It is a moving tale of love and grief and the devastating moments that change the course of your life and relationships forever. Its narrator, Leo Hertzberg, is an academic art historian residing in New York. The story follows 25 years of his life when he befriends an artist, Bill Weschler, and tracks their lives alongside each other. The story is bookended so we understand it comprises Leo’s reflections on his life as an old man.
It is a bit of an Australian cultural paradox. On the one hand the Australian self perception as the pioneer bushman who braves new frontiers and the carefree larrakin who will do anything for a bit of fun; and on the other hand the extreme risk aversion manifested in the way we defer to the government to fix everything. The paradox was highlighted for me recently, when driving with my brother in the rented car.
Holidaying in Australia from Denmark, he and his family had driven up the east coast from Sydney to Lamington National Park and had encountered numerous stretches of roadworks, where traffic was directed by ‘authorised traffic controllers’. They thought this form of risk management quite contrary to the anti-autharitan image they had of Australians. As we drove back to Brisbane through road works at Logan, mobile lights controlled the traffic seemingly adequately, yet several ‘authorised traffic controllers’ were also on site with their lollipops. Like keeping your pants up wearing a belt as well suspenders, really.
Every time something happens – something dreadful – Australians are quick to deny any personal role in it and suggest that ‘they’ must do something about it. A train hits a person at the level crossing, and the safety precautions are dreadfully insufficient. A crocodile mauls a person swimming in its habitat, and the animal must pay. A serious road accident holds people up on the highway, and it is the appalling state of the road. And the funny thing is the way the Government responds to this outrage and finger pointing: trains are ordered to toot when approaching level crossings and elaborate pedestrian gates are built which fence in pedestrians; crocodiles are caught and killed or relocated from their home; and endless authorised traffic controllers are employed when the road conditions change and road works require car drivers to take care.
Thus Australian governments assume responsibility and create rules and preautions to minimise risk for citizens. It acts as a nanny state. And this is a downward spiral that confirms and strengthens the culture of ‘it is not my fault’. All of these rules remove risk assessment and decision making from citizens and place responsibility with government, should something go wrong in spite of precautions and the rules being followed. Instead of Australians taking responsibility for their own lives and the local communities they are part of, politicians and policy makers seem content to invent new processes and make more rules that remove responsibility from citizens. How come it is necessary to have both trains tooting, warning lights, alarms sounding AND pedestrian gates at level crossings that close even before the train stops at the nearby station? Who is to blame when crocodiles act in ways perfectly natural and normal to the species and why do they have to pay the price of the patent stupidity of the swimmer, probably disobeying multiple warnings about crocodiles? Why can we not rely on Australian drivers to obey the signs and drive with care and consideration of other road users?
Government taking risk minimising measures does not make us safer. They give us the perception that we are safer, and they may even provoke a rebellious response to circumvent the measures and break those rules. After all, the Australian self-image is all about taking risks and pushing life at the frontier – the bushman, the larrikin and the rebel.
‘I would be so bored as a traffic controller’, said my 16-year-old niece.
‘Perhaps you could play games on your phone in between cars coming?’ suggested my 10-year-old nephew.
Perhaps the authorised traffic controllers are an employment scheme. Not only for the people with the lollipop signs, but the authorisation that needs to be processed and controlled by bureaucrats, the training that needs to be designed and delivered, the authorised traffic controller vests that need to be designed, produced and sold, traffic controllers that need to drive cars to get to places where their services are needed – it is a whole value chain, helping our economy to grow(!)
And it gives us the sense that we are safe in this dangerous world, which is in our Australian self-understanding to want to conquer. Go figure.
The free spirit has been a trademark of the Danes for some time. Danes treasure their ‘frisind’ or their liberalism – even libertarianism – that lets each chose for themselves what suits them, without regard for convention or dusty norms from a bygone era. But this is probably a paradox of self deception, just as the Australian identity as pioneers in the bush, in a country where the vast majority of people live on the seaboard. The Danes are at once anti-authoritarian (protesting vigorously against the nanny state and laws that rule their lives) and authoritarian (have you ever waited, slightly wondering, at the red pedestrian light with Danes when there are no cars in sight?). They abhor big government, yet live in one of the most celebrated welfare states in the world.
