Introducing The Crayon Files

I’m Caron Eastgate Dann, a writer, journalist and academic based in Melbourne, Australia. This blog investigates rediscovery, from old books to childhood hobbies, from discussing favourite recipes to travelling back to favourite destinations. It’s not a nostalgic trip down a clichéd memory lane, however: rather, it will discuss how aspects of the past can be very much part of the present and can be integrated with new media and 21st-century ideas. I started thinking about this a few years ago when a technician was doing some work on my computer system. I asked if I needed a new modem, because the one I had was quite old. “Actually, it’s fine,” he said. “Not everything old has to be thrown away”.

If you’d like to know where the title The Crayon Files comes from, find out here.

The secret of everlasting youth

Image from allfancydress.com UK

Image from allfancydress.com UK

I was travelling one recent morning on the shuttle bus that takes me from the train station to the university where I work. I was standing, because the bus is always packed and I rarely get a seat.

“Right, that’s it, you others will have to wait for the next bus!” the driver said to the long queue of students still waiting to board.

Off we went, maybe 40 students, all of them young, and two staff members, including me.

Incongruously, the driver was playing an ABBA hit from the 1970s, Dancing Queen, on the sound system. Some of these kids’ parents wouldn’t even be old enough to remember this in its own time, I thought wryly.

That song brought back memories, to when I was in my mid-teens, had my first after-school job and believed that every day had the potential for something exciting to happen. As I was often told by older family members, I had my whole life ahead of me.

Meanwhile, back to the future, on the bus in 2015, it suddenly occurred to me that that was the difference between being young and thinking old: hope and expectation.

I haven’t stopped hoping for exciting things to happen, and I know they still can and will. But when I was young, I not only hoped they would happen, I expected them to. If I went for a job, I expected to get it, and I usually did, for example.

These days, when I apply for a job, though eminently qualified, I know not to get my hopes up. Even the ones I think I have in the bag…I don’t, usually! Quashed expectations abound, until it seems futile to have any.

Health-wise, I have led rather a charmed existence, so far. I’ve never had a serious illness, I’ve never broken a bone, never cut myself so badly I needed stitches. The worst illness I’ve had in recent decades was a bad back for a few weeks in 2008, which had no lasting implications. I’m robust and spring back from most things.

Nothing hurts except my feet after I’ve been on them all day, while most of my friends in their 40s and older complain of any number of aches and pains.

Most of all, I’ve never suffered from mental illness. I feel down some days, but I’ve never been clinically depressed. I feel anxious often and have certain trigger points but never to the point of becoming a serious problem. This is a major stroke of good luck, as so many people I know have been affected by mental illness.

Through most of my life I’ve woken up with what I refer to as the “bubble of happiness”. It’s a new day and anything can happen!

Mostly this year, for me, the only thing that happens is work, though. I’ve been putting all my energies into my job, then wishing I had time for play as well. I paint and sew and read, but I’ve let the first two go because I always have so much work to do. Not to mention writing that next novel, which I believe is my real work, but for which I need to make a new plan and squeeze the time from somewhere.

I know that on my death bed, I will never say, “I wish I’d taught more classes and written more lectures”. But I might say, “I wish I’d seen my friends more often, painted more pictures, written another novel.”

I see so many older people around me who have so obviously lost the hopes and expectations of youth – for good reason, usually. Life throws us a few too many challenges from time to time.

Yet, we all need to rise up with those bubbles of happiness once more and think like a young person again: exciting things not only can happen, they WILL happen!

The adult orphan

Mark Lester as Oliver Twist in the 1968 film 'Oliver'

Mark Lester as Oliver Twist in the 1968 film Oliver

When you hear the term “orphan”, a sad picture of a parentless child comes up. Think Oliver Twist, the fictional boy in an orphanage who dared asked for more porridge and who asked plaintively, “Where is Love?”.

