Monday, September 28, 2009

Home/Not Home

Following my announcement that I'd be going home for a couple of weeks, a friend asked me a few days ago whether I thought I'd ever refer to Wellington as home. I'm pretty sure that I already do - a person can have many homes of course - but the question made me ponder the relative weight I give to that word when I attach it to one place or the other, and the extent in which I feel that I still belong in my native city, or in the house where I grew up. More or less implicitly, I ask myself that every year, every visit. It's the nature of the transition.

I wrote briefly some time ago of the effects of intercontinental travel on (my) memory and sense of place. After twelve years of regular comings and goings, even as so many aspects of the trip have become routine, the experience as a whole has not ceased to be distinctly surreal, and it invariably colours those first couple of days on the other side, when everything moves at unnatural speed and is bathed in a strange light. Under those conditions, familiarity itself can be perplexing, the embrace of loved ones dulled by the sense that surely you cannot actually be there, with them - how could you, when just yesterday it was so far? But then that yesterday recedes too, and as that circadian upheaval rights itself, you tentatively begin to settle into the old grooves. There is Mum and this is, after all, the apartment in which I was born. Everything - if not quite everyone - is more or less exactly where I left it.

Compare, if you will, these two pictures, one taken in 1975, the other in the last half hour

and observe how little has changed. Except for the young lad, that is. I have no doubt he thought he would spend his whole life in Milan, if he had even begun to contemplate his long-term future. Those imaginings of self in time, famously parroted by the language of pop psychology and human resourcing ('where do you see yourself in five years'?), are a manner of constructing your past to be, of remembering forward, that matter profoundly to whom and what we become. I think little-me would be shocked to discover that one day I would lose that fierce attachment to that place and those things, and be able to imagine first, then make possible, a life lived elsewhere.

But that's not the biggest change, nor the deepest cut. If you could pan a little to the right of that first image you'd see this,

a dear memory yet also a painful reminder of how much easier it is to preserve the look of an apartment than to hold on to the people who matter to us the most. Remember that house in Leipzig? Nobody seemed to care about what happened to its vanished dweller, yet that place was defined by an absence, and so is ours. Mum no doubt feels this much more keenly, but it is palpable and we both resent it. It makes this our home and yet not our home, a familiar space filled with a precisely shaped emptiness.

There is, besides, the peculiar experience of the expatriate, provisional returnings defined by the fact that you no longer live there, and the noticing of things forgotten and of often minute but nonetheless persistently incremental changes, as if your old home town was being replaced one person and one brick at a time, with the effect of becoming stranger, simply in that it's harder to make new friends, establish new connections, in a place you no longer live. The strangeness in and of itself is not something to fear - I am quite desperate in fact for certain changes to occur in this city, this country - but it does contribute to the overall effect on the psyche, that simultaneous sense of belonging and not belonging.

This yearly routine, too, shall pass, and some day I'll have no reason to return quite so often and attend to the particular duties that visiting an elderly parent entail. I ask myself sometimes how often I am going visit when the time comes, staying with whom, and with what motivation other than the obvious ones of seeing old friends and introducing the kids to their other birthplace. I wish then for renewals, something to give fuller meaning to the word home, and for this place to change in ways that urge me to return.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Recipes (4): Making Pizza with Lucia

In appreciation of the work of

One Monday in mid-June of 1996 I took the train from Milan to Vicenza and found my way to the street address printed on the call-up card I had received just a few days earlier. A little surprised to discover that it was an ordinary looking residence, not the office or hospital building I expected, I rang the bell. A tall fellow in his mid-forties opened the door, looked at me for a few moments and declared, with perfect deadpan delivery:
"You must be Franz Kafka."
And thus began my year of forced employment in the mental health sector.

I look back on it with fondness now, but the beginnings were difficult. Being suddenly drafted into such work - in the time-honoured and very deliberate fashion that the Italian army had of finding a placement for conscientious objectors at the last minute and with no forewarning, let alone training - was a little traumatic. Also, initially I had nowhere to stay but the house itself: I was the first objector in the history of that particular placement who came from out of town, and there was no other accommodation. The residents - half a dozen adult males, mostly schizophrenic - had but a vague concept of personal boundaries or working schedules, and since there were no nurses on duty at night they figured that waking me up to attend to their needs would be okay. I wish I could tell you that I took this entirely in my stride.

