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.

Anti-Ageing Breakthrough’s [sic]

Today’s headline, Anti-Ageing Breakthrough’s,  comes from a subject line on an email I received this week from a major online cosmetics company. It annoyed me so much, I had to write a blog post about it.

Given their subject line, I wasn’t surprised when I read in the body of the email that their products could help “restore your skin to it’s [sic] most youthful state”.

As I’ve often repeated, a relative 20 years my junior retorted when asked why well educated professional people made so many basic grammatical errors these days, “What’s the problem? We know what we mean”.

It’s true. I do know what that cosmetic company’s subject line means. But I’d love to know the rationale behind putting an apostrophe in such a straightforward plural. On this topic, I once queried a student of mine, who did excellent work but who always used apostrophes with simple plural’s (like that). When I asked him why, he said he didn’t know and that he’d never thought about it. Another teenager told me they were taught at school to put apostrophes “with s words”.

Could this be true? It can be the only answer.

I can understand some confusion about its and it’s: the possessive version is an exception to the usual in NOT taking an apostrophe, though it’s easily explained  (use it’s only when you mean “it is” or “it has”). I can understand the coffee-shop blackboard error, cappuccino’s $4, it being a ‘foreign’ word and all (the plural is cappuccini if you want to be strictly correct, but it has become anglicised in Australia to cappuccinos). I can even understand another one I saw recently, holiday’s (the writer knows that words ending in –y often become –ies in plural, but holidaies is clearly impossible, so the writer has become confused).

There’s the old joke about the grocer’s apostrophe, depicted so well in the illustration on this page (thanks to Juliet Fay for allowing me to use her cartoon, and you can read her excellent blog post on such apostrophes here).

But breakthrough’s?

While we all make errors in our writing and informal correspondence, through haste, a casual approach, or the fact that our work isn’t edited by anyone else, I’d expect professional companies to be just that. To me, it looks unprofessional when I see grammatical errors in publicly released advertising or editorial material, and I wonder in what other ways the company is unprofessional. Get a good sub-editor, or just someone who knows basic grammar, to check the work of your copywriter, companies!

Or am I asking too much? Does it even matter?

Where has the time gone?

TimeDear February: who are you, and what have you done with my friend January, who has suddenly disappeared, seemingly without warning?
Which is just another way of saying, Where has the time gone?
Remember when you were a kid and the summer school break seemed to go on and on and on? In New Zealand, ours coincided with Christmas and, two weeks later, my birthday.
I remember endless days of playing outside with the neighbourhood kids, rolling down the sloping grass lawn in my grandparents’ garden, travelling by car with my parents to Palmerston North, via a day fishing at Lake Taupo, to see my great-grandparents and loads of great-aunts, great-uncles and second cousins.
This summer break stretched almost to infinity, so that when it was, finally, time to go back to school, I was ready and willing.
Now, time speeds by so quickly, there is no such thing as an endless holiday. Even three or four weeks off goes like wildfire, and in a flash, it’s time to start work again.
This disparity is probably in part because as adults, we have so much more responsibility. The annual clean-out, biannual dentist visit, tax return that should have gone in months ago but there was no time… We leave it all to this mystical period when we, seemingly, will “have the time”. We don’t, of course, and in the blink of an eye, it’s gone.
Add to that the complication that when I don’t work, I don’t get paid, so I’m always short on cash during this time, trying to eke out the last of my pay and looking forward to that regular fortnightly input again.
In addition, leisure time flying by is about attitude. When I’m on holiday (vacation) now, I seem to spend the whole time counting the days, saying, “Oh no, only three weeks and four days to go…oh no, only three weeks and three days to go…how will I ever get everything done? I haven’t even started to write that new novel yet!”
In comparison, when I was a child, every day was what it was: up at sunrise, enjoying the time for itself, not even thinking about the next day, because there was so much of this one ahead, never worrying about where the time went, how little was left of the holidays. We took each day as it came.
Perhaps that is the way adults should live, too, at least during breaks from work.

Nothing lasts forever

IMG_2532

I have a couple of possessions that have been part of my everyday routine for a decade or more. They are not necessarily valuable or one-of-a-kind, or even very unusual.

One of them was a Capricorn mug I got in Thailand when I was living there in the late-1990s. Almost every day since then, I have had at least one cup of tea from this mug.

