Beauty, when you least expect it

Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

I had a very long working day yesterday. I left the house before 7am, and didn’t return until nearly 12 hours later. My day involved more than 100km of travel, hosting a field trip, and teaching classes. It rained all day.

As luck would have it when I was coming home after such a big day, transport across the city was affected by a fire at a major station, the weather and various other problems. Everything was running late, some trains had been cancelled, so my train was dreadfully overcrowded. To top it all off, in the crowded airless carriage in which I was travelling, the young woman standing beside me fainted, and we had to assist her and notify the driver (she was OK after a kind soul gave up his seat, and others gave her water and some candy).

When I got home, I was dead-dog tired. As I looked out the sliding doors into the courtyard and contemplated another early morning tomorrow, I felt exhausted just thinking about it. It was pitch black and still raining, and the world seemed a bit bleak to me.

Then the lamp-light in the courtyard caught the flash of something red. Something very red, like a child’s toy or a ball. I kept seeing this flash as I walked past the doors. I had to see what it was.

It was half-hidden under the basil and mint in our herb garden, and it turned out to be not something man-made, but a most beautiful autumn leaf dropped and blown in from our neighbour’s Japanese maple tree.

The red in this leaf was so astounding, I had to photograph it. The way the picture came out, it looks like it is floating in a pond, but it’s actually just sitting against the dappled glass of our outdoor table.

Today, as I went about my work, I kept thinking of that leaf, of the beauty that shone at me out of the night. I looked at the picture again on my phone as I rode the (uneventful) train home from work.

When I got home, my little red leaf had turned a more ruddy shade, as I knew it would. Tomorrow, it will be almost brown. But somehow, I still feel warmed by its vibrant red heyday, yesterday, and I know things aren’t so bad after all.

The cat’s verdict: unimpressed

Little Girl Lost: Lucy Locket in her new house. Has decided she doesn't like it. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

Little Girl Lost: Lucy Locket in her new house. Has decided she doesn’t like it. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

While we humans are loving our new two-storey townhouse in the country, there is one member of the household who is not. Lucy Locket, our tortoiseshell cat, is not impressed one bit.

In the old house, she and I used to play a game I called “The Lost Girl”. She would go into a mini-courtyard at the side of the house between my office and bedroom. Then she would howl at the bedroom window, as if unable to find her way back to the door at the other end. I would take that as a cue to come and stand at the door and call her, and she would then make her way back through fully two metres of ‘jungle’ to find her way back to me.

Dopey, yes. Her, not me. Well, she’s an indoor cat—she’s amused by small things.

Anyway, from playing ‘The Lost Girl’, she has become the Little Girl Lost. The best she can do at the moment is sit on the middle of the bed, looking plaintively out, as if to say, “This is all I have left of my life, a shadow of its former self”.

If all your stuff was packed away, what would you miss most?

NeedleI have access to 5% or less of my stuff at the moment, because most of it is packed into boxes awaiting our big house move on Tuesday.

Do I miss that other stuff in the 60 boxes? Well, yes and no.

Books aside—because I still love mine (though I’ve given loads away) and I’m a specialist collector—do we need the ornaments, piles of kitchen gadgets, knick knacks, souvenirs, shoes, bags, bathroom paraphernalia, cushions, pictures, 25 wine glasses and 20 towels?

The answer? I think it’s no. We just kind-of acquire this stuff and then become attached to it, because we think it has something to do with identity.

I’m still me without the ceramic cats from Thailand that hang over my bookcase, without the enormous glass fish I bought cheap at auction when a favourite bar closed, without the three wise men statues I bought in Beijing, and without the coloured-light replica of The Space Needle building I bought in Seattle (pictured, above). But actually, I do want these things, because they’re sentimental.

But there are some things I could happily divest myself of.

Ninety percent of my clothes are sealed in a box now, but I don’t care, because I wear only a small proportion of my clothes regularly.

I think about it this way: last year, I went to the US for about four weeks and I took a small bag the size of carry-on luggage (though I always check mine so I don’t have to carry it). That was fine, as long as I remembered to find a washing machine every three days. So, if I can survive for four weeks with this small bag of clothes, why not forever?

