Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The magic fridge

Over Christmas something very strange has happened to our fridge, and our biscuit tins. Well, not exactly tins. I used to have real biscuit tins, with quirky retro pictures on them, but they didn't really keep biscuits very well - especially after the boys left home and it took us days, if not weeks, to get through one packet. So I gave in and bought those nice plastic boxes from Woolworth's with blue click-on seals for the lids. Now the cheese crackers and malt biscuits finally stay crisp.

Normally crackers and malt biscuits are the only biscuity things you'll find in my pantry. As for cake, forget it. I'm a cook, not a baker. Besides, cakes aren't Harvey's thing, so if I do make one for visitors I end up eating most of it, slice by decadent slice.

But before Christmas I do try to Make an Effort. It doesn't run to actual Christmas cake, which neither of us is hugely keen on. But a few home made mince pies are likely to appear (thanks to the wonderful mincemeat Alison gives me), along with some kind of cookies or truffles or macaroons (handily gluten free for people who need that).

And after Christmas the fridge fills up with interesting leftovers - various kinds of meat, exotic bits of cheese, potato salad made from the unused Jersey Bennes (this year with real mayonnaise, made to go with the remains of a side of smoked salmon brought by our Boxing Day guests). Maybe some lemon mousse or berries, and always whipped cream.

Friends come round in a steady and welcome stream to help us eat it all up. But they also bring their own contributions, for the tins and the fridge.

So this is where the magic fridge comes in. We eat and eat (well, I certainly do), but while the total quantity of food available changes in interesting ways, it never seems to get much smaller.

Our macaroons make way for Dale's shortbread. Our smoked salmon turns into Kathrine's chicken. Apricot truffles appear in place of the last few meringues. The German Advent chocolates vanish, but Diane's French ones step in.

It'll all settle down eventually, I know, and our fridge and tins will return to their modest everyday state. But in the meantime it's wonderful - as long as I don't make the mistake of trying on trousers in the sales. Then everything suddenly turns to custard.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Ho ho ho to you too

Not a lot of genuine Christmas cheer around, is there. Huge ads yelling about price cuts, as retailers make increasingly frantic efforts to lure us into spending money we haven't got on things we don't need. The new bunch in the Beehive backing them up and telling us it's our duty to spend our way out of the looming recession.

And all over the country, women starting to panic about all the extra work involved in producing a proper Christmas. I don't think I've ever heard a man say, "Oh dear, I haven't done a thing about Christmas yet" - but every year I hear scores of women saying it.

I admit I'm feeling less Christmassy than usual. It hasn't been a good year for us - in fact it's been a real bugger - and it's been much worse for some of our friends. I'm not looking forward to writing the annual round robin letter. We always seem to get quite a few that go like this:

"As you know, Justin retired last December from his post as managing director. (His timing couldn't have been better, because in January the receivers moved in. Thank goodness he'd sold all his shares!) In March we celebrated our 40th anniversary at a magical hideaway in the Cooks.

May brought the pleasure of seeing both the twins graduate with first class honours, Logan in law and Megan in marketing. Then in September we finally took our long-delayed holiday in Europe. For me the highlight was probably dining by moonlight in the Colisseum with Andrea Bocelli singing some of his gorgeous Italian songs.

Now you may recall that last year I did that wonderful Creative Writing course at Victoria? Well, in November I was amazed when my little collection of short prose pieces won the 2008 New Voices Prize!! It's coming out next week, just in time for Christmas. Speaking of which, we're off to the Far North again for our annual family gathering at the beach house. Hope you have a great one!!!"

I feel strangely ashamed that I can't provide my own glittering catalogue of good news. Last year I could at least report that we'd moved house. This year the best I can do is resort to wry humour.

My husband has dramatically reduced his petrol consumption! (Because of his illness, he's just had to give up driving.) My son was appointed to a prestigious Chinese university post! (He's teaching part-time at a weekend business English course, on top of his regular job, so he can save enough money to come home.) And as for me - well, I started a blog!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

People or machines?

I have an apology to make. It's to the long-suffering woman who was staffing the Air New Zealand counter I went to at Wellington Airport last Wednesday. I was really rude to her, and I'm sorry.

The problem was that I'd just done battle with one of our national carrier's much-heralded new check-in machines. The computer-created pictures advertising the new regime - and regime it is - show smooth, young, fit, bland-faced men and women moving calmly around the concourse where the shining new macines cluster. As far as we can tell, none of them are disabled in any way, let alone elderly or infirm.

These perfect creatures seem to be the only kind of people the machines were designed for. They all have perfect eyesight, for a start. So the fact that some genius decided to use Air New Zealand corporate colours for the screen, resulting in hard-to-read teal blue script on a pale blue-grey background, instead of easy-to-read black on white, doesn't worry them at all.

Nor does it worry them that some people don't have credit cards, making the automated check-in process a lot more complicated. And contrary to the upbeat advance advertising, there was no one in sight to offer any help. What's more, there were great big signs forbidding you to approach the real person at the counter unless you already have your printed-out boarding pass.

I have impaired eyesight, but I do have a credit card. I peered crossly at the screen and obediently went through all the required steps, once I'd figured out where, and which way, the card was meant to be slotted in.

But although I did everything I was told, the bloody machine then told me it was unable to print out my bag tags. (Yes, you now have to put those on yourself too.)

So after all that I had to go to the counter anyway. But although the counter sign says "bag drop", the staff member standing there did not actually take my bag. I had to heave it onto the weighing thing, heave it off again, and take it way down the end to the actual baggage man.

So I got more and more ill-tempered and more and more ill-mannered. But I know none of this was the nice woman at the counter's fault, and she is quite possibly as annoyed about it as I was. So she certainly did not deserve my rudeness. I don't suppose she's reading this, but I do apologise. It was just as silly to berate her as it is to berate the hapless real person you finally reach on the phone, after endlessly wandering through the numerical wilds of Contact or Telecom.

My annoyance was compounded by the fact that right beside me, those passengers who could afford (or whose companies could afford) to belong to the Koru Club were still being dealt with by a real person, who not only checked them in but also took their bags.

Air New Zealand knows that a real person is exactly the kind of luxury the rich want and deserve. It doesn't matter what the rest want, let alone need - machines are good enough for the likes of us.

Found poem of the week

Armistice Day 2008: Lest we forget

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month
John Key was tucked away in meetings.

At 11 am he was being welcomed
into his caucus to applause
and whoops of celebration
frm his victorious MPs.

Mr Key said he did not go to the service
because he was not told till late
that Miss Clark was going
after being led to believe
that she was not.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

yes they could - and they did

I never thought they would do it, but they did. Despite all the slurs and half-truths and just plain lies, the American electorate voted for hope and change in the shape of a tall thin man of 47 with an African father and a strange-sounding name. An email from our NZ friend in the States caught the international mood perfectly - its subject line was "world saved".

But the choice facing New Zealand voters is very different. Except for his age and gender, John Key could not be more different from Barack Obama. Last week I put together a shameless cover version of a far-famed US piece, and called it "What I heard John Key say". You can read it on Scoop at

See you at the polling booth on Saturday.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Better than the real thing

Found Poem of the Week

Better than the real thing

The ultimate seduction has never been easier.
Better than the real thing
this romantic setting above its own olive grove
captures an intoxicating atmosphere
of luxurious calm.
Leave the rest of the world behind.
Built with exquisite detailing
to replicate the authentic look and feel
of a rustic Tuscan farmhouse.
Deep walls
flagstone floors, aged beamed ceilings
oak joinery and hand-forged latches
create enticing character.
A fire burning above the hearth
coaxes you to curl up with a book.
With helipad, ample parking and
numerous options.

