Thursday, December 30, 2010

tax fun

In celebration of finally finishing the riveting Link and Learn tax training for volunteer income tax preparers, I thought I'd share a couple of the items I found particularly entertaining:
  • "To correctly apply the substantial presence test, it is necessary to define the term 'United States'". This section goes on to explain that the United States includes US territorial waters, but not US airspace, leading my co-worker and I to wonder if one wouldn't have to pay taxes if one lived in a hot air balloon.
  • If, however, you live on the ground you'll need to use certain charts to determine how much tax you need to pay, including, potentially, the Standard Deduction Chart for People Born Before January 2nd, 1946 or Who Are Blind.
  • There are also other deductions available, so you need to ask clients if they have any expenses in the following categories: "medical and dental expenses, taxes you paid, home mortgage interest you paid, gifts to charity, job expenses, and certain miscellaneous deductions". (Why yes, I have certain miscellaneous deductions that I'd like to itemize.)
  • However, you may not deduct for donations made to certain organizations, including business organizations, civic leagues and associations, political organizations and candidates, social clubs, foreign organizations, homeowners associations and communist organizations.
  • Oh, and sorry, your blood donation is not tax deductible.
And the fun doesn't stop with tax trainings. I also like seeing how clients fill in the box marked "marital status" on our benefits screening intake sheet. While the standard answers include single, divorced, separated etc., I've also seen
  • "In a relationship"
  • "None" and "Not"
  • And (my all-time favorite) "Good"

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

walk to work - the blizzard edition

Sunday: Mark and I caught what ended up being the last Chinatown bus leaving D.C. for New York. We left at 5pm and arrived in New York around 1am (a trip that normally takes 4 hours). I eventually stopped counting the number of accidents due to the heavy snow between Philly and the city. Once the bus was thoroughly stuck on a Manhattan side street, the driver allowed us out into the blizzard to find a train station. The subways were running, though with tons of delays and service changes, including the one that meant my train was no longer going to my stop. I got the pleasure of a 1/2 mile hike through what was then about 2 feet of still-falling snow, and arrived at my apartment at around 2:30am.

Monday: Snow day!

Tuesday: Since the train still wasn't stopping at my stop and I was more than a little curious to see what the rest of the neighborhood was like with all the snow, I walked the 2 miles to work this morning.

At least you can see these cars...many were completely buried.

Pile of snow about as tall as I am.

One of the better-shoveled sidewalks.

Right through the middle of this picture, there is a road. I promise.

Yes, the path goes right over the park benches.

Somehow I managed to live four years in Chicago without ever experiencing anything like this.

And here I thought there weren't any adventures to be had in the USA.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Every year my church in Chicago has a Longest Night service, a "gathering for healing and remembrance", a time of marking and honoring losses during the year, held on an evening close to the winter solstice. I was never able to go, but I often think of what that service would be like, what I would want that service to be.

In my experience of church life there's always been lots of ritual space for joy and worship and a little bit for repentance and even every now and then the implication that it was okay to be angry at God (for a little while). But no space for grief, no space for people to gather with their accumulation of painful stories and sit with them together.

I noticed this absence first when family members of a high school friend were murdered, and felt it again the following year as I watched the violence in my hometown and across Kenya from cold, distant, Wheaton. I came back from Cambodia with sadness that I could never quite separate from my physical sickness. Accordingly, I found that the only prayer that made sense involved my body, in yoga. All of these sadnesses had their private place, but I longed - and long - for something shared.

On the longest night this year, my mind wanders among the stories I've heard from my clients in the last few months. There are a few that shocked me enough that I can remember specifics, but perhaps even worse are the painful situations so common I can assume them of everyone who sits down by my desk. I've found a lot of comfort in the past couple of weeks reading Breathing Space, the spiritual memoir of a Lutheran minister named Heidi Neumark in the South Bronx. She describes a women's Bible study saying:
I told them about the mother who stopped traffic to wash her son's blood off the street. The Bible study itself is a time to stop the traffic rushing through our days and honor what is sacred to our hearts...two hours that say, "Our grief is not just something to get over. Our grief is holy ground."
I long to hear that and see that in church more often.

Our grief is not just something to get over. Our grief is holy ground.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

(not) busy

This Advent I've been reading Richard Rohr's Preparing for Christmas: Daily meditations for Advent. Saturday's reflection included the following:
It seems that we tend to think that more is better...busyness is actually a status symbol for us! It is strange that when people have so much, they are so anxious about not having enough - to do, to see, to own, to fix, to control, to change.
Every time I move to a new place I'm especially aware of my craving for busyness. In the initial days, weeks, months of getting settled into a new job and a new "family", of finding a new community, I find myself angling to be needed, anxious to be useful, to be somehow in demand. Free time can feel stifling and threatening rather than restful.

Realizing this week that I was actually a bit envious of everyone I know who is in the middle of finals was a particular wake up call. My nostalgia wasn't focused on the intellectual challenge and sense of accomplishment (though I do miss those things), but on the sense of having very important demands (or at least what I thought were very important demands) on all of my time. I realize how ridiculous that must sound to anyone who's currently living on too little sleep and too much caffeine while scrambling to get papers and exams done, but there it is.

I find myself needing the words of Isaiah: " quietness and trust is your strength".

Monday, December 6, 2010

food stamps IV

So, where we last left my food stamps case my confused caseworker had called the wrong person to check up on my salary and decided that I was ineligible. I convinced him to talk to my AmeriCorps supervisor, and apparently the fact that she used "director" in her job title did the trick. I called him again the following day (so this is somewhere around Nov. 20) and he said I had been approved, but reminded me that the HRA (Human Resources Administration) had a full 30 days to formally respond to my application. Accordingly, my award letter didn't come until the 30th day, with my benefit card and PIN arriving days after that.

But it did come, and given the stories I hear every week about ineptitude and downright obstructionist behavior in that office, I don't take the relative ease of my application process for granted.

Now to get used to pulling out that light blue card when I shop for groceries. At the market on Sunday, showing up at the produce stand with the market's EBT dollars prompted the vendor to tell me how angry it made him that "other people" ("not you, of course - you look like you work your ass off") were using his tax dollars to buy food while wearing expensive North Face jackets and genuine Yankees jerseys.

Oh, where to begin with that one...

But, on a more positive note, since my previous food stamps post lamenting the lack of conversation between the foodie and anti-hunger movements I've come across two quality recent examples to the contrary: Divided We Eat, an article by Newsweek's Lisa Miller on food and class in the US., and an interview with anti-hunger advocate Joel Berg in the very foodie Edible Brooklyn.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


2pm, Thanksgiving day and I was on my way to the grocery store in search a mop, milk, flour, a pie tin, creamed corn and pumpkin pie filling, having just gotten off the phone after asking my long-suffering mother for her scalloped corn recipe and tips for making pie dough. After getting lost enough to turn a ten block walk into something more like twenty, I found the Food Bazaar, and in it everything on my list (except for the pumpkin pie filling, which was of course sold out, and the pie tin because when I got back to my apartment Mark kindly pointed out that what I brought home was actually meant for cakes).

