Look what we grew in our courtyard garden!

©Caron Eastgate Dann, The Crayon Files, 2017

We don’t have a garden as such, but there is a small L-shaped area through sliding doors, big enough for a collapsible washing line, a table and four chairs, one long narrow garden bed and some pots. The horizontal stroke of the “L” is what we call “the badlands”: a few small trees for privacy and just enough of a “jungle” for our cat to believe she is wild and free (when really, she’s an indoor cat who has the run only of a very small suburban courtyard).

But oh what we can grow in this tiny space. I decided to do a quick sketch of some of our autumn produce: three types of tomatoes, red and green capsicums and chillies.

We have so many tomatoes, I’ve been making our own tomato sauce to freeze; so many chillies, they’ve also been picked and frozen for use all winter; and a few luscious capsicums so crisp and dense they seem like a different species to the spongy articles found in supermarkets. Our potatoes are coming on, and we hope to have a bumper crop by winter.

In addition, the courtyard is packed with herbs: rosemary, basil, thyme, curry leaves, mint, parsley, and an olive herb with spiked green leaves that truly does have the aroma and taste of actual olives.

If anyone can tell us how to grow coriander, please advise. We’ve failed dismally!

By the way, the sketch is done on Ampersand Clayboard with Prismacolour pencils. I wanted to do a simple picture that reminded me of some 1980s cook books I have.

Everyday mysteries #1: What goes up but never comes down?

While walking to the train station on my way to work each day, I see a strange sight. It’s a notice on this seat to warn people that it has just been repainted:Wet paint 1

The only problem is, that seats looks as if it hasn’t been painted since last century. The notice has been there for many weeks at least, and is slowly being worn away by rain, hail and wind.

Which leads me to one of life’s everyday mysteries: why do people who put up notices never take them down again?

I see it everywhere: notices pinned to bulletin boards about meetings that happened two years ago, flyers advertising guest speakers at public events from three months ago, upcoming events on websites that have been and gone last week, last month, last year.

Where I work at a university, if you have to change class rooms or cancel a class, besides sending out an email to everyone you usually pin a notice to the door advising students of the change (because many young people don’t access their email regularly).

Weeks after the event, such notices are still pinned to the door. “Zoology 101 is cancelled today, July 20”, a notice will say, and it will probably remain there until September. I often end up taking down outdated notices myself and throwing them away.

I wonder if the people who leave old notices up everywhere are the same ones who leave their empty coffee mugs at the lectern, their pens and discarded food packets and half-consumed bottles of water on table tops, and who place their chewing gum under the tables?

To my way of thinking, leaving up old notices, real or virtual, is just another form of littering—and we already have enough of that.

And so ends another puzzling day…

Tram

This is so cute, I had to post it. For those who don’t know, this is a classic Melbourne tram. Well, it’s a miniature model I made today with the Japanese micro block brand Nano Block.

These W-class trams were designed in the 1920s and built for decades, but they have been largely superseded now by sleeker, bigger, quieter models.  However, it’s the old clackety-clack tram, like this one, that is most fondly remembered as synonymous with Melbourne life. We had conductors on them, too, who would wear change belts, sell tickets, and dispense all sorts of information.

I’ve written before (here) about my new model-building hobby. This is the biggest model I have made so far (though it can fit in the palm of my hand). It came with a formidable set of instructions, but they are precise, every block fits and there are always enough blocks and more. Imagine if one tiny block were missing…

TramNano

 

When a pet is sick

LLMy much-loved cat nearly died this week , and I’ve been beside myself with worry. I’m happy to say she has suddenly started to improve, but for a while there, I feared the worst.

My husband explained best how we felt when I heard him speaking on the phone to a friend: “We’ve had her nine years; she’s part of our family,” he said. (She, being a cat, would maintain that she is in fact the head of our family, I’m sure).

I’ve always been a ‘cat person’. My parents had a cat before I was born; for all my childhood and whenever possible in my adult life, I’ve had cats. When I don’t have a cat, I feel like something’s missing.

My husband and I have both had bad luck with beloved cats being run over, and when he bought a tiny, fluffy tortoiseshell kitten for me just over nine years ago, we decided she would be an indoor cat, allowed outside only as far as our courtyard.

Lucy Locket has been a great indoor cat. She’s naturally lazy, timid, averse to strangers and likes her home comforts. She probably could jump the fence if she wanted, but she doesn’t.

That was the way, we thought, we could have our pet for a long time.

But that was in doubt this week when she came down with a serious mystery illness: she was barely able to walk, was not drinking or eating and had a very high temperature.

