Dear Media…

This month’s challenge at Bloggers For Peace is to write a letter to any person or group you like. As a former journalist for more than 20 years and now an academic teaching communications and journalism studies, I take a great interest in the media. While there are still some superb news organisations, so many have become harbingers of doom and gloom that I often don’t want to read or watch the news. I sometimes have to close my eyes or look away. One of my former teenage students, from the Middle East, said to me last year: “I cannot watch or read the news in Australia, because the only thing I see of my country is violence and war. We have our troubles, but that is not all we are.” While I appreciate that such things as wars and accidents and even shark attacks are news and need to be reported, I would like the media also to report some of the good things going on. I don’t mean sugar-coated fake stories about nothing much, but real stories with a positive angle. Here is my open letter to the media.
Dear Media
It seems that the ”news” these days is full of awful things: crime, destruction, neighbours against neighbours, frauds, gangsters, political mud-slinging. No wonder your readership and viewership numbers are falling; no wonder few people want to pay for your online services.
As a result of this constant emphasis on the negative, you give a warped, unbalanced view of our society as a dangerous place in every way.
Imagine a media that restored the balance and actually reported the positive above the negative. It would be like this:
What the media show us: stories about drunken or drugged footballers behaving badly.
What I want to see: stories about footballers doing good work. Some are doing degrees at university; some are doing amazing charity work; some just have interesting stories or an interesting skill apart from their sports, e.g. painting, singing, dancing; and let’s have more stories about actual sports, particularly women’s sport.
What the media show us: stories about neighbours at war
What I want to see: stories about neighbourhoods with initiatives to make their area a better one in which to live, e.g. communal gardens. There is  a street down the road from me that has a little bit of open land with a tree. They turned this into a communal outdoor lounge room over summer, where families could meet, children could play and neighbours could get to know each other.
What the media show us: stories about con men and women who promise to cure cancer then rip off a person’s money; stories (really ads) about vitamins and supplements, quacks with this or that new miracle diet.
What I want to see: stories about real advances in science from around the world. Stories about wonderful inventions and their inventors.
What the media show us: horrendous stories, with pictures, about wild or domestic animals who have been mistreated, abused, tortured. Sometimes this does have a positive result, such as a story this week about a kangaroo that had been shot with two arrows (but survived), which subsequently drove the person who did it to turn himself in. However, I didn’t need to see the pictures of this poor animal a hundred times over.
What I want to see: stories about the wonders of the natural world and about responsible ownership of pets.
What the media show us: stories about road rage, drunk driving, and stupid exploits or car chases.
What I want to see: investigations into our transport systems, what is really happening, and what some real solutions might be. Stories about initiatives to improve driving habits.

I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it there for today. What sort of stories would you like to see the media do?

Old Gadgets

It’s strange to think that something that was made as recently as 2000 could now be a relic of the past, a strange reminder of technology most of us no longer use.

I teach media studies and communications at a university, and I’m interested in the links between creativity and technology. One of my hobbies—ironically, to get away from that world—is painting.  I’ve been doing a series I call “Old Gadgets”.

My latest painting in this series, finished last night, is “Old Gadgets No. 3”, which features my mother’s Panasonic cassette player-recorder. It was state of the art when my parents bought it in 1973 at the Santa Monica mall in Los Angeles, where we were living at the time. At the same time, I got a smaller cassette deck, which I was very proud of but which is long gone. Now I wish I’d kept it!

Old Gadgets #3: Panasonic cassette player-recorder, 1973; Sony Walkman, 2000. Acrylics and Faber-Castell Pitt artist pens on treated board.
Old Gadgets #3: Panasonic cassette player-recorder, 1973; Sony Walkman, 2000. Acrylics and Faber-Castell Pitt artist pens on treated board. © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2013

The Sony Walkman in the painting was bought by my husband to take on an overseas holiday in 2000. Remember when cassette players used occasionally to “eat” the tape, and you had to carefully unravel it?

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 Erbst Der Schwestern). I wrote the first draft of this novel many years before it was published, on this typewriter. Acrylics on board. © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

“Old Gadgets No. 1” features my manual typewriter, which I then gave to a friend who collects such things. I bought this typewriter in 1991, when I was living in Bangkok, because we had frequent power cuts during the rainy season and I wanted to be able to keep writing. Remember how messy and annoying it was to change the typewriter ribbon?