The other thing we’ve done is not replenished the food in our fridge or cupboards as we usually do. We’re down to loaves and fishes-type dishes now, if you know what I mean, but they’ve worked out just fine.

We spend a lot of extra money on whims with food, and we end up throwing some of it out. In fact, I’ve read government statistics that say about 40% of the food Australians buy ends up being thrown away because it goes off before people can eat it. You can read more about that here.

And the thing I miss most about not having access to my stuff? My art equipment! I wish I’d put aside my little travelling paint kit to keep me company this week. Oh well, I’ll see it all next week on the other side of the city.

My Winsor & Newton travelling water colour set. Picture by Caron Eastgate Dann

My Winsor & Newton travelling water colour set. Picture by Caron Eastgate Dann

Moving on: my 46th address, 50th move

This is what my house looks like today:

My study...or what's left of it.

My study…or what’s left of it.

Yes, we’re moving in a few days, after our long-time rental accommodation was sold and vacant possession required. It will be my 46th address, and I’ve lived in 13 cities or towns in five countries.

We are moving from the inner-city funkiness of Northcote, Melbourne, to a cute double-storey townhouse in an outer suburb that still has a country village feel to it.

We get much more for our money out there, and we’ll be paying $60 less a week in rent. AND, we can hardly wait for next summer and the first 40-degree (Celsius) day, because guess what? Now, we have airconditioning!

In another advantage, it’s easier for me to get to work, and I’ll be catching one train each way instead of two. It’s also closer to my mother: instead of a 145km round trip to her place, it’s about 35.

Miss Lucy Locket doesn’t approve much of the move, as most cats wouldn’t:photo 2

She was on high alert last night, doing her spooky Bat Girl impersonation:

Spot the cat

Spot the cat

But she’ll be happy when she gets to the new place and sees her new little private courtyard—this is one of the main reasons we took the new place, because she is an indoor cat, but she likes to have somewhere safe on which to sun herself and chase moths.

Despite all the advantages of the move, we will be sad to leave Northcote. It’s strange when the packing’s been done but you haven’t quite moved in to the other place yet: you’re in a kind of limbo, not really living at either address. You haven’t moved on to the next place, but you can’t go back to life as you knew it at the other.

What I heard on the train: why new graduates can’t get a job

trainHaving been paid to be nosy as a journalist for decades, I still have the habit of listening in to other people’s conversations, just in case there’s a story idea there.
This morning, standing in the peak-hour crush in an overcrowded train (not the one pictured left, that was my nicer going-home train), I overheard two middle-aged lawyers talking about the state of their industry.
It transpired that one of them worked for a huge company that I won’t name here. He was talking about job opportunities for lawyers.
There’s a big debate in Australia at the moment about how difficult it is for people over 50 to find jobs. However, there are also great difficulties for new graduates to get their first “proper” job. I hear it’s almost impossible for a fully qualified law graduate  to find a job as a junior lawyer in Melbourne now, and you’re most likely to be paying to do another expensive course to get your articles, rather than finding a job as an articled clerk as most used to.
Anyway, this guy on the train said, “Graduates used to come in at entry-level and do all the research and initial leg-work for cases. No longer. It’s all outsourced. Can you believe that? It’s all outsourced overseas, and it’s much cheaper. But it’s just not the same. Mind you, my company still charges out to clients at $5000 a day, even for outsourced material.
“No wonder graduates can’t get jobs any more. And then more experienced lawyers are being brought in on what used to be entry-level rates, but they’re not doing entry-level work; they’re expected to do the work of a lawyer on a trainee-level wage.”

I suspect this is happening in many other industries, too.

Update: Through a glass darkly: the strangest house in my suburb

In February last year, I wrote about a house in my suburb in Melbourne, Australia, that seemed incongruous with its surroundings. The street is full of period homes: Victorian cottages, lovingly restored to reflect the tastes of a bygone age. You can read more about the house here.

This was what it looked like then:Glasshouse4

As the months went on, I grew to like the little glass house, as I called it, strange though it seemed in its setting. I would often see a young man hard at work on it, early evenings and weekends. It seemed like a labour of love: someone’s dream home, slowly taking shape. A fabulous ball-like light fitting was put above the stairwell, and the kitchen fit-out almost completed.