There is nothing quite so unsettling as a mind that cannot be read, because it works differently. Isn't that where the stigma of madness comes from? But then you realise that for the mad person every other person on the planet is a source of ambiguity and confusion, and you find yourself unable to fathom just how unsettling and distressing that must feel, and the loneliness that it must bring. Coming to that realisation enabled me to get a grip on myself and a sense of just who it was who actually needed help; at the same time, having managed to persuade my superiors to find me a bed in a nearby office building made the working conditions a little saner, as it were. But I still didn't know what my job was. Formally I was a generic adjunct to the nurses on duty, with no specific tasks - which is just as well I suppose, seeing as I had no training. I spent time socialising with the guys, played cards with them quite a bit, helped one with his gardening, another with his job-seeking and his English, but it was hard to shake the feeling that I was the only one who actually benefited from the arrangement.

The inspiration for a more meaningful way to contribute came by way of food. At the house we got our meals delivered from the hospital kitchen, and it ranged from the acceptable to the barely edible, but for dinner - by which time I was mostly off duty - I had to rely on the mess-tins left earlier that day by the door of my office-cum-bedroom. These would sometimes contain actual foodstuffs, in the form of cold pasta or slices of roast beef with salad, but just as often it would be a cold lump of sauerkraut, or several hundred mushy peas, and went straight into the bin. At 2.5 Euro per day (no, it isn't a typo, just the pay of regular soldiers) I couldn't really afford to dine out, and I had no cooking facilities, so I had to smuggle leftovers from the house, if there were any. It was grim.

Except for Wednesdays, that is. Wednesdays were a whole different story.

My friend Marco and I had applied for the status of conscientious objectors on the same day, and received our call-up papers on the same week, eighteen months later, a matter of days before we would have had to have been declared free of any obligation. We were both placed out of town, which was rare and unfortunate enough, but at least we were in the same region, and the council of the small town where he worked had granted him use of a ludicrously large house. So I tweaked my timetable in order to finish early on Wednesday and we got to spend the evening together, which brightened up my week a whole lot. We decided (it was his idea, I think) that on each one of those nights we'd treat ourselves to a sumptuous meal. To be precise, we worked our way through a book of recipes by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, the author of the Pepe Carvalho novels. I still have it.

And thus some time in the winter came the idea of incorporating cooking into my work at the house. The hospital food was awful but the ingredients were fresh, so would they mind sending those to us instead? And if we wanted to depart from the set menu, we could dip into our modest fund for social activities.

Now if you’ve never cooked with schizophrenics, it’s an interesting experience, and I’m sure it has well-documented therapeutic value when organised by people who know what they are doing. We just gave it a crack, basically, and it seemed to work. There was no compulsion to participate, nor an excessively rigid schedule. The only rule was that we had to eat what we prepared, even if somebody (I’m looking at you, Paolo) had dumped half a bag of salt into the pot for the pasta. For some of the residents, who had expectations of being able to move out and live independently in the short term, there was practical value; for others it was an activity to be enjoyed if they felt up to it, and that reinforced the learning to take care of oneself that the more professional therapists were trying to foster. Plus we really did have quite a lot of fun, which has to be an end in and of itself.

In what is possibly the longest preamble in the history of this very preambley blog: that’s how I came to learn to make pizza, from one of the nurses. It’s reasonably uncommon for Italians to cook it at home, since it can be purchased so cheaply at a bakery or pizzeria, but we couldn’t really afford it at the house and besides it was a very good group activity: it took time, everybody could be given a job, it was physical, and didn’t require too much finesse. Also, while the preparation had some structure and drudgery to it, there was room to be creative with the toppings. It quickly became our favourite recipe.


This time last year I made the obvious point that cooking can be a way of transferring ancestral knowledge, of making somebody partake of your culture. My mother puts it more succinctly when she says that ‘food is love’, a maxim whose value has become clearer to me since becoming a parent, and discovering that cooking with the children can be an important part of the family conversation. But a new and altogether less predictable turn of events has recently put this idea into much sharper focus.

