Monday, May 20, 2013

Food (stamps), glorious food (stamps.)

Where is it, where is it...ah! Here it is! My soapbox. Just let me blow the dust off...there we go. And now we step up to the's all coming back to me now! Testing, 1, 2, 3...ooh, hot mic. Hot mic.

Today I want to talk to you about food stamps. Or for the young and hip, EBT cards, which I hear they're calling them these days.

Are we uncomfortable yet? Good. It's a touchy subject. And one that social media has forced me to open my mouth about.

In the couple of years I've been addicted to  using Facebook, I've seen several of my friends make comments about food stamps. Most of them have been jokes about the stereotypical food-stamp user at the store who uses them to buy junk food while talking on an iPhone with manicured nails. The gist is always that someone made a choice there to get an expensive phone and an unnecessary beauty treatment while hard-working taxpayers are buying this person's Cheetos.

I've let it go. I could comment, but that's a battle I know I can't win.

But recently someone posted that he was having hamburger for dinner while welfare moms were using their EBT cards to treat themselves to steak. And I felt something in my soul go, "Poof."

And once my soul implodes, I can't keep my mouth shut.

It's been on my mind for a while, and I initially really, really wanted to speak my mind in the comments section of that post. In a nice way. And let the original poster know that not everyone who uses food stamps abuses the system, and that the face he is associating with this program is a very different face from the one I know.

Because it's my face. And my mother's face.

But Facebook isn't the forum for that. This probably isn't, either. But I don't have a news show on MSNBC or Fox News, so this is about the best I can do.

So here it is, my rant on food stamps/EBT and government assistance programs in general.

Had you been behind my mother in the checkout line of the Barbourville A & P in the late winter of 1984, you would have seen a smartly-dressed woman with manicured nails pull food stamps out of her Aigner leather bag to pay for her Coke, some cranberry juice, Campbell's soup, and canned tuna. Oh, and maybe a Snickers bar. What would your judgement have been, had you seen this?

Here's the full story.

The woman, who you might have assumed was taking handouts she didn't need while you were working your butt off and paying for it with your tax dollars, was a beautician working three jobs, including one in a well-respected beauty shop on the court square in Barbourville. People walked in and wanted to be made beautiful by someone who looked like they knew what they were doing. Therefore, my mother scoured clearance racks in department stores for hours for the rare pair of almost-designer pants marked down to below $10. The nail girls in her shop kept her nails looking nice for free when she didn't have the time to paint them herself. She had just moved back to the area and didn't have a lot of clientele, so looking professional to try to snag new clients was important. She changed into old clothes before doing cheap shampoo-and-sets at the nursing home or cutting hair out of her own tiny 3-room apartment for friends and family who couldn't afford to visit her shop and who sometimes tipped her in cigarettes or small gifts of pens and notebooks for her young daughter.

The designer leather bag that caught your eye was a hand-me-down bought for a few dollars at one of her wealthy aunt's notoriously awesome yard sales.

The woman's daughter was sick a lot that winter and sick a lot in general. Every winter she got a sinus infection that made her lose her appetite and drop to a dangerously low weight. The mother often bought junk foods, like Coke or Snickers bars or Ruffles potato chips to try to get her sickly little girl to eat whatever sounded good just to get some calories. She didn't have much time to cook for her daughter with three jobs, and canned tuna and canned soup allowed her child to be able to feed herself.

Before she applied for food stamps, during this separation from her husband who was paying not one dime to her, her child sometimes went to bed hungry. There was food down the street at the little girl's Mamaw's, but she was elderly and on a fixed income and couldn't provide every meal and snack for the both of them.

There was a lot of macaroni and cheese made with government commodity cheese served in Mamaw's trailer.

Of course that woman was my mother. Who was embarrassed every time she pulled those stamps out of her purse to pay for something we needed. Who cried the day she went to the welfare office to apply for them. Who eventually went back home to live with her alcoholic husband because she couldn't afford not to.

Does the system get abused? Absolutely. But don't assume that the person you see using them is abusing them because she is well-dressed, or has nice nails, or is buying name-brand potato chips.

Or even steak.

