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Up With the Sun But Few Others

I am by nature an early riser, a morning person, so I took to dairy farming like a cat to a bowl of fresh milk. My impulse to get on with the day as the sun also rises serves me well; but as an aficionado of the dawn, I occupy the lower slopes of the bell curve.

I first realized that my habits were not the norm at one of my early childhood sleepovers. My friend Celia and I stayed up late that night playing board games on her living-room floor, drinking iced sodas and eating the popcorn her mom made. We retired well past my usual bedtime, for me a rare and wondrous treat.

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But the next morning I still sprang from bed at first light - to a disturbingly quiet home. No reassuring sounds from the kitchen, no adult voices whatsoever. Celia, breathing deeply, would not be roused. I got dressed and sat on my friend's living-room sofa for a good while, staring at the walls and waiting for action that never came. Even the big black dog languished on his pad. So, I hopped on my bike and pedaled home, where things had been in full swing for a couple of hours.

Born to a household of morning people, I grew up relishing the hum of daybreak. Not just birdsong and my parents' voices, but harsher sounds as well. The metallic grindings and rough male shouts from the neighborhood garbage truck seemed to announce as clearly as anything that all was well - that we were all off again to a fresh, clean start. The whistles of trains in the gloaming, the purr of the earliest traffic below my window, the click of the front door as the morning paper was retrieved, all these came to my already restfully awake ears.

I tried, but I rarely beat my parents out of bed.

The kitchen was always lit and occupied; on weekends a hammering in the basement or a mower motor from the yard announced my father's head start as well.

Admittedly, there were wintry Rochester, N.Y., mornings when I had to be awakened to make myself presentable for the 8 o'clock bell at my downtown high school. But with the heavier sleep needs and vanities of adolescence behind me, I was back in the saddle.

At college, I signed up for 8 a.m. classes without a qualm, doing a credible job at that hour even in optical mineralogy - a course that had us early risers focusing microscopes before most of our peers had opened their eyes.

THE few occasions that I have missed the early-morning hours - usually after an all-night effort to beat a deadline of some sort - always left me feeling bereft and disoriented. After a sleep-smothered dawn, I have never quite managed to get my bearing on the day.

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I thought my son's infancy would test my mettle, but he slept long and well from the first weeks. I was rarely jarred from sleep in the wee hours by a crying baby. More often, I found myself hovering over his crib, wondering when he'd wake up and seize the day with me.

The bigger challenge over the past six years has been to juggle Tim's school schedule with morning milkings. A 5 a.m. start, in order to finish by 8, worked for a while, but it was still a rush. Cows may be morning animals, but they resent any form of speed. The solution has been to arrive at the barn late by dairy-farm standards, first getting Tim to school and then milking the cows at their leisure.

It has made no difference to me.

Morning is morning whatever I'm doing, wherever I am. The birds still sing, and so do the men from the garbage trucks. Sometimes in the still of dawn I pick up the phone and dial home - where Mom, of course, is up and breakfasted.

Celia lives in Providence, R.I., now. Her son is 12, like Tim, and she teaches high school. If I spent the night in her home these days, I bet I'd find some early-morning action at last.

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