Here’s to a peaceful New Year: make goals, not rules

Wat Buppharam, Chiang Mai. Pen & wash, by Caron Eastgate Dann.

Wat Buppharam, Chiang Mai. Pen & wash, by Caron Eastgate Dann.

Whenever I am in Thailand, I like to visit several temples. I enjoy wandering around the compounds, and though I no longer call myself a Buddhist, I find an enormous amount of peace within them. This illustration was inspired by a photo I took when I visited Wat Buppharam in Chiang Mai in November. Just looking at it now makes me feel peaceful.

I would like to wish everyone a happy new year—tonight for us here in the Southern Hemisphere and tomorrow for others. Instead of “resolutions”, I’m going to make a list of things I want to achieve this year. That way, I will have goals rather than rules. One of those goals, of course, will be to write one post a month for the Bloggers for Peace cause.

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Bloggers for Peace: Baby steps to peace on earth; or, ask yourself, “What would Jo March do?”

Road rage: don't do it!

Road rage: don’t do it!

Have you noticed lately how furious people in the street have become? I’m not talking about the obvious ones—rather, the ordinary, everyday person who could be your neighbor, your colleague, your relative. This fury—I think at the stresses of modern life—manifests in random acts of anger and retaliation, ranging from the minor to the serious. This month, for example two young women in Melbourne were abused and followed when one inadvertently brushed another woman with her bag on a tram.

My last post was about rediscovering the children’s book Little Women. I talked about how the book has strong moral overtones, and I’d like to add the thread that runs through the book of dealing with anger, the sort of anger that can bubble up as a result of minor occurrences in everyday life. The character of Jo March has to learn to control her anger, and her mother advises her to bite her lip rather than give an angry retort. Well, I have been trying this too in the few days since I finished the book. I can report that it really does work! It helps so much to keep the peace with those around you. So, next time you’re tempted to lose your temper, ask yourself, “What would Jo March do?”

I want to talk mostly in this post of the aforementioned furious people, the ones who need so little provocation to unleash an angry reaction. Here’s an example: a few years ago, I got on a tram and was fumbling in my wallet for my fare. A well-dressed thirty-something woman virtually pushed me aside, furious that I was taking a few seconds extra, purchased her ticket then grabbed the last seat, next to the machine. I smiled at her and said politely, “I was only going to take a few more seconds”. Her well-spoken reply was, “Dickhead”. I was shocked.

Everywhere, I see drivers furiously swerving and making their tyres screech in a bid to get past someone, to beat a red light, to get round an intersection before pedestrians get to that part of the road. Just a few months ago, an ambulance was rushing along the main road in my suburb, lights flashing and siren blaring. As it approached a major intersection, the “cross now” sign went for pedestrians. I was astonished to see them actually running to try to get across before the ambulance, rather than waiting for a few seconds for the vehicle to pass.

It seems to me that many wars are started because people are angry as a result of being jealous, greedy, impatient, or intolerant, or all of them. But on a much smaller scale, in our everyday lives, we also show these traits. Maybe if we could learn to be less  jealous, greedy, impatient and intolerant, we would avert not only day-to-day anger, but also the sort of anger that eventually causes huge, evil events such as wars.

What I want to say, on behalf of peace, is that we need to practise peaceful behavior every day. Now, I don’t mean not sticking up for ourselves against injustice and bullying. They are quite different matters. I mean, don’t allow small events to build up and enrage you against everyone and everything. Don’t unleash this fury when it’s not going to lead to a positive change.

So don’t toot and shake your fist at a driver who has just cut in front of you; don’t tailgate someone just because they’re not going as fast as you would like; don’t yell obscenities at someone who may have simply made a mistake.

Here’s an example of how positive behaviour can work for the better. One day, I had stepped out on a pedestrian crossing at the university where I work. A car approached and seemed about to stop, but then accelerated. At the last moment, the driver saw me and stopped abruptly. I was about to say something rude about her driving skills, when she looked me in the eye with a big friendly smile of contrition and mouthed “SORRY!” My nasty words stuck in my throat, and instead of yelling at her, I smiled back, said, “It’s OK”. Both of us, I’m sure, had a better day than we would have, had I directed my anger at her.

And finally, in this, my first post for the Bloggers for Peace cause (which you can also access via the button on the right-hand side), I’d like to share two stories of kindness that promote peace and goodwill in our community.

Firstly, last winter I was catching the train home from work one day. It was very dark outside and as we drew close to my station, sheets of rain were falling. I had no umbrella, as the rain was unexpected. So, I prepared for the walk home in the rain by saying to myself, “It’s only water”. Anyway, just as I got out on the path and started striding toward home, a young woman, a stranger, ran to catch up with me. “Would you like to share my umbrella?” she said. I gratefully accepted, and learned she was an exchange student from China.

