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.

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.

A book to scare the living daylights out of you

OK, I know monsters don’t exist. There are no vampires, bogey men or Frankenstein’s creatures. These are monsters of fiction, and are not real.
There is no space monster as depicted in the films Alien and Aliens and it will not come crashing through the bathroom window at night to get me.
There is no longer a big bad wolf living under my bed, as there was when I was a child, with enormous teeth all the better to eat me.
Shape-changers cannot slip under the door and lurk in the shadows, waiting to spring.
Ghosts of poor unfortunates who died in a sinking ship in the 19th century are not haunting people and leaving icy footprints on the stairs.
Oh but they are, they are.
At least they are in the American writer Keith Donohue’s masterful horror novel The Boy Who Drew Monsters, and while by day it all seems like a bit of nonsense, by night, every creak and bump in the house announces that there could be a bit of truth in that fiction…
It is, of course, the power of an excellent and accomplished writer to make you believe the unbelievable.
There will be no spoilers here, but I can say that The Boy Who Drew Monsters focuses on two 10-year-old boys, friends whose lives changed when they are both nearly drowned in the sea three years before. Nick becomes a loner but manages to function fairly normally, while Jack Peter is diagnosed with autism and refuses to leave the house, spending almost all his time drawing pictures.
Then strange things start to happen. Jack Peter’s parents start seeing creepy apparitions and hearing noises as if something is trying to get into their house. The horror escalates, and then they discover their son has been drawing monsters…beings that somehow seem to be coming to life. Then they discover that a ship sank in the sea in front of their house in the 19th century, and the bodies of some of the drowned were never found.
There has been some criticism of the end of the novel but—again without any spoilers—I thought the ending was great. Why? Because I can’t stop thinking about it. Donohue makes you question your beliefs about what is real and what is not, the power of the imagination and the power of suggestion. Granted, there are holes in the plot and certain plot points that remain unresolved at the end—but this leaves the reader to make up her or his own mind.
While verdicts on The Good Read website of The Boy Who Drew Monsters  are mixed, acclaimed horror writer Peter Straub wrote a glowing review in The Washington Post. According to Straub, “This novel is beautifully carpentered, and its effects are perfectly timed. The sheer professionalism here, an achievement which should never be undervalued, is felt on one’s nerve ends.” You can read the full review on Donohue’s website here.

I’ve been a fan of Donohue’s writing since his masterful first novel, the magical reality story The Stolen Child (2006), inspired by the Yeats poem of the same name. The novel went on to become a NY Times bestseller.
Donohue lives in Maryland, and by profession is an archivist with a PhD in English—Irish literature, to be precise. He was 47 before his first novel was published and despite large success, he still has a day job as the Director of Communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the US National Archives.

Actually, horror is not usually my choice in novels. I prefer non-gory crime, historical romances and stories of everyday life, but Donohue’s compelling literary prose and ability to build tension in the narrative hook me every time.

Although I found the book terribly scary, I could not tear myself away from it, save to gingerly look up the stairs or behind the door to make sure there really wasn’t a monster hiding there. Thanks, Dr Donohue: with The Boy Who Drew Monsters, you have scared the living daylights out of me!

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.