IMG_2535Although the gold leaf that used to decorate it has almost gone, it seemed to be going strong. But a few days ago, it broke when it fell into the sink. Just broke, just like that.

Now I have to throw it away, and I will. But I will miss it.

Knowing it couldn’t last too much longer, I recently searched for another on the internet, but there is not one to be found, it would seem, although these mugs were available in a shop at a particularly popular shopping centre in central Bangkok for six years or more.

A couple of years ago, I even emailed the factory that makes Royal Bone China in Thailand, hoping they might have some remainders. They replied very cordially, but no luck: the cups had all been sold years before.

So now all I have is these pictures. If ever you see one, let me know, won’t you?IMG_2531

Bats, Vampires, and What We Do in the Shadows

Dusk, and the screen is soon to be lowered at Shadow Electric. Then the bats come out, hundreds of them, flying overhead. Unfortunately, it was too dark by then to get an image. Picture: ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

Dusk, and the screen is soon to be lowered at Shadow Electric. Then the bats come out, hundreds of them, flying overhead. Unfortunately, it was too dark by then to get an image. Picture: ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

As dusk was turning to night around 9pm, the screen was lowered and lit up. At the same moment, hundreds of bats filled the inky sky above the outdoor cinema.
Apparently, this happens every night at Shadow Electric Outdoor Cinema and Bar at the old Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, Australia. But the bats seemed double spooky on this particular night, because the film we had come to see was the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows.
Spooky, funny and ironic—the bats AND the movie.
Directed by Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine “Flight of the Conchords” Clement, who also star in it, the film has received rave reviews and has been acclaimed at international festivals.
If you don’t already know, What We Do in the Shadows is about a group of vampires who share an apartment (“flat” in NZ talk) in Wellington. Rather than on plot, the film relies on its quirky hilarity and the juxtaposition of characters from classic European horror removed to far-off suburban NZ.
It’s not often I laugh aloud at a film at all, let alone from start to finish. But barely a minute of this 90-minute film went by when I didn’t LOL. It has a Pythonesque quality in that its comedy comes from a combination of clever lines, strangely lovable characters and utterly ridiculous slapstick.

One of my favourite lines is when the vampires, out for a night on the town, come across a gang of their arch enemies, the werewolves. Riled by the vampires, the werewolves utter some expletives, but are quickly reprimanded by their leader and agree with him not to swear: “We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves”, is their mantra.

I can hardly be said to be an objective observer, however, since the main reason I went to the film is because one of my oldest, dearest friends has a role in it. The New Zealand actor Yvette Parsons plays a witch MC at the masquerade ball towards the end of the film. It was exciting to see her up there on the big screen, and to hear the rest of the audience laughing uproariously, like me, at her comedic performance.
What We Do in the Shadows premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the US last year, and was named best comedy of the year by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian in November. Read his review here.
The film opens in Japan this week, and the producers are hoping to have it released in the US also. Good luck to them! There’s more on the film on their hilarious Facebook page.

On Safari

The lamb platter at Safari Restaurant, Ascot Vale: perfect comfort food. Picture by Kenny Weir, Consider the Sauce

The lamb platter at Safari Restaurant, Ascot Vale: perfect comfort food. Picture by Kenny Weir at  Consider the Sauce

It’s a lazy, hazy new year’s day public holiday in Melbourne when most restaurants outside the tourist areas are closed, but you want to go out to lunch with a preference for African food.
So who do you call?
Luckily, one of my friends and former journalism colleagues, Kenny Weir, is now one of Melbourne’s top food bloggers. In Consider the Sauce (CTS), he and his son Bennie cover Melbourne’s west in all its foodie vibrancy and diversity.
My husband, Gordon, and I were keen to sample some of the delights we’ve been reading about in CTS all this time. We live in Melbourne’s south-east, so it’s a long trek across town that we don’t make very often. Today, though, we cross the dreaded Westgate Bridge without a hassle, it being a public holiday and middle of the day when all those who are travelling out of town to the coast have already done so.
Kenny and Bennie know just the place to satisfy my craving for African food: Safari Restaurant, serving Somalian fare, at 159 Union St, Ascot Vale. The CTS team has been here many a time, and has even given the restaurant an award. You can read reviews of Safari Restaurant on Consider the Sauce here and here.
“I hope you didn’t eat much breakfast,” Kenny says. “Be prepared…”