I also ran into the answer to the perennial question of where to buy candles for the advent wreath. Any store that serves a largely Mexican population has seven day candles, usually with brightly-colored pictures of Jesus, Mary or the saints decorating the glass. They also make them in plain colors.
I'm really ready for Advent this year. A week or so ago, after coming home from work as the sun was setting, I pulled out my yoga mat and hadn't been sitting on it for more than ten seconds before I started crying. The tears weren't because I was upset about anything in particular, but because I had finally given myself the space to recognize the sense of heaviness I'd been feeling. Nothing of particular significance had happened that day, and perhaps that was part of it. The thrill of learning a new place is wearing off. The routines in work and life that were reassuring a few weeks ago have started to feel mundane. I have to learn to hold on to the meaning and significance of what I do without the excitement. The difficulty of the situations my clients are in and the limitations of the help I can offer are part of the heaviness too. And, most basic of all, the shorter days and leaving work when it's already dark weigh on my spirit.

So I am ready for Advent. Ready for a way to mark time that both transcends and gives meaning to the rhythm of work-home-sleep-work-home-sleep. Ready to anticipate the arrival of something truly different, of a kingdom of justice and peace. Ready to celebrate the light shining in the darkness, both in the lengthening daylight after the solstice and in the birth of Christ.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Monday, November 22, 2010

water festival

In some description of the TCK (third culture kid) experience somewhere (how's that for citing your source?) I remember a passing reference to how we TCKs experience the news in a less abstract way than our peers. It makes sense. I am better able to understand a riot or a prolonged drought because I've had personal experience, even if I've never been to the specific country whose tragedy is making BBC headlines.

But there's more to it than that. Being a part of a community that is spread all around the world means that sometimes things happen and I know I will be no more than a degree or two removed from the tragedy. Like the World Cup bombing in Uganda in July. Like the attack on a team of western medical workers in Afghanistan in August.

And then there are things that happen in places I have been, near and possibly directly affecting people I know and love. I've been following the stories about the stampede in Phnom Penh. Two years ago, I was there:
I got back to Phnom Penh just in time for the Water Festival. After being warned by pretty much every Phnom Penher I know (both foreigners and locals) about the dangers and discomforts of the 3-day holiday, I loved it and went all three days. The population of Phnom Penh doubles overnight and they shut off the scenic riverfront area to traffic (well, anyone not willing to pay a bribe) for a party. It’s a bit crazy. The crowds in some places are so dense you can't move (I definitely felt some opportunistic fingers trying my purse and pocket). But mostly its just fun - street food and vendors selling everything from locally made bamboo fish to cheap imported toiletries, row boat races on the river (and a 'tourism pavilion' for us white folks who get edgy in crowds) and fireworks and special lit up boats from the different government ministries and lots of concerts. After spending so much time in the last 6 months with all of this country’s problems, it was great just soak up Cambodians celebrating being themselves.
I'm doubting that anyone from my host family was there last night. They only went one day when I was there, and only to appease me. Like most city-dwellers, they preferred to stay home and watch the concerts on TV rather than mingle with the country bumpkins at the riverfront.

Still, it feels very, very close.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

surreal II

Here is the video. Sadly, they used only the sound from the interview in my apartment because apparently our cluttered dining room table couldn't compete with a wizard flash-mob on a busy New York street.

I know, I don't get it either.

The guy in the blue robes with the shaved head who shows up later on in the duel is Andrew, whose voice is the one you hear.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


So I got home from work today to find a video for the New York Times being shot in my apartment.

The video was about Harry Potter.

I'm not even joking.

I have since learned that:
  • one of my roommates used to work for the Harry Potter Alliance (she's not in the video - it features the head of the organization, who's staying on an air mattress in my living room)
  • "B roll" is extra footage they shoot to splice into videos when they edit
  • if current conditions continue, chocolate will be as expensive as caviar in 20 years (I checked. It's on the Atlantic. While demand for chocolate is increasing with rising wealth in India and China, farmers are abandoning cocoa farms because of the very difficult work and low wages -- lots of child slave labor ends up involved.)
So yes. The New York Times. At my dining room table.

Don't believe me? Here's a picture with Dumbledore.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

stamps III

This afternoon while I was at work I got a slightly panicky voicemail from my supervisor at the Market. Apparently my food stamps caseworker had just called asking her all kinds of questions about my eligibility for food stamps in relation to my AmeriCorps job (which is completely unrelated to my market job, which I explained to my caseworker in the interview). So... it might be awhile.

In the meantime, as I cringe at my budget spreadsheet and tap my foot in impatience, I've been pondering two apparently contradictory messages of the (admittedly fragmented) US "food movement".

A. Americans spend, on average, less than 10% of their money on food. This is very low, both historically and in comparison to other countries. And it does not reflect the true costs of growing food because cheap food does not guarantee a decent living for those who work in our food chain, address the environmental impact of agriculture, or accurately reflect the costs of growing food (since we subsidize oil and certain commodity crops). Therefore, food is not expensive enough.

B. One in 8 Americans (and 1 in 4 American children) is on food stamps. And there are millions more who qualify but aren't, for a variety of reasons, receiving food stamps or other nutritional assistance. Recently released USDA food security numbers for 2009 show that 1 in 4 US children live in a house that sometimes runs out of food. Therefore, for many, food is too expensive.

So within the "food movement" we have the locavores and proponents of sustainable ag saying we should pay more for our food, and the anti-hunger folks saying, essentially, that we are paying more than we can afford already.

I've been wondering why no one was talking about this contradiction, until today I found them...well...talking about it.

In the locavore corner we have Michael Pollan who says in a New York Review of Books essay:
Hunger activists like Joel Berg, in All You Can Eat: How hungry is America? criticize supporters of "sustainable" agriculture...for advocating reforms that threaten to raise the cost of food to the poor.

...the "hunger" lobby has traditionally supported farm subsidies in exchange for the farm lobby's support of nutrition programs, a marriage of convenience that vastly complicates reform of the farm bill - a top priority for the food movement.
In his reply, Joel Berg (anti-hunger advocate with NYC Coalition Against Hunger) points out that his book does include serious criticism of current US farm policy, and that what he'd like from the locavores is proposals to help those who are already food insecure handle the costs of higher prices for food that more accurately reflect the costs of production.

As I run in both the local/sustainable and anti-hunger crowds, I'm trying to find a way to reconcile the two, something better than the anemic conclusions Berg and Pollan come to - that we can all agree that the food system is broken and we need to work together to fix it.

It seems to me that a reasonable place to start is by making sure folks in the food chain are paid a living wage. Pollan does a good job in pointing out the perversity of this when he observes in the contemporary US food economy:
an upside-down version of the social compact sometimes referred to as "Fordism": instead of paying workers well enough to allow them to buy things like cars, as Henry Ford proposed to do, companies like Wal-Mart and McDonalds pay their workers so poorly they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food these companies sell, creating a kind of non-virtuous cycle driving down both wages and the quality of food.
Many of the folks I screen who qualify for nutritional assistance (food stamps, WIC, school lunches etc.) work minimum wage jobs in the food industry, and don't get me started on farmworkers.

And in my own life? I'm excited to spend my EBT dollars at the farmers' market.

If I ever get them, that is.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


It is apparently not enough for AmeriCorps that we work full-time for very little -- we must also do additional service on some of the days regular employees have off. I was a bit annoyed to find out a week ago that rather than spending my Veterans Day in some state of relaxation or its opposite (house cleaning), I was expected to spend my free afternoon volunteering at a service for veterans at a nursing home.

