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.

“Don’t wish your life away”

CalMy late father had a few wise sayings, and one of them was “Don’t wish your life away”. He would say this whenever I said “I wish it was my birthday”, or “I can’t wait for the holidays”, or “only two more weeks to go until Christmas”, and on and on.
“Don’t wish your life away,” he would say.
When I was young, I used to think this was quite funny. Being immortal at that stage, of course, I would constantly be in a state of wild anticipation of The Next Big Thing that would be happening in my life.
Now that I am older, I understand what he meant. Instead of wishing days, weeks and months away, we should try to enjoy each one as they come and for what they are.
Retailing and media conspire against us doing this, of course. Not two weeks after Christmas, Easter stuff was in the shops in Melbourne. Easter is not until late March! And in the week after Christmas in NZ, where I had a short vacation, the TV was full of ads urging people to sign up for some ghastly hamper service that you pay into every week to have food delivered for next Christmas.
The result as I see it is that so many people seem to be lurching from one consumer-driven “celebration” to the next, and life passes by in a flash. Before you know it, Christmas or Hanukkah or whatever you celebrate is here once again and “Where did the time go?”, we exclaim to each other.
“It’s been a long day” is not usually a sentence you utter when you’ve enjoyed a day. But it should be. I want to take each hour of the day as a gift, as a separate entity in which something wonderful can be achieved, thought or read.
Even though most of the year I work around 60 hours a week, I have plenty of time for leisure, because I make it a rule not to work past 6pm, unless I’m absolutely desperate and have a deadline that can’t be avoided.
Otherwise, I have this time every day to relax as I want to, and perhaps to cook the evening meal (my husband and I share the cooking).
Actually, I used to be a TV junkie. I would watch up to eight hours a day, and if I wasn’t working next morning, would stay up watching until 2am. And we didn’t even have pay TV!
But when we moved houses in April 2014, I stopped watching so much TV. I stopped watching most commercial news broadcasts, trashy ‘reality’ shows, game shows and soaps. Now I watch great dramas, comedies and the occasional movie. I watch interesting or entertaining documentaries. I even watch the occasional reality show if it can tell me about something I didn’t know or can entertain me. I watch only about two hours’ TV a night, and often less.
I do play computer games, often for hours at a time. But I find that I can play them while thinking about other things at the same time. I get lots of planning done and think up new ideas when I appear to be pushing buttons on a computer game. This is my secret weapon!
But from time to time, I find myself still trying to speed up days, weeks, even months. It’s good to have stuff to look forward to, I know, but I have to keep reminding myself: “Don’t wish your life away”!

The 1940s media technology nothing can better

Radio

There is an adage that says, don’t try to reinvent the wheel: that is, if an invention is perfect, leave it be. One of these perfect inventions, I believe, is the transistor radio. That’s because

  • It is light and portable, and you can buy one small enough to fit in a pocket;
  • The battery lasts for months, perhaps years, depending how much you use it;
  • It always works, as long as you’re in range of radio waves. No electricity, recharging, modem or internet capability needed;
  • When the weather is very hot or very cold, it still works;
  • You can do other things while you’re listening to the radio—you can drive, garden, cook, whatever;
  • There’s a world of entertainment for everyone, young, old and in between, and broadcasts available in almost every language. There are music of all types, dramas, news, advice shows, arts shows, science shows, chat and talkback.

In fact, radio was the world’s first live interactive media. When talkback started in the 1960s, the law in Australia had to be changed, because it was illegal to record phone calls, and radio stations needed a slight delay so they could censor inappropriate callers.

When I was about 9, my parents bought me my first transistor radio. It was a palm-sized red one with silver buttons. Back then, my favourite show was the children’s story request program on Sundays, starting at 6am.

In those days, also, I can remember my grandparents still had a ‘radiogram’ that was a big piece of cabineted furniture, in a polished wood that my grandmother would put a vase of flowers and family pictures in silver frames on top of. They called this piece of furniture the ‘wireless’, and it used valve technology rather than transistor technology. No doubt they thought the radiogram a superior being to the transistor, which was invented in 1947.

When I was a teenager living in Auckland, New Zealand, the soundtrack to my life was the cool music on Radio Hauraki, so called because it had started as a pirate station broadcasting from a boat out in the Hauraki Gulf from 1966-70.

By the time I was listening to Radio Hauraki, it was many years after those pirate days, and it was well established as a legal land-based station. But it still had that edge of being rebellious and even a bit dangerous, with Kevin “Blackie” Black (1943-2013) the coolest of all DJs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Imagine my excitement when, as a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I actually got to interview the great Blackie himself at his house.

These days, of course, you will tell me that radio has been modernised and that I should stream it over the internet using an app on my phone. Yes, I can do that. But somehow it’s not the same: it eats my phone battery charge, for a start.

And I rarely listen to the radio for the music these days, because I can download any song I like and play it whenever.

But in today’s new environment of music on demand, something has been lost. I remember how, as a 14-year-old, I used to sit eagerly by the radio, finger poised on the red ‘record’ button of my cassette player, ready for when a favourite song happened to be played. It felt like winning a raffle when a song you’d been waiting for actually came on.

I still like a transistor radio. My current one is a retro-styled powder blue, which I did an ink and watercolour painting of, as you can see above.

