Putting an Actual Face to Food Stamp Use

This week the House voted to cut $4 billion a year in food stamps, which is about 5% of the almost $80 billion-a-year program. This new bill would “tighten eligibility standards, allow states to impose new work requirements, and permit drug-testing for recipients, among other cuts to spending” (Associated Press). Apparently, the House has been reading some of the e-cards on my Facebook news feed. Of course, I get that this is a huge issue and most of us work very hard to feed our families and accept no assistance to do so. For most people that is a point of pride. It comes from a long and steady line of pulling ourselves up from our boot straps and national pride, but sometimes in this life shit happens, and sometimes people need to ask for help. I know, I have been one of them, more than once.

I was a teenager when I gave birth to my oldest kids, 17 when Kiaya was born and 19 when Selena made her appearance, and like a lot of teenagers I had a raging ego, a case of know it all, and no discernable skills. I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18 and worked a part-time minimum wage job at Kroger while my boyfriend (later husband and even later ex-husband) worked full time. We were not out of our teens, had a rent payment, utilities, car insurance, and two babies. Things were tight and we received food stamps. This was in the 90s when “food stamps” were paper monopoly money bundled into books of $5, $10, $25, $50, and $100s. They were cumbersome to handle and refused to tear from the books. They stuck together and made a distinctive crinkle that could be heard, what felt like, all over Kroger.

Most of my grocery shopping experiences took place with Kiaya in the bucket seat of the shopping cart and Selena in her car seat. I would put the food around them like an intricate puzzle. Mac and cheese, ramen noodles, spaghetti noodles, sauce, pork and beans, off brand soda, baby food, and whole milk wedged in the open places of my cart. These foods are not healthy. These are not leafy vegetables and fresh fruit because healthy food is often expensive food and what I concentrated on was filling food. Food that can be stored for a near eternity without going bad was the smartest way to shop. So with my cart, kids, and food, we would head to the check out line. I would strategically check out the lines to find the longest one because the chances of someone coming up behind me were less if the line was long.

As my food would move across the conveyer belt, I would try my best to separate any paper products or nonfood items. Diapers, baby wipes, paper towels, and baby powder had to be kept separate because food stamps didn’t pay for those things. When my food items were checked out, I would receive my food stamp total, and the next part of the humiliation would start. One of the reasons I worked so hard to make sure that I was last in line was because paying with the stamps took forever. The monopoly money was not to be torn out of the book until you were ready to pay. It was even printed on the books, just in case you forgot. I think this was to help ensure against fraud, but to be honest I am not sure. Another reason I always choose the long line is because mental math is difficult for me. Making the experience even more frustrating was the money would stick together, so you would have to separate the coated money, and recount a dozen times before you finally were able to pay. It took what felt like an eternity.

On occasion someone would come up behind me in line and I would be scared that they were judging my purchases. I always worried that I was being judged if I bought Kraft mac and cheese instead of a store brand. Sometimes I would feel the need to justify my purchases to total strangers or apologize if separating my items and paying took too long. There were multiple times over the years that I relied on the government to help me feed the girls. I was grateful for their help. When I heard that they had started to use a debit card system I was grateful that some of the humiliation was taken away, and if I see someone use one of those cards, I stand patiently and smile. I don’t know their situation: they could be a grandmother raising grandchildren or a mom or dad who has lost their job. Sometimes, we fall on hard times and it is okay to accept help.

Fraud happens. I get that and I have known people who have done it; selling the use of their stamps or card for money. I know that some questionable businesses allow illegal purchases in exchange for the “stamps” and then are reimbursed by the government. I don’t know how to fix the fraud; those that are dishonest have always existed and found a way to make life difficult for others. However, I also know children who don’t have enough to eat and families that have used the system correctly in their times of need. I have been one of these families and I know these families. Now you know one too.