“Old Gadgets No. 2” is my Canon Eos film camera, bought in 1999, and various accessories. I used it until 2005, but it was already well out of date then. Remember those Kodak print packs you’d pick up and excitedly see what surprise gems you had taken on holiday?

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 1996. © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

I have a drawer at home where I keep old gadgets I might want to include in a painting. In the drawer are a purse-size address book, a tiny Motorola cell phone from 2003, 3D glasses that are still current but will be relics within a few years, and a TEAC external floppy disc drive unit in see-through turquoise, which matched my iMac in 1999. Apple had decided, ahead of its time, not to include floppy disc drives in its computers, so we all had to buy these little gadgets.

I wonder what the next thing I relegate to my “old gadgets” drawer will be?

Weekly Writing Challenge: the great ebook versus pbook debate

Over at The Daily Post,  They’re having a debate about ebooks versus printed books. There’s been so much talk about how printed books are doomed, that there’s a danger this  could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now, I am both a bibliophile and a bookworm. I have loved books for as long as I can remember. I also love new technology and, since 2008, have made a concerted effort to keep up with it. I love my Mac, iPhone, iPad and Kindle and I learn something new about them every day.

Well, I don’t learn so much about the Kindle, because there’s not much to learn: and that’s the way I like it. I have the old-style one with the keyboard, bought in 2010, from memory. My husband has a new one with a touch screen and virtual keyboard.
I have to say, I like mine better. The touch screen is annoying because you can suddenly touch the wrong thing and lose your page. The virtual keyboard is harder to use. Not that I use the keyboard much. My Kindle is for reading—not for games, emails, Facebook or surfing the net. Just reading.
That pretty much makes my Kindle just like a real book, only weighing less. When I first got it, I thought I would miss the physicality of a printed book. But that’s only a peripheral thing. Once I start reading, and lose myself in a book, the medium doesn’t matter; I forget about the medium entirely, unless it’s obtrusive or clunky.
If I turn my iPad to airplane mode, I can read comfortably on it. Ditto, even the iPhone—excellent for commuter trains when you can’t get a seat and have to stand.
HOWEVER—and it’s in upper case because it’s a big however—I still like printed books. The book, to my mind, is one of few things in the world that I call a perfect invention: that is, it’s not necessary to improve upon it.
The printed book is portable (more or less, depending), doesn’t need batteries, and is very durable.

As a young journalist, I wormed my way into a position of literary editor of the then-Sunday Star newspaper in Auckland. I interviewed Jeffrey—now Lord—Archer (a hilarious story for another time). I asked him to sign my copy of his latest paperback, First Among Equals, which he did.
Then my flatmate asked to borrow the book and took it away camping. When he brought it back, he apologised for its condition, explaining that he’d dropped it into a puddle. Because of the autograph, I still have that paperback 28 years later: it is a wreck, but it’s still readable, and none of the pages is even loose.

Archer, Crayon Files
Another reason the printed book is a perfect invention, is that it’s not seen as a security risk. You can read it anywhere, any time (unless it’s a banned book, of course). I love my Kindle for journeys, because it means I can travel lighter—and buy more books while I’m away. BUT, I still have to take a book for planes, for landing and taking off when electronic devices must be turned off.
Another perfect invention that has not been superseded by new technology is the transistor radio. This is because the batteries last forever, radios are comparatively cheap to buy, and you can listen all day and night for free. Despite all my expensive, high-tech devices, I still have a portable radio in my bathroom. It’s simple, cheap to run and it always works.
It seems that whenever a new medium becomes popular, lots of people think the old medium will disappear. While sometimes this is true: the telegram, for example, was largely trumped by more convenient and cheaper phone and email services. I was surprised though, in the course of researching this post, to discover that some countries still offer telegram services, although Australia’s closed in 2011. New Zealand closed its service in 1999 but reopened it in 2003 for business customers: apparently, it’s useful for debt collection services.

But there are a lot of old media that have not been superseded by the new.  My mother says that when she was young, everyone thought TV would spell the end of films and that all the cinemas would close down. This didn’t happen.

