Monday, September 20, 2010

Freedom is precious

Isn’t it great to see a dog shaking itself vigorously and enthusiastically after it has just been swimming in the sea. Water flying everywhere, the head, ears and tail all get a thorough going over. And then that fabulously enthusiastic romping along the beach; and you can tell that as much as the dog has enjoyed the sea, the land is its more natural habitat.
It’s rather like I feel at present. You see I’ve recently had a great visit to China. Not far into the mainland, but far enough for Westerners to still be a bit of a novelty for some locals. It was my third visit – I’ve loved each experience though they’ve all been very different.
I remember studying Chinese history at primary school, and became fascinated with the culture. I immersed myself in Chinese fairy tales and dreamt of a time when the country would once again be open to foreigners.
In 1979 I joined a highly organized tour; at that time there were massive restrictions on the movement of both Westerners and locals. Mao suits were common, the bicycle was king, neon lights were a rarity and a local talking to a westerner was sure to be keenly watched by the police.
The countryside was everything I’d imagined making the fairy tales of my childhood come alive. The richness of The Opera and vibrant colours of circus performers, with acrobats doing amazing contortions and visits to kindergartens with brightly garbed children were at odds with the drabness of daily clothing on the streets. It was a dramatic contrast between the old and new.
My second visit was a couple of years ago. I wanted my children to experience a completely different culture; one rich in history, with a language, customs and political system so different to our own. China was going to host the Olympics, and it was a good time to visit.
How much the country had changed: stylish young ladies sashaying around in short skirts and heels with mobile phones to their ears; young men in shorts and t shirts with logos. Neon lights everywhere, advertising foreign as well as local brands, so many cars and so few bicycles. It was a culturally rich visit, and politically fascinating, particularly as one of our young guides wanted to discuss many of the changes that had taken place in recent years. China had taken massive strides to modernize and embraced many of the good (as well as some of the not so good), things from the west, and many citizens were clearly enjoying the changes.
And now we come to my recent visit and my Teflon brained forgetfulness. I’d forgotten that wearing modern western clothing and using computers and mobile phones has little relationship to the freedoms we in the west know.
Freedom to use and explore the internet - including blogs - is controlled in many countries.
I’m enjoying my foray into blogging, and appreciate contact with people throughout the world. However I was unable to access either my blog or any others for the duration of my otherwise very enjoyable visit. I was surprised at how cut off and frustrated I felt; I was able to see that people had commented, (via Gmail) but was unable to reply as I would have liked. I felt that I was rudely snubbing my visitors and wanted to apologise. I was champing at the bit waiting to find an airport hotspot where I could explain my predicament.
And so, back to my dog (I hope this analogy - or is it a metaphor? - is working). Like it, I have enjoyed my dip in the ocean, but unlike it, I am aware of undercurrents that may be hazardous. It’s good to be back on dry familiar land, have a good shake and resume my romp around the internet. This environment feels natural to me, but the freedom is a privilege which can be eroded all too easily.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Clever science

Boonie over at Boonies Thailand Photos recently wrote about his encounter with a mean attacking centipede. Anyone who has been bitten by either a Bullant or Jumping Jack will know how he felt. His description of the attack is superb: (I hope he doesn't mind me quoting) "long, live, wriggling, back-arching, human hating, forcipule thrashing, victim seeking, centipede ... We killed the psychotic bastard without a second thought." Cheers to Boonie and Mrs S, prevention is better than cure, particularly after a horrible scary episode.

For those in Southern Australian areas where Jumping Jacks abound, the description would read: tiny, aggressive, jumping, human hating, mandible munching, victim seeking, and most certainly psychotic. Sadly, Jumping Jacks aren't as easy to kill as his 15cm horror. You really need to stomp and twist and mush to smithereens, scattering body parts in all directions, because unfortunately they are remarkably resilient.

Jumping Jack, showing golden legs and feelers (found dead on the beach)
Overseas visitors have been known to scoff, after all these little ants are only about 1cm in length, and quite elegant with sleek black body and golden mandibles. But they're aggressive, tenacious, and psychotic and when they get a grip they keep on biting, somehow alerting their mates that there's an intruder who needs to be seen off. So they march out, rank upon rank of them, then leap with vicious intent. It seems to me they can jump around 10cm when really riled, but that could be a paranoid exaggeration.