Sadly, some children are made orphans. But by far the majority of orphans are actually adults, some of them seniors themselves by the time both of their parents have died. Indeed, my father-in-law was 78 by the time his mother died at nearly 102. When he died just eight years later, in 2014, he left three adult orphans behind: orphans with grown-up children of their own, and two of the three orphans with grandchildren. But orphans, nevertheless.

The first time I thought of the adult orphan was when my mother’s father died, just a few months after her mother. the first thing she said when she came off the phone was, “I’m an orphan”.

Technically, the term refers to a child who has lost both parents (or, interestingly, to an animal who has lost its mother). But the term “adult orphan” is sometimes used.

It doesn’t carry with it, however, the same connotations of sadness, destitution, or the horrible possibility of an orphanage.

Yet the loss of one’s parents is devastating for many adults, even if both parties are “old”. When the first parent goes, it is a shock; when the second goes, I am told you feel rather alone and vulnerable, mortal after all.

Luckily, I’m not an orphan, because I still have my mother, and you can’t be half an orphan. My mother, in her 70s, says she still thinks often that she would like to ask her own mother or father something, then remembers they’re not here to ask. (And when her sister died recently, she became an only-child adult orphan, as she reminded me when I was writing this piece).

When the parent of an adult dies, particularly of an older adult, it seems that most other people don’t take much notice. That is, they might say how sorry they are, put a message of condolence on Facebook or send a card, then everything goes on as normal the next week.

Yet the bereaved are suffering just as much as if they’d been younger when their parents died. They might not have missed out on the guidance a parent can provide while you’re young, but having a good parent or parents is comforting at any age.

When they’re gone, the world is a different place.

The “away child”

The "away child": I was 13 and living with my grandparents for a year when this picture was taken.

The “away child”: I was 13 and living with my grandparents for a year when this picture was taken.

How thrilling it must be for parents to raise children to become independent adults who go off and do their own thing. They might travel, study, work, marry, even immigrate somewhere else.

But how bittersweet that must be: on the one hand, being proud of that child’s achievements, and on the other, not being able to see them regularly, perhaps not for years at a stretch.

I call this the “away child” phenomenon.

By “away child”, I mean a person who lives in a different city or country to their parents, and this applies to a person at any age. If you’re 80 and your mother is 100, but you live in different cities, you are still an “away child”. As my mother says, she will always be my mother—age is irrelevant.

Mum and Dad always encouraged us to be independent, to aim high and to travel the world. We started travelling internationally as a family when I was 5.

I was an “away child” first at the age of 12. My parents and brother went back to Los Angeles to live for another year, and I stayed behind in Auckland, New Zealand, with my grandparents.

When they came back the next year, it was exciting to meet them at the airport: I got the day off school and Mum wrote a letter to say they had decided to keep me home that day. I think it was a Tuesday.

Just a few years later, I was leaving home “for good” to take up my first journalism job at 17 in another region. Mum and Dad said I shouldn’t leave home so young, but I insisted, and my grandparents drove me to my new town—actually a place my father had lived in 40 years before and my grandmother had lived on her family’s farm. Some locals even remembered them.

It was in Waipukurau, in Central Hawke’s Bay, about five hours’ drive from home (not that I had a car). In those pre-internet days, we couldn’t be part of each other’s daily lives. Communication was by letter and the occasional expensive phone call, and I travelled home for a weekend every six weeks or so. I didn’t go home for Christmas that first year I was working.

It was such an exciting adventure for one so young that I didn’t think much about how my parents would feel. My mother revealed to me only recently that it was sad for them and that she felt almost as if I’d died: the empty room, what to do with the old toys, whether to repurpose my bedroom or leave it as it was. (Three years later when my first brother actually did die, I moved home for a year to be close to them; then they had a new baby, a second brother for me, and I visited as often as I could before moving to Australia. They followed, not long after, and then I moved to Thailand! But that’s another story).

Social media has made the phenomenon of the away child much easier to bear, I guess. My international students tell me this helps them deal with homesickness, the thought that they can actually see and hear their families daily (even if they don’t).

