People pinpoint the start of winter in all sorts of ways. Australians like to keep things neat and go by the calendar: winter officially starts on June 1 and finishes at the end of August. Simple. For those inclined towards astronomy, the cold season is defined by earth’s orbital position in relation to the sun, with its midpoint – winter solstice, the shortest day of the year – signalled by the midday sun appearing at its lowest point above the horizon (June 21 this year). My personal method is far more instinctive. I know winter has arrived when I find myself making roasts, craving nothing more than hot tea and a doona, and waking up so cold that I weep ice and question my will to live.
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Recently, I shattered my elbow so badly that what I suspected was dislocated cartilage was actually broken-off skeleton. I was immobilised for weeks: my arm was in a cast and my bicep bruised until it resembled a sausage casing that had been haphazardly packed with thick clots of black-currant jelly. “We’re keeping you in a cast,” the surgeons explained, “to prevent your wound from exploding.”
During this period, some people were godsends. My best friend sat in the emergency room with me, bringing me fruit, juice and crackers, somehow knowing that I hadn’t eaten properly the entire day. She gasped over my arm’s wrong angles, before we joked and gossiped about other stuff to take my mind off things. Back home, my sister put fresh sheets on my bed. Friends SMSed their concerns, insisting that I needn’t reply.
Others expressed their concern in odd ways. Horrified by what they’d heard through the grapevine, they called me in hospital – at night – although I’d only just come out of surgery and the anaesthetic was just wearing off. When they finally got me on the phone, they insisted things could have been a lot worse. Others sent urgent emails pressing me for details about the accident, forgetting I had shattered my elbow and could not type. Still, one of the worst things was acknowledging that I probably would have reacted the same way: expressing concern while somehow managing to make the situation worse.
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It’s raining softly across the Northern Rivers and everywhere is the smell of wet jungle. This region of north-east NSW – encompassing the Ballina, Byron, Kyogle, Lismore, Richmond Valley, Tweed and Clare Valley councils – is Australia’s organic heartland, a lush stretch of green that hangs like ivy over the Queensland-NSW border. Cynics often dismiss these shires as refuges for tree-hugging, granola-grazing hippies. Educated lefties who live here say it’s all about getting back to nature.
But the Northern Rivers is also a public-health black spot, notorious for flash outbreaks of infectious, preventable diseases. In August and September 2010, measles infected 14 people, mostly high school students, in the Tweed area, after an unvaccinated teenager returned from an overseas holiday. Last year saw a big jump in the incidence of whooping cough in the region, with 493 cases reported between the Tweed and the Clarence rivers.
Childhood immunisation rates here are among the lowest in the country. Many parents distrust conventional medicine. One in 10 kids aged under 10 doesn’t have a single vaccination recorded against their name. Similarly low vaccination rates can be found elsewhere in Australia, but the Northern Rivers can claim the dubious honour of having the highest percentage of parents who don’t immunise their children on purpose, believing vaccines may do their kids harm. In the Byron Shire town of Mullumbimby alone, a fifth of all parents identify as conscientious objectors to vaccination.
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If you’ve never heard of grindr, ask your local smartphone-owning homosexual for the lowdown. Like some gay hybrid of a GPS, personals section and neighbourhood beat, Grindr pinpoints your location and presents you with photos of nearby men. Naturally, Grindr users all look for different things: hairy/smooth, slim/athletic. Many also state what they’re avoiding. “No femmes,” say some. “No fat, no old,” say others. “No Asians.” That last one – “No Asians” – comes up a lot. Which is to say, they’re avoiding guys like me.
Setting up a Grindr profile is easy. My rules are simple: my profile will show my bare torso, but not my face – nothing to indicate race. Within minutes, a Caucasian man, whose face I can only describe as vaguely potato-ish, starts chatting to me. He has no username, but his listed age is 31. After pleasant banter, the conversation veers, of course, to my nipples.
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