The most romantic thing to ever happen to me online started out the way most things do: without me, and not online. On December 10, 1896, the man on the medal, Alfred Nobel, died. One hundred years later, exactly, actually, December 10, 1996, this charming lady, Wislawa Szymborska, won the Nobel Prize for literature. She's a Polish poet. She's a big deal, obviously, but back in '96, I thought I had never heard of her, and when I checked out her work, I found this sweet little poem, "Four in the Morning."
"The hour from night to day. The hour from side to side. The hour for those past thirty..."
And it goes on, but as soon as I read this poem, I fell for it hard, so hard, I suspected we must have met somewhere before. Had I shared an elevator ride with this poem? Did I flirt with this poem in a coffee shop somewhere? I could not place it, and it bugged me, and then in the coming week or two, I would just be watching an old movie, and this would happen.
(Video) Groucho Marx: Charlie, you should have come to the first party. We didn't get home till around four in the morning.
Rives: My roommates would have the TV on, and this would happen.
(Music: Seinfeld theme)
(Video) George Costanza: Oh boy, I was up til four in the morning watching that Omen trilogy.
Rives: I would be listening to music, and this would happen.
(Video) Elton John: ♪ It's four o'clock in the morning, damn it. ♪
Rives: So you can see what was going on, right? Obviously, the demigods of coincidence were just messing with me. Some people get a number stuck in their head, you may recognize a certain name or a tune, some people get nothing, but four in the morning was in me now, but mildly, like a groin injury. I always assumed it would just go away on its own eventually, and I never talked about it with anybody, but it did not, and I totally did.
In 2007, I was invited to speak at TED for the second time, and since I was still an authority on nothing, I thought, what if I made a multimedia presentation on a topic so niche it is actually inconsequential or actually cockamamie. So my talk had some of my four in the morning examples, but it also had examples from my fellow TED speakers that year. I found four in the morning in a novel by Isabel Allende. I found a really great one in the autobiography of Bill Clinton. I found a couple in the work of Matt Groening, although Matt Groening told me later that he could not make my talk because it was a morning session and I gather that he is not an early riser. However, had Matt been there, he would have seen this mock conspiracy theory that was un-freaking-canny for me to assemble. It was totally contrived just for that room, just for that moment. That's how we did it in the pre-TED.com days. It was fun. That was pretty much it.
When I got home, though, the emails started coming in from people who had seen the talk live, beginning with, and this is still my favorite, "Here's another one for your collection: 'It's the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.'" The sentiment is Marlene Dietrich. The email itself was from another very sexy European type, TED Curator Chris Anderson. (Laughter) Chris found this quote on a coffee cup or something, and I'm thinking, this man is the Typhoid Mary of ideas worth spreading, and I have infected him. I am contagious, which was confirmed less than a week later when a Hallmark employee scanned and sent an actual greeting card with that same quotation. As a bonus, she hooked me up with a second one they make. It says, "Just knowing I can call you at four in the morning if I need to makes me not really need to," which I love, because together these are like, "Hallmark: When you care enough to send the very best twice, phrased slightly differently."
I was not surprised at the TEDster and New Yorker magazine overlap. A bunch of people sent me this when it came out. "It's 4 a.m.—maybe you'd sleep better if you bought some crap."
I was surprised at the TEDster/"Rugrats" overlap. More than one person sent me this.
(Video) Didi Pickles: It's four o'clock in the morning. Why on Earth are you making chocolate pudding?
Stu Pickles: Because I've lost control of my life.
Rives: And then there was the lone TEDster who was disgruntled I had overlooked what he considers to be a classic.
(Video) Roy Neary: Get up, get up! I'm not kidding. Ronnie Neary: Is there an accident?
Roy: No, it's not an accident. You wanted to get out of the house anyway, right?
Ronnie: Not at four o'clock in the morning.
Rives: So that's "Close Encounters," and the main character is all worked up because aliens, momentously, have chosen to show themselves to earthlings at four in the morning, which does make that a very solid example. Those were all really solid examples. They did not get me any closer to understanding why I thought I recognized this one particular poem. But they followed the pattern. They played along. Right? Four in the morning as this scapegoat hour when all these dramatic occurrences allegedly occur. Maybe this was some kind of cliche that had never been taxonomized before. Maybe I was on the trail of a new meme or something.
Just when things were getting pretty interesting, things got really interesting. TED.com launched, later that year, with a bunch of videos from past talks, including mine, and I started receiving "four in the morning" citations from what seemed like every time zone on the planet. Much of it was content I never would have found on my own if I was looking for it, and I was not. I don't know anybody with juvenile diabetes. I probably would have missed the booklet, "Grilled Cheese at Four O'Clock in the Morning." (Laughter) I do not subscribe to Crochet Today! magazine, although it looks delightful. (Laughter) Take note of those clock ends. This is a college student's suggestion for what a "four in the morning" gang sign should look like. People sent me magazine ads. They took photographs in grocery stores. I got a ton of graphic novels and comics. A lot of good quality work, too: "The Sandman," "Watchmen." There's a very cute example here from "Calvin and Hobbes." In fact, the oldest citation anybody sent in was from a cartoon from the Stone Age. Take a look.
(Video) Wilma Flintstone: Like how early?
Fred Flintstone: Like at 4 a.m., that's how early.
Rives: And the flip side of the timeline, this is from the 31st century. A thousand years from now, people are still doing this.
(Video): Announcer: The time is 4 a.m. (Laughter) Rives: It shows the spectrum. I received so many songs, TV shows, movies, like from dismal to famous, I could give you a four-hour playlist. If I just stick to modern male movie stars, I keep it to the length of about a commercial. Here's your sampler.