At its most extreme the Danish ‘frisind’ (free spirit) is credited with the legalisation of porn and abortion by choice because sex was freed from its bourgeois chains – gender and sexuality were separated in the name of equality (note I consider porn a particular nasty from of oppression of women, so very potently expressed by Oscar Wilde: Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power). In the everyday, this ‘frisind’ manifests in ways that are much less outrageous and much more mundane than that. Little children play naked on the beach and under the sprinkler in the garden. Sunseeking Danes fill Copenhagen’s parks as soon as the sun’s rays warm up the place. You know they are Danes for the girls lie topless to avoid bikini lines (though note the code: you don’t see topless women walk around in the city. Topless is for lying down, sunbaking, not for interaction; and they are not to be looked at, so hide your eyes or risk social outcasting as a pervert).
In 1990, when I first arrived in Australia, I took up swimming at the University pool. In the change room, young women struggled holding their towels around them to undress and put on their bathing suits in complete modesty (looking a tad like Mr Bean at the beach), while I freely stripped naked in front of them. It took me a little while to notice this different attitude to the body – that my culture was different. I first thought it might have something to do with British prudishness á la Mr Bean, but it seemed much more widespread across the Australian cultures. From my Danish childhood visits to the public pool, I was used to communal change rooms and showers with a guard in a white smock and clogs, making sure everyone – young and old – showered naked, cleaned armpits, groin and feet with soapy sponges and rinsed thoroughly before putting back on the swimsuits and going out into the pools, through the hyperchlorinated footbath. While this was for hygiene reasons, it also meant there was no room for modesty or being shy about one’s body – we were all the same when we went swimming in the public pools and it was normal to be naked in front of other people of the same sex.
Similarly, following our regular sport and gymnastics lessons at school, the teacher would make sure we stripped off our sports gear and showered before redressing in our normal clothes. I think this practice must have reduced the smell that accompanies so many school children here in Queensland where showering after school sport is entirely unheard of.
A few days ago I recieved a lovely video message with my young Danish nephew doing a dance to Pink Panther music – stark naked. It was cute and I smiled. It saddens me that I had avoided taking photos or videos of my own – now adult – children in their birthday suit. In Australia, we have been scared off documenting our children in their most natural state so as to avoid being accused of child pornography or pedoephilia. Breast feeding my children in public was accompanied by awkwardness. People thought I was crazy – and rather revolting – exposing myself like that. The most natural thing a woman can do to sustain her offspring is to breast feed. There is nothing better for baby; it requires no equipment, no sterilisation, no chemicals or de- and rehydration processes – everything baby needs is there just as nature intended. But the same body fright I experienced in the change room somehow makes this natural act become perverse. Showing any nakedness is somehow shameful.
I recall my puzzlement when our New Zealand friend from London who visited us every xmas in my childhood would ask if I was ‘decent’ before entering. I associated decency with good – and therefore lack of it with bad. Whether I was naked or not was somehow a question of bad or good in his culture.
I read that the Danish liberal attitude to the body may be changing – with children actively avoiding showering together and young people covering up more. An annual debate rages about whether it is ok to sunbake topless in one of the graveyards in the centre of Copenhagen, which is also one of the popular green spaces of the city. I don’t really have a view on that one, but I do think our Australian cultures would do well to take a more relaxed attitude to the outfit we were born in – and embrace nakedness as natural, not something to be avoided at all cost. Perhaps then we could have people familiar with, not ashamed of, their body? Perhaps we could avoid the rape excuse that ‘the way she dressed, she asked for it’? Perhaps we could get a more realistic attitude to body shape – how do we know what a normal body is when we never see one?
This week my yoga teacher commented on my long lace coat that I bought second hand at Mag Pie Lane in Herning last year when I needed a diversion from all the awfulness of dad’s illness.
