chatter


As a child I thought myself special, the way children do. I grew up in a town of mediocrity, so being only a little above mediocre I naturally assumed I was somehow gifted. Lately thought, I’ve been reflecting back on a comment by one John Wright, of Tyler Texas. He said, “When I left Arp I thought I was a genius.” Now, if you know Arp, it’s a tiny place, so anyone with 3 degrees of gumption would reasonably think themselves a cut above.

Over the years I’ve done pretty well. I breezed through school, I succeeded in getting an AFS scholarship, then was extremely lucky to have someone arrange sponsorship for me. I then did sufficiently well at uni to get a scholarship to a decent Aussie varsity. Now I have a square job and a fabulous family, and we’re paying off our own home. Just middle of the road stuff, right?

So nothing I have done is exceptional. In most ways I’m just kind of ordinary. Just a tad over mediocre in every way even to this very day, and sometime I’ve worried that I missed a trick. And I ask myself why I’ve never been hugely successful in my career? Why have I never been hugely successful at anything? I do plenty of “making it just fine’, but have never done anything spectacular.

And then today I find myself talking to a friend about his daughter. It’s not my place to talk about her challenges, but let’s just say that she’s a sick little girl. When I was talking to him, I wanted to begin to talk about my own “internal rearrangement” and how lucky I was not to have gotten sick when I was a child (a medical professional Uncle tells me many children with misaligned internal organs can have a pretty hard time). Fortunately I my New Year’s resolution a couple of years back was “It’s not all about you Che”, so I bit my tongue.

Reflecting on the conversation this evening, I realised that my life has been special. Special because despite all the many, many impediments placed before me I have always been above the curve of “OK”. And what struck me is that the gift I have been given is normality. Of all the awful things that could have befallen me? None have. My life has merely being a little above mediocre, and well inside the range of the everyday. But, considering the many pitfalls life has presented me, and which I have avoided, normality has been a great and special gift.

And you know? That is a great comfort to me.

Well, there are a few Cooking Class posts banking up, but it’s been too busy to get them online. With any kind of luck I should find time away from the stuff that makes up our busy evenings sometime soon. Maybe. I’m not making any promises. The main problem is discovering Dowtown Abbey and Second Chef wanting to watch MOAR EPISODES.

Ah well.

Around here there have been some useful advances in suburban farming, with the garden giving up a pretty good supply of garlic this year, a kg of beetroots being turned into relish, the leeks coming along nicely, we have a few surprise self-seeding pumpkins coming along, and plenty of rhubarb, lettuce, bok choy, herbs and a HUGE crop of coriander seeds (the potatoes were woeful, the peach tree only produced one edible peach, the tomatoes failed, and the onions were put in too late). The coriander is really fragrant, so I’m very much looking forward to using them in cooking.

Also, a few weeks back I noticed that a friend on twitter was growing her own mushrooms in buckets. A bit of quick inquiry and a reference turned up these guys. Parkvale mushrooms will send you two buckets of pre-prepared mushroom mycelium for$NZ42.50. I followed the instructions, watered the compost, and put them in the sunroom under black polythene for a week or so, then parked them in the basement. Within another week I’m taking about 1.5kg of flat brown mushrooms off the buckets in the first flourish. Looking at the growth that still happening there I reckon we’d have at least that left to grow out. Based on an average price of about $NZ15kg for gourmet mushrooms I’d say we’d be pretty close to breaking even by next weekend, and they say that each bucket will flourish at least three times! And, they’re delicious.

Although, anyone with recommendations for mushroom recipes? They’ll be gladly accepted.

The further news is that the spent mushroom compost is excellent for the garden. With that and the chicken straw-poo the neighbour dropped around we should be well on the way to a big improvement in the former-packed-clay-garden next year. So all in all, pretty good.

I worry this title will attract all kinds of unlikeable traffic, but there you go.

Something we seem to do an endless amount of here at Newlands Manor is sourcing cheap firewood. The main reason for this is the obvious, fireplace-related one. It’s also because the fireplace is hands-down the most efficient way to heat this old house. We and insulation put in to bring it up to code, we put some heavier curtains in the bedrooms, and we took out the old gas central heating (natural gas is simply too expensive).