The year has been dominated for us by the discovery that our daughter is autistic. That constellation of behaviours of hers that seemed puzzling, difficult or upsetting, as well as those that suggested she may have special abilities and an uncommonly sharp mind, have been given a name, and a fraught one at that. We are fortunate to have been exposed, through friends and advocates and our son’s school, to other kids on the spectrum and their families, and that knowledge has taken some of the edge off the otherwise frightening label. Besides her being wonderful and a very smart cookie, there are lots of positives in the care that Lucia gets and can be expected to receive, giving us every hope that she will grow to be happy in who she is, and equipped to make her own way in the world.

But for the moment there remains that challenge of connecting with a mind that is different, the struggle to learn to speak the same language and to understand the world as she sees it, which can be a cause of mutual distress, for her and for us; and conversely, the joy in finding a way to get through, a space where we can be ourselves with each other, and talk, if not quite in ordinary words, and share the same experiences.

There is her territory, of music and words learned by rote, obeying her rules - the few songs that can be played or sung or danced to, the few books that she will allow us to read to her, the cartoons that she can bear to watch - and then there is the world of interactive play, of drawing or mucking about with water and containers, or the trips to the playground, all with their own carefully negotiated boundaries. But for me personally (her mother has more success with a broader range of things) there is nothing that I find more rewarding than cooking pizza with Lucia. It’s at those times that I feel that she’s stepping into my world, as opposed to the other way around, and that she is at her most receptive to what I have to say and show her. It’s the attentiveness that most kids will freely give, but that with her needs to be won, and is all the more precious.

So here’s what we do.

For the base: 500g (four cups) high grade flour, eight tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, two teaspoons of salt, one teaspoon of sugar, 20g of fresh baker’s yeast, 275ml (1 1/4 cup) of lukewarm water.

The quantities have been refined over several years, so I have every confidence that if you follow them to the letter, you will have success. The first thing to do is to mix the yeast and sugar in the lukewarm water, and let it sit for a while. It’s at this time that Lucia will ask for a wee bit of yeast to taste on the side, and remark that ‘sugar is sweet’. Ten minutes or so later, when it’s had time to start fizzing, she will put her ear to it and delight at the sound. In the meantime you mix the flour and the salt in a bowl (‘salt is savoury’), add the oil, and add the yeast when it’s nice and lively.

Mixing the very liquid mess thus created is one of Lucia’s favourite parts, although she seems quite ginger in the picture. Once the dough has become dry enough to be handled, place it on a chopping board or other suitable surface and knead it, incorporating more flour if it’s still too sticky. But remember, you want to err on the side of soft and moist rather than dry and stodgy. This phase is the key to the whole preparation and should take you not less than ten minutes. Technique-wise, you want to use your palms as much as possible. Allow us to demonstrate.

Once this is done, you put the dough back in the bowl, cover with a cloth and let it rest in a dark place for an hour or until doubled in size. Lucia is going to insist that you check often. What you’re aiming for is to go from this

to this

Then you return the dough to the kneading surface and give it a good bash. Seriously, just pound it for half a minute or so, you want to get all the air out. Place it back in the bowl, cover with the cloth and leave in a cool dark place for another hour. While you wait, you can start working on your toppings.

Mix together in a bowl 300g of boiled peeled tomatoes (tinned is fine) a tablespoon of oregano, a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Slice or grate 250 grams of mozzarella and that’s your basic margherita topping ready to go. You’ll add to it as you see fit.

Once the dough has had time to rise again, it ought to be very elastic and easy to work into a disc or rectangle, depending on the size of your tray or dish. My preference is for a very thin base and I generally extract three standard rectangular oven trays from one dough, but if you’re not practised you can initially aim for two. Alternatively, the same base will give you one tray of focaccia (the procedure for that and some alternative toppings are here). Whatever you make, it needs to cook at the highest temperature that your oven will allow, preferably in no longer than fifteen minutes or it will start to burn at the edges before it’s had time to cook in the middle. That really depends on how good your oven is. Naturally, the cooking surface needs to be greased with olive oil, and the oven needs to be pre-heated (sorry, George).

