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.

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.

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.