The second story occurred when I was at our local shopping plaza. I had used the ATM to withdraw some cash, went in to the supermarket, picked up a basket and walked down the nearest aisle. Suddenly, a voice beside me said breathlessly, “Excuse me, excuse me!” I turned toward the voice: she was wearing a burqa, and all I could see were her eyes, full of concern. She continued: “You withdrew $50 from the ATM—but you forgot to take it.” She held out her hand and gave me the $50. I thanked her profusely and I felt as if there was some hope yet for humanity.

Rediscovering a book from childhood

Is it not a beautiful thing to decide, on a day off, to take up the book you are reading, and to vow to read it all at once until it is finished?
That’s exactly what I did today. Well, I had only 36 pages left, so it didn’t take long.
I’ve been reading Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, for the first time in decades.  If you’ve been re-reading a book from long ago, I’d like to hear about it, too (see this post’s last sentence).

little-women
I’m re-reading Little Women because I intend to read March, by the Australian writer Geraldine Brooks. March takes up the story of the father of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Robert March is a shadowy figure in Little Women, and little is divulged about his time away from home while serving with the Union forces during the American Civil War. Brooks takes up his story, and from all accounts, it is a masterful work, for which she won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was so long since I’d read Little Women that I thought I’d best refresh my memory.

Overly sentimental?
Little Women is rather a strange book: endearing central characters, a strong moral and Christian message, a sentimentality that is too much at times, set against the turbulent times of the Civil War. Despite its almost preachy tone, it is compelling, however.
I’m most interested in the character of Jo(sephine), definitively played by Winona Ryder in the 1994 film version. The character of Jo is a reminder of how far women have come toward gaining equality. Only by acting, speaking and wishing to be a man does Jo consider she can live a valid life. And, in the 1860s, middle-class women were restricted to domestic duties. At one point, Jo tells her mother that she wishes all four daughters had been born boys. Some women broke with tradition, of course, including Alcott herself, who never married and whose income brought her family out of poverty. I can’t help thinking the English children’s writer Enid Blyton must have been influenced by Jo when she wrote her own “tomboy” character of George (Georgina) in the Famous Five series.

In places, particularly in its first half, Little Women becomes tedious with its moral lectures. At other places, however, it contains some excellent advice still relevant today. Here is my favourite:
“Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life becomes a beautiful success, in spite of poverty.” (Wordsworth Classics edition, 1993, p. 115).

Publishing history
Little Women’s book history is interesting. The first part was published in 1868—only three years after the war ended—and is partly autobiographical, drawing on Alcott’s childhood. Her father was Amos Bronson Alcott, a noted educator and writer. As in Little Women, there were four daughters in the family, and some of the events related in the story are descriptions of real events, notably in the sequel, Good Wives, Meg’s wedding (in reality that of Alcott’s sister, Anna). Good Wives was published in 1869, but the two are often published together now, although my book contains just the first. There are two more in the series: Little Men and Jo’s Boys.
Alcott, who never married, did not particularly want to write Little Women. She did so at her publisher’s insistence, and its great success made her family financially viable—just as well, because her scholarly father earned almost nothing for his work and relied on his wife and daughters to earn incomes.
One curious factor is that there are quite a few typographical errors in this book, and a few grammatical errors, too (“sung” instead of “sang” for example). You’d think these would have been fixed a century or so ago. But perhaps they crept in when books were re-keyed (and not copy-edited, obviously).

Literature in society
I work as a university lecturer and I’ve often thought it would be interesting to write an undergraduate subject called Lessons from Literature or Literature in Society. Over a 12-week semester, you would choose a number of classic books and examine the moral code of each. There would be a different theme each week. This wouldn’t be schmaltzy goody-two-shoes stuff: you could also choose a book that carried a message of evil, for example, and examine its effects. Through examining excerpts from these books, you could discuss social codes, ethics, morality and sensibility, in a bid to understand current moral systems, laws and social mores. Perhaps I will have the opportunity to do that one day.
Books with moral messages, such as parables, are still among our most popular. In the 19th century, there was A Christmas Carol; fast-forward to the 21st  century and you have The Five People You Meet in Heaven, for example.

What book or books do you most remember from childhood?
I’d like to hear what books readers of this blog remember favourably from childhood and which you have re-read. You could simply comment below, or you could post a link to your blog. Happy reading!

Have you heard the one about the journalist who wanted to be a novelist?

Mark Twain as editor of the Territorial Enterprise, Virginia City, Nevada, 1863

Mark Twain as editor of the Territorial Enterprise, Virginia City, Nevada, 1863

I went to a fiction writing workshop in November at which the tutor, a university lecturer, insisted that “Very few good novels have been written by journalists”. I was astounded by this statement, but said nothing during the seminar, not wanting to be seen as adversarial or—as I am a university lecturer myself—as trying to be a know-it-all and trump the teacher.
I was offended, actually, because I am a former journalist and a published novelist, and I think I’m not bad at both.
Traditionally, many young people who want to be novelists have been steered into journalism as a way of making a living but still using their writing skills. It seems most journalists I know have a manuscript half-written or ambitions to write a novel.