All in all we’re unlikely to see most of the money back in savings on the heating bill, but we are substantially more comfortable than the first winter we were here.  And man, that first winter with only a 3.5kW heat pump and some heaters in the bedrooms? FREEZING. In total we had about 8kW of power and the bills were really starting to ramp up. Then the worst happened, a power cut in the evening, July, wind blowing sleet sideways from the South. Thank goodness for the welcoming neighbours and their fire.

Second Chef had been suggesting very strongly that we needed to change the heating to a toasty, heartening fireplace, and that night I agreed. And not only am I glad I agreed, we haven’t looked back.

Of course, now I seem to spend all summer getting wood together to see us through the winter. But this fireplace puts out 17kW, so we are extremely warm indeed. Last year during the epic snowstorms when it was -1C outside and people were tweeting non-stop about their heat pumps stopping the coldest part of our house was 16C. Now that is what they call in the business ‘sweet as’.

But as I say, I’m not sure that we’re saving all that much money. A cord of wood bought in the city cost at leas $480, and you need at least two to make it through our long winters. I’ve been sourcing free/cheap firewood whenever I can, but… it’s still an annual bill of at least $1,000. Now, 1k will buy you a heck of a lot of electricity, and more than likely enough to buy you 17kWh of heating when you need it. When it’s working that is.

And because I’m a glutton for punishment, I sat down and worked out exactly how much power we’ve saved. So here’s a nice graph using three-month rolling average and a smoothed line.

The blue line is the first year when we only had the heat pump, and it pummets when we get in the fireplace. Looks like a reasonable saving in electricity right? Well, that’s actually only around $200 saved. A reasonable amount, sure, but the firewood cost is far and above it. And as the next graph shows, 2010 wasn’t particularly different to 2011 (data from Cliflo).

The years vary, but overall there is less than 0.1C difference in the minimum and maximum average temperatures (2011 was warmer).

The question this begs is, if you’re not making big savings, why not just stick with the heat pump? The answer is: solely because the fireplace provides a far more comfortable heat, is more reliable, doesn’t put a constant flaming draft in the house, and you can spend your winter heating money when you have spare cash instead of when the power company demands it (we can put away up to 4 cords if we find any great deals).

Before we got the fireplace we did our reading, and most sources said that the cost was around the same unless you have your own source of firewood (I’m dreaming of having enough land to put in a coppice). Of course… that didn’t take into account the amount power bills are likely to increase in the near future.

I’m nine and we’re sitting at the living room table she made a year or so back. It was a full dining room table but she cut down the legs, sanded it back. I remember gouging it with a fork handle in a fit of pique, a childish anger vented at some one thing she must have been proud of.

I’m looking at the empty grooves now, and asking,

“Is this tea?”

“Be quiet and eat.”

“But it’s just weetbix.”

“The benefit isn’t till tomorrow, so eat up.”

“But it’s breakfast isn’t it?”

“Just eat up.”

It’s a story I tell for years, of the superimposition of hunger by ‘our situation’. In retrospect it’s the one thing I associate with benefit dependency, the constant hunger, not only for basic nutrition, but for the many small things others take for granted you lack. The small luxuries and the simple things you cannot afford. A hunger for invaluables like comfort, security, certainty.

You see these things among people you consider rich, and you crave them. You hoard small objects, the cast offs of the better offs, and you think yourself lucky to have snatched such prizes.

I remember being perhaps 10, or 11, and sitting on the floor of the dining room reading Australian Womens Weekly Cookbook, a glossy A4 softcover filled with large pictures of simple foods. Brandy snaps. Yorkshire pudding. The pages were something I would treasure, the details of the recipes something I would pore over, a series of simple how-to pictures I must have subconsciously replicated here on this very blog. I would look at these foods and yearn for the ingredients, the know-how. But to practice we would need more than what we had. And what we had wasn’t enough.