Would suit a syndicate.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Found Poem of the Week

This is meant to be a new regular feature but I can't quite work out how to add it, so I'm putting it in as a separate post instead. (Thanks for the source, Donna!)

Found Poem of the Week


it's really not so much a timeline
but when the markets are more favourable
obviously markets picked up yesterday and who knows
that may continue over the next number
of weeks or months or may not
so it's really not so much a timeline
as we say we're in a strong position
to move forwards with our current development
which is quite substantial where it puts us
so we can fully develop what we've got
which is the largest corporate dairy farmer
so we've got a major development piece of work
progressing now
it may be months
but it will wait till it's a favourable environment

(Group manager of financial services at PGG Wrightson, Michael Thomas, talking about their failure to find cash to expand into Uruguay)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Who wants to elect a (multi)millionaire?

I've just retreated upstairs to my computer because I couldn't bear to watch another minute of Mike Hosking on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

When we turned it on, a nice-looking woman in blue was in the chair. Here's how Hosking introduced her: "A former beauty queen and 61-year-old grandmother!" Well, that put her in her place. Never mind everything she'd done in between, let alone what her job was (and she did have one, she said she did). It's as if Hosking had introduced John Key as "a former state house kid and father of two".

Come to think of it, that seems to be exactly how Key and his spin-doctors are trying to present him. By the time he came back to New Zealand in 2002 to be installed as National's candidate for Helensville, he was worth more than $50 million.

In his 2002 maiden speech, he spoke of his widowed mother, his humble start, and his desire to give every citizen the opportunity to reach greater heights. But the Sunday Star Times outed him as championing a tougher line on welfare inside the party itself. If he made it, so could everyone else.

Then in 2004, he put down Kiwibank customers as "the poorest, most unprofitable, worst accounts". That was exactly the line Fay Richwhite had used to argue for privatising Postbank and selling off Housing Corp mortgages.

Not worth bothering with, those people. Paying in their pathetic little benefits and wages and then spending almost all of it by the time the next payday came around. Wanting cheap housing loans. Complaining about high bank fees. Whining when branches are closed and they're told to just go and use the internet instead. No profit there.

The fact that these days everyone HAS to have a bank account in order to function was of no interest whatsoever to those guys. As the repulsive wedding venue manager says in Second Hand Wedding, "YP, not MP - your problem, not my problem."

But by 2006, when Key made his first speech as National leader, he'd had a makeover. Once again he played up his upbringing and said there would always be a social welfare system to help the vulnerable.

Exactly how does Kay define who is vulnerable, and what level of support they're entitled to, under what conditions? Despite his much-vaunted sojourn in a state house, he must have enormous difficulty imagining what life is like for ordinary people who don't have even one million to rub together and struggle to afford the most basic home, let alone three multi-million dollar mansions.

For an excellent account of low-wage life, see Metro's story of the incredibly well-organised, hard-working parents Losena ($515 in the hand after 17 years) and Kilifi ($461 in the hand after 13 years). So far they've managed, and Working for Families was a big help. But one slip - job loss, accident, extended illness - and it would all fall apart.

Judging by what's happening at the foodbanks, it's already pretty dire out there now, and getting direr by the day. Welfare benefits increased by 3.2 percent in April, because that's what overall consumer prices rose by in the year to last December. But these delayed increases completely fail to keep up with the actual costs of basic necessities. Food went up by 7 percent in the year to June, and petrol went up by 34 percent. Power prices are jumping again - Contact has just raised them by 10-12 percent.

Key's solution is always the same mantra: economic growth and higher wages for all, plus of course lower taxes and stricter welfare rules. Exactly how this will help the Losenas and Kilifis of the real world out there behind the money markets where Key made his millions is never made clear.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Happy Women's Suffrage Day

Hands up everyone who knew that 19 September is Women's Suffrage Day, marking the day in 1893 when New Zealand became the first country where women had the right to vote in general elections. [Take no notice of the fact that my blog insists it's still 18 September - that's what comes of using a Google template, it's based on US time.] Of course, it isn't a national holiday or anything like that! (Though it was good to see a call for it to become one in the Christchurch Press today, and also on the Green's frogblog.)

Mine began with breakfast at Victoria University, put on by the Association of University Staff, but it wasn't exactly a celebration. The speaker was Judy McGregor, Equal Opportunities Commissioner. She pointed out that that while only 20% of professors are women, only one university still has a full-time EEO officer.

Later Celia Briar from the pay equity unit said that while universities now make great play with the fact that 50% of staff are women, they omit to mention that 70% of women staff are in positions such as tutor and assistant lecturer. These are not simply "entry-level" positions - considerable numbers of women staff are still in them at retirement. They are dead-end jobs with no promotion prospects - so not the "bottom rung" at all, but the "ivory basement".

Meanwhile the gender and women's studies core programme at Victoria, which began in 1974 as one of the first such programmes in the country, is at serious risk. Some people argue that we don't need GWS any more because it's now so well mainstreamed in other courses. There are 1086 courses at Victoria, but only 55 of them even mention anything at all to do with gender or women. Tourism, for example, analyses visitors to NZ by age, origin and gender. That has about as much to do with women's studies as TVNZ's police programme has to do with its charter obligations to Maori.

I have visions of disillusioned young women in 30 or 40 years' time reinventing the feminist wheel all over again and discovering its hidden history, just as we did back in the 1970s. "Look!" they'll say, "We once had a woman prime minister! And women's studies courses! What happened?"

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Palin PS: Other people's daughters: Sarah Palin's policy stance on teen pregnancy

I'm grateful to Frida for directing me to author Maureen Johnson's brilliant blog entry on teen pregnancy and its link to information about Sarah Palin's policy stance.

Palin has (a) opposed sex education that includes contraception information, and (b) slashed funds for organisations that provide practical help to young pregnant women. She didn't liken herself to a pitbull for nothing. (By the way, am I the only one who recalls that identical 80s joke about the only difference between Ruth(anasia) Richardson and a rottweiler? Only back then, it wasn't meant as a compliment.)

How the US elects its president: If, like me, you have a somewhat hazy idea of how the presidential electoral system works (once the candidates are nominated, that is) you'll find this post very useful. Many thanks, Legal Beagle!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Is Bristol Palin's pregnancy relevant?

In response to my last post, Frida writes, "Thanks for your thoughts on this Anne - I've been reading posts about Sarah Palin from many US women bloggers and was becoming uncomfortable with the extent to which her 17 year old daughter was being pulled into the debate about Palin's suitability for office. It seems to me that Palin's positions on abortion and sex education are relevant, her daughter's pregnancy (and the identify of the alleged father-to-be) is absolutely not. Am I missing something? What do you think?"

In normal circumstances, no, it would not be relevant. But in the extremely weird world of US presidential elections, there is no such thing as irrelevance. The right-wing commentators have repeatedly pilloried Obama for his choice of salad - "elitist" arugula (rocket) instead of "regular" iceberg lettuce.

