What’s for supper? Vol. 236: Lardum et labora

What’s for supper? WEWLL, as Corrie used to say, if you read Wednesday’s post about menu planning and shopping, you already know most of it! Nevertheless, here is the thrilling conclusion to my story about sale pork and such.

We’ve had multiple snow storms and slush storms and whatnot, so this is the week for winter cooking to shine. Damien did this

and Corrie did this

and I just mainly hovered around the stove and cooked. 

Here’s what we had:

SATURDAY
Spaghetti with sauce and sausage

As anticipated, the people who went sledding on Saturday were happy to come home to a big pot of hot spaghetti and sausage. 

Sorry it’s a terrible picture, but I was starving and didn’t feel like messing around.

I also grabbed a few boxes of brownie mix and made brownies. I have a long and dopey history of accidentally buying brownie mix when I meant to buy chocolate cake mix. Once I even went to buy cake mix, bought brownie mix by mistake, went back to the store to correct my mistake, and bought brownie mix again. (You may think this is because I secretly like brownies so much and am subconsciously sabotaging my plans so as to have more brownies, but, as I am constantly whining about, I can’t even eat chocolate at all! I’m just stupid.) So I was expecting to get razzed about the brownies a bit, but everyone was distracted by the fact that I made the brownies, put them in the oven, set the timer, let them bake, and turned off the timer, but forgot to take the brownies out of the oven, and so we got a giant chocolate brick for dessert, and nobody could tell what it was supposed to be. That’ll larn ’em.

SUNDAY
Hamburgers, chips, homemade ice cream

Sunday was the Lunar New Year Festival in Brattleboro. We didn’t eat much because it was a potluck and we hadn’t brought anything, but I did daringly try some kind of exotic egg dish which turned out to be hard boiled eggs with a little splash of soy sauce. We had fun, though. Here’s a few albums:


 

Corrie did a Korean rope tug, the girls and I tried to learn a circle dance, and we followed a dragon through the downtown. Then we came home and had hamburgers. 

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this in a while, but my method for making hamburgers, when we can’t grill them outside, is to use high fat ground beef, flatten the hell out of them, and then broil them in the oven on a pan with drainage. They come out yummy and juicy and you don’t throw grease all over your kitchen. 

Sunday I also made some ice cream. I made two batches of plain sweet cream base (2 eggs, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 cup milk, 2 cups heavy cream per batch), and put chocolate chips in one, and maraschino cherries and mini marshmallows in the other.

That ice cream maker has been an unfailing bright spot in family life. Maybe that sounds silly, but it’s been a tough year, and it’s nice to have something that just straight up worked out great. It’s a quick creative outlet, it almost always turns out well, and when people hear the machine churning, they go, “OOH, what are you making?” and they’re not disappointed like they are when they hear what I’m making for supper. And we get ice cream! If I could change one thing, it would be not having to remember to put the freezer bowls in the freezer the night before, but I usually manage. 

MONDAY
Roast chicken, mashed butternut squash, salad

The dreaded roast chickens. I’ve been trying harder to stick to what we have in the house and not be constantly running out to buy this and that, so I used what we happened to have, which was two elderly lemons, some rather decrepit garlic, and some rosemary that I bought for the soup later in the week.

I just kinda rubbed these on the chicken and then shoved them into the cavity, then added a little olive oil and salt and pepper and hot pepper flakes and more garlic powder to the skin, and roasted them chickens. They were fine. 

The reason whole chickens are dreaded is mainly because we had sooooo much chicken when we were poor, because it was cheap and I could get several meals out of it. I got extraordinarily sick of every part of the process of dealing with a whole chicken, and it hasn’t worn off yet. The whole thing just feels bitter and sad. Feel free to share your special tasty wonderful recipe so other people can enjoy it, but I don’t think I will get over my chicken resentment! 

I did put the carcasses in the freezer, so I suppose we’ll be having soup or something at some point. 

The part of the meal I did enjoy was the mashed squash. This is a surprisingly pleasant and tasty dish.

Jump to Recipe

I loosened up the squash in the microwave for a few minutes so it would be easier to cut, then I sprinkled the quarters with baking soda and kosher salt and put them in the Instant Pot with water, and cooked them for a good long time. 

Removed the seeds, scooped out the flesh, and mashed it up with plenty of butter, some brown sugar, and a little nutmeg, and man, it is cozy, fluffy, and delicious.

