Playwright and writer Topher Payne

I cannot remember exactly when it started — late July, maybe? But one night I looked up from my work at four in the morning and said, “Aw hell, it’s better if I just don’t sleep.” I got a few extra hours of tasks accomplished, the sun rose, and I went on about my day.

Sure, I guzzled like five pots of coffee, and I was a little weepy and reactionary by sunset— I had an argument with the dog that I’m pretty sure I lost — but overall I was pleased with the number of things which got checked off the to-do list.

I recognized that, just for a little while, I’d scheduled more tasks than could actually be accomplished during normal human waking hours, and I might have to sneak in an all-nighter here and there to stay on top of everything.

But then something horrible happened. I discovered I was actually capable of doing this twice a week, preferably on Sundays and Wednesdays, which afforded a few days in between to reboot my system.

I called it “Giving up the night,” which was a misnomer. I was actually gaining the night, finishing off various craft projects, stuff for work, catching up with old friends online. I also was watching a lot of mediocre television.

Even in a 900-channel universe, with a seemingly infinite playlist on demand, a person will run out of anything decent to watch and find himself engrossed in a thriller about a conniving mother starring Joanna Kearns. Some of you are no doubt asking, “Who the hell is Joanna Kearns?” To you I say, “Exactly.”

I had discovered a dark dangerous secret, a ritual commonplace among ER physicians, truck drivers, and parents of newborns: Your body doesn’t absolutely have to go to sleep every single night. You gain up to 16 previously unused hours each week, while almost kinda functioning!

But here’s the flaw: No free time ever remains unclaimed for very long. Once I discovered I had magical hours that were mine, all mine, I began to book them. I started scheduling appointments on my Outlook calendar from five to eight in the morning. Giving up the night was no longer the failsafe I used when things got hairy. It had become a required part of my week.

My husband’s job often requires him to rise in the predawn hours. He’s done it for so many years, he’s able to shower, dress for work, let the dog out, have a cup of coffee, and get in his car before he ever actually wakes up. He’s got it down to a science.

Only one thing can destroy the routine: if I am still up from the night before. Then he’ll stumble into the living room, bleary-eyed, observing my java jitters and the flat-out exhausted dog who’s been following me around the house all night.

“What’re you… what’re you doing?” he’ll ask.

“I replied to like 40 emails and I think I made real progress on my script and I talked to my friend Kevin who’s never seen ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,’ isn’t that crazy? Then we got in this long conversation about Wilford Brimley and whether he was born an old man because we couldn’t find young photos of him online and I made peanut butter cookies, you want coffee?”

“What’re you… what’re you DOING?”

Following a good night’s sleep, I’ll re-read the scattershot work, or apologize for an overly sentimental Facebook message, or reflect upon whether I really needed to see that Joanna Kearns movie — she was the mother on “Growing Pains,” people — and realize that what’s really driving me ultimately isn’t the nightmarish schedule. Schedules can be adjusted without too much fallout.

But the fear, that I’m missing something, that if I turn down the wrong thing I’ll miss out on something extraordinary, leads me to rarely say no to one more thing. As my friend in a 12-step program is fond of saying, “How’s that working for ya?” (12-steppers have lots of nifty catchphrases, like “I can only love myself as much as I believe I am loveable,” and “Let’s all go chain smoke at Waffle House.”)

It’s a rough thing, learning you have to let go, first of non-essentials, then a few less-essential essentials. But one can do so gradually, taking the time to examine what’s still working, versus the things you’d love to hang on to, if only there were more hours in the day.

I think I should sleep on it.

 


Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at www.topherpayne.com

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