That’s all there is to it, it’s nothing complicated although it requires a little application and some free time. Having to pay attention to and be explicitly aware of the learning opportunities that Lucia gets, I’d have to say there’s plenty that we can fit into that one activity: some manual skills, a sense of time and causation (she’s learning to watch the pizza cook through the glass door of the oven) and how ingredients are combined to form something quite different, the taste of each individual ingredient and how to attend to a complex procedure in which she is asked to verbalise each of the steps. But mostly what we get out of it is the time spent together, a time in which we are both happy.

Oh, and the pizza isn’t bad either.

I'm going back to Italy this week, so while I still plan to blog when I'm there, it might be slightly less teutonically punctual than usual. I apologise for any convenience that a lack of blogging might cause.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Investing for Dummies

James was sitting at his desk writing one of the first chapters of the first edition of Investing for Dummies one beautiful spring morning when there was a knock at the door. Being up since dawn meant he went straight to work without glancing at a newspaper or talking to anybody else. Freda, his gardening consultant, was at the door with some of her colleagues to draw plans for a new garden. James stepped out and greeted his visitors with a cheery ‘Good morning,’ then looked at their grim faces. ‘Isn’t it awful what’s happened in America? All those people killed,’ said Freda, standing on the lawn that fateful day — 11 September 2001.

Looking back on the events, James knew almost immediately that September 11 would create a conservative climate for some time to come. Indeed, the investment markets of the early 2000s were very sober compared to the excitement of the 1990s and the 1980s.

Fast forward seven years to late 2008, when James and Barbara prepared the second edition of Investing For Dummies. Another completely unexpected event – the global credit squeeze and the unprecedented financial crisis that followed – were demolishing financial markets even more savagely than the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001.

(From the introduction to the 2nd Australian edition of James Kirby and Barbara Drury’s Investing for Dummies.)

Onlookers watch trading at the Wellington Stock Exchange during the 1987 stock market crash.

I moved to New Zealand on the ten-year anniversary of the 1987 stock market crash, and at the tail end of thirteen years of aggressive neoliberal reforms. On the day Justine and I landed in Auckland, the front pages of the national papers featured the story of a man who was being denied kidney dialysis on the basis that it failed to meet the cost-benefit requirements set out by the local district health board. And perhaps the treatment truly could not have helped him, but the story and the way it played out in the public media struck me as callously uncaring, and inflected by a grimly utilitarian rhetoric that I wasn't accustomed to. The nation seemed scarred, and the reports looking back on the events of a decade earlier were positively embittered.

In the crash of 1987 the New Zealand Exchange lost 60% of its overall value. By the time we arrived in the country the exchange had only just climbed back up to that level - shorn, of course, of all the companies that had had to be delisted, and without factoring in inflation - only to fall back under 1,400 points the following year. Business and political commentators lamented the resulting loss of confidence in the markets on what seemed like a daily basis. The idea they were pushing - that the market is the key to growth and wealth and is fundamentally trustworthy - was instrumental to the neoliberal project, which is integral in turn to how the media operate in New Zealand, and it simply had to be restored.

Which is not to say that crashes themselves aren't part of that narrative - after all, capitalism feeds on crises, is itself crisis - rather that the general populace needs to metabolise them in an orderly and timely manner, so that they can start feeding their earnings back into the machine. And ever since 1998, when the Australian All Ords became the first stock market in the world to be listed on the stock market (it listed itself on itself), the global machine has got even hungrier. It matters now less than a full jot whether the prices go up or down, for a stock market feeds on the activity that is generated on it, and so it happened that the All Ords decided to authorise short selling, the practice that allows traders to speculate on and swiftly bring about the collapse in value of listed companies. Nobody could see any harm in that, right?

More anniversaries to account for this week: it's eight years since 9/11, one year since the collapse of Lehman Brothers. And some numbers: on September 10, 2001, the Dow Jones Industrials Average closed at 9,605.51. Last Friday, at the end of a month-long rally, it closed at 9,605.41, exactly one tenth of a point lower. During the same period, the Milan stock exchange shed about thirty per cent of its value. And how about this: on December 29, 1989, Japan's Nikkei average closed at 38,916. As of this afternoon, almost twenty years later, it's trading at 10,186.63, roughly seventy-four per cent lower.