That May, when we were packing up at the end of the school year to move back home, my mom wanted us to spend all of the food stamps we had left on my Mamaw to stock her fridge. We wouldn't need them anymore. She sent me to the grocery store with one of her friends and a list of my grandmother's favorites, which Mamaw couldn't afford to always buy herself. On that list was 2 t-bone steaks. My Mamaw had never in her life had a skillet-grilled steak until about a year before, when times were better for Mom and she bought and cooked one for Mamaw for dinner. She loved it, of course. So we used our last food stamps, in part, to treat her and my aunt to one again. As a thank-you for all they had done for us while we lived there.

And when my mom's friend did the math and told me there was enough left for 2 Snickers bars, I got them. And one of my favorite memories of me and my mother is sitting on the front stoop of our cruddy apartment on our last night there, eating chocolate, sharing a glass bottle of Coke, and knowing that that time of our lives was behind us. And that, God-willing, we would never again feel ashamed at the grocery store.

So there you go. It's easy to generalize. It's easy to judge. But when you put a human face on it...well, maybe the next time you feel your dander rise because the person in front of you paying with an EBT card, and you start scrutinizing their cart, and checking out their clothes and hands and accessories, you will be a little more forgiving. And not assume you know that person's story. We so rarely know someone's story.

End rant.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Playing With Lead

There's just been so much talk about Angelina Jolie's boobs that it's been impossible for me to not think about them this week.

Ask any cancer survivor and my guess is he or she completely agrees with Mrs. Pitt's decision to have a preventative surgery. If any of us could have looked into an crystal ball and seen our future diagnoses, we would have done whatever was in our power to not get that phone call. Including having beautiful body parts cut off. And given her family history and genetic testing results, Angelina was pretty close to being able to look in a crystal ball.

It's gotten me thinking about what crazy cell mutation caused me to develop Hodgkin's lymphoma a decade ago. Was it my genes or my environment? And how do I make sure I protect Ainsley from it?

From everything I've read and everything I've been told, there aren't good answers for these questions for the type of cancer I had. No current genetic test can predict its likelihood, no solid hereditary link has been found. That my mother died of lymphoma's cousin leukemia is interesting to my oncologist, but even he shrugs when I ask if this means Ainsley is more at risk than the average bear. Maybe; maybe not.

The Magic 8 Ball says, "future uncertain."

When I look back at my past, I can remember some choices and behaviors that, if not caused my cancer, certainly didn't help my physical health on the cellular level. Stupid things that seemed not a big deal when I was young, but are horrifying to me as an adult.

Here's why I got cancer. Maybe.

1. As a small child, I once got a thermometer out to play with (unsupervised, of course) and bit into it on accident, breaking it in my mouth. I spat out the foul-tasting substance that had been inside the thermometer, rinsed out my mouth, hid the evidence, and did not confess to my parents. Was it red alcohol or silver mercury inside that old thermometer? I honestly can't remember. Since I'm alive and gave birth to a child without birth defects, I'm leaning toward alcohol, but who knows? I have a mouthful of old mercury fillings, so I can't completely rule out mercury as a culprit in general.

2. In high-school chemistry class I played with some lead pellets. They were BB-sized and spread flat in a large dish in one corner of the lab and they felt really cool to rub my palms over while waiting for our experiment to start. A friend saw me playing with them and told me I probably shouldn't be touching them, and when I rolled my eyes at him he asked our teacher, "Hey, what would happen if someone were to play with this dish of lead pellets back here?" To which she responded, "That person would get cancer and have mutant babies." I stopped, but the damage was maybe already done.

3. My parents both smoked in the car with me in it with the windows rolled up. You can say what you want about second-hand smoke not being irrefutably proven to cause cancer, but breathing it during 3-hour car rides to Barbourville in the winter (in a small Chevy Cavalier, no less) cannot have helped. Especially that one time that, for reasons I cannot explain, I kept licking the yellow nicotine coating on the inside of my car window. (I might have been a weird little kid.)

4. I did not wear sunscreen until I was 17 years old. Seriously. Like, ever.

5. I went through an adolescent stage where I ate Penrose hot pickled sausages by the jar. On purpose.

6. As a young adult and new homemaker, I used the following products to clean different things in my home without gloves or proper ventilation: Tarn-X, Easy-Off, CLR, Lime Away, and Ajax. At least two of those had warning labels that said they contain compounds that have been shown in the state of California to cause cancer. Thank God they don't cause cancer in Kentucky!

