Choices and habits

Poverty is caused by bad choices. Good choices and good decisions and habits can get people back into the middle class.

That’s the most recent message of Dave Ramsey, who is a great guy apparently, and who is very good at helping middle-class people get out debt. He says that three things cause poverty:

1. Personal habits, choices and character;

2. Oppression by people taking advantage of the poor;

3. The myriad of problems encountered if born in a third-world economy.

And he explains why habits matter, and that rich people listen to audiobooks and poor people don't. And that rich people keep to-do lists and goals, and poor people don't. Also, rich people don't each junk food. Oh, and poor people aren't goal-oriented, and that's probably holding them back.

Except that it's all wrong, even though it’s entirely accurate.

Of course poverty is caused by personal habits and character. And of course it's caused by oppression.

But here's the thing:

Poverty has NOTHING to do with how much money you have.

Poverty is about unfairness. It’s not how much money you have in your wallet, or your bank account.

There are plenty of people with very little money who are insulated from the unfairness of poverty. They grow up without much money, but because they have parents who make good decisions, a good family, and a tight network of people, it’s not poverty. They’re not hungry. They don’t get evicted. They don’t have drugs in their life, or alcohol problems. That’s how most Americans lived for the last two centuries: Humble, hardworking, steady, without a lot of extras.

 It’s not inherently bad, and it’s not what I’m talking about. People who grow up with no money, but with a network and insulation – that’s the way most of the world lives.

I’m talking about unfairness and poverty in America, where it’s not supposed to exist. I think my favorite part of Dave Ramsey’s article is this quote:

“There are others who have far more than I do. The talents and treasures on this earth are not distributed equally, and that is not fair—or is it? God has chosen to give most of you better hair than me, to make Tiger Woods a better golfer than me, to make Brad Paisley a better guitarist than me, and to make Max Lucado a better writer than me. With God’s grace, I am fine with that. I am not angry at them, and I don’t think they have done something wrong by becoming successful. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to realize that God is indeed fair, but fair does not mean equal.” 

That’s the real issue here. Fairness and equality.

Poverty is this: Being told that you are equal to the people around you. Being told that if you work hard and do well, you will succeed. Believing in the American dream. Watching it work for the people around you, the people on the same playing field.

It’s about slowly realizing that the game isn’t what you thought it was. The game is rigged.

Here’s the deal: Some of the players are born with shackles on their feet. Some are visible – those are shackles of racism and bigotry that we claim don’t exist. Others are shackles that no one can see: Abuse. Neglect. Hunger. Drugs. Alcohol.

These weights, these huge manacles around the ankles, they’re invisible. And so it looks like all the kids are the same! Everyone gets a fair shot. You start out on day one learning to walk, and the world is cheering you on! The teachers, the coaches, they’re telling you to run! Go! The goal is to get as far as you can down the playing field – at the other end is success!

And the other kids who are playing believe in the game. They’re succeeding! They’ve been told that if they work hard, they can get ahead, and they have! C’mon, girl, work harder! Run faster!

They can’t figure out why you’re not keeping up with them. Clearly, you must be making the wrong choices!

But some kids are so slow, so weighed down, surrounded by chains so heavy, that you never even see them. By the time you’ve figured everything out, you’ve slowly gone a quarter-way down the field. Some kids are stuck back at the starting line and haven't moved. And everyone tells you that you don’t have shackles on. But why are some kids so much further ahead? In the US, everyone is equal. In school, everyone is treated the same. Even if you were weighted down, you’d be treated the same. 

Except that really, good habits, trying harder and listening to audiobooks isn’t going to help.

Poverty isn’t about money.

Poverty is about trying to do a stupid diorama of a Beluga whale for your sixth grade science class and not having any supplies at home. So you find a shoebox from the garbage and do something on the bus. Everyone in your class has projects that look like an artist did them. You’re living in a hotel and can't even find a pen and paper. Your teacher says she’s disappointed in you.

Poverty is about the fact that 30 percent of a grade in most of your classes is homework. Your teachers expect two to three hours of homework a night if you’re going to do well.  You work at a bakery every night from 4-10. You take your three sisters to school at 7 a.m. Your buddies don’t understand why you won’t join their study group. You’re just not studying hard enough.

It’s about not even bothering with homework after a while because you know you’ll be in a different school next year after you get evicted again.

It’s about always having a stomachache from worrying.

It’s about knowing that in a family with money, a divorce is a survivable tragedy. But in a family where the children are already hobbled, a divorce is a grenade you can’t run from, filled with shrapnel that leaves deep, ragged, invisible wounds. The children walk around for years, barely breathing, in constant pain, and no one can see the pools of blood that drip at their feet. The kids stop moving forward. The coaches yell, “C’mon! You can do it! Study hard!”

It’s about how none of your friends understand why the first of the month is so important, or what happens on the sixth if the rent’s not paid. It’s about none of them having even met their landlord. You have to go out and talk to him once a month, because your mom won’t.

It’s about eating pea soup every night for a week, from the same pot on the stove, while your mother cries because there’s no food. Then there’s suddenly a lot of food in the house, and you don’t care what she did to get it. And you hate your friends for having mothers who never steal.

It’s about never having enough food in the fridge. And sometimes having a ton of food in the fridge, and having a feast, and having friends over, because it’s grocery day and you feel like you can pay them back for all of the times you’ve eaten at their house, because they always have food.

It’s about having the highest PSAT score in your school, and knowing it doesn’t matter, because you’ve figured out that it’s never going to happen, this college thing. Your family needs the money you make after school. Your mother can’t do it without you. You know you’re not going anywhere. Your friends tell you you’re a slacker – why do have such awful grades if you’re so smart?

It's talking to your landlord about why you don't have the rent, and telling him that your mom is upset about the sewage on the floor in the bathroom, but he says he’s not going to bother fixing it because you're about to be evicted.  Your friend complains that her life is so boring and nothing exciting ever happens to her.

It's about the goddamned black garbage bags that are your whole existence, over and over again, every time you move. You never want to see another black garbage bag or box full of clothes, ever. Your friends tell you it must be exciting to get to move so much.

It's about never, ever having a car you can trust. Or really, anything you can trust. Everything you own falls apart. Your car that you share with your mom has a bungee cord holding the hood on. Your girlfriend gets a car for her 16th birthday and complains because it’s five years old.

