Thursday, February 17, 2011

Whistling up the Hellhounds...

So shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison apologises. Not for the basic and fundamental inhumanity of his suggestion that those refugees who recently lost family members in the Christmas Island boat wreck (including the 9 year old boy who lost both of his parents and his brother in the disaster) not be allowed to attend the funerals of their family members, but he apologises for the timing of his comments for the same day of said funerals.

Gutter politics at its finest, Scott.

In this post, I'm not going to delve into murky depths of why I'm so socially and politically outraged over this. Other people have already done that very nicely, and far more politely than I could.

Instead, though, I want to offer a couple of tangential thoughts and observations on the whole thing:

Firstly, Mr. Morrison raised as his chief objection the $300,000 cost to the taxpayer of chartering a plane to bring the refugees from Christmas Island to Sydney for the funeral. Well, I guess that, viewed from a certain perspectives*, this might be seen as a fair enough point for any taxpayer, even a member of the Opposition, to make.

So I'll pay him that one.

And I mean that quite literally. According to the World Bank, Australia currently has a population of 21,874,900 people. That flight, therefore, cost us roughly $0.0137 AUD per person. Bearing in mind that not all of those counted in the population figures will be taxpayers, let's round that up to $0.02 a head. And given that we no longer have 0.02c coins in the Australian currency, I'll round it up again to 0.05c.

Because Mr Morrison is so upset at the cost, I'll volunteer, here and now, to pitch in his 5c for him. I'll drop a 5c coin in the post this afternoon, addressed to his electoral office. That ought to help him calm down a little.

He can even keep the change. He might be able to use it to buy his soul back.

In the meantime, here are a couple of little pictures, and one story, you (and Mr. Morrison) might be interested in:

This is a photograph of Christmas Island, taken about two or three kilometres along the coast from the Australian Immigration Detention Centre:

This is one of the Island's few beaches. I took this picture a few years ago, when I was lucky enough to do a tour of the Indian Ocean Territories, one of which I grew up on. Christmas Island is one of the most beautiful, but also frighteningly remote and inaccessible places I've ever been. To get to this 'beach' I had to 4wd and hike through dense tropical rainforest for about half an hour, before climbing down the cliffs you can see. This particular beach is only accessible on calm days at low tide. The rest of the time it's underwater.

As is most of the Island's waterline. In fact, the vast majority of the coast of Christmas Island looks like this:

Or, from close-up:

Those photos were also taken on a relatively calm day. When the seas are up, as they were on the day the refugee boat smashed against the rocks, it's far more savage. Far less forgiving. Far more brutal. It's one of the most stunning places but also one of the most psychologically daunting landscapes I've ever visited.

It's also isolated - Christmas Island was, for many years, the resting place of an unknown sailor, generally believed to have been one of the survivors of the sinking of the HMAS Sydney in 1941**. The body of the sailor, which was pulled out of the ocean at Christmas Island in 1942, was buried in an unmarked grave in the Island cemetery and within just a few short years, even the grave itself had vanished; swallowed up by the remorseless encroachment of the rainforest. Not until 2006 was the body found again and returned, still unidentified, to Australia. I was told about this story during my visit and it struck me at the time as one of the most sad and lonely tales I'd ever heard. The terrible isolation of that death and the inability of anyone to honour that sailor's memory with even passing remembrance was, I thought, as much a quirk of geography as it was the fortunes of war. For so many years, that man lay in a lost grave; unknown, unvisited, and unremarked. Even had he been identified, those who'd known and loved him would have been unable to visit his grave, thanks to the isolation and remoteness of his resting place.

And it saddens me that, 70 years later, there are still people in our community, including some of our 'leaders', who'd consign the survivors of that ill fated refugee boat to a similar burial - in a place so remote and inaccessable that their deaths would also, eventually, go unremembered and unacknowledged by those closest to them. Or, alternatively, who'd deny those who survived the tragedy the catharsis of closure - who'd attempt to score political points by denying those survivors, including that little boy, the opportunity to properly farewell their loved ones. Their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children. And all for less than 1 cent of their taxes. All to appeal to 'popular' sentiment.

But it's not just Mr. Morrison who's attracted my ire.

