Ice Worms, Snow Shoes and New Ground

We all dig ruts for ourselves, routines and activities that shape our days and give us a sense of control over chaos.

Some of us dig deeper grooves than others. We rise at the same time each day, eat the same food for breakfast, drink the same juice and coffee and read the paper in exactly the same way. We walk the dog at the precise time each morning and take the same route to work; and lunch and dinner follow like clock-work, punctuated by the arrival of the kids home from school after the clock hands have spun enough times.

I’m one of those people. Every morning at the bus stop, I throw the ball for the dog. She races after it and always returns on the same path. The grass under her feet is worn brown. I’m like her. Each morning the ball is thrown out, and I carry it back along the routes I know.

I’m at a time in my life where major changes face me. My parents are elderly, my children are teenagers on the brink of finding their own lives. My former career is gone, my new one uncertain. The economy and old political orders and even the weather seem to be shifting to new patterns. So I cling to my routines, clutching the ground with my fingers and toes and hoping for one more day before I’m flung from my rut.

But once in a while, someone or something forces us from our path. Sometimes it’s something big—the loss of a job or income, a health crisis, the death of a loved one. And sometimes it’s something small, like snowshoeing in the woods on a winter day.

My husband signed us up for a ranger-led hike at Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade mountains last weekend. Secretly, I fretted about going. I’d have to get up early. I’d need to find snow gear. I don’t know how to snowshoe anymore. Even though I grew up in the snow on the Canadian border, I haven’t donned skis or snowshoes in decades. Snowshoeing isn’t routine.

But we went. The rangers handed out snowshoes and led us onto the snow field where the hike would start. I stared around amazed. The snow, where it was cut back along the road, rose higher than my head. Once on top, people occasionally broke through the surface and plunged up to their hips.

We stood on a parking lot, said our guide, and we’d start our hike along a forest road. No trace of it existed. Now only a tamped down, two-foot wide track led through a white meadow. A bathroom sat buried at the end of the lot with only the tip of its roof showing. Snow fell gently. Once we got our snowshoes on our feet, our guide lined us up along the field and told us we were going to race to the outhouse.

He blew a whistle and I lurched forward with everyone else, moving like a giant Arctic waterbug. The lady next to me fell onto her face and floundered helplessly until a ranger plucked her from the snow. I kept going. Another person fell. I strode forward, following a guy with six-foot legs, and exhilaration began to grow. I didn’t beat spider-man, but I kept the feeling and stayed on my feet.

I learned new facts: Pileated woodpeckers cushion their brains from pounding with extra-long muscles and bones that wrap around their skulls and connect to their tongues. And the snow holds micro-organisms that feed a host of tiny life such as springtails and ice-worms. (That information stopped a lot of snow tasting.)

I saw new perspectives: A tiny bush poking from the snow in reality was the top of a 15-foot tree reaching for the sky. Land that would be impassible in summer because of thorny devil’s club and brushy swamp was easily negotiable on a bridge of snow. The world was white instead of green.

I was forced to move in a different way, bringing my feet level along the snow, and digging in my toes on the inclines to keep from slaloming down. I forgot to care if I fell down or looked odd.

And I was reminded of all the world that waits to be explored and the interesting people still unmet. The hike wasn’t long, only ninety minutes through the snow. But it led to new possibilities I never would have considered on my usual path.

So maybe we should all force ourