At Columbia—where never taking an 8:40 a.m. class is a badge of honor, and where Butler’s 24-hour schedule makes for many late nights—it’s easy to lose, or not care about, one’s morning routine. Breakfast becomes brunch, and “getting ready” happens in a 15-minute flurry between an alarm and a 10:10 class.
For me, a former Spectator editor, mornings were what you hoped you never met after a long night in the office. But as I gear up for post grad life, there’s a part of me that’s jealous of people who have the time, will, and energy to start their day before they start their day.
A recent Harvard Business Review post reinforced the feeling that I’m missing out on something by having a morning scramble instead of a morning routine. The article, pulling from a new book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, documents the seemingly mundane, if regular, elements to many great thinkers’ days: minimal distractions, walks, and a division between “important work and busywork.”
I reached out to different corners of campus and found two administrators and two students willing to let me tag along on their morning routines in an attempt to find out what I’ve been missing out on.
A Walk in the Park
It takes quite an effort to get out of bed to meet Terry Martinez at 7 a.m., but I make it. When I get to the corner of 112th Street and Broadway, the interim dean of student affairs is in front of Tom’s in a neon pink jacket, tying her shoes, admiring a neighbor’s dog, and ready to go.
So, first things first: I ask her if she is a morning person.
“Not at all!” she laughs. “No. I was kind of hesitant because I usually just put my headphones in and don’t talk to anyone. This is my quiet time. I was wondering, ‘Am I even going to have anything to say?’ I don’t like to talk before the double digits. That’s like reading time, email time, quiet time.”
In fact, she went to bed at 2:30 last night, not too long before I did. She says she regularly sleeps just five hours a night.
“That’s not something I can sustain for an entire semester, but when things get busy in the academic year, I can do it—as long as I do things like this,” she says.
Martinez is referring to the calming 39-minute walk we are embarking on— through Riverside Park, down to 96th, and back to her apartment building—that she takes to ease into the day. It becomes abundantly clear to me how much she values this opportunity to be a silent participant in the sidewalk ballet of Morningside Heights, before she wades into the bureaucracy as the senior administrator most entrenched in the daily lives of undergraduates at Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Martinez said in November that she was not intent on staying in the interim position permanently. “I like my other job, day-to-day on-the-ground contact with students,” she told Spec last semester. Then, she surprised students this month when she announced she had taken a student affairs position at Johns Hopkins, following in her predecessor Kevin Shollenberger’s footsteps. She will report directly to Shollenberger at Hopkins and oversee the construction of new residence halls there. She hasn’t spoken publicly about why she’s leaving, and we avoid the topic on our walk. In fact, we barely discuss Columbia at all. I get the sense that this walk is often the only escape she has from the chaos of Lerner Hall.
The semi-regular cast of characters she encounters is strictly anonymous. No walking partners for her, and certainly not any co-workers.
“There’s a men’s soccer league, so that’s where those guys are going down there,” she says, pointing to a dozen guys in tracksuits. Later, we pass a gentleman with a large collie. “That guy, he has this really old dog. He walks slowly because the dog is so old.” Today he’s got two dogs, which surprises Martinez. “Look at that—I’ve never seen that one before.”
A man passes us on a scooter, and Martinez says, “I don’t know how I feel about adults on scooters. I know it’s a mode of transportation, but it just looks silly.”
These musings aren’t mundane—they’re the way she gears up for a day in the Columbia administration.
“In the morning, my brain just needs to wander,” she says. “It’s not as focused.”
Before we met at Tom’s, Martinez had only a very brief routine that morning. “I check my email first—unfortunately—just to see if there’s anything that happened overnight,” she sighs. Martinez has responded to many a Spectator inquiry in the middle of the night before.
As mental fodder for the walk, she says she likes to read a short article or two before leaving the apartment. “I get Inside Higher Education in the morning, and then I check my Twitter feed, because there’s always some great Harvard Business Review or something like that—something I can read really quickly—and if there’s nothing else I think about that,” she says.
Maybe Martinez prefers the solitary stroll because it’s the closest thing she has to home when she’s in Manhattan. She used to work at Ithaca College, and her husband still lives in their house there. They alternate commutes, seeing each other on weekends. “We have what we call joint custody of our dog,” she laughs. She’s the kind of New Yorker who loves Riverside “because people don’t keep their dogs on leashes.”