Now my mother and I actually live in the same city, and last year I moved suburbs so I am only 18km from her, not 72km. But my much younger brother lives in the US, and although that is great—a happy marriage, an amazing city to be young in, a career, a dog—it’s hard to get used to seeing this “away child” only every couple of years.

On the other hand, I have quite a few friends who live in the same town they were born in, just down the road from their parents. Some have been “away children” for long periods, but others have been happy just to stay.

I wonder what that’s like.

Look at these funny little things!

Daffs-1

Melbourne is having a colder-than-usual winter, and this past week was leaden-skied and full of rain as well as days that started near 0 degrees centigrade (32F) and didn’t climb higher than about 12 (53.6F). I know, I know, it’s nothing like the cold in some other countries and regions!

Nevertheless, it’s been very dreary walking to the train each morning on my way to work. Until…a glimmer of hope!

I thought spring bulbs were activated by warming weather, but these funny little things don’t seem to care that it’s nearly freezing overnight.

Yes, these cute little daffodils have bloomed along the roadside, brightening the day and letting us know that there’s nothing surer than the fact that spring will come.

Daffs-2

Is every tea bag the same? Read on to find out…

©Caron Eastgate Dann 2015Tea is my drink of choice. I have it first thing in the morning, during the day if I’m working from home, and last thing at night with a piece of chocolate (or two).
I’m not a tea connoisseur. I just pour near-boiling water over a tea bag dangling in a mug, add some milk and take out the tea bag. That’s it.
Tea comes from China and India originally and—something I didn’t know—the tea plant belongs to the camellia family. Today, black tea is a huge export crop also in Sri Lanka, Kenya and Turkey. It’s also grown in western countries, including Australia and the United States, but on a comparatively minor scale.
There are many brands of tea on the supermarket shelves. I used to think some expensive brands must be better than others, what with their fancy packaging and—in one brand’s case—appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, a strange nod to the distant past and days of the British empire.
But lately, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that all tea bags are the same. The ingredients listed on every box are the same, after all: “black tea”. I know there are different types of leaves, and some black tea tastes vastly different, such as lapsang souchong and Yunnan. However, I’m talking about your ordinary, everyday black tea bags.
As I said, I reckoned they were all the same. So I decided to do a tea tasting of five popular brands. And guess what?
I was wrong!
I’m pleased to say they are all different. No two tasted or looked exactly the same. So my logic was faulty. There is actually no big tea factory somewhere churning out tea bags that then are simply put in differently branded boxes.
And which tea bag was best? The expensive one or the cheap one?
I chose four brands: Twinings (two different types because I buy both English Breakfast and Australian Afternoon Tea and I was suspicious that they might be the same), Bushells Blue Label, Dilmah Extra Strength and Lipton.
The prices are based on buying a 100-bag packet (not on special) from Woolworth’s supermarket in Melbourne, Australia, in June, 2015.

©Caron Eastgate Dann, The Crayon Files

Twinings of London Australian Afternoon 10/10
Price: 10.5c per bag
Mild and smooth, this was my favourite. I love its orange packaging complete with kangaroo silhouettes. But it’s so cute, I was suspicious that it was just the same as English Breakfast in a prettier packet. Not so!

Lipton  9/10
Price: 4.6c per bag
Smooth with no trace of bitterness, this was very close to Twinings Australian Afternoon. Unexpected, because it’s half the price.

Bushells Blue Label   8/10
Price: 2.3c per bag
Almost as good as Lipton, but with a trace of bitterness that lost it half a point.

Dilmah Extra Strength 7.5/10
3.3c per bag
I wanted to like this one the most, since I met some of the family who run it at a publicity event once and they seemed so passionate about their product. Dilmah boasts that it is a “single source” Ceylon tea, so that has to be a good thing. It  was smooth, and it had a slight sweetness about it that some people might prefer. However, the string connecting the tag was shorter than any of the others, making me think it could annoyingly jump into the cup as you were pouring it (even though it didn’t).

Twinings of London English Breakfast 5/10
Price: 10.5c per bag
This tea was pleasantly peppery, but had a bitter after taste when compared to the others. I was very surprised that this one rated lowest when compared with the rest.

