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.