Similarly, live theatre didn’t die when film came along, video didn’t kill the radio, digital music didn’t kill vinyl. The latter is the most interesting of all. It was said that cassettes and the “indestructible” (ha ha, what a lie) CD would put paid to vinyl records. But now, the cassette is dead, CDs are on their way out, and vinyl is back in a huge way.

What happens is that the old medium changes to accommodate the new. So, for example, we no longer have news reels before movies at the cinema.

I believe that ereaders and printed books can continue to exist side by side.
How great for students to be able to get electronic text books, which are so much cheaper and easier to carry than the printed versions.
For myself, I prefer text books and academic texts in printed form. This is because I’m constantly looking up notes, indexes and other references, and often have seven or eight books on the floor beside my desk, all open at different pages. Even though I’ve got a huge screen on my Mac desktop, I can’t quite emulate the convenience of my books-on-the-floor method.

Aesthetics is another reason printed books will remain: the world is full of collectors, and showing someone your collection of ebooks isn’t quite the same as showing them your collection of 200 vintage books on Thailand, as I have.

So let’s agree to live and let live: ebooks and printed books side by side in glorious harmony.

Digital art versus traditional art media

The blogger known as Fish of Gold, who is an art director by profession but who is also an artist, was discussing how different in style her fine art is using traditional media such as charcoal and pencil, from the artwork she does using digital media (see more here). I am just an amateur artist, but I have noticed the same thing with my art. So, for example, here is a pastel painting I did of my brother’s dog, Maggie:

"Maggie", by Caron Dann, 2012.

“Maggie”, by Caron Dann, 2012.

In comparison, have a look at how different this digital painting is, done with my finger on an iPad, depicting my cat, Lucy Locket:

Lucy Locket, digital painting by Caron Dann, 2012

“Lucy Locket”, digital painting by Caron Dann, 2012

Maggie took me weeks to do, but Lucy took me only about 15 minutes. Lots of people like the style of the Lucy painting better! I could get a similar result using paint if I used my fingers and not a brush, I guess. But I wouldn’t—painting to me is about brush work, sometimes fine brush work.

So, perhaps Marshall McLuhan was right in this regard, and the medium really is the message. (By the way, here is an interesting MM memorial website run by his family, I think:

What’s In a Name?

A few people have asked me to explain the title of my blog, The Crayon Files. It actually evolved from an apt nickname someone once gave me.
My first name, Caron, is a French surname (as in Leslie Caron, the dancer and star of Gigi, for whom I was named).

I’ve been writing constantly since I knew how. When I was a journalist, I always scribbled down my notes in shorthand. I worked for years in the 1990s at a tabloid TV magazine that had a big youth readership. During that time, I appeared in an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) series for children titled Writers and their World, or something similar.  I had thought it would be an innocuous little show screened during the day and forgotten. But the power of TV in those days was extraordinary. The series was shown during the day all right, but loads of children, their parents and teachers tuned in, and it was repeated for years. I was even recognised in the street! “Are you on TV?” a stranger asked me one day. “No,” I replied, truthfully I thought. “Well if you’re not, you’re a dead ringer for that girl on that show about writers,” he said. I had to then sheepishly admit that it was me after all. A local shopkeeper recognised me too.
Then the funniest part: I was then our magazine’s reporter for one of Australia’s highest rating shows, so the cast knew me well. So, one day, they were in the makeup room preparing for the day’s shooting. There was a TV in the room, which was tuned not to their own network but to the ABC.
Up pops Caron on the writers’ show episode. “Oh look,” said a cast member, one of the country’s best known actors and a writer himself now, “It’s Crayon”.
The name stuck, and quite a few colleagues called me Crayon for years—one still does.

Crayon-to-be: Caron at work at the magazine in 1990, about six years before the "Crayon" nickname came about.

Crayon-to-be: Caron at work at the magazine in 1990, about six years before the “Crayon” nickname came about.

I’ve also been nicknamed C.J., after my then initials, which morphed to Siege; and Biddle, by my parents when I was a baby, because I used to say “Biddle, biddle biddle” when I got frustrated.
Most people have had at least one nickname in their time—some stick and some don’t. If you’re Thai, you most likely use your nickname for all but the most formal of occasions.

I’d love to hear some of your nicknames and how they came about.