However, one of the hidden graces of being a realist with a pessimistic/critical bent is that every so often I get shown up and thoroughly proven wrong by something I wasn't looking forward to.

This afternoon, after helping to anoint the social hall with cheap USA-themed decor, I sat down next to Fran (who, was once, among other things, a professional singer, Miss Hungarian-American, a tap dancer, an interfaith hospice minister, and the wife of a compulsive gambler) and her boyfriend Armand (whom Fran constantly told me was, unfortunately, stuck with her -- this when her eyes weren't welling up at how lucky they were to have each other). One of our first exchanges was as follows:

F: You're very pretty.

S: Well thank you, you're very sweet to say that.

F: [a little peeved] No I'm not! I'm honest.

After hearing about their lives (or what they could remember) and helping put mustard on their ham sandwiches, it was time for Fran and Armand to head back to their floor. But not before one of the other elderly veterans at our table (whom I had not interacted with) pulled over his wheelchair, reached under his sweatshirt, and pulled out this:

A plastic cup full of daisy plucked, I'm guessing with some effort, from the flower pots decorating the stage. He said, "Here you go sweetheart" and wheeled off.

I eat my earlier complaints about federal holiday service projects. Who couldn't use more afternoons of being told how attractive they are and being given flowers by strangers?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

stamps II

This is a game of "spot who's missing". Here's an advertisement for an event I considered going to this evening (and did not because it would have taken me 3 hours to get there and back):
"Food Stamped" is an informative and humorous documentary film following a couple as they attempt to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet on a food stamp budget...The event will kick off with a light reception at 5:00 pm followed by the 60-minute documentary debut. Thereafter, a closing discussion amongst Co-star Shira Potash and Montefiore physician participants in the Food Stamps Challenge will close the evening.
So...what's missing in this picture? Ah yes, here we have another conversation about hunger and anti-poverty measures without actual hungry and poor people. Instead, we use the short-term, voluntary experiences of deprivation of some well-meaning folks of means to start the discussion. I don't deny the value of things like the Food Stamps Challenge in raising awareness, but I wonder what their ultimate impact is if these experiences of food insecurity don't lead directly to interaction with people who are actually food-insecure. I have much more respect for initiatives like Witnesses to Hunger (where my friend Kyle is currently working) that let folks in poverty tell their own stories rather than having them told through outsiders or, even more removed, through outsiders trying to temporarily experience a taste of what it's like to be poor.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A few of my favorite things, from the new place where I live (in no particular order and with apologies for the poor quality of the pictures):

This here is one of the reasons I chose this place - a well-equipped kitchen!

Another perk - something like a closet space! I think I have at least 4 times the square footage in this place as I did in the last one. I like being able to stand up most of the time, although my forehead is really looking forward to when I develop that sixth sense for where the low beams and pipes are.

Kenlee taught me the cheating way to take artsy-looking pictures...put the camera on the ground and see what happens. This picture features my space heater, which, like the sleeping bag on my bed, is oh so very important these days.

My desk.

Some reminders of good places I lived and the good people I've lived with.

A drying bundle of fresh lavender - a gift from a market vendor.

A cozy place to read.

Two sugar pumpkins rescued from being jack-o-lanterned at the market last weekend.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


A decent measure of my spiritual state is what I spend my walk to work thinking about - what is so important that it surfaces as a theme for those few, uncluttered moments. All to often lately it's been a mental rehearsal of The Budget, and what may or may not fit into it, particularly (I'm sorry to say) what I can (or in most cases cannot) afford to wear. It's come down to one, small, three digit number to cover my groceries, Thanksgiving, clothing, and going out for the month of November. And I think about it. A lot.

I'm thankful for every moment of grace that interrupts that whirl of anxiety. Most recently, it was a passage from the novel Sophie's World. The book is the history of Western philosophy as told to a 14-year-old Norwegian girl.

A few days ago, I got a little reminder from that book. It describes pursuing mystical spirituality as "[consisting] of the simple life and various meditation techniques". I am far far from any sort of mysticism at the moment, but that phrase was enough to remind me that simplicity is something I am choosing as much as it has, for this season, chosen me.

Monday, November 1, 2010

stamps I

In celebration of moving to a new place, in honor of recent events involving my checkbook, and in light of my October 26th post, I headed to the local food stamps office this morning.

9:40 am After checking in at work, picking up a book (good idea), shedding an extra jacket (bad idea), and grabbing my lunch (also a bad idea), I set off on the three-block walk I've often described to my clients to the Human Resources Administration office.

9:44 am I arrive, to see a line out the door and halfway down the street. I get in the queue and think about the irony of making people seeking help with food and healthcare stand outside in the cold (it felt like 31 degrees) to get it. I remind myself that I wanted the experience, and brace myself for some genuine participant observation. I also think about how much I'm going to wish I had kept that extra layer on.

9:59 am My section of the line is finally let inside, where I continue to stand on line (NY for "standing in line") for a good hour, reading my book and eavesdropping on my neighbors talking about why they won't be voting tomorrow ("you know they throw out half the ballots anyway") and the various failings of the HRA office.

10:03 am (Okay, so from here on the times are approximate, because by this point I've realized this just might not be the super-impressive traumatic-but-revealing participant observation experience I was expecting when I arrived.) I get to the receptionist, who gives me a green sheet of paper and tells me to take the elevators to the fourth floor and wait until my number is called.

10:04 am As I head for the elevators, a security guard stops me and says I can't bring food, and I must "go back around the corner and leave it in the 2nd office". The directions make no sense, and eventually another guard takes pity on me, and sends me to the elevators another way, under strict instructions not to open my lunch.

10:13 I arrive at the food stamps part of the office with the number 1049. There are no numbers on the signboard. No one has been called yet (the office has been open since 8:30). It feels like an airport because we're watching CNN sitting in cheap plastic seats waiting to hear magic words on the PA system.

10:34 The first number - 1030, is finally called. CNN is showing videos of one of it's anchors dancing.

11:46 My number is finally called. I go up to the counter where the receptionist gives my application a preliminary going-through. "Uh-oh, we have a problem", she says when she sees my income (which puts me over 130% of the poverty line, and thus makes single-no-dependents-non-disabled-not-elderly me ineligible). This is my cue. I whip out my copy of the National and Community Service Act of 1990 and a USDA opinion from 2001 which states that the AmeriCorps living allowance not be considered income when determining eligibility for need-based federal assistance programs.

She reads my document (dated in 2007) and asks me if I have anything more recent, because "our regulations are always changing". Umm...they're your regulations, right? She tells my case worker to go ahead and do the interview, and that they will "investigate" and see if my income really is excluded.

11:48 My interview starts. My case worker is an African-American man in his 40s. His desk is covered in piles of papers. He asks questions about my jobs, my living situation, my bank accounts. After awhile he sends me down the hall to be finger-imaged.

12:26 Finger-imaging = finger printing. It's one of the more controversial and most unnecessary parts of the food stamps application -- it doesn't cut down on fraud and makes applying for government benefits feel criminal. It's required for every New Yorker over 18 receiving food stamps (so I've had clients whose whole families are ineligible for food stamps because 19-year-old son who still lives with mom can't be bothered to go down to the office).

