On vacation

Busy last week or so, plus came down with a bug, and now Alvaro and I are off to discover the New World. Will be eating my mom’s cooking till further notice.


Radical own-use production work & co-responsibility

Own-use production work
116. Production of goods and services for own final use is one of the oldest forms of work. Prior to the spread of markets for goods and services, households mainly produced their own food, shelter and other necessities, caring for the household members, premises and durables. As these products have become increasingly available through markets, the prevalence of production for own final use has steadily declined. Nonetheless, it remains widespread in countries at different levels of development. Such production, as in subsistence agriculture, continues to be central to survival in impoverished and remote areas throughout the world and is also a common strategy for supplementing household income, as in the case of kitchen gardens in many urban and rural areas alike. In more developed settings and among higher income groups, it predominantly covers unpaid household services, do-it-yourself work, crafts, backyard gardening and suchlike. (Report II Statistics of work, employment and labour underutilisation, ILO 2013)

Last Friday I went to have a coffee and a talk with Sophia Lawrence, a recently retired statistician for the International Labour Organisation. We met thanks to her daughter, a friend of mine who told me that for the good of my research I should talk to her mom. How right she was. Below is the transcript of our discussion as it related to my interest in the aforementioned form of work that I now know labor statisticians call own-use production.


SOPHIA: I’m so happy to hear that there are young people thinking about these things, because this is something I’ve been trying to push through the UN system for years now. I was a statistician with the International Labour Office, so with the agency that’s responsible for setting international standards on labor statistics. What we actually adopt are resolutions. They’re not legally binding, unlike the conventions of the UN, but they do set up standards and best practices for labor. There are seven core conventions on labor, which, if you become a member of that agency those are, you could say, the basic rules of labor.

ME: Is the US a member?

SOPHIA: Yes, and the US has adopted the fewest conventions. The US, Saudi Arabia, and one other that’s slipped my mind. It’s very sad, pathetic really. Anyway, those are the conventions of the ILO, and those are ratified and do become law. Resolutions, on the other hand, in statistics, are a good best practice, and they do really help countries to align themselves to a system, but they are not ratified and they are not binding. Nonetheless, in the statistical world, we do have a very strong weight with countries, and they all do look to these standards, because they are established on the basis of best practice in the countries themselves.

So, unfortunately, until 2013 most of the resolutions on statistics were very much in line with the problem you’re working on. Our resolution on work statistics has just changed, and the missing part that you’re looking at had also been missing in the resolutions. The simple definition of employment was very much based on GDP, based on the so-called idea of production, which was minus most of the kinds of contributions you’re looking at. It made sense to align employment with GDP calculations because you want to know what’s going into making those goods that you’re qualifying as being part of national production. However, because national production was ignoring all unpaid household work, all volunteer work, for example, employment was ignoring it, too. Which, in the end, we’ve decided is actually an okay thing — employment is what it is — but we have now said, employment is not all work. In 2013 we finally got a new resolution on work statistics adopted, which is bigger than employment and unemployment, and looks into and defines all those types of contributions that interest you, and others.

That doesn’t mean that the world today is beginning to measure all this, though some countries have been measuring it already. But the standards and objectives are there, and countries should start working on changing their national statistical programs. Because of course, it’s a question of how do you measure it, and that will require a certain amount of input, and financial input, for countries to change their surveys, their questionnaires, to begin to address these other issues. In the resolution we made it quite forceful, and it became a bit more watered down through the negotiation process in the conference of labor statisticians — which takes place every five years and all member states get together, with their national statistics office representatives, and we debate — so it became watered down to some extent, a bit forced by the industrialized countries, which already have strong systems [for labor statistics] put in place. And statisticians can be very conservative people, so it’s been a battle to change their ideas. But now that resolution is out there and that’s what I would recommend you read.

We created new categories of work, and so everything contributes to production. Everything has a value. Everything is worthwhile. In countries that have already been measuring the contribution of this type of work to the GDP — take Mexico, take the Scandinavian countries, the US, Australia, other countries as well — they’ve found that that type of production, that component of the economy which until now has been basically invisible or marginalized, ignored, represents over 30% of production.

For example, in Mexico in 2008 they measured all that contribution of unpaid household services, of volunteer work, etc., and they found that it was higher, in terms of GDP, than their petroleum exporting industry, which is what they’re known for.

ME: How do they quantify — well, how do they quantify anything — but how do they quantify and calculate something like that, what all household work, volunteer work, produces in terms of revenue toward GDP?

SOPHIA: There are different types of calculations that can be done. If you’re looking for more information on this when you look things up, usually what it’s called is “satellite accounts” — there are “national accounts” and “satellite accounts,” which I refused to use as a term. It is used in the resolution but I put it in quotation marks because it gives this sense that the World is here, and then there are all the little satellites.

And so the satellite accounts have been measured in countries, through various evaluation methods. There are three types of ways to go about that. They’re quite complex all of them, but basically one is that you can take a replacement value for each of the types of activities.