Moreover, the conservative Christian right has repeatedly used teen sex and pregnancy - particularly black teenage pregnancy - as a symbol of what's wrong with America, and with their opponents' "liberal" values. (Remember the rumour that helped Bush beat McCain for selection last time - that McCain's adopted child of Indian descent was in fact his illegimate child by an African-American woman?) They have also insisted that abstinence is the only acceptable way for teens to prevent pregnancy (or sexually transmitted diseases). So now their sudden conviction that teen pregnancy is simply a private family matter rings a little hollow, and is a political gambit in itself. In this context, Bristol's pregnancy cannot be ignored.

As The Economist points out, the abortion issue "still distorts American politics". The Bush administration "apppointed so many incompetents" because they were firmly anti-choice - even where the positions at stake had nothing to do with abortion. McCain is said to have selected Palin over Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge "because their pro-choice views are anathema to the Christian right". No matter how often Palin claims that Bristol made her own choice, her pregnancy, like the birth of Trig Palin, has inevitably become a symbol of Sarah Palin's own position.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Why being a woman is not enough

The long gap in posts is because I've had my son staying, on holiday from his job teaching English in China. I treated his two weeks with me as my midwinter holiday, and we had a great time doing perfectly ordinary things, like having morning tea at the magnificently retro Martha's Pantry, eating lunch at Sweet Mother's Kitchen, and going to see the marvellous Rita Angus exhibition at Te Papa, followed by Mamma Mia (loved all those older women leaping energetically about the place, but I'm afraid poor Pierce Brosnahan was TOTALLY miscast).

But now he's gone and it's back to real life, complete with the advent of yet more rain, and the even more depressing advent of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate. She's a woman, yes. But that's sort of beside the point.

As the gorgeous Jon Stewart went to some pains to point out on The Daily Show (10.30 pm Tues-Fri on C4, in case you're missing it), she claims that her pregnant 17-year-old daughter Bristol made her own choice to proceed with the pregnancy, but wants the law to deny all other women the right to any other choice. So she opposes abortion, but supports the death penalty and the war in Iraq and gun rights (she's a staunch member of the National Rifle Association).

She has only recently obtained a passport, and although she is now Governor of Alsaka, her political experience has been mainly as the mayor of a town of 9000 people. And given that McCain is 72 and in far from perfect health, she is literally a heartbeat away from the presidency.

The really scary thing is that McCain is currently (as of 5/9/08) at level pegging with Barack Obama. This does not surprise me. If Obama had been called John Smith, I think he would have stood a much better chance of being elected. But ever since Hillary was defeated, I've feared that too many voters - including too many Democrats - will get into that booth and decide that voting for a non-white man who is half Kenyan, is vaguely connected with Muslims and has a very strange name which sounds uncannily like Osama is just a stretch too far. Sadly the advent of Sarah Palin has made the prospect of a McCain victory even more appalling than it was before.

PS: Elsewoman gets an award! I was immensely pleased to see that The Hand Mirror chose Elsewoman as one of its seven best blogs for the Brilliante Award - yay! Now all I have to do is choose another seven blogs and put the Award pic on this site - but I haven't figured out how to do that yet!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thank you to the brave Auckland protestors

I want to say a very loud thank you to the brave protestors who marched ahead of Steve Crow's blatant pornography advertising stunt in Auckland. A reporter called Emily Kernot should be ashamed of herself for describing them as "poker-faced" for refusing to respond to verbal and physical attacks, then calling Crow's tame women "bare-breasted beauties" and "the girls".

The parade didn't have a permit, but that wasn't a problem. It's a bit disturbing to discover (thanks to a police press release) that councils have effectively no power to enforce their own by-laws: "There is no power of arrest for breaching the by-law and any Court action would have to be taken through the issuing of minor offence notices. The enforcement of Council by-laws regarding parades is not a matter for the Police."

So it seems that anyone who has a mind to advertise his wares with a street parade can simply go ahead. Once he's got away with it once or twice, cheered on by brainless guys who've apparently never seen bare breasts before, a precedent has been set determining that it's not offensive - at least, that seems to be why the Auckland council's attempt to get an injunction failed. Now Crow is triumphantly proclaiming he's going to do it all again in Wellington.

Forget dignity and self-respect and equality. According to Crow's Law, if you're female you've only got one purpose in life, apart from doing the housework, and that's to be perved at and pawed over - or slagged off - by any male who feels like it. And make some canny pornographer a shitload of money in the process.

Back to maths class: online news has announced that "Shell has dropped the price of diesel by 6 cents a litre to $165.9, effective from 12 noon today." Oh dear, things are much worse than I thought - thank heavens our car runs on petrol...

And the Dom-Post front page originally proclaimed that Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell won the double sculls by "one thousandth of a second". I doubt that even Chinese time-keeping is that good. Online it was swiftly corrected to one hundredth.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Picture perfect at the Olympics: China learns from the USA

I admit it: I'm just not all that interested in the Olympics. I was really thrilled to see in the DomPost that I'm not alone - a survey showed that almost four out of every ten people (39.something percent) aren't all that interested in them. We may be couch potatoes, but so are most of the people who ARE interested. And at least we're probably reading something while we're lolling there.

I didn't sit up for the opening ceremony, but I did watch the highlights. Like everyone else, I was stunned - especially by the incredibly banal, stodgy, limited commentary from the guys (Sophie was good, but she didn't get much of a look-in).

But what's really striking is the revelation that the impossibly cute little girl singing "I Sing for My Motherland", 9-year-old Lin Miaoke, was substituted at the last minute for the 7-year-old originally chosen, Yang Peiyi. Her voice was used, but she was dropped after the dress rehearsal at the behest of a senior Chinese leader, because she wasn't pretty or perfect enough.

The only surprising thing about all this is that we know about it. The musical director revealed the switch because he wanted to make sure Peiyi's contribution was recognised.

"The reason was for the national interest. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings, and expression. Lin Miaoke is excellent in those aspects. But in the aspect of voice, Yang Peiyi is flawless, in each member of our team's view." They had already dropped the 10-year-old originally chosen because she was "a little too old".

So here's how China and the USA match up. Those who run both countries - the business power brokers as well as the politicians - are intent on putting across a picture perfect image of what they're about, no matter who or what gets crushed in the process.

Remember Jessica Lynch? The official story of her battle involvement, capture and rescue turned out to be a load of hogwash. The powers-that-be had massaged the facts to turn her into a fitting symbol for what they were doing in Iraq.

(By the way, did you hear Condoleeza Rice saying today, with a completely straight face, that Russia could not expect to just march into another country and overthrow its leader - "those days are over"?)

The really sad thing is that so many perfectly normal women - and girls, even - can't wait to prove the powers-that-be are right, and picture perfect is all that matters, no matter what it costs them. Nose jobs, breast implants and botox in the US, eye jobs, leg lengthening and skin whitening in China - there's no difference. I bet little Ying Peiyi has already started saving up to have her teeth fixed.

Go to Scoop to read my new Letter from Elsewhere on National's welfare policy, "Closing the door to hope". And while you're there, see Lyndon Hood's advice on how to impose sanctions on beneficiaries.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

I was wrong

I was wrong about Mark Hotchkin's mansion. It doesn't have seven bedrooms. It has seven bathrooms.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

...and the rich get richer

It's been one of those weeks when I start to think I'd be better off not reading or watching the news.

First we've had Winston Peters blustering about the sins of the media because he is clearly unable to give anyone a straight answer about party donations from rich businessmen (possibly a few women too, but that seems unlikely - contrary to popular wisdom, it's elderly gents, not elderly ladies, who flock most eagerly to dear Winston's banner, and how many women, even now, can afford to regard $25,000 as loose change?).

