Monthly Archives: November 2014

Independence and empty nests

We nurture our young until they can get by in the world by themselves. Are we doing our children a disservice by letting them stay in the comfort of the nest? Photo: Mick 2014.

We nurture our young until they can get by in the world by themselves. Are we doing our children a disservice by letting them stay in the comfort of the nest? Photo: Mick 2014.

Young adult children tend to hang around in their parents’ home for longer these days. Perhaps it is just the difference between the 1980s when I became an adult and the 2010s when my kids do. Perhaps it is the difference between a country and social security system that – in the name of equality and social mobility – provides a living wage for young students and a country that does not.

My boys are 18 and 20, and even if they would like to move away from home, it would be very difficult for them to do so financially.

Informally, I moved away from home when I was 16. My room was still in tact with my furniture, clothes, posters, records, stereo and stuff, but my boyfriend had his own flat and it seemed a good idea to hang out at his place, rather than my family’s place. Except when we were really hungry. The fridge at my parents place was regularly stocked with small goods from Gøttsche, the butcher in Herning and there was fresh bread from the baker in Skolegade, where my mum would stop by on the way home. The fridge literally boomed with luxury, ready to raid by ravenous young people. My parents never minded us coming to feed: at least they never let on. My mum would love to offer a beer and sit down for a chat and a smoke while we fed. Food was one way to connect to her growing children and I am finding myself doing much the same with my sons and their crowds. Forever offering up food in return for their company and a snippet of conversation.

Formally, I moved away from home in 1986, when I started university 120 km away from my parents house. There were very few options to study in Herning, unless you wanted to be a textile designer or work in mercantile professions, convincing people to buy stuff they did not necessarily want or need to boost profits for someone else. After three years in commercial college and in spite of my father’s entrepreneurial spirit and growing business, I was not interested in book keeping or sales.

I was much more interested in the world of ideas, in the humanities. A brand new degree had just started at Aalborg Universitetscenter – Humanistic Informatics. It combined humanities with the rising information abundance and explored the interface between humans and information technology systems – a course fit for the late 20th century.

I enrolled in the second intake year of that degree and I had to move. My parents helped me out with accommodation at first. I started university in August the year I turned 19. Until February, when I turned 20, I lived off my savings from the summer job. According to the rules at the time, turning 20 made me independent of my parents’ income and I was entitled to SU, a study allowance courtesy of the Danish tax payer. Each month, a sum of money turned up in my bank account to supplement income from my job. From then on I was able to pay rent, eat well, buy university books and supplies, pay public transport and have a good time as well. In other words, I was truly independent and able to learn how to live within my means by managing a finite amount of money – a precondition for functioning in an adult world.

I understand that things have changed in Denmark and young people face harsher requirements to open the Sesame of government sponsored study. However, young Danes still do not pay for their education and still are paid to study, thus providing the realistic opportnity for everyone to get a qualification, irrespective of their socio-economic status.

How can we help our children fail small and early, so they can succeed later?  Photo: Mick 2014.

How can we help our children fail small and early, so they can succeed sooner? Photo: Mick 2014.

In 2014 in Australia, very little support is available to young people to live independently, even if they study, and by no stretch is the study allowance sufficient. My sons are not entitled to any help, at home or living independently. Their entitlement remains dependent on our household income. We are not a double income family and our household income is not massive. We are fortunate to be able help out our adult children, but I think it quite unfair that all young people – irrespective of their financial background – are not offered the opportunity to study independently. We really are failing to reach Australia’s potential because they are not.

Perhaps I am engaging in pure after-rationalisation: When we leave the kids in our house in December – for a whole year – it is not just to satisfy my self-centred need to go back to where I came from: it is also a step along the way toward my children’s independence. Rather than pushing them out of the nest, we leave the nest to them. And see what happens. We will provide them a study allowance so they can have a go at managing themselves and a household.

I know the boys will rise to the challenge and I know they will develop and grow. I don’t know what kind of hygiene or messiness the place will endure; I don’t know how big the washing piles will grow (will the washing even leave the floordrobe of their bedrooms?) or what kind of food they will eat. Or how the garden will look and whether the chooks will be watered and fed. But that is all part of it: I too have to let go and trust them to do the right thing.