ME: So like what a maid would be paid –

SOPHIA: A maid, a cook, a seamstress, all of those. Of course that would give you a very high value because you’re combining so many occupations, and certain occupations like chef would be paid more than a maid who’s doing some cooking on the side. You could take those different values, or else you could just take an overall value for the lowest-level maid type of activity or different levels of maid activities. The third evaluation method is giving a replacement value for the outputs of work. What many countries have been complaining about is that statisticians will give a value to this or that individually, not taking into account production that’s taking place at the same time — multitasking. How can you give a value to things that are being done at the same time? They have the same value as tasks that are being done separately.

But people who are employed in occupations that involve supplying a service — an accountant helping you with your taxes, for example — countries know perfectly well what that equals in terms of money. This complaint that it’s hard to give a value for a service is baloney. It’s put there as an excuse because a) it’s not considered to be important work, b) since much of this work is being done within a household, it’s more difficult to send someone in and say “quantify that.”

There is an evaluation technique, a survey technique, for households called a time-use survey, and that’s when they go with a questionnaire divided in 15-minute portions of time, and they have you recording — or they record you — what you’re doing. This will happen over a 24-hour period, and they’ll sometimes do it on a weekday and a weekend. Time-use surveys are fascinating because they recognize, in developing countries for example, that so much production is going on but is not accounted for because it was in no way considered employment. It wasn’t paid for by somebody else. It was invisible.

In sub Saharan Africa because so many people are illiterate at the household level, women and children, what they did was a very expensive means of carrying out the survey — they sent a person who stayed and lived with a family for a week, and they would observe and write it all down. All this started giving some really interesting results, and of course the poorer you are the more time you generally spend on this kind of work, because you don’t have the technology to support you.

ME: And you can’t just go out and buy it. You have to make it. Or else first grow it, then make it.

SOPHIA: Or feed it, then kill it, then pluck it, then cook it. Can you imagine? Instead of just going to the supermarket and buying a filet of chicken. Some kids here don’t even know that a filet of chicken comes from a real chicken.

So these types of time-use surveys were being developed and those are what most countries who did satellite accounts used to figure out what people were involved in, and then how did that measure up.

You can no longer say it’s not possible to do it. Of course it’s possible to do it, and countries have to start thinking in terms of giving value, giving data, recognizing the status of this work. One element that I’m also really, really concerned with, is that recognition is not enough. From recognition we have to go toward what I term as — it’s not my own invented word, I heard it in the Latin American region — co-responsibility. Men and women in households and in society have to begin to take co-responsibility for all these functions, or for whatever stems from these functions. Until that happens it’s going to always be marginalized. One of the reasons why I think it’s so important is that in certain occupations considered in one context to be high-status and high-paying — take lawyers — as soon as women begin to “invade” that occupation, guess what? The status goes down and the pay goes down. It’s no longer such a desired occupation.

ME: You used the term “invisible labor” before — is that a term the ILO uses?

SOPHIA: No. We used to use “unemployment,” talking about all the people who did some kind of production but were still looking for work, but we’ve gone beyond that, trying to get rid of that, because that was vocabulary which was accepting the status quo.

ME: Right, because it’s saying somehow that you’re not really employed. You’re employed in the sense that you’re active, but not active in the way most people understand the word, as in employed for pay.

SOPHIA: Visible / invisible… In a way it’s not a bad idea [for a terminology], but it is actually visible. It’s visible all over the world.

ME: But it’s invisible in the accounting.

SOPHIA: Exactly. But then using that term gives the idea that if it’s invisible it’s because it can be invisible, it could be forgotten, because it could be marginalized, because it’s not important. And in human connections and communication, words mean something.

ME: Even the word “visible,” too, is a problem because it makes it sound like because it’s visible it’s valued.

SOPHIA: Exactly, right.

ME: So what is the term, then?

SOPHIA: We call everything “work.”

ME: What?

SOPHIA: Just, “work.” It’s all work. In the resolution on work statistics we break it down into types of work. We kept the word employment because everybody knows it but we’ve changed the definition.

ME: And so the word “work” applies to all the sorts of work we’re talking about, but then also to different kinds of salaried work…

SOPHIA: Well here, I brought this (pulls out the report and starts flipping through it). There’s one chart … This [on page 17] is one chart that’s interesting. So, we say the whole population is this [indicates heading "Total Population"], then there’s the working age population, however that’s defined in the country, and that brings up the question of needing to recognize that children are working, producing, etc. Even if you don’t condone it, you still need to measure it.

Then the “Labor Force” is the employed and the unemployed, and we’ve broken down those categories into others. Time-related Underemployment — that means they don’t have enough work.

ME: Part-time and not making enough money to get by.

