Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Among the obvious falsehoods I've taken to be truth--this: when I was in fifth grade or so, around the time I started getting homework assignments that might take more than an hour, and around the time I started working past my bedtime to finish those assignments, I believed that any human problem could be solved by staying up all night.

I distinctly remember pondering this and deciding that the scientists at NASA must, with concentration and caffeine, design all of their rockets at around 3am, a magical time of creativity I'd never consciously known. Failing that, I decided that even if they didn't design their rockets in schematic-strewn somnambulant sessions, they certainly could.

Staying up into the wee hours and beyond was the ultimate dedication, and I think my faith in the all-nighter was akin to my faith in America's inherent problem-solving abilities. There were people staying up all night--I would soon be one--and there were people making world-altering (and correct) decisions--I would be one of those too--who succeeded through acts of will and sleep deprivation. That was all.

Maybe I picked this up from my brother, who, at 17, was embarking on his all-nighter era. A prolific procrastinator, he'd been known to write 25-page term papers during just a few late-night hours, accompanied by Letterman and, later in the evening, by a mustard sandwich. As I fell asleep and he set off to work, my confidence that we would both be awake-and-okay at 7am was unshakable. He'd polish off an A-paper; I'd get my rest; Cheerios for everyone!

Thus, if I stayed up all night, I told myself, I could surely finish the 63 pages of reading I'd put off on the first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell. (Before I zonked out at 10pm, 40 pages short, I might have learned that she had a glass eye, and I mightn't've, I can't quite remember).

Glass eye or no, my Blackwell failure only served to reinforce my idea about all-nighters. Sure, I hadn't tried hard enough, but if I ever did try hard, and if I ever worked through the witching hour and all the way to the finish line, dawn, I'd succeed.

This sort of idea is still a tempting fallacy. Someday, when I've expended all of my effort, done my very-stretched-best, then, yes, on that fair day my pumpkins will turn to carriages (I still tell myself that it wouldn't be that hard to write a novel in a month, or even over night, if someone was threatening me with death or aggressive tickling).

Incidentally, I also remember half-days from school (Wednesdays) seeming like periods of time during which the greatest things could be accomplished. One Wednesday, my friend Cheese and I vowed to complete the most difficult task we could think of. We would beat the video game Destiny of an Emperor (was there such a thing as Beating a Game before Nintendo? Did one beat Badminton, or Solitaire? Did the idea of Beating a Game change my generation's conception of fun? I, certainly, seem more drawn to the accomplishment of leisure than the diversion of it).

Though we reached the final battle, it was not our destiny to Beat the Game. I remember feeling disillusioned about half-days after that; they weren't afternoons of invincibility after all, even if I drank four cokes.

I had four cokes the first time I stayed up all night too, at the Sophomore Lock-in, a slumber party of sorts at my high school's gym. I didn't reverse any universal catastrophes that night, but I did watch Beverley Hills Cop and I did hit five straight 3-pointers as morning came on--a first and last for me.

It was quite something, and though the all-night experience lost some of its imagined luster, it did still seem exceptional, a feeling enhanced by out-of-body fatigue and the sense that those four hours between 1:30 and 5:30 were stolen, were never meant to have been a part of my life at all, sneaked.

2. When Mark McGuire hit his 62nd homerun, I switched channels all night to watch high-lights of the low line-drive over the left field wall.

McGwire's 62nd HR from David Levine on Vimeo.

Stupid Cardinals.

3. When the 2000 election got called and recalled and I kept declaring to my college hallmates, "I'm not going to sleep until there's a president." (As an aside, I don't remember much college-fervor for either candidate on campus, and that seems strange to me, as though that year is way, way in the past, back when it might have still been possible to avoid the forceful inanity which now demands a response).

4. Various scattered daybreaks which evade my memory and me, suns-under-the-clouds; but which I also know--from their small, residual warmths--to have existed.

5. Two all-night drives, one with Rob and Riley, one with Kaufmann. Saw the morning in the rearview.

6. And then there was a night rehearsing a play with Megan, after which rehearsal I tried to design the most glorious rocketship by asking her out, thought I'd failed, and learned that, though I couldn't do anything overnight, I could get big projects going full steam.

Meanwhile, I seem now to over-realize the limits of a day. At age 11, I felt infinity + 1 was a reasonable concept to be reasonably attained. I would do everything in life, and maybe I would do all of it in one, charmed, moonlit stretch. Wednesdays were Neverendsdays. 2am was a clock-stopped playground of achievement and productive mischief.

But as small tasks (like taking care of myself) expand to fill most of my time, and squandering fills the rest, I have to remind foot-dragging me to just start, just build the propulsion system. Figure out the insulation. Brainstorm the anti-gravity boots, though they'll eventually fail--those stupid boots, stupid sketches, stupid words I use to describe those stupid boots!--even if that failure takes more than an overnight.

I try to coax myself to keep imagining--even as they fade out--and keep designing--even as they sputter--my contrails.

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