“When I’m walking upstate, I don’t see anybody,” she says. She tries to name the sights: deer, oxen, cows, the lake at the foot of the hill her house is on. “There’s just nothing.”
I leave her on the doorstep to her building on 112th. She’s telling me what’s on the docket for the day. First, she’s meeting with Jim McShane, Columbia’s vice president for public safety. Next up will be a student who was upset about a campus matter the day before.
“He needs to not be in the office,” she says. “We’ll have a cup of coffee and go for a walk.”
10 Out Of 10
There have been seven men in the room for a while, not including me. When two more enter, Aryeh Strobel, a Columbia College sophomore, turns to me and looks hopeful. “You’re Jewish… right?”
With a sad shake of my head, I let him down, and Strobel heads back out of the room and gets on his phone again. He’s trying to dig up a 10th man so that group prayer for Hillel’s Yavneh morning services may begin. But it’s the first day after Passover, and many of the Columbia’s Orthodox Jews are just getting back to campus or are still en route from home.
While we wait, it’s time for individual prayer. The men wrap their tefillin around their arm and bounce on the balls of their feet, reading the Torah under their breath. It’s very peaceful. Someone opens a window, allowing just a bit of Broadway traffic noise to make its way into the fifth floor room of the Kraft Center. But Strobel hasn’t really been able to partake in any of it yet. As one of Yavneh’s three gabbais— people tasked with ensuring the services are staffed—he’s on his phone, trying to make quorum.
At last, Man No. 10 walks in, and we dive into group prayer. The Hebrew is read at an exceptional speed, and it’s all over pretty quickly. People have to get to their 8:40s, after all.
“Usually it doesn’t cut this close!” Strobel assures me.
After he puts away the tefillin, we walk downstairs and out to 115th Street. The first hour and a half of Strobel’s day is conveniently confined to a single block: He wakes up in Schapiro Hall, crosses to the Kraft Center, turns the corner to grab breakfast at Morton Williams, and eats it back in Schapiro. He’s one of a not insignificant number of Jewish students who live in Schapiro. Having Kraft across the street “is a big incentive. It makes my commute shorter,” he chuckles.
With a daily alarm clock at 7:30 a.m., Strobel’s is probably one of the more rigidly structured of college students’ mornings. I ask him how the constant of morning prayer affects the way he plans out his day or week.
“I like it in the sense that it provides structure. I mean, part of what it’s about is it structures your day. There’s prayer three times a day,” he says. “It’s definitely a struggle, because I feel like I have to prioritize at night—I could end up working really late, but I know I have to get up every morning by 7:30.”
Hillel is one of the largest student organizations on campus, both religiously and socially, and Strobel likes that he can start his day with such a communal experience. The Jewish community on campus, he says, “is definitely more than just about ritual service. It’s definitely a social community, and I think it provides a lot of that for people.”
He considers his leadership role a way to give back to the community, but his position requires him to toe the line between friend and religious official. “In this position, I don’t feel like I should be imposing—like, ‘Oh, you should really come.’ I feel very far from that. At the same time, people that partake in this community should in a sense feel a communal obligation, and hopefully through that they’ll be motivated to come and be a part of the daily routine of prayers.”
Since Passover has only just finished, Strobel heads to Morton this morning for a yogurt instead of eating cereal on the fifth floor or in the Hillel café, which is usually yet another opportunity for a communal, social morning. “It’s very much a community, in that it’s a lot of people that come from similar backgrounds that can relate very easily to each other.”
I ask him a question that’s probably pretty hard to answer, but I’ve been asking everyone I’ve interviewed: If services weren’t bound to the morning, would he consider himself a morning person?
He pauses, since this regimen is so deeply ingrained in his identity. “I would certainly be waking up later, I think. Roll out of bed into class. I’m not saying I would sleep till noon, but I think I would sleep until 9—at least a little bit later.”
The regularity of prayer, he says, “is definitely something that makes time a little more valuable.”
The Art of Conversation
As Columbia College Dean James Valentini leans over to clean up after his dog, former CC/SEAS Dean of Students Roger Lehecka jogs past.