SOPHIA: Mm hmm. And then there’s the Potential Employment Force, people who are “seeking” but they’re not necessarily available. With the way the statistics of the labor force have been measured, it’s been very much based on the fact that men are available immediately, pretty much, because that’s how society works. Therefore they [statisticians] imposed the same sort of strict requirements on everyone. And of course, women have children usually. They can’t just leave their children from one day to the next to start a new job. They have to make provisions for their children. Of course men do, too, especially in developing countries. They have to find the money to buy the uniform, or they have to figure out how they’re going to get from home to where they’re going to work.

This issue of availability was not recognized in the old standards, because it was very much based on the idea of an industrialized society where everybody is “available” — you jump on the truck to go to work, you get a car, you’re available. Your wife was taking care of the children, or like in the USSR, the system was taking care of your children. But that did not take into consideration all these different categories of persons. So we’re saying there is a potential labor force that could easily go into these categories if the necessary infrastructure is there. Very few people now are outside of the labor force.

ME: I was just going to ask, actually, because looking at this — so under “Potential Labor Force,” and “seeking” and “not available” and “not seeking,” etc. etc. This to me means “unemployed” so what’s the difference between someone unemployed and not seeking work, and someone outside the labor force?

SOPHIA: Because “unemployed” is actually a very strict definition. You have to fulfill certain criteria, otherwise you’re not considered as being within unemployment.

A quick aside, the ILO’s definition of “unemployment”:

The unemployed comprise all persons above a specified age who during the reference period were:

- without work, that is, were not in paid employment or self employment during the reference period;

- currently available for work, that is, were available for paid employment or self-employment during the reference period; and

- seeking work, that is, had taken specific steps in a specified recent period to seek paid employment or self-employment.

The specific steps may include registration at a public or private employment exchange; application to employers; checking at worksites, farms, factory gates, market or other assembly places; placing or answering newspaper advertisements; seeking assistance of friends or relatives; looking for land, building, machinery or equipment to establish own enterprise; arranging for financial resources; applying for permits and licences, etc.

This then is how we came up with a way of redefining everything, a revised classifications of persons. So you have your total population, like I said, with people engaged in a variety of productive activities, meaning any kind of production. Then we have people who are “exclusively in non-productive activities,” [See far right of the chart] and you almost find nobody there. People who are rich and don’t work and don’t do anything. Some people who are severely handicapped and can’t do anything. Old-age pensioners who don’t do anything anymore — but even then, they might knit a sweater or some sort of activity like that, right? So there are really very few people who are not doing anything, not engaged in the SNA [System of National Accounts -- the standards for how to compile economic statistics], neither seeking nor available for work, etc. All these other persons [indicating the other sections of the chart] who are doing something, they’re engaged either in so-called productive activities within the SNA — that’s the GDP calculation that is excluding all this so-called household production work — and so then we say they’re in employment, that means they’re working for pay or profit. Or they’re in own-use production work. So this new term that you were asking me what it’s called, we call it “own-use production work.”

People who are used to working in the labor force, they have to turn their minds around. I’ve found the majority of people who are not used to the old system found this new proposal intuitively quite correct. You have to get over the resistance holding on to the previous way.

So, own-use production work. And then there’s volunteer work. We put those two together.

ME: And why were those two put together?

SOPHIA: Well, volunteer work is not for your own use, it’s for the use of others. It could be contributing to the production of goods or services, which is usually what they do, but they’re not receiving any pay or profit for it, that’s the big distinction with volunteers.

And another thing, it used to be that if you were in employment and had one hour of work for the reference period [for the statistical data gathering] which was either a day or a week, then you could not be simultaneously in unemployment, because they had these priorities for measurement purposes. So we say, okay, somebody who has only one hour of work is not fully employed and therefore obviously is probably looking for more work at the same time. What you can see here with the new classifications for statistics is an innovation in that you can be in employment but you can also be doing your own production work, or volunteering. Then in this whole group of persons who are doing own-use production work and volunteering, they could also be looking for work on the side. Or you could be unemployed and also doing some sort of production. We’re trying to capture the manifold types of activities that humans do, and especially humans in a system which is not all employed from 9 to 5, because that’s disappearing even in the First World.

ME: I have a question, not at all tongue in cheek, I’m just curious. I’m looking at the headings saying productive activities and non-productive activities, and I’m interested in what falls under productive, what is considered a productive activity. For example, a politician works, but doesn’t actually produce anything. Or there are other examples. I was talking about this with my husband last night, thinking of trades and jobs that people do that don’t actually produce anything that we need. And how many different jobs are there in this world that are just that. Someone making a useless product, and then someone doing marketing for that useless product. But that person is still then producing something that is then quantified in GDP calculations, but a politician doesn’t produce anything. What’s considered productive then?

SOPHIA: Well, politicians provide a service. Production is goods and services, all activities that lead to, either directly or indirectly, the production of goods and services. That’s the SNA definition. But then what they did was they took this statement apart, saying that, actually, some goods are not included and some services are not included.