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In Defense of Autumn or Pumpkin Haters Gonna Hate

I have seen them lately: fall haters. They are lurking around social media posting memes about yoga pants and sweatshirts. They are on Pinterest, right now, turning their noses up at the white chocolate cinnamon pumpkin latte as we speak. “Ugh,” they say, “Can we wait until at least October before we start with the pumpkin?” My answer is, “No, fuck you; I want my damn pumpkin now.” And if I so choose I will drink my white chocolate cinnamon pumpkin latte while singing a Christmas song and decorating my house with festive gourds. I may drink my white chocolate cinnamon pumpkin latte while singing the national anthem; we just don’t know the craziness that will happen when I finally get my first pumpkin fix of the season. I am one of the pumpkin people. I truly love it, and my friend Rachel is the one who brought me on the pumpkin bandwagon. She brought me a pumpkin chocolate chip cookie to work one day and I never looked back.

Even before pumpkin-infused everything, fall has always been my favorite time of year. Fall means no more sweating. Fall means new school supplies and the delicious hunt to find the perfect Trapper Keeper. Fall is new clothes and blue jeans so dark that your fingernails, underpants, and thighs are indigo, almost the same color as a plump blueberry or the night sky. Fall is driving through neighborhoods with dads and kids raking leaves into ditches. Every one of these things brings me back to living in Farley in the fifth grade. In the fifth grade I wanted to own a blue jean jacket more than I wanted almost anything; it was the thing to have. I wanted to roll the sleeves up and cover the front with buttons of my favorite bands and funny sayings. These buttons would open doors for me. They would let the world know just how cool and original I was. People would see my decorated jacket and clear the way for me. Other girls would want to emulate my style. This denim jacket was going to change my life – that is if my parents ever decided to buy me one.

That denim jacket wasn’t a dream for long. One fall afternoon I rode home with a stomach full of worry. The teacher had given us our mid-term grades and it wasn’t good. I had a D in math, my lack of interest and ADD had won, multiplication was the big loser. My anxiety increased as the bus rumbled through the neighborhoods. Each bus stop brought me closer to my impending doom. The squeak of the breaks said, “Mom is going to be mad.” The release of the hydraulics as the door opened said, “They are going to be disappointed in you.” The bus kept moving and my fear grew. When the bus got to our house, I exited slowly trying to buy myself time and a plan. I was the James Bond of lying, the best, surely I could find a way around this D.  Mom met me at the door with a denim jacket in hand. I broke down and cried; I loved the jacket but she needed to return it. I confessed my D and cried until my eyes were red and my nose was snotty. Mom, of course, acted disappointed and said she would tell Dad, but I could keep the jacket. That jacket had lost some of its mojo, and it didn’t make me one of the cool kids, but it and that day are a firm and unwavering autumn memory.

That is what fall is to me, redemption.

With each passing season I get to shake off the sins that I committed and start fresh. Starting at the beginning of September I look ahead to football games and cheering for our town’s high school team. Although I hate being around that many people, I get excited for the kids’ excitement. Every year I wait for that one night where the air smells like burning leaves. On that night, I inhale deeply and then hold the air in my lungs. I let go of summer in that moment. Until I smell the leaves, I will fill my Pinterest boards with soups, sweaters, and pumpkin latte pictures. I will obsess about that moment when I turn my heat on and the house is filled with the smell of dust burning off the coils. I will continue to think about coats, jackets, and sweaters. I will wait patiently for a cup of hot chocolate and a bowl of chili. That is autumn to me, a season filled with dark cool nights, and want.

Somewhere at the beginning of March I will start to want flip flops and skirts. I will have a day when the urge to put my hands in potting soil is so overwhelming that I almost can’t control myself. I will want long days, thunderstorms, and the sound of lawn mowers to consume me. I love how our wants and needs change with the season. Sometimes we have to wait for the planet to give us exactly what we need.