People who aren't particularly sensitive to their bite could just have mild localized swelling. But in more extreme cases dramatic swelling is accompanied by difficulty breathing, the skin can become raised with welts and pustules all over the body, heart beat is frighteningly fast, and the throat constricts, making swallowing difficult. You know beyond the shadow of a doubt that something is dreadfully wrong. In cases like this, you have about 15 minutes to intervene with antihistamine before anaphylactic shock puts an end to your time on earth. Ideally you'd take an antihistamine pill immediately when you've been bitten to prevent the more dramatic scenario.
Jumping Jack. (not actual size)

The EpiPen is a really clever device designed for people who are known to have experienced an allergic reaction (not only to ant bites, but bee and wasp stings or peanut butter). It's an auto injector, filled with adrenaline. The idea is that any noddy should be able to inject a person who is suffering with Anaphylaxis, thus saving their life. Of course, these aren't available over the counter, you have to make an appointment with your doctor, and prove that you are a sensible person, and that the recipient has had a major scare. Like any medication, it can be dangerous if given inappropriately.

It's an old wives tale that you can grow out of having a reaction, at least to Jumping Jack bites and it seems that with each subsequent bite, the reaction is more severe and happens quicker.

When we shifted house a couple of years ago, my main interest was in walking around the yard, head down looking for evidence of Jumping Jack or Bullant nests. I wasn't so interested in the house, just the potentially deadly blighters. No matter how lovely the house, or enticing the surrounds, the merest suggestion of ant nests put an end to the inspection.

Thank goodness scientists and chemists have developed these life saving medications. Science is indeed clever.

Bullant - about 2cm long

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Foot in mouth

“You want to be a WHAT?”

“You’re kidding aren’t you?”

No he wasn’t kidding. On the contrary, he was enthusiastic and keen, in spite of my less than encouraging response.

Will I ever learn? When dealing with family and close friends I must try to remember some of the tried and true rules for effective communication. My scorecard when I’m at work isn’t too bad. At home, it’d be fair to say there’s room for improvement.

Rules include, but are not limited by the following list:

a: be calm and measured in tone to any announcement, no matter how radical

b: do not shriek

c: be rational

d: discuss openly and calmly the pros and cons of announcements

e: do not under any circumstances look horrified – body language IS important. Any grimace, frown, twitch or blink will be regarded as negative

f: be encouraging

g: do not impose own paranoia/prejudices on others

h: spluttering or chocking is a definite no no

Blast! I’d broken the lot of them…again.

But really, a driving instructor? I couldn’t think of anything worse…well that’s not exactly true; being a trauma cleaner would have to be up there, and accounting doesn’t excite me, neither does cleaning windows on a skyscraper, or anything at all to do with heights, or being the first person in a submersible, and I don’t think I’d like to go to Mars. But a driving instructor, ugh. Where on earth had that idea come from? I’d be TERRIFIED.

When it comes to ones nearest and dearest, it’s hard to maintain the composure and demeanour that would automatically kick in when ‘on the job’. My professional life is on hold for the weekend and I’m relaxed and off guard. So, of course, way too often an uncensored response escapes.

A friend had a similar reaction (although with more expletives) when her son announced he wanted to be a stunt man. I remember fear gripping my stomach when my teenaged daughter said she wanted to do free diving. Some statements seem designed to elicit a dramatic reaction. (Now there’s an understatement!) You tend to want to say “Over my dead body”, and forbid the activity.

Unfortunately, off the cuff, horrified responses are more likely to close the lines of communication rather than open them. By this I mean close effective lines of communication – giving the cold shoulder, arguing and shouting do not count in this instance as communication. And it’s best to keep the communication going, particularly with ones nearest and dearest, including the teenagers! Especially when they’re going through the grunt phase.

So next time, I’m going to try and remember to include the following:
· Mmmm, that’s interesting

· Tell me more

· Where could you get more information?

· Wow, really! I’ve always wondered where those guys get insurance, do you know?

· Who could you talk to about that idea?

· Do you think you could get some work experience?

· Do you think it’d be possible to do a course?

· Or even: Gosh, really? What appeals to you about that?

To give myself time to think, I feign absorbed interest in the task at hand, whether it be chopping vegetables or hanging out the washing, or some other mundane task. It works wonders, as you can chew on a carrot stick or a peg and pretend to get it wedged in your teeth. This gives you a reason for spluttering which naturally has nothing at all to do with the bombshell announcement.

By responding “nicely” there’s less chance of a retreat into a sullen shell (it might still happen, but could be due to shock at the oh so rational response). An added bonus is that the whim (often) evaporates, self esteem increases (after all you’ve responded adult to adult) and mutual respect can grow.

Pretty neat huh!