You’re interested in the sort of survival work, building your own house, etc. That kind of activity, even in the past, was considered part of SNA, was part of production, whereas cooking meals, preparing food, was not. Clearly they’re both productions, so many people have been asking for many, many years, why this distinction? How did they come up with that? Basically, little old men in the UK, in the USA, France, Germany, the big nations, thought that, well, building a house –

ME: is man’s work –

SOPHIA: Yes, and it’s big, it’s a structure. And the rest of the work was housewives’ work. It’s very much a simplistic representation of reality, and yet we [statisticians] have been turning around in circles trying to find things now to fit that stupid standard, which is entirely unrealistic. And people got very comfortable with that gymnastics, thought it was normal, so when we came along and tried to change it, they thought No!

Now, there are measurement issues, it’s not passed into law, but that’s the whole purpose of the resolution, and that’s the purpose of my colleagues who will continue on with the work.

ME: Is there any sort of itemized list for what counts as goods and services? You used the example of an elderly retired lady knitting something. Is knitting actually considered then a productive activity?

SOPHIA: Mm hmm.

ME: Really?

SOPHIA: There are lists of what is production, if we look here together at the resolution text. So, own-use production. Of services, of goods. Goods could be the sweater, it’s for yourself. Services, that’s the cooking and the cleaning. Funnily enough in the definition of services, a meal is considered a service. It’s not a good.

ME: That surprises me, actually, because it is a food product.

SOPHIA: Yeah. That was done because it’s easier to exclude then. They put the house as good, but the food is not. The food is a service. Which is baloney. There are all these excuses.

119. It has been argued that an advantage of treating own-use production of goods and of services as a single form of work is that it will be less likely for household production to be omitted during data collection than is the case at present (Goldschmidt-Clermont, 2000). Collection of the information by activity clusters, as recommended, will also reduce the problem of having to establish a boundary between goods and services. For example, fetching firewood, the processing of food for preservation, making butter or cheese, husking rice, slaughtering animals and grinding grain are all considered as production of goods, while cooking a meal is a service on the grounds that the meal is consumed immediately. In practice, the dividing line between cooking and these other activities is often difficult to draw, especially where fresh food is prepared daily. Similarly, construction and improvement of one’s dwelling is considered as fixed capital formation and thus included within the SNA production boundary, whereas smaller repairs are viewed as services and hence excluded. Yet it is difficult to distinguish between repair, improvement and construction, particularly where dwellings are built of materials such as mud, palm, wood and other perishables (Anker, 1983). (Report II, p.28)

ME: A lot of this [examples of work given under the report's own-use production heading] is household sorts of tasks that women typically do. I was thinking before coming here about what I would consider “invisible” work, and I thought of graduate students and interns. Is that also considered in any of the new categories?

SOPHIA: For trainees, that was a big contention between countries — Australia, UK, others, their trainee and apprenticeship systems are very, very formalized and integrated, and they said there’s no way they would exclude those from their statistics because it would bring their employment rates down and their unemployment rates up. But people who are in training, they’re not paid. Interns are basically free workers. Unfortunately they got considered to be in employment, because supposedly what they’re being “paid” in is experience.

Trainees, a lot of times even in very informal systems, in sub Saharan Africa for example, they get food, they are sometimes paid in a little bit of something. Volunteers for the International Red Cross, they do get something, a stipend sometimes. A lot of times that’s another problem with volunteer workers, that in the West what you might get is compensation for going and doing a particular task or project, and it’s sometimes higher than the salaries of government people in very poor countries. So what’s work, what’s volunteer work — the national context of wage levels etc. comes into play. So the idea is that volunteer pay should take into account the average local wages.

ME: How did you get interested in this?

SOPHIA: Well, I think I started to get into this because I’m a feminist from way back. For me, injustice against the poorest exists and is worrisome, but more so is the injustice done against women whether they’re rich or poor. And of course the worst is the poor women. If you look at a hierarchy anywhere in the world, whatever category you’re going to put down the line, it’s the women in that category who will be the least well-off, invariably. Women are more than half the world’s population, and so addressing this is fundamental. No matter what epoch you’re talking about, there has always been discrimination against women. I’ve gone to many parts of the world and given talks or done trainings, and I often like to take statistics with me that show how women are faring in the so-called developed world. People are shocked to see what’s happening in Scandanavia, Sweden, the UK, where they thought everything for women was fine. When you show the sort of basic statistics of employed, unemployed, household labor as it was called in the old days, it’s true that women are working less in employment for pay or profit, and that women who are in employment are more absent from work than men, and men work longer hours, so it’s seems like men are “carrying the burden of production,” and that women are having an easy time of it.

ME: But in a lot of cases men are only able to do that — work longer hours — because their partner is home taking care of things, children, etc.

SOPHIA: Exactly. In statistics you need to break down the data because otherwise statistics are meaningless. For example: household composition. Women in households with children below age seven have much higher absentee rates because — guess what — they take care of the kids when they’re sick, whereas the men continue working. Calculate what women are doing per day, their own-use production work — including caring for children, caring for the elderly — and their employment work if they have it. All of this counts. [...]