I am fascinated by these figures, but other than making me sceptical of the truism that over time shares are always the best form of investment, I don't really know what they mean. Is there an actual correlation between these indices and what one might stubbornly wish to call the real economy, or old fashioned money? Is there even a continuum anymore between work, production, capital and finance? Has there ever been? Faced with events such as the one that prompted the very first post on this blog - when the United Airlines stock lost eight hundred million dollars in the space of five minutes after a Bloomberg employee reposted as news of the day a piece about the company’s 2002 bankruptcy filing - it’s hard not reach the conclusion that the value of actual human work has become entirely notional, incidental to the creation and destruction of ever-more virtual wealth as defined by the perpetually shifting balance of share portfolios and financial accounts.

But just like money and credit, the financial markets are based on a covenant between people, and depend entirely on trust - if we didn't believe in them, they would simply cease to exist. Faith must therefore be kept at all times in the overarching narrative: that the markets are the lifeblood of our enterprises; that they obey the laws of reason and logic, and rest on concrete and measurable economic fundamentals. Consider, in utterly random fashion, today's headline on the home page of Yahoo Finance: 'World Stocks Down as Weak Dollar Weighs on Japan'. A terse statement of cause and effect, it suggests that in spite of their staggering complexity, scale and speed of exchange, the global financial markets can yet be observed and understood much like one would a physical phenomenon, and that their outcomes would be wholly predictable if only we could measure all the inputs going into the system, all the variables involved. Yes, humans operators are known from time to time to succumb to euphoria or panic, but even so, given enough time, the market will purge itself and restore its homeostatic balance, for emotions have no place in the workings of a machine.

Except if you follow the market news in real time, rather than read the verdict at the close of trading, you'll see headlines get rewritten sometimes three, four times in the course of an up-and-down session, and the reasons for a market rise be replaced by explanations of its decline, or vice versa. Sometimes, it's actually the same reason for both outcomes - say, a decision by the Federal Reserve that could be interpreted either way. Thanks to the capacity of electronic media to continually update their own pronouncements, replace a statement with another in the same conceptual and physical space, there is no confusion or contradiction, no time flow, no memory of any of this. Just a string of flawless predictions made after the fact.

Consider the passage at the top of this post: 'Looking back on the events, James knew almost immediately.' And what does he know now that he knew then? The same thing as everybody else, because we are all looking at the same numbers.

What of this crisis, then? It's hardly over, but the memory of it is being rewritten or erased even as we speak. We are getting better at forgetting. Some of the bans on short selling have been rescinded, others are about to expire. There is talk in the media of the end of the recession, of growth without jobs - I am not sure what we are even supposed to do with that. Perhaps the financial markets will live to see another bubble, and the crisis will be remembered as just another high mark: people will point to it and say 'in 2008/2009 the water came up to here'. And we’ll keep building on the flood plains, because it’s all we know, and besides we have nowhere else to go.

Monday, September 7, 2009


The blog turns one this week but it was this time two years ago that I acquired the book whose artwork inspired me to come up with the title, and that I adapted into the banner that I'm retiring today. Here's one last, wistful look:

Mnemonic flash cards from an illustration by Bert Warter on p. 74 of Bruno Furst’s Stop Forgetting (1949).
Stop Forgetting is a book that you would be unlikely to find at a regular second-hand bookshop, in that it's old but not quite enough to be an antique, outdated but not quite enough to be quaint or downright kitsch. Libraries too, where shelving space may be large but isn't limitless, get rid of this kind of book all time. So if you're interested in volumes of that particular variety and vintage, but don't have a particular title in mind, you're best to find yourself a storehouse. Like this one:

Image by Timothy Greig, licensed under CC 2.0
The Downtown Community Ministry book fair in Wellington is my favourite worldwide event that doesn't involve seditious chanting or semi-competitive eating and drinking, and it's on every year in early September. Being your typically egotistic blogger, I'm secretly convinced it's been scheduled to coincide with my blog anniversary on purpose, for it's the perfect gift to mark the occasion and I could quite happily base a year's worth of posts on what I take home from a single one of these expeditions.