Then yet another finance company turned out to be in trouble, putting hundreds more ordinary people's hard-earned savings at risk. This time it was Hanover, the one that employed Richard Long to convey reliability and security.

He says he has money in it himself, he thought long and hard about doing that job, and he would hate to think anyone invested in it because of him. For heaven's sake, Richard, why do you think they employed you? You can't be that naive.

To make things worse, Hanover was allowed to sponsor the weather on TVOne, making it look even more mainstream and dependable. Yes, I know taking any notice of such transparent ploys is an idiotic way to choose investments. But that's exactly what people do, of course. Which is why advertising geniuses continue to do it.

I bet very few of those who invested had actually realised that this ever-so-solid-sounding company was actually set up and owned mainly by Eric Watson and Mark Hotchin, or that some of its loans seem to have been to projects or entities with which they appear to have been closely connected.

Not that the boys will suffer if Hanover does go down the tubes. Hotchin is continuing to build his $30 million mansion in Paritai Drive (seven bedroooms, gym, and a carwash, natch). Watson lives in London. As the Sunday Star-Times pointed out, they could afford to fork out $50 million each to cover investors' funds and not actually miss it. But the chances of them doing that are somewhat less than the chances of Winston having a change of heart, fessing up and apologising.

And no, in case you're wondering, I don't have any money in Hanover. But I do have money in Kiwisaver. As one financial guru said recently, those who can afford to join Kiwisaver, but haven't, obviously don't understand it. Where else can you get the equivalent of 100 percent interest?

But where is the lovely new pool of Kiwisaver money going? Has any of it gone to companies like Hanover? Is it just a big fat subsidy to financial institutions?

My extremely modest Kiwisaver fund is held by a major bank, and is supposed to be the lowest possible risk. I had the puzzling experience the other day of getting a notice which told me that whatever it had earned in its first few months, it had failed to cover costs.

But not to worry - the bank would simply deduct some "units" to meet the shortfall. I worked out that my money, plus the government's money, must have "earned" pretty much less than nothing to make this happen.

Of course I wasn't actually paying for this sleight of hand - the government was. And I gather that anyone who chose a high-growth (i.e. high-risk) Kiwisaver option has already seen a much larger chunk of it disappear.

(If you were thinking of writing in to point out earnestly that higher risk funds will do better in the long run, don't bother. As Maynard Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead.)

As the last few months have shown, for all but the select few who really know what they're doing, trying to take care of your future by saving is an extremely risky business in New Zealand. No wonder so many people go for property instead - except that right now, that's tanking too.

So I hope Mark's tacky mansion turns out to be a completely unsaleable white elephant. And with any luck, Eric's current squeeze will turn out to be a clone of the discarded Nicky Watson.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The First Dinner Party

I'm trying to get on with a largeish writing project, so far with very little success. Lately I've decided to stop trying to begin at the beginning and plunge in somewhere nearer the middle, but so far that hasn't worked very well either. The trouble with having a computer is that it's very hard to face a blank screen for very long. It's much easier to start rummaging around in your files and find something, anything, that might serve as a way in.

It didn't work, of course. But along the way I found a story about the first dinner party I cooked for, so I thought I'd post it. (This is, as some of you will already have remarked, a cunning way to avoid having to come up with an entirely new blog post. I have written another new piece this week, though - a Letter from Elsewhere on the Veitch story. Read it on Scoop at )

I’m nineteen, I’ve been married for over a month, and I’ve invited my favourite professor to dinner at our flat. It all seems simple enough. First we will have Seventeenth Century Grilled Pork Chops, spread with a mixture of parsley, chopped onion, oil and lemon juice. The recipe comes from the friend who gave me cooking lessons after I got engaged, because I literally couldn’t boil an egg. With them we will have rice (because potatoes are boring and bourgeois) and green beans (frozen, so no problems there).

Then we will have Chocolate Orange Fluff. I found it in my kitchen bible, The Nancy Spain Colour Cookery Book, with a picture for every recipe. Dissolve a packet of orange jelly, beat it up with a can of evaporated milk, leave it to set, then decorate it with chocolate buttons, bits of orange and whipped cream. Easy.

The dessert has to sit on the kitchen floor to set, because the table is in the sitting room, disguised with a rough linen tablecloth (the only item in my glory box). I’ve laid it carefully with the pick of the wedding presents, brown Finlandia plates and lumpy brown pottery beakers. Tom Crawford and Chris sit awkwardly knee to knee, eating peanuts and drinking Bakano, while I work frantically behind the curtain, trying to time boiling the rice and beans and grilling the chops so everything will be ready at the same time.

The rice is gluggy and the beans are grey. The chops aren’t raw, but they are rock hard. Tom chews his way bravely through it all, keeping up a flow of urbane literary chat. I take solace from the coming dessert, sitting pretty in its cut glass dish. But not knowing the difference, I used sweetened condensed milk instead of evaporated milk. The fluff has turned into a sickly-sweet goo.

It takes me a while, but I do learn. I still make the chops, though now I bake them, and every so often I go back to Nancy Spain. But the Chocolate Orange Fluff has never reappeared.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Making the cull for the book fair

It's book fair time again, when Wellington's Downtown Community Ministry solicits donations of books for its monster annual book fair (some people call it bookfair, but I think that's an American aberration). (Call 384-7699 and you'll get instructions on where to leave your books if you can, or how to get someone to pick them up if you can't.) Last year we moved house, and had to have a real culling, but it was unfortuantely too soon for the fair, so the DCM missed out. This year we mean to make up for it by thinking long and hard about which books we really, really don't need to live with for the rest of our lives.

But it's always so difficult. Both my husband and I (I like using that regal phrase) grew up in homes without many books. Consequently, both of us regard books in a curious light, in which they take on far more significance than they would normally possess - particularly, perhaps, the ones we acquired years ago when we were first discovering the worlds they opened for us. So we each cling on to different but equally strange selections of battered and often quite undistinguished works which have acquired the numinous status of talismans, and strongly resist any suggestion that we should let them go, regardless of whether we will ever actually be impelled to read them again.

So far this year, my discard pile includes two outdated travel guides to France; a couple of 1950s novels by New Zealand women bought in library sales (which I acquired as rare proof that there were indeed women writing valuable fictions back then, but which, I have now forced myself to acknowledge, will in fact be available in the National Library should I ever need to study them); an overseas vanity press novel which a friend bought from the author to be kind, and passed on to us, but which remains unread; a once useful but now passe (there should be an acute accent there but Word won't put one on) study of the media by an opinionated Australian, Keith Windschuttle; and a solid green and brown paperback, The Waac Story: The Story of the New Zealand Womens' [sic] Army Auxiliary Corps, which I have admitted even my omnivorous passion for women's biography is unlikely to encompass (but which I may nevertheless try to pass on to a historian I think will use it, rather than throwing it to the anonymous and probably uncaring book fair wolves). And that's it. I may manage one or two more, at a pinch.

And then, of course, I will go to the book fair and bring back at least as many more.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Advertising by telling offensive lies is no joke

Advertisers are getting increasingly desperate to attract our attention, and with good reason. I guess there must have been a brief, halcyon time in the history of modern advertising when people were keen to hear what they had to say, because ads were new and so was the stuff they were pushing.