Soup to start: delicious, despite its ordinary looks. Picture by Kenny Weir at Consider the Sauce

Soup to start: delicious, despite its ordinary looks. Picture by Kenny Weir at Consider the Sauce

Kenny orders a platter of food to share, but before it turns up, we’re served bowls of aromatic broth. They don’t look like much: a brownish liquid with a few herbs and skerricks of vegetable and flecks of lamb. But the taste! Meaty, peppery, lemony, totally delicious.
As Bennie says, “Sometimes, we come here just for the soup.”
I found a recipe for a similar “lamb soup for the soul” (fuud ari) at Xawaash Somali Food Blog, here.
Anyway, next up is our heaped platter of rice, spaghetti, lamb, vegetables and salad. As soon as I see it, I know I will love it.
This is comfort food, immediately recognisable the world over, just as are, say, spaghetti bolognaise, macaroni cheese, chilli con carne, hainanese chicken rice, Indian butter chicken or Thai massaman curry.
It’s that irresistible combination of protein and carbs that we humans seem to be predisposed towards. I didn’t expect spaghetti, but should have, of course, Somalia being a former colony of Italy.
So, we have succulent slow-cooked spiced lamb on the bone; julienned carrot, onion and a few other vegetables; crisp various salad leaves round the side; and beneath, al dente spaghetti that is rather bland but is an excellent foil for the rest of the flavoursome food; and superb rice that has been steamed in stock and herbs. There are two sauces on the side: a hot red chilli one and a green herb-based one, both sensational.

Safari Restaurant at Ascot Vale. Picture by Gordon Dann

Safari Restaurant at Ascot Vale. Picture by Gordon Dann

It’s simple fare served unpretentiously, and even though it’s a huge platter, we consume it all.
Somalian food is traditionally eaten with the hands from the centre platter, and most—but not all—of the other guests are eating in this way. We opt for plates and cutlery, however, and the staff are happy to bring them.
We’re also given carafes of Vimto, a fruit cordial which refreshes the palate between mouthfuls of lamb, rice and spaghetti.
The bill comes to a total of only $48 for the four of us (we actually ordered the platter for three, which was plenty for four). Now, $12 a person for lunch at a restaurant is a bargain in Melbourne. As a comparison, at the uni campus where I teach, I pay up to $14 for an ordinary sandwich and a coffee.
The four of us have already made another foodies’ lunch plan to meet half-way between our respective suburbs in the not-too-distant future. Good food at a bargain price, the company of old friends and summer in Melbourne—what could be better?

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,100 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

It’s how many days till Christmas? Nooooooooo!

My place settings at the Christmas table have names attached to baubles, which I reuse each year.

My place settings at the Christmas table have names attached to baubles, which I reuse each year.

For the first time, we actually went shopping on Boxing Day this year. For my friends in the US and other countries where they don’t have Boxing Day, that’s December 26. It is a national holiday and traditionally the time of post-Christmas sales (when retailers get rid of all the rubbish they couldn’t sell at inflated prices before Christmas).

However, we went to only one shop on Boxing Day, and it was for my husband to buy me a pre-approved present for my birthday, which is coming up soon. More about that in January.

Anyway, the shopping centre carpark was even more congested than it had been leading up to Christmas. It always astounds me that after the consumerist excesses of Christmas, people are still eager to acquire more stuff.

In the shop we went to, I saw people buying up huge baskets and trolleys-full of junk…for next Christmas. Themed serviettes, tree decorations, cards, wrapping paper and the like. I felt a pang of pity for them, actually, as if they have nothing else to look forward to except next Christmas, yet most of them will be under such financial stress that they have to buy stuff for December 2015 in December 2014 when it’s on sale.

Yesterday morning, fittingly, there was an interview on the radio with a woman who helps people de-clutter their houses. That is, get rid of the excess stuff. I remarked to my husband what a ‘first-world problem’ that was: having too much stuff, when most of the world doesn’t have enough.
I thought of all those useless baubles: the tinsel, the discarded cards, the wrapping paper, the table centrepieces. Imagine how many millions of dollars people spend on these every year. Do you really need a plastic reindeer and fake snow in a country where it’s summer at Christmas time and reindeer belong to countries across the other side of the world?

