Monday, August 24, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About The Poor

I know I haven't used this blog as much as I used to in the last little while. Moving and general life mayhem have kept me pretty busy. If I have time, maybe I'll start sharing some of it here again, like my mom keeps bugging me to do. Or at least post a picture of some of the crazy plants invading our new semi-tropical Florida lawn. But this week a topic has been heavy on my heart, so I wanted to take a few minutes and write about it, see if I can make any sense of it.

We moved last month, our sixth move in eleven years, this time from Texas to Florida. I like it here a lot. People are friendly to us, the weather is not quite so hot, there are tons of garage sales. It's an extremely politically conservative area, which we knew before we moved, so most of the people here do not share most of our views. Nevertheless, we've been getting on pretty well. I've been going to a new church the past couple of weeks, and this week I sat in on a Sunday School class, my first in years. (At our church in Texas, there was little emphasis on Sunday School, and at our church in Cincinnati, we already had to leave an hour before service to arrive on time!) The lesson for the day was on "What kind of justice does God require?" and it pulled verses from Zechariah 7. Here's the gist of it, in verses 9-11:
The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims:  Make just and faithful decisions; show kindness and compassion to each other! 10 Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other! 11 But they refused to pay attention. They turned a cold shoulder and stopped listening.
The rest of the passage goes on to remind the people of what happened to them when they ignored these godly rules (spoilers: it wasn't pretty.) We had an interesting discussion about what it means to plan evil against each other, in the context of things like gentrification projects that force out the homeless without giving them anywhere to go. Not the evil that is planned qua evil, but the thoughtless evil, the evil that is perpetrated when people blind themselves to the pain of others. Despite what many awesome comic book movies tell us, real supervillains are very thin on the ground these days. There's almost nobody in any position of power or authority who plans and schemes to do evil. That doesn't mean they don't do evil things, often to the vulnerable groups God is telling us to protect! But evil isn't the targeted goal, just a side effect of what they wanted to accomplish.  That doesn't make it right, or godly, but it does make it human, and it brings it home. We can most of us be comfortable saying that we're not planning evil against anybody, but are we letting evil happen as a result of our other plans? Would God draw that kind of distinction?

The discussion wended its way around topics, like good Sunday School conversations tend to do, past the idea of strangers as immigrants (and isn't that a change in how we talk about it away from Laredo, with its heavy immigrant population!), and around the work that the church does in the community. This church I've been visiting has a strong community ministry presence, which is one of the things I like most about it. Some churches are very inward-focused, concentrating their efforts on growing the membership, nurturing the congregation, keeping the property in tip-top shape and ensuring that equipment is always in the best repair. I think that impulse is understandable. It's human nature, after all, to use limited time, energy and resources taking care of your own. But human nature is what we go to church to try and transcend, isn't it? I want a church that measures its influence not by how many members have a bumper sticker on their cars, but by how many of the widows, the orphans, the strangers, and the poor feel the love of God in the touch of the church, whether or not they even believe. It is my absolute rock-solid conviction that the influence of the church is waning worldwide not because of anything culture has done, or any fundamental change in society, but because we are not conveying the message of God's incredible, transcendant, life-renewing love to the world in our words and actions. Without that love, the church has very little to offer except entertainment, and you can get that from an iPad without having to put on nice clothes and sit in a pew.

Near the end of the hour, we worked our way around to the poor, which seems to be the place these conversations always end up. The question became who should help the poor, and how, and gradually it turned into "who are the deserving poor, and how can we help them exclusively?" If you look in the verse, you'll notice that God, through Zechariah, does not draw that distinction. It doesn't matter why someone is poor or how long they have been poor, or what you think about their poverty, it is wrong to oppress them, it is wrong to plan evil against them. But despite that, the discussion always comes up and will always come up, because again, human nature. Humans have a deeply ingrained conception of fairness, and an instinctive indignation at the thought that someone else might be cheating. I am certainly sympathetic to that instinct; it's not like I relish being taken advantage of any more than anybody else. But the fact that this indignation is turned on people on welfare is baffling to me.