Most people my age can still sing a few catchy jingles that embedded themselves in our subconscious decades ago - like Ches and Dale, "the boys from down on the farm, who really love our cheese!"; or for ex-Aucklanders only, a more sinister little number about false teeth:
"Broke my dentures, broke my dentures
Woe is meee - what shall I do?"
"Take them into Mr Geddes
And he'll fix them, just like new!"

But we got sick of the ads long ago, as they assailed us at every turn. my supermarket advertises itself on air when you're there - which seems pretty dumb, as well as infuriating. A hospital waiting room I was in recently played commercial radio non-stop on its loudspeakers (when I complained, I was told no one else ever had). And I could fill a recycling bag every week with the junk mail inserts in the paper.

National Radio is still blessedly ad-free, but not TV - even on the few supposedly ad-free days left, TV's own promos take up what would have been the ad-breaks, to make sure we never get a taste of uninterrupted viewing.

Worse, there seems to be a dastardly plan to make the free-to-air programmes so awful that the ads seem better by comparison. Most nights the choice is between wife-swapping, weight-loss, a car chase of some kind, and overseas house renovations, followed by four different kinds of murder series, relieved only by yet another wildly inaccurate recreation of the Tudors. I don't think we're getting programmes actually made by the advertisers yet (not counting Meal in a Minute and all its siblings), but plans are afoot overseas, so it won't be long.

Meanwhile, how do the "creatives" grab our attention? Simple - they tell even more blatant lies than usual. In the case of a Mr Mitchell and a Mr Dyer, they decide to promote an upcoming TV programme (I'm deliberately not naming it) with "guerilla" tactics. This involved upsetting their own colleagues with a fake walk-out, inventing a fake ad agency (launched in a strip club, natch), and promoting it with fake ads featuring cutely retro sexism and homophobia.

Did the punters notice? Not really. Only when the clever creatives branched out into anti-Semitism (with posters reading "Advertising Agency seeks clients. All business considered, even from Jews") did they get the level of attention they were looking for - if not exactly the right kind.

Their client, Prime, didn't seem too distressed - its marketing head is reported as saying the furore "hadn't put him off guerilla advertising", and Prime "is now consistently using this tactic" because it gives "big impact on a small budget".

This matters, of course, because the more people who watch, the more Prime can charge for the ads that are the real point of screening anything.

So why should we care? Because simply selling something is not a good enough reason to behave like this. No reason is good enough to behave like this. But in a world where even negative attention is better than none, those who don't think anything goes can't win.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Planting a rose

We planted a new rose in the garden today. Well, that's not strictly true - my husband isn't well enough to plant it himself, and I wouldn't know how to.

I wish I was keen on gardening, but I'm not, and because I'm not keen on it I'm no good at it. I can dehead roses and trim things back, sort of, but that's about all. And I'm not keen on it because just about everything outside makes me itch - not just insect bites, which leave me scratching for days, but prickles, leaves, some kinds of flowers, even soil. So it's no wonder I've never developed the taste for it.

So we didn't plant the rose, our gardener did. This immensely knowledgeable and skilled and very nice man mows the lawns and does anything else we ask him to. He thoroughly approved of the new rose, a vigorous (we hope) deep red climber called Dublin Bay.

Friends gave it to us last weekend. Sixteen years ago they gave us a rose for our last house, a French-bred pink rambler with the charming name of Francois Juranville, which appeared in the rose world around the same time as our last house was built, in the early 1900s.

It took a while to get going, but once it did (thanks to my husband's tender care) it produced masses of "muddled" roses (with the petals going every which way in the middle) starting in September, followed by a second flush in January. The higher up they were, and the more sun they got, the deeper the pink.

So when we moved here, our friends said they'd like to keep up the tradition, and we knew exactly what we wanted. We inherited a number of roses, but they're all fairly pale ones. We brought with us our treasured Remember Me, a deep russet-fading-to-salmon rose given by my sister and her husband when my son Patrick died twenty-one years ago.

But we wanted a red one too, and I wanted something that will in time (I hope) swarm all over the fence. Climbers don't go as mad as ramblers, but it should work - there's a Dublin Bay next door behind the fence down the drive, and it seems perfectly happy.

It went in on an auspicious date, too, marking the first day we woke up in our new place a year ago.

Friday, May 30, 2008

What women are for

If we didn't know what women are for, a letter from a woman commenting on a recent DomPost news story made it crystal clear.

The story featured Mount Victoria residents' complaints about a brothel in their street. The letter defended the brothel as a necessary service, because it gave men "sexual relief".

If it wasn't there, said the writer, men would go looking for drunk young women to provide them with this kind of "relief" instead. She implied that the brothel's existence stopped men doing this.

I remember reading a description of Western men feeling up the Thai women they'd bought for the evening. It said the men were treating these women like "sexual toilets".

That's exactly the picture conjured up by the phrase "sexual relief". When a guy's gotta go, he's gotta find someone to go in. Paying for it was never illegal - it was only illegal to be the payee. But has there since been any sudden drop in men using drunk young women, or even sober ones, for "relief"? I don't know, but I'd be very surprised if there had.

The recent report on prostitution since legalisation doesn't consider this issue at all. Well, it wouldn't, would it.

What it does say is that unlike sex workers, who've been repeatedly researched, little is known about clients, "which in itself reflects their invisibility".

What is known suggests that "purchasing sexual services is the practice of many ‘normal’, successful, socially competent and often married men". They go to sex workers for "sex without complications", company, fun, "alleviating boredom and providing variety". All perfectly normal, right?

Where illegal under age sex workers are involved, it's a different story. A bit more is known about these men because they sometimes get arrested, and "some of the people arrested for seeking contact with under age people during an operation in Auckland in early 2008 had previous convictions for serious assault, rape and other sexual offences." They probably saw all that as just another kind of relief.

After all its investigations, the Committee comes to a very telling conclusion: "While demand to buy sex persists, ways need to be found to reduce the vulnerability of workers and increase perceptions of them as human beings with rights that need safeguarding."

And of course that's what the law change set out to do. It seems to have worked to some extent, although "Many sex workers are still vulnerable to exploitative employment conditions, and there are still reports of sex workers being forced to take clients against their will." Oh well, at least they got paid, eh.

Now all we need is some way of reducing the vulnerability of women who are not offering themselves for sale (which is most of us) and increasing perceptions of them as "human beings with rights that need safeguarding". Judging by rape and abuse statistics, that's proving a lot more difficult.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The preventable suffering of children

Did you see the Campbell Live programme on Monday night about preventable illness in children? Dr Innes Asher of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Auckland showed exactly what happens to children whose parents can't afford the absolute basics of a decent life - warm, dry housing which is not overcrowded, and enough good food.

They repeatedly suffer the kinds of persistent, serious respiratory infections and skin diseases that are usually seen in the third world. In fact another doctor who has worked in third world countries said he was seeing exactly the same levels and types of illness in children here as he saw there.

In an earlier report Dr Asher told a story that shows how poverty works across generations - and what a huge cost it imposes on children, parents, the health system, and ultimately all of us.

An eight year old boy was referred to Starship Outpatients with several months of chronic productive cough, and difficulty breathing. He was diagnosed with severe bronchioecstasis affecting all regions of his lungs. He requires 4 admissions to hospital each year, each for 2 weeks, so that he doesn't rapidly deteriorate and die. At home, he also needs chest phsyiotherapy twice a day, and long courses of antibiotics.