©Caron Eastgate Dann 2015  The Crayon FilesSo, on balance, my favourite is Twinings Australian Afternoon, but I’ll only buy it when it’s on special. The rest of the time, I suppose it will be Lipton, which is less than half the price, but has the most ordinary packaging. No matter, I have a tea jar anyway.
But if you’re on a strict budget and live in Australia, go for Bushells, which was even cheaper the day I visited the supermarket because it was on special, and could have been purchased for $1.66 for a 100-bag box. That’s only 1.6c a bag

And how about those tags on the tea bags? This is a whole massive global industry on its own. Lipton bags are stapled to the string (very unglamorous), while Bushells and Dilmah are fixed with miniature stickers, and the string on Twinings is knotted to the tea bag. Are these labour-intensive jobs? Probably, as I’m not sure how they could be done by machine.

Another interesting thing about tea, apart from packaging, is the stories that each brand has. I make no judgements regarding these stories, but simply repeat them.
Dilmah claims to be “the only global brand owned by tea growers”, run by its founder for 60 years, and says it shares its profits with workers and the Sri Lankan community.

Lipton has no family history on its box, but says it is a member of the Rainforest Alliance, ‘helping to support tea growers and the environment’. The company was started in 1890 in the UK by Thomas Lipton, and it used to be a supermarket chain in the UK, also. It’s now owned by Unilever.
Bushells started as a tea shop in Queensland, Australia, in 1883. I like the instructions on its boxes: after pouring boiled water on the tea bag, it directs you to “raid the bickie jar” (that’s Australian for “cookie jar”). Then, “wrap both hands around your mug. Fire up a conversation and share the smooth full flavour that generations of Aussies have grown up with”.
Twinings of London, of course, is mostly associated with Englishness, which is ironic, since tea isn’t actually English at all. Every packet, even Australian Afternoon, carries the royal crest and the words, “By appointment to Queen Elizabeth II”. Funnily enough, Twinings actually started as a coffee shop, renamed from the original Tom’s Coffee House when it was bought by Thomas Twining in 1706 in London. Apparently, Twinings of London is the world’s oldest company logo (used since 1787). The original shop is still open at 216 The Strand in London, though the company was bought out by Associated British Foods in 1964.
Now I want to know two things:
1. Why do cafés charge as much as $5 for a cup of tea (most often just a bag with boiling water), when it can be bought for as little as 1.6c a bag, and that’s retail? Add a spot of milk and about 15 second’s worth of labour and…not $5 worth!
And…
2. Why don’t Bushells and Twinings have apostrophes in their names?

There’s something funny going on with bread

In our “new” suburb, to which we moved a year ago, there are no independent bakeries close by, so we have to buy bread from the supermarket or one of those bakery franchises, which are pretty much the same, actually.

It’s disappointing to see row upon row of spongy white bread on the supermarket shelves: there must be 30 brands. Even their bakery section has mostly plain white bread in various guises.

It’s a far cry from the aromatic, heavy, crunchy-crusted loaves we used to buy at any of several small independent bakeries within walking distance of our house in our old suburb. For convenience, we also used to buy bread in the supermarket there, but again, there was less of your limp white pre-sliced type and more of your grained, dense brown styles.

Lately, I’ve noticed something funny about the bread, whether it be from the supermarket or the bakery chain: it won’t toast.

That’s right. Brands that previously came up hot and golden in our new toaster, with its wily ways and plethora of buttons, now refuse to toast. The slice simply becomes drier and drier, and the crust eventually burns, but the middle never toasts.

We have found this to be so with white bread, sourdough bread, brown bread and muffins of various brands, for a couple of months now.

***Conspiracy theory***: Could the bread all be made at some big central bread depot, then just put in separate packets and called different names? And could the bread formerly known as good for toasting, be being made with different (i.e. cheaper) ingredients that stop it behaving like real bread?

I think the only answer is to buy a bread-making machine and make our own.