We soon embarked on a long and very interesting side discussion about water sanitation as a fundamental feminist issue, especially as it concerns menstruation. It was fascinating but pretty well outside the scope of this blog, and this transcription work is pretty rough because there’s all sorts of background noise in the recording. (I need to get a decent sound recorder.) So do what she suggested I do, and read Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate,” and also this and this, for starters.


ME: I’d like to know what you think about something. There’s … I don’t know that I would call it a movement, because I’m not sure it’s big enough, but there’s an idea I’ve seen being floated around in some of my reading, called “radical housewifery” or “radical homemaking.” It’s the idea that this sort of work, keeping house, can be done as a radical economic act, which goes against what a lot of women think, that you have to be working outside the home in order to be a “feminist.” When my mother had me, it was 1981. She’s a feminist and she always has been. She was a teacher and worked up until she was eight months pregnant or so, and then she went on maternity leave, intending to go back to work. She said that when she saw me she changed her mind. It was a hard decision, not one that was easy financially, but she still felt like for stability and emotions and whatnot that she would stay home for an undetermined amount of time. And her very, very good friend and co-conspirator in so much was horrified, and would constantly send her job announcements.

SOPHIA: That’s exactly this kind of thinking that status can only come from activities outside the home.

ME: Right. So related to that, this whole idea of “radical homemaking” goes against that idea, says that action can come from the home. But the thing is, I don’t know that it’s critical enough of itself. This decision to be a one-income family, or a half- or no-income family and then we’ll try to produce everything we need. My problem is that I don’t think it takes into consideration that a lot of times a person’s only political voice is in her workplace, and so if you remove yourself from the position of being a woman in a male-dominated workforce, I think you lose your agency in a sense.

SOPHIA: Well, I think it’s unfortunate — and I’ve seen this with a lot of well-intentioned people, myself included — that in proposing something new we still tend to accept as a fait accompli the dominant situation as being the right one. I read something, someone in politics, an American woman, who published this thing saying “Yes We Can,” or “No We Can’t,” or something like that — you know this Yes We Can business, and she said that no, actually, we can’t have it all, we can’t do the high-powered job and raise the kids and whatever else. [I'm was at first thinking that she was talking about Anne-Marie Slaughter but Slaughter addresses a lot of the systemic failures we were discussing, so I'm at a loss now... Will look into this.] It seems to me that she wasn’t thinking critically about how the system functions already, and she was kind of accepting still that women have the dominant role in taking care of the children, and that comes down to a relationship of co-responsibility. Until we’ve really internalized that, it’s true, no matter what you do you’re going to marginalize yourself, you’re going to become poorer, you’re going to lose your voice, and you’re going to undermine your own confidence because you’re not being given status because you’re not considered as because because because, right? So … radical housewifery. House husbandry, that means something different, doesn’t it? Again, this is the status that is given to words, and we need to find new words. So this is radical own-use production work.

It’s all a question of power. We give power to all these things, who has the money, ideas and words we have about status — but it has to become a co-responsibility. Whatever contribution to GDP is being produced has to be equally recognized.


Clay casserole bread #3

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Thanks to stuff that went wrong with clay casserole breads #1 and #2, I’ve learned a thing or two and was feeling pretty good going into #3. It didn’t disappoint. Pat on the back in order. My bread quest will never be complete and I will never stop experimenting (and failing), but I think I’ve got a pretty decent formula and (very flexible) routine down now. This makes me feel happy and capable, and I believe this clay casserole thing was the clincher in the whole game. Bread #3 is basically my standard bread that I’ve been making for a while without the casserole, and with different hardware it comes out way, way better: soft and light on the inside with a thin, very crispy crust. I wish I’d gotten the casserole sooner, but then maybe this discovery wouldn’t be as gratifying.

The bread pictured above came out of the oven this morning. I made the sponge on Friday morning, but then didn’t get to making the dough that day, so I stuck it in the fridge and did it Saturday morning, the very idea of which would probably make a lot of bread people croak — 24 hour sponge fermentation??? In the fridge?? The horror! It’s going to be too sour! … But it wasn’t. (Tangent: when I made the sponge on Friday, since my starter was out anyway I decided to attempt pita bread for the first time in many years and it ROSE! I used the recipe linked to there, plus tried out a tip I got from an Armenian baker I interviewed last year about lavash — crank the oven heat all the way up, but set it to heat from the top of the oven only. This was the first time I tried doing that, and the first time I succeeded in getting pita bread to puff up large and have fillable pockets. It was exciting.)