“Don’t you pick up enough of this at work every day?” Lehecka cries.
Valentini quips back, “Yeah, this is my morning practice.”
His dog, Fosco, is a brown toy poodle. The name is the Italian word for “dark”; Valentini’s wife, Teodolinda Barolini, is the chair of the Italian department. “Everybody knows Fosco,” Valentini says as we get into his building’s elevator, having just passed a maintenance man who greets the dog eagerly.
Valentini is an affable man who frequently calls his deanship “the best job at the best school in the best city in the world.” In July 2012, just after Valentini was bumped up from interim to “permanent dean” (a term he always laughs at— “some day I’ll stop being dean,” he says), I described him in an article for Spectator as a “populist dean,” with his embrace of the nickname “Deantini” as exhibit A.
When I interviewed Valentini for Spectator, he often said he wasn’t prepared to share his own opinion because he hadn’t gotten a good enough sense of what students and alumni thought about a given issue. This was frustrating to me at times. But I realize on this April morning that his reticence was the sign of a genuinely curious person who wants to know his students better.
Valentini says that Sydney Schwartz Gross, the college’s director of communications, has gotten to know him well enough that “she has kind of got these Valentini-isms down pat.” If anything, the time Valentini and I spend together—in which he generously gives me the fullest picture of his morning, from dog walk to pastry hunt—is a case study in Valentini-isms. Charming and a little dopey, they have a certain je ne sais quoi.
For instance, we’re walking up 112th from Riverside, and I note that we appear to be headed for the laundry I sometimes use, right across from the side entrance to the Spec office. Valentini registers which storefront I’m talking about and pauses for a split second.
“I forgot I’m not supposed to go this way!” he says. “The reason is, there’s two laundries. One’s on this street, the old Chinese guy. And my wife takes some stuff there that the other laundry [at the corner] won’t do, and she’s worried he gets upset if he sees me. But they’re terrible with my shirts.” As we pass the shirt-mishandling laundry, I’m on Valentini’s left. “You’re blocking my view, so it’s OK,” he adds.
We somehow get to talking about the sunrise. “I’ve always arranged to have an office that faces south, because I like the sun in the winter. It’s low,” he says. That was an option until he became dean. Then he had no choice but to take his current north-facing, first-floor office, whose views are obscured by Kent Hall and the trees of College Walk and prevent much light from making its way in.
“If the dean’s office has to be on the ground floor, I’d take Jessica’s office,” he says, referring to admissions and financial aid dean Jessica Marinaccio, whose office faces South Lawn, has big windows, and gets a lot of sun. “I kid her about that,” Valentini adds, but it sounds like he’s only half-kidding.
He asks if I picked my East Campus room because it faced east. “Yes, but because of the view, not the sunrise,” I respond sheepishly. “I’m not usually up then.”
Valentini has a way of turning everything back around to the interviewer. I ask him more about his dog; he asks about my family’s dog history. I ask him if he misses teaching; he asks what my dad, a professor, teaches. At a cocktail party, that’s manners, but in Valentini, it feels like a genuine interest to connect with the students that, as dean, you don’t always get time for. After all, this is a man who says he takes his workday meals “when I’m in a meeting with someone who works in the college—someone who it’s not impolite to eat in front of.”
Valentini’s daily—not just morning—routine is by far the most rigorous of anyone I interview for this story. “There are many things that change when you became dean, but the one that was the most different was having a day that’s scheduled by other people,” he says. “I’ll look at the schedule the night before. It’ll start at 7:30 and ends at 10:30 and every minute, every block of time is already on my iCal. I’m not a person who really is comfortable with being so regulated, and it took a little getting used to.”
Becoming dean, of course, raised his profile. An early-morning pit stop at Morton Williams to grab a light bite (he wants a chocolate croissant, but they’re out, so he selects a berry-laden alternative to accompany his fruit and Greek yogurt) is about the only Morningside Heights shopping he’ll do.
You know how every college student’s nightmare is that you’ll run into your professor as you leave the supermarket with beer in hand? It goes two ways, Valentini says. Besides the fact that he was recently the professor in that very situation, he says he’s a bit reluctant to shop here, because “anything you buy, I’m almost certain to see a student. Almost anything I’d be doing would be public.”