So where are the choices in that? We were making the right life choices. We were frugal as our station demanded. We made the most of what we had. But still we ate cereal for dinner while our neighbours’ cat ate gravy beef.

What is it about dependency that means you must suffer in silence the ire of those who consider themselves your betters?

I sit now in comfort, folded in the bounty of the middle classes, and I look back to those days as a hazy memory, and I’m thankful to be free of then. I can sit now and listen to people run down the poor to someone the feel is a social equal, and while I no longer feel myself an interloper, I sometimes feel I have abandoned my past, that I have turned my back on what it was to be both hungry and undeserving.

Until I see the ire acted out again, as if by rote, an endless script of hate and condescension.

Since Christchurch there has been a hell of  lot to do around here, and that has done a heck of a lot to stop me being able to commit my scant available time to blogging.

Here’s what I’ve been up to though.

Growing MASSIVE amounts of coriander

Growing some nice lettuces. The wooden trellising is working really well to protect the softer plants from the Northerly winds. We can get gale force cross winds and not lose all our above-ground vegetables.

We’re just finishing the last of the lettuces now. Currently have some kale in, and experimenting with brassica and the trellis. Next spring, she’ll be all go.

Painted the Great Wall of Newlands (with invaluable help from Second Chef and Chef Du Plunge).

Installed 2000 litres of tank water. It’s on a low skid, so can’t be rocked to bits by a quake, and holds enough water for weeks and weeks. Am considering plumbing it into the washing machine.

The next thing is to spray-paint them black, and build a fence around them to block them from sight. They’re not pretty things.

Built the garden shed. We keep shovels and handy stuff in here, but will also get round to putting some dried food, tins of stuff and the like in there for the ‘just in case’ scenario.

It has since gained a floor and door, of course. And the neighbour has gone home.

As I say, she’s been a busy old time here in Wellington.

So it’s 1982 and I’m standing on the porch watching Mum move a sack of spuds out of the shed and towards the car. I can see it like it’s yesterday, her with her shoulders slanted, a fag hanging out her mouth, high elbow pointed upwards and she grunts and hauls the rough fabric.

“Whatchadoin?”

“Taking these round to Marion and Barry.”

“Can I come?”

“Get in.”

I’ve grown accustomed to not talking much in the car, so we sit silently while she drives out and up to Papamoa Beach Road and along the long empty stretch of lupins and grasses out to their place. There’s old pines and that half-round hay shed that’s been there forever. There’s graying fences and the occasional car parked up at the roadside, occupants over the at the nudey beach.

She flicks ash out the window.

When we stop the scene’s reversed, with her popping fag between lips again and hauling the spuds out of the boot. She carries them across the driveway and into the house, not pausing to knock, and heads up the stairs. I follow diligently, my head popping up past the guard rail just as she’s putting the spuds down in the kitchen. The first thing I see is Barry sitting there at the table.

His shoulders are square and he’s sitting bolt upright, his narrow face weather-beaten and slightly strained. His forearms are resting on the table and his hands are fists. His hair has been combed to one side with his fingers. Tears roll down his cheeks.

“Ya didn’t have to.” He murmurs.

I look across as Marion speaks. “Liz, you can’t afford those either. Take them home, we’ll be alright.”

She looks at me and says, “We’re leaving before they make us take them.”

And just like that, we walk out, and climb into the car.

So why you say? Well, ’82 was the time when the government took away all the fishing rights and Barry has a boat parked up at the wharves in Tauranga that can’t work. It’s been months and they have three kids to feed. A mortgage to pay. And they have nothing.

But us? We have a Widow’s Benefit keeping us going. The money is barely enough to keep us in clothes and shoes, but Liz takes the food out of our mouths and takes it over to their place, leaving them enough to see them through.

And we don’t talk about it on the way home. I just sit and look out the window and wonder about a better time. A time when I’ll understand what just happened. A time when a gift of charity like that will be more than a moral lesson for me, and more like a something I’ll need do myself. A time when I’m a man who’ll have an inkling of what it must be like to not have any way to feed your kids. A time when I’ll remember that what I saw was the real New Zealanders, the ones who give a fuck about the pöhara because, they are the pöhara.