Once I finally made the dough I let it rise from Saturday morning till later in the afternoon, and upon realizing that I was not going to get around to baking it the same day I decided to stick it in the refrigerator, again, to retard the fermentation. It stayed there through Sunday morning and afternoon. Sunday evening when I got back from picking apples at Utopiana, Alvaro and I were both starving and lazy, and behold, there was bread dough in the fridge, so we pulled it out and made some killer pizzas with half of it. I put the remaining dough back in the fridge, and this morning used it for its intended purpose, to make bread.

I feel very unscientific whenever I read things online about amateur bakers and their carefully measured bread, because the descriptions of the process are often centered around indecipherable charts of hydration ratios and a bunch of other stuff that I know is important to a good loaf of bread, but I don’t bother with that level of exactness. I like the idea of being precise and scientific about things, but I’m not a precise kind of person, and I’ve realized that although fastidiousness in record-keeping may be essential if you’re looking to bake identical loaves of bread, it’s really not important at all if you’re just looking to make good bread. I kept a notebook briefly when I first started getting serious with sourdough, as I was under the influence of the Tartine book at the time, but then I realized I was getting distracted by what the numbers in my notebook said and not paying attention to what my head said. So I stopped it. Now — and I’m by no means an expert, whatever that means, “expert” — I know when a dough is too wet or too dry and I don’t need a kitchen scale to tell me. I can also generally tell in advance what a loaf is going to look like when it comes out of the oven based on the way the dough is acting and how it feels before it goes in. This makes me feel very unscientific, like I said, what with all those people out there doing hard bread science, but I’m also puzzled by that style of bread baking. I don’t really get why people keep such close tabs on things, to the point of making charts, unless they just like charts. Bread is so forgiving once you kind of get a hold of the basic stuff, and get to know what dough needs to feel like if you want it to come out a certain way.

The bread above, for example, was basically submitted to my personal whims the entire weekend. If it were a child I would have given it lifelong psychological complexes with all my inconsistency, and it still came out well. Hmm… I think I’ll bake bread… nah, I don’t feel like it, so just hang out for a while, dough … Right, okay now I’m going to bake bread… Ooh but there’s a cumbia DJ at Pointe de la Jonction, never mind! Back in the fridge! … Oh hello bread, I forgot you were there. Hi. I’ll get to you when I get to you…. Actually I think I’ll make pizza with you… Oh wait, there’s actually a lot of dough, so I’ll only make pizza with some of you. … Okay, I’m back, into the oven you go, like I said I was going to do three days ago, before I changed my mind four times. 

A few people in my life have asked me for my “bread recipe,” and I always tell them I don’t have one but that we can bake bread some time together and I’ll show them what I do. It always feels kind of snobby when I say this, like: oh darling, my method is so very complex that it can’t possibly be reduced to mere words. You must observe the gesture. … But it kind of is like that when it comes to making bread, except bread’s not complex. It’s very simple, the kind of thing that’s very hard to explain and understand.

Craft and gardening and all that? It’s officially considered Work

Busily transcribing the interview I had this morning with a recently retired International Labour Organisation statistician. Her area was work that has not historically, culturally, statistically been considered “real” work, nor factored into GDPs, i.e., “invisible” economies of goods and services that the ILO as of last fall refers to as “own-use production.” Its recently adopted resolution on work statistics very openly declares own-use production to be considered work. With “own-use production,” we’re talking homesteading, housework, even, to use one of Sophia’s examples, knitting a sweater. With this resolution the International Conference of Labour Statisticians has redefined productive work in a literal sense — as not just production that leads to growth on paper, but also growth in communities, growth in families.

If you’re so inclined you can read the “Resolution concerning statistics of work, employment and labour underutilisation,” published in fall 2013, here. And I hope you’re inclined, because as for me, my mind was fairly well blown by it. It’s never occurred to me to double-check what labor statisticians or the ILO considered knitting to be because, well, what else is it but a “hobby”? Hardcore crafters and craftivists, radical homemakers and farmwives, and urban homesteaders aside, the entire world thinks stuff like knitting is for leisure time and bored women, and therefore of no concern to the serious calculations involved in Real Economics. Naturally I assumed that’s what all the big, important international organizations thought, if they even thought about it.

The ILO adopts resolutions for best practices; they’re non-binding, so countries don’t have to ratify anything, though there is some international pressure involved in these things. And in general I don’t hold much faith in UN agencies, bloated and slow-moving as they often are. But labor statisticians calling for a redefinition of work to include, among things, gardening, cooking, food preservation, home building projects, recycling, knitting, sewing, and caring for children and elderly parents? This is revolutionary. This makes me very happy. The world’s not going to change overnight, but I will very gladly embrace this development.

Our talk ended with a discussion on bread — Sophia’s an avid bread baker who grinds her own grains and experiments wildly with all things flour and yeast. For example: as we were wrapping up, she said, “Oh, I have to show you the bread I just made. Milena said you’re into bread.” (Milena’s her daughter, a friend and former co-worker of mine.) As she was flicking back through the photos on her phone, she told me about how her son had some friends over the other day to hang out and drink a few beers, and several half-empty cans were still in evidence the next day. “It drives me crazy,” she said. “I cannot stand wasting anything,” so she gathered up the cans and looked in her bread books to see how she might be able to repurpose flat beer. Finally settling on a recipe for rye bread that specifically called for flat beer, she mixed the lone soldiers with some buckwheat flour and let it ferment for four days, then mixed this starter with some whole wheat flour, baked it, and came out with two absolutely beautiful loaves. How many facets of awesome did you count in that story?