It’s like sweet potatoes went to finishing school and learned how to entertain. 

TUESDAY
Bo ssam with lettuce and rice and pickled radishes

The night before, I mixed a cup of salt and a cup of sugar together like an absolute criminal and rubbed it all over a big fatty hunk of pork, and sealed it in a ziplock bag in the fridge overnight. Tuesday, I put it the pork a foil-lined pan at 300 around 11:30 and, boop, the main part of supper was taken care of. 

You make a simple sauce (7 Tbsp brown sugar, 2 Tbsp cider vinegar, and 1 Tbsp sea salt) and spread that on top of the meat and turn the heat up for the last ten minutes of cooking, but that’s the only other thing you have to do. 

Then I needed to figure out what to do with the radishes.

A lot of Korean radish dishes are for Korean radishes, which are a whole other vegetable from radishes, and are also called daikon, which they had at the store but I did not buy. ACTUALLY, a Korean radish is something called “mu,” which is a kind of daikon radish. All I know is they don’t seem to sell mu in the store, and what I had were western radishes, the little round, reddish, peppery kind. The round, reddish peppery kind that are 𝓕𝓞𝓡 𝓨𝓞𝓤

So I pickled them, yay! A cup of rice vinegar, a cup of water, a cup of sugar, and a little sea salt, and a pound of radishes. I simmered the sauce ingredients until the sugar was dissolved, sliced the radishes thinly in the food processor, then poured the sauce over the radishes.

Then I refrigerated it until dinner, and they had turned a delightful pink

Not quite as dark as they look here, but more of a flamingo color. 

They were very nice. Quite sweet and tangy, and truthfully you could’t taste more than a faint a radish taste, but mostly just the texture. It was like pickled ginger, but not, you know, gingery. I thought they made a very pleasant accompaniment to the bo ssam, which is ferociously salty. 

Everyone was very happy with this meal and nobody was mad at me. So I guess it was 𝓕𝓞𝓡 đť“śđť“” after all.

WEDNESDAY
Tomato bisque, grilled cheese

All week, I was looking forward to this soup. I made a few adjustments to this recipe since last I made it (more tomatoes, more garlic, and add the bacon right at the end), and man, it was scrumptious.

Jump to Recipe

Garlic, onion, tomato, rosemary, boom, you taste it all. (There’s also a bay leaf but I’m starting to believe that’s mainly a superstition.) 

I made cheddar and sourdough sandwiches and grilled them in bacon grease, which probably wasn’t absolutely necessary, but it did make them CRRRRRISP and nobody complained.

Just an excellent little meal, so cozy and good. 

I could eat this meal every week. Gotta have it at least once while there’s snow on the ground. 

THURSDAY
Gochujang bulgoki, pineapple, nori, rice, leftover pickled radishes, a little broccoli

The second pork hunk. It was a two-hour school delay, so the day got all messed up and I really wasn’t feeling terribly ambitious about dinner, but I had painted myself into a corner. So I sharpened my knife and started to hack away at the meat. I was listening to a radio show about people who are lobbying for the right to have more fixable appliances, and how they make videos for other people about how to fix things, and they give free advice about what kind of glue to use and stuff like that, and by the time I was halfway through that pork butt, the magic of doing things with your own two hands had taken over. I could have stood there all day, locating the direction of the muscle fibers, carefully trimming the fat, and thriftily separating away only the most inedible layers of onion skin with the tip of my freshly-honed knife. I even decided to trim a bag of baby carrots into matchsticks, which is insane, but the spirit of imaginary stick-to-it-iveness lay about me like a mantle, so that’s what I did.

I snapped out of it, though, because I had shit to do. Like yoga. I had to change out of my pajama pants into my yoga pants and do yoga, which was a special cardio glute burn, and then I took a shower and changed into my leggings so I could pick up the kids, and then I changed back into my pajama pants. Truly the American spirit breathes through my every pore.

I forget what we were talking about. Oh, bulgoki. Well it marinated all day and then I pan fried it, and it was tender and delicious. 

And you know what, it really is better with matchstick carrots than any other kind of carrots.

I made a pot of rice in the Instant Pot, cut up a couple of pineapples, and set out some lettuce and nori, and that is one super meal.