Bambi, the dentist and the Mona Lisa

How lovely it was for me when last Sunday, while I was on vacation in Fremantle, Western Australia, a crown on one of my teeth fell out during breakfast.  For the rest of our time there, mostly spent seeing family on both sides, I had to be careful not to smile too widely, lest I look like a pirate.
We returned to Melbourne in the early hours of Thursday morning, and this morning (Friday) saw me at my excellent dentist, Dr L., his able assistant, Ms K., and friendly administrator Ms V. “You’ve presented me with a challenge,” Dr L. said cheerfully. I won’t go too deeply into what had to be done, save that  it involved a “slow drill” and something called a “para-post”.
It’s all completely painless, of course, thanks to local anaesthetic. I read a lot of historical novels and it’s the one thing that makes me glad I wasn’t born before the 20th century. Anyhow, although dentistry doesn’t hurt now, it’s not particularly pleasant. So, I close my eyes and try to divert my mind. I used to think about a beautiful beach—white sand, turquoise water, a yellow umbrella. Then I played too much of an iPhone app called Distant Shore, and got sick of the perfect beach.
So, what do I think of now? Bambi. That is because Bambi is the sweetest little thing in the history of fictional characters, and Disney captured perfectly this essence of sweet innocence in its portrayal of the fawn in the 1942 movie.

I’ve been wanting to write a piece about Bambi for a while, because suddenly, everywhere I look, are images of him. The protagonist of one of the earliest anti-hunting pro-environmental novels seems to be making a comeback—if he ever went away, that is. My earliest memory of Bambi is probably the Little Golden book with the Disney animation characters, but the story was first published in German in 1923 as a novel,  Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by the Ausrian-Hungarian writer Felix Salten,  who sold the film rights for $1000 in 1933.

Just before Christmas, I saw a 1950s ceramic Bambi ornament for sale at a shop near me called Retro Active, which sells 20th-century memorabilia, jewellery and furniture. It was $30 but, it being Christmas and not my birthday, I thought it wasn’t good form to buy a present for myself. However, shortly after Christmas, it is my birthday, so when the shop opened after the break, I went back to buy Bambi. Guess what? Bambi was gone. I imagine that dear little deer sitting now on someone else’s mantelpiece. Since then, I have seen a Bambi lamp for a baby’s room, and a fantastic Bambi book sculpture, which you can see here.
So synonymous has the term “Bambi” become with innocence and goodness, that to say something is “like killing Bambi” is to brand it just about the worst thing possible. So I was horrified, while researching this piece, to come across a discussion thread on the internet which started with the question, “Is it illegal to shoot a baby deer?”

Perhaps Bambi is making a comeback because, in this commodified, mediatised world in which we westerners can have just about anything we want, limited only by the size of our wallets, Bambi represents what is seen as a simpler, more honest time in which the goodies and the baddies were clearly delineated.We tend to apply this sentimentality or faulty nostalgia for “a simpler time” to many long-gone eras:   I mean, it’s all very well, for example, to look back to the early 19th century through sumptuous TV mini-series of Jane Austen novels and envy the seemingly peaceful and uncomplicated rural lifestyles back then. What we don’t see are the realities of life without all we take for granted today: electricity, refrigeration, and modern medicine, for example; and anaesthetic for visits to the dentist. Before 1844, dental anaesthetic was unknown: routine, reliable local anaesthetic without too many nasty side effects was not introduced until as late as the 1940s. More about that here.

Lack of proper anaesthetic meant restorative dental work was extremely limited before the 20th century. So, if the heroine of  the 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, had toothache, she would simply have had the tooth pulled out. As my late father, a dentist, told me: a real Elizabeth Bennet would have lost many of her teeth by her 20s, and those she still had would probably have been brown with rot. She would definitely not have had a mouth full of white, even teeth. I never could persuade him from his view that period dramas should present characters with teeth like they would really have had.
He was always convinced he knew the secret to the Mona Lisa’s smile. “It’s obvious,” he said of the early 16th-century painting. “It’s because all her teeth would have been rotten or missing, and she smiles that strange way because she has chronic toothache.”

Mona Lisa

In Bambi’s idealised world, all the goodies, of course, would have perfect teeth and would never need to go to the dentist. I hope this is my last dental visit until my usual six-monthly check-up is due. Fingers crossed.