Would you consider running away from home to give your adult children a chance at independence?

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Dogs and death

Josie was part of the family - and the furniture. Photo: Lone 2014

Josie was part of the family – and the furniture. Photo: Lone 2014

Josie died this week.

Josie – or Josephine, after Napoleon Bonaparte’s lover – was our sweet yellow labrador who had been with us since 2003. She had become very lumpy, with a melon sized cyst on her neck, and very tired and spaced out most of the time. Half way through the first anaesthetic needle, she took her final, laboured breath.

I am not sentimental about pets – I love them and care about them, but when life has become unenjoyable for them, I see no reason to prolong it.

My first dog was Vaks – after Lady and the Tramp‘s little grey male puppy, Scamp in English. Vaks, a black cocker spaniel, lived with us on Chopinsvej in Herning in the early 70s. I was very young when Vaks and I played in the rumpus room. We found a feather doona with a hole in it – that hole fast grew and suddenly we were pioneers battling a white winter landscape. On a visit to my grandparents, I had to get something from our car. Vaks merrily followed me out, probably expecting we were leaving and not wanting to be left behind. He refused to get out of the car, so I closed the door and left him there. When it was time to leave, Vaks had literally chewed everything soft and bite-able inside the car. In our home he had also gnawed all of the door frames to about 30 centimetres up. So Vaks did not move with us when we moved to our next home on Solbakken in Gjellerup in 1972. I am not entirely sure what happened to that little black dog, but he was no longer part of my universe.

Buster was well loved, even if he terrorised owners of female dogs all over the neighbourhood. Photo: Lars, 1976.

Buster was well loved, even if he terrorised owners of female dogs all over the neighbourhood. Photo: Lars, 1976.

The next dog – Buster, after Buster Keaton – was really my brother’s. He started a campaign to get another puppy. I think my mother, the vet’s daughter, was secretly supporting his campaign – she loved animals. My father, the farmer’s son, had a more utilitarian view of the role of animals. Eventually he gave in. Buster was a small fox terrier, white and beautifully marked with black spots and small brown ones above his eyes. Buster had the run of the yard – and the neighbourhood, with the owner of a female bassett hound particularly complaining about Buster’s promiscuous behaviour. Buster never became fully house trained and usually left small surprises behind the oval Piet Hein Superellipse table with the six orange Arne Jacobsen Series 7 chairs in the upstairs living room that doubled as my father’s office. On Saturday mornings, Dad removed the smelly parcels so he could hold author meetings around that table. In the early 1980s we moved again to Klokkebakken in Gjellerup; Buster did not follow. My cousin, the computer programmer who worked in my father’s company, reluctantly took care of him. I am still not entirely sure what that entailed.

Our new house was massive. Big enough for two apartments – one for our family of six, and one for my parents’ two business partners and their two dogs, a newfoundlander and a chow chow – and the office of my parents’ growing business. The house had been built as a single family house by a wealthy business owner who insisted on living higher than the old Gjellerup church. This time my sister and I started a campaign for another dog. My father would find carefully designed posters on the mirror inside his wardrobe and notes under his doona or in his office drawer, and again my mother secretly supported the campaign. We promised to housetrain the puppy, to walk it daily and to feed it and look after it. Mum bought Donna, a golden retriever, from a breeder in Hammerum and we were ecstatic. Mum took Donna to puppy school and she became a very well-behaved dog. Occasionally, I did walk her, but generally Mum fed her and let her sleep near her feet in winter.

Donna with her son Kasper. Kasper was a most flexible dog, who had several homes - my family never bargained that ours would be one of them. Photo: Lone 1988.

Donna with her son Kasper. Kasper was a most flexible dog, who had several homes – my family never bargained that ours would be one of them. Photo: Lone 1988.

One summer, after I had moved away to go to university in Aalborg, Donna had six beautiful little puppies. Entirely unplanned, a yellow labrador belonging to my brother’s friend had rendezvoused Donna in the small forest behind the house. That summer I looked after the puppies while my parents, sister and brother went to Italy. I taught them how to run down the steep stairs to get to the enclosed garden near the swimming hall every morning, and carried them up to sleep in the bathroom every night. We found good homes to each of the puppies: family, friends and one went to my flatmate. She named him Kasper and loved him to bits. And so did I – he was a beautiful dog, easy to love.