He has three older siblings. His father, a farm labourer, was killed last year in a tractor accident. His mother can't work (for pay, that is) because she has severe heart damage from having had rheumatic fever as a child - another disease of poverty. She is being considered for surgery to replace a valve in her heart. Meanwhile she is trying to manage on an invalids benefit.

But she faces a futile struggle. Benefit levels for families were already too low to cover everyday costs, even before the latest big increases in the costs of basic foods and petrol (which flows through into pretty much everything). Electricity has gone up by around 60 percent over the last five years. It was not having enough money to pay the power bill that ended the life of Fole Muliaga last year.

Housing costs are through the roof, and the rate of home ownership here is now at the same low level as in Britain, under 50% - only they have a lot more public housing than we do, and it's less plagued by cold and damp.

The government has announced a big drive to bring state houses up to scratch in terms of warmth and dryness. This will be a big help in preventing the kinds of illnesses poor children are suffering from so badly - but only for those lucky enough to live in state houses, and providing they're not sharing them with one or more other families who can't find anything else they can afford.

The levels of poverty among children that we're still seeing in New Zealand are causing lifelong damage to far too many children. Paid work, even propped up by subsidies that we mustn't call benefits, is not going to fix this shameful problem. To stop the kind of suffering we saw on Monday night, we need new answers - but we won't get them unless we keep asking for them.

For the full picture of what's wrong and some ideas on how to fix it, read the new report by the Child Poverty Action Group, Left Behind: how social and income inequalities damage our children. (See for a summary and how to order a copy.)

PS: My husband's doing much better now, so we've got our fingers crossed that nothing else will trip us up for a while. But we're lucky - we live in a warm dry house, and (so far) we can afford the power for his oxygen machine. If we couldn't, he wouldn't be here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dispatches from the front line of home health care

The longish gap between posts has been due to heavy engagements on the front line of health care - our home. Over the last fortnight we've been up and down a dizzying series of ladders and snakes.

To cut a long story short, unfortunately my husband has been diagnosed with a complex cocktail of health problems.

Fortunately, the most urgently needed help was at hand. Since September he's had to wear a breathing mask attached to an oxygen machine at night.

It took us both weeks to get used to the original mask, but we finally managed it. By December he was sleeping all night (and I was too), and he was steadily improving. Great sighs of relief all round.

Unfortunately, wearing the mask also started to cause damage to his nose. He got one injury after another. The latest one got badly infected and chewed a nasty hole in his nose.

Despite silver dressing and careful bandaging, wearing the mask every night was preventing it from healing. A skin graft was needed - and that meant he couldn't wear the old mask at all.

Fortunately, a different kind of mask is available. It's called the Mirage Liberty, and it comes with what Lynn of Tawa would call an instructive little video (or rather DVD).

A handsome young man in the peak of health strolls nonchalantly into his bedroom. He sits down on the bed and slips the elastic blue headgear smoothly over his thick head of hair, as if he's indulging in some kind of horse harness fetish.

Then he expertly fits the mask over his mouth, inserts the nostril thingies, and lies calmly down beside his equally young and healthy wife. Both of them apparently sleep soundly all night until he unharnesses himself in the morning.

Unfortunately, this has turned out to bear no resemblance to real life. After a week of not managing, not sleeping, and worse, not getting enough oxygen (sending my husband back downhill really quickly), we finally worked out that the main problem was the headgear.

My husband is not a fit young man, and he certainly doesn't have a full head of hair. The harness was too big and kept slipping forward, letting the vital nostril thingies fall out.

Fortunately, I'm a resourceful woman. Once I'd worked this out, I got on the net and found what looked like the perfect remedy. It's a nifty skullcap designed to go under kayaking helmets.

It looks exactly like those fetching bonnets you see in portraits of people like Sir Thomas More. Only instead of being made of black velvet and fur, it's made of black rubber lined with polar fleece. So I introduced Harvey to his new fetish gear (well, he's always admired Sir Thomas, and it went with the harness), and we tried again.

Unfortunately, it didn't work. It's meant to be worn in freezing southerlies, not townhouse bedrooms. So while it kept the harness in place perfectly, it was far too hot.

Fortunately, notwithstanding my groggy state due to what was by now quite serious sleep deprivation, I had another idea. I got a piece of that thin non-slip rubbery matting that goes under TVs and tablecloths, and draped it over his head.

Then I stitched another piece around the top of the harness, pulled one over the other, and folded the front bit back. He looked like Old Mother Hubbard, but it worked, and we both got our first decent night's sleep.

Unfortunately, he got a cold, so he's having major problems again with the nostril thingies, and he's due for the skin graft in a couple of days...

So I'll keep you posted, even if you'd rather I didn't - he doesn't mind, and it makes me feel better. And if there's a gap in posts, you'll know why.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

How rich is rich enough?

Thursday's DomPost has a remarkable obituary for Noel Yarrow, who died on 29 April, aged 83.

Mr Yarrow took over a bakery business from his parents and "turned it into the largest family-owned bakery in New Zealand and a multi-million dollar company", exporting widely overseas.

But that wasn't what was so remarkable. He and his wife Melva enjoyed living in Taranaki, had a strong sense of social responsibility, and believed in caring for the community they lived in.

So not only did they "take advantage of financial success, using it to benefit Taranaki on an extraordinary scale" by supporting sport, schools and community groups, but they did something much more astonishing for our times.

Instead of moving the business out of Taranaki to "a bigger centre close to major markets", they kept it in Manaia, employing hundreds of local people.

Doing this did not destroy the business, apparently. On the contrary, it has flourished. Clearly it makes quite enough profit to keep on flourishing, and to enable the Yarrow family ( two sons, one daughter) to keep on giving so generously, as well as (one imagines) living very comfortably - well, what they must have considered quite comfortably enough, anyway.

The word "enough" doesn't figure very largely in business reports. The entire point of capitalism is to make as much profit as possible.

A year ago Fisher and Paykel announced that a total of 350 jobs would be lost in Auckland, because of the shift to Thailand.

"Once the lines are fully operational, the expected financial benefits are in the vicinity of $10-$15 million per annum... While the Company regrets the loss of these jobs, which are unlikely to occur before December 2007, it will endeavour to accommodate as many staff as possible elsewhere in the organisation as vacancies arise...Our laundry margins have suffered considerably over the past 4-5 years."

And it would be unthinkable for a Company (I do like the royal capital) not to seek the highest margins possible, wouldn't it.

Last month F&P announced that another 430 jobs would be shifted to low wage countries, pretty much ending whiteware production in New Zealand.

The NZ Herald reported an analyst saying that F&P was simply following the world trend set by global companies such as Sweden's Electrolux...
"The indication is quite clear. They have to find the place that can provide them with the lowest cost production."

Apparently Noel Yarrow just didn't follow the rules, because he didn't think like that. I wonder how long it will be before his bakery is snapped up by a Company which has no concept of "enough", let alone "community", and can't wait to move it to wherever the ceaseless drive for higher profits dictates.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The market's great big dirty paw grabs Anzac Day

The market's hand isn't invisible, it's a great big dirty paw. As soon as it sees anything it could possibly use to make money, it reaches out and mucks it up.

At Easter the Shoc Choc ads featured back views of naked bums with red X's on each buttock. Hot Cross Buns, geddit?

In the Dominion Post for 26 April a much bigger firm, appliance retailers Bond & Bond, outdid them with its gobsmacking take on Anzac Day.

The central feature of their ad was a big billboard proclaiming "3 years interest free". It was tastefully decorated with an Anzac poppy in one corner and what looked at first glance like turds, but I think were meant to be Anzac biscuits, in two more corners.