****************
Of course, I wrote this before Christchurch, where everyone, rich and poor is pulling together.

I’ll bring you all back to this when the disaster ends, and we again start talking about what we do with the poor.

Just you wait to see what I do, with this..

(more…)

My New Year’s resolution: to blog more this year.

 

Time will tell

Things have been busy up here at Newlands Manor. Woodburners went on special and we saved a boatload getting one installed, which also meant spending WEEKS getting wood together for next season. Man… that’s some hard-out foraging.

The good news is that it’s as warm as toast up here despite this patchy “Spring” weather.

The remainder of the story is that Chef Du Plunge and I have been working hard on getting the base of the garden laid in once and for all. This means that all the beds have been laid (we got a little guy his own shovel. He LOVES ‘dig dig!!’ and getting outside to help me in the garden), all the plants are in, and all the amateur landscaping is complete, for now.

Next is just ongoing maintenance, and maybe replacing some of the generation-old trees dying along the boundary fences. But, the good news is that for the first time since we moved in here (February) I don’t feel like there is stuff that absolutely must be done. Very relaxing.

There has been some failures though. I put in Broccoli and the wind was just too much for it. I’ll have to sort out some a wind-baffling system of some sort (currently thinking perspex – it’s a long story for another day). The mandarin is not doing well – have resorted to popping up there and watering it occasionally. Might end up replacing it with something. And the bamboo in the front garden stalled over the winter, but has started to perk up again.

Otherwise, beginning with that poor mandarin (which might just end up in  a pot so it can be protected a little more), here’s a few snaps. (more…)

You. Yeah, yooou.
Ah FFS… Not You (you muppet). YOU.
Finally… what the hell does it take to make you people listen?
Right. All you people over there take a look at his guy.
Looking?
Right. He, this slightly oily looking bloke, is not a New Zealander.
Right right, yell all the heck you want you’re just making dicks of yourselves and proving my point.
Real New Zealanders don’t make a fuss.
Yes Yes I know that’s “a little bit controversial” but if you can’t face facts then you’re also not a real New Zealander.
“If we’re not New Zealanders what are we!” you say?
Easy question.
You’re hired help.
Weeeelll you can whinge all you bloody like about me saying that, it’s a free country after all, and if don’t like it you can bloody piss off back to Kraplackystan or wherever the hell it is all you people come from.
Racist? Me? What? Look people I’m not saying that I don’t like you, just that you’re… you’re… well… not one of us.
Yes yes, enough of the bloody yelling, didn’t I already say that real New Zealanders don’t make a fuss? You’re just proving my point.
And! To prove it, look at that bloke.
No, him. Yes, him, the white bloke.
Jesus… bloody hard to get you excitable types to focus, ain’t it?
He’s not a New Zealander either.
Well, he speaks with a funny accent.
Maybe French or something.
And no I don’t know how the hell he got in here.
There’s still that boat incident, and don’t think we’ve forgotten the World Cup…
The commonsense fact of the matter is that if you speak funny you’re not really welcome here and you certainly are not, in point of fact, a New Zealander.
What about that white bird you say?
South African.
Doesn’t count.
No that isn’t a double standard and don’t start with all this bloody waving of the arms and demanding ‘something be done’, or ‘I can say things like that’ because I just did.
Hmmm… how in the hell did you get into my neighbourhood anyway?
No, no, nothing, never mind.
Look, if you aren’t really ready to accept the rules then maybe you shouldn’t have bothered coming here in the first place.
Well, we make the rules.
Me and everyone who’s like me.
Well, it doesn’t matter if we’re not a majority because we’re the ones who’re making the rules, and you’re some powerless hired help.
(At least until we deport you…)
Nothing! I said nothing.
Look, the simple fact of the matter is that New Zealander means what we want it to mean, and all you slightly yelly people fall outside the meaning.
OK, OK, maybe if one of your kids actually plays for the All Blacks or storms Monte Cassino or something we’ll reconsider…
Until then, well, quiet in the cheap seats.

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