Bread

WAIT! There’s no Easter Bunny?

I heard a funny (peculiar, not hah-hah) story this week about a company function to which the families of employees had been invited, and of course there were little kids there. The Easter Bunny made an appearance too.

It was really warm in Melbourne that afternoon – about 30C. After a while, the Easter Bunny, able to stand the heat no more, took off his head. “Whew!” the man inside the suit said, “It was getting hot in there”.

And all the little kids around him began to cry.

They were worried that the Easter Bunny had lost his head.

Or perhaps they were just upset that they’d been sold a pup, so to speak. The awful truth was, the Easter Bunny wasn’t real.

I grew up with the same stories about the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas, though I soon deduced that the EB couldn’t be real. I did, however, believe in the big FC until I was about 10 and some ratbag kid at school told me the truth.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m glad The Easter Bunny’s not real. A rabbit the size of a man would not be my idea of cute. Before long, he’d find a partner rabbit the size of a woman, and they’d have thousands of human-sized rabbit babies and eat all the grass and crops in Australia.

Rabbits are not native animals here, and they are pests in the wild, though apparently, they make adorable pets.

I do wonder, however, why as an entire society, we feel a need to pretend the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas are real, when the rest of the time we’re reassuring kids that the characters in their story books, including the monsters, are not real, and they shouldn’t talk to strangers they don’t know, even if they seem nice.

I guess it’s all part of the commercialised, commodified, mediatised world we live in.

Freshly baked hot cross buns from my favourite Vietnamese-run bakery will be my Good Friday breakfast.

Freshly baked hot cross buns from my favourite Vietnamese-run bakery will be my Good Friday breakfast. The crosses didn’t work out too well, but I’m assured people travel from afar to buy them.

That aside, there are aspects of Easter I like. Mainly, it’s a few days off work (during which I get to catch up with my marking—oh joy!). There are hot cross buns on Friday (ours are from my favourite family-run bakery), shopping on Saturday, a family meal on Sunday and a well-deserved lie-in on Monday.

And not to forget the chocolate Easter eggs. I’ve suddenly, just since a year ago, become a regular chocolate eater after not being much interested in it since childhood.

Back then, I used to hoard all my Easter eggs and eat them a tiny piece at a time, sometimes taking a month to finish them. This would infuriate my brother, who would finish all his on the same day he received them and then appeal to me for some of mine. Mum would tell me I should “share” with my brother and not be selfish. Hmph!

It’s pretty much the same in my house today: I savour a piece or two of chocolate a day, whereas Himself scoffs his then thinks I’ll take pity on him and share mine.

Not me: boys have always been taking my chocolate, and they don’t get it any more!

We need to talk about the work fridge…

If you work in an office, school or any sort of institution where there are many staff members, you will know what I mean when I say with dread, “the work fridge”.

That hive of half-bottles of sour milk, lunches from last week forgotten when a last-minute invitation to eat out came along, plastic containers of mouldy left-overs put there by an employee who left three months ago…ugh!

I try to use the work fridge as little as possible. But yesterday, I had cause to store a sandwich there. 
I noticed a patch of spilt milk on one of the shelves. What did I do? Nothing. I probably should have, but I rarely use the tea- and coffee-making facilities, so decided to ignore it. 
But today, same bat-place, same bat-time, I had cause to open that fridge again. Da-dooooowwww! Same patch of spilt milk from yesterday. OK, it had to be me who cleaned it, but I wondered why no one else, including those who use the fridge three or four times every day, had considered wiping up that spilt milk.  

 

Now, about 50 people use this staff kitchen regularly, most of them opening the fridge to get milk for their tea or coffee. On the bench is a notice, “Clean up after yourself”. And the bench itself is pretty clean, though someone used and discarded a teaspoon in the sink this morning (like, rinse it and put it in the rack already, it takes 3 seconds!).
I guess technically, no one actually spilt the milk. It probably came out itself through a lid not on tightly enough.
Or am I being too picky? People do call me a hygiene freak, after all.
But I wonder what their fridges at home look like inside.

