Tuesday, February 12, 2008

they say it gets hot in Australia

Months before I came here I was informed by friends with experience that Australian summer heat was impossible to explain - beyond words. One of the first Aussies I met told me about the upcoming summer: ‘if you leave the bread out it can melt frozen butter on contact’ and ‘shampoo comes out of the bottle hot’.

But people do live here right? Twenty million Aussies do handle it don’t they? That is a standard thought process for me. The same thing works for sprint training with a soccer team. If everyone else can do it – Kate and I can certainly suck it up. So how is the heat? Well I drink a lot water, I put sunscreen on my face in the morning, and I spend my working day and my sleeping hours under the magical spell of air conditioning. Shade is precious here, as is a breeze (we lucked out with a nice indoor breeze when all our windows are open). Plus this has been a very cool and wet summer compared to most. I will write another post about the ridiculous rain and flooding real soon.

Still the hot days are hotter than I’ve ever known. Every Australian respects the danger. It is hard for a Canuck to comprehend how easily and quickly a healthy, fit person can die of dehydration. No Aussie would ever leave a broken down car to walk for help outside of a city – it would be considered suicidal. A one or two hour walk without one or two liters of water would be stupid here. Generally speaking: if I am outside then I am sweating. Having a washing machine at home is great.

Where in Canada could I possibly die of thirst? If my car breaks down somewhere remote and I don’t freeze or starve to death I am more likely to die of ‘loneliness’ than I am of thirst. Here… only fresh water matters to survival. Every other consideration is a distant second.

We have snakes, spiders, ants, sharks, rip tides, and now deadly heat. You might ask: how do parents keep children safe in a country like this? The answer might surprise you. The secret to keeping a child safe is ‘not to be too safe’. An effective strategy seems to be to purchase good medical insurance and then to break a few bones, get bitten by ants, get hot and thirsty, and swallow some salt water... before you turn ten. Children here are far less sheltered than back home. Four year olds surf and fall and play on sharp rocks. This might be sound frightening to many of us - I can’t imagine Sandy even continuing to read this :) - but Australia IS a dangerous place and ‘mild supervised danger’ is an effective strategy for raising competent ‘safe’ adults. Knowledge and experience works. What doesn’t kill you…. you know the rest.

We met a New Yorker who said that his home beaches are ‘immediately closed’ whenever there is a hint of a rip tide or large swell. Teenaged lifeguards (that have never seen a big wave) enforce these closures by yelling at adults twice their age through megaphones. Even a quick shallow swim is not permitted. I can be arrested or fined even if I am certain of my own safety because the decision is not mine to make. In contrast, Aussies are expected to recognize danger on their own. Adults are not treated like children here. Only VERY dangerous conditions will close a beach – and it's only really necessary for the safety of naive tourists. There are no fines for ignoring 'NO SWIMMING' signs. But Aussie lifeguards are not required to risk their own lives to save someone who does. I can ask any Australian about how to be safe and I get reasonable answers: don’t surf alone, don’t surf at night, or ‘not today mate’. But a comfortable little ‘rip’ or a few six foot waves are not frightening… they are perfect conditions for teaching your child how to surf or swim.

Every one of us wants our children to be as safe as possible... but in Australia 'sheltered' is considered 'unsafe'.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Tinson versus Mako: an Australian story

I took a sick day last week (some sort of flu) and watched some daytime television. On a show called ‘Sunrise’ I saw a live interview with a young fisherman immobilized in a hospital bed with his right leg wrapped in thick bandages. Twenty-four hours earlier this same fisherman, Jarryd Tinson, a twenty year old from form Sydney, was aboard a tuna fishing boat a hundred miles off the Gold Coast when he pulled a two hundred pound three-meter mako shark out of the ocean and onto their deck. He then proceeded to approach the motionless shark with the intention of gutting it. And then, in a move that strongly reinforced my own decision not to become a professional tuna fisherman, Jarryd accidentally stepped on shark’s tail. The mako whipped around and snapped a pair of jaws shut on Jarryd’s upper-calf. Two fellow fishermen wrestled and pried open the shark’s jaws to free Jarryd’s leg. He would keep the leg, but not without over a hundred stitches and probably an awesome scar.

I will try to run you through what I remember of the live interview (with the middle-aged, male, 'Sunrise' host sitting in the studio speaking to Jarryd via satelite). I really liked Jarryd. The kid wasa little bit shy and embarrassed to in a hospital bed but he was refreshingly honest, and humble, without a hint of self-promotion or exaggeration. He looked and sounded a bit like survivor’s Boston-Rob. Most surprisingly, he was courteous, friendly, and happy - rare qualities in someone so ‘recently bitten’ or in any 'tough man' for that matter.