(Movie montage of "It's 4 a.m.")
Rives: So somewhere along the line, I realized I have a hobby I didn't know I wanted, and it is crowdsourced. But I was also thinking what you might be thinking, which is really, couldn't you do this with any hour of the day?
First of all, you are not getting clips like that about four in the afternoon. Secondly, I did a little research. You know, I was kind of interested. If this is confirmation bias, there is so much confirmation, I am biased. Literature probably shows it best. There are a couple three in the mornings in Shakespeare. There's a five in the morning. There are seven four in the mornings, and they're all very dire. In "Measure for Measure," it's the call time for the executioner. Tolstoy gives Napoleon insomnia at four in the morning right before battle in "War and Peace." Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" has got kind of a pivotal four in the morning, as does Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights." "Lolita" has as a creepy four in the morning. "Huckleberry Finn" has one in dialect. Someone sent in H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man." Someone else sent in Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." "The Great Gatsby" spends the last four in the morning of his life waiting for a lover who never shows, and the most famous wake-up in literature, perhaps, "The Metamorphosis." First paragraph, the main character wakes up transformed into a giant cockroach, but we already know, cockroach notwithstanding, something is up with this guy. Why? His alarm is set for four o'clock in the morning. What kind of person would do that? This kind of person would do that.
(4 a.m. alarm clock montage) (Video) Newcaster: Top of the hour. Time for the morning news. But of course, there is no news yet. Everyone's still asleep in their comfy, comfy beds.
Rives: Exactly. So that's Lucy from the Peanuts, "Mommie Dearest", Rocky, first day of training, Nelson Mandela, first day in office, and Bart Simpson, which combined with a cockroach would give you one hell of a dinner party and gives me yet another category, people waking up, in my big old database.
Just imagine that your friends and your family have heard that you collect, say, stuffed polar bears, and they send them to you. Even if you don't really, at a certain point, you totally collect stuffed polar bears, and your collection is probably pretty kick-ass. And when I got to that point, I embraced it. I got my curator on. I started fact checking, downloading, illegally screen-grabbing. I started archiving. My hobby had become a habit, and my habit gave me possibly the world's most eclectic Netflix queue. At one point, it went, "Guys and Dolls: The Musical," "Last Tango in Paris," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," "Porn Star: Legend of Ron Jeremy." Why "Porn Star: Legend of Ron Jeremy"? Because someone told me I would find this clip in there.
(Video) Ron Jeremy: I was born in Flushing, Queens on March, 12, 1953, at four o'clock in the morning.
Rives: Of course he was. (Laughter) (Applause) Yeah. Not only does it seem to make sense, it also answers the question, "What do Ron Jeremy and Simone de Beauvoir have in common?" Simone de Beauvoir begins her entire autobiography with the sentence, "I was born at four o'clock in the morning," which I had because someone else had emailed it to me, and when they did, I had another bump up in my entry for this, because porn star Ron Jeremy and feminist Simone de Beauvoir are not just different people. They are different people that have this thing connecting them, and I did not know if that is trivia or knowledge or inadvertent expertise, but I did wonder, is there maybe a cooler way to do this?
So last October, in gentleman scholar tradition, I put the entire collection online as "Museum of Four in the Morning." You can click on that red "refresh" button. It will take you at random to one of hundreds of snippets that are in the collection. Here is a knockout poem by Billy Collins called "Forgetfulness."
(Video) Billy Collins: No wonder you rise in the middle of the night to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war. No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
Rives: So the first hour of this project was satisfying. A Bollywood actor sang a line on a DVD in a cafe. Half a globe away, a teenager made an Instagram video of it and sent it to me, a stranger.
Less than a week later, though, I received a little bit of grace. I received a poignant tweet. It was brief. It just said, "Reminds me of an ancient mix tape."
The name was a pseudonym, actually, or a pseudo-pseudonym. As soon as I saw the initials, and the profile pic, I knew immediately, my whole body knew immediately who this was, and I knew immediately what mix tape she was talking about. (Music)
L.D. was my college romance. This is in the early '90s. I was an undegrad. She was a grad student in the library sciences department. Not the kind of librarian that takes her glasses off, lets her hair down, suddenly she's smoking hot. She was already smoking hot, she was super dorky, and we had a December-May romance, meaning we started dating in December, and by May, she had graduated and became my one that got away.
But her mix tape did not get away. I have kept this mix tape in a box with notes and postcards, not just from L.D., from my life, but for decades. It's the kind of box where, if I have a girlfriend, I tend to hide it from her, and if I had a wife, I'm sure I would share it with her, but the story — (Laughter) — with this mix tape is there are seven songs per side, but no song titles. Instead, L.D. has used the U.S. Library of Congress classification system, including page numbers, to leave me clues. When I got this mix tape, I put it in my cassette player, I took it to the campus library, her library, I found 14 books on the shelves. I remember bringing them all to my favorite corner table, and I read poems paired to songs like food to wine, paired, I can tell you, like saddle shoes to a cobalt blue vintage cotton dress.
I did this again last October. I'm sitting there, I got new earbuds, old Walkman, I realize this is just the kind of extravagance I used to take for granted even when I was extravagant. And then I thought, "Good for him."
"PG" is Slavic literature. "7000" series Polish literature. Z9A24 is a collection of 70 poems. Page 31 is Wislawa Szymborska's poem paired with Paul Simon's "Peace Like a River."
(Music: Paul Simon, "Peace Like a River")
(Video) Paul Simon: ♪ Oh, four in the morning ♪ ♪ I woke up from out of my dream ♪
Rives: Thank you. Appreciate it. (Applause)