The vet admitted her to the hospital in his clinic, and there she stayed for three days on a drip and medication.

They couldn’t get her to eat, and it’s very dangerous for a cat to go beyond three days not eating, because of possible liver complications.

But she was so traumatised by the hospital experience, that she had lost all interest in food.

So we had to bring her home to try to coax her to eat. I found some great information on line about how to get a sick cat to eat (here’s a link). It was just tiny bits at a time, but at least it was something. Each minuscule amount she ate seemed like an enormous breakthrough.

Then this morning, she was much better. She is eating again (about half her normal amount, but enjoying it), meowing for a brush, and sitting in the sun. She’s still weak, but I can tell she’s improving, because her weird little habits are back, such as scritch-scratching under a bag if it is placed on the floor.

We still don’t know what the illness is. Blood analysis was inconclusive (and two of the three samples clotted), but seemed to point to a virus. It’s not one of the serious viruses such as feline aids or leukemia, as she has no contact with other cats. It could have been an infection “somewhere”, so she’s also had a long-term antibiotic shot.

The worst thing about an animal being sick is that they can’t tell you their symptoms or where it hurts. She’s much better, though, at letting me know she is getting better: from the trot back in her gait, to the demand for a brush, to the quickly turning head when a bird flies overhead.

Let’s hope the mystery illness doesn’t return.

“Don’t wish your life away”

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

The 1940s media technology nothing can better

Radio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attack of the grammar jammer!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The secret of everlasting youth

Image from allfancydress.com UK

Image from allfancydress.com UK

I was travelling one recent morning on the shuttle bus that takes me from the train station to the university where I work. I was standing, because the bus is always packed and I rarely get a seat.

“Right, that’s it, you others will have to wait for the next bus!” the driver said to the long queue of students still waiting to board.

Off we went, maybe 40 students, all of them young, and two staff members, including me.

Incongruously, the driver was playing an ABBA hit from the 1970s, Dancing Queen, on the sound system. Some of these kids’ parents wouldn’t even be old enough to remember this in its own time, I thought wryly.

That song brought back memories, to when I was in my mid-teens, had my first after-school job and believed that every day had the potential for something exciting to happen. As I was often told by older family members, I had my whole life ahead of me.

Meanwhile, back to the future, on the bus in 2015, it suddenly occurred to me that that was the difference between being young and thinking old: hope and expectation.

I haven’t stopped hoping for exciting things to happen, and I know they still can and will. But when I was young, I not only hoped they would happen, I expected them to. If I went for a job, I expected to get it, and I usually did, for example.

These days, when I apply for a job, though eminently qualified, I know not to get my hopes up. Even the ones I think I have in the bag…I don’t, usually! Quashed expectations abound, until it seems futile to have any.

Health-wise, I have led rather a charmed existence, so far. I’ve never had a serious illness, I’ve never broken a bone, never cut myself so badly I needed stitches. The worst illness I’ve had in recent decades was a bad back for a few weeks in 2008, which had no lasting implications. I’m robust and spring back from most things.

Nothing hurts except my feet after I’ve been on them all day, while most of my friends in their 40s and older complain of any number of aches and pains.

Most of all, I’ve never suffered from mental illness. I feel down some days, but I’ve never been clinically depressed. I feel anxious often and have certain trigger points but never to the point of becoming a serious problem. This is a major stroke of good luck, as so many people I know have been affected by mental illness.

Through most of my life I’ve woken up with what I refer to as the “bubble of happiness”. It’s a new day and anything can happen!

Mostly this year, for me, the only thing that happens is work, though. I’ve been putting all my energies into my job, then wishing I had time for play as well. I paint and sew and read, but I’ve let the first two go because I always have so much work to do. Not to mention writing that next novel, which I believe is my real work, but for which I need to make a new plan and squeeze the time from somewhere.

I know that on my death bed, I will never say, “I wish I’d taught more classes and written more lectures”. But I might say, “I wish I’d seen my friends more often, painted more pictures, written another novel.”

I see so many older people around me who have so obviously lost the hopes and expectations of youth – for good reason, usually. Life throws us a few too many challenges from time to time.

Yet, we all need to rise up with those bubbles of happiness once more and think like a young person again: exciting things not only can happen, they WILL happen!

The adult orphan

Mark Lester as Oliver Twist in the 1968 film 'Oliver'

Mark Lester as Oliver Twist in the 1968 film Oliver

When you hear the term “orphan”, a sad picture of a parentless child comes up. Think Oliver Twist, the fictional boy in an orphanage who dared asked for more porridge and who asked plaintively, “Where is Love?”.