The heading above read:

"Rally the troops for Anzac Deals - good bikkies, men can wear flowers - Anzac weekend has it all."

It's fascinating to see previously exempt icons such as Anzac Day getting the kind of treatment meted out to women - or rather women's bodies - ever since advertising images became the norm.

Back in the seventies (yes, I know, children, that's so long ago you can barely imagine anyone being, like, alive back then) we used to collect the worst ones for Broadsheet magazine's Hogwash page. One featured a black profile of a young woman with earrings, curly hair and a big grin, alongside the words: "Hot, black and easy to lay!" It was an ad for asphalt.

We all know selling anything is supposed to be easier if you link it with sex. The Shoc Choc ad can be seen as progress of a sort - now men's bodies, too, get used in a nudge-nudge way to sell stuff occasionally.

But the vast majority of sexual sells still centre on women as come-ons for heterosexual men. In the last few years, every ad agency and their dog has got in on the act with renewed enthusiasm.

For someone of my vintage it's deja vu all over again, except that this time round they have the added advantage of posing as knowing, post-feminist, tongue-in-cheek cleverdicks. Objecting can be dismissed as hopelessly outdated, pre-post-whatever. Because of course they're not serious! And they love women!

I guess they love war and soldiers, too. Maybe next year some clever cookie will combine the two and come up with an ad featuring nubile nurses fending off neatly bandaged blokes, with a headline reading, "Get your hands on some real Anzac Day specials".

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What's with the stupid joke about another woman leader, Hillary?

There's been a lot of media sniggering in New Zealand, as well as the US, about Hillary Clinton's gaffe in referring to Helen Clark as the "former Prime Minister of New Zealand" when she's still in office. But we're used to Americans who have no idea where NZ is, let alone who the PM is. What I found far more offensive was the unlovely sight of one would-be woman leader deciding to tell a stupid sexist joke about another woman, who happens to be one of the most successful Western women politicians in history (Labour Party leader since 1993, Prime Minister since 1999). Clark, along with her women ministers, has been the target of strongly gendered attacks for years. In the 2005 election campaign, for example, National Party supporters tried to drown her out during a debate with calls of "no-kids lesbo" (needless to say, these were edited out of the TV broadcasts). But it was a shock to see Hillary letting rip with such a nasty little put-down.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Old ladies are shoppers too

I've been away visiting my 88-year-old mother, who's now in a "rest home" - what an awful name that is. It was a good visit. I was able to take her out and help her do some of the many essential things that become impossible to do by yourself as you get older, but that rest home staff simply can't help with - like going to the optician and buying a bra.

Gone are the old days when you could rise gracefully in the lift to the lingerie department and discuss your needs sitting down by the counter.

Now you have to wend your way across an entire floor, around an obstacle course of self-service stands, till you reach the bra corner - which may or may not be anywhere near the fitting room.

Once you egt there, you find that neither bras nor changing rooms are built to suit older women. We had to go through some amazing contortions to get her and her walker in and out of the tiny cubicle, especially as it had a door and not a curtain. Just as well she had it, as there was no seat in there, so she needed it to sit on.

I was delighted to be able to help my mother this time, but I live an hour's flight away and I'm only an occasional visitor. It's my sisters, especially the one who lives nearest, who do it all on a regular basis.

We're a long-lived lot, so one day it will probably be me needing this kind of help. But I haven't got a daughter. So I could well end up braless.

Surely there's a good living to be made by offering a comprehensive home and rest home shopping service - or even a really good catalogue service with easy returns? A sort of Elder Ezibuy, geared to that invisible consumer group, the Definitely Older Woman?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

How do rich countries manage to keep so many children in poverty?

How do rich countries manage to keep so many children in poverty? And why don't governments ask this question more often and more urgently?

Last week I was able to spend two days looking after Kate Green, the chief executive of the UK Child Poverty Action Group, during her visit to Wellington. She's in New Zealand as the guest of New Zealand's Child Poverty Action Group, to which I belong.

On Monday 14 April she's giving a public talk in Auckland, at 7 pm, at the University of Auckland Conference Centre. As part of that, she'll be looking at how the UK Labour government has tackled child poverty. It's a fascinating story, with some important lessons for New Zealand.

Britain is far from being a poor country. Yet when Labour came to power, it had the worst child poverty in Europe - 4.2 million children. Now it's improved to fourth worst.

New Zealand isn't exactly poor either. But its wealth is far from evenly spread. In the last decades of the 20th century New Zealand had the fastest growth in income and wealth inequality in the OECD.

Not suprisingly, child poverty grew rapidly too. It started to shrink as the economy improved, employment grew, and the Labour government here did sensible things like raising the minimum wage and bringing back income-related rents for state housing.

But despite all these improvements, between 2000 and 2004 the proportion of all children in severe hardship and significant hardship increased by a third, to 26 percent.

That's over one in four children - rather too many, in fact, for their poverty to be simply the result of bad parenting.

But there's very little discussion in the media about what the real causes of child poverty are. It's far easier to individualise the problem, and put all the blame on parents for doing the wrong things or not doing the right things. I'd be very interested to know what readers of this blog think, before I write about what Kate has to say.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Those boots aren't made for walking

No posts for a week because I was (a) up in Auckland and (b) pounding the pavements there and here in Wellington trying to find boots I could walk in.

Except for a brief fling with stilettos when I left school, I've worn relatively sane shoes all my life. I like being able to walk around without torturing myself, and I don't see why I should have to submit to a Western version of foot-binding to look good.

But nobody warned me of what lay waiting to pounce on me as I got older, despite my sane shoes. The bad news is that while bunions and hammer toes can be caused by frightful footwear, they can also be inherited. My mother has had them for years, and now I've got them too.

It's never been easy to find shoes that feel comfortable AND look nice. But ever since my podiatrist welcomed me into the wonderful world of orthotics, it's become almost impossible.

When I'm wearing jeans, I can get away with clumpy shoes. Black trousers aren't too bad either - black shoes sort of disappear under them. But skirts are a real problem. They look ghastly with great clodhoppers.

So I set out to find some boots. They had to be soft, with no seams in the wrong places, because of my bunion (I do have only one, which is some consolation). They had to have rubber soles thick enough to cope with long walks through city streets. They had to be flat - I can no longer cope with any heels at all. And they had to have deep toecaps - those elegant flat chisel toes don't leave enough room for the orthotics, let alone the hammer toe.

By the time I'd been to dozens of shops and endured scores of encounters with shop assistants who were either scornful or pitying, I felt like Quasimodo. But I finally found some cheap boots that worked perfectly well and looked fine (though they'll probably fall apart the first time they get wet).

The trick, I've discovered, is to buy at least one whole size bigger than usual. I don't know if this is because they're cheap or because they're made in China, where Western feet, like Western bodies, are all inconceivably enormous.

But this trick only works with boots, not shoes. I'm already dreading the next Great Footwear Hunt. There must be hundreds of other women out there with feet like mine. So why does it have to be so difficult?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Postscript on plastics

Many thanks for the comments on the plastics post! Yes, "Rae", I have seen the photos of your daughter in her gorgeous (truly) wedding dress crocheted out of plastic bags (if you send me a digital version I'll even post it on the blog). And I'll eagerly await your Xmas gift of a recycled bag bathmat (but please use only blue ones or it won't tone in).