One more picture:

This is a photograph I took, during my visit, of the Australian Immigration Detention Centre under construction. It's built at the far end of the island, as far as it's possible to get from the main settlement at Flying Fish Cove. It's surrounded on three sides, as you can see, by dense tropical rainforest which ends abruptly at those sheer coastal cliffs. On the fourth side, it's separated from the rest of the Island by barbed wire fences.

And, at 9.00 this morning, the minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen M.P, allowed that 9 year old boy, who'd been orphaned on the wild coast of Christmas Island, to be taken from Sydney, where he'd just buried his parents and brother and where he has living relatives, and put on a plane back to Christmas Island.

And at that particular piece of inhumanity, words fail me.

*the point of view of a rabble rousing bottom feeder, for example

** Survivor of the battle and sinking. Clearly not a survivor in the broader sense of the term.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Horsing Around

When I was a kid - probably about 12 or 13 years old - I used to love going horse riding. There was a little riding school near our place which took weekend trail rides up a bridle trail into the national park. 3 hours would cost you (From memory) something in the order of $30, which was a lot of money for a 12 year old, but through both saving my $5.00 per week pocket money, and a fairly lethal combination of nagging and pleading mum and dad, for a while there I got to go reasonably regularly - perhaps once a month.

Then, when we went camping on our holidays, there was usually a trail ride involved somewhere. One of my favourite camping places was Denmark, on the south coast of WA, where there was a little riding business set up right beside the campground, and $5.00 got you a 20 minute stroll around the sand dunes and along the beach (where, if you were lucky, they'd amp the pace up to a slow trot and, one time, a canter!)

What I really wanted to do, though, was take riding lessons. But these were, sadly, very expensive, and I had to just make do with what I could get.

And then, of course, life moved on and things like music lessons, swimming training, high school, uni etc... all filled my hours, and my odd obsession with horse riding faded away. (I call it odd simply because, for me at least, it seemed like a strange thing to have connected with - my family were never into horses. Never owned one, never really had anything to do with them at all, so yeah - odd.)

Until lately. For the last couple of years I've been looking about for a hobby. Something to do that isn't work, writing or parenthood. Don't get me wrong - I actually love all of those aspects of my life, which makes me a pretty lucky guy - but I'd gotten to feeling that between them they'd become my entire life - taking up every waking minute, and every last joule of energy. I toyed, about a year ago, with taking up gliding - another thing I experienced as a kid and have since wanted to do for years and years, and got as far as doing a couple of trial flights with the local gliding club, which I loved. Gliding, though, is particularly time intensive, even as a learner. At least one day out of every second weekend, (or even every weekend) would be required, and leaving Min with the increasingly demanding and energetic 2 year old just wasn't fair.

Then, about 6 months ago, one of my students turned up for a supervision meeting at uni straight from her weekly riding lesson.

And that reminded me...

So for the second half of last year, I procrastinated. I looked at riding schools, and talked to a few people, but really - riding lessons? Surely that was for 13 year olds and so on. Then my wife's uncle and his family moved down from Hong Kong, and he and I got talking. His little girl is a mad keen (and fantastic) rider, and M. had decided to take a few lessons himself.

And a plan was hatched. We'd take lessons together. And so M. booked us in at the school my student (and several others) had recommended. Then he promptly had to pull out of the first lesson, but I was excited, so decided to go anyway.

Which is how, last friday afternoon, I ended up at the Forest Park Riding School, putting on some borrowed boots and an uncomfortable helmet, and leading a large brown horse (who I seem to remember was named 'Pokey'*, but I suspect I'm wrong about that) out into the middle of their indoor arena for a half hour introductory lesson.

This, you understand, was just to see if I still enjoyed it, and thought it might be something I could do occasionally.

That decision took about 30 seconds. I loved it.

Turns out that:

a) Despite it being probably 30 years since I was last on horseback, I can still remember a lot about it and,

b) Even years later, when you're out of shape and unfit, 8 years of cycling and triathlon does great things for your balance and also, surprisingly, horseriding technique.

I had a great half an hour and, by the end of it, was even able to get up to a canter (for about half a lap, before Pokey decided that he'd had enough, and it was time to stop...**)

And I got off all buzzy and happy and excited.