Anyway, this got me thinking about great writers who also worked as journalists. Contrary to what the fiction workshop tutor said, there are many great novelist-journalists. What follows is a list of just a few that occur to me. They are in no particular order and they are eclectic: that is, some are world renowned, others are much lesser known; some are from a previous age and some are current; some are literary, some populist, some both.

Ernest Hemingway
Mark Twain (pictured above)
Geraldine Brooks
Graham Greene
Djuna Barnes
P G Wodehouse
Martin Amis
Willa Cather
Charles Dickens
George Orwell
Ruth Rendell
Will Self
Linda Grant
Tom Wolfe
Susan Kurosawa

In a recent article in the Guardian on this topic—specifically on the worth of Will Self’s work—Robert McCrum examines the cliché of the journalist as unable to write good fiction:  “What lies behind this prejudice, of course, is the idea that fiction (and poetry) is a higher calling,” McCrum says. “Journalism is hack writing (it doesn’t have to be) and novelists dwell closer to the top of Mount Parnassus (well, occasionally).” Read the full article here.

A 2006 scholarly book on the subject, Journalism and the Novel, by Professor Doug Underwood, examines why so many journalists have aspired to fiction writing careers. I think it’s often the other way round: many people aspire to the seemingly more romantic and mystical calling of fiction writing first, then realise they have to make a living as well. That’s what happened to me. I was going to be a famous actor, playwright and novelist. However, making a living as a journalist is not wasted time, for journalism is a fascinating occupation that allows access to people and places that others don’t get, thus providing much material a novelist can use.

Just because someone works as a journalist doesn’t mean they can’t write good fiction: that’s faulty logic. Just because I once worked at McDonald’s, for example, doesn’t mean I couldn’t become a chef at a fine-dining restaurant; and just because I worked at Target doesn’t mean I couldn’t become a high-end fashion designer. Making a generalisation, as my erstwhile tutor did, can manifest simply as a prejudice with no evidence to support it.

So, my advice to anyone who thinks journalists can’t write impressive fiction is, read The Old Man and the Sea, Animal Farm, Huckleberry Finn, March, and The Quiet American, then get back to me.

Wrap it up: the dreaded to-do list

Today’s post is in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge call for bloggers to write about the year that was.

With only two weeks of the year left, I checked my personal non-urgent to-do list, written in January,  and discovered that I hadn’t  done anything on it this year! I was a bit disappointed in myself until I realised that I hadn’t done these things because I didn’t need to. On the other hand, my work-based to-do list is down to one final project, and even that is nearly complete.
I like making and working through to-do lists. These days, I use the Stickies app, virtual post-it notes in pink, yellow, blue, green and purple, stuck to the front of my desk-top computer. On my iPad and iPhone, although I have several specialist apps for lists, I use Notes for stuff I have to do right away. It automatically then sends my list to my email.
There’s something satisfying about writing a list and then crossing it off as you complete each task. It reminds me of school exams, in which the teacher would write the time in chalk on the board in 15-minute blocks until the finish. She or he would then cross off the time as it passed, so students could see where they were up to. A school friend of mine applied this concept to everyday tasks she didn’t like, such as maths class. At the beginning of the class she would draw up her list: 10.00, 10.15, 10.30, 10.45, 11.00. Then she would cross off each time as it occurred. She said it helped make the class go quicker! My father would have said “Don’t wish your life away”, but back then, we didn’t really understand what he meant.

Remember these? My Time Manager folder, 1988-1998.

Remember these? My Time Manager folder, 1988-1998.

In 1988, the bank where I worked as a corporate publications journalist sent me on a Time Manager-brand course, which included this marvelous thick black folder (pictured above), in which you could manage your life, and which I used for 10 years, until computers superseded it. I still have this folder and the sections inside reveal all sorts of fascinating snippets from 20 years ago: how much I paid for rent at various places, the cost of living in Bangkok in the early 1990s, my aspirations, a list of ideas for books, never written. Hmmm, that novel set in the Australian gold rush era could  be worth resurrecting…
There are even a couple of long-forgotten British stamps, sent to me by a relative because I needed to provide stamped self-addressed envelopes when I submitted work to publishers (no email submission in those days). Apparently, there was something called an international reply coupon, but I could never find out at any post office what this was or where to get it.
Unfortunately, I culled a lot of stuff from this folder years ago which would have made interesting reading now.
So, unfulfilled to-do lists aside, what were my top 10 achievements for 2012? I made a list! Here they are in no particular order:
1. Completed my 10th back-to-back teaching semester as a university lecturer. As a contractor, I don’t get sabbaticals or opportunities to use research grant money to pay others to teach for me, so I have no choice but to teach every semester. I spoke at a conference, chaired sessions at another, and finished or nearly finished writing three academic articles.
2. Spent two weeks in Thailand, including visiting Bangkok for the first time in 11 years. I attended the Reaching the World writers’ summit there and read from some of my work-in-progress at a women writers’ night in Bangkok.
3. Went to the dentist three times. I’m the daughter of a dentist, but my dad died suddenly nearly seven years ago, so it was a big step for me in 2009 to get up the courage to go again regularly, to someone else. After a load of appointments to make things right again, I now have to go only every six months.
4. Got a doctor and plan to have all the tests I should have. I’m a great avoider of doctors, but these things have to be done. I started to change my mind when I read a story about a woman whose friend died of an illness that could have been cured if they’d caught it earlier. “My friend died simply because she didn’t go to the doctor for 15 years,” the friend said.
5. Completed about 15 paintings. My “new” hobby will be two years old in February. A hobby is good for your soul—I urge everyone to take up something they thought they couldn’t do but would love to have a go at. Singing, playing the guitar, painting, running, swimming, whatever. The great thing about a hobby is you don’t need to be great at it and it doesn’t have to bring in any money and you don’t have to do it at a particular time; all you need do is enjoy it.
6. Read more books than last year.
7. Committed to having one day off work a week, most weeks. I have been much more relaxed this year as a result.
8. Cleaned out my wardrobe floor, disposed of unwanted and unworn shoes. Now all the shoes sit neatly in pairs.
9. Arranged a birthday bash for my husband, which was a great success.
10. Started a blog (this one).