You make little bundles, either with the lettuce or nori, and grab up a little meat and rice and pop it in your mouth, and it’s so tasty, honeyed and savory with just a little gochujang burn. You can easily adjust the marinade to make it sweeter or spicier, but you should know that cooking takes the heat down quite a bit, so if you taste the marinade, it won’t be as hot as you expect.

Jump to Recipe

Although gochujang sneaks up on you a bit. 

FRIDAY
Pizza

Today I shall make four pizzas. And then this week can bite my butt. We are all so exhausted! Life is tiring! Better than the alternative. 

Hey, thanks for being interested in my shopping and planning post. I was unexpectedly moved to hear that people actually read through the whole thing. There is just so much dang work in the world that goes unwitnessed and unacknowledged, not just in big families, but in every family, in every life. It’s a lot of work to keep ourselves alive, isn’t it? I salute you, my dear reader who is getting it together one more time to figure out what’s for supper, whether it’s for a crowd or for your own self, whether you feel up to it or not. You made it to Friday, and you did good. L’chaim. 

Instant Pot Mashed Acorn Squash

Ingredients

  • 1 acorn quashes
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg

Instructions

  1. Cut the acorn squashes in half. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt on the cut surfaces.

  2. Put 1/2 a cup of water in the Instant Pot, fit the rack in it, and stack the squash on top. Close the lid, close the valve, and cook on high pressure for 24 minutes. Do quick release.

  3. When squash is cool enough to handle, scoop it out into a bowl, mash it, and add the rest of the ingredients.

 

5 from 2 votes
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Tomato bisque with bacon

Calories 6 kcal

Ingredients

  • 1 lb bacon (peppered bacon is good)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 56 oz can of whole tomatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 46 oz tomato juice
  • 8 oz cream cheese
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • salt and pepper
  • crispy fried onions (optional garnish)

Instructions

  1. Fry the bacon until crisp. Remove from pan, chop it up, and drain out all but a a few teaspoons of grease.

  2. Add the diced onion and minced garlic to the grease and sauté until soft.

  3. Add tomatoes (including juices), bay leaves, rosemary, and tomato juice, and simmer for 20 minutes. Save some rosemary for a garnish if you like.

  4. With a slotted spoon, fish out the bay leaf, the tomatoes, and most of the rosemary, leaving some rosemary leaves in. Discard most of the rosemary and bay leaf. Put the rest of the rosemary and the tomatoes in a food processor with the 8 oz of cream cheese until it's as smooth as you want it.

  5. Return pureed tomato mixture to pot. Salt and pepper to taste.

  6. Heat through. Add chopped bacon right before serving, or add to individual servings; and top with crispy fried onions if you like. Garnish with more rosemary if you're a fancy man. 

 

Gochujang bulgoki (spicy Korean pork)


Ingredients

  • 1.5 pound boneless pork, sliced thin
  • 4 carrots in matchsticks or shreds
  • 1 onion sliced thin

sauce:

  • 5 generous Tbsp gochujang (fermented pepper paste)
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 5 cloves minced garlic

Serve with white rice and nori (seaweed sheets) or lettuce leaves to wrap

Instructions

  1. Combine pork, onions, and carrots.

    Mix together all sauce ingredients and stir into pork and vegetables. 

    Cover and let marinate for several hours or overnight.

    Heat a pan with a little oil and sauté the pork mixture until pork is cooked through.

    Serve with rice and lettuce or nori. Eat by taking pieces of lettuce or nori, putting a scoop of meat and rice in, and making little bundles to eat. 

Sorrow yields a harvest

I was struck hard by some lines I’ve heard hundreds of times:

Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.

It’s meant to be a comforting, encouraging, rousing verse, stirring us to hope because the children of Jerusalem “are remembered by God.” Today I found it comforting because I recalled what a universal experience it is, to “go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown.”

Oh, how well we know about this. How well everyone who has ever worked has felt that sense of working and weeping, trudging in to the fields with your seeds and your tools, and also the burden of the sorrows of work itself.

There are so many sorrows that go along with work. That’s just how it is, so much of the time. There’s the sorrow of working when you’d much rather rest. The sorrow of working and knowing nobody appreciates it. The sorrow of working and feeling completely inadequate to the job.

There’s the sorrow of working and knowing you’re unlikely to be there to see the job completed. The sorrow of working and wondering if anything will come of your efforts, or if you’re just burying seeds in the dark, and that’s the last anyone will ever see of them. The sorrow of working and knowing someone else is likely to get the credit. The sorrow of working and knowing you need help, and knowing you’re unlikely to get it. 