12:45 Back to my case worker. He goes over a few more things, tells me I'll hear back in one to thirty days, and, as an afterthought, prints me a receipt, which he "should do anyway", but apparently doesn't do often. I get him to put down his name and phone number too, so I can get in touch with him directly if I have problems with my case or disagree with his decision.

So, in summary: it wasn't as bad as I expected. I've heard plenty of stories of hostile, belligerent, harassed case workers and overwrought applicants, and I didn't see that. It was a busy day and I still not only turned in my application but also had my interview and was out within 3.5 hours. certainly was not as good as it could have been. I was at the DMV a month ago and can't help comparing the two experiences with local bureaucracy. The DMV was fully equipped for long lines. The staff were equally busy and impersonal, but the communication was clearer and the customer service more professional. The building was much cleaner and more comfortable.

And thus my food stamps case was born.

Also, now taking guesses as to how long it will take me to hear back in the comments section of this post.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"go gentrify the dark side, baby"

It's one of the sad ironies of the real post-college world that if you are young and progressive, chances are you're working/interning for more or less no $$, and chances are that your only (urban) living options (short of mom and dad) involve moving in to lower-income minority neighborhoods. Thus some of the people most likely to be aware of (and troubled by) gentrification tend to be the ones who get it started, paving the way for the young professionals, who make things comfortable for the couples who treat their dogs like children, who provide business for the "dachshund spas and PBR-swilling butchers" (thanks to a particularly clever craigslist post for that one). By the time you see a white baby in a stroller, it's all over.

With all this in mind, I set out to find a more long-term living situation about a month ago. My office sits on the border between Bedford-Stuyvesant (historically African-American) and Bushwick (predominately Puerto Rican and Dominican), and my budget pretty much limited me to those two neighborhoods anyway. (You can rent a 2-bedroom apartment in some major cities for what it costs to rent a room in a shared loft in NYC. One candidate for governor is running under the umbrella of The Rent is Too Damn High Party. While his candidacy is not particularly serious, his issue and his facial hair certainly are.)

As I considered my options, I asked for input from a couple of my co-workers (both African-American and long-time area residents). My final decision came down to a place in BedStuy (where I was told that proximity to the precinct did not necessarily equal safety) and one in "the dark side" of Bushwick (so named because it is primarily residential/industrial, and not particularly well lit at night). I chose Bushwick, so, in the words of one of my advisors, I'm off to "gentrify the dark side, baby".

How do I feel about that?

Not as bad as I expected, for a couple of reasons. First, neighborhoods are always in flux. Bushwick traces it's written history back to a deal between Dutch settlers and the Lenape Native Americans, and has undergone English, German, and Italian incarnations, to name a few. A healthy response to gentrification is not trying to keep neighborhoods ethnically homogeneous, but ensuring that working-class neighborhoods remain affordable for those who grew up there. I'm proud to say that my organization was originally founded for this purpose and continues to work to ensure that low-income folks can live and work in North Brooklyn. Secondly, I'm living in one of the communities that a lot of my clients come from. I still disagree with the folks who are taking advantage of cheap rent in ethnic neighborhoods in Brooklyn only to sleep there while working, shopping, and basically living in Manhattan. But my situation is different. Since I started working I've walked through BedStuy to work most mornings, and will try to continue to walk from my new place in Bushwick (although anyone who's seen me outdoors in below 50 degrees is rightfully skeptical). I'm interested in being here. And finally - I'm living in a former yarn factory converted to loft apartments, so I'm not technically displacing anyone, except perhaps the previous, most likely hipster, residents.

A note on the building (as it is the likely source of future blog inspiration). It is. Incredibly. Hipster. Asymmetrical haircuts, cheap cigarettes, and big, unnecessary glasses everywhere (except my apartment, as far as I can tell). Apparently some of the residents actually tried to secede from Brooklyn (their complaint: the destructive economic forces of development) but failed to do so because they couldn't find a wealthy donor to buy the building and turn it over to the residents.

Yes, you read that right.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


The scene: a planning meeting for a non-profit about an upcoming event to promote access to healthy food in one of New York's lower-income minority neighborhoods.

The characters: me, one of the other volunteers - a young woman we shall call "A" (mostly because I forgot her name), and Mark (who doesn't say anything, but he was there).

The exchange:
A: [to me] So, what do you do?

Me: I work for a small non-profit. Our clients are low-income job seekers and I screen them for public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid and help them apply if they qualify.

A: [excited] Oh! You've have to tell them that they can use their stamps at the farmers' markets!

Me: Yeah, I'm pretty excited about that myself! I'll be getting food stamps in a couple of weeks and I'm looking forward to using the Health Bucks program [NYC initiative that gives you $2 extra for every $5 of your food stamps you use at certain markets].

A: [taken aback] Isn't your organization ashamed that you have to use food stamps?
The message: Working to help poor people = good, more power to you. Sharing some of their lived experience...umm... [shuffle feet, look at the ground].

Once upon a time I guess I thought the problem of well-intentioned, wealthy outsiders "helping" the poor while remaining isolated in their compounds and 4-wheel drives was only a problem in the developing world. Surely those fighting poverty in the US faced fewer barriers of wealth, culture, privilege, safety, geographical proximity...surely they would actually know some poor people.


On slow afternoons in the office I've been reading the book All You Can Eat: How hungry is America? by NYC anti-hunger advocate Joel Berg. My favorite part so far was a chart comparing views on welfare and poverty in the political Right and Left. After highlighting different understandings of the causes of poverty, attitudes towards entitlement etc., the chart ends with "People who make poverty policy spend very little - or no - actual time with poor people".

This, of course, was in both columns.

"A" is no poverty policy-maker (thankfully), but she was in a low income community with the intention of helping. Yet I remain skeptical about how much "help" anyone from a privileged background can offer when they've never even considered the possibility of living a bit like the people they serve.

Monday, October 25, 2010

a granola in Times Square

This past Saturday afternoon I set out to find something every bit as likely to exist as the Fountain of Youth: a pair of boots that are both cute and comfortable for under $80. My search took me to one of my least favorite parts of Manhattan - 42nd St/Times Sq/34th St./Herald Square. This area is perpetually clogged with foreign tourists excited to shop in stores they can't normally go to, and American tourists excited to shop in stores they go to all the time at home (but Old Navy in New York City is just so much more exciting!) It wasn't long before, boots or no boots (in this case, no boots), I needed to leave.

When Kat asked me how I was adjusting to the city, I realized that most days I hardly even think about it. I've tried to keep my everyday life relatively small. I can walk to work from where I'm staying now, and I limited my search for a new place to a 2 mile radius of my office (although something called "winter" might put an end to my pedestrian habit soon). The grocery store and laundromat are just around the corner. It is manageable. I've started to recognize people, and this afternoon a group of older adults hanging out on the sidewalk who I walk by every afternoon talked to me for the first time.

But then there are moments in downtown Manhattan or while navigating a subway station at rush hour that I do get overwhelmed. Two kinds of overwhelmed, actually.

The first is what I felt on my boot search, a downright ecclesiastical sense of futility when surrounded by thousands of people working (if they're lucky) jobs they (usually) don't enjoy to earn money so they can buy stuff (lots of it) to impress each other, and then start the whole thing over the next day (to what end?). In those moments, everything is so meaningless it hurts.