We partied hard in that student house. One night Kasper got out through the door left open. It turned out he was a very clever dog: he took the bus from the main road out to one of the suburbs. On the bus he met a group of Norwegian young men on a drinking spree. They sang Norwegian drinking songs for him and the next morning took him to the pound. They offered to take Kasper home on the ferry to Norway if he remained unclaimed by the end of that Sunday. Meanwhile back in the sharehouse, my flatmate fretted and kept me awake all night. In the morning I called the pound, could describe Kasper accurately and we went out to get him on our bikes. Kasper became my dog, when my flatmate could not have him in her flat when she moved back to Copenhagen. So he came back to Gjellerup when I left for Australia to study. Eventually he was adopted by my brother’s girlfriend’s family. Kasper managed to walk into every heart that he met.

Three years later, in Australia, Mick and I stopped to look at a clutch of new-born staffordshire bull terrier cross puppies. Before long we named the little black staffy Bo – after Boudicca, the East Anglian warrior queen. The name was apt and she ruled us for 14 years – sweet, adoring and completely mad! She loved people, but was so rowdy that most were dead scared of her. She suffered terrible anxieties and needed stable routines and predictability. She was very awkward right up to her death. We had moved to acreage on Samford Range and had bought Josie. Each morning we took Bo and Josie on a five kilometres walk, up and down steep hills through the bush. Half way, Bo had a stroke. Unable to walk, Mick had to carry her all the way back to our house. The next morning we left her in her bed and when we came back from our walk, she had peacefully passed.

Josie had a fine teacher in Bo. They had probably been up to some mischief at this time - butter would not melt in their mouth. But Bo cannot hide her guilty anxiety. Photo: Mick, 2003.

Josie had a fine teacher in Bo. They had probably been up to some mischief at this time – butter would not melt in their mouth. But Bo cannot hide her guilty anxiety. Photo: Mick, 2003.

Pugsy's ambition for labrador-pug puppies was simply ignored by Josie. Perhaps it was just that there was food around? Photo: Mick 2007.

Pugsy’s ambition for labrador-pug puppies was simply ignored by Josie. Perhaps it was just that there was food around? Photo: Mick 2007.

Josie had learnt lots of bad habits from Bo and she had let Bo be the dominant dog – but she had always ruled the roost at dinner time. Food was the one thing Josie cared immensely about. That and being part of the action when the click of the washing machine door sounded. She would rush down the stairs and roll on the grass next to the washing line. Beyond that she was happy with lots of laziness and pats.

RIP sweet Josie, we miss you.

Teaching, learning and language

First day of school. Photo: Mick 2000

First day of school. Photo: Mick 2000

A different language is a different vision of life.  Frederico Felini

Language determines how we see the world. Language – its shapes, its sounds, its structures, its words shape our concepts and the filters we use. And would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Coincidentally, the word for rose is identical in both Danish and English, though pronunciation is slightly different, so perhaps the smell is exactly the same?

The concept of education is a good example. The English word ‘Education’ comes from Latin ‘Educatio’ from ‘ex’ – out, and ‘ducere’ – to lead. The etymological roots lead to a sense of someone else teaching to ‘lead out’ what is inside a person and develop the person’s skills and competencies. According to Ken Robinson’s excellent TEDx talk, schools were established to deliver skills to power to industrial revolution.

In Danish ‘education’ is ‘uddannelse’. The etymology of the word is quite different. ‘Dannelse’ comes from the old Norse ‘don’ or the equivalent English ‘to do’. Literally ‘dannelse’ is translated to formation. ‘Uddannelse’ is linked to the Enlightenment idea that a person is not fully formed until cultivated beyond their natural state to a civilised state. ‘Uddannelse’ is about providing experiences that evolve and change the individual to become something they were not before. So after birth and physiological development, work still needs to be done to develop the character to be a whole person. This character or ‘spirit’ involves the ability to think critically about the facts, issues and views that are presented – otherwise the transformation is akin to indoctrination, the friend of totalitarian systems. In the Danish tradition ‘uddannelse’ becomes the defence against callousness and crudity.

