours for fitting in all my interests, the ones that had nothing to do with any other people or obligations outside of myself. I started pushing myself to have a number of hours of discretionary time which equaled those committed to work when I was in my fifties. Sleep seemed like an unfortunate waste of time. I knew all about the connection between a good night’s rest and good health. But I pushed those boundaries anyway. Then, during the course of Michael’s cancer, his circadian rhythms kept changing, leaving me to adapt to his wildly unpredictable hours so I could be with him. Always in need of sleep when he was healthy, he passed out at every available opportunity.

Michael sleeping in the chemo infusion center.

I learned to be awake at any hour, especially in the middle of the night. I was always surprised at my ability to be lucid, no matter what time I lurched into consciousness. I realized that I would have been a great medical resident, those people who are required to function at a high level no matter how tired they might feel. Alas, that ship has sailed. In any event, after Michael died, my new hyper-alert schedule, conforming to nothing like “normal,” stuck. Now, over six years later, I’ve become a night person, in a way I could never have imagined. If I’m lucky, I can get five uninterrupted hours of sleep. Even after days when I’ve been swimming and doing heavy gardening, I only seem to manage a little over four and a half hours on a regular basis. Of course I get tired. But if I squeeze in a nap for an hour and a bit more, I feel rejuvenated and ready to keep going.

Classic photo of Michael and my son sleeping.

All that morning energy which I’m still able to muster when I wake, is at night transformed from the physical realm into a mental one. Maybe it’s the darkness. Or more just the stillness. There are no birds singing at midnight or beyond. I can hear an occasional vehicle going somewhere, or a siren or a faraway train whistle. But mostly I hear nothing but my own thoughts. I don’t listen to music at night. I let myself drift.

My daughter asleep on my bed.

I know I should follow all the suggestions for getting a good night’s sleep like turning off all screens, performing relaxing nighttime rituals like taking a warm bath, and avoiding stimulation. But the most innocuous activity, like watching a movie or reading a scientific article can suddenly and unexpectedly pique my curiosity. That dead-of-night interest leads to exploration which I know I should avoid until the next day. But there’s something so satisfying about being in the quiet, discovering something new that feels like it’s filling a previously unknown gap in my education. I know that sounds ridiculous. I honestly have no idea why my restless quests for more knowledge feel so important. I think to myself, “ what possible practical purpose do these deep dives into some offhand topic have in the long run?” I’m not going to teach them to anyone else, except perhaps in a casual conversation. Do I need more random facts taking up space in my brain? Am I just an older version of that kid who once thought I’d be able to read every book that was published? For a long time I thought I could, until I read somewhere that on average, there are about eleven thousand books published daily in the great big world. Another bubble burst. While I engage in these internal debates, I often hear my mother’s voice intoning one of her favorite adages, “no one can hurt you as badly as you can hurt yourself.” I’m sitting here in the night, thinking I should go to bed while digging for new information on the thought of the moment. I actually have an example that perfectly illustrates my behavior.

Me holding my oldest grandson.

A while back I started thinking about how despite the fact that I love movies, I’d never actually taken any classes about film, film history or film criticism. One of those subject areas that never quite fit into my formal education although in real life, it’s probably a tossup between how many books I’ve read and how many movies I’ve watched. I took plenty of classes about books and literary criticism. Maybe because I viewed books more seriously than movies? Were movies just a frivolous form of entertainment that didn’t have much to do with my view of what I could do with them as a career or vocation? I really don’t recall giving these ideas much thought until I was well into my adult life. Regardless, I wanted to learn more. After spending months with my eldest grandson, introducing him to films that had never crossed his radar, I wound up taking a class on the similarities between Alfred Hitchcock the director, and Edward Hopper, the artist. I really enjoyed it, learning more about Hitchcock and the fact that he directed several silent movies before the ones I knew well from my youth. I found an excellent example of one, The Lodger, which was so fascinating that I launched into digging out more of those films I hadn’t seen. I also got interested in directors. I hadn’t realized how much I’d never known was out there. I’ve been fascinated to see how well these gems have held up for almost a century.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926). Photograph: BFI

In the past year I’ve watched lots of these movies and highly recommend them. I include some stills from other particularly great choices.

Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien in the film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc
Don Juan with John Barrymore and Mary Astor.

Turner Classic Movies (TMC) regularly runs silent films. Recently I noticed that they appeared to be showcasing documentaries about notable individuals who in the early days of cinema, made significant contributions to the industry. Again, I had no real knowledge about any of them. The other night I watched a film featuring one of those unknowns, at least to me, the biography of one Carl Laemmle. Laemmle, an impoverished Jewish immigrant from Germany, came to America to seek his fortune like so many others. But at age 40, he had yet to find success. A move to Chicago and his exposure to nickelodeons changed his life. He built a career in silent film as an innovator, clashing with Thomas Edison who wanted a complete monopoly over the movie industry. (I never knew about Edison’s heinous history on undermining labor. That is another rabbit hole for me to dive into some other time.) Laemmle wound up moving to California and founding Universal Studios, renowned for its pop horror films which built on the work of German expressionists from a decade earlier.

Carl Laemmle – photo credit – Journal Register.
Universal – Grand Opening Poster 1915 Universal City 005

Laemmle, became known as Uncle Carl, essentially by treating his employees like family members. This dynamic character also encouraged his female employees to take on assignments typically viewed as the men’s domain.

“So he gave workers already on his lot — including actresses, seamstresses, costume designers and other female employees — a crack at writing and directing short reels and feature-length movies. Lois Weber, often called America’s first female director, produced and directed a slew of films for Laemmle, many about controversial women’s issues such as abortion, divorce and sexual freedom. Her work was so popular that she became the highest-paid director at the studio and directed 100 films. Weber hired an assistant, Frances Marion, whose scripts were so good that Mary Pickford chose her as her official scriptwriter. Marion finished her career with 130 scripts to her name.” LA Times.

I just had to order this book about this woman I’ve never heard of before.

“If you were female, Universal was Shangri-La.” LA Times.

“There is this telling statistic about Uncle Carl’s company: During the heyday of Universal’s silent era, there were 30 female directors and 45 busy female screenwriters on the studio payroll, arguably the most in history.” LA Times.

Who knew any of this great stuff?

But there was more to learn about Carl Laemmle. In 1930 he produced All Quiet on the Western Front, the anti-war film which drew broad acclaim in the U.S. However, Germany saw the film as an affront. With the rise of Hitler and the right-wing National Socialist German Workers’ Party, Laemmle wound up permanently exiled from his native country. As the prejudice against Jews in Germany increased, he waged a campaign to save as many people as he could, taking on the limitations of the U.S. government along the way.

Laemmle with one of the people in the 300 families he helped escape from Nazi Germany.

Hollywood’s Unknown Rescuer

Before Schindler’s List, an L.A. studio boss saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust.


The moon at 3 a.m.

The Laemmle story is one of those things that keeps me awake. Not about current events, politics or climate change, not about my garden, my family or missing Michael, no – at 3 a.m. I find myself thinking about Carl Laemmle and Thomas Edison and now, Lois Weber. I go off on these tangents on a regular basis. All the logic in the world about sleep and health are irrelevant compared to the curiosity in the dark of night. What’s next? I have no idea.

My granddaughter asleep on me a few days ago.

I thought it would be appropriate to end this post with a photograph of me sleeping. But there aren’t any. I’ve asked everyone close to me if they have one and they don’t. The irony…

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