Sadly, some children are made orphans. But by far the majority of orphans are actually adults, some of them seniors themselves by the time both of their parents have died. Indeed, my father-in-law was 78 by the time his mother died at nearly 102. When he died just eight years later, in 2014, he left three adult orphans behind: orphans with grown-up children of their own, and two of the three orphans with grandchildren. But orphans, nevertheless.

The first time I thought of the adult orphan was when my mother’s father died, just a few months after her mother. the first thing she said when she came off the phone was, “I’m an orphan”.

Technically, the term refers to a child who has lost both parents (or, interestingly, to an animal who has lost its mother). But the term “adult orphan” is sometimes used.

It doesn’t carry with it, however, the same connotations of sadness, destitution, or the horrible possibility of an orphanage.

Yet the loss of one’s parents is devastating for many adults, even if both parties are “old”. When the first parent goes, it is a shock; when the second goes, I am told you feel rather alone and vulnerable, mortal after all.

Luckily, I’m not an orphan, because I still have my mother, and you can’t be half an orphan. My mother, in her 70s, says she still thinks often that she would like to ask her own mother or father something, then remembers they’re not here to ask. (And when her sister died recently, she became an only-child adult orphan, as she reminded me when I was writing this piece).

When the parent of an adult dies, particularly of an older adult, it seems that most other people don’t take much notice. That is, they might say how sorry they are, put a message of condolence on Facebook or send a card, then everything goes on as normal the next week.

Yet the bereaved are suffering just as much as if they’d been younger when their parents died. They might not have missed out on the guidance a parent can provide while you’re young, but having a good parent or parents is comforting at any age.

When they’re gone, the world is a different place.

The “away child”

The "away child": I was 13 and living with my grandparents for a year when this picture was taken.

The “away child”: I was 13 and living with my grandparents for a year when this picture was taken.

How thrilling it must be for parents to raise children to become independent adults who go off and do their own thing. They might travel, study, work, marry, even immigrate somewhere else.

But how bittersweet that must be: on the one hand, being proud of that child’s achievements, and on the other, not being able to see them regularly, perhaps not for years at a stretch.

I call this the “away child” phenomenon.

By “away child”, I mean a person who lives in a different city or country to their parents, and this applies to a person at any age. If you’re 80 and your mother is 100, but you live in different cities, you are still an “away child”. As my mother says, she will always be my mother—age is irrelevant.

Mum and Dad always encouraged us to be independent, to aim high and to travel the world. We started travelling internationally as a family when I was 5.

I was an “away child” first at the age of 12. My parents and brother went back to Los Angeles to live for another year, and I stayed behind in Auckland, New Zealand, with my grandparents.

When they came back the next year, it was exciting to meet them at the airport: I got the day off school and Mum wrote a letter to say they had decided to keep me home that day. I think it was a Tuesday.

Just a few years later, I was leaving home “for good” to take up my first journalism job at 17 in another region. Mum and Dad said I shouldn’t leave home so young, but I insisted, and my grandparents drove me to my new town—actually a place my father had lived in 40 years before and my grandmother had lived on her family’s farm. Some locals even remembered them.

It was in Waipukurau, in Central Hawke’s Bay, about five hours’ drive from home (not that I had a car). In those pre-internet days, we couldn’t be part of each other’s daily lives. Communication was by letter and the occasional expensive phone call, and I travelled home for a weekend every six weeks or so. I didn’t go home for Christmas that first year I was working.

It was such an exciting adventure for one so young that I didn’t think much about how my parents would feel. My mother revealed to me only recently that it was sad for them and that she felt almost as if I’d died: the empty room, what to do with the old toys, whether to repurpose my bedroom or leave it as it was. (Three years later when my first brother actually did die, I moved home for a year to be close to them; then they had a new baby, a second brother for me, and I visited as often as I could before moving to Australia. They followed, not long after, and then I moved to Thailand! But that’s another story).

Social media has made the phenomenon of the away child much easier to bear, I guess. My international students tell me this helps them deal with homesickness, the thought that they can actually see and hear their families daily (even if they don’t).

Now my mother and I actually live in the same city, and last year I moved suburbs so I am only 18km from her, not 72km. But my much younger brother lives in the US, and although that is great—a happy marriage, an amazing city to be young in, a career, a dog—it’s hard to get used to seeing this “away child” only every couple of years.

On the other hand, I have quite a few friends who live in the same town they were born in, just down the road from their parents. Some have been “away children” for long periods, but others have been happy just to stay.

I wonder what that’s like.