Another crucial language difference lies in the word ‘teacher’. The etymology of ‘teacher’ takes us to the old English ‘tæcan’ – to show, point out, declare, demonstrate, instruct or persuade. The English teacher dictates the child’s learning – the word denotes an outside process that adds knowledge and skills to the empty vessel that is the child. The Danish word, ‘lærer’, comes from the idea of learning, rather than teaching. ‘Lærer’ is not a learner, but someone who facilitates the learning of another. This places the child in the centre, rather than the person who demonstrates or instructs.

Proud to be in school uniforms at 8 and 6 years of age. But why must uniformisation continue of young people to the age of 17 or 18? Photo: Mick, 2002.

Proud to be in school uniforms at 8 and 6 years of age. But why must uniformisation of young people continue to the age of 17 or 18, when we are expecting them to be ready as discerning, functioning members of society? Photo: Mick, 2002.

Clearly, contemporary teaching and learning philosophies in Danish and Anglo cultures do not reflect these subtle differences. Yet throughout my boys’ schooling in Australia, I experienced very few teachers with a child-centred philosophy. I found the approach overly authoritarian, quasi-religious and strangely disciplinarian, focusing on externalities like uniforms and behaviour on the way to school.

My point is that the language we use determine how we see the world. The language around education, teaching and learning in the two languages reflect the attitudes to children in the cultures and determines how we see children slightly differently in the two cultures.

Perhaps this difference can be traced to the establishment of universal schooling in Denmark 200 years ago. It followed 25 years of deliberation by a School Commission, influenced by rising nationalism, desire to preserve Danish culture and the Danish mother tongue in a turbulent world. Rousseau’s philosophies about education and childhood – the idea of education of the whole child as a citizen – were also influential. This may be where the English diverged – Rousseau was a Frenchman after all and had very derogatory things to say about the English.

As I am reading about the laws introduced in 1814, I am surprised to discover the discipline provision in section 27 of its supplement. While the last subsection allows the teacher to use a ‘lidet Riis’ – a small collection of twigs – to punish children under 10 years old, and with a thin rope end without knots for older children, section 27 is at pains to ensure punishment is not undue or dishonours the child and warns against punishments that could result in hardening, rather than improving the child. The teacher must not hit children with their hand, push or pinch them or swear at them. Rather, as punishment the naughty child could be excluded from the more pleasurable lessons involving play.

I am sure the very humanistic approach to punishment of children was frequently ignored in the 19th and even 20th century and potentially even after 1967, when corporal punishment was abolished in Denmark. However, the provision reflects a child-centred view seeking to support the child transforming to become able to function in civilised society. Certainly, the philosophy is a far cry from the mantra I still hear today when intermittently the Australian public debate turns to corporal punishment of children: Spare the rod and spoil the child! It was not until 1995 – the year after my older son’s birth – the Queensland corporal punishment provisions were abolished, though the defence for teachers assaulting children for correction and discipline still exists.

Homework in my father's office. Photo: Lars 1975.

Grade 2 homework with my best friend in my father’s office. Photo: Lars 1975.

When I reflect on the difference between my own experience of education in Denmark in the 1970s and 1980s and my children’s experience in Australia in the 2000s it seems the difference reflects the language. No doubt the time difference also plays a part, but my sense is that the position of children in Australia is one in the background, seen not heard, to be educated to be useful to society, whereas Danish children are much more in the centre, valuable in and of themselves, not for what they may contribute in the future.

The language creates different versions of children – a different vision of children’s place and value. It may be the language that have shaped this philosophy, and perhaps the philosophy has also shaped the language?

Morning walk

The bright red of the flame tree is just starting to come out. This shapely shade tree hails from Madagascar originally. Photo: Mick 2014.

The bright red of the flame tree is just starting to come out. This shapely shade tree hails from Madagascar originally. Photo: Mick 2014.

Last week I wrote about the jacaranda in Brisbane. Thinking about, noticing and writing about the dots of purple so iconic in Brisbane, helped me also notice the other shapes and colours that make up our local suburban landscape.