I talk to friends sometimes about how much more today's kids are bubble-wrapped and protected than we were. I am one of these parents, so I don't judge them. But I catch myself saying things like, "Our parents didn't worry about this stuff, and we turned out just fine!" And then a second later I realize that, well, maybe not so fine after all. I mean, I'm healthy now and not even all the people I work with know that I'm a cancer survivor. But that all could have worked out badly for me. I could have been a statistic. So, you know...maybe erring on the side of caution isn't a bad thing. For one of the world's most beautiful women, the side of caution meant a double mastectomy. For you, it might be putting down the Marlboros or choosing SPF 30 over the Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning Oil. (Oh my God, do you remember how that stuff smelled? I mean, in the moment before it allowed you to get pre-melanoma? At least I smelled awesome while my pigment cells were mutating.)

And, when given the choice...please don't play with the lead.

Monday, May 13, 2013

And now for something completely different.

Remember when I started this blog and I was going to use it primarily to talk about books, since talking about books is a big part of my job? Ha, ha! I was so cute. I should have known me better.

But today, an honest-to-goodness librarian post about a book that came up as part of a discussion on my state librarian email chain about why we weed out-of-date, inaccurate, and irrelevant books from our collections on a regular basis. Our patrons sometimes get angry that we are throwing perfectly good books away, and it helps to be able to show them an example. And this is one hell of an example.

If you've ever wondered why we librarians can't keep every book we and our predecessors have ever bought on our shelves for all eternity, even if we have plenty of empty space, I give you exhibit A, discovered on her picture book shelves by an elementary librarian her first year on the job less than a decade ago:

Epaminondas and His Auntie.

When you open the link, look off to the left where it says "View the book." Take a moment and read it.

Did you catch the old-timey racism with a side of animal cruelty? (Maybe not racism so much as naive and offensive racial stereotyping, but why split hairs?)

And this is why librarians weed their collections. Times change, attitudes change, and even facts change. (Exhibit B: the planet formerly known as Pluto.) Even fiction can become irrelevant and, yes, distasteful.

The more you know. (Insert network logo and theme music here.)

Friday, May 10, 2013

She's brave. She's brilliant. And she's back.

In case you haven't heard, Allie Brosh is back with a new Hyperbole and a Half post. If you have ever struggled with depression, please go read it. I'll wait.

It makes my depression post from over a year ago seem timid. It took a lot of courage for Allie to not only talk about her debilitating depression, but to frickin' draw it. Some of her drawings hit so close to my own experiences that they were painful to see.

That graphic of her in a coffee shop in her hoodie giving stank eye to the non-depressed people enjoying their coffee? That was me every morning that I stopped at Stabucks over my spring break before heading to my mother's. I couldn't understand how people could be happy while I was sitting there gathering enough strength to go clean my dead mother's kitchen.

Since my mother died, depression has reared its ugly head twice--once about a month after she died, and then again this winter and spring. Like the other times in my life when I've had it, I  first was weepy, then numb, then obsessed with planning my own funeral and wishing I could just close my eyes and go away.

It's a slow and uphill climb, but I'm getting better. I wish for Allie, and all who find themselves swimming in the depths, to eventually be able to climb out.

And I thank her for being open and honest. It makes it so much easier for the rest of us to come forward and join the club.

It came from the woods...

A wooded lot has its advantages. Privacy; shade; a pretty summertime view.

But it also means you have an overabundance of wildlife.

Our move to our current house was, technically, a lateral suburban move. We sold a house with woods in the backyard leading down to a well-travelled road on a cul-de-sac street; we bought a house with woods in the backyard leading down to a well-travelled road on a cul-de-sac street. We had birds and squirrels a-plenty outside our old house, and were thrilled one spring when we spotted a deer in our back woods. A deer! How exotic!

When we moved, we moved to an older suburb a little further north and a little closer to the city. We can hear the hum of an interstate highway and another major artery when our windows are open. I figured our deer-spotting days were over. I was sad to leave "the country."

Little did I know we would practically have a nature preserve on our backyard.