One thing I've noticed when speaking to people about welfare, food stamps, medicaid, and that type of program, is that you tend to see a sharp correlation in how you feel about assistance programs and how many people you know who need or have needed them. I make no secret of the fact that we were on foodstamps for almost a year in 2009, when the bottom dropped out of the economy, I couldn't find a job (and then got pregnant) and my husband and I were living on a single grad student stipend. I was on Medicaid in 2009 and 2010 when I was pregnant, and my son was on Medicaid for the first three and a half years of his life. We received WIC benefits through his babyhood. The people I know, the people I've told, have never condemned me for this, no matter how conservative their politics, or their feelings on welfare in general. It might just be that they don't want to hurt my feelings, but I think there's more to it than that. The more people you know personally who need and use assistance, the less you are to see them as part of a monolithic block of "welfare people."

Welfare people are the ones folks talk about when you start talking about assistance programs. Welfare people are always anecdotal and almost never someone you know well. They tend to have lots and lots of kids, and very nice cell phones. They buy steaks with food stamps, which they receive exorbitant amounts of and are always looking for an opportunity to game the system. They have no interest in getting a job, and apparently plan on being on welfare forever. I do not know any of these people myself, but I know lots of people who know them. I have felt the eyes of the people who know welfare people on me many times, and it always makes me feel very, very small. The people who know welfare people would look into my cart when I was buying groceries with my EBT card and decide whether my purchases ($150 per month in food stamps, a princely sum to live on, if you really like macaroni) were worthy of their tax money. They were the ones who stared at me when I brought our iPad (secondhand, a lovely gift from a family member) to a doctor's appointment to keep my son entertained. Small, smaller, smallest, until I became nothing but the sum of my possessions, until the people who know welfare people argued on television about whether I deserved help because I had a refrigerator and a microwave in my home. Until I found excuses to leave the room at family holidays when my relatives began talking about welfare people, because I hadn't told them how bad things were for us, but they were still talking about me that way. Until I didn't even want to defend myself, because the best case scenario is that they would tell me I was nothing like "those people," because I didn't want to be on welfare forever and I wasn't a parasite on the system. So I closed my mouth (most of the time, though there were a few loud arguments here and there), raised my son, and hoped things would change. Which is, I think, what a lot of people on welfare do.

Here's some information about what the welfare people are really like, as a monolithic block. (The numbers are here if you'd like to see them, thank you internet!) Eighty percent of recipients of TANF, which is the non-food-stamp welfare program, are on it for five years or less. Almost twenty percent are on it for seven months or less. Thirty-nine percent of TANF recipients are white, forty are black, fifteen are Hispanic, and the rest are other races. The average benefit for a family on food stamps is $257 per month. (That figure is here.) Fourteen percent of the population is on food stamps at any given time, including 1 in every 4 children. 8.3 million women, infants and children use the WIC program. Crunch those numbers, and we were incredibly average in nearly every way for people on welfare.

My husband made 19,000 a year as a graduate student, so we never qualified for TANF, and never qualified for Medicaid except when I was pregnant and for our child. We qualified for food stamps for just under a year, until my husband took an adjunct professor job to get resume experience. The 200 dollars a month he made (almost all of which was eaten up by gas to get to the remote school where he taught) was enough to push us over the line and lose us our $150 dollars in benefits. That job, while important, substantially worsened our position. I thought seriously about picking up a part time job on weekends or in the evenings, but I didn't dare try for one of the McJobs that were all that was available. They paid minimum wage and didn't come with insurance. If our income got much higher, we'd risk losing Medicaid for the Bug, and I would rather eat macaroni and lose sleep over the bills than not be able to take him to the doctor. (There was no family insurance for graduate students, it wasn't even an option.) When I had a stroke in 2013, I didn't realize it at the time, because I hadn't been to a doctor in three years, and wouldn't have been able to go to a hospital without ruining our lives anyway.

