It has been a long time since my last stint at the wheel in the wee hours of the morning. Several days ago the phone rang at 1 a.m. Never a good sign. Within minutes I was in the car heading for Boston. The sun and I got there at about the same time. Fortunately, the late night emergency that required the trip has resolved itself, all is well, and I was able to head back home the following day.
I rise early every morning and usually hit the hay earlier than most. Having never been a night person, the habits of night people have always rather puzzled me. But it goes both ways. My night owl friends cannot imagine getting out of bed before sunrise or giving the slightest thought to calling it a day before midnight. Come dusk my internal engine starts winding down and all prospects of energetic thought dissipate. The opposite is true within minutes of getting out of bed in the morning. Throw a quick cup of coffee into the mix and that once moribund internal engine screams with energy.
Oddly enough, the one thing I can do at night is drive. My preferred driving ambience is total silence, since pure thought is impossible when impeded by extraneous noise. Night thoughts are quite different from day thoughts. When driving somewhere in daylight whatever neural impulses are at work seem to dwell on matters practical. Perhaps there is a connection between darkness, the steady, soothingly monotonous drone of the car’s engine, and one’s capacity for deeper, more philosophical thinking. Movement, of the steady, rhythmic sort seems to engage the mind in ways otherwise not approachable either during the day or when one is not in motion. I have some of my best ideas (at least to me) when I am either walking or driving. I have always preferred silence to its opposite.
Talkers, especially the non-stop variety, often make me wish I had a stun gun handy. I do not think of myself as a bad person. But there are times when in the company of a congenitally incessant talker that drastic escape measures seem called for. On a recent trip we were having dinner with some friends when the ‘talker’ at the table looked at her husband and said, “Am I putting you to sleep?” One would think that drooping lids and a chin bobbing up and down against the Adams’s Apple might just be clue enough. As a character in one of my favorite novels once said, “talking is not thinking.” Non-verbal types can be just as exasperating. There is a comfortable middle ground. The key is being tuned into your audience. Unfortunately, too many people are audience averse. As long as they hear themselves they feel as if they are in heaven.
As I drove down the Mass Pike humming James Taylor tunes, chewing on such diverse subjects as the nature of determinism, the roots and parameters of liberty, the mind-brain dichotomy (always a fertile puzzler for me) and, most importantly, my inability to manage diaper changes with any degree of confidence (chalk that up to many previous failures – too loose, backwards, wrong size, etc.), it occurred to me that perhaps it might not be a bad idea to drive off into the darkness all alone with myself and my thoughts more often. The irony here is that while I can stay awake for hours while driving at night, after five o’clock in the evening at home one would be ill-advised to trust me with any but the least cerebrally challenging of tasks. I suppose I could work a bit harder at overcoming my post-dusk uselessness. Trouble is I actually look forward to those moments of couch drowsiness that morph into catnaps of profoundly serene detachment from the self and the world.
Every once in a while on my drive I would pull into a rest stop, deserted except for scores of tractor trailers, lights on, motors droning, not a person in sight. The inside of each stop was deserted except for a skeleton crew manning the MacDonald’s counter. Only in one did I see someone waiting for an order. I guess a Big Mac works no matter the time of day. No noise. No talking. Even had the men’s room all to myself – a novelty. While the rest of us sleep thousands of trucks speed along our highways day and night satisfying our insatiable need for stuff.
Thoreau tells us that he had never met a companion as companionable as solitude. I did not take determinism’s full measure that night. Nor did I shake my anxiety over having to change my five-month-old grandson’s diaper. But I did spend some quality time with silence.