In the two years we've lived there, we have seen on our property...

Chipmunks. Large snakes that flee into open garages and have to be killed by the Kona Ice man. Lots of deer. Owls. Hawks. Woodpeckers. Turkey vultures. Frogs. (We currently have one living in a little hole in front of the front porch. Nothing gets your heart started like reaching to fill in a hole in your landscaping and having a large amphibian eye blink back at you.) Bats. A very rare salamander. And, as of last night, wild turkeys.

At this point, I would not be surprised to see the trees moving one day and watch a polar bear with a Dharma logo emerge from the greenery. If not a polar bear, maybe an Ewok. The view from my deck looks a lot like the green moon of Endor.

On our honeymoon years ago, we went to Gatlinburg. Being city-dwellers, we drove and hiked all the well-known wildlife-viewing trails in search of deer and bears and bobcats--oh my! All we saw were some feral kittens and lots of red squirrels. We should have just stayed in and taken a scenic tour of the wilds of our home county.

I am sure that eventually the wildlife spottings will get to be common-place. A turkey wandering through the backyard will not cause all of us to pause our dinner and stare out the kitchen window in awe of an awkward creature that's technically a bird but seems to defy God's blueprint for flying animals. We'll just shrug it off as another day in the life and then go out and check our chipmunk traps and be sure to wear shoes when stepping out into the garage.

In the meantime, I can't help but echo the words of Charlie Pace:

"Guys...Where are we?"

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Girl Who Doesn't Cry

I cry at fiction. A lot. Books, TV, movies--all the moments where authors and director and producers manipulate their audiences to tears totally work on me. I can't help myself.

So of course I have a kid who not only never cries over anything she reads or watches, but just recently yada-yada-yada-ed over the death of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

She finished it last weekend, and as we saw she was near the end, we sneaked peaks at her to see if she had the same reaction many young readers (and possibly her not-young mother) do at the ending of that story.

When no tears formed, we asked how things were going for Mr. Potter.

"They were just at the Ministry of Magic and there was a huge battle."

"Oh, really? How did that go?"

"Dumbledore fought Voldemort, and it was really cool."

"Yeah? Anything else?"

"The prophecy broke and no one could hear what it said."


"We get to see that crazy lady. Bella...something or other."

"Bellatrix LeStrange? And what did she do?"

"She aimed a Crucio curse at Harry but it didn't hit him."

Oh, for pity's sake.

"Did anyone die?"

"Oh, yeah. Sirius died."

Sirius-ly, Ains?

"It was sad..."

I would worry about her being a sociopath, but I think she's probably just normal. She has a soft heart; I've seen it break. But her standard response to her overwrought mother reaching for tissues during The Wizard of Oz (she'll miss the Scarecrow the most of all!) is...

"It's just a story."

Real life affects her. But Dorothy and Snoopy and Charlotte and Wilbur and Fantine and Aslan--they are not real life. She knows that there isn't really a Sirius Black, and therefore he didn't just die and leave Harry more alone than he already is.

Pardon me. There's something in my eye.

It's not a bad thing that she's a stoic sort. In fact, it has served her well on at least one occasion when she was able to perform a beautiful piece of music at a very sad occasion and not cry while those around her openly wept. She will be that go-to person who can hold herself and everyone else together and not get overly emotional when bad things happen to the good people around her.

She's kind of like her father that way. And that's a really, really good thing.

Time will tell if there's ever a movie or work of literature that ends up being her emotional downfall. As a librarian, I know where these bodies are hidden. I look at it as a personal challenge--what work will go beyond "It's just a story" and take her to that mysterious place where the teardrops fall? Bridge to Terabithia? Where the Red Fern Grows? To Kill a Mockingbird? ("Hey, Boo.") Or maybe that new classic The Fault In Our Stars?

I will stand in amazement of her if she is always able to walk that fine line between being sympathetic and caring, and wearing her heart too far our on her sleeve. And if, by her early 20s, she has not yet had a good cry at a Steel Magnolias or Terms of Endearment, I'm just going to have to bring out the big guns and tape her eyelids open and force her to watch Lost straight through to the sob-fest end.

Because if Vincent doesn't get you, nothing will.

What was the first book that made you cry? Chime in below, if you are so inclined.