On the other end of the spectrum are the occasional encounters with strangers that remind me that every person is indeed a human being with a story. Sitting on a bus one evening, I watched a child's curiosity about an architectural model the man next to her was carrying turn into a conversation about community art and the future of Prospect Park involving a third of the passengers. It might seem insignificant, but in a city where everyone is so close together all the time yet trying to avoid interacting, seeing strangers engage is something special. In those moments, everything is so meaningful it hurts.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Living in New York requires a few things: a fast-paced walk, the ability to avoid eye contact unless absolutely necessary, and a basic repertoire of Jewish words. This last one includes words like mensch (a good human being), kvetch (to complain a lot), and yenta (gossipy old woman). My two (Jewish) co-workers recently treated me to a five minute display of utter disbelief that I did not know what lox was. When I saw (non-Jewish) Mark a few hours later, I got the same reaction. (Since you probably don't know either, it is smoked salmon commonly eaten on bagels, as in [Brooklyn accent] "Get me a bagel with cream cheese and some lox").

But my favorite of the new words in my everyday vocabulary would have to be schlep: to drag or haul an object; to make a tedious journey (thanks, wikipedia). It's not like I didn't know the word before, but I do have a whole new appreciation for the toil it represents now that I have to hand-carry my whole life (my laundry to and from the laundromat, my groceries from the market...).

It's difficult to understand when one has access to a vehicle. Indeed, after a recent weekend in the Catskills involving a rental car, my heart sank when I got on the train back to the city and realized that I would have to carry home the basket of butternut squashes, 10 lbs of apples, jars of jams and chutneys, and bottle of wine that had seemed like such a good idea when I had personal, motorized transportation. Of course, that night there was a huge thunderstorm and I had to make a walking, above-ground transfer between subways to make my schlep all the more enjoyable.

But my best schlep yet would have to be this evening. This time next week I'll be moving into my new apartment (hurray!). My new room comes with a desk, so of course I needed a desk chair. I found one on craigslist, emailed the owner, and arranged a pick-up time. Only then did I think about how I would get it home. My options were:
  1. Try to take it on the bus (at rush hour, and carry it the rest of the way home)
  2. Take it on the subway - which, due to the fact that there aren't many trains in my part of Brooklyn, would mean going all the way to Manhattan, hauling the thing through a subway station and getting on a train back to Brooklyn (at rush hour, followed by carrying it the rest of the way home)
  3. Just go ahead and carry it home.
Obviously I chose #3. I spent this evening carrying a reasonably sturdy office chair 1.6 miles from it's previous home to my current one. While designed for ergonomic sitting, there is no comfortable way to carry said piece of furniture long distances. I hope I looked as ridiculous as I felt.

But I did it. And returned my library books and purchased the bunch of kale I needed for my dinner from a farm stand run by local youth on the way. All this on a day that started out with me waking up 3 minutes before I had planned on leaving my apartment and managing to shower, look cute, and still arrive 5 minutes early for my meeting (although, to be fair, much divine intervention was requested and received with regard to the timing of my trains).

Now pardon me. My sense of accomplishment and I must go negotiate the purchase (and subsequent schlepping) of a 6 ft. lamp.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


There's a lot of hand-wringing in the sustainable agriculture/food systems/foodie movement(s) about the US's declining numbers of farmers. While most of our grandparents or great-grandparents had at least a backyard garden, the percentage of Americans with farming as occupation is now less than the percentage of the population in prison (which, of course, also says something about our criminal justice system). However, the decline in the number of farmers has seen a corresponding rise in employment in other areas of the food system, from the farmworkers who pick the tomatoes to the servers who put the bowl of gazpacho in front of you in the restaurant. (Full disclosure: a lot of this post is information gathered from Anna Lappe's presentation at the panel I attended this evening.)

But in the foodie world, it's all about the farmers. It appears that (for those with the education and means to be "foodies" in the first place) once you've made peace with your farmer (buying your produce from local, sustainable small-scale operations) you're off the hook. Cutting out all those involved in the industrial food system from planting to plate renders those millions just as invisible to those who profess a deep interest in food and agriculture as they are to those who never think twice when reaching for the Cheetos.

Social justice concerns were my entree into this whole "food" thing, so it's frustrating to see issues like pesticide protection, farmworker housing, safety in food processing plants, and compensation rates for farmworkers and servers (the two occupations not subject to minimum wage laws) given so little attention.

At a panel on local food this evening I asked the participants (a chef, community garden organizer, and author) what they thought were some of the most important worker justice concerns overlooked by the food movement. They mentioned the need for basic awareness of what these jobs involve (recommending the book Working in the Shadows: A year of doing the jobs (most) Americans won't do by Gabriel Thompson) and support for the campaigns of groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (and I would add the genius UFW campaign, Take Our Jobs). But my favorite suggestion was to work on broadening/shifting our definition of "farmer".

One of the most memorable dinner-table conversations of the year on the farm (significant not just because it was our first meal cooked by a certain five-star chef, although that didn't hurt) concerned what we, the interns, would actually call ourselves. The farm website, ATFP brochures etc. labeled us farmers, and yet an honest inventory of the work we did (weeding, harvesting, washing, packing and delivering produce) had us feeling much more like the farmworkers picking strawberries and weeding celery in the fields around us. By the end of the the mushroom-asparagus risotto (pictured here just because it was so delicious that I have a picture) we had resolved to call ourselves farmworkers.
Tonight, one of the panelists suggested the opposite. Why don't we use the term "farmer" to describe those who work the land. Simply owning or managing a piece of agricultural property does not make one a farmer. The decline in the number of farmers would certainly be less precipitous if we included those who spend the most time growing our food.

There's another possibility here too -- that producing food industrially has come close to eliminating the farmer. In Oxnard I noticed how infrequently the word "farmer" was actually used to describe anyone involved in agriculture. There were growers (landowners and/or managers) and farmworkers (those who planted, tended, and harvested the crops), but very few farmers. There were only a handful of men (and even fewer women) who either (in the case of the growers) took the time to know and work the land or were given the luxury (in the case of the farmworkers) of developing a sustained relationship with a particular place.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


There's nothing like having someone from my previous life come to visit to make me feel like maybe, just maybe, I'm starting to know this new place. Kat and I had one beautiful fall day together to explore the city.

We started out with a walk across the Brooklyn BridgeThe Statue of Liberty is in the background somewhere. I think we managed to block her entirely. Manhattan is on the right.

After exploring the South Street Seaport area (where I work at the market on Sundays) and walking by the WTC site, we headed to Central Park for a picnic...
...followed by a couple hours at an exhibit on urban agriculture at the New School. We then made a few purchases at a farmers market...
...before meeting up with Mark for a wonderful dinner at a vegetarian restaurant in Greenwich Village. Getting to be the tour guide made me a feel a little more settled here. I was only completely unable to find one of the places we wanted to go, and only sent Kat to the far end of Queens instead of Manhattan once. I must be really getting the hang of this.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

when I grow up

Every now and then, usually following hours-long conversations about people and how they work, my mom will suggest that I might make a good therapist. I’ve never ruled it out as a possible third or fourth career (or, to be more realistic considering the rate with which I’m currently moving through occupations, twenty-somethingth), but I’ve also never really seen myself following the family line of work.