Not to mention the heaps of gifts that are unappreciated—and also the reason many people go to shopping centres on Boxing Day, to return stuff they didn’t like. Other unwanted gifts are just put in the back of a wardrobe, to be trotted out when the giver visits. Some are even re-gifted, of course.

I’m lucky: I seem to always get great presents that are things I want or can use productively. But I know lots of people don’t.

How about this idea? Instead of running around buying loads of presents for family members, everyone in the group draws a name out of a hat and buys one good present for that person. Each person provides a list of things they would like to a pre-determined amount. Result: you have to buy only one present; that present will be exactly what the person wants.

The world's loneliest egg timer: stuffed in a cracker, then left behind on Christmas day.

The world’s loneliest egg timer: stuffed in a cracker, then left behind on Christmas day.

Here’s an ironic tale to finish: this year, I spent $50 on a box of 6 extra-special Christmas crackers (Americans, you can see what these are here). This is because I usually spend about $20 and the prizes are all rubbish, and most people discreetly leave them behind when they depart.

The prizes inside my super crackers were indeed much better than normal…but one guest still left his prize behind. It was an electronic egg timer. Cute, but superfluous, nevertheless.

The art of science or, the science of art

 

Rainforest Walk at Monash University, Clayton campus, Melbourne. The artful rainforest gardens demonstrate a mix of art and science.

Rainforest Walk at Monash University, Clayton campus, Melbourne. The artful rainforest gardens demonstrate a mix of art and science.

I was walking through the science faculty’s section of my university campus the other day, impressed with a state-of-the-art new building and renovated classrooms with their “collaborative learning hubs”— round tables for tutorials with connections for charging electronic devices, and even laptops provided.

It’s so far away from the arts building, in both distance and facilities, it’s like a separate world.

It seems whenever I hear talk of a “clever country” in Australia or calls for more money for research, they’re talking only about the sciences.

I wonder how we got to this point in which our society so deeply divides arts from sciences, and “arts people” from “science people”, even at school. After all, sciences developed from arts, from those with the imagination and bravery and tenacity to investigate the world and how it works.

It seems to me that investigating the world and how it works is also the work of artists. In great artists, I see scientific qualities, and in great scientists, highly developed artistic qualities, too.

Leonardo Da Vinci, artist AND scientist, had it right. In art he found science, and in science, he found art. He appreciated the qualities in both and understood that the line between them was a blurry one, if it existed at all.

piano-tunerIn reality, beyond stereotyped media and ideology-fuelled governments, there are many artist-scientists. I was reminded of this recently when reading the novel The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason (Picador 2002). The novel, inspired by a true story, takes place in the 1880s and is set in the remote highlands of the Shan States of Myanmar (then Burma). A British piano tuner is employed by the War Office to travel there from dreary London to tune the piano of an eccentric British officer. Apart from being a wonderful adventure story, the novel is interesting in that its author, Mason, was a medical student at the time of publication. He had completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Harvard, and had written much of the novel while working for a year along the Thai-Myanmar border on malaria research . I googled Mason and found that he went on to specialise in psychiatry, but is still writing fiction. He’s combining both careers effectively, as this recent event shows.

Other artist-scientists who come to mind are the Australian writer Colleen McCullough, who studied neurophysiology and worked in research and teaching at Yale University in the US; and the great British crime writer Agatha Christie, who was a qualified apothecary assistant.

And in our cultural life, various practices are a mixture of art and science. Think of gardening and cooking, for example.

When did we start making such strong divisions between science and arts, or even thinking that one field was “cleverer” than the other? In my last year of school, I studied English, German, history, geography and…chemistry. It took me a lot of insistence at school to be allowed to do chemistry, because it didn’t “fit” the rest of my course, but I wanted to have a science in there. When I was doing my bachelor of arts degree in the 1980s, you could still do a BA majoring in mathematics or psychology, interestingly. On the other hand, the engineering faculty was overwhelmingly male, as was the field of higher degrees in any of the sciences.  There’s a photograph of my mother in her PhD graduation day march with the other graduates in medical fields: she is the only female in the photo, yet it was the late 1980s.

In the 1980s, too, some vocational degrees started trying to introduce and acknowledge the validity of arts. For example, engineering students had at least one arts unit as part of their BE, albeit one specially adapted for them. Sadly, these arts units were the subject of scoffing and ridicule among engineering students of the time who had, they thought, more important things to do. I was told bluntly by one engineering student that “anyone” could do an arts degree, whereas an engineering degree was much more difficult.