It’s a wrap!

How to manage: five essential questions to ask yourself

The famous chocolate-factory scene from the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy: a classic depiction of mismanagement (lack of training, ineffective supervision etc), leading to chaos in the workplace.

The famous chocolate-factory scene from the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy: a classic depiction of mismanagement (lack of training, ineffective supervision etc), leading to chaos in the workplace.

As we near the end of the working year, I want to reflect on the state of workplace management and how it might be improved.

Current management trends seem to be aimed to alienate, divide and conquer. The saying “don’t take it personally, it’s only business” is the sad motto of these worst-business practices. As I see it, this is an international problem.

I’m not in a supervisory or managerial position at the moment, but I have been employed at many workplaces, mostly in the media and academia, but also in primary (elementary) school education, retailing and food.

Using all my experience of observing managers in action, I’ve compiled a list of five essential questions that a manager interested in running an efficient, fair and profitable workplace should ask herself or himself.

1) Is this fair?

It’s the most important question to ask, yet it is the one that rarely is considered. You can live your life by this question—it will help you in every decision you make and will ensure your best ethical reaction to any problem.

2) Am I informed?

Know your workers’ names; the conditions of their employment, such as grading systems, entitlements and salaries; ask them how they want to develop their career, what their ambitions are and whether you can help them achieve that.

3) Do I care?

To care effectively, you have to be interested—in the staff and in the industry. I don’t agree with management principles that teach you to “manage anything”, that it doesn’t matter what the industry is. Of course it does. Running a university, for example, is not the same as running a pie factory.

4) What are the long-term consequences of this action?

There might be short-term gains—such as immediate cost-cutting—in taking a particular action, but ultimately, these short-sighted cuts may not be good for the company. Here’s an example: a publication I once worked for in the 1990s decided to fire all its photographers and hire them back as freelancers. Management was horrified to discover that the freelance rates were not only much higher than having in-house photographers, but they could no longer call upon them at short notice; they had to be booked ahead of time. This resulted in stories being lost to other publications. Someone hadn’t done the long-term maths on this one. Today, that publication is a shadow of its former self (not only because of the photographic issue, of course).

5) Do I have good communication skills?

This would seem to be obvious, but of all the managers I’ve known, perhaps more than half of them had poor communication skills. This typically manifests in managers and workers speaking to each other at cross-purposes.  It’s worth noting that I have worked mostly in communications industries and education, where you’d think these skills would be paramount!

To conclude: two wise principles for managers

When I was in my early 30s, I was assistant editor of a top-selling national Australian magazine, and as the editor prepared to take a six-week vacation, leaving me in charge, he had two pieces of advice for me:

1) Don’t panic;

2) Have faith in your decisions.

I have used this advice ever since in everything I’ve undertaken.

Travel theme: Circles

The World of Snow Domes

I read an article about de-cluttering the home a while ago that advised tourists not to buy souvenirs when travelling. Just because you don’t have a souvenir of a place doesn’t mean your memories of it are less vivid, it reasoned. Well, maybe not, but I like a souvenir, and my favourite type is possibly the weirdest: those funny little domes, filled with water and fake snow or glitter and a miniature scene or figure that, in a kitschy sort of way, represents the place you have visited.

IMG_0962

In this post, inspired by the weekly travel theme on the blog Where’s My Backpack?, I want to show you some of my favourite snow domes (also called snow globes). I’m fascinated by these spheres, circular representations of places around the world (but ironically, usually with “Made in China” stamped on their base).

I’ve been collecting snow domes since the early 1990s when a colleague gave me two “Hawaii” domes in a retro style with hula dancers, sand, sea and surf. When I say collecting, I don’t mean hoarding. I have discarded as many as I have bought, domes that have become tatty and discoloured, the liquid almost gone, though sometimes this adds to their charm. I now have a limited collection, many of which are displayed on a glass cupcake stand on the coffee table of my living room (pictured above).