Should you stand up for a pregnant woman in the train or bus?

I shouldn’t have to ask that question — it should go without saying that you would do so. But, sadly, I do have to ask it.

This is because twice this week I have seen instances where people appeared reluctant to stand for obviously pregnant women.
This morning, a woman got on the train and, after a few moments, I stood up for her, and she gratefully sat down, thanking me and giving me a lovely smile.
I say “after a few moments” because I was surrounded by young men and women, most of them 20 or perhaps even 30 years younger than me. I admit, I’d thought one of them would stand (is that wrong?). However, they remained in place, even in the seats opposite with notices that say the seats must be vacated if elderly, pregnant or disabled people need them.

 

 When I got up, none of the young men or women made a counter offer. They settled further into their seats, one making eye contact but quickly looking away.
A 35-ish man standing opposite me was shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe that out of that whole group, you were the one who had to stand up,” he said. “Manners! Modern society, eh?” He said it loud enough for others to hear; they just sat there. Now, I’m not elderly or infirm or anything, but I do think that very young people should stand up before middle-aged people. There used to be a rule, too, that if you were on a student ticket, you were obliged to give up your seat to an adult. What annoyed me most was that more than one of us should have been prepared to give up his or her seat.
As I said, this was not the only incident this week (I catch a lot of public transport!). A few days ago, I got on to a crowded bus with no spare seats. After me, a woman got on who was pregnant. She stood for a while: no one got up for her, including people in seats right next to her.
Finally, a young woman standing on the other side of me courageoulsy tapped one of them on the shoulder and said, “I think you should stand up for her”, indicating the pregnant woman. The seated girl was genuinely surprised, and leapt up immediately. “Oh! I didn’t even notice,” she said.
I wondered if this was indicative of what had happened in both incidents. That people weren’t being rude, ill-mannered, or insensitive. They just didn’t notice.
Are we so embroiled in our personal worlds of music played via headphones or ear buds, texting, social media and even reading, or a combination of those things, that we fail to notice when fellow humans need our assistance?
It seems we need to get over ourselves, look around, and notice what’s happening in the world.

Reality bites: death and the blogosphere

I was shocked and saddened to read that the partner of one of my blogosphere friends had died suddenly this week.
I won’t link to her post about his death here, as it seems personal, something that is meant more for those who know and care about her, even if we “know” her only from her words online.
Of course, her blog is public and anyone could happen upon it, but even so, there are some posts that feel as if they shouldn’t be casually shared.
This is the strange thing about the blogosphere: it’s both private and public at the same time. Every blogger will know what I mean by that. Occasionally, someone’s post goes viral, and they’re not always pleased: it seemed, said one, like an invasion of privacy.
While there are many more silent readers than those who communicate with bloggers they follow, always reading but never commenting, each blogger also seems to have an inner circle.
Some are people you know in real life, others are friends of friends, still others you read because you connected on other social media, such as twitter or Facebook. But the majority of bloggers I follow are people I don’t actually know.
The friend who lost her partner this week is someone I’m never likely to meet – and even if we lived in the same country, we could walk past each other in the street and we wouldn’t recognise each other; we could be introduced at a party and I wouldn’t know it was her, because I don’t even know her real name.
But somehow, that doesn’t matter. Somehow, I feel more involved in and connected to her life events as she reveals them through her blog, than I do with the life events of, say, people on TV, even though I can see and hear the latter every day and know their names and usually way too much other information about them.
The strange thing is that when there’s a death in your blogosphere, it’s as difficult to know what to say as it is in person. “Sorry for your loss”, “sorry to hear your news”, “thinking of you”, or the formal “sincere condolences” don’t seem to be enough in the comments section, yet in the end, they’re all you have. And the “like” button seems so inappropriate, though many people now use it as a “read and noted” button rather than really meaning “like”. Because how could you like a post about someone’s true love dying, after all?
Since I started blogging in late 2012, this is the first post I’ve made without a photo. Somehow, a picture just didn’t seem appropriate.