There’s the sorrow of working and wondering if you’re doing it right, or possibly doing the opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing. The sorrow of wondering if everything you do is going to be undone as soon as you let your guard down.

I was struck, as I say, by the verse in part just because it is so familiar to me. I’ve heard it so many times, in so many contexts, it suddenly hit home that its very familiarity means that it’s a universal experience. It’s not a sign that I’m defective or lazy or on the wrong track. This is just what work is like.

If work were always enjoyable and fulfilling, and we were always confident and and capable and always got immediately rewarded for our efforts, it wouldn’t be work at all; it would be recreation. But work — I mean the things we would never choose to do, but must do because of who we are — carries with it its burden of sorrow, confusion, uncertainty, guilt, resentment, fear, weariness, and grief. That’s just what work is like, much of the time. This is true for everybody.

And there’s more.

It’s also true for everybody that work brings with it rejoicing, eventually, most especially work that is done in Jesus’ name. And by that I mean any kind of work that you do because you must, and then when you pat the cold soil back into place over the dry little seed, you tell God, “This is now yours.”

I believe that kind of work will bring a harvest even when I can barely muster up the memory of how it feels to rejoice.  I believe that “they shall come rejoicing, bringing in their sheaves” is a universal experience of joy, just as work is a universal experience of sorrow. And I believe that joy plays out in as many ways as work plays out in sorrow. I do remember. It has happened to me, and I believe it will happen again.

I believe because God is literally promising this to us. He couldn’t be more clear. As many kinds of sorrow as there are, there will be ten times more kinds of rejoicing, because that is what work is like, too: It’s the kind of thing that yields a harvest. Sorrow — the sorrow of work, and maybe all kinds of sorrow — yields a harvest. Sweat and tears water the ground for the harvest, because the earth is not always a grave. We know this. Things that are buried do not always stay that way.

God has promised this. Jesus has modeled this. He has told us so, over and over and over again. This is how we unite ourselves with him: Be willing to work. Be there for the burying, and there will be rejoicing.

But to get a harvest, you must work. To get a harvest, you must wait.  

A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on February 13, 2022.

T-shirts and other heavy burdens

Let me tell you a story about old t-shirts, and I promise I have a point.

Several weeks ago, I had a spurt of energy and decided to tackle the laundry room. When there’s some article of clothing nobody wants to think about, they stuff it in the laundry room, and have done so for years. So I girded my mental loins, took a decongestant for the dust, and dived in.

I’ve been something of a hoarder in the past, partly because I’m sentimental, partly because anxiety makes it hard to make decisions, and partly because we were so poor for so long, it really was reasonable to hold onto iffy stuff in case we needed it someday, somehow.

But on this day, I was ruthless. I got rid of stained tablecloths; I tossed out bedsheets with sub-par elastic. I said goodbye to stacks of once-adorable onesies that several of my little ones had worn, and had thoroughly, irredeemably worn out.  I called people over to give me a definitive answer about whether or not they would ever wear all these overalls and cardigans and leotards, and I filled several bags and marked them “give away.” And I turned up dozens of t-shirts with corporate logos on them, and these I threw away.

Even though there was so much more I could have done with them, I just threw them away! Nobody in my house wants these shirts. We have clothes we like, and don’t need to wear t-shirts advertising an insurance agency that sponsored a long-ago softball team, or commemorating a marathon we didn’t actually run in. We already have plenty of comfy pajamas, and I already have plenty of rags. There is no chance in hell I will recycle them into some shabby chic rag rug or boho wall hanging. I want them out of my tiny, overstuffed house, and I want to get on with my life.

When you want to get rid of stuff, you have choices, of course. I could put them in a local clothing collection bin, whence they will be collected, shredded, and sold by the pound, and the proceeds will go to an organization that helps the poor in third world countries by pressuring them into getting sterilized.

I could put them in the back of my car and drive around with them for months until I remember to put them in the one bin three towns away that doesn’t have ethical problems, but by the time I get around to it, my children will have stepped on them so many times, they will be literal garbage. Or I could donate them to a local thrift shop, which, because it’s already so well-stocked, would entail making an appointment with someone, who would sort through everything and accept some but not all of them, and would add them to the already vast assortment of cast-off t-shirts with corporate logos on them, which the poor can buy for a dollar or even take for free.

