Skip to text

Dream catcher

Edited version published: Sunday Magazine (19 April 2010)

I’m an early bird. But don’t worry – I’m not one of those annoying types who might call at 8am on Sunday while you’re in the midst of a delicious early-morning dream to ask are you awake yet? And do you want to have coffee? Much as I might like to, I’ve learned that calling before 10am on the weekend is socially unacceptable, even if you have children. If the ten commandments got a modern day rewrite, this would top the list.

I don’t know quite how I turned out this way. In my teenage years the alarm clock was the enemy, the unwelcome herald of another day’s scholastic and parental control. In my twenties it meant work, work and more work.

These days, I don’t even need an alarm. My body clock has it all under control. Beaky twitters from outside the window? Check. Hazy light playing around the edge of the blinds? Check. Dawning awareness of the need to be somewhere or do something? Check. Good morning, sunshine.

The problem is, unless you have a penchant for the metaphorical worms of the human world – such as catching your paper as the delivery boy hurls it over the fence - there are problems with the morning person’s manifesto. Yes, the working week is generally skewed in our favour but the leisure world, where all the fun stuff happens, is not. How can I stay up late and be any kind of fun when I’m already cranky by lunchtime?

The answer? My secret weapon in the fight against fatigue: the afternoon snooze.

My favourite variety is the disco nap. Instructions: apply eye mask and ear plugs, announce ‘goodbye, cruel world’, and hit the pillow. Sometimes I wake up a little confused, but I’m fresh as a daisy, and ready to party. (Note: this is entirely different to the “Nana Nap”, which is designed purely to see people such as my grandmother through to Neighbours and Home and Away, a light supper, then bedtime.)

Of course, I didn’t invent this. It’s long been a staple in hot countries, where people regularly eat dinner much later and prefer to spend a little time enjoying themselves once work and the heat of the day are out of the way. The Serbs, for example, don’t telephone or visit each other between 2 and 5pm, for fear of disturbing a nap. Almost all schools in mainland China and Taiwan have a half-hour nap period right after lunch. 

In Bangladesh and West Bengal the term is bhat-ghum, literally "rice-sleep”, while in southern Germany it’s a mittagspause or mittagsruhe. And we mustn’t forget the afternoon nap par excellence: the Spanish siesta. Shops close their doors, shutters come down, and eyelids across the nation close for a shady afternoon slumber.

I’m all for it. And you should be too: naps are good for you. A 2007 study by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that people who regularly take a siesta are significantly less likely to die of heart disease, Australia’s biggest killer. They suggest that napping might play an important role in dealing with stress, and that a quick snooze is part of the normal biological rhythm of daily living. It makes sense; the biological clock driving sleep and wakefulness has two cycles each day, one of which usually dips in the early afternoon.

Which helps explain why naps sometimes just sneak up on us. A friend of mine nodded off at her computer in the middle of an open plan office a few weeks ago, much to the delight of her colleagues around her. It started us thinking. Naps are par for the course for the littlies at kindergarten. Why couldn’t Australian workplaces provide a nap space too?

After all, my narcoleptic friend isn’t alone in catching a few Zs on the job. Winston Churchill was famous for it. He slept just six hours a night, but topped himself up with a two-hour powernap during the day, reportedly advising other wannabe snoozers not to do it by halves, and to get fully undressed and into bed first.

Surrealist artist and filmmaker Salvador Dali would nod off sitting upright in a chair, holding a metal bowl in one hand and marbles or a spoon in the other. As soon as he hit deep sleep, the objects would drop noisily into the bowl, and he’d wake up refreshed and ready to continue working (the “Dali Nap”).

We napaholics tend to regard non-nappers and short sleepers with suspicion. How can any human continue to be, well, human, if their tank is half empty? Take our own Kevin Rudd, who’s reportedly shy of sleep, as Therese Rein let slip to the press last July. “Kevin starts [work] at around six in the morning. He might get to bed around one or two, or maybe three,” she said. “He doesn't need a lot of sleep.” Apparently he’s been like this since his university days. All I can say is, yikes. Would you let this man pilot your plane? Have a cup of warm milk and a lie down, Kev. We won’t tell anyone.