The rest of our discussion will be up here soon.

One of the best loaves of bread I’ve ever baked

This may look like a bread failure:


But I am going to tell you why it is anything but a bread failure.

You see, I think I’ve finally left the realm of the nervous beginner who obsesses about following dictates and worries about making mistakes, gets frustrated at the slightest imperfection in a final product, is impatient for the day when mastery will be reached. I don’t generally like making such bold declarations, but in this case I don’t think I’m overstating things. I really do think I’ve stopped worrying about my bread “failing.” (Maybe because it happens so often and so I’m used to it? Ha.) I’ve realized that even when a loaf comes out of the oven looking absolutely nothing like the pretty loaves of bread in all my cookbooks, it is almost always perfectly edible, and often tastes very good despite appearances. Like the loaf of bread pictured above, for example.

After my first experience baking with the clay cooker, I was excited to try again as soon as possible, figuring that I’d pinpointed three key things to change in order to improve my results (make a smaller loaf so it doesn’t stick to the sides of the cooker, bake at a much higher oven temperature, and take off the top of the cooker earlier on in the baking so the crust can harden more). It’s not often that we can so clearly identify areas of improvement like that, which in itself I think is a sign of progress. The first clay cooker loaf was eaten within three days, and part-way through day two I got another starter going. I didn’t realize I was running so low on flour until then, but the next day when it came time to make the dough I didn’t have time to run out and get more of my go-to flour so I just used what we had, which was about a 1/2 or 2/3 cup of white whole wheat and then enough buckwheat flour to make a dough. It was more buckwheat than wheat, which I knew would result in something weird because buckwheat (which is not actually wheat; it’s related to rhubarb) is gluten free, meaning it’s not going to rise much, and it also absorbs a hell of a lot more water than your typical wheat flour, meaning the dough was going to be sopping wet. However, that’s all I had on hand so I went with it — with glee and abandon no less. This was mad science at its finest.

Here’s the dough after rising overnight:


Thick, gray soup. Impossible to shape into anything remotely resembling a loaf of bread so I had to pour it into the clay cooker like cake batter.


I preheated the clay cooker in the oven at 425F/218C, which is quite a bit hotter than the temperature I normally use to bake bread.

Into the oven it went, for about 15-20 minutes of eager anticipation.



Tick tick tick… I was dying to see what was going on in there. In my dreams the super wet dough was going to create a soft, billowy mass dotted with perfectly placed pockets of air, and I was going to take a photo of it to post all over the internet saying Look At Me and my beautiful bread!!

Then the covered baking time was up and I lifted off the lid to discover this:


Oh dear.

I left it to bake for another half an hour or so and then removed it from the oven.


That, my friends, is a very, very flat loaf of bread. (But at least it didn’t stick to the pot.)

I let it cool while I was doing other things, and come lunch time I decided to cut into it lengthwise and try to make a sandwich out of it. This is when I discovered that the interior was actually really nice looking.


More importantly, it was delicious. And, most importantly, this loaf of bread that some might call a failure confirmed that I had been right to crank up the oven heat and take the lid off sooner in the baking. I’ve already got another starter going and will make a dough tomorrow (with my regular flour).

So, in the end, this bread is definitely not winning any ribbons at the state fair, but I’d say that out of all of the several hundred loaves of bread that I’ve baked, this is one of the loaves that has taught me the most. Experimentation and failure for the win.

Tree house update, August

Growth report:



A month ago:


image (82)


Day 1 in its current location:


Six or seven inches in a month, not bad. Before the next check-up I’m probably going to re-pot it again, and put it on the floor because it’s starting to get a bit big for its perch on my bookshelf.

Knitting fail + the research scarf



Right, so it’s been one of those days. I have a fairly ridiculous to-do list this week so of course all I’ve been thinking all day is knitknitknitknit. My day has gone: work a bit, knit a bit, work a bit, knit a bit, eat lunch, knit for an hour and a half while listening to This American Life, then work a bit, then pick the knitting back up because I’m so close to finishing this hat (!), then second-guess the pattern because it seems like it’s big enough now, so I start decreasing, and I finish, and I’m so pleased, and I rush to the mirror in the hallway to try it on (it’s for Alvaro, not me, but we both have big heads) and I discover with horror:



Am I right? I think we can objectively say that this hat is too short. A winter hat that doesn’t even reach the top of one’s ears is no winter hat. It’s a beanie. For a puppet. Or something… a learning experience, maybe.