Here are some of my favourites and what each destination represents for me:

IMG_0980London, UK

This is a promotional dome that I acquired in the lead-up to the London Olympics. I last went to London myself in 1998, and looking at this newer snow dome, I am reminded how much the 135m-high London Eye has changed the landscape of that part of the inner city. It was derided by some as a folly while it was being built and beset by embarrassing technical problems that meant it couldn’t open to the public for nine weeks after its planned date on December 31, 1999. However, it was a huge success and the Eye is now one of the most  recognised London landmarks.

IMG_0973Las Vegas, Nevada, US

I first visited Las Vegas as a child while living with my family in Los Angeles. We stayed at a motel near The Strip, and I remember going in to Circus Circus, to a viewing area that allowed minors, and being amazed at the trapeze artists hanging by their teeth above the gambling floor. I’ve been back to Vegas twice in recent years: in 2005 for a week on an all-expenses-paid first-class “famil”— a sponsored trip for travel writers; and in 2009 for my brother’s wedding. This great snow dome was bought on the 2005 trip, and I like it because it’s a historical record of the buildings as they were at that time. I don’t know why, but I really love Las Vegas. There’s something about it that makes me smile (granted, this wouldn’t be the case if I had a gambling problem). I like the musical fountains, the great restaurants, the shows—I saw Jersey Boys there in 2009 and Blue Man Group in 2005. And the desert and national parks are so close: My brother and sister-in-law, an American, were married out in the wilderness, just 90 minutes by road from The Strip, but a million miles away from it in spirit.

IMG_0985Chicago, Illinois, US

I’ve never actually been to Chicago, though I intend to go some time to do some research on a writing project. This snow dome is precious to me because it was bought by my late father when he travelled from Australia to work at the synchrotron at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, for a few weeks in late 2005. This was only a couple of months before he died unexpectedly, at the age of only 69.

LaosLaos

This is my newest dome, bought a few weeks ago when I stayed at the Golden Triangle near Chiang Saen, Thailand. For B1000 (about $AU 31), you can hire a boat and driver, who will take you up and down the Mekong River for an hour, including a half-hour stop at Donsao in Laos. This is a strange experience: no passport or ID is needed, but all you see is a rather boring market full of bags and belts made in Thailand, rows of whiskey with whole snakes inside—and yes, snow domes. You can use Thai baht, and by the boat ramp, children beg for money and quickly snatch any notes offered and run off. However unrepresentative this strange little market is, I can say I’ve been to Laos and I have the snow dome to prove it.

 BangkokBangkok

One of the symbols associated with this great city is the tuk tuk. I lived in Bangkok for four years in the 1990s and have visited Thailand 23 times, but I hardly ever travel in tuk tuks (though I did take one in November when I was in Chiang Mai). This is because within a couple of weeks of first arriving in Bangkok in 1990, I saw a shocking accident in which a tuk tuk overturned at speed. The driver immediately ran away down the road, leaving his bleeding and badly injured passenger behind. A crowed gathered, and luckily, this included a doctor. Someone offered their pick-up truck (quicker than waiting for an ambulance) and the man was carted off to hospital.

 

St MoritzSt Moritz, Switzerland

This dome is past its best now, but I keep it because it brings back memories of a dream-come-true holiday in 1998. I had taken up skiing in my 30s and decided it would be romantic to go skiing for a week at St Moritz. It was difficult to get information from the travel agent (we didn’t do much booking by internet in those days), but she eventually put our unusual trip together. We started with two nights at the Waldorf in London, which had the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever experienced, and tiny but well appointed rooms (tiny probably because they’d had to squeeze ensuite bathrooms into them once people were no longer content to share a bathroom down the hall). At St Moritz, we stayed at a boutique hotel with a very reasonable deal that included breakfast and dinner. Just as well, because after every afternoon on the slopes, we would be exhausted and would be asleep every night by about 9pm. It was odd, but mineral water tasted like wine to us up in the alps, so we never needed any wine with dinner. We then caught the Glacier Express to Zermatt, wondering at the life going on outside despite the deep snow of the alps. Every so often, I’d see weird markings in the snow and wondered what they were. Then I worked it out: they were cross-country ski marks. People living outside the villages would ski through the snow to the village and the local shops, then put their shopping on their backs and ski home again. The holiday finished with a couple of nights in Paris, one of them at The Ritz (yes!). Strangely enough, I couldn’t find a snow dome at The Ritz shopping arcade.

KiwiNew Zealand

Although I live in Australia, I was born in New Zealand, so I always like to have some reminders of home around me. I posted a painting two blogs ago depicting my favourite NZ things—books, a kete (woven flax bag), greenstone pendant, paua shell ring and so on. I can’t say this snow dome is my favourite, but interestingly, it was made in NZ, which is unusual.

Gold CoastGold Coast, Australia

Although many Australians snootily say the Gold Coast is crass and over-touristy, I always enjoy going there. It’s sunny, the people are friendly, and there’s a relaxing feel in the air, similar to the feeling I have at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii or at Mount Maunganui in New Zealand. In December, 2006, I spent my honeymoon in the Gold Coast hinterland with a day either side at the Gold Coast itself, which is when I bought this snow dome, I think.