"How are you feeling Jarryd?"
"Fine mate, fine." [awkward silence, Jarryd felt he had answered the question]
"You went through quite an ordeal, are you in any pain now?"
"The doctors fixed me well. They're great and the nurses are great. I feel okay. And they took care of the pain - if you get my meaning."
"I understand what you mean completely. I want to ask you what was going through your head when the shark had your leg?!"
"Well, to be honest with you mate. I was thinking about the next trip. The money has been great lately and I thought - 'I'm probably gonna have to miss the next trip'."
"Now that you have time to look back at the whole incident - do you feel lucky to be
"I'm lucky the shark didn't spin, he would have taken most of my leg with him. But my mates were able to keep him from spinning."
"What exactly did your mates do?"
"They jumped on his nose and wressled him still and the skipper pried open his bottom jaw from the inside until I could pull myself out. I think most of the damage to my leg happened when I pulled it out."
"Wow. I'm not sure I understand you... are you saying one of your skipper reached into the shark's mouth with his own arm."
"No mate, no!... haha! He cut a hole through his bottom jaw and reached inside through that." [This statement was delivered so 'matter of factly' I got the feeling the young man believed that any one of us would obviously be expected to know to do the same thing that his captain had done.]
"I suppose you owe your mates a few beers then don't you?"
"What's that??" [Jarryd touched his headphone with his finger]
"I said…. [louder] you owe your mates some beer!!"
"The way I see it, they owe me a beer for getting them on the 'tely' yesterday."
"Ha ha… How do you feel about getting back on the fishing boat?"
[Jarryd misunderstood this question… it did not even remotely occur to him that the interviewer might be suggesting a career change]
"Ahhh... it should be about two weeks. Hopefully not longer. If I can't walk yet, I hope they let me go out and do something useful sitting down."
[the interview contined with similar stuff for a while before Jarryd finished with sincere gratitude to the morning show:]
"Thank you very much for letting me be on your show mate!"

How awesome is this kid? I’m going to write a post soon about what it means to be ‘Australian’ and ‘un-Australian' - two terms that get tossed about very freely around here. But suffice it to say for now - Jarryd is as Australian as they get.

As is his captain - Skipper Adam Whan. Here are some direct quotes from Captain Whan himself that I borrowed form a newspaper.

"I just heard a yell" "The shark had a hold of the right knee region," "I cut a hole near the chin. We reached in and prised its jaws open. Luckily I was on the back side. "I didn't have my hands near the snapping point. “"It (the attack) was definitely very much of a shock.” "It was obviously very painful. He (Tinson) was fine once I gave him some painkillers."

How do you define a ‘dangerous job’? Maybe it is best defined as any job in which your boss has the sort of painkillers (in his first-aid kit) that can make a massive shark bite feel ‘fine’. Captain Whan bandaged up the wound, called in a helicopter, and Jarryd was winched away from his fishing boat in 3-5 meter swells. The helicopter paramedic was also quoted in the article:

"If the shark had've flipped about, or even moved a little bit more, then it really would have opened up the back of his calf," "What happened was they brought the shark on board and unfortunately the shark still had a bit of kick left in it ..." "It basically opened him up to the bone." "If it had have been a couple of millimetres either way, and a little bit more of a voracious bite, it would've been a real mercy dash to stop him from bleeding out,"

And finally – some glory-hogging spokesman for the rescue helicopter people was quoted saying this:

"There are a few hands on the deck and they could not release the shark from the leg at all until they had cut the shark's head off," "It was locked on. The bite has gone down to the bone. I've seen a photo of the wound and it's pretty messy."

I’m pretty sure this man simply lied. The shark’s head was not cut off. It’s bottom jaw was cut and pried open – maybe removed entirely - but a jaw is not a head. Nonetheless – dozens of newspapers around entire world subsequently proceeded to publish this story with the words ‘Shark’s head cut off to free man’ in the title. (maybe you saw it) Hey… if it sells newspapers, fudge away! No harm done... I guess.

After watching the interview with Jarryd I found myself hoping that there were a lot more people in the world like him. In spite of his depressing injury and vulnerable state he came off as a courteous and respectful hard-working young 'bloke’. He blamed only himself and was gracious even just to receive public attention. I have the impression that Australia is full of blue-collar working men who are truly good people. And these men are widely admired here. In contrast, back home Canadians respect the rich and the famous while hard-working honest types do not feel that they have much to be proud of. Australia is different, perhaps a bit 'behind the times', in terms of its public opinion of who should be admired. I like it. The 'Sunrise' people put a camera in this young fisherman's hospital room and introduced him to the country. They knew that the quality of his character would be immediately obvious. Jarryd was grounded, humble and even well spoken. He was hardly Shakespeare but he spoke thoughtfully and concicely and he had no trouble even creating some subtle humour. And that is very special coming from a man wrapped in bandages. You often see it coming from heroes in movies but have you ever heard it in real life? The kid was pure Australian (by character as well as birth). I’m very glad the mako didn’t bite him any harder.