And, even better, because one of the key elements of getting on well with a horse seems to be staying calm, it was a lovely half an hour of thinking about nothing except for me and the horse - work, writing - everything else just vanished for a while. And I came out of the stable at the end of the lesson feeling incredibly refreshed as a result.

So, yesterday I went out and got myself some proper boots and jodphurs***, and I'm now hanging out for my next lesson, in just a little over a week. Once I'm feeling vaguely confident, I might even get a picture taken to post here.

The really good thing, though, is that the little recharge has given me an unexpected drive to want to get back to all the other stuff now, especially my writing - Orion is still not finished (though it's ticked past 50,000 words now, and I can smell the ending looming up - and now I'm all fired up to drive it home, hopefully this week.)

So all in all, horseriding looks like being a good decision. And, after all, I live in The Man from Snowy River country, so I imagine it'll only be a matter of time until I'm doing this:

*Actually, I think he had a different name, but Pokey is the name which has, for some reason, lodged in my head, and so for the purposes of this blog entry, Pokey he shall be...

**In fairness to Pokey, this was actually my fault - I was so excited about finally getting us up to speed that I promptly pulled back on the reins.

*** Do yourself a favour and don't try and imagine me wearing jodphurs. Just don't...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Aaaand.... back to reality...

So it's the first day of semester here, today.

For the first time in a couple of months, the campus is thronging with students. There are lines to get into the bookshop. The nearest parking spaces are roughly 45km away. Someone is driving a lawnmower outside my office window*

As is my custom at this time of the year, I've spent a good proportion of the day trying to lever several hundred students into just-slightly-fewer-than-several-hundred-places. It's up there with doing a Rubik's Cube. Or self surgery. It generally works out okay in the end, though. By this time next week, touch wood, everyone will be happily allocated to a class which (almost) suits them.

Actually, I think it's going to be a really good semester. Numbers in my classes are up on last year, which is gratifying (and much better than the alternative), and we're doing some fun things in both of them. Later in the semester, we have the lovely Melina Marchetta coming to visit and speak to us (we're studying her fantastic novel The Piper's Son as part of my Lit Studies unit) and in a month or so I'm off to the Perth Writer's Festival. With Toby in tow. Which should be fun.

I'm also within spitting distance of finishing the much procrastinated 'Orion' (which I'm thinking I'm going to have to rename, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.) As of this afternoon, it's at 48,500 words out of an anticipated 50,000**

Of course, late last week I decided that the big final scenes, which I was just launching into, needed to be set not in Melbourne, as I'd originally planned*** but in New York. Luckily I have spent more than a little bit of time in the Big Apple, and so it shouldn't be too big a leap to move things there, though it has involved a few days of re-visiting my old travel photos, and cruising around in Google Earth (what did we writers do before Google Earth? How did we cope?)

I've also had to research private jets, plus a few other interesting bits and pieces that I'd never expected to have to delve into.

So, all things considered, writing wise things are looking up. Today's writing time was a little interrupted by the necessities of life, but from tomorrow I should be back into my daily routine, as per the schedule. Yay.

And then, hopefully within the next week, Orion will be finished. More than 12 months in the making, but finished.

Then I only have four more books to write in that series...

*to be fair, this is nothing to do with the influx of students, and everything to do with, you know, building maintenance.
**Though, to be honest, there's no way I'm going to be able to finish it in 2500 words, and it'll probably blow out closer to 60. But then I'll edit the hell out of it.
***Not, I want to make it clear, that I have anything against Melbourne. I love Melbourne. It's just that Melbourne didn't love this chapter...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Terrifying Night

So, I guess I'm a fully qualified parent, now. Well and truly off my 'P' plates*

Tuesday in Canberra was a good day, if a little hot. (38 degrees** here and humid as hell) By 5.00pm our un-airconditioned house was like a sauna, so Imogen, Toby and I decamped to my mother-in-law's place for a few hours because:

a) She has a swimming pool and
b) She's a three minute walk from a very nice Vietnamese restaurant, and the thought of not cooking or cleaning up afterward had a lot of appeal.

At my MIL's, we had a lovely swim and then strolled down in the cooling evening and enjoyed a feast of Vietnamese food. Then, as the sun finally dropped below the horizon and some of the oppressiveness went out of the day, our little family headed home again to our house on the other side of Canberra. It was still quite warm inside (a solid 34 degrees), but we opened all the windows and doors, put on the fans, and gradually the house began to cool. We gave our - by then very tired - boy a quick cool shower, read him a book, and put him to bed, just like normal. He went out like a light.