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Beauty and blue

October provides purple paths all over Brisbane. Photo: Mick 2014

October provides purple paths all over Brisbane. Photo: Mick 2014

As I walked over the purple carpet of spent jacaranda flowers I thought about the fleeting nature of beauty. Jacaranda trees are a hallmark of Brisbane in spring. They dot the urban landscape with bright purple crowns, like lanterns, and look beautiful against the high blue Queensland sky in October. deciduous as they are, their tiny compound bi-pinnate leaflets turn yellow and drop in winter, before the tree smothers its twigs with trumpet-shaped purple flowers in October that beckon the insects and critters for help with fertilisation. Only then does the bright green foliage return, providing great shade in this sunburnt country that is curiously low on good native shade trees. Once spent, the flowers fall, like droplets of purple rain, and are then followed by round, flat woody seed pods, about 5 cm in diameter, from which flat, winged seeds float when they open, ready to generate new trees.

R. Godfrey Rivers' Under the jacaranda from 1903 was purchased by Queensland Art Gallery - Godfrey Rivers was instrumental in establishing the Queensland National Art Gallery in Brisbane in 1895 and his painting features on the cover of the Gallery's publication about its survey of Australian Art from 1850 to 1965 shown n 1998.

R. Godfrey Rivers’ Under the jacaranda from 1903 was purchased by Queensland Art Gallery – Godfrey Rivers was instrumental in establishing the Queensland National Art Gallery in Brisbane in 1895 and his painting features on the cover of the Gallery’s publication about its survey of Australian Art from 1850 to 1965 shown n 1998.

Jacaranda trees are prolific in Brisbane and important to the Brisbane identity. But the jacaranda is not native to Brisbane or even to Australia. It is an invasive species that easily germinates near our rivers and creeks, crowding out more fragile native species. Jacaranda is listed as a ‘low priority pest species’ in the Brisbane Weed Management Plan 2013-17 and as an ‘invasive naturalised species’ in a paper published by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foresty. The very first jacaranda was brought in deliberately from Brazil and planted in Brisbane’s Botanical Gardens near Parliament House in 1864. It is the very same tree that Godfrey Rivers immortalised in his painting Under the Jacaranda in 1903 that was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery. I love this painting of the artist and his wife taking tea underneath the shade of the giant purple crown with her bright red parasol shining like an illuminated button. Later destroyed by a storm, this tree is thought to be the mother of all jacarandas in Australia and so lives on in its seedling trees.

Jacarandas dot the Brisbane suburban landscape when it is time to study for end of year exams. Photo: Mick 2014

Jacarandas dot the Brisbane suburban landscape when it is time to study for end of year exams. Photo: Mick 2014

It is easy to see why the jacaranda has become a much-loved – and beautiful – symbol of Brisbane. When I was an overseas student in 1990, one university lecturer said to me that if you haven’t started studying when the jacarandas flower, you are likely to fail your exams. This was good advice for someone who was wondering how you knew spring from summer and autumn from winter in this great southern land.

One of the things I miss about Denmark is the dramatic transition of the seasons. From winter’s sometimes white, but mostly just wet, cold sparse landscape to spring’s affirmation of fresh new life and bright colourful flowers from bulbs awoken by the warmer weather. From the pale green foliage of spring to summer’s dark green crowns teeming with life, insects humming and blackbirds singing for their growing children, when even the dead of the night fails to eradicate the light of the sun entirely. From the holiday sun tan of summer to autumn’s golden fields and heavy fruit trees, ready for harvesting under the blue sky of September, before the cold and rain set in, ready for winter. These seasons are all beautiful in their own way – and the regularity of their passing is so different from the way Australian seasons seem tied more closely to the randomness of drought and wet.

From winter's white over early spring's budding green life to late spring's bright green leaves on a birch tree in my back yard in Aalborg. Photo: Lone 1991.

From winter’s white over early spring’s budding green life to late spring’s bright green leaves on a birch tree in my back yard in Aalborg. Photo: Lone 1991.

Next year in Copenhagen, I will experience the cycle of the northern European seasons again, for the first time since 1989. I look forward to that, though when October comes around, I might just find myself missing the beauty of the jacaranda blue and the mild weather of spring.