Other posters: The charming descriptions of worm farms and non-smelly composting were almost alluring. Now how about coming round to build and maintain one for me, or maybe even me and my other four townhouse neighbours? But I really did appreciate the realism about the virtues of plastic, and I couldn't agree more about the rat shroud.

A nice footnote: the Sunday Star Times recently reported (sorry, tried to find it on the Net and couldn't) that a clever kid has spurred her school to use its buying power. It's persuaded the supplier of its bought-in lunch items to use paper bags and wrapping instead of plastic. Way to go.

But a reader's letter points out that the paper's crusade against plastic was undercut when it gave out hundreds of copies of the paper at a recent Fun Run - all wrapped in plastic.

If the women are naked why bother with the news?

Young women aged at least 20 (and probably not more than 21) have been invited to audition to read the news naked for Alt TV. My only question is, why bother with the charade of reading the news?

Why not just screen a procession of naked women 24 hours a day, broken only by the ads? For that matter, why not just bring in a new employment regulation?

Any woman judged to be sufficiently attractive by her male employer (or, in the much less likely situation of having a female employer, the next most senior male) should be required to work naked, whenever the nature of her work allows it. (I mean, we wouldn't want them to get pneumonia or skin cancer, would we, that wouldn't be very nice.)

On second thoughts, let's combine this idea with an amendment to the new law on breast-feeding. Employers now have to provide somewhere suitably private for women to breast-feed their children. But we're missing a trick here, surely.

Women who breast-feed have to expose at least part of their breasts. If they're inconsiderate enough to insist on breast-feeding when they should be working, why not make some money out of them? Employers could set up special glass booths where the attractive ones breast-feed in full view of the rest of the workforce - the male workforce, anyway.

We can call it multi-tasking. That's what women are supposed to be g00d at. So let's go the whole hog and kill two birds with one stone.

See "Gambling For Profit & Misery", my new Letter from Elsewhere, on Scoop at

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Being astonished by Frances Hodgkins on St Patrick's Day

On St Patrick's Day I had the rare pleasure of running away. It's always a poignant day for me because my younger son was called Patrick, and he died 20 years ago when he was 18. But it's also a very longstanding friend's birthday.

As she has just retired and it was an amazingly fine day, we ran away up to Waikanae and to Mahara Gallery, which is showing Frances Hodgkins and Seraphine Pick. I hadn't remembered that this small gallery has a unique connection with Frances Hodgkins. Her sister Isobel's family lived at Waikanae, and her ashes were brought back from England to be buried there. The gallery has a collection of her work and from time to time holds carefully chosen exhibitions of it.

This one is small but striking, with paintings from 1869 to 1921. What I liked best were two side by side showing a mother and child.

The first one dates from 1906. It's a beautiful but still relatively conventional watercolour. The one next to it was painted just ten years later, in 1916, but the change is astonishing. It's full of movement and colour, and the mother and child form a pattern with the rich fabric of their clothes and the background.

I'm not putting this very well, because I don't know enough artspeak to describe how the painting works. The other thing that made it so striking for me was that I'd never seen it before, and discovering a previously unseen Hodgkins is a tremendous pleasure.

The sister exhibition by Seraphine Pick is full of pleasures too, although they are darker and more disturbing ones - especially as they so often evoke that scary decade, the 1950s. I remember seeing a very early exhibition containing her work - I think it was a series of small coloured-pencil drawings, including some of marching girls. (I could have this completely wrong and if so, Seraphine, I apologise.)

I wanted to buy one but didn't. That's the story of my life as far as buying art goes - I see something I really like (Pick, Nigel Brown, Shane Cotton, even Colin McCahon, back in the early 1960s) but get nervous and think I can't afford it, and then a few years later wish I had followed my instincts.

Well, in the case of the McCahon that's not true - it was one of the first contemporary New Zealand art exhibitions I'd ever seen and it never even occurred to me that I could actually buy one. Except for one couple who owned a Binney, I didn't know anyone who bought original paintings.

Go and see the Hodgkins and the Pick if you can - the exhibitions end 30 March. For details, go here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Getting rid of plastic: why it's no use talking to me

Getting rid of plastic is a noble and necessary aim, and I wouldn't say a word against it. But I am fed up to the back teeth with articles like the ones currently running in the Sunday Star Times.

First, some poor woman flagellates herself about her reckless use of plastic. She then gets ticked off by a righteous greenie, who tells her how to mend her planet-destroying ways.

She mustn't use the insinkerator to get rid of kitchen scraps because it wastes gallons of fresh drinking water. Yes, that's true, it does, and I've stopped using mine (smug expression) for that very reason.

But that still leaves the problem of what to do with the smelly stuff. (Let's just note in passing that the more fresh food you cook at home - as recommended by that very same greenie - the more smelly stuff you have to get rid of.)

A compost heap is of course the ideal - and we did faithfully compost for years. But moving to an urban infill townhouse (again, greenie-recommended) with a tiny garden has put an end to that. So we put it in the rubbish, and to do that without ponging out the kitchen, we - like the hapless woman, in this case Rose Hoare - line the kitchen bin with a plastic bag.

Shocking, I know. So what does the greenie recommend instead? A worm farm - "perhaps on a balcony?" I have heard this "solution" before, and I have news for you: as the only alternative offered where compost is impractical, it is not going to be widely adopted. Ever.

It is simply no good making individual citizens - in fact, individual women, since I don't recall ever seeing chaps subjecting themselves to public tickings-off like this - responsible for privately solving a problem which they didn't cause in the first place.

Poor Rose is not going to rid the world of plastic bags no matter how many worm farms she sets up, any more than she is going to stop takeaway sushi bars using plastic boxes by printing out her work and eating it crouched over the usual tiny table in the sushi bar instead (And by the way, why is this woman so appallingly overworked that she doesn't even get to take a proper lunch break??)

The only sensible approach to getting rid of plastic is to throw the responsibility back where it belongs. The supermarkets, takeaway bars, yoghurt makers, et al are the ones who put all this stuff into circulation in the first place.

Then they leave us to tie ourselves in knots trying to avoid it - and feel incredibly guilty when we inevitably fail. And if there is one thing no modern woman needs, it's having another load of guilt dumped on her head.

Now that the cloth bags are really cheap, charging for plastic bags is a good idea. But I'm working on a plan to deal with plastic in a completely different way. It involves pausing just before I get to the checkout counter, carefully divesting everything in my trolley of all the surplus packaging, and leaving it neatly piled on top of the nearest display of goods.

If the supermarket insists on buying it packed that way, they can take care of it. If they don't like it, they can have words with the manufacturers. Meanwhile, leave poor Rose alone.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Joining the blogosphere

I've been meaning to get around to starting a blog for, oh, at least two years or so. So now, thanks to the help of my good friend Rachel McAlpine (web writing adviser to the world) I'm finally DOING IT. Only problem now is - what to write?

Maybe I should introduce myself. I'm in my (very early) sixties. Right now I'm sitting in my study in the townhouse my husband and I moved to about nine months ago. Moving is always ghastly but we were also badly out of practice, since we hadn't done it for fifteen years. But it was worth it. And right after we did it, the housing market in New Zealand started to collapse, so we feel as if we've escaped a huge scary monster by the skin of our teeth.

I work at home as an editor and I write "for fun". Well, not exactly. As Linda Grant recently wrote, writing is not fun, and we would not do it if there was anything else we could find to do that was as absorbing, because it involves "going into your study to fail and failing until lunchtime".