Or I could throw them away.

Maybe this wouldn’t feel like a radical act to you, but that’s how it felt to me. Americans have been trained to believe that, because our world is drowning in garbage, we should always search for some other solution besides throwing things away, and if we do throw things away, we should at least offer up a pinch of the incense of guilt. But there’s more to the story than that… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

You are a cup

It’s a task like no other, this task of merely being present at the edge of a fathomless immensity of love. But that is what you were made for: You are a cup, and you are here to be filled.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Should you go into debt to get a liberal arts degree?

So if you hear someone telling you that a liberal arts education is a luxury in which only the independently wealthy should indulge, I’ll agree . . . if you mean the kind of education that makes you think of your own brain as an exquisite platter of pâté, to be passed around at parties and admired for its velvety richness. Don’t get that kind of education, no matter how much money you have. The world needs exactly zero of that.

But if you mean the kind of education that gives you the unshakable idea that life is interesting, worth thinking about, worth talking about…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Blessed are the ungifted. Everything’s a gift.

The music of Bach is not something that, say, Barry Manilow could have achieved if he simply put in more hours. You can gather tinder all day and stack it like an expert, but without a spark, there will be no flame.

I used to fret over this problem a lot as a child. I obsessed over a book of saints, where the common thread seemed to be that these people had been different from the very beginning. Tiny Ludwiga could lisp the Pater Noster long before she even learned to say her own name; pious Edelbert would toddle away from his nurse every chance he got, only to be found once again sound asleep under his favourite spot, the tabernacle in the village church.

“How the heck can I compete with that?” I used to think.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Drip, drip, drip.

I had a dream, and I’ll tell you what it meant, because it might be meant for you.

Quick disclaimer: I think that dreams are mainly a way for the quieter part of your brain to tug at the sleeve of the noisier part of your brain, and to say, “Hey, shut up for a second. Here’s what we really think and feel about The Thing.”

As I’ve said in the past,

Sleep is a place where the supernatural, the natural, and the occult can all get a leg in.  Aquinas  acknowledges that God occasionally communicates with people in their dreams.  But I’ve also heard many people say that they or their children had persistent dreams of malevolent rats, spiders, snakes, or other fearsome creatures — and that these disappeared after the room was blessed or some occult influence was rejected.

But most dreams are just your own mind at work.  If my subconscious takes the trouble to put on a memorable show about something when I’m asleep, then it’s often something I really need to deal with; and so, especially with disturbing dreams, I make an effort to decode them.

The other day, I dreamt a long, long dream about running and hot air balloons and factories and meddling kids; but the whole time, I was putting off looking under the kitchen sink.

In real life, I have, in fact, been putting off looking under the sink, because I know it’s dripping. But in my dream, I got down on the floor and opened up the cabinet. I saw that there was a little valve controlling the drip, and I was pretty annoyed that it was such a simple fix. Why didn’t we just take care of this sooner? So I tightened it right up, and–

WHOOOSSSSSSHHHHH. The water came gushing out in a horrible flood. Oh, no, I must have turned it the wrong way! So I quickly tightened it up in the other direction, as far as it would go, and–

WHOOOSSSSSSHHHHH. Flooded again.

So, I put it back the way it was.

It wasn’t easy, either. You had to get the position just exactly right, and there wasn’t any wiggle room at all. It took a really light touch to get the balance perfect, to keep it from gushing and spewing and wrecking my entire kitchen.

And once I got it in just the right spot, it was still leaking. But at least it was a slow leak. And I knew I could live with that, at least for the time being. It couldn’t go on that way forever, but I was right up against the end of the dream, so I had to let it be for now.

I share this with you because it is November. Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas. For lots of people, this means yummy cinnamon smells and twinkly lights and hot chocolate by a fire. For lots of other people, who don’t live between the pages of Real Simple magazine, this time of year means having way too much to do. Way way way too much to do. Even way too many truly important things to do, even after we simplify and prioritize and trim off all the nice but extraneous things we’d like to do.

A good many of us are going to find ourselves not getting everything done — important things, vital things. We are going to walk around with a sense of guilt and dread because we know there is this steady drip-drip-drip of failures going on behind the cabinet doors; and we’re probably beating ourselves up for not getting down to business and taking care of it, you lazy, irresponsible bum.

