Post 41

Cornflower and Cadet Blue: Reflections on Crayons

After thinking about it for some time, I bought myself some crayons.

There were a few different Crayola boxes to choose from.  I first considered the set of 64, but when I opened it, I saw that copper wasn’t included.  (My favourite, so I looked for it first.)  Gold and silver were there but I really couldn’t proceed without copper.

Turning to the 96-pack, I found that it did have copper, but I was rather leery about the 96-pack because of the box.  The box is really wide, and I guess crayon boxes are kind of like TVs, in that you can have too much of a good thing.  You can get TVs that are really big, but I draw the line around 32 inches on the diagonal; after that you’re inching into Fahrenheit 451 territory, seems to me.  The screen starts looking like the boss of you and your home.

Ray Bradbury has some interesting quotations.  Here’s one attributed to him about television:

The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.

Have you read his Fahrenheit 451?  It was written in 1953 as a futuristic novel set in a time when books are illegal, and where firemen are responsible for burning the homes of people who own them.  The main character is a fireman.

I paused for a moment to imagine the government using firemen to set fires.  It would make a lot of sense, in that they’d know how to contain them too.

And then it suddenly struck me that as far-fetched as that sounds, isn’t the thought of doctors committing euthanasia or assisting with suicide actually more chilling than a fireman who destroys property?  And yet it’s not science fiction, because euthanasia happens in the Netherlands, Belgium, Albania, Luxembourg, a few states in the United States and could soon begin here in Canada.  It saves the government so much money, in terms of health care, that it’s being done to people whether they like it or not.  The statistics show that many (4,910 people in the year 1990 in the Netherlands, for example) of those people who are killed didn’t want to die at all, and they even kill children or adults who are disabled. It’s gotten to the point that some elderly people won’t go to the hospital when they have medical issues, since they are (rightfully) concerned that they could be murdered.  In places which permit euthanasia (doctor administers the lethal drug) or assisted suicide (patient administers the supplied drug), those who were trained to protect and preserve are being paid to destroy or help destroy, just like the firemen in Bradbury’s novel.

I once saw a quotation that every time an elderly person dies, a library burns to the ground.  And there’s a lot of validity in comparing people with libraries.  For starters, both are precious and shouldn’t be deliberately destroyed.

As for the libraries, we don’t see tell-tale destruction by fire, but truly, many books are quietly getting purged from our libraries.  Classic books, in particular, are being removed from the collections by ‘progressive’ librarians to make room for Disney videos, video game stations for children, and computers with internet access.  The traditional books for children are being rapidly replaced by books which have no moral.  I know this partly because KindOne spoke to a publisher who said they reject any submissions which contain a moral.

As Chesterton says, children don’t have issues with stories which have a moral, which show that good things happen when you do good, and bad things happen when you do evil.  Those have always been the best stories in the history of humanity, and children like them.  It’s the adults who can’t deal with them, who view them as preachy and want to replace them with ‘fresh’ stories with no moral and no point.

(Or, in some cases, the publishers cooperate with the new social agenda, which presents a new kind of ‘morality.’   God forbid the day when we have books called, “It’s Time to Say Goodbye to Grandma.” On the back cover we will see “An excellent resource!  Help your child work through issues of grieving when it’s time to euthanize family members and collect the inheritance.”)

But back to the riveting drama of my crayon purchase . . .

The box containing the 64-pack is just about perfect, to my eye, and I’m not even referring to the built-in sharpener.  It’s luxury without ostentation.  And it doesn’t hurt that the box almost looks like a square.

And here I have to tell you that after I confided that squares are my favourite shape, I came across this:

Darkness full of thunder followed, and after the thunder Father Brown’s voice said out of the dark: “Doctor, this paper is the wrong shape.”

“What do you mean?” asked Doctor Harris, with a frowning stare.

“It isn’t square,” answered Brown.

 – G.K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown, “The Wrong Shape”

Isn’t that neat?  Of course I love that, especially taken out of context like this.

So there I was, standing under the bright florescent lights of the store, where there are no windows to remind you that there’s a world outside, and no clock to remind you that you have better things to do.  There are just lots of colourful things everywhere, bright and shiny.  (I really like shopping anywhere there’s a lot of colour and texture.  They say women have more cones in their eyes, so they can perceive these things better than men, whereas men have more rods, which means they are better at judging distance and speed.  This general rule means that a lot of men really can’t tell the difference between two shades of beige paint swatches, unless they were both being flung through the air by a frustrated spouse, in which case, they’d be great at telling you which one was travelling faster.)

So anyway, after some deliberation, I did the only thing a person could do in such a predicament: I bought both boxes, with the idea that I’ll gather my favourites into the box of 64, and then give away the box of 96.

When I got home with my thrilling purchase, I opened both boxes and gingerly pulled out crayon after crayon.  They seemed a lot smaller than I remembered them; thinner and more delicate.  Funny – they didn’t seem small to me the last time I used them!  As I slid them out one at a time, I read the different labels. I said to myself, “Here’s Indian Red” but when I looked at it, it wasn’t called that anymore.  Do you remember Indian Red?