I’m getting another one soon, a digital pocket-sized number. But essentially, it’s the same perfect invention even in the 21st century: simple, easy to use, strong, and lasts forever.

Look what I made! Look what I made!

Nano-flamingoI’ve been flat-out busy this year with work, and in the last few months, I haven’t even been able to write any blog posts. Things are much easier now though, so I hope to write plenty of posts over the next two months.
During that very busy time, I discovered a new hobby: building miniature construction projects.
I like to go for a quick walk in the afternoon to clear my head, especially when I’m overrun with work. There is an old-fashioned toy shop at my local shops, about five minutes’ walk from where I live. In it I discovered these intriguing little packages, each containing 100-150 or more tiny blocks and promising after construction to result in the cutest figures, each one of which can fit comfortably into the palm of my hand.
Nanoblock is a Japanese ‘micro-sized building block’ that has a cult following around the world. Blocks may be as small as 4x4x5mm. You need a steady hand for this work!

Instruction pages look incomprehensible: but they're logical and precise once you get the hang of them.

Instruction pages look incomprehensible: but they’re logical and precise once you get the hang of them.

I started with the ‘greater flamingo’, because pink flamingos make me smile and remind me of Las Vegas.
But when I opened the packet, I was taken aback: the instruction sheet looked incomprehensible with its cryptic diagrams and only the occasional word. “I’ll never be able to figure this out,” I thought.
However, I stared and stared at the sheet, and suddenly, it started to make sense. I got it. The instructions are actually amazingly precise, once you’re on their wave length. And not only is there enough of each type of brick, they give you extras.

I’ve gone on to make a piano and a great white shark. I’m going to do more!

Nano-piano Nano-shark
Because I work constantly with words, I need to get those words out of my head to give myself a break. Micro-block building is like therapy—a relaxation technique for the busy mind, and the same reason I took up art. I can set up everything I need for the miniature building project—blocks, base and instructions—on a sheet of A4 paper on my dining table.

And my next project? It’s going to be a koala or the Sydney Opera House, I think.

Dear Google: How did I get here?

This is the question googlers must ask themselves when they somehow arrive at this blog after googling something seemingly unrelated.

Google, as we know, works in mysterious ways.

This post is inspired by a very funny series, Dear Goldfish, done by my blogosphere friend Fish of Gold, in which she consults her WordPress stats to find out Google searches that resulted in her blog coming up for the searcher. You can see her series here.

It’s always hilarious, and I decided to do the same with my own blog. So here are some of them, posed as questions and proving the adage, “There’s none so queer as folk”. They come complete with my own answers in the style of an agony aunt column (sort of).

Google: gay men in thong and ballet?

Crayon Files: Okay!

Google: Song for cats and crayons?

Crayon Files: Always a place in my heart for that, obviously.

Google: Cat celebrity?

Crayon Files: Well, my cat’s a celebrity—in her lunchtime. Among the proper cat stars, Felix the Cat, incidentally first drawn by an Australian cartoonist, is my all-time favourite, but Garfield and Sylvester are not bad either.

Google: i wish luck to choose the bride you atemnak but?

Crayon Files: How dare you call me an atemnak? Good luck in choosing the bride, anyway.

Google: teeth rotten after drinking coke?

Crayon Files: That’ll do it.

Google: is there a hawaiian snow dome souvenier [sic]?

Crayon Files: Is the Pope Catholic?

freddy_kruegerGoogle: freddy’s yorkshire scones?

Crayon Files: Umm, gee, I don’t know. Maybe try the more famous Aussie version, Flo’s pumpkin scones, instead.

Google: do mermaid excess?

Crayon Files: That’s a tricky one.

Google: chaos workplace?

Crayon Files: Unfortunately, it’s the way of modern management.

Google: yadanarbon, the land of the gems?

Crayon Files: Thank you, I learnt a new place name. Yadanarbon is in Mandalay, Myanmar, and is also the name of a famous football club there. The Yadanarbon market is the biggest in Mandalay, with 3000 stalls. For gems, you’d be better to go to the Gem Palace, though.

Google: whiskey sky chicago?

Crayon Files: Yep, whiskey bottles just fall out of the sky there.

Google: One hundred ways of using marmite?

Crayon Files: There are indeed at least a hundred. See my post here for marmite pasta.

Attack of the grammar jammer!

IMG_3637I know that, technically, defacing billboards is illegal, but I have to admire culture jammers: those brave souls who climb up high ladders to get at ads for major companies and turn them into a critique of what’s wrong with society.

This sort of thing appeals to the anti-big-business streak in me.

But something that irks me even more than big-company billboards is real estate agents’ billboards with grammar errors.

It’s almost tiresomely predictable that every time you see one, there will be an it’s where there should be an its, a complements where there should be a compliments, or a comprises of where the preposition just shouldn’t be there. And dangling modifiers…don’t get me started!

There’s one such billboard outside a real estate agent in the local village, a few doors away from my house. You can see it at the top of this post.

If you can’t see the grammatical error, you probably won’t want to bother reading this any further.

But for those who are interested, look a little closer, and you see this:IMG_3635

Yes, I was delighted today to see that someone had culture-jammed the billboard. That’ll learn ’em.

Or maybe not. Bet it’s still there, just the same, next time I walk by. And I bet the next board that goes up has the same old errors. I have three words for you, real estate agent billboard writers: get an editor!

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?