‘You always look so elegant’, she said in her beautiful accent.
I know I don’t look elegant when I pose in Warrior One or Downward Dog. And I find it very difficult to think of myself as elegant, but perhaps my self perception is just far from how she – and perhaps others – see me?
As a child I had no interest in attire. For a long time I had one idol – my big brother – and I wanted to be more of a boy than the girl I was born as. Boys were cool and could do more cool things than pretty girls dressed in flowery dresses and shiny patent leather shoes. Not that my parents ever dressed me like that – but even taking into account that uncouth 1970s look, I think I was an extraordinarily messily dressed child; my hair typically sporting a home cut and a well-slept-on look.
My kindy photograph shows me in a striped rib-knitted short sleved jumper with combed, yet very messy hair that probably needed washing. My brother’s first school photo sports a very crooked smile. I had decided this was a good look and hence my whole face is strangely lopsided and my lower lip wierdly askewed, making me look quite hysterical and not at all cool – or elegant.
In 1974 my very cool aunt got married. I was 7 years old and with my similarly aged cousins I was dressed in a pretty white dress to be bridesmaid. I was selected to collect the bride’s bouquet in the church, while the couple knelt in front of the priest. Keen to demonstrate I was not too fond on being this much of a girl, I rudely screwed up my face and whispered loudly: yuk! when I returned to the front pew, holding the pretty flowers.
In 1976 we went on summer holiday in London. I was 9 years old. At Portobello Road markets, traders were peddling their wares – junk, second-hand clothes, stuff that might have fallen off a truck or otherwise shadily acquired. When mum made my little sister and I try on some beautiful Spanish dresses in a makeshift change room, I was super shamed that she made me and refused to let her buy the dress for me, even though everyone around me told me how lovely I looked. I did not want ‘lovely’; that was too girly. Lovely does not let you run around and climb trees and get grazed knees and dirt in your face and mud between your toes. Lovely is something your brother does not respect and therefore you don’t either. Of course, my beautiful little sister got herself a fabulous blue and red dress with tiny little flowers that she wore till she outgrew it.
Even out of my tweens, as a young person, I was never comfortable with dresses, make-up and girlie talk. I mostly wore jeans, unshapely jumpers and sneakers. In 1990, when I first came to Australia, I was entirely shocked to learn that Queensland’s Parliamentary orders were amended to allow women to wear slacks in Parliament. For the first time in 1990! What was this focus on women looking like dolls – hadn’t they heard about women’s liberation in this country?
When I migrated and started work the following year, I was so busy fitting in and meet expectations that I bought a few dresses and skirts – and uncomfortable shoes to match – but still preferred to wear pants and suits to work. My favourite shoes were a pair of black Doc Martens. In my spare time, I continued to dress for comfort, rather than style, without any sense of the feminine – in the warm Brisbane climate people’s casual dress style (singlet, shorts and thongs) was in such contrast to the suit and tie style of office work.
In fact, I had turned 40 when I realised that I could wear a dress quite well and that my legs were not as ugly as I had imagined for years, especially in a pair of well-fitting heels. The discovery came about when I took three weeks leave to overcome stress, battle a mild depression and reorient myself in the life in which I suddenly found myself. My boss and very good friend took me on a day of shopping therapy to DFO, a brand outlet near the airport. Here I bought a very beautiful red dress, shoes and makeup. This red dress changed my view of accentuating my feminity. I felt beautiful and attractive – and girly! Even though I was fast to drop the makeup, I have since become an ardent dress and shoe shopper. My best pieces are sourced in my home country, where design is embedded in life and fashion in ways hipster Australians could only dream of.
As I child and young person, I never aspired to being seen as elegant. It would have been almost rude in my eyes if someone had said I was elegant. Yet, I felt so very good about the fact that my yoga teacher noticed and commented. It is true that the self I was as a child is not the self I am as a 47-year-old adult. And isn’t that a good thing?