Yes or no, you do remember the crayons, right?  I don’t mean just that you used them, but I mean really remembering them.  Chesterton writes about remembering the art pencils of his childhood, and reading his description sometime last year reminded me of my own affection for crayons.

In the passage, he talks about how when you remember something a few times, you’re not remembering the real event, person or thing – you’re kind of remembering your memory.  He says that a pure memory, when you are thinking of it for the first time after all those years, can really startle you:

I do not think here of the strong colours . . . much as I exulted and still exult in them . . . But when I remember that these forgotten crayons contained a stick of ‘light-red,’ seemingly a more commonplace colour, the point of that dull red pencil pricks me as if it could draw red blood.

 – G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Ch. I

I bet nearly everyone remembers the crayons, and as a matter of fact, it occurred to me that maybe it would be therapeutic for Alzheimer patients to have their own sets.  I’m serious! They say that when your memory starts to go, you lose the recent stuff, and then as the illness progresses, you lose the earlier memories.  That would mean that crayons would be some of the last memories to be lost.

This would mean that one of the last memories I lose will be the memory of the picture I drew on the first day of kindergarten at age five.  I used a broken red crayon (we were allowed to choose only one colour) to draw a girl walking a dog on a leash.  This dog had a cat on a leash, and the cat had a mouse.  They all trotted along cooperatively on the bottom of the page.

It was meant as realism, and there was no symbolism in my drawing, I assure you.  (Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)  Most children aim at realism, but I was quite opinionated about it even at age five.  When the child next to me said that his was ‘a design,’ I felt it was a cop-out. (“Design!” I said to myself, “How can you just do a ‘design?’”)  I was slightly appalled, which shows that I’ve been opposed to abstract art for as long as I can remember.

But back to the crayons, they provide multi-sensory memories.

Do you remember how they were?  Do you remember how it felt to open a brand new box?  All the colours are there, so pristine and tempting.  Do you remember the feel of the paper wrappers on them?  It’s not smooth; it’s got a roughness to it, like construction paper.  Do you remember how they sounded? If they bump into each other, they have that light clunking sound like pieces of hollow wood.  And of course, there’s the smell.  It’s an unmistakable smell, and I really like it.

I should film myself smelling the crayons.  Wouldn’t that be bizarre?  Would you click on the link to it?  Here’s me on YouTube, smelling crayons.

(If you would click, that would show, I suppose, that you’re very silly, and even sillier than me. After all, at least I’d be getting the scent, while you’d be just getting the visuals of somebody else getting the scent, which is, well, not very much.)

Doesn’t the smell bring back childhood memories?  It’s quite unique. Maybe they could come out with a perfume line based on Crayola crayons.  The men’s product line could be called Mahogany, and the women’s could be called Orchid.  “Hey, this perfume smells like CRAYONS!” and the fragrance lady would say, “Yes, it’s made from the Orchid crayon, not orchids – it’s for the nostalgic types, you know.”

To be truthful though, I can’t smell the difference between Mahogany and Orchid.  But maybe there is a difference because different colours rely on slightly different chemicals.  I was reading that during war time, they couldn’t make some of the colours due to a shortage of certain compounds.  Dogs, on the other hand, who can smell a million times better than people, could probably totally tell the difference.  This could really come in handy, if you were blind and yet you wanted to draw a really nicely coloured picture when there were no people around to help you distinguish the colours and all you had was your dog and he could understand your requests.  YOU: “Rover, fetch me Burnt Sienna!” ROVER: sniff, sniff, wag, wag.  YOU: “Good dog.”  Mind you, I suppose even if he got it wrong, you’d be none the wiser.

So although I haven’t coloured with them yet – not being ready for that step in this relationship – I did organize them.  First, I had to decide how I was going to make sense of all the colours in the boxes.  What was I aiming for anyway?

In my research (yes, of course I researched it!  What do you do when you’re supposed to be doing something else?), I found that for more than thirty years, from 1958 to 1990, the ‘Crayola No. 64’ was the largest box you could get, and they didn’t change the colours during that time, which means that you could argue that it represents the ‘classic’ box.

Chesterton says you can’t have ‘progress’ unless you have a fixed notion of what you’re trying to progress towards.  Ideals should be fixed, is his point, and then you can move towards them.  If the idea of what is Good keeps getting redefined, so that the goals themselves keep shifting, then that’s not good.  The problem with moving targets is that they’re moving.  The nice-sounding jargon is a way of avoiding a real discussion:

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘liberty;’ that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘progress;’ that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘education;’ that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  The modern man says, ‘Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.’  This is, logically rendered, ‘Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.’ He says, ‘Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.’  This, logically stated, means ‘Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.’  He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.’  This, clearly expressed, means, ‘We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.’

 – G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, Chapter II

So anyway, I decided that my goal would be to attempt to reassemble the classic box, the Crayola No. 64.  That box was going to be my fixed star.

(And here again, it amuses me to read the following after having written that last sentence:)

The truth is, that it is quite an error to suppose that the absence of definite convictions gives the mind freedom and agility . . . Moreover, a man with a definite belief always appears bizarre, because he does not change with the world; he has climbed onto a fixed star, and the earth whizzes below him like a zoetrope.  Millions of mild black-coated men call themselves sane and sensible merely because they always catch the fashionable insanity, because they are hurried into madness after madness by the maelstrom of the world.