But I’m here to tell you: It’s probably not your fault. It’s probably not a matter of just forcing yourself to squat down and adjust things until it’s all nice and tight and tidy and taken care of. Right now, probably that can’t be done. It’s just not a tidy time, and that’s not your fault.

Not only is it not your fault, but you’re probably already working really hard, and employing a lot of skill and talent and a delicate touch, to keep it that drip of failure as slow as it is. So let it drip! You can definitely revisit it later; but don’t blame yourself for not doing things that no one person could do. There is such a thing as doing everything you’re supposed to do and still failing. All of your hard work is keeping that drip slow. Good work, you.

Does this apply to everyone? No, it does not. Some people do need to work harder, get their acts together, and make a bunch of adjustments so that things get better. If you’re not sure about your own situation, then write down all the things you’re supposed do every day and ask yourself if you’d expect someone else to do them all perfectly. If not, then lay off yourself. Let it drip.

We’ll give the final work to the poet Spike Jones:

Maybe it’s not your fault. Maybe you’ve just met your Water Lou!

 

The day I bought steak with my food stamps

I cried every night, the week before I finally applied for food stamps. I was so ashamed. Food stamps are for losers, people who make stupid, irresponsible choices,people who want to live a life of luxury while other people work hard to pick up the slack. This I knew.

We were homeschooling, because the schools in our town were wretched. We were in that town because we were renting a house from my brother-in-law, because we had been evicted from our previous apartment, because the landlord had sold the duplex, and nobody else would rent to us because they thought we had too many kids for the size of apartment we could afford.

So there we were, in a dead end town. But we were getting by. I budgeted like a maniac, playing Scrooge with the precious hoard of toilet paper, detergent, and apples we could afford. I once bought a used linen toddler dress for four dollars and blushed the whole way home, nauseated with the extravagance of my purchase. It wasn’t a great way to live, but as long as my husband could get enough overtime hours and WIC kept us in cheese and Kix, and as long as the kids could stomach a rotation of pasta, hot dogs, bananas, and tuna noodle casserole, we were okay.

Then my husband’s employer cut the overtime hours, but still required everyone to hand in the same amount of work. No, it’s not exactly legal, but there weren’t any other jobs to be had that year. His schedule still varied wildly and unpredictably from day to day, and we couldn’t find any jobs that would make up the lost overtime income and allow him to show up at either 8 a.m. or 11:45 p.m., depending on what else he was doing.

Now the kids got hot dogs for supper, and the adults got a hot dog bun with ketchup. We figure and figured and figured, and discovered that, no matter how hard we squeezed, we were always going to be about forty dollars short of being able to eat and pay our basic bills. Just forty dollars — something that, five years ago, when the economy was better, I would have spent on odds and ends at Target without thinking twice. But it was forty dollars that we didn’t have now, at all.

So off to the welfare office I went. And they granted us $800 a month for our family of seven. I couldn’t believe it. So much money! Boy oh boy, I thought. They were right about food stamps: you can live like a king on this stuff. No wonder people just sit back and let the free checks come in! I knew we weren’t like that, though, and I decided we’d just use what we needed, and let the rest sit there, so at least we won’t be part of the problem. I’d put money in the bank as a down payment on an apartment in a better city, and I’d only use my benefits to make up the slack that I had found in our budget, and no more. We’re no freeloaders.

And we followed this plan for many months. I salted away savings, and I strolled past the meat freezer in the supermarket, lusting after the trays of meat, scorning the shameless slobs who stopped and filled up their carts on the taxpayer’s dime. Freeloaders. Scum. Oh lord, look at that steak. Stop looking. Now go get some spaghetti.

You know what? I was still ashamed of myself for being on food stamps, even though at this point I was working, too, tutoring and then delivering Meals on Wheels while still homeschooling, while my husband worked what amounted to swing shifts at his job. I was obsessively drawn to arguments about food stamps online, and, feeling extraordinarily defensive, belligerently or pathetically pled my case to strangers over and over again. It wasn’t our fault. We didn’t mean it to be this way. We’re really trying. We’re not worthless, truly not!