It’s about knowing that teeth matter. That if you need braces, the shackles will never, ever come off. And knowing that if you have a toothache, you’ll have to choose between $50 to pull the tooth and $300 to fix it. And you’re terrified that your mom might choose to pull it, because at 17, you’ve still vain enough to care, and to know that your looks are one of the things that helps lighten weights. Your friends complain about their braces while your sister cries because she can’t have them and she looks ugly with crooked teeth.

It’s about a drug dog finding something in your car while you’re in your chemistry final, and when they pull you out of class and find out it’s just a sandwich, they won’t let you retake the test. Zero tolerance. But the other kid whose car was pinged, the one whose dad’s a lawyer? He gets a makeup exam.

It’s about watching your cousin apply to college – 15 applications at $35 each!!! – and crying yourself to sleep. You moved to two states and three houses your senior year. You didn’t apply anywhere. Not even for the ones that offered you a PSAT scholarship.

It’s about your mother crying on your first day of community college, because you deserve better and she wishes she could be picking sheets out for a dorm room. And then she takes your tip money.

It’s about slowly casting off the weights that your parents gave you, and picking up speed as the load lightens, and being so, so careful not to pick up more. No drugs. No cigarettes. No alcohol, real relationships or talk about the future. Not until you’ve caught up.  The load lightens. You can see a way clear. This is not permanent, not for you. You WILL move ahead.

It's about wishing you could help your sisters lighten their load, and knowing there's nothing you can do until you learn to manage yours better. You let your sister borrow your ID and Social Security card so she can start work at 14. Maybe she'll have better habits and choices than you did.

It’s about dating a guy for two years because he has a truck and you’re sick of walking to work in the snow, and he goes to the same community college you do. So you have a ride to work and to school. Funny, though – your friends who have money, they date for love.

It’s about knowing that the only ways out for you are education or marrying someone. When someone offers to help with school if you change your major, you jump at the chance. Follow your dreams and take eight years to pay for it yourself, or get a degree you’re not interested in and it only takes two? Sure, you’ll sell out. No problem. Who thinks you can make money in archeology, anyway? Clearly, journalism’s where the future is.

It’s about graduating with honors, and when your family comes (your mom’s in jail and can’t make it,) they ask why you don’t have the honors sash. You tell them you couldn’t afford the $26, and they say they would have helped with it, and you’re so surprised you don’t know what to say. Five years of waiting tables at Pizza Hut to get a two-year degree, and this is the help they want to give. A sash to walk across the stage. Huh.

 It’s about having friends who work at topless clubs and make $800 a night, and you wish you had the guts and the body to do it. And hearing about how exciting it is that your cousin who went off to college when you did just started law school.

It’s about having your water turned off, and then you need a deposit to turn it back on, so you get a hose, attach it to your neighbor’s house and wash dishes with that for a month. And shower like that, too. Your friends want you do go on a ski trip with them to their parent’s condo in Vail, and don’t understand why you never want to have fun.

It’s about knowing that while you’re showering with a hose, the cousin who went to college the same time you did is now done with law school and is now on a rowing team, competing for the world record. Once in Argentina. Once in Scotland. A family member takes you to Europe to go watch. It’s the first time you’ve been overseas. Your cousin has rowed in 25 countries, lived in Ireland, and has three gold medals. Her mom asks why it’s taking you so long to finish college. Maybe you're not making good choices, she says. You can try to work harder. Like her daughter.

It's about how you can always scrape up $3 for Funyons and Diet Coke from your tips every day, but you can’t scrape up the $87 to turn on the gas at the house to cook. Your family wants to know why you don't eat better.

It’s about watching other cousins get cars when they turn 16, watching them be loved and cherished and taken care of, watching them turn in applications for college, and wondering where you’d be on the playing field if you hadn’t been hobbled. And feeling guilty, because you know that everyone has the same opportunities, and that if you'd just worked harder and made better choices, you'd have done better, too.

It’s about needing $200 to fix your car or lose your job, and knowing that borrowing the money comes with a lecture, and swallowing your pride, and if they ask, “why can’t you take the bus?” while they spent more than that for their purse and this is life and death to you, you need to shut up and be glad they’re around to lend it to you and be grateful. Because you know not everyone has someone to lend them the money.

It’s about believing in doing what’s right, and still using white privilege, the crying girl privilege, boob privilege, whatever it takes to get out of a ticket, because that $200 will be the end of you.

It’s about trying to get rid of the weights, and knowing that you can’t help anyone else who’s stumbling. Not yet. You can barely figure it out yourself. And yet you see so many people you love just stop trying. They sit down, stuck where they are, and they develop weights of their own that will never be shed. A baby. A bad relationship. Their own drugs or alcohol problem.

It’s about recognizing people who get it. About being able to tell at a glance who’s fighting along side you, and picking up travel companions. You want someone who’s learned to pick up their weights and sprint alongside you, not someone who complains about how heavy it is. Someone who will shake their head with you as you both pass someone who was born unshackled, but who has now weighted themselves down. You and your travel companions, you can share the loads and speed up the trip. The going gets easier, for the first time.

It’s about watching your sister go to jail for years because she couldn’t take one more step with weights on. Her load never lightened. She got more shackles of her own. She had a son, and you watched him learn how to walk with shackles on his feet, and you wished to God that you could remove them from that poor little blonde toddler.

It’s about seeing your fierce, beautiful blonde sister with a hole in her leg from where the spider bite went septic and the prison guards wouldn’t let her see a doctor.

It’s about seeing people you love who were born free make bad decisions and be insulated from them. They make some of the same choices you made, and they bounce back. Traffic tickets, bad teeth, mouthing off to a cop – these things miraculously go away when there’s money. When there’s no shackles.

It's about studying the people around without shackles, and watching how they speak, and what they wear, and trying to assimilate, and it's no different than moving to Asia. You don't speak the language, you don't get the in-jokes, you don't like the food. But you watch the parenting, especially, and vow to have that for your children.

Slowly, slowly, the weights drop off, one by one. And because you’re made stronger by carrying those weights, you can move fast. You’re nimble, you’re smart, and you catch up.

Hell, you even blend in with other people, the ones who never had weights! You even marry one, and have kids. And your kids are born free, and at some point, you even manage to run over and find your sister’s kid on the playing field, and you do your best to take as many weights off him as you can.

They were right! You can do it! Once you get rid of the weights, you can go as far as you want!