But, almost by accident and feeling very unprepared, I do find myself doing something very much like counseling. I have clients. I ask them questions about some of the most private parts of their lives (Are you pregnant? Who are you living with?). They know nothing about my life and yet give me intimate details of theirs (What’s your marital status? Do you have any monthly medical bills?). In our brief interactions we talk about very personal things: family and money. Some of the most difficult conversations are around the intersection of the two (Do you receive alimony? Are you paying child support?) They tell stories, a lot of which appear bleak and hopeless to me on the other side of the desk. There is a lot of repetition from one to the next. I offer what advice I can, but it never seems like enough in light of the situations my clients are faced with.

One of my cuter and more insightful childhood comments was my answer to the question, “What does your daddy [a psychiatrist who works in counseling] do?:

“He listens to peoples’ hearts”.

I was, of course, referring to the stethoscope that we would occasionally get to play with. I was also right.

If you had asked me at that same age what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered that I wanted to do what my mommy or daddy did.

And now, in a small and imperfect way, I am.

Monday, October 4, 2010


(Warning - I also just posted this same piece on the Abundant Table blog)

Pulling on baggy work pants and rain boots this evening to take out the trash, I got hit by an extra-strong wave of farm nostalgia. My spaghetti sauce could use some fresh basil, my body could use a few hours of field work, and my spirit misses the company of my four sisterfriends.

Having boots on my feet also reminds me of a promise to update the Abundant Table community on my whereabouts post cross-continent move. After a roadtripping through some of the most beautiful parts of the US (you should have seen the look on the face of the woman selling tomatoes and cucumbers at the farmers market in Casper, Wyoming when I asked if I could pay for my selection in fresh California lemons and avocados!) and spending a few weeks resting and catching up with my parents at my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm in Lancaster, PA, I finally ended up in New York City a little less than a month ago. I just started my fourth week of working on the transition from the farm to the office, from the comfy world of flannel and rubber boots to the ambiguities of “business casual”, from “whenever we’re up til whenever it’s done” to a 9-5.

I’m doing a one-year AmeriCorps position with a community-based organization in North Brooklyn. For the first and final four months, my job is screening our clients (mostly low-income job seekers) for eligibility for public benefits (mostly food stamps and Medicaid). It’s a little like case work – talking to folks to find out what their situation is, helping them fill out applications, letting them know what offices to go to, and following up to see how things went. While the work itself is worlds different from the farm, I find myself continuing to wrestle with one of the fundamental questions posed at the Abundant Table: how to ensure that everyone has access to healthy food.

January-April things will look very different. My co-workers and I will be running a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assessment) center, helping our clients file their taxes for free and making sure they get all the credits and refunds they qualify for. I’m enjoying my supervisor and co-workers, my interaction with clients, and (ever the nerd) the challenge of learning the endlessly complicated (and dysfunctional) system of public benefits in the U.S.

But as I couldn’t quite handle a complete break with the world of farming and sustainable food systems (and in order to supplement the AmeriCorps stipend that leaves me eligible for many of the benefits I recommend for my clients), I found work once a week as a Market Hand at the New Amsterdam Market. The market is an exciting effort to re-introduce a public market (much like a farmers market, only with more of an emphasis on regionally-sourced prepared foods like cheeses and pies) to New York’s market district in the south seaport area of Manhattan. It’s also an exciting chance for me to interact with vendors, customers, and the odd farm apprentice, and occasionally talk my way into a free loaf of fresh bread or half a bottle of good NY wine.

My free time includes a shameful amount of getting lost, a (thus far fruitless) search for a permanent place to live, a good library, a church community like the Abundant Table, and an affordable place to practice yoga, and vicariously getting my Masters in Food Studies through Mark. I’m enjoying an incredible array of apples, slowly finding new friends, and the ever-fascinating diversity of New Yorkers (my walk 1.5 mile walk to work, for example, takes me from hipster-art-school land through a Hasidic Jewish community and past the projects).

This time tomorrow I’ll also be enjoying the company of a certain Katerina, which reminds me that though my room may be 7x9 (and yes, that measurement is in feet), I always love friendly faces from out of town. It helps with the nostalgia, you know…

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

the creatives

There's nothing like spending what (unfortunately) probably amounts to more than an hour a day looking for places to live on craigslist to make you question your identity. My room hunting angst is only compounded by the fact that my job (which I'd like to be close to) happens to be in Williamsburg, the epicenter of the hipster world. Post after post of available rooms includes some sort of preference for "young creatives". A couple of times I have ventured a response to such post based on other merits of the living arrangement.

No response.

I work 9-5. According to craigslist, this officially makes me a "young professional", and unofficially makes me boring. And un-creative.

There is not much space (literally -- you should see how small the kitchens are!) in NYC for the domestic or living arts. The place I'm living now didn't even have a can opener or a cutting board when I got here. Yet I persist in my artistic attempts. This is a sweet potato apple lentil stew. Tonight's answer to all those "young creatives" on craigslist.
Dish features sweet potatoes and celery from DoReMi farm at the New Amsterdam Market, apples from the Union Square Greenmarket, Tropical Heat curry powder and chai masala (ginger, cardamom, cinnamon), along with butter, onion, garlic, lentils, diced tomatoes, and tomato paste from Walmart and the local grocery store.

Monday, September 27, 2010


There are a lot of things about New York City that are overwhelming. The movement, the activity, the noise...and the sheer number of people. And it's not just the number of people, there's a certain quality to them too, a tendency towards extremes. My theory is that the city is so big and there are so many things that you could be into, that many people choose to differentiate themselves by being really, really into whatever their thing happens to be.

But even with all diversity of hair styles, body art, accents, clothing, personal hygiene etc., I can feel myself starting to get a bit numb, developing an immunity to individuals and stories in the face of sheer volume.

This Jane Kenyon poem was a reminder:
Man Sleeping

Large flakes of snow fall slowly, far
apart, like whales who cannot find mates
in the vast blue latitudes.

Why do I think of the man asleep
on the grassy bank outside the Sackler
Museum in Washington?
It was a chill
afternoon. He lay, no doubt, on everything
he owned, belly-down, his head twisted
awkwardly to the right, mouth open
in abandon.
He looked
like a child who has fallen asleep
still dressed on top of the covers,
or like Abel, broken, at his brother's feet.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Getting off the subway a block or two from Ground Zero this morning, I kept thinking of these words from this Wendell Berry essay:
...we have not learned to think of peace apart from war. We have received many teachings about peace and peaceability in biblical and other religious traditions, but we have marginalized these teachings, have made them abnormal, in deference to the great norm of violence and conflict. We wait, still, until we face terrifying dangers and the necessity to choose among bad alternatives, and then we think again of peace, and again we fight a war to secure it.

Monday, September 6, 2010


As I've moved closer to the people and processes involved in making the most basic material goods (food, clothing) in the past two years, the physical world has taken on a new weight. Driving past malls and outlet stores, the sheer volume of the stuff inside is overwhelming. I've had a little glimpse into the lives of those sewing and picking, so that in my more lucid moments I can't grab an appliance off a shelf without wondering how many hands were involved in making it, or pull a shirt off the rack without a peek at the tag to see where it came from.