The yarn’s been cut and woven in so there’s no going back. I’m frustrated. I shouldn’t have second-guessed the pattern. Now I have to go find someone with a very short head.

Luckily I didn’t spend weeks or months of my life on this. I only started last Wednesday so there wasn’t so much time investment “lost,” but in fact that’s one of the things I liked about this hat, that it was a quickie, and my still fairly impatient self was pleased to be capable of churning out a knitting project in under a week. With this project I also learned a couple of new skills: knitting in the round from the bottom up, and decreasing in the round. All was not lost, then, but still I’m disappointed that even a week’s worth of work went into something that I messed up at the end because I was impatient and too big for my britches.

As I don’t want the hat to go to waste and can’t think of anyone who could wear it instead, I’m going to figure out a way to hook it onto the research scarf I’m making for Mas. The research scarf came from a dream I had about a year and a half ago, in which I was in elementary school and had been invited to the birthday party of a girl in my class, Meghan. My dream self was my adult self trapped in an eight-year-old’s body, and so upon receiving the invitation to Meghan’s party dream me decided that I would not gift her some mass market crap, something that would do nothing more than offer a moment’s whimsical distraction and then get relegated to a hall closet as yet another throw-away toy. I was no mindless consumer, no buyer of objects programmed to become functionally or fashionably obsolete. No, I decided, instead of giving Meghan a toy, I would do research on a subject of my choosing and present her with the archive of this research. So I did research on humpback whales, which oddly enough is historically accurate, since I was obsessed with humpback whales at age eight. At the birthday party I proudly presented Meghan with a fat binder full of photos, notes, and printed articles, but she was confused, seemed entirely unimpressed by all my hard work, and quickly set aside the binder in order to open up yet another package from Toys R Us. I didn’t confront her in the dream (it was her birthday after all, and even in dreams I’m polite in social situations), but in my dream thoughts I said to myself: “This girl sucks. That’s the best present ever.”

I told all of this to Mas and she thought it was hilarious. “It is the best present ever!” And so with that we decided that from here on out when we wanted to give a gift to each other, for a birthday or some other occasion, we would give each other research. This was the plan but it hasn’t entirely gotten off the ground because we’re already deep into other research projects, and also very forgiving of each other. She is the type of friend who, if we have a date to meet up and either one of us calls an hour before and says, “Listen, I hate humanity today and cannot bring myself to go out in public,” the one who has just been stood up understands entirely and is not annoyed.

I did actually do a lot of research on 18th century man-eating cryptids (see for example the Beast of Gévaudan) and wrote a pretty lengthy short story as my chosen mode of research presentation, and then my computer died a few weeks before Mas’s birthday last December, taking the story and all digital archive artifacts with it. It was an unspectacular death — it just froze, and so I turned it off, and when I turned it back on it got stuck on a pixelated start screen. I brought it into a computer repair shop and the guy just chuckled, tickled by the sight of such an antique. He said it was possible, maybe, to try to recuperate some of the data and put it on an external hard drive, so I said okay, and then, well, time flies, life gets the best of you, and here I am eight months later and I still haven’t gone back to see about saving my hard drive. My computer is Schrödinger’s cat in the many-worlds interpretation: so long as I don’t take it back to the repair shop, my files are both lost and not lost. I feel pretty pessimistic about this and am convinced they’re lost, and so I prefer to continue not knowing for now so they can stay half-not lost. Anyway, none of this really has anything to do with the subject at hand, which is the research scarf.

The research scarf is something I started developing when I first started knitting. I hadn’t picked up knitting needles in years, and had never been any good at it anyway, so I needed some practice first to get going on real projects. But I didn’t like the idea of having practice swatches that served no other purpose than being practice swatches. I decided then that in the process of learning to knit I would first try things out on the same practice “swatch,” which over time would become a long length of yarn of different colors, fibers, weights, and stitches, full of practice button holes and first-timer’s cables. In short, it would be a log of me learning how to knit, like a learner’s notebook written in yarn. Mas liked the idea, so eventually she’ll be receiving it, but not for a while. I’d first imagined working on it over the course of a year, but I quickly realized that this was a bit hasty on my part. It’s going to take a lot longer than a year for me to learn to knit — actually it’ll take a lifetime, because I don’t want to ever stop learning, and I don’t believe that in any skill we get to a point where we’ve learned everything there is to learn. Still, I have to cut myself off at some point and just give her the scarf as research in progress, so I told her the other day to expect it around her 40th birthday. (She’s turning 30 this year.) I’m a slow knitter.

Now, then, back to the short hat. There has to be some way to attach it to the scarf. It couldn’t really be used to make a hooded scarf, because thus far there’s only about a foot of scarf research, and I want to do things chronologically so I need to add the hat before I add anything else, which will make for a very asymmetrical design. Or do we care? I’m looking at it now and I’m not immediately seeing how to attach it in a non-awkward way. Will ponder this engineering puzzle and report back. In the meantime I need to go do some actual work.


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