But we were lucky. Strange as that seems to say, we were very lucky, because we had light at the end of our tunnel. My husband finished school and, after a year-long job search, found the holy grail of a full-time job with benefits. It required moving halfway across the country, yes, but it took us out of the ranks of the nearly-destitute and moved us into the lower middle class. That's not an option for a large percentage of people on welfare, who find themselves perpetually in the position where they could lose everything by trying to better themselves, and every road upward seems to be fraught or fraudulent. How do you do the calculus of whether it's better for your child to go to the doctor or be able to play sports and have school supplies? Is it better for them to be trapped in poverty with you there for them, or to have a chance at a slightly better life but never see you because you work two or three jobs? Do you try and save money for the future (bearing in mind that a savings account that is more than a pittance could cost you your food stamp benefits, no matter what you're saving for), or do you take that yearly tax return you don't dare hold onto and use it to buy a few nice things, even though you know people will sneer at you for them? Do you let yourself become small, smaller, smallest, or do you stand up and spit in the eye of people who judge you?

"Show kindness and compassion to each other, do not oppress the widows, the orphans, the strangers and the poor; don't plan evil against each other!" That's what God talked about when he talked about the poor. What, and who, do we talk about, and why?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Recipe: Hammy Sammy

My friend Robie posted this recipe to her blog last year and it was amaaaaaazing. The sweetness of the rolls, the saltiness of the ham, and the buttery, mustardy goodness of the sauce all come together into something that entirely transcends ham sandwichness. Robie's blog is closed now,  but she has given me permission to share the recipe, so I shall do so now. (The image is also not mine, but I always forget to take a picture before everyone starts eating!)

Hammy Sammy: 

12 Hawaiian Sweet Rolls (1 package)
1 stick butter
2 tsp poppy seeds
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 lb sliced ham (approx 8 medium slices)
1/4 lb sliced swiss cheese (approx 6-7 thick slices)
(Note that there is some flex here, you don't need deli sliced ham. if you have leftover baked ham you want to use up, go for it! Quantity is also flexible, just so every sammy has ham and cheese.)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Take a rectangular pan large enough to fit the uncut package of rolls and line it with foil. Spray with cooking spray.
2. In a small saucepan, set the stick of butter to melt over low heat.
3. Take rolls out of package, all in one piece like a really awkward loaf of bread. With a long serrated knife, cut the entire loaf in half, so that you have a sheet of tops and a sheet of bottoms. It's like making layers in a cake. Put the bottom layer in the foil-lined pan, set top layer aside  for later.
4. When the butter is mostly melted in the pan, add Dijon, Worcestershire and poppyseeds and stir very thoroughly. Simmer, stirring very frequently, for about five minutes.
5. Spoon half of butter mixture over the bottom layer of rolls, making sure to get all the rolls pretty evenly covered.
6. Cover bottom half of rolls with sliced ham and cheese, layering as evenly as possible to cover all the rolls. Place top half of rolls on top, so you have a really enormous ham and cheese sandwich.
7. Spoon remaining butter mixture over top of rolls, as evenly as possible. Fold a second piece of aluminum foil around the top and sides of the sammies so they are covered completely.
6. Cook for 20 minutes, or longer if you've got thick layers of ham and cheese. You will know when they are done because they will smell amazing. Use your serrated knife to separate the sandwiches into individual rolls before serving. Makes 6 servings, 2 sammies each.

Friday, November 15, 2013

I Will Buy You a Garden, Where Your Flowers Can Bloom

Today I traded in my shiny new North Carolina driver's license for a newer, shinier, Texas driver's license! I only had the wretched thing for five months before ditching it, despite the eight years I had to pay for. We definitely cannot move for a long time now, because I am pretty much done with the DMV for the foreseeable future.

See, to get a license in Texas, you have to have your Texas registration and your Texas title all in order (expensive!) and to get your registration, you have to have your vehicle inspection done (annoying!) and then you will be granted the right to a) put stickers all over your car and b) sit at the DMV for a couple hours and wait until your ticket pops on the random number generator. Being as how I have been feeling lousy all this week, I put everything off until today and had to do it all at once, with Robert in tow. But it's done!