Rotto Rottnest Island, Western Australia

The former penal colony of Rottnest Island is 19km off the coast by ferry from Fremantle. My husband was brought up in Perth, and “Rotto” was where they went every summer, even sometimes staying on and attending the local school for a few weeks. In those days, it was a no-frills place for locals to holiday, with a general store and a pub. These days, it’s an expensive destination, with restaurants and boutiques, and accommodation costing hundreds of dollars a night. We stayed in the old jail, which has been converted to motel units. Despite the gentrification, Rotto retains its charm, is free of cars, and there are plenty of unspoilt walks and beaches on which to while away the time. We spent an idyllic few days there in 2011. The most confronting thing about Rottnest is that it is overrun by a small marsupial called a quokka. They are absolutely everywhere, and they’d come in to your hotel room if you left the door open.

IMG_1008Norfolk Island

Norfolk is a self-governing external territory of Australia. It is 1600km from Sydney, so it’s actually closer to New Zealand than Australia. It’s like going to a foreign country, and even Australians have to take a passport with them and do not have the automatic right to live or work there.

My parents went on their honeymoon to Norfolk Island in 1961, and returned for their 40th anniversary, with most of the other couples they met there, in 2001. I got to stay there for eight days in 2003 for a travel story when I was  working as the Melbourne Editor of Woman’s Day magazine.

The island has a fascinating history as a penal colony (1788-1814). In 1855, it was bequeathed by Queen Victoria to the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, who needed a new home when Pitcairn Island became overcrowded. About 1000 locals on the island today, half its permanent population, are direct descendants of the mutineers. It’s also home to the writer Colleen McCullough, while the 1970s singer Helen “I am Woman”  Reddy divides her time between Norfolk and Sydney, and tourists can visit her home and extensive garden on the island.

 The globe that got away

I regret not buying a snow dome at Vatican City when I visited in the late 1990s. But they were the most expensive I have come across, and I became annoyed at what I thought was the Vatican exploiting tourists. I bought an exquisite hand-painted brooch instead—for five times what the dome would have cost.

IMG_0996Fragile

Not a snow globe of a destination, but a Jean-Paul Gaultier perfume! This one was made for me, I’m sure.

IMG_0992Virtual snow dome

I now have virtual snow domes for my iPhone, and although cute, they’re not as endearing as the real thing. Somehow, they lose that kitschy, retro feeling when they become high tech.

Everything you wanted to know about beginning art…but were afraid to ask (part two): “Old Gadgets”

This post discusses not the techniques of painting, but a reason to paint, other than simply wanting to be creative.

One of the reasons I took up painting was because I wanted to use art to preserve the past. Of course, photography can do this too, and I appreciate fully its importance in documenting our lives and times. But for me, painting a picture of something makes it more personal, almost as if I actually manufactured the subject myself.

I had the idea for my “Old Gadgets” series before I started painting—in fact, it was the catalyst that led to me picking up a paint brush, laden with colour, and gingerly directing it across a canvas.

I’ve completed two paintings so far in the Old Gadgets series, of my manual typewriter and my film-era camera. They have been framed and they will hang on a wall side by side. Here is the first:

Old Gadgets No. 1: my manual typewriter, bought in Bangkok, 1991. On the case is the German version of my novel, The Occidentals (Das Erbst Der Schwestern). I wrote the first draft of this novel many years before it was published, on this typewriter. Acrylics on board.

Old Gadgets No. 1: my manual typewriter, bought in Bangkok, 1991. On the case is the German version of my novel, The Occidentals (Das Erbe Der Schwestern). I wrote the first draft of this novel many years before it was published, on this typewriter. Acrylics on board.

As a young journalist, a manual typewriter and a camera were my tools of trade (as well as a shorthand notebook and a pen, of course). I started at a small newspaper in Waipukurau, New Zealand—the Central Hawke’s Bay Press—for which I was both photographer and reporter. Here’s a photo of me there as a teenage cadet in 1979:

Caron Eastgate as a cadet reporter, Central Hawke's Bay Press, 1979. Note the manual phone. The typewriter is pushed up like that to indicate that I've finished my story and will now work on another. I'm also balancing my cheque book. I had to leave home to come to this job, and when I went to the bank to enquire about a cheque account, they told me I wasn't old enough to have one. When I said I was a reporter, however, they made an exception.

Caron Eastgate as a cadet reporter, Central Hawke’s Bay Press, 1979. Note the manual phone. The typewriter is pushed up like that to indicate that I’ve finished my story and will now work on another. I’m also balancing my cheque book. I had to leave home to come to this job, and when I went to the bank to enquire about a cheque account, they told me I wasn’t old enough to have one. When I said I was a reporter, however, they made an exception.

