Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rural Legends

For the last four days I've been laid low - some allergy or virus - who knows. And let me tell you, it's no fun being unwell in New York. Four whole days and almost no human contact. The anchors on CNN are starting to seem like my friends. Even Obama started to look like a friendly face. I saw McCain had a new band-aid and was saying melanoma wasn't so bad. "Right on", I called out to his sad TV face. As for Nancy Grace, her warmth and empathy fairly burst from screen.

I have had about five phone calls. Three from my husband who is 12,000 miles away in Bass Straight, Australia. But they've been brief and full of static - Australia's Telstra is not known for its reliable connectivity. Two calls from work. And yes, that's it. I started to wonder what would happen if I died. I took to cleaning the house at night in case I was found dead the next day - I have my pride! I went to bed each night worrying what the discoverers of my body would think if I hadn't stacked the dishwasher. I remembered my mum warning me always to wear clean underwear, "just in case".

Tonight, as I made my first meal in a hundred hours - a cheese omelet, I pondered my life. What if I became really sick? Would I stay here, in Manhattan? Surely I'd "go home". But the "home" people hadn't called either. They think of me as a "successful New Yorker", an "American" who has betrayed her country. My children have their own lives. My husband is working on a boat.

Perhaps if I was resident in Australia. Perhaps then. I thought back. And suddenly, out of the blue I remembered a day - a day and a night and half another day, actually.

One Sunday. Bendoc, Victoria - a one-horse town on the border of New South Wales. A few houses belonging to the policeman, the teacher and what was then called "The Forestry Commission". A few locals. And a one-teacher primary school where my husband was the teacher.

It was a Sunday. I was eight and three quarter months preggers. Our first child. So we - Philip and I decided on a drive - perhaps our last before the baby was born. It was the beginning of winter. We set off down the winding dirt Bendoc - Orbost Road and took a turn into a side road somewhere or other. The side road deteriorated the further we went. After six K we stopped to turn back.

In turning, the car bogged. It was almost six p.m. and getting dark. A sign nearby warned of wolves.

We were city people. No one was around. We hadn't passed a building in miles. We started to walk, back.

When it was almost pitch dark, we decided to stop. I was getting stomach cramps. Philip remembered a hut he'd seen on the turn-off as we were driving. We walked on.

We found the hut. No insulation, no warmth, no electricity but it did have a door so we could lock the wolves out.

"Don't worry", he said, "when school starts in the morning they'll see we aren't there, they'll see the half-drunk teacups on the table, the door ajar, and they'll send a search party".

I believed him. So did he. We were both wrong!

The sun came up. "Let's walk", he said. "We'll meet them coming toward us".

And so we did. We walked and walked and walked. I was fortified by memories of newspaper reports about the Australian "digger" spirit, country hospitality, the way people in the country actually care for their neighbours, unlike the unfeeling "city folk". What would they think when they found their teacher and his pregnant wife missing when school started that Monday morning?

Well, nothing actually. No one came. We walked, and walked and walked. Even when we came to the town, there was no one waiting at its borders. We got to the school house. Children were playing in the school yard. I collapsed. Then slept. Philip went over to his classroom.

"Why are you so late?" the kids asked. "Why did no one look for us?" he answered.

Yep, maybe New York is not so bad. Country Australia, urban America, viva l'indifférence!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

All Tip and No Iceberg - When the Rubber Hits the Road

The Men
"Australian slang is part of the beautiful cultural value of this nation." - Bindi's Mum

"Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages" - Dave Barry

We Australians are known to pride ourselves on our "colorful language". From Bazza McKenzie with his "technicolour yawn" in the 1970s, Paul Keating and his "scumbag" insults in the nineties, to Andrew Hansen - best illustrated in the Eulogy video clip (below right).

War Against Everything - Eulogy
Classified 'M' [very course language]

But there is something endearing in American English's disregard of grammar and its unfettered creativity demonstrated in a multitude of ever-changing expressions.

I like the way adjectives turn into nouns, as in, "I don't like hot", and nouns such as "diary" verbing into diarize". Dropping the intransitive verb completely, as in saying to the cat, "Do you want out?"

Perhaps it is because Americans have no time to form complete sentences. So they just say anything. And if a more complex thought needs to be expressed - one that may need more than one sentence, there's often an idiomatic expression to substitute for it. Such as in the following except from an IBM database magazine.

