The virtuous hours

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After what I considered a fair investigation, I concluded that sunsets and sunrises were interchangeable. Therefore, until recently, I saw no need to get up for something that would be repeated at a more civilized hour in the day.

Part of my investigation into the relative merits of sunrise vs. sunset took place during my college ornithology class. We met at 5 a.m. Squinty-eyed, I threw on some costume guaranteed not to frighten flocks or night watchmen and into the dark I trudged to peer among the branches for birds. My teacher was a lover of dawn. Not until I finished the class did I learn that birds also establish their territory in the early afternoon as well. Yet any adult who reduces birdcalls to what amounts to advertising slogans -- "Cheer up, Cheerily, Cheer up, Cheerily" or "Tea Kettle, Tea Kettle, Tea Kettle, Tea" -- has probably overdosed on early morning anyway. I should have known when he gleefully announced that since daylight-saving time had begun, we'd be getting up at 4 a.m. -- that here was a sunriser.

Nevertheless, during those 10 weeks of mistaking twigs for chicadees, sparrows for finches, and wood thrushes for robins, I made no mistake about sunrise. Sunrise is simply sunset in the east -- at an hour when one is not likely to respond to the mellowing influence of aesthetics. I realize that by stating my views in the open I am exposing myself to yet more of the torment I have received from those who get moving before the sun starts stirring. These sunrisers -- despite their tendency to start napping during their afternoon appointments -- seem to believe that they have a corner on virtue. They quote "early bird" homilies. They benevolently query, "Hey, did you see that dawn?" They stride into work at 7:30 a.m. with the energy I hit around noon, pinkcheeked, wide-eyed, praising their valiant alarm clocks.

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Somehow those of us who can stay at it until the owls come out have managed to appear at best slugabeds, at worst sinister and underhanded. Forty winks is righteous if taken at your desk during the midafternoon in the guise of reading the daily reports, but reprehensible if taken in bed at the behest of your snooze alarm. Well, I've seen the worm, my friends, and the early bird will get no competition from me. And the dawn. I'll catch the late show -- on the p.m. side of the earth.

For that matter, I'm not so sure about the virtue of the sunrisers, either. I had a chance to test it recently. In the fall I bought myself cross-country skis. The day after I bought them the snow melted. We had no more for two months. Not to be outdone I took a two-week vacation to New England, carting my skis across country inside the car, where they gave my rearview mirror a gunsight and provided a fickle armrest for the passenger side. I skied two days out of 14, then returned to the Midwest by bus, carrying my skis in a seven-foot-long box which had made a provocative conversation piece as I ran behind it booting it through the New York bus terminal. There was no improvement in ski conditions at home while I had been gone. But my 5 o'clock bright eyes did tell me about the terrific winter sunrises I had missed.

Finally, nearly two months later we got the snow. It started late at night with a fury, making up for its week of self-denial. I watched it fall by my front porch at midnight. By 5 a.m. it would be perfect. There was no question what I would do. I'd be out there on those skis before dawn. I could get in a couple of hours before I had to go to work. If I could get up. What was I saying "if"? If I had to stay awake all night just to be ready, I'd do it. We were talking about the investment of months of hopes and a few hard-earned dollars.

On a cornfield under the required six inches of snow making sinuous patterns like desert sand, dawn is a masterpiece. I had to admit it. Particularly because this cornfield didn't happen to lie in the path of sunset. It was so good I could hardly wait to get at it the next morning. There's something about driving yourself to make the top of the hill so you can see the earth turn over. The sun cracks a bleary eye against the gray pillows, then pitches the covers back for dawn. I surprised myself.

That was not all I surprised. When I got to work full of sunrise poetry, I found my favorite 5 a.m. riser.I was about to concede to her that sunrise is unique when she said, "You what? Don't you know that it was 4 degrees out there and there was a wind-chill factor of minus 40? You gotta be kidding. Nobody goes out on a morning like this."

So went the rest of the day. I wanted to tell them I loved their sunrise. They wanted to tell me that this was a terrific day to stay in bed and read a good book. "Maybe you get up around 10 and rustle up a fire and a cup of hot chocolate. But definitely you stay tucked in, read a good book, napping off and on."

So much for virtue. Maybe Milton was right when he said virtue untried is not virtue. But I don't begrudge them. I won't make any promises about what I'll d o when the snow melts.

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