But the scars are still there.

They’re there when I look in the fridge.

You know what I see in the fridge, full of good food? The possibility that tomorrow it will be empty, and I'll be unable to feed my kids. I have months and months worth of dried beans in my pantry, because I know how long you can survive on pea soup.

Poverty is having a pantry full of food, a fridge full of food, and a bank account with money in it, and still being aware every single minute that it could all be gone tomorrow.

It’s asking my husband, who has been by my side, steadfast and stable, for 17 years, "Are you going to leave me?" because I have to ask, because I know what divorce does to children.

It's waking up with nightmares that I have to tell my son that he has to give away his cats because the landlord won't allow pets, and waking up sobbing until I remember that we own this home and we're safe.

It’s being involved in my children’s education so that I know they are prepared for this world. It’s seeing police officers and wanting to hide, and being afraid that CPS will come take away my kids, even though I’ve done nothing wrong.

It’s the moment of panic when the gas light goes on in my car, until I remember that I now have money to fill up the tank.

It’s reading this woman’s excuses for why poor people make bad decisions, and understanding every one of them, and knowing that she’s right, but it’s not the whole story. 

Fair does not mean equal, Dave Ramsey says. I’m sorry, but he’s a sick bastard if he really thinks being bald is the same thing as being born into a family where there are drugs and mental illness and abuse. Bald is not a life sentence to poverty. Being a bad golfer is not a shackle. I don’t think he understands a thing about what it’s really like to be poor.

What you need, he says, is to have better choices, have better habits, and to grow your character.

No. What you really need is help. A coach who can see the shackles, and who can explain them to you, and who can lift them for a bit while you gain strength.  Someone to make sure you understand how the game is played, so you don’t add more weights to yourself.

You need an aunt. A friend, a teacher, a mentor, an uncle who went to a good college and can help you with the application. Someone who knows how to help.

One person who will say, “Here, take my hand. I’ll help you. You really can do this. Even if it’s hard, and even if I can’t take away your burden, I can help carry it with you for a while.” I paid for college, with student loans I’m still paying off, eighteen years later. $167 a month, every month, since 1995.

But when I was in college, my aunt would bring bags full of treats: New sheets for my bed in my dorm room, candy, groceries that my roommate and I could cook in the microwave. New underwear. She’d pay for the dentist, so I didn’t have to have teeth pulled. A nice haircut once in a while, instead of Supercuts. She'd take my roommate and I to Costco and we'd spend $200!! We lived like royalty. And then, when we got back to the dorm, she'd give us each a $20 bill, with the warning not to spend it all on beer.

She was the difference between making it and not making it. 

One person can make a difference. One loan, to get a car fixed so someone can get to work. Even better, one gift so they can get the car fixed. One trip to the dentist. One trip to the grocery store the week before Christmas, so the Christmas bonus can be spent on bills instead of gifts, and the whole family can catch their breath.

Anyone who says that there is an even playing field is wildly ignorant and stubbornly, willfully blind.

These are the things that help: Medical care, mental health care, counseling. Food stamps. Housing. A school system that doesn’t penalize kids for not being able to do homework. A school system that doesn’t reward kids for having parents who help. Teachers who care about students and not grades. A kind word, said at the right time.

These are things that don’t: Guilt. Shame. Being told to work harder. Being told that it’s your fault. Being told that setting goals is the answer. All of the to-do lists in the world weren’t going to help my journey. Being goal-oriented wasn’t going to help, either. And I listened to plenty of audiobooks, but I don’t think that was what saved me.

What got me out was being willing to take the help that was offered. Sometimes it’s hard to take help when it comes from people who don’t understand. They know so little of the real world, even though they run it. But if you want to know how to function in their world, you have to befriend them instead of blaming them. It goes both ways. It’s not their fault they were born free.

I have three sisters. Two of us are out, unshackled and walking freely. One is still struggling, but is learning to lighten her load. Another gave up a long time ago. I still have hope for her. She’s been given help but can’t see her way anymore.

I have a farmhouse now, out in the country. I have apple trees, and chickens and pigs, and a husband who doesn’t understand me even a little bit and who adores me anyway. I have three children, and they are thriving. I make them do chores. They make me laugh. They ask, when the apple tree is ripe, why I have to use every apple. Why I have to make 68 quarts of applesauce, why I have to donate the rest to the food bank. Why can’t I just leave the apples to rot, the way the neighbors do?

Because it’s a shame to waste food, I reply, while there are children out there tonight who are going to bed hungry.


An excerpt from "The McGovern Girls"

I saw my father for the last time this weekend. He's dying, slowly, and I won't see him again, and since I realize that though I've been flippant about him, I should paint a more detailed picture of who he is and what he meant to me.

 So here is an excerpt from the memoir I've written, and it tells a few stories about my dad when I was young.

I already miss his voice.


An excerpt from Chapter 2 of "The McGovern Girls":

We moved to the San Fernando Valley, and there were no coyotes, chickens or horses, but there were orange trees, a swimming pool and the bedroom I wanted. I got my own room, while the other three had to share, and I got a pink armchair for reading, and a canopy double bed all to myself. 

We thought we’d see my father a lot more, now that we closer to his work. 

My mother made sure there were martini glasses in the freezer, so she'd have a cold drink for him when he came home, and washed glass ashtrays and put them out for him.

But the fights got bigger, and he was home less.

 She’d start in on him as soon as he got home.

“I let you spend $3,000 for a pool table so you could practice here and stay out of the bars, and you’re still never here, dammit!”

“The pool table at the place down the street has a better lay,” he said, with a grin in voice. “Isn’t it funny how it works out that way sometimes?”

Katie and I started to figure out how to fit in, and what to read, from Tiger Beat to the Enquirer.  I loved the Enquirer. It was trash, and I knew it, but it was fun. Stories about Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields and Farrah Fawcett, and  Katie loved The Dukes of Hazzard and BJ and the Bear, so we searched for articles about our favorites. Katie liked  Leif Garret, too, and the girls from the movie "Little Foxes," and we read about Brooke Shields and wished we had hair like that.

At one point, laying on the pool table, I read an article in the Enquirer about how the shot to put dogs down actually suffocated them -- if you went to your vet to put your animal to sleep, the animal would suffer a long and torturous death while you watched – they would look peaceful, but would suffer for ages in pain.

Hansi was older than I was — at least twelve. There was NO way this was going to happen to my dog. None.