"The Rubber Meets the Road -
How will DB2 Viper's hybrid XML-relational data server work in the real world? You can join the customers and partners who are revving the engine, kicking the tires, and checking performance and handling. Here's what to look for when you take it out for a spin."

I also like, "Am I about to step off the curb or step off the Grand Canyon?".

But sometimes I wonder - how would a modern American express, Jane Austin's first sentence in "Pride and Prejudice"? - "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife"?

Or a 21st century Australian, for that matter? I can't imagine. Few people nowadays take care in sentence construction. We don't have the time. I don't think it's an English thing, an Australian thing, or a US thing. It's a twenty first century thing.

We are not into words right now. Our dinner party conversation don't measure up to those of Austin's heroines - or even the of the Beatles. Who was it said, "The media is the message"? Some sixties person no doubt. This is the time of the Obama-Michelle fist bump, of icon hieroglyphic symbols instead of words, of touch screens and ativars.

Meanwhile, I love the American language, a shorthand for thinking. Words that are halfway between perfectly formed sentences and Egyptian hieroglyphics,

Way to go ...

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Purity, Innocence and Pornography

In the fifties and early sixties, the first exodus of young Australians set the stage for future generations to travel overseas after graduating from university.

Among them were Clive James, Germain Greer and Richard Neville - all of whom became successful in later life.
I wasn't in that wave of young aussies. But I was in the next - following the hippie trail through south east Asia, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and Europe, to end up in "Swinging London".

Why did we leave? For many of us we left to get away from the insularity and parochialism of Australia. I remember when Lady Chatterly's Lover was banned. When the copy of Michelangelo's David had his genitals covered with a fig leaf in Melbourne's Myer department store. And when a story book for sick children was banned because of its title, "Fun in Bed".

Sometimes I meet Aussie Expats who traveled and stayed overseas, mostly in London. Or I read about them in the press. People like Greer and James who remember Australia as it was in the sixties. A waspish country, the land of "the White Australian Policy" - Arthur Calwell saying, "Two Wongs Don't Make a White". New South Wales Premier Robin Askin surrounded by Vietnam protesters, telling his driver to "Run the bastards over".

I've argued with such friends, and shrugged of the remarks of Greer and her like. What would they know of Australia? They've hardly set foot in the place for any length of time for years. Australia has changed...

And it had. But now?

Recently the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Kevin Rudd - a man most of has had great hopes for - stepped into the Bill Henson debate. Henson is an Australian photographer of world renown. His art has been exhibited world-wide, including in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

Many of his works have as their subjects, adolescent girls and boys - "in their states of despair, intoxication and immature ribaldry" (Ashley Crawford, Bulletin).

But Prime Minister Rudd recently publicly condemned the photographer’s work, as "absolutely revolting", after the press took up the story of Henson's May exhibition being canceled following eight individual complaints made to police voicing concerns about an email invitation from the Gallery to a "Private View" that depicted an explicit photographic image of a nude 13-year old girl.

It makes me wonder. Is "wowserism" alive and kicking in Australia?

Rudd appears to be objecting largely on the grounds that the subject are not able to "consent" to their images becoming publicly available. And of course to the nudism. But where is the nudism here? -

Mr Rudd rcently slammed an art magazine's decision to publish this photograph of a six-year-old girl, taken by Australian photographer Polixeni Papapetrou of her daughter Olympia, on its cover.

"A little child cannot answer for themselves about whether they wish to be depicted in this way," Mr Rudd said. "Frankly, I can't stand this stuff."

I just don't get it. The depiction of the child is hardly "nude". How many of us have photographed our children and put the photos, running half naked under the hose on the front lawn, at the beach, being breast-fed? And we've posted them on-line at Flickr, Smugmugs etc.? Did we ask our children's permission? The photos are kinflicks! Surely a parent can consent for their own child. Surely a parent can make public, photos of their kids. Or do we have to analyse them in case some pervert might drool aver them.

No, Mr Rudd, the problem is not with the parents or the photographers - it is with people who see the bad things in the innocent. After all, you have to be pretty sick to see innocent photos of innocent children as pornographic.

You are attacking and condemning the wrong people.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Happy Country

The Happy Map
A group of academics at Leicester University, have managed to attract headlines with a "happy map". It's meant to tell us which countries are "happy"

It doesn't mean much. I tried hard to find the details of the researcher's methodology - but it's been buried somewhere beyond the reach of inquiring minds.

What IS amusing about the "happy map" is that Denmark comes out on top with a score of 273. Australia scored 243 and the U.S 247.