Being a bit more aware sets me up for an exhausting series of mental gymnastics any time I make a purchase.

Today, for example, I found myself grocery shopping in Walmart. Already I’d had to do some justifying. Walmart is the Big Bad Wolf, up there with other dastardly corporations like Monsanto. They underpay their workers both here and overseas and force local operations out of business everywhere they go.

But…I needed a plastic storage bin. Target would have been my first choice, but it was out of the way and I have a sneaky suspicion my aversion to Walmart is partly a class thing (Target is, after all, where upper middle class folks by their Made in China).

On my list after the storage bin were a number of grocery items (since, as of Wednesday, whatever I eat will have to be transported home without the help of a car). I’d planned on patronizing a local grocery store, but did the impact of the extra gas from the trip outweigh the karmic good of supporting a local family?

So…I found myself grocery shopping in Walmart. Already feeling guilty, my calculating had just begun. How much more was I willing to pay per can of organic beans (and could I even justify beans in a can when the dried varieties were available)? Coffee: fair trade, organic, Rainforest Alliance…could I find all three? If I could buy non-organic brown rice in a bigger bag, did the plastic pollution I saved in any way cancel out the pesticides used in growing? How about salt – would going for the Morton’s be a capitulation to advertising or would choosing the cheaper Walmart brand create downward pressure on prices that often has consequences for workers and the environment? What size cans of crushed tomatoes should I buy – the smaller size (and waste packaging materials) or the larger size (and likely waste food, since I’ll be cooking for one)?

All this, and I get to the check-out aisle and realize I’d forgotten to bring re-useable bags.

At the end of that trip, at the end of a couple weeks of shopping to get ready for life and work in NYC, after so many tiny (and at the same time overwhelmingly significant) decisions, there is this:

A Short Testament
by Anne Porter

Whatever harm I may have done
In all my life in all your wide creation
If I cannot repair it
I beg you to repair it,

And then there are all the wounded
The poor the deaf the lonely and the old
Whom I have roughly dismissed
As if I were not one of them.
Where I have wronged them by it
And cannot make amends
I ask you
To comfort them to overflowing,

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,
Or lives of strangers far or near
That I've destroyed in blind complicity,
And if I cannot find them
Or have no way to serve them,

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

When winter is over
And all your unimaginable promises
Burst into song on death's bare branches.

Monday, August 30, 2010


One of the great pleasures of the past two weeks has been taking long walks in the evening on the country roads around my aunt and uncle's farm, smelling fresh cut hay and watching the sunset over the corn fields.

One evening I decided to try a new route. I passed churches and old barns and several roadside stands and was pleased to see two white roosters scratching around in one yard. Even more pleased when they started jogging in my direction (yes, I do miss my chickens).

Docile, gentle farm chickens, so well-behaved we let kids play with them.

Except that one of them started heading right for me and making me nervous. Raising, caring for, and (when necessary) disposing of 9 hens gave me no experience in dealing with roosters. A quick search for a branch with which to ward off the potential attack yielded only a couple of leaves. "Maybe he just thinks I'm going to feed him" I thought as I tossed the leaves in the rooster's direction.


So I took off running (okay, sprinting) down the road, followed, at a speed I've never seen in a chicken, by the rooster, until I was several houses away and clearly no longer a threat.

I really hope someone happened to be looking out their window.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

growing up

Becoming (somewhat) grown-up and getting a (somewhat) grown-up jobs means obtaining some semblance of a grown-up wardrobe. And that means doing one of my least-favorite things: shopping.

For several years I've tried to avoid buying new clothes whenever possible. With a few exceptions for hygiene and safety (new underwear and running shoes), I've managed to clothe myself primarily with thrift store finds and the occasional "donation" from my friends' closets. I've chosen to do so for several reasons.
  1. I disagree with the conditions in which most of what's on the shelves is made. I stopped buying new stuff my freshman year of college with a vague sense that the global clothing industry was problematic. Living with garment factory workers in Cambodia did not convince me otherwise.
  2. I disagree with disposability. Following trends means buying new stuff as often as the industry wants me to. If I’m only supposed to wear it for a few months, chances are it's not made to last. Making new clothes is also environmentally costly.
  3. I can't afford new stuff. And as it looks like I'll be either a student or working low-paying non-profit jobs for the foreseeable future, this is unlikely to change.
  4. (This one was a surprise) I like this way better.
Just like I'm lucky that I don't like meat (it makes being a vegetarian so much easier), I'm lucky that I can't stand shopping. I credit this to my childhood. Every other summer my family would return to the US to visit family and friends, gain weight eating American junk food (okay, maybe that was just me), and stock up on what we needed for the following two years. This lent our shopping trips urgency and anxiety. Urgency (because if you don't get what you need from Old Navy now you won't have another chance for 2 years) and anxiety (because how, at age 11, can you be sure that your feet are done growing? and should you buy your jeans expecting that you'll lose the recently-acquired 5 lbs or not?).

But it was more than just the anticipation of long, boring days at the mall and frustrating decisions that made me dread shopping. It was the change I could sense in my spirit, the heaviness of feeling like I needed more and more new stuff that wouldn’t lift until I was back home. Kenya was no non-consumer Eden, but there were fewer options and therefore less anxiety.

In a way, my decision to stop buying new stuff in college was an effort to create a less-choice environment for myself. At first it was scary, and then it became an adventure (a pattern that recurs in my life every now and then). I can appreciate finding my bridesmaid’s dress for a friend’s wedding at a second-hand shop or inheriting a favorite outfit when a roommate moves out as gifts. Getting a pair of jeans I like from a Goodwill is a small miracle.

But. But. I start a new job in a couple of weeks and will need to be dressed professionally. Every day. I don’t often see quality dress shirts or suits in the racks at Salvation Army.

Once again, growing up means getting close enough to what was once black and white to have to taste the gray.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

back to where I started

I am back where I was almost exactly a year ago, back in rural Lancaster with the smell of dairies, baked oatmeal for breakfast, and candles in the windows of houses. I'm back to hearing stories of growing up on a farm and being peppered with questions about organic agriculture that I feel only slightly more qualified to answer after my California farming adventure. I'm back to the familiar feeling of living out of a suitcase and some boxes, of being between places and lives. I'm back to trying to picture what's next and acquire appropriate attire (here's to a smooth transition from a job where my uniform consisted of the same pair of muddy jeans and faded flannel shirt every day to something that will most likely require suits and daily showers!).

I'm particularly aware of being in transition and uncertain of what comes next, so it is appropriate that I spent the better part of my evening reading and thinking about a NY Times feature on "emerging adulthood", a new life stage to describe all of us mobile, "self-focused", relatively unattached 20-somethings. We're delaying adulthood (defined as financial independence, marriage, and having children...hmm) in favor of identity exploration and instability. Our lives are characterized by valuing change - moving and switching jobs often, living with romantic partners without being married, living at home... The author gives a nod to several of the forces shaping this trend, including changes in parenting, higher education requirements for jobs, changing sexual norms, but probably doesn't spend enough time on the one that looms largest right now: it's pretty hard to start your adult life if you can't get a job.

But there's a flip side of choice (and privilege) for some of us. I'm fairly certain grad school awaits me some time in the next five years and could make a reasonable guess as to the degree and discipline, but I'm in no particular hurry to get there. Even in this economy, I'm not in a rush to get my academic career started (though this is only Week 3 of unemployment - stay tuned).