I knew my father would have an answer.

"Honey, there's no way that will happen to Hansi. When the time comes for Hansi to go, when she gets very old, we'll give her a big steak dinner, we'll say goodbye to her, and I'll take her outside, and you can tell her stories about rabbits and living on the ranch, and make her happy, and when she’s full and asleep, I’ll shoot her. I promise you I'd never let Hansi suffer."

I knew he'd do this for me. The thought of him shooting Hansi was terrifying and thrilling at the same time. It might be awful to have him shoot my dog, but she wouldn't suffer.  And I knew he'd do it --  Daddy might lie to my mother, but he wouldn't lie to his children. 

When I was six, in a house we'd lived in way before the ranch, at the very beginnings of my memory, we'd had chickens. There was one mean rooster who terrorized us and we were as afraid of him as any monster that'd ever lived.

My father loved to get rid of monsters.

He had fixed up a vampire concoction of garlic and onion to put on my windows, and smeared it in the shape of a cross on my windows.

A rooster was no challenge for him.

We went to the toolshed, together, and I held the nails and saw while he rigged up a large stick with a bell on one end and some tin cans that rattled on the other.

“There. Take this and go — kids have gathered eggs for centuries and no one has ever been killed by a rooster.”

We would go off with our stick, shaking the bell on the end of it, huddled together in a group, almost paralyzed by how big the rooster was, but at the same time aware that it was just a stupid chicken. 

His talons were sharp, though, and he was out to protect those hens.  Katie and I were sharp enough to watch out for him, and we were faster than he was. But Morgain was a toddler, probably not even two, and she got too close and didn't run fast enough. The pretty little blonde baby toddled out of the pen with a huge gash in the side of her face where the bird had tried to take out her eye. 

My father stopped laughing. “You want to see what happens to anyone who messes with my girls? Let me at that fucking chicken. Maureen, get out your soup pot and start the wanter boiling.”

In awe we watched the body flop around the yard for minutes after its head was gone. The head flopped, the body danced around the brick pavement, the beak opening and shutting, and we all looked at my father with new respect. He might not be around much, but he could slay demons.

My mother gamely attempted chicken and dumplings out of the rooster, to give my father a poetic trophy after his day of carnage. The meal was disgusting, but the message was sent: No one messes with my girls. When the time came, my dad would be there to take care of Hansi.  

But my father came home less and less, and when he did, my parents fought over things that made my stomach hurt.

My sister Katie was eight that year, and my constant companion, and also my nemesis.  The boys in the neighborhood loved her blonde hair, how she'd race them on her bike and would rather come home with a broken leg than come home a loser, and they begged to be honored with a game of poker. 

But she took no prisoners, and more than once we had a mother at the front door, demanding that Katie give back her son's $52 that she'd won, all in nickels and quarters.

And when she turned her fury on a boy who didn't play by her rules, the entire neighborhood knew about it.

She was pretty and she played hard, but after you had to climb the highest branch of the tallest tree on the street to get your jacket back, just because you teased her a little -- well, you'd remember it. Katie played HARD. 

The best part about Katie, though, is that she wasn't scared of anything.

Not my mother and her fury, not my father and his scornful comments about how she was a "bad seed," and not the dark.

 So we played flashlight tag, climbed the fence into a neighbor's yard and played on their boat, snuck into the garage to look at Birch and Steve's Playboy magazines and went swimming in the middle of the night – because no one wanted to hear Katie call them a chicken. 

A lot of the time Katie rounded up the two little ones for her projects and scoured the neighborhood for worshipers. 

And there were plenty – Katie's hair was the kind that stopped strangers dead in their tracks. It was long enough to reach the center of her back, so thick it snarled and matted if not brushed all the way through every day, and so blonde it reflected sunlight. There was so much of it that you could see the weight of a braid, thick and heavy and glittering. We'd go to get haircuts and the women would gather to discuss how best to cut it to show it off. Layered, like Farrah's, or long and straight?

Katie's hair was her trademark and her weapon. 

I had to have my hair cut short.  I wouldn't spend time on it, and it wasn't blonde. It was a dirty blonde, with a hint of red. I called it strawberry blonde, though I wished it were "Titian" like Nancy Drew's. It was flat and didn't do much without fussing with it. And I knew that smart girls didn't fuss with their hair. Girls who had to rely on their looks, like Katie, silly girls who like pink spandex pants and roller derby -- they fussed with their hair. So I let my mom have it cut short. 

"It's a pixie cut," Mom said. "It'll be so cute. Like the lady who played Peter Pan."

As if having thick glasses and being clumsy weren't enough.

 I had a pixie cut, and I bore it grudgingly. Katie had a crowning glory, and she reveled in it. She knew how to use a curling iron and a round brush to get her hair just like Farrah's. I could barely brush mine. 

Occasionally she'd offer to fix mine for me. After a couple of curling iron burns and a lot of fights, we mostly gave up. People stopped my mother everywhere we went to ask if Katie had an agent yet. And they asked me if I were a good big brother. 

Stupid fucking pixie cut.

Katie embraced being female and being sexy in a way that mystified me and thrilled me by the sheer bravado of it.

She had crushes on boys. She flirted and played spin the bottle. She kissed boys in the bedroom closet during spin the bottle, and she never backed down or ran away -- I did, every time, as she scornfully reminded me the few times I wanted to join in.

She wore cute clothes, and made me be the minister in a marriage ceremony with Geoff, a boy who lived down the street.

Somehow, we made it through a school year, I finished fifth grade, and summer was upon us. We were happy at home, playing with kittens, swimming and following Katie around the neighborhood, but my mother and father were going through some sort of bad patch, and they decided that what we all needed was a long car trip together.

So in July, we headed east: My mother, father and all four girls, in an old station wagon.

I should have known how it would end when after an hour, Nora was car sick and my dad got out to throw up next to her. 

We did the absolute essential car trip: Mesa Verde, Four Corners, diners for every meal, lots of singing.

I knew this might be my last chance for a while to get my dad's attention, and I used every chance I could to show him that I was smart and Katie was shallow, so I could get him to pay attention to me.

It worked – by the time we got to Mesa Verde, I was his pet and as we hiked through the ruins, he stopped carefully to explain everything to me. Katie had no interest in competing and spent the time in the car playing solitaire or picking on Morgain.