Denmark? I can't believe it. I'd just finished reading about the "Happy Map" when I came across an article about Muslim scarves and the Danes. A Veiled Threat.

Apparently a beauty pageant and a proposed law have Danes locking horns over one potent symbol of Islam: the headscarf. Virtually all sides of the political spectrum in the happiest country in the world are up in arms over Denmark's first "Miss Headscarf" pageant.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen's Liberal Party sees the competition as anti-democratic and woman-hostile.

Many imams have criticised the pageant as disrespectful to Denmark's 200,000 Muslims. Scarves are OK, but wearing them in pageants is not.

And all this follows on from a nationwide debate over whether judges should be allowed to sit on the bench while wearing the headscarf, or hijab. The fact that there are no female Muslim judges in Denmark, and in fact there are not even any on the horizon, is beyond the point ...

The best comment came from Liberal Party MP Eyvind Vesselbo. "Muslims feel yet again that they are being trampled on, that they are not welcome, that they are not liked," he said, insisting that delaying integration "goes against the interests of society".

Now I'm not a great supporter of beauty pageants, head-scarved or non head-unscarved. But surely Mr. Vesselbo, integration is not best served by advocating non-integration.

But forget the spoil-sports, Huda Falah (the WINNER). I hope you got a good prize. And it's a great scarf.

And what about Miss Hot Legs - Nigeria, Miss Motor Pageant Italy and Miss Nude Australia.

My favorite though is

Now that's what I call, HAPPY!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Going Bush

"She lay on the mudflats between nightmares and the ropy unknown day. A magpie sang. In November, the creepy Rabbitoh had told her , the magpies pecked your head and made blood pour down your face. Some country she'd been sent to." - His Illegal Self (Peter Carey)
The Australian Bush - Merrimbula
Bush Near Merrimbula

The "she" is one of the main characters in Peter Carey's novel, His Illegal Self. A young Boston woman who has fled the U.S. to Australia.

Peter Carey is an Australian expat who lives in New York. So am I. I love reading his latest novels as they invariably straddle the two countries. Not only that - the places in those two countries are my favorites - Manhattan, and the Australian bush.

And I love novels set in the Australian bush. Janet Turner Hospital's Charades, Murray Bail's Eucalyptus, Keneally's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, and of course almost any of Patrick White's, are just some of the novels, that when read in another country, transport Australians back to the Australia of their minds.

What is it about the Australian bush that we Australians love, and that we Aussie expats yearn for? After all, 84% of Australians live in urban areas, and rarely set foot in the bush - though we all claim to know it.

The Australian bush is frequently described as harsh, uninviting and beautiful - at the same time. It pervades our literature, our paintings and our films. It is at the hear of our very culture. It is and was the heart of the first Australians. It created their Dreamtime.

And many of us grew up fearing the Banksia Men, and adoring Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. We proudly learned Dorothea MacKellar's Sunburnt Country" at school - a poem that celebrates the beauty and terror of the bush. More Australian films, from the first feature length narrative film - "The Story of the Kelly Gang" (1906) through Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Breaker Morant (1981), Gallipoli (1981), Man from Snowy River (1982), Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Evil Angels (1988). Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) , Ten Ten Canoes and Jindabyne (2006) use Australian bush as either background or setting.

The bush is part of our language. We have 'Bush Telegraph' ('Grapevine', word-of-mouth), bush tucker (food gathered from nature, in the outback), bushwalking (hiking in the bush), 'gone bush' (disappearing, leaving the city), Bush Bike wines (Western Australia). When we are tired we are 'bushed'. A national hero, Ned Kelly was a bush-ranger (bandit). We have bushfires (wildfires in the US) and bush lawyers (untrained people with opinions).
Sidney Nolan - Kelly and horse, 1946

I wonder when I last went to the bush? I know that it wasn't on my last two trips to Australia (2007). Perhaps before that - 2003? Five years ago then. And yes I miss it, though I probably won't go on my next trip. It's a bit like living in New York and rarely going to MoMA or the Met. You don't need to; it's enough to know that it's there.

What I'd REALLY like to do is "go bush", although that term has some weird connotations in the current U.S. context. And I AM "bushed", bushed-out as well.

Where I would REALLY like to be right now, is to be camping somewhere in the Flinders Ranges. Lying on a banana lounge under a shady gumtree, drinking too-hot black tea. And what would I be reading? A book set in New York, of course ...