I say that sounds like a clever excuse to pass off grocery duties to his wife. He concedes, “They end up getting mostly done on the weekends. We’ll go to Fairway and stock up,” before heading to their residence in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J.
Which, he’s fond of noting, is one of only two U.S. cities with two hyphens in its name.
Breakfast of Champions
“Are you sure you don’t want a banana? It’s organic as fuck, dude.”
Daphne Chen is calling up from the lower level of her East Campus high-rise, where she’s changing out of her gray “Columb14” T-shirt and pink pajama bottoms into an outfit more fitting for her 10:10 class. The Columbia College senior is intent on getting me to join her in eating breakfast. She’s never been one for the most important meal of the day—like many college students, she says she usually winds up eating breakfast after her first class, which the rest of the world calls lunch. But the habits of the only morning person among her suitemates—Regina Zmuidzinas, a senior in SEAS—are rubbing off on Chen, and eating breakfast with others helps her internalize it as routine.
“I’m getting into oatmeal because Regina eats oatmeal and it’s good for digestion. She’ll sit down, have her French press coffee,” Chen says with a hint of envy. “When I’m in the morning, I’m just trying to get out of here.”
But with a month till graduation, Chen is slowly but surely trying to adopt a regular morning schedule. “It’s been mostly the same for the last three years,” she says. “I’m looking for something new.”
She shows me some of the schedules she’s been laying out for herself each night, which she writes in one of her many “dumping notebooks”—spiral-bound books filled with the many academic, personal, or legislative thoughts that occur daily to the president of the Columbia College Student Council.
She gestures to her Nike Fitbit, the skinny black band on her left arm that tracks her movements and sleep. “I have poor sleep, so I was telling my dad, and he went and bought me this,” she says. She pulls up the linked app on her phone, which visualizes periods of deep sleep and restlessness. “This is an average night for me,” she says. That graph has a lot of light blue, signaling light sleep. The next two days are a little more promising: “This is me doing yoga and stretching and meditation before bed. And then that’s me on melatonin, this natural sleep aid, which I think works even better.”
But Chen is skeptical of it all. She only started the schedules last week, and with the number of dumping notebooks she has, she’s dubious they’ll be effective. And with the Fitbit, she says, “I kind of wonder if tracking my sleep makes me more stressed out about it.”
Such is the struggle of the near-college graduate trying to make the transition to a morning that’s more than just rolling out of bed and scurrying to class—it’s my struggle, too. “I shower, and then I get dressed, put on my makeup, and that’s like pretty much an hour,” Chen says. Later, she notes happily, “It’s amazing how much more time you have in the morning when you don’t shower.”
While I’m eating my organic-as-fuck banana (I relented), one of Chen’s suitemates finds out the course she petitioned to be her second Global Core was denied. She’s pretty distressed and temporarily wonders aloud if she might not graduate on time.
Whether it’s the presidential instincts kicking in or the fact that she is now faced with a problem, Chen is suddenly much more alert than she was in the routine she’s trying to make her own. Until now, the morning was quietly lilting along, but this dilemma gives her pre-class downtime some purpose. She is quick to reassure her suitemate that everything will be fine. It’s a mix of running through her Rolodex—“Do you know who reads the petitions? I’ll talk to Bob, I’ll ask Dean Rinere, and if I have to I’ll ask Dean Valentini”—and of sympathy—“Your adviser is just not giving you any help at all. Your adviser should be like, ‘Hey, here’s why we rejected it. This is what you should do to get it passed.’”
Chen tells me later that the committee approved a different course for her suitemate’s Global Core, so all’s well that ends well. But in those moments in which Chen calms her suitemate, I wonder if the humdrum routine of oatmeal, sleep- tracking, and the radio might not be a fit for the many Columbians who thrive in crisis mode.
Up and At 'Em
I’m not convinced that, come September, I’m going to start taking walks every morning. I’m still a little dubious about breakfast. Maybe I’m not cut out for the early-morning life. But the structure and the peacefulness—for those four days I had some—offered me respite in an otherwise hectic month. To clear our heads and not really think about anything, to work toward ends that are relatively inconsequential—if only we could all find the time.