As we traveled further east, while the little ones slept and Katie ignored the adults, I listened to my parents talk about New York and what they were going back to.  I had, of course, never even thought about the fact that my parents existed before I did. Or that they had family or a life before kids.

And yet now it’s easy to see how much must have been caught up in this trip for them.

My mother had parents in New York, and my father had who knows what.

I'd never met any of my father's family – never even heard of them, except for a weird guy who showed up once when I was six, got drunk and got thrown out by my father.

I had been all excited to meet my Uncle Terry, and then when he was gone, I was told that my father wanted nothing to do his family – they were trash anyway. 

I knew Aunt Maggie and Aunt Nora, of course, my mom's sisters, since they lived in California near us, and Aunt Nora was favorite person on the planet. She was 29, six feet tall, gorgeous and she took me roller skating and on trips. She'd taken me on an airplane twice, once to Florida and once to San Francisco, and none of my sisters had come. I reveled in the greedy joy of being the oldest.

But my mother had a brother, too, named Bernie, and I had cousins in New York my age. All I knew about Bernie, really, was that my mom adored him and that he was six feet, six inches tall. My mother talked about Bernie as if her were perfect. She said he was the only man she'd ever trust, and my father laughed and said, "You got that right."

So my parents came from New York.

I had no idea how long they'd been in California, or why they'd left, or what family meant. But I knew they were different, not like other moms and dads. For one thing, my sisters and I had been bridesmaids in their wedding. Nora was a baby, six weeks old, Morgain a toddler, and Katie and I were four and six. My mother told me not to tell anyone in school about their wedding – they might not understand.

"We got married at a justice of the peace a long time ago," she said. "And now that all four of you are here, it's time to have a big ceremony."

At the wedding, Nora was six weeks old. It must have been quite a year for my mother; Morgain and Nora are sixteen months apart, which means that when my mother got pregnant with Nora, she had girls ages five, three, and seven months.

They had a wedding on the beach in Los Angeles in the summer of 1975.

One of my father's acting friends let them use a house on the beach for a reception, and all four of us were bridesmaids in the wedding.

Everyone was stumbling drunk out of the reception, and someone was drinking champagne out of shoe, which I thought was the grossest possible thing to do ever, even if it was a pretty high heel.

My father had taken me aside before the wedding.

“I have a secret mission for you,” he said. “I want you to read a poem at the wedding, but you can’t tell anyone what the poem is. When the time comes, I’ll have you stand up and recite it. Make sure you practice, but don’t tell your mother!”

If I could make my father proud, and I was happy to do it.

My mother made her own dress – she was sewing right up until the day of the wedding. Four children under six, a newborn, and sewing her own wedding dress. 

She taught me to use the sewing machine, too, that week she was getting ready, and I was honored to help her sew the dress, which was a simple white shift. And the cake was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen – a white rectangle with colored flowers on it.

My mother wore a floral wreath made from roses and gardenias – her favorite -- in her hair, and Katie and I wore matching long dresses.

My mother was beaming, and underneath the wreath of flowers, with her dark hair and blue eyes, she looked like an earth goddess. I had no idea how long she'd been waiting to marry him, or why.  I just knew that she was more beautiful than I’d ever seen her, gorgeous, and she was smiling and singing the entire day. 

My mother's two sisters, Maggie and Nora, were there, and the ceremony was on a balcony overlooking the sea. 

Morgain was a year old and sat in my mother's lap, and Nora was there somewhere, with a housekeeper nearby to help. 

Things started to get loud, and cheerful, and once the crowd was good and drunk, my father said it was time.

I climbed up on a table, ready to do my father proud, and recite the poem to all of his friends, while the women were out of the room:

"Jack Sprat could eat no fat.

His wife could eat no lean.

And so, between the two of them, 

they licked the platter clean."

 Now, of course, I am stricken by the cruelty of this, both to me and to my mother. 

My mother was heavy, and later her weight would come to define her. 

But I see pictures from the wedding and she was buxom, not grotesque. And she had a baby six weeks before!

And the underlying cynicism of a man who would recite heart-meltingly tender marriage vows and ten minutes later ask his clueless daughter to mock his new wife  -- but I was proud that I’d remembered the words, and I was happy that my father’s friends had laughed at the end. 

But on that drive to New York, we talked about their past and my mother told stories of Catholic school nuns and sagas of Bernie coming home late with the care in 1958, it still felt as if the center was solid. 

As if there was a family there in the car. An odd family, and different than my friends, but a mom and dad and four kids, and we would stay that way forever.

When my dad was home, he was in bed, reading, or outside, working on projects. He was either in full work mode or not available, so when I got his attention, I treasured it.

I adored him. 

I loved his voice, his smell, the way he knew he was the smartest and the best-looking man in the room, and the way he expected me to be honored just to be in the same room with him in public.

And I was. The few times he came to a school event or took me to dinner, I was stunned by his power to command attention. This, then was the power of an actor, of a trained voice, of the ability to use your body to project an image. 

When we went to dinner, which wasn't often with six of us, he prepped us. We were supposed to know what spoon to use, in which order to use the forks, and how to use the napkin. He warned us of the desperate consequences if we slurped through a straw – though, as he pointed out, if we were going to a decent restaurant, they wouldn't HAVE straws. 

He'd be "on" as soon as we got the restaurant, voice booming, commanding everyone to look at him, groomed perfectly. 

He was classic in his grooming and in his looks – I think he fancied his character to be a cross between Jack Nicholson and Paul Newman, with a touch of Dennis Hopper thrown in for good measure.

He'd known all of them at some point, and even thought he'd achieve the same success. It was always right there in front of him, just beyond the next role. If only he didn't have to work, to raise four kids, if he could go on more auditions, it would all be different.

I knew he'd done acting in New York, in the "real" theater, as he called it. I had to do a paper about Shakespeare, and he recited ten pages of Hamlet from memory. And made me listen to the entire thing twice, while checking it from my copy to make sure he didn't miss any lines.

The closer we got to New York, the more I heard about the old days. My mother and he ran a bar for a while, he said – the Marketplace. They had an apartment in the village.

It sounded so romantic, so different than our life in Los Angeles. I memorized the names of the places and the people he knew. Alan Ginsberg. The Lion's Head. The 55. The Village.

Black turtlenecks, beatniks and poetry. That's what I wanted to hear about. 