Note the telephone: Waipukurau was the last  town in New Zealand to operate a manual exchange, which didn’t become automatic until 1980. You would turn the handle in the centre of the phone and tell the operator what number you wanted. Many people were on “party lines”, that is, several houses shared the same phone number, each with a different letter at the end. So, you might ask for “2645E”, for example. We were all convinced the operators listened in to juicy conversations, and they definitely knew what was going on in town. I remember one day asking to be put through to someone I wanted to interview, and the operator said, “I can try for you, but I’ve just seen him go past on his way to town”.

We were still using manual typewriters at metropolitan newspapers in Auckland when I moved to Australia—and computerisation—in 1988. After the move, I thought my days of writing on manual typewriters had gone. I was wrong. When I moved to Nonthaburi, near Bangkok, Thailand, in 1990, I decided to write a novel. I had an electric typewriter with a memory then (I got my first personal computer in 1992). The problem was, the electricity was unreliable and, particularly in the wet season, would frequently drop out, though usually only for half an hour or so. This disrupted my writing, and I decided I would have to buy a manual typewriter again to work efficiently.

I found a cute German model in a dusty little shop. I think it cost 2000 baht (about $AU100 in those days, but less now). I hadn’t used that typewriter since 1993, however, and it was gathering dust in the spare room. So I asked on Twitter what I should do with it, and a friend of mine who lives round the corner said she’d love to have it (she collects such things). But first, I decided to do a painting of it, so I would always have it, and as you can see above, I did. This picture took me a very long time to do, working on it most nights for a couple of months until it was right. Each key has about 10 coats of paint on it.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I loved photography and used to shoot about 20 rolls of film whenever I went on holiday. When I lived in Bangkok, it was a great hobby, because film processing and printing there were much cheaper than in Australia. I bought my first Canon Eos in 1990, and a new Eos—the subject of Old Gadgets No. 2 (above)—in 1999. I still have the latter camera in its case, with film and all the other things you see in the picture, but I haven’t used it since 2005. Here’s my old camera:

Old Gadgets No. 2: my film-era camera, 1999. Acrylics on board. The prints are from a trip I did to China in 2001. The slides are the only ones I ever took, on a trip to Vietnam in about 1996.

Old Gadgets No. 2: my film-era camera, 1999. Acrylics on board. The prints are from a trip I did to China in 2001. The slides are the only ones I ever took, on a trip to Vietnam in about 1996.

I stayed at my mother’s house for a few days this week, and in my room there is a large portable cassette player we bought in the US when we lived there in the early 1970s. I remember when my parents bought it, and it seemed the ultimate in modern sound equipment. I think it will become Old Gadgets No. 3.

Everything you wanted to know about beginning art…but were afraid to ask (part one)

If you’ve always wanted to take up a hobby such as art, but have been too nervous to try, here’s how to dive in. Most “how to” books, blogs and vlogs are by experts, but as a beginner, I wanted to speak directly to other beginning and would-be artists.

 As a child, I loved art. Mostly, I loved the look, feel and smell of the crayons, pencils in every colour, paper, watercolour paints and so on. When I was about 12, my parents gave me a set of oil paints in a beautiful wooden box. Mostly, I just looked at them. Actually doing an oil painting seemed too daunting.

In my teens in New Zealand, I did art for School Certificate, which was a national qualification in the third year of high school, then called Form 5 and now called Year 11 in NZ and Year 10 in Australia. I passed the subject, but only with a C grade. The teacher seemed not to be very interested in me, since I wasn’t deemed to be “good” at art. One of our assignments was to stick dried macaroni and beans on a board to fill in an abstract pattern. It seemed pointless and boring, and a world away from the gorgeous collages I see some of my artist friends producing today. Another project was to do a lino-cut design and make prints from it. Lino was dreadfully hard to cut with the blunt cutters we were given. Probably the most interesting assignment was to design a cup and saucer for NZ Railways. I remember mine as being minimalist but serviceable, and it ended up in my portfolio. I changed schools after that year and I never did bother to pick up the portfolio. It would have been interesting to see it now.

Decades went by, and I still always liked art and occasionally tried to paint something, but never was able to realise on paper the masterpiece I pictured in my mind.  Five or so years ago, I finally gave away all my art equipment to a young person who I thought would appreciate it more than I did.

At the beginning of last year though, something strange happened. I had a sudden strong urge to take up painting and drawing again. Now, I’m an all-in or all-out sort of person. So I bought canvases and sketch books, watercolour paper and boards, pencils and three different types of pastels, a set of oil paints in a wooden box (thanks to my brother), acrylics and water colour paints, brushes, pens and more. My husband bought me a desk-top easel and gave me a voucher for more paints.

I’ve been delighted by this new hobby, 22 months old now, and surprised that I have an aptitude for mixing and using colour, and that some of what I paint is not bad. I’m not saying I am the best painter in the world or that I would even paint well enough to exhibit. It’s not about that. But I can paint well enough to derive great pleasure from  my new interest. I didn’t go to formal art classes, and while I have about 20 magnificent how-to art books, I have used them sparingly. What I really wanted to do was to paint pictures, and to learn by trial and error as I went.

In the next few posts, I’d like to share with you my rediscovery of fine art and a few of my paintings—each one has a story behind it and forms a kind of visual diary of my life and loves.