To read the absolute best thing ever written about fall, follow this link:

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/its-decorative-gourd-season-motherfuckers

Why I Believe Dolly Parton to Be the Most Universally Beloved Person in the World

In the 6th grade we had to pick a song to sing in front of our music class. There I stood in my awkward adolescence. My stomach was round and my breasts were insubstantial. My hair was a dirty blonde Prince Valiant. My stomach was in knots and there is a high likelihood that I had a fever blister. In my Sears “Pretty Plus” outfit, I opened my mouth and started to sing.

“Islands in the stream
That is what we are
No one in between
How can we be wrong
Sail away with me
To another world
And we rely on each other, ah-ha
From one lover to another, ah-ha”

This song was at that time the most beautiful and heartfelt thing I had ever heard. Kenny and Dolly were in love. You could tell by the emotion in their voices. These two people couldn’t stand to be apart. I assumed they were married and lived in a big Nashville mansion with mirrored furniture. Because, how could I have assumed otherwise?

Every time I saw Dolly with her tall blonde wigs, huge breasts, and tiny waist on the big screen I felt sure she was in a relationship with her leading man. She was too beautiful, too sweet, and too sexual for each of those men to not fall in love with her. Her impish giggle and business sense make for a powerful aphrodisiac. Now, I know that she is married and has been since the beginning of recorded time and it seems like Carl knows she is both powerful and beautiful too as Dolly once said, “He (Carl) says he’d think less of any man who didn’t fall in love with me. But he really respects what I do and would hate to stand in the way of that. He always makes me feel pretty, even when I’m not.” So, what I am seeing is a smart, powerful, talented, beautiful, sexual, and loving woman.

While Islands in the Stream is what introduced me to Dolly, what sealed my love is hearing Jolene for the first time. Jolene is for me a Nick Hornby moment. When I sing Jolene I absolutely must close my eyes; I must be fully engaged in the moment when I hear this song. If it comes on while I’m driving I have to pull over. Jolene is just that strong.

“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
I’m begging of you please don’t take my man
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene
Please don’t take him just because you can
Your beauty is beyond compare
With flaming locks of auburn hair
With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green
Your smile is like a breath of spring
Your voice is soft like summer rain
And I cannot compete with you, Jolene

He talks about you in his sleep
There’s nothing I can do to keep
From crying when he calls your name, Jolene

And I can easily understand
How you could easily take my man
But you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene”

That is some painful shit right there. Who hasn’t felt that about a relationship they were in? I know I have. That terrible ache of feeling that you aren’t enough compared to someone else. For some reason I do not fully understand (deep seeded emotional shenanigans, maybe?), I was under the impression that Jolene was a sister of Dolly’s. Think about that. Knowing you are losing your man to your beautiful sister ups the pain level to an eleven.

I have yet to meet someone who does not have a guttural reaction to hearing Jolene, and it doesn’t matter who is singing it either:

Olivia Newton John = heartbreaking

The White Stripes = heartbreaking + haunting

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes = heartbreaking + fast

Miley Cyrus = heartbreaking

Fiona Apple = heartbreaking

The list could go on forever, because everyone knows that this song is as beautiful and heartfelt as it comes. To put the power of Dolly’s writing in perspective I Will Always Love You has been a number one hit not once but three times. Twice with Dolly and once with Whitney Houston who helped it to be an earworm for the entire year of 1993. But, back to her business tactics for a second, Dolly was so savvy that she owns the publishing and copyrights on all of her songs. When Whitney Houston did that song for The Bodyguard soundtrack Dolly received all the writing and publishing royalties. She said, “When Whitney did it, I got all the money for the publishing and for the writing, and I bought a lot of cheap wigs.” I enjoy the quip, but with a booming theme park, a water park, The Dollywood Foundation, The Dolly Parton Imagination Library, and various other business ventures, I am pretty sure the money didn’t just fund her wig collection.

Dolly is at heart a writer, business woman, and a philanthropist. She takes her perceived stereotypes and breaks them up. You can’t help but love her.

So, out of curiosity, what are your favorite Dolly Parton stories?

Lord, don’t even get me started on my love of 9 to 5 and Straight Talk.