Min and I sat up for a while, watched some TV, drank some water and then, at around 10.00pm, went to bed ourselves. We read for an hour or so and, by 11 O'clock the house had cooled sufficiently for us to get to sleep. A last quick check on Toby, who was sleeping soundly, and then lights out.

Until a few minutes after 3.00am, when we woke up to the horrific sound of a 2-year-old in the next room, struggling to breathe.

I don't think I've ever been so terrified as I was when I ran into Toby's room to find him kneeling on his bed, gasping like a grounded fish. His little stomach was sucking hard up into his ribs with every choking breath, and he was trying to cry but didn't have the wind for it. I sat on his bed and he tried to claw his way up me. Min was already on the phone to her mum (who, as luck would have it, is a GP) and searching frantically for the Ventolin inhaler which Toby'd been prescribed a year or so ago, during a bout of bronchitis.

This wasn't bronchitis, though, or asthma - I knew that much. He could breathe out easily enough, but was only getting the tiniest amount of air in. He didn't seem to have anything in his mouth or throat and he wasn't turning blue, but he was panicking and getting increasingly desperate.

As were his parents. We tried without success to get some Ventolin into him, but he was thrashing around so much that we couldn't get the mask over his face, or even just lever the inhaler into his mouth.

"Get him to hospital. Now." Amanda (my M.I.L) told us on the phone and within two minutes the three of us were in the car, racing to the emergency department at Calvary hospital. Amanda phoned ahead and told them we were coming.

At the hospital (which is right beside my work, and which we reached in a considerably faster time than it generally takes me to get to the office) Min ran in with Toby while I parked. By the time I got inside, Toby was in a bed in the emergency ward with about five people working on him. The nice nurse at the ED reassured me that he was okay, and going to be fine.

It was croup. Severe croup, which had swelled the tissues below his larynx to the point where his breathing was restricted. They gave him adrenaline, and steroids, and Ventolin, and oxygen and, over the course of the next hour, his blood O2 saturation levels normalised, and he calmed down. As did Min and I.

Then, at about 5.30, they transferred him to the pediatric unit at Canberra hospital. This involved a ride in an ambulance which, from Toby's point of view was the best thing ever! (He's still talking about it this morning.)

We stayed at Canberra hospital for another 3 or so hours, while Toby was checked over again and monitored. Then, at about 8.00am, they discharged us. Min had to go straight in to work and I took our - now wide awake and perky - little boy home again. I was exhausted, whereas Toby, who'd recently had both a large dose of adrenaline pumped into his system and a ride in an ambulance, was buzzing.

I stayed home with him yesterday, working from the kitchen table while Toby played contentedly. He's got an awful, hacking cough and his voice sounds a little strange, but otherwise he seems fine.

Last night thunderstorms rolled over Canberra and scrubbed the heat and humidity from the air. Toby slept soundly all night. Min and I fell into an exhausted sleep, but still woke up at the slightest cough or bump from his room, checking him every couple of hours.

Today life returned to normal. I'm back at work. I got a couple of hours of great writing done. Toby is back at daycare and Min at ANU.

It's funny - typing all this up, the fear is so fresh and real in my memory, but at the same time the fact that everything is okay and life has just ticked back to normal makes it all seem like a kind of displaced dream.

And I'm lucky, too. We can go back to normal - this is just one of those things that happen. Kids get croup all the time, though not always so suddenly and not always so severely. But at least we live in a country with a wonderful health system, and the security of knowing that we can deal with these things.

And at least, unlike so many people up in North Queensland this morning, Min and Toby and I have a 'normality' to return to.

So today I'm feeling very tired, very wrung out, but also very, very lucky.

* Another one for my overseas friends: in Australia, once you get your driver's licence, you spend a couple of years on your 'P' (for probationary) plates, which means that you have to display a large red 'P' plate on the front and rear of your vehicle, and are subject to an adjusted set of road rules with lower speed limits, 0% blood alcohol allowance and a few other bits and pieces... Once you get through your probationary period without losing your licence, then you're a fully fledged driver, and can pull down the 'P' plates.

** 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit


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