But late last year, all work stopped. In the months since then…nothing.

It looks like the house has been deserted, and I can only surmise that the young man ran out of money, his dreams dashed, at least for the moment. Yesterday, I took this photo of it.House-revisited

We are soon to move far away from this suburb, so I don’t expect I will ever find out what happened to the little glass house. But perhaps one day I will visit, just to see.

“Stupid” award of the week

drawersWhat’s wrong with this picture?

Yes, there is a drawer missing. There wasn’t a drawer missing when we put these two sets out in front of our house this afternoon, free to a good home.

We’re moving, so we’re taking the opportunity to give away what we don’t need. These two little sets of drawers have served me well, but it’s time to update and get a proper dressing table.

So out they went. In our area, good used furniture placed out on the nature strip usually lasts from 30 seconds to 30 minutes. I like the thought of someone coming across it and taking it home to be useful again.

But when we looked after a while to see if the drawers were gone, we saw this: some bright spark had taken away just one drawer, meaning that chest of drawers is now useless for anyone else. Stupid as all get out!

Boys’ toys, girls’ toys: really?

Screen Shot 2014-04-05 at 7.22.57 AMBoys, you are astronauts, pilots, detectives, scientists; girls, you are mothers and baby minders, and you like pretty things for your hair.

Boys, you will build things, go places, blow things up, conduct scientific experiments, see the world; girls, you will stay at home, heating bottles for the baby, doing craftwork, wearing beautiful clothes and dreaming of being a makeup artist, while dressed almost exclusively in pastel pink.

I could hardly believe my eyes this morning when I saw how an online shopping website I subscribe to was advertising toys based so much on gender stereotypes. Like something out of the 1950s, it told me that boys had the whole world to explore, while girls had better stay home.

For boys, the Crazy Forts Construction Toy offers imaginative play in which you create a cave, igloo, pirate ship or castle. To be fair, this toy also has a girl pictured on the box cover with two boys, so it’s unclear why it’s marketed only for boys. There is also a build-a-fort set for girls—the “Princess Play Set” in…you guessed it, pink… “perfect for your little princess”. No mention of pirate ships, caves or castles, though.

My mum was a neuro-scientist, and she says that to a certain extent, boys naturally gravitate toward more adventurous, rough and tumble toys. But the almost complete demarcation in the media seems unnatural, as if we are choosing for our children what their roles will be before they’ve even had a chance to explore these things for themselves. No wonder there are still so few female plumbers, carpenters or mechanics.

When I was a kid, my favourite toys were Lego and my brother’s case of tiny cars, plus our cowboy play sets with hats, toy guns in holsters (very un-PC now) and sheriff’s badges. I also loved my dolls (though I couldn’t understand why my cats would never consent to being dressed in bonnet, dress and booties and wheeled around in my dolls’ pram). My hero was Georgina (“George”), the fantastically independent girl in Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series of novels. In those days, a girl like George was called a “tom boy” because she didn’t conform to the normal idea of what a girl should behave like.

There’s nothing wrong as such with giving girls dolls and encouraging them to nurture babies: many girls do become mothers, after all. But boys become fathers, and in these days of equality, shouldn’t we also then be giving boys dollies with dummies, feeding sets and nappies? See how dumb that sounds? While personally, I have always loved dolls (and still do), I think we can leave the parenting accessories out when children are young, particularly if you’re only teaching parenting to one sex (girls).

I suspect (well, I hope) that advertisers are hopelessly out of date when they market toys in such a way. In most homes, I’m sure, children end up playing together with many of the same toys. We shouldn’t limit girls to home-based toys and boys to adventure toys: let them make up their own minds what they will be.


What do birds dream of? Or, the soundtrack to my life

Many years ago, I read a short newspaper story that has stayed with me ever since. It was about new research that had found that birds actually dream. And what do birds dream about as they slumber on their tree perches? Apparently, they dream of the songs they will sing tomorrow.

I know, “Awwwww”.