It's not that I don't feel the strong pull of libraries and university campuses, and Being Able to Afford My Own Weekly Copy of the Economist is an income category I aspire to and take into consideration when applying for jobs. But I want to spend some time working. Exploring. Trying new things. I know I can do the books-and-writing-and-education thing, and I know I love that. But in even a cursory glance over the last five years I have to admit that the times I grew the most and felt the most challenged and alive were the times I spent doing things I doubted I'd be any good at at all: working as a camp counselor, living in a Cambodian slum, spending a year as a farmworker. Learning a new language. Singing silly camp songs in front of large groups of people. Raising chickens. Taking care of toddlers. Leading yoga classes. Cooking church dinners. The times I've spent realizing I have something more than my brain to offer.

So with that in mind, here begins the next adventure, which will land me (job or no job, hopefully the former) in New York City in a few weeks.

Monday, July 5, 2010

a story, and why I shouldn't move to San Francisco

Every six months or so, when I’m feeling particularly special and original, I’ll spend a few minutes on the blog Stuff White People Like for a little dose of reality. There I am reminded that many of my favorite things (Taking a year off, Indie Music, Scarves, Being the only white person around, NPR, Vegetarianism, Yoga, and Barack Obama, for example) are, in fact not unique to me but are shared by many of my peers of a certain education level, class, political persuasion, economic status and yes, skin color.

I just happen to not run into too many of these other people and can therefore fool myself some of the time into thinking that I am the only one (or at least one of the only ones). This is why I shouldn’t move to San Francisco. I fear I’d lose my sense of identity in a place where organic gardening, fair trade coffee, making your own things, recycling and backyard chickens were passé.

All that to say I can’t resist the opportunity to poke a little fun at myself for the following story.

Food is hot right now. Stuff White People Like includes posts on Picking Their Own Fruit, Hummus, Expensive Sandwiches, Whole Foods and Grocery Co-ops, Asian Fusion Food, Sushi, Breakfast Places, Wine, Microbreweries, Dinner Parties, Tea, and Organic Food.

Food is hot, so how’s this for a boy-meets-girl:

She is working on an organic CSA farm. He is a five-star chef and Healthy Eating Specialist at Whole Foods.

She is probably reading Barbara Kingsolver or Wendell Berry. He is probably reading Michael Pollan or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.

She can talk at length about cooking from scratch and the importance of soil fertility. He can talk at length about the origins of pretty much any cuisine. They can both talk your ear off about kale and agriculture in Ventura County.

She’s thinking about a career in development studies with a focus on food security or agricultural issues. He’s about to start a Masters in Food Studies.

Oh yeah, and they met at a farmers market.

True story. His name is Mark. And we share passions for World Cup Soccer, Cooking, People Watching, Camping, Pandora, and Intelligent Conversation, among other things. (Of these, only the World Cup and Camping are featured on Stuff White People Like. I checked.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

double take

Another confession: One of my greatest pleasures is nearly causing traffic accidents by being places no young white woman is expected to be while doing things no young white woman is expected to be doing.

This afternoon as I was driving the farm Kawasaki (like an ATV) out to the field to do my harvesting I noticed a man driving by on the road lean his head out of his window and turn to look not once, not twice, but three times. It was the same look I got in Wal-Mart (yes, Wal-Mart, because sissy rainboots from Target just weren't going to do) when the woman at the check-out asked me why I needed big black rubber boots and I answered that I was a farm worker (for the record, I have since worn a big hole in aforementioned black boots). It was the same look I got in Cambodia when spotted squatting in the shade under my house hand-washing my clothes every Sunday afternoon. A number of chickens, dogs, and small children narrowly escaped injury under the moto wheels of the people who turned to stare. It's the same look I get any time I walk along the road in Nairobi (white women are, after all, expected to travel in the safety of their Land Rovers).

But the secret sense of pride I'm used to feeling is a little more mixed now. I'm starting to recognize that it's only because I'm so well-off that I can choose to live in places or do work that those who live/work there might not choose if given the option. I can dabble in life in a Cambodian slum (with the safety of the world's best med-evac insurance should I contract a life-threatening illness that my hosts deal with all the time), hang out in a garden in Kibera for an afternoon (and afterwards head to a US-style coffeeshop for a snack and a latte), or spend a year harvesting vegetables (with my longest day of field work being 8:30-5:00, unlike the 10 hours a day, 6 days a week worked by the immigrant strawberry pickers in the next field).

It takes a little of the thrill out of hearing guera (Spanish slang for blonde girl), barang (Khmer, meaning French person - three guesses who colonized Cambodia), or mzungu (Swahili for white person, with etymological roots in "dizzy" and "aimless wanderer") to think about it that way.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Femivore. I can see my brother rolling his eyes. Here it comes, some cross between two of the things he understands least about me - my distaste for meat and my tendency to pontificate on gender issues in the name of feminism.

Close, but not quite. I ran into "femivorism" in a recent NY Times article describing women pursuing "self-sufficiency, autonomy, and personal fulfillment" in orienting their lives around being as involved in their family's food sources as possible (backyard gardening, composting, raising chickens, urban beekeeping etc.) These "tomato-canning feminists" are about more than just tasty, healthy food - their commitment is to reducing their impact on the environment and counteracting materialism as well, to making their homes places of production not just consumption.

It probably goes without saying that I resonate with that vision. When I'm honest with myself, I recognize that some of my moments of greatest contentment and joy have been hanging my laundry in the backyard wearing muddy work boots and an apron over my yoga clothes, taking a break from cooking a meal with ingredients I mostly either grew myself or bartered for at a farmers' market and trying to keep my curious hens out of the laundry basket. I love all the things I'm learning - how to maintain a compost pile, harvest onions, make cheese, cook with turnips and yes, even kill a chicken.

To back-pedal a little bit - I still love books and ideas. I will go to grad school (eventually). I confess that I often use a couple of hours of my day off to go to the library and read the Economist, and that one of the biggest thrills of the last few months was attending a local city council meeting. But it's also hard to picture myself being satisfied in the world of journal articles and computer screens and academic conferences without an equal measure of fresh air and growing things and recipes modified and embellished until they're unrecognizable. I want to honor the education I'm getting right now, and the skills of my mother and aunts and grandmother, all of whom were raised with some experience of feeding and clothing themselves and their families.

Wendell Berry writes
The callings and disciplines of the...domestic arts are stationed all along the way from the farm to the prepared dinner, from the forest to the dinner table, from stewardship of the land to hospitality to friends and strangers. These arts are as demanding and gratifying, as instructive and as pleasing as the so-called fine arts. To learn them, to practice them, to honor and reward them is, I believe, our profoundest calling. Our reward is that they will enrich our lives and make us glad.

So here I am, an equally avid student of the domestic arts as I was of the liberal ones. Living in Cambodia taught me that as a member of the most affluent, materialist society ever, one of the most important things I can do with my life is pay close attention to what I consume - to start living simply and maybe help others like me do the same. And I'm finding Berry's words to be true - not only is this a profound calling, it has enriched my life and made me glad.

Thanks to Sarah and Amy for doing photographic justice to life on the Farm!