Now don't get me wrong: the fair has plenty of titles of both general and specialist interest that are still in print, so it's great if you just plan to save yourself a lot of money - which I most certainly have, over the past four years. But what I really look for is what I couldn't otherwise find, and that more often than not I didn't even know existed, except in general terms as part of a certain category such as vintage self-help books (especially in the area of memory improvement), or home help hints, or old instructional books for the young, or texts of national promotion and propaganda. When it comes to these kinds of books, I can go a bit crazy. Not Haňt'a-crazy, but not far off either. I want to take them all, save them all. So I set myself all sorts of odious arbitrary limits, have second and third thoughts, cogitate and meditate and ruminate on whether Bible Stories Make Me Happy is worth saving on account of its title alone, or whether the jingoism of The Whole Earth is the Tomb of English People might make me want to hurl it in random directions, thus endangering the children. (I settled on no and yes, respectively.)

It comes down, as always, to a question of space and time. Whether I’ll find enough of the former to store these books, and enough of the latter to read them. And then there’s the time spent browsing, which is also finite - this year, believe it or not, I skipped general fiction entirely. From the intersection of these (desirable, necessary) structural constraints and the relative randomness of the titles on offer comes the list of books I get to take home. Thirty-three in total, this year. Some standouts: three, count ‘em, three titles from the publisher that is always at the top of my list, Novosti Press. Whenever I see one of these I figure there's an old commie in Wellington who either died or moved into a rest home. Your books are safe with me, comrade.

Then there are a few snapshots from a time where the debate concerning political economy presented options other than the choice between neoliberalism and ultra-neoliberalism.

Sometimes it just takes one particular person’s decision to clear off their shelves earlier in the year to give a certain flavour to my experience at the fair. Thus 2009 will be remembered as the year of feminist science fiction, with a bag of books originally purchased by the donor at the Kate Sheppard Women’s Bookshop in Christchurch. Besides my beloved Joanna Russ

A good book to have in the house
I bagged Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Suzette Haden Elgin’s The Native Tongue and The Judas Rose. If there ever comes again in my life the opportunity to get funded to do some research, it might well be on future languages in science fiction, from Orwell’s newspeak to Elgin’s native tongue. Were you all a bunch of universities, wouldn’t you just fall over yourselves to finance such an endeavour?

As always, I was on the lookout for English translations of Guareschi - not to keep, you understand, but to give away. This time I came across two editions with lovely drawings by the author on the respective covers. Lyndon nabbed another, thus pre-empting my giving it to him, for he was a prime candidate for recipientship.

Soon to become a prize in the blog’s running competition. Philip is currently ahead of the pack with five points.
Firmly in the ‘other’ category, a couple of absolute gems. This wonderful book on the human body, whose contents look just as promising as the cover.

And a lovely little specimen on the art of garbage collecting.

You better believe I’m going to blog about this one.
On the teaching-kids-about-the-world-and-about-themselves front, expect to read in the coming months about Cole’s Family Amuser and Instructor (‘to delight the children and make the home happier’) as well as these two little numbers.

Although possibly the pick of the fair was a history of Bayer AG with revisionism written all over it. My jaw dropped at least five times in the few moments I spent skimming it before I decided that it had to be rescued. Details as soon as my stomach allows it.


All in all, it was a very good catch and a cracking blog anniversary present. Another present comes today in the form of a new banner design that I commissioned to the very clever Shirley Carran, whose work can be seen at Swonderful, Craft 2.0 and Knack. In fact she came back to me with not one but four different designs, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to keep this going for four more years in order to complete the rotation. But at least you’ll know whom to blame.


One year. Forty-eight posts (including this one) that I've enjoyed writing almost as much as I've enjoyed reading the six hundred and fifty-five comments. Thank you all for bearing with me for a full calendar year, and thank you Harvest Bird (whose compendium has finally been updated) and the rest for writing quite wonderful things in return. There are few things I value as much as other people's time, and I'm grateful that some of you chose to spend some of yours here, whether in order to comment or just read.

Speaking of which, I'm working on the slightly corny and quite possibly baseless theory that writing doesn't take time, it makes time. It's an extension of what Daniel Pennac wrote once about reading, and I'm not sure I can say in all honesty that it always felt true over the course of the last twelve months, but now and then it did, and it was special. As I say, I'm still working on it.