Brave beginnings

The hardest thing to do in order to start painting was—well, to start. Just to get used to acrylic paints, which I had never used before, I did a couple of practice abstracts first. This was advised by an acrylic painting basics book that I intended to follow from start to finish (but ended up only dipping into for handy hints).

This is one of my efforts. I called it “Australia”, because it was mid-summer, very hot in Melbourne and it was bush-fire season. I still like this as an expression of the joy of colour.

"Australia", acrylics on canvas, 2011

“Australia”, acrylics on canvas, 2011

However, I quickly tired of exercises. I wanted to do a “real” painting. I grabbed a small canvas board (8×10 inches, or 20.3 x 25.4cm) and looked round the kitchen for something simple: three ripe tomatoes, a square white plate and a knife. This is what I painted:

CutMeFeb2011

“Cut Me”, acrylics on canvas board, 2011

The best thing about this painting was the reflection of the tomato in the knife. People asked me how I did it. My answer? I just painted it over and over until it looked right. It was a fluke!

Then I did a lemon and knife. This one was in pastels and was the first of my works that I got framed: it was actually only meant to be a quick sketch I did to try out my new PanPastels on some cheap pastel paper. It took me less than 30 minutes, which is unusual, since I usually spend a long time—weeks and up to a couple of months—on my paintings.

PanPastels on pastel paper. 2011.

“Lemon and Knife”, PanPastels on pastel paper, 2011.

THE LESSON: Just keep painting and eventually, it will look right. If you’re using acrylics, buy a tub of gesso, a thick white paint you can use to paint out mistakes and do the section over again. Try some simple still-life paintings first. Try not to put the focal point of your painting in the dead centre (an artist friend told me this).

 Be ambitious

About this time, I joined the online art community at idrawandpaint.com. This is a great way to get some confidence, although when first I looked at it, I was so impressed with the paintings exhibited that I felt intimidated, and didn’t want to post my own. Anyway, then I decided to do it anyway, and the result was lots of helpful discussion and kind words about my art.

I got an old wooden wine box from a store up the road that recycles them. This is perfect for setting up my still-life subjects (and sometimes, the box appears in my paintings, too). I decided I would do paintings that told a story. They were complicated and very ambitious, given that I was a beginner. I had to learn to paint glass, both opaque and coloured, and fabric patterns, for example. I didn’t worry too much about perspective at this stage, and as you’ll see, I’m sometimes wildly out. But my artist friend says I can call it a “naïve” style. Another writer friend, who has worked as an art critic, says the flattening of perspective in some of the paintings is reminiscent of Cézanne. I’ll take that one!

"Only On His Day Off". Acrylics on canvas board. This one was painted for my husband, Gordon Dann, who works evening shift as a journalist. LESSONS: lines go wiggly when under glass; to paint difficult items, such as crackers, really look at them and paint what you see.

“Only On His Day Off”, acrylics on canvas board, 2011. I painted this for my husband, Gordon, who works evening shift as a journalist. LESSONS: lines go wiggly when under glass; to paint difficult items, such as crackers, really look at them and paint what you see.

ThaiTonight-scan

“Waiting for Thai Tonight”, acrylics on canvas board, 2011. This features my Thai crockery and cutlery bought in the 1990s, and the condiments I would put on the plates before serving a Thai meal. The place mat was inspired by a Thai silk scarf given to me many years ago by my aunt and uncle, who visited me when I was living in Nonthaburi, Thailand.

Voices From Home

“Voices from Home”, acrylics on canvas board, 2012. This is a recent painting and shows my development as an artist (albeit a beginner). It features possessions of mine from my homeland, New Zealand. There is a kete (woven flax bag), books by authors I admire, a small painting I bought at Coromandel, a greenstone pendant, a paua ring, and a vintage rugby book given to me by a friend and including information about my great-grandfather, Bunny Abbott, who played in the 1905 All Blacks rugby union team known as The Originals.

THE LESSON: Don’t worry too much about technicalities such as perspective at this stage. You can learn these later—and anyway, it’s not a photograph. It’s your own interpretation. Also, try to find an audience, perhaps by joining an online art community.

Try different media

I’ve tried several different types of media, and I’ll look at these in subsequent posts. PanPastels are an unusual media in that they come in small flat pots, like a powder compact, and you brush them on with sponges in a painterly manner. Here’s more about PanPastels. I love them—in fact, they’re becoming my favourite medium. They have a great ability to provide sparkle and life to a painting. Here’s one of my favourite still lifes, a simple painting of three perfumes I have in my bathroom. The green satin is a piece of material I bought from a silk market in Shanghai, China, when I visited 10 years ago (it also features in the “Voices from Home” painting above).

"Chanel, Siren & Precious" PanPastels on Pastel Mat paper, 2012.

“Chanel, Siren & Fragile”, PanPastels on Pastel Mat paper, 2012.

THE LESSON:  when you begin, try a number of different media; you might surprise yourself with something you hadn’t thought of before.

To be continued…