Three taxis

Over the past week I have been blessed with some wonderful insights from three taxi drivers…

The first conversation was with a Chilean man in his 50s, a former mining engineer who moved to Sydney 15 years ago. He fretted that his new car smelled of vomit (I assured him I hadn’t noticed). He rarely worked weekends, but had decided to on the previous one. A drunk woman had thrown-up on the front seat, yet he wasn’t bitter about his new car being tainted. “It happens”, was all he said. What good grace! He told me how he sought engineering work in Western Australia’s mines when he first moved here, how employers considered him too old, and so he became a taxi driver. The man expressed his gratitude at the opportunities life in Australia has given him and his family. With his daughter now 17, he and his wife are hoping to adopt or sponsor a young child to provide someone else with a positive start in life.  I realised two things from my conversation with this kind man. One is that most Australians don’t seem to appreciate how very fortunate we are, by mere accident of birth, to be in this bountiful country.  The other is how humbling and inspiring the generosity of the human spirit can be.

My second encounter was with an Ethiopian man, who I learned had not seen his mother and family in Ethiopia for twenty years. Since seeking refuge in Australia, the Ethiopian government refused him entry back into his home country, and the Australian government would not grant his mother a travel visa (on the grounds that she was unlikely to leave) to visit him in Melbourne. He told me of his dream to save enough money to pay for an immigration lawyer to help bring his mother here. “Insha’Allah” he said, if it is God’s will. I deeply appreciated that important reminder – we can only do our best in life with the things that are within our control. So much is beyond that, and sometimes our only chance of happiness is to accept our circumstances. God willing. Let it be. I hope this calm man will be reunited with his mother one day.

My third conversation was with a young Indian man living in Melbourne whose fiancée, an Australian citizen from India, lives in Sydney. I asked whether it was an arranged marriage. “Ooh yes”, he replied. “Our families conducted all the background checks to ensure we are compatible. They made sure we share the same values, level of education, and that I have financial security.”  I was curious whether he thought this was a better system than marrying for romantic love, and whether he was happy with his family’s arrangements. I probed further. “Well,” he said, “before this I was with a girl who I was very much in love with for 8 years. It ended badly and now we are not even on speaking terms.”   He paused to reflect. “But this way – well at least I know we are suitable for one another. And besides, after living with someone for a few years, eventually you grow to love them.” I liked the apparent simplicity of, and faith in, this approach. Maybe when it comes to choosing a life partner, the Western obsession with romantic love isn’t everything it’s fired up to be.

I am grateful to these drivers for sharing their stories and enriching my life, and for reminding me how lucky I am.

Sleep spindles

I have often wondered why some people have no difficulty falling asleep on a plane or bus, maintaining their blissful slumber impervious to light, noise and movement, whereas others will be woken by the squeak of a mouse or a toilet flushing, and are highly sensitive to light and other disturbances. Unfortunately, I happen to be on the extreme end of the light sleeper spectrum and depend on being hermetically sealed with my eye mask and ear plugs, in a dark and quiet room, for any hope of falling and staying asleep.

This is highly inconvenient, especially living in a terraced house in the inner city, where noisy neighbours and frequent traffic are all part of the otherwise fantastic lifesyle. Without a doubt, if there was one thing I could change about myself it would be to become a heavy sleeper.

In a quest to overcome this trait, I’ve tried hypnotherapy, mindfulness meditation, listening to calm music, lavender drops, warm milk and reading until I’m exhausted. But the reality is, if it’s not dark and deathly quiet, I simply don’t fall asleep.

My annoying idiosyncrasy has also had unforeseen consequences. Like the time I went on holiday to Byron Bay and diligently packed my ear plugs and an unused eye mask which I’d squirreled away after a long haul flight. I awoke the first morning to find my face swollen with a pink allergic rash from the dye in the eye mask, which had mixed with my sweat during the hot humid night. I looked like a sick raccoon and spent the rest of the holiday on antihistamines and hiding behind oversized sunglasses. Not fun, or pretty.

But now I have the answer to the question I have pondered all my life. Scientists at the Harvard Medical School, led by neurologist Dr Jeffrey Ellenbogen, have discovered why some people’s brains are better than others at blocking out environmental stimuli during sleep. Ellenbogen and his team recorded the brainwaves of people who reported being heavy sleepers as they were subjected to different noises at increasing volumes. Ellenbogen paid particular attention to the patterns produced by the thalamus, the area of the brain that modulates incoming auditory and visual stimuli. He found that the number of pulses, or sleep spindles, produced by the thalamus varied among the sleepers. Those with the highest number of spindles were the heaviest sleepers and slept through more noises than those with fewer spindles.

Scientists are not sure why some people generate more sleep spindles than others, but they suspect it may be genetic. Dr Ellenbogen hopes that future research will lead to drugs or other therapies that can increase the number of sleep spindles so that light sleepers become better at blocking out external stimuli. I really hope they achieve their mission. Until then, my eye mask, ear plugs and the occasional sleeping pill will continue to be my lifesavers.


There are two types of people I have always envied: morning people, otherwise known as ‘larks’, and heavy sleepers (the latter will be the subject of another post).  People who are fortunate enough to possess both qualities are a double blow. As an ‘owl’, who naturally prefers to go to bed late and sleep late, and a pathologically light sleeper, rising early and getting anything done in the morning feels like I’m pushing my way through some kind of invisible retarding gel.