Laredo is a weird city for driving. It's a weird city for a lot of things, but today I was feeling the driving weirdness especially. It's a really long city, and we live at the very tippy top of the north end. The city is bisected by an interstate highway that terminates in a couple of international bridges that can sneak up on you quickly if you're not careful. (So far I have only had to do the oh-crap-there's-Mexico u-turn once, but I'm pretty sure it'll crop up again.) The interstate highway is a series of bridges we call the loopy-loops (interstate overpasses in Texas look like someone started tying a fancy bow and forgot what they were doing halfway through), with ground-level areas that are on-ramps and exits, then bridges that go over the actual streets. On each side of the loopy-loop highway runs a three-lane one-way surface street, where you have interstate traffic entering and exiting in the left lane and businesses and driveways laid out on the right. Every mile or so is an underpass with a dedicated u-turn lane so if you find you're going the wrong way (which is often) you can zip under the interstate and try again. As a result of this unique setup, many of the north-south roads stretch for miles through the city, with the result being that you can look at an address, think "hey, that street is near me!" and come to find out that your destination is six miles away.

While 35 and its loopy-loops complicate my life in the north-south direction, the rest of Laredo seems content to confuse me with the endless mysteries of the Bob Bullock Loop. This is (as you may have guessed) a loop road (though not a loopy-loop road) that runs from pretty much the northwest corner of the city, across the top, down around the eastern edge, then bisects the southern portion of the city 2/3rds of the way down. There are a ton of businesses and offices on this road, as well as the airport, so it's an important and very busy artery. And for some reason, neither Kathy the Tom-Tom or Siri the iPhone can make heads or tails of any of it. I think it's just too big and goes in too many directions. That time I mentioned, when we almost ended up in Mexico? That was a terribly unfortunate confluence of the Bob Bullock Loop, Interstate 35, and Kathy's total inability to understand Laredo's peculiar traffic. Doesn't really help that a lot of the time the streets are very busy, oftentimes with huge trucks. This is a very big area for huge trucks, it's not rare to go into a grocery store parking lot and find a few dozen semi trucks, with and without trailers, chilling at the back of the lot or along the driveways.

Honestly, the thing that makes this driver's license blogworthy may be the fact that it signifies me driving at all. Up until now, I have avoided driving in Laredo wherever possible. M has the car most of the time anyway, but even when it's available, I've been sticking close to home and the few shops near us. Just the fact that I can name the major streets that are flummoxing me is a step in the right direction. Sure, Robert and I spent a lot of time today chasing our tails down one way streets ("Mommy, we're going in circles!"), but we got to every place we needed to go! I even made time to get to Target and pick up a bunch of the things I need to finish unpacking the house. Maybe what I'm really doing is making a note of today because I hope I'll be able to look back and see when this strange land started to feel like home.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A grand day out

Today was the first nice day in ages, And it looks like more bad weather is coming up, so Robert and I went out to play. Robert got a little toy cart for Christmas so we took it outside the parking lot. We spent 10 minutes or so just running around. Robert was particularly pleased by the loud noise the cart made on the pavement. The dog at the house next-door was not quite as pleased. After a while it seemed appropriate that we go shopping, since we already had the shopping cart and all. We walked down the hill, and had a brief lesson about why letting the shopping cart roll into traffic would be a bad idea. Then we headed to the convenience store around the corner. The local convenience store is a United dairy farmers outlet so it's a little bit like a grocery store with very small aisles. Perfect for grocery shopping with a very small shopping cart. We picked out potato chips for everyone and split a single scoop of blue ice cream. Then we headed home, with Robert pushing his shopping cart full of groceries. next to the convenience store there is a bar, where people celebrated St. Patrick's Day. As we went by a woman used some very inappropriate language to talk to her friends, and then was horrified when they pointed out Robert and I passing by. This was funnier because she had on plastic St. Patrick's Day antennae.