 – G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, Chapter IV

So the work began, and there I was – checking off crayons as I found them, cross-referencing what I had with what I was supposed to have.  It was a biblical Day of Judgment as I separated ‘the goats from the sheep.’  And it’s funny to recall now (because it wasn’t intentional) that I put the ones which had a classical pedigree to the right, and I put the ones which weren’t part of the Crayola No. 64 to the left (into the outer darkness).

By the time I was finished, I had my own special collection of No. 64, and of course Copper was nestled in there quite contentedly.  You may think that I was also the picture of contentment, but – alas – my tale does not end quite so simply.

Did you know that beginning in 1990, Crayola began ‘retiring’ crayons?  Yes!  It’s true!  Horrible, but true!  I did not know this.

And they even call it that.  In 1990, eight colours “retired into the Crayon Hall of Fame.”  Shocking!  And they’re using sports talk, as if these colours were athletes or sports jerseys.  But colours don’t retire!  Colours don’t stop playing! Colours are always at the top of their game.  They never needed to go; it was non-consensual! The decision was made for them, not by them.

Look at the colours which are no longer with us:

Orange Red (1958-1990)
Maize (1903-1990)
Orange-Yellow (1958-1990)
Lemon Yellow (1903-1990)
Green-Blue (1958-1990)
Violet-Blue (1930-1990)
Raw Umber (1903-1990)
Blue-Gray (1958-1990)

I think it was a mistake to banish these colours.  Crayola attempted to distract everyone from the loss by introducing eight new colours and holding contests to name them.

Now part of what I sigh for is the labels.  There’s something special about not only the colour but the name of the colour, which is partly why the contest was popular.  But think about “Lemon Yellow.”  That’s truly a classic name.  It’s got an international and timeless feel to it.  Are lemons now passé?  Are we through with lemons?  Lemons almost symbolize childhood, in the notion of a lemonade stand. You can’t be done with lemons, and you can’t be done with Lemon Yellow.

It’s the colour that you used when you wanted to really be emphatic about yellow.  It’s what you used when the tulip wasn’t just going to be Yellow, but rather, it was going to be REALLY yellow: it was going to be Lemon Yellow.  It was kind of like the highlighter of the crayon box.

And then they go and say that Lemon Yellow has gone into the Hall of Fame.  Hall of Fame?  A colour does me no good if it’s in a Hall of Fame.

Why don’t they just admit it? Instead of saying Raw Umber got ‘retired into the Crayon Hall of Fame,’ they should say that Raw Umber got ‘sacrificed on the Altar of Apparent Progress.’

And you know how it is with progress and overthrowing tradition: once you start, you don’t know where to stop.  When tradition isn’t enough to continue something (it should be – as Chesterton says in Orthodoxy, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”), then many things are put onto the chopping block.  That’s how we lost these two, which had such lovely nature names:

Thistle (1949-1999)
Mulberry (1958 – 2003)

My other reason for crying foul at this Hall of Fame idea is that Crayola has shown no hesitation in expanding the box, so it’s not as if there’s a finite amount of space for crayons.  During the same time that they’ve retired these colours, they’ve come out with bigger collections.  It’s kind of like telling someone there’s no room for them at the table, while you’re simultaneously expanding it and inviting new people to join in the fun.  Like I said, these crayons never were planning to leave.

I don’t really mind the new colours, because a colour is a colour, but I’m not sure about some of their names.  Probably I’m just grumpy that the noble elders have lost their seats to these flashy young upstarts: Jazzberry Jam, Mauvelous, and Razzmatazz are some of the names.  Exactly what colour is Razzmatazz?  The name offers no clue.  And “Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown” introduced in 1998, wasn’t improved when they dropped the word ‘brown’ in 2005 and left it as “Fuzzy Wuzzy.”  A lot of ‘z’s here, I note.  Maybe ‘z’ feels more modern.

So there you have it.  The truth is that my box of Crayola No. 64 is not all that it could be.  You will see an empty space where the ten crayons should have been.  I have decided that the best testament (cue music) to the ostracized colours will be this gap, this forlorn space.  Henceforth all generations shall look upon this incomplete box and regret the loss of those valiant colours, who had served us so well, and who were taken from us all too soon.

Or . . .

You know, eBay does sell some vintage crayons.  There are some old tins which have a supplementary set of the eight crayons which were retired in 1990.  And you won’t be surprised to hear that I did seriously consider making a little online purchase.  The price wasn’t even that bad — $8.00 USD – until you add the cost of shipping to Canada (another $20 USD or so).  Of course, this wouldn’t get me Thistle and Mulberry (and Aquamarine, which is missing without explanation).  But for one reckless moment, the fixated mind disregards all else and the hand hovers over “Buy Now.”

But then sanity returns.  As Chesterton says, “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” (Illustrated London News, May 5, 1928)

So I draw the line here.

I’ll draw it in Copper.

Sniff, sniff.

(That’s Rover, not me, in case you’re wondering.)