This attitude remains, particularly in the press and in government circles. I think it’s time to revive the arts, to correct assumptions that arts subjects are easier than sciences, or are for people who aren’t good enough to get into science courses. I’d like to see the arts and science overlap much more.

And while it’s not impossible for an arts major to do a science unit or two, or even to do a double degree in some disciplines, it’s not common. But it should be encouraged. Why not a double-degree in physics and comparative literature, for example? French and chemistry? History and neuroscience? Or just cherry-picked electives for the sake of a rounded education. I don’t think it would hurt student doctors, for example, to do a couple of units of English literature, writing, art history, French or politics, say.

And me? I’d like to revisit high school mathematics and I’d like to learn physics.

A funny thing happened on the way to the garden…

The first lettuce from our own garden

The first lettuce from our own garden

All my adult life Ive steered clear of gardening. Despite my mother being a keen green-thumb and growing our own produce, such as potatoes, mint and parsley, when I was young, I’ve always thought it wasn’t my ‘thing’.

Then a funny thing happened. A few years ago, I started watching a half-hour Saturday evening TV show called Gardening Australia. I still wasn’t into gardening itself, but I began to appreciate the peace and beauty of home-grown plants, particularly, as I’m a bit of a foodie, the edible kind.

In April this year, we moved out of the city to a suburb that is almost rural, to a street in which people take gardening seriously. And although we’re in a townhouse with only a very small courtyard, we’ve started a garden.

We’ve got lettuces, radishes, sweet corn, tomatoes, garlic, chillis, herbs such as rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley, coriander, chives and more. My husband has even started a small and joyful flower garden in one corner.

Because I’ve been watching Gardening Australia attentively for so long, I’ve found that I’ve picked up quite a bit of gardening knowledge without realising it. Soil types and planting widths and watering tips: no longer are they useless information to me.

On Friday night, we had the first lettuce from our garden the star of a salad for dinner. Nothing ever tasted so good—bursting with flavour, nutty, buttery almost, and crunchy.

Lettuce2I teamed it with simple fare: tomatoes and multi-coloured capsicum (not our own, yet); and seared scallops and prawns with my hot butter-garlic-chilli-lemon pepper dressing on a bed of steamed basmati rice.

Best meal I’ve had in ages!

That book, that book…what was it?

The other day at work, some of the ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers were trying to think of the title of a great English-teaching text they remembered from the 1990s. It incorporated stick-figure drawings on flash card-like pages that were ring-bound.

There used to be a copy hanging round the old staff room, one said, but we had moved to a new building, and the little flash-card book had been forgotten (and had probably been thrown out). No one could remember the title or author.

It made me think of a book I had as a child to help me learn German. My father had visited Munich in Germany not long after the 1972 Olympics and had brought me back a poster for my wall. I was very young and thus didn’t know anything about the violence that had occurred there. But I had become entranced with teaching myself German (and went on to study it at high school and university).

The book I’m thinking of was a small paperback and it was part of a language series. It has long gone from my library, unfortunately. I also had a hardcover Berlitz book that I loved.

In my final year at school, I won a prize for German speaking from the Goethe Society. The prize was two lovely volumes of German fairy tales and songs. The song book was illustrated, with music, and I had it until recently. Now I can’t find it anywhere. I can only think that I must have given it away with a lot of others, in a fit of needing to make room in my bookcases. Why does it always seem that the book I give away is the very one I want not long after?

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 8.20.10 AMThere are websites that can help you identify books whose titles and authors you’ve forgotten. One is What Was that Book? Many of the postings on that are novels people read as children and half-remembered.

And what do you know? Today, I did a search for my German Through Pictures book and found it straight away! It was by I. A. Richards, I. Schmidt Mackey, W. F. Mackey and Christine Gibson. Itwas first published in 1953, though mine was a 1972 edition. Amazingly, I found a blog post  which reproduced some pages from German Through Pictures here. Thanks, Mary Caple from Montreal!

I could also buy the book via Amazon, priced from $7.92-$221.95, depending on quality and collectibility, if I wanted.

I think we should bring back the  series, as it’s so easy to learn from. There was also a French version—and perhaps there were other languages available, too.

Oh, and if anyone remembers the ring-bound English flash-card book with the stick-figure drawings, please let me know!