 After we came home we got in the car with the shopping cart and went to the tractor supply company. This is the best time of year at tractor supply company because the baby chicks and ducks are there. We were not allowed to hold them, but they're so cute. We watched them for a while, then watched an adoption event for the local pitbull rescue. Robert spent some time looking at the toy tractors, then we bought our cat food and came home. By that point we were about ready for a nap. So we took one! Robert has not been napping as much as he used to when he was smaller, especially not since he started school, but today he was all tired out from exercise. He slept 2 1/2 hours! That was enough reward for me! After he woke up he came out the living room and sat on my lap for a while. I had to the iPad with me so I loaded up blogspot and made a post. Rather than use the keyboard, I use the microphone function, which is what I'm doing now. It is really strange to make a post with the microphone. You think differently about what you're saying. Luckily my flat Midwestern accent is perfectly suited to voice post and I don't get too many typos. I just wish this had been around back when Robert was a baby and I was trying to nurse or pump and use the computer at the same time. Technology marches on!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do or Do Without

The title for today's post is an important one. I've tried for the past couple of years to make this saying my motto, hewing closer to it when money gets really tight, and maybe veering away a little in the interest of convenience when times are better. This week has definitely been a "make it do or do without" week. I spent the grocery money this month on birthday supplies and stocking up on meat, and while both of those were good things to do, it left us short in this last week of the month. We've been out of bread all week, and the fresh produce and milk were gone on Tuesday or so. It's just for a few days, tomorrow we're going shopping to get staples and February is coming soon. Since we're all still getting calcium, protein and fiber, I count it as less a crisis and more an exercise in innovation.

You learn things when you're cooking without the stuff you used to have. This week I learned that it's possible to sub in things like cream cheese or sour cream for milk in recipes and boxed dinners. Tuesday for lunch we had macaroni and cheese (and cheese) with diced hot dogs and frozen corn that was actually pretty good. Monday night I put the last few spoonfuls of sour cream in the microwave and used them to make an enchilada topping that was actually much better than if I'd used milk. Tortillas are easy to make with ingredients around the house, and you can use them instead of bread in lots of ways. I've been able to use quite a few of my stockpiled cans now that the pantry is organized and I can see everything I've got. Tonight I used a cheddar broccoli soup mix and added potatoes and ham to make it a full (and delicious) meal. Not too bad for the end of the month!

My motto serves me well in weeks like this, and things that I've done recently, like making a rag bag of one of M's destroyed pairs of pants and filling it with old clothes scraps, have worked out very well. Being able to repurpose and reuse things makes me feel good and thrifty. At the same time, though, I find that the motto can be my enemy when it comes to getting organized. Like many chronically disorganized (that's what they call it when you're not a hoarder quite yet) people, I like to hold on to things that are just a little bit broken or torn or expired, hoping that I can fix them or find a new use for them. Sometimes it's true. Robert had a good time using my old pans for drums, and I have replaced plenty of buttons and even repaired some small tears or ripped hems in our clothes. But much of the time, I find that I am unrealistic in my thinking, wanting to keep a broken lamp I have no skill in repairing, or thinking of a great use for some weird empty container that is so time and labor intensive I'm never going to get around to it.

At some point, you just have to say enough is enough and get out the trash bag, even if you're not 100% sure that you can't use a thing anymore. I have to be realistic about my own time and capability and even enthusiasm for reusing or repairing an item. Using Freecycle to get rid of these things is a good idea, but I have to be realistic about that, too. Is someone going to drive all the way to my house to collect this item from me? Am I going to find the time and make the effort to put it online? Or will I and my family be better off if I just put it in the trash and get on with my cleaning? It's the antithesis of using up and wearing out, but it's keeping house.

As with many housekeeping-related tasks, I use my Grandma J as the gold standard. She was both an excellent housekeeper and a frugal person, so I know it can be done. When I get up to my neck in items I can't decide whether to keep or toss, I ask myself what Grandma would do. Most of the time my imaginary Grandma-guide tells me to throw things out, and as a result, things are starting to get a little cleaner. We're still far from "a place for everything and everything in its place" the way she advocated, but it's a worthy goal.