I too dream of the songs I will sing tomorrow. Well, to be more accurate, songs are often popping up in my head, whether I’m waking or sleeping. There’s a soundtrack to my life, and it’s not coming from headphones (in fact, I rarely play music via ear buds or headphone, and maybe this is why).

These are not songs that I want to listen to and some are songs I don’t even like. They just start playing, seemingly randomly, and leave me to solve their riddle as to what they are connected to. They are usually old songs I haven’t heard for a while. Many mornings I wake with a song going round in my head that has nothing much to do with anything. It’s just there. This music often has a shape in my mind, too, like a graph, with colours. In my imaginary mind, I know all the lyrics, too.

Usually, I don’t pay much attention to the songs in my head, unless they’re especially amusing or annoying. But this month, I thought it would be fun to make a list of what I’ve been listening to in my mind. Here goes:

This reminds me of the daily trial just trying to get through crowds of people to do ordinary things like get on the train, find a seat (good luck), buy lunch. Picture: ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2013

This reminds me of the daily trial just trying to get through crowds of people to do ordinary things like get on the train, find a seat (good luck), buy lunch. Picture: ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2013

Thursday March 20

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover came into my mind while waiting for a train. You know, “Get out the back, Jack, make a new plan, Sam…just set yourself free”. I had been thinking about the rat race and how awful it was sometimes to be trudging along with thousands of other workers, never getting very far. Or, I feel like a fish in a pond full of others, pushing and scrabbling when a few grains of food are dropped on the top of the pond.

In a way, that “rat race” is like a bad lover that we just can’t seem to get away from. My inner psyche is obviously telling me to make a new plan to do just that!

Later in the day, my song-brain wasn’t so kind to me. It started playing MmmBop!, that 1997 teenybopper hit by Hanson. Oh dear! I think my brain was inspired by an ad at uni for something called Kimbap, a Korean students’ group function.

Friday, March 21

Comin’ through the Rye: OK, I was watching a TV show about the Scottish highlands when this one started up. But they didn’t feature this song. I remembered it because I used to sing it as a child and once won a singing competition with it.

Saturday, March 22

Oh yes, a day when I don’t have to cross town on trains or buses. I can just work from home instead. It’s peaceful, and Everything is Beautiful comes to mind. I laugh to myself, because humming this song used to be a code long ago between me and a photographer I worked with. If we didn’t like the way our interview/photo shoot was going, one of us would start humming this song. And we knew the real words were, “Everything is shit-ful, in its own wayyyyy…”

I was too busy the rest of that week to think about writing down the songs in my head, but come Friday, I remembered again to take note. It’s good to have a break from noting anyway, because otherwise you might make conscious song choices.

Friday, March 28

You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, by Leo Sayer. This is good, because it’s always been one of my favourite feel-good songs. And Friday is a feel-good day because I don’t have to get up early tomorrow!

Later in the day, as I’m walking to the bus at the start of my journey home, my brain is singing Barry Manilow’s Copacabana in all its glory.

On the train, I give up my seat to a pregnant woman, and straight away, Don’t Blame it on the Boogie, Michael Jackson’s great 1970s disco beat, is playing up a storm. This was one of my favourite songs in 1979 when I was a teenager.

Saturday, March 29

I’m writing a lecture for my master’s class on book history and the publishing industry, and up comes River Deep, Mountain High, the original 1966 Tina and Ike Turner version. No idea where that came from, but I like it.

Sunday, March 30

It’s 5pm, and I’m feeling calm about having done enough work to start the week with. The music starts and it’s a famous ballet tune whose name I can’t recall. But it’s very calming. When I come to write this blog, I remember that it’s The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, by Tchaikovsky.

Thursday, April 3

I’m on my way out the door to my job as a university lecturer, and that classic song, the theme from Sesame Street, pops into my head, just like that: “Can you tell me how to get, How to get to Sesame Street?”

Whatever next?

As I say, I don’t know where these songs come from, most of the time. My mum plays songs in her head too, but she takes it a step further: the songs in her mind are all ones she makes up herself. She said she doesn’t ever need to play the radio, because there are always new songs playing in her head anyway!

And with that, I begin a new month of madness—I wonder what songs this month will bring?