My mother told a few stories about her apartment on Jane Street and the parties she had there, and about her writing for Women's Wear Daily. She threw out names of people I'd never heard of, insisting that they were famous and that she'd interviewed them.

 I couldn't wait to see New York City.  This was shaping up to be one of the best summers ever. Before we went to New York, though, we stopped in the mountains, at a small hotel, somewhere in upstate New York. My mother's family was from the Adirondacks, and she'd spend her summers there as a child. 

It was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. Trees everywhere, water at every turn. Back in LA, there was a drought. Trees were in short supply. And here, it looked like a landscape from my fairy tales: Oak trees and acorns and birch trees and canoes and lakes and streams and trout – and fireflies!

That afternoon, at the hotel, my dad asked me to go for a walk with him. This was an unheard-of honor. I must have really impressed him on this trip.

As we started walking, he said he wanted to tell me a secret. I was hooked right away – secrets were great. Another way to prove that I was special. That I needed his attention. I could keep a secret!

A long time ago, he said, before I was born, before he'd met my mother, he had another wife. 



How was that possible? My mother WAS his wife. 

The only one. How could you have two? How could he have had a wife? And how could he not have told me before?

I felt the world under me shifting a bit. My perspective started to skew as he kept talking.

“She still lives in New York,” he said.  “And we had a little boy, about five years older than you are.”



I have a brother? 

That's impossible. I'm the oldest. I'm the OLDEST. That's who I AM. 

And you have a son? And you don't talk to him? And I've never met him?

The ground under my feet shifted some more.

“His name is Donald McGovern, junior, but we call him Donny. He’s a teenager now. I’m going to New York tonight, to visit him.

I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that I had a brother. That my father had someone else to love. And that I had to keep this secret!

My mother knew, he said. But I mustn't tell Katie. Or Morgain or Nora or anyone in school.

They wouldn't understand. And he was leaving the hotel this afternoon, to go visit his old wife and son, without us.

I went back to the hotel room, locked myself in the bathroom, and sat on the toilet. 

I had my first moment where I doubted all reality – I kept hearing the voices of my parents and sisters in the next room and wondered if it was really them. Maybe I wasn't really there. Maybe they were aliens. 

Maybe I was alone and making up being there. Maybe I made the whole thing up and I was still the oldest.

And then, suddenly, my father was gone, and so was the whole reason for the trip. He’d be back in a week or so, and in the meantime, I was alone with my mother and three sisters in the middle of upstate New York, and I wanted to go home.

My mother’s family was from the Adirondacks, and her grandparents had started as miners. By the time we visited, in 1979, the mines were closed and my mother's grandparents were gone. 

But the houses were still there, and so was Mineville, so we went to see where my mother played with cousins and picked berries and took baths in a tub, and it was not nearly so impressive as it sounded – a tiny row of houses, painted red, run-down, on a road that was barely paved.

But she lit up when we were there, and she loved to tell the stories, and she was happy when she talked about it.

And my mom was fun when she was happy. She'd buy ice cream, and stop at the store for treats, and she had patience. So we listened and were glad she was happy.

We went for awful hot dogs that she called "Michigan Hots," which were just plain hot dogs with sweet chili and onions on them that were disgusting. But she said they were a treat when she was kid, so we ate them.

We went to Lake George, and we played at the lake and did arcade games and ate pizza.

And after that, I have no idea what happened. I don't remember any of the rest of the trip. Or any of the ride back to California. Or anything really, for another month or so.

Because my father called my mother and told her he wasn't coming back with us.

That he'd flown home to California alone after he visited his first wife and his son. My brother. The older one.

Because he needed a break from my mother and kids. 

I know that a friend came out to New York and drove home with us, to share the driving. I know that as a fact, but not a memory.

I knew, though, that somehow, everything would be all right when we got back to Los Angeles. My father would come home, I would be the oldest again, my bedroom would be my safe place, under the canopy bed, with my doll named My Friend Mandy, and everything would be back to normal.

Except, of course, that it wasn't.


Lessons learned this weekend

Skills and lessons learned this weekend:
*Turning a pig leg into a ham isn't that hard. It just takes a sharp knife and some patience, and a lot of googling. Sites like pigwomanknife make it easier.
*Americans throw out a TON of food.  I took home 120 bananas from the gleaner's pantry tonight. Plus chicken, salads, green beans and produce. 
And there were at least 100 loaves of bread and bagels that were going to get fed to pigs and chickens. We're talking artisan, organic ciabatta, loaves of sourdough, whole wheat sandwich loaves. It's very sad.
I feel like I'm stealing food from the mouths of hungry people, but the food banks here are overflowing with food. And if I don't take the food, it's going to someone's pigs.
*A dehydrator is totally worth the money, if you'll eat dehydrated veggies and fruit leather. I don't know about the veggies yet, but my kids will totally eat fruit leather. Dehydrated green beans and squash? Will I use it? The jury is out.
*I went to go visit my new pigs tonight. We're getting two weaner pigs next week. They're very cute, absolutely adorable, and I will have no problem eating them. We went to go see a neighbor named Alan, who's the local pig/cow/chicken expert. He has a farm around the corner from us with chickens, one-eyed turkeys, pigs and cows and a pumpkin patch, and stray ducks and cats with half a tail. Sander is in love and wants to visit every day. He was enthralled with every story and soaked up every drop of information. Alan's like an encylopedia on why you want sows vs. boars, why you want short-horned cattle for beef (they're the heirloom tomatoes of cows -- totally underappreciated and making a comeback because of taste,) and what happens if your pig gets out (you buy your neighbors flowers to replace the ones they eat!)
*I love my husband and I hate when he's gone. He's the only thing that keeps this crazy train on its rails and headed down the track. Can't even imagine life without him.
*I am really, really ready for harvest season to be over. Because while I'm loving all this food and I recognize how lucky I am to have all of this bounty, I'm ready for easy nights where I can throw lentils and carrots into the crockpot and call dinner done and not have to think about preserving even one damned thing. I'm ready for knitting,  TV shows and hot chocolate. But I still have more apples and green beans and squash and tomatoes to deal with. They'll be delicious in January. Right now, I don't even want to look at food.
*I'm happy. We're more poor than we've been in a long time. All of our money went into moving, buying this house, renovating it, and then there was a stupid $2,000 cat bill. We're broke, like until Sawyer goes to college. But I wouldn't change a second of any of it. We spent the weekend putting netting on the chicken coop, picking blackberries and apples, and setting up for pigs. My kids are happy, I'm happy, and Mark is ... Well, Mark is slowly getting used to the idea that he's in not in downtown Austin anymore. The more good food I keep feeding him, the happier he gets. So I'm going to keep feeding him, and I think that in a year, while he might not be ready to be a farmer, he's going to be a happy guy.