I guess it's a matter of striking a balance between getting the most possible out of our things and not letting our things overwhelm us. For now, I'm trying to cultivate an attitude that lets me feel good when I find a new purpose for something that would've been waste, but at the same time lets me not feel guilt when I don't. Sometimes you just have to let go, and let that be okay.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Back a way long time ago when I was just a little girl, there was a grocery store across from the Lincoln Mall in Freeport. Is it where the Eagles Club is now? I can't remember, I was very small. I think it was a Logli's, maybe. Lee's? BRB, Googling.
Google is not helping! Gah. My mom reads this blog, she'll know. Anyway, there are only two things I remember about that store. They had a big ol' Brach's candy display with the honor-system box where you could put in a nickel and take a piece. When I went shopping with my grandma, she'd give me a quarter and I would get five little pieces of candy and that was awesome. The other thing I remember was the Fun Chicken.

Now the Fun Chicken was a vending machine at the front of the store, right by the exit doors. It was a big box with clear walls, and inside was a plastic hen in a nest of plastic eggs. If you put your money in, the hen would move around and cluck, and one of the plastic eggs would pop out of the machine with a toy inside. Good times. Waiting in the endless checkout lines was not so bad if you had the promise of Fun Chicken waiting. I'm sure the 2010s version of the Fun Chicken awaits us soon, whenever Robert catches on to the fact that the machines whose levers and doors he loves to manipulate actually produce something if money is put in.

Anyway, I'm only thinking of that tonight because I had to deal with whatever the opposite of a Fun Chicken is tonight. It was too bad, too, because I was really excited about the recipe I had. I've been experimenting with my new cast-iron Dutch Oven, and tonight I tried roasting a whole chicken in it, French Style. I put it on the stove and put a little olive oil in, salted and peppered my chicken, and set it in the pot to brown. I added onions, celery, garlic and bay leaf, flipped the chicken to get a little brown on the other side, then put foil over the pot, put the lid on over that, and put it in the oven on 250 to let the magic happen. Since it was a small chicken, only about 3.5 pounds, it wasn't supposed to take more than an hour or so, so I gave it 70 minutes.

When I went to take it out, it leaked red juices everywhere! Gross! I put it back in, twice, and finally had to put it on the cast iron skillet and just let it sit in the oven for ages till it would come to temp. 250 is stupidly low for cooking a chicken. The jus that was supposed to happen was nasty and oily, lacking in flavor. And when the chicken was finally done, the skin was gross and flabby and undelicious. The chicken meat was okay, but I've done far better with a simple beer can. Bummer! Anyway, my lovely chicken meal was ruined, since Robert was in bed by then (he got an alternative supper) and we'd already eaten the side dish, which was fried corn and quite tasty.

What do you do with an entire mediocre cooked chicken? In our house, that's easy. Buffalo chicken wraps are one of M's favorites, and we have lots of whole wheat tortilla shells in the house lately. The problem I've always had is that it's a pain in the butt to shred all that chicken into the proper consistency, and after wrestling with the chicken for two hours already, I was in no mood. Then genius struck! I mentioned the other day that in my organizing, I found all the parts to the food processor and put them in one place, right? Now was the perfect time to break it out. I put on the basic blade and stripped the chicken, tossing white and dark meat in there alike, leaving out the nasty skin. When it was all in there, I buzzed it in the processor for about five seconds, and voila! Shredded chicken! It was almost chicken salad consistency, actually, but that's fine with me.

I dumped the chicken into a bowl and mixed in Frank's Red Hot Sauce and ranch dressing. (If I wasn't cooking for M, I'd have added celery or lettuce, but he's not a fan.) I spread the mix onto tortillas, rolled them up, and cut them into pieces about an inch thick. Delicious and fun, and a nice way to save a disappointing dinner. I guess nobody always has good luck with new recipes, and I've done really well lately, so I was due for a stinker. But I really do want to find a nice Dutch Oven chicken recipe. I'm sure there's one out there!

Since I'm already talking about kitchens, I should mention that Robert's birthday present of a wonderful play kitchen and accessories has arrived! We assembled it yesterday and stocked it today, and man is it a hit. He loves all the things he can do, and he'll love it even more when we get all the batteries, I'm sure. 12 batteries, sheesh. It's so entertaining to watch his little brain working, and to see him do things like put a piece of lettuce and an orange in a skillet on the burner, or shove all the utensils in the microwave at once. He's a funny guy!