And they hated us anyway. Oh, man. They told us everything I had been saying to myself: freeloaders. Not willing to work. What’s wrong with America today. Culture of dependency. And all the while, we went around the house with winter jackets and three pairs of socks on, because we couldn’t afford to turn the heat above 60 degrees when it was below zero out. My kids never got a new toy, never got new clothes. They learned never to ask for a popsicle or a box of crayons. We cobbled together a bizarre school curriculum out of whatever books were 25 cents at the thrift store. My husband’s glasses were taped together at the nose, we had no auto or health insurance, and I chose my driving routes according to how many hills I could coast down, to save gas. We prioritized bills according to how threatening they were.

And we were thoroughly, thoroughly stuck in a neighborhood where everyone was on parole for beating, cheating, or molesting someone else on the street. They set the actual street on fire once. I remember staring at the green catfish we kept in a tank, a leftover from our old life when we could consider buying luxuries like pets. He would swim around and around, and I would have these cartoonish, drooling fantasies about how delicious he would be, fried up in a pan with a little lemon juice. I’ve told stories about these things as if they were funny, but they were not funny.  My kids were not safe in their own yard. I would let them play in the rain puddles only after checking for used condoms.

I couldn’t stay away from comment boxes about food stamps. And every single one told us that we were shit, because we needed help buying food.

So I went out and bought a freaking steak. And pop tarts, and ice cream, and chips, and asparagus, and mangoes, and all the things that we had trained ourselves to stop even looking at. And with the cash I saved from using food stamps, I bought a giant carton of cheap beer.

Everything else in our material lives was completely awful. There was no hint of luxury anywhere, no wiggle room, nothing simple or easy. Everything was dirty and sour, and everything was a struggle. Everything we tried to accomplish was impossible because six other impossible things had to be fixed first. The one and only expansive thing was the food budget. So I bought a freaking steak, and it was so juicy and good.

Not everyone has a story like ours. But not everyone has our advantages, either: the advantage of knowing that life isn’t supposed to be like this, that fresh fruits and veggies are important, that debt isn’t normal, that work is normal, that reading books is important, that family can be depended on, that kids need structure and order, that marriage and monogamy are normal.

Not everyone knows how to maintain a car. How to show up on time.  How to file taxes, make photocopies, save paystubs, request forms, and fill out the reams and reams of paperwork necessary to keep the welfare office from cancelling your benefits — or, as happened to us one month, to keep from despairing when the welfare office makes a mistake and gives you too many benefits, and then, when they discover the mistake, it turns out you owe *them* money, which you pay off with the money you’ve been saving in the bank until you run out of money, which means you have to go back on food stamps because you can’t buy food.

It may very well be that the ratty, vulgar, freeloaders you see with their L-shaped leatherette couches, their flat screen TVs, their tattoos and yeah, their food stamp steaks are in the same position. They may be stuck. They may have been stuck for generations, and they may not even have anyone tell them that there is supposed to be more to life than getting as many benefits as you can. They may have been shrieked and sworn at, neglected and molested since they were babies. They may have lead poisoning and FAS. The may have been numbed and dimmed by being told from day one that they’re retards, so go watch cartoons and drink your orange soda, retard, and leave mommy’s boyfriend the fuck alone. They may never have seen anyone cook in an oven. They may spend their lives on waiting lists for another dank, foul, dim, narrow subsidized apartment with a yard of dirt and broken bottles. And all of this may be the only thing they can imagine, because everyone else they have ever known lives exactly the same way.

They may have tried to get ahead by getting a second or third, minimum wage job working overnight at a gas station, or sweeping floors at the tampon factory, and discovered that their food stamps are immediately cut by exactly the amount they bring home.  They may hear that they’re not going to get any more benefits until they sell their cars (because that’s a great way to find a steady job) or get rid of their phones (because teachers, employers, and the welfare office itself really appreciate not having any way to get in touch).

They may hear that they should somehow miraculously vault over a lifetime of the degradations of generational poverty and just . . . be better. Be self-sufficient. Be a completely different kind of person out of sheer will power. That if they don’t do this, they are pathetic, and have no one but themselves to blame. Look how they live! Such luxury, on the taxpayer’s dime!

And they may get their monthly benefits and think, “Screw it, I’m gonna get something I want for a change.” They may buy themselves a freaking steak. And they may not care if you think they deserve it or not.

***

UPDATE: Several people have expressed concern about our financial state. I appreciate this very much, and would like to reassure everyone that this essay describes what we went through several years ago. Thanks be to God, we have been off WIC and food stamps for several years. I wrote this essay mainly to get  it off my chest, and my husband encouraged me to publish it — so I did so assuming it would only reach my normal audience, who are already familiar with our family. If I had known this essay would get as much attention as it has, I would have made it more clear that we are doing (more or less) fine now, thanks!