My mother has never understood my morning disorientation and the heavy cloud of grogginess that refuses to shift from my head until lunchtime. My standard childhood response to her cheery burst of  “Good morning!” was: “Prove it”. I had hoped that after ten years of working regular office hours the owlish tendencies I’ve had since childhood would have dissipated. But no, despite many years of discipline in forcing myself to bed early, they’ve held on tight.

My eternal quest for a day where getting up before 9am doesn’t feel like a bad hangover or chronic jet lag has led to my interest in ‘chronotypes’. A person’s chronotype refers to their proclivity to be a lark, owl or hummingbird. Larks are most energetic in the morning and prefer to rise early and go to bed early. Their cheery morning chattering and whistling is highly irritating to owls. Owls, on the other hand, are at their optimum in the evening and prefer to sleep and get up late. Hummingbirds are in the middle of the spectrum and account for around 70-80% of people.

There is a distinct cultural bias in favour of larks. I suspect they find sadistic pleasure in organising those 7am workplace breakfast meetings. Larks have no trouble fitting in with society’s norms and standard working hours of starting by 9am, which is probably a vestige from pre-industrial times. In agrarian societies, commencing work in the fields at dawn made the most of the daylight hours and was important for economic production. Hence the prevalence of sayings such as “the early bird catches the worm” and “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

However, being bright-eyed and bushy tailed in the morning is not just a matter of willpower and getting enough sleep, as many larks would have us believe. Our chronotype is largely determined by genetics. Although a person’s chronotype may change over the course of their lifetime – teenagers and young adults tend to be owls, while children and the elderly are generally larks – it doesn’t usually change relative to one’s peers.

While being an owl or a lark in itself is not a problem, having to maintain a schedule than runs counter to our individual circadian rhythms – that is, our internal 24 hour biological clock – may cause significant health problems. People whose circadian rhythms are out of sync with the schedule they keep are said to have ‘social jet lag’ – a phrase coined by Till Roenneberg of Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. If larks and owls are forced to adopt normal schedules they encounter all kinds of difficulties with insomnia and sleepiness, and I can personally attest to that.

People with the owlish delayed sleep-phase syndrome (who have difficulty falling asleep before 6am and waking up before 2pm) and those with the larkish advanced sleep-phase syndrome (who fall asleep around 8pm and wake up at 4am) often also suffer from depression or bipolar disorder. According to Colleen McClung of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, the vast majority of people with major depression have insomnia and can’t sleep, or they sleep too much. This raises the question: are the circadian rhythm disorders causing the depression, or is it the other way around? This is something scientists are still investigating.

Of perhaps greater concern is the effect of shift-work on circadian rhythms which has been linked to increased cancer rates, psychiatric disorders and a range of other metabolic diseases (see the 2009 article in ‘Nature’ magazine) . Researchers at the European Commission’s EUCLOCK are working to understand those links.

Our circadian rhythms are primarily determined by a ‘master clock’ called the supra-chiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the brain’s hypothalamus. The SCN is synchronized during the day by light signals received by non-rod, non-cone receptors in our eyes. It is thought that there are ‘master genes’ directing the SCN and the physiological processes it regulates.

Interestingly, over the past decade researchers have discovered that the body also has ‘peripheral circadian oscillators’ in organs and tissues outside the SCN. While these peripheral clocks use the SCN as a reference point and usually run in sync, they are also influenced by other time-keeping signals.  Researchers suspect that many of the health problems experienced by shift workers arise when the circadian rhythms in different body tissues lose synchrony with each other.

Similarly, the jet lag experienced after a long-haul flight is now thought to be caused by a disruption to the synchrony between the SCN, which resets to local time based on light signals within a day or two, and the peripheral oscillators in other organs which can take over a week to adjust. Thus when we experience jet lag our body is literally out of sync.

Researchers have found that individual differences in chronotype are due not only to the innate differences in circadian period length, but also to differences in how easily a person’s circadian rhythms can be synchronized to the day-night cycle. Evidence suggests that some owls and larks have clocks that are not reset normally each day, and that these people’s peripheral clocks have a tendency to stray from the central one. While hummingbirds find it easy to synchronize their internal clocks with the day-night cycle, owls and larks experience significant difficulties.

So what should we make of all this? For owls like myself, it provides a sense of vindication against larks who claim that we lack willpower, are somehow lazy, and that resetting our internal clock should be an easy task. It also provides empirical justification for the importance of flexible work arrangements so that individuals can work at their optimal performance times.  While I am lucky to have a fairly flexible employer in this regard, I hope that society starts paying more attention to the importance of circadian rhythms and that more employers follow suit.


The Asterisk

The spines of the asterisk press hard into his back. Only the taut fabric of his suit jacket prevents them from piercing his flesh. Stooped by its burden, briefcase in hand, he hurries to the tram-stop in the dull evening rain after another long day of Hardly-Passion-Inducing work.

Many of us have an asterisk.

For some, it is a symbol of what life might have been and a burden of regret. If only…he’d finished high school, he wouldn’t still be working as a kitchenhand. If only she had chosen a career she loved, she wouldn’t be so resentful of her empty life. If only he hadn’t slept with his secretary, his marriage wouldn’t be disintegrating into a miserable dust.

Others carry it proud on their shoulder, a reference to their other identities. A CEO, who is also a marathon runner. A single mother, who is completing her PhD. An accountant, who moonlights as a jazz drummer. 

And a few have no asterisk at all. Their work is their passion, their passion their life, and their life is art itself. They are *Inspiration*.

Perhaps this is the beginning of mine.