The Gleaner's Pantry

OK, so how many of you know what a gleaner is?

I sort of knew -- you can glean an idea, and I'd seen the famous painting of "The Gleaners" while in Paris. I remember thinking it was a really tough way to make a living -- picking up leftover food, after the harvest.

But here, it was used it the literal, biblical sense: People wanted to know if they could glean apples from my tree when I was done with it, and I heard about gleaners going out to the raspberry fields after the farmers harvested crops.

It's an old, old concept; as the link explains, different books in the bible talk about gleaning, and it goes back to ancient Jewish tradition and way before that. It means to pick up the leftovers -- to gather up all remaining food and use it to feed your pantry.

I'm fascinated by this -- that there has always been a tradition of gleaning, of laws made about it, and that it still exists today.

And then, last week, we drove by a beat-up, hand-painted sign on a small, run-down building, only a few blocks from my house, that said, "The Gleaners Pantry."
So I had to stop in and see what they were doing.

Turns out, they're gleaning. They're taking all of the leftover produce and food that grocery stores don't want, and they're getting people together to dig through it all and see what's good enough to keep.

All you need to do is join up, pay about $15 a month, volunteer a few hours, and be willing to dig through boxes of food.

So on Monday, I showed up to see what it was all about.

And it was like a whole different world.

There were about fifteen women, all of them looking like they homeschool, go to church, have children and lots of responsibility. I'd be willing to bet there wasn't a pedicure, botox shot or a designer handbag used by any of them. And not for lack of money: Clearly, these women had different priorities. Frugal, strong, intelligent, clever and efficient, they lined me up, put to work, and told me I could "shop" for free the first day to see if I wanted to join.

So, with a pair of gloves on, I joined in. Case after case of half-rotten peaches, tomatoes with a few brown spots, lettuce that was wilting, apples that had soft spots, jalepenos that were starting to wrinkle. I said to one woman, "So how bad does the peach have to be to throw it out?"
She said, "If you can make it into a smoothie, save it. If you and your kids wouldn't eat it, it goes into the box for the pigs."

It was pretty tedious work, but not entirely unpleasant, and there were several boxes of dry goods -- sugar, mac and cheese boxes, jello and canned goods. After about twenty minutes, we were done, and we lined up to "shop" from the now clean, dry, ready-to-eat food.

Cases of tomatoes. Nothing wrong with them. The ones with mold had been thrown away. The ones left were ripe, but not bad. The jalepenos were soft, but not rotten. The peaches needed to be eaten that day, or the next, but they weren't awful.

It looked like, well, food. Like a peach you'd brought home a day or two ago and sat on your counter, and you'd think as you walked by, "I'd better eat that soon."

Not, "Eeew, I need to throw that out."

And so I went, and I picked out potatoes, and peaches and pears and plums and tomatoes (I picked out the organic ones,) and cucumbers and peppers.

I went by the peaches, and they were a little yucky, but there was a woman who was going to take the whole box home.

I said, "Those are pretty over-ripe. They're really too ripe, even for smoothies. What are you going to do with them?"
She said she was going to take them, mush them up, put them in the freezer and when the apples on her tree ripened, she'd mix the applesauce with the peaches and make fruit leather.

That's when I knew I was in presence of ninja-level frugality and food cleverness. 

And then, at the end, they said, "OK, who wants more? There's a whole case of tomatoes and peppers left."

One lady said, "I only need half a case for canning. Anyone want to split the box?"

Nope. It was going to go to the pigs.

So I took it home.



And this:

All of it.

With peppers, and mushrooms and onions and potatoes, and more food than I had any idea what I was going to with.

Yes, that's a fat organic heirloom tomato.

And fat, ripe apples with not even a spot on them. And a turnip, I think, or a parsnip. I don't even know. But I do know that it's going into soup.

And I got into the car with my free loot, and I handed Scout a plastic clamshell full of canteloupe, and she didn't say to me, "Mom, I can't eat this, because it's garbage that our society says is no good anymore."

Instead, she said, "Yuuuum! Give me some of that delicious fruit!", and she ate every last piece.

And so I went home, and I lined up my canning jars, and I got out some recipes, because I had no idea what to do with half of this stuff, and I did this with it:


And now I have to decide if this is something I can keep doing.

Because I'm not saving the world by eating food that's been thrown away. I'm not really making a statement by eating food that would otherwise go to pigs. Or if I am, I can't figure out what the statement is.

I just know that our society throws out an awful lot of food for no good reason.

Do you guys know Mavis? Mavis is my hero. She's who I want to be. She feeds her family on $100 a month, mostly from her garden, and from gleaning.

I can certainly afford to feed my family. I can go out and buy lettuce. I can plant a garden. But do you know how much more money we'd have if I spent $100 a month on feeding my family?

And I have a hard time deciding whether it's better to use a case of tomatoes that would have gone to the pigs to make sauce with over tomatoes that I've grown from my garden, or that I've bought from a local farmer who makes his living on organic heirloom tomatoes.

I'm not sure what all of it means.

But I do know that I'm with Mavis. I'm not going to go back to eating the American way anymore -- buying overpriced, over-sprayed, under-nourishing food from a grocery store lit by flourescent lights that sells food that kills people.

This might just be the beginning. Can I keep it up? I don't know. I sure hope so.

Because it sure would be a shame to let the pigs in our country eat better than most people do.


The county fair

Sander and his apple, at the fair. Sander was born for county fairs.


I have been having quite the time the past few weeks.

We have an apple tree that had close to 1,000 apples on it -- possibly more. I lost count. But the apples are green, soft apples, and they're sort of mealy/mushy. They're not that great for eating. But the neighbors all said the apples were good for sauce, so I picked a bunch of apples, made some applesauce, and OH MY GOD is it good. Fabulous. Best applesauce you've ever had.

So, now I was on a mission. There is FREE FOOD in my front yard. We're trying to save money, right? And live on a budget, right? So clearly, the number one thing to do to cut down the budget is make applesauce. Not cut down on travel, stop spending $2000 on bringing sick cats back from near death, not cut down our huge phone bill. Applesauce will do the trick.