Image by Michael Berch via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Netflix, Microsoft, and the Working Mom

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Certainly Netflix and Microsoft are thinking of their bottom line, but they also seem to realize that their employees are people, not just cogs. Women (and men, of course) are capable of giving real attention both to work and to their children — but work and children can both be done better if working moms feel less torn, less rushed, less guilty, and less like every aspect of her life is getting short shrift. These are not impossible goals.

Women can’t have it all, and neither can men. Working and raising a family means making sacrifices — but, if employers are willing to be more flexible and imaginative, those sacrifices don’t need to be intolerable. The goal of making life easier for working moms is a very pro-life goal.

Read the rest at the Register. 

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My Dear Graduates

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For some reason, nobody ever asks me to give the commencement address at their local high school or college. This despite the fact that I promised to wear pantyhose and everything, and to leave the bottle at home. Bunch of anti-Semites.

Anyway, I’m not one to be bitter. I’m not going to let this snubbing gnaw away at me. I’m just going to go ahead and write that speech anyway, and print out several copies of it, and keep them in the diaper bag in the car, next to the Luger PO8 and the farewell note. Because you never, never know!

Here’s what I have to say. Graduates, as I look out over your bright, eager faces, my heart wells with emotion and a single phrase springs into my mind: Better you than me.

Gee, I would give anything to not be you right now. What a horrible time this is for you. I mean, think about it: You’re on the verge of starting a new life. The possibilities are endless—what the future holds is bounded only by the limits of your imagination. You can be anything you want to be, if you only believe in yourself. You can shoot for the stars!

I’m so, so sorry.

Because that’s what people have been telling you, right? Isn’t that what your guidance counselor said—that there are no limits to what you can achieve?

You know that’s crazy talk, right?

I mean that literally: Only people with a mental illness would truly believe that you can achieve anything. People who actually get things done are the people who look at themselves and say, “Okey-doke. There are some things I’m good at, and many thousands more things that I am and always will be utterly unqualified to do. Starting tomorrow, my job is do the least amount of thrashing around and wasting of my parent’s tuition money as possible, while I figure out the difference between my very few strengths and my billions of weaknesses.

“Then, I need to figure out if there’s any possible way I can do what it turns out I’m good at, and also be a decent human being. If possible, it would be wonderful if the things I’m good at, and which allow me to be decent, are also things which will earn me a salary.”

And after you have that conversation with yourself, and preferably after you come up with a better plan than scrawling “FIX LIFE” on your memo pad, then you can go out drinking with your buddies.

Because here’s the deal, you poor deluded masses of inchoate ambition: Freedom is for something. Freedom is so that you can get something done. Yes, it’s valuable and precious in itself—but it’s not a resting place. Having potential is like being hungry: You want to resolve that in some definite way. All the best things in life come when you tie yourself down in one way or another, when you accept some limitations.

Think about all the things that make life worth living—all the things that people you admire are proud of. A huge project achieved? They neglected other things—fun things!—to get it done.  A happy marriage? They forsook all others to remain faithful. A vocation of any kind? Saying Yes to one thing always means saying No to a dozen more. It doesn’t mean that all the rejected opportunities are bad. It just means that you’re only one person, and are here to do one person’s work.

This doesn’t mean you have to rush into it. There’s nothing especially admirable about going whole hog for the wrong thing (just ask the guy with the Betty Boop tattoo on his forehead). So take your time, look around, and don’t be rash. But for the love of mike, remember that this stage of your life is supposed to come to an end some day. Even if you never end up with a career at all, you will eventually have some huge choices to make.

Or you know what? You might not even get to make a choice: You might find yourself faced with some horrible situation, and guess who’s the only one who can fix it? That’s right, the guy in the mirror, the one who fell asleep in a trash can and his friend drew cat whiskers on his face with permanent markers. The lives of others may someday depend on you, Mr. Fluffy. Try to make at least some of your current behavior reflect that fact.

So congratulations, graduates! You did it. Some of you worked moderately hard to be here today, and I applaud you. Now go forth, act decent, call your mother from time to time. And remember, nobody’s life ever got better after drinking a rum and Coke.

***

(This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.)