So, I've put up a bunch of applesauce. Like, 20 quarts worth. And I think, "There is no way in hell that I will ever eat this much applesauce. I don't even like applesauce. I'm done."
And my friend Sheila, who is more frugal than I am (well, hell, Kim Kardashian is more frugal than I am on a bad day, but really, Sheila is frugal,) says, "But if you have the applesauce in your pantry, you'll use it. You'll use in baked goods, on pancakes, in desserts. Put up as much as you can."
Fine, says I, and I wipe the sweat off my forehead, put my hair back up in the ponytail, and go back to work.

But then the blackberries become ripe. And there are acres of blackberries, surrounding the house on all sides. And these are devil-bushes that take over the entire yard, and I hate them, and all of the sudden, they're throwing fabulously delicious fruit at us. There are blackberries by the car door in the morning. They're over by the chicken coop. They're by the mailbox. And they're under the apple tree.

So, I have everyone pick blackberries, and I make blackberry wine, and blackberry jam, and I put up some pie filling. But they're hard to pick, because there are ton of sharp thorns on them, but they're tasty and sweet and it's FREE FOOD, I'm telling you, so I go and make more.

And then my neighbors come over and ask me for some apples, because apparently this tree is famous in the neighborhood for how many apples it's been producing for the past 60 years, and because of how good the applesauce is. So I give them each a bag, and then I put on a trading list that I have extra apples, and someone comes over picks apples and gives me two jars of blueberry jam and some quail eggs and some duck eggs, and that's what finally gets me hooked, and I am on a roll: I must preserve food. I must make more applesauce.

So, by this time, I'm making applesauce in my sleep, and there are still more apples, and the blackberries are only beginning to come into season, and I'm starting to feel like it's the last week of school and finals are just around the corner and I'm wondering if I'm ever going to get done, because, you know, FREE FOOD.

And then the squash come in, and I'm like, "Oh, HELL no," and my son's friend comes over with four squash that are the size of my thighs, and let me tell you -- I do NOT have small thighs. And so I look that up, and it turns out you can't can it, and you have to freeze it, so I'm grating it to freeze it, when one of the ladies who picked apples says, "Hey, there's a plum tree up the road that needs picking," so I get in my car with my kids, and because clearly, I have lost my mind, we pick 64 pounds of plums.

Because, you know, FREE FOOD.

And of course, they're tiny, wee little plums, that are completely fussy and require all sorts of work, and I've still got the apple tree throwing apples at me, people are sneaking squash onto my porch at 2 a.m., and the blackberries launching themselves in my path to remind me they're still there, and while I was, just last week, thinking that it was so bountiful and amazing that the earth was throwing food in my direction, I'm now feeling like the free food is being hurled at me with great force and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to catch it all.

And then today, I finally changed my jam-stained clothes, took a long overdue shower, cleaned up the kitchen and went to the county fair with Mark and the kids.

And we had an absolute blast. How could you not? Tilt-a-whirl, the dairy barn, quilts on display, curly fries, and both boys had a wristband for all the rides they could ride in a day.

We went on a mission to find out as much information as we can about local 4H clubs, and to ask questions about raising pigs for meat, and about how to show animals at the fair.

I have this idea that we're going to have pigs for meat, and maybe raise chickens for meat, and we bought three turkeys last week, and we need to see if we're brave enough to eventually murder them, or if we'll end up with turkey pets.

So in the dairy barn, we met up with a woman who we know from Boy Scouts. Since everyone in Whatcom county knows everyone else, I'm going to call her Nellie Olsen. Nellie's a homeschooling mom who has a passel of children, and she is as nice as she can be, and she is as diametrically opposed to me as is possible in just about every area, except the fact that we're both American, homeschoolers, female and live in Washington.

Nellie's one of the moms whose family is leaving Boy Scouts over the fact that they're going to let gay children stay in Scouting. She believes it's wrong. I've also seen her give the Cub Scouts a good scolding because they weren't saluting properly when they had a flag-folding ceremony, and she gave them a lecture about "how people have died to protect your right to fly that flag." Which is true, but people have also died to protect their right to not have to respect it as well.

And she has a license to carry a concealed handgun, which tells you something. I'm not sure what it tells you. But I know I wouldn't want to mess with her dairy cow at 2 a.m.

So, the kids and I ask Nellie questions about 4H (as much as I want to hate her for being so close-minded, she's really quite pleasant to talk to and friendly to my kids and me,) and off we go to the exhibits.

This is what I really want to see: Where other people who have been infected by this insane disease of putting up food are now showing it off to the world. There's a whole bunch of fruits and veggies on plates, all of which have ribbons on them, and now Sander wants to show veggies next year.

At this point, we want to enter our chickens, our turkeys, our tomatoes and apples, Sander's collection of "cool stuff," because he saw that a collection of Beanie Babies had a ribbon, my knitting, and perhaps some pickles.

And I have now completely had my brain taken over. Because really, how, exactly, am I saving the world by entering pickles into the county fair? How is this good for me, or for my family, to take my knitting and have it held up for judging? What the hell century is this? What am I teaching my daughter about feminism and equality by putting up applesauce and holding it up for inspection?
Just as I am contemplating how silly, really, all of this is, in an age of internet and international travel, for me to even contemplate entering plum jelly, I see it: The rows of jams and jellies with ribbons on it.

There's only one applesauce entered, so it has a blue ribbon. One blackberry jelly, so it won, too. One corn salsa. In fact, there are a ton of jams and jellies and sauces, but one woman was clever enough to enter things into categories that no one else entered, so that she ended up with EIGHT blue ribbons.

I'm sure you can guess who it was.  Yep. That gun-totin', gay-hating, dairy-cow owning bastion of homeschooling motherhood. Nellie Olsen.

And all the way back to car, like some pod person, I ranted. "Next year, I'm entering applesauce, and pickles, and a turkey, and jam, and a chicken, and we're going to show that Nellie Olsen who's boss. Next year, it's MY turn to win eight blue ribbons!"

This, people, is what it looks like when nature has hit you in the head with blackberries and apples one too many times.

Clearly, I need a dose of fast food. Or a job that involves wearing clothes and leaving the house.

In the meantime, however, I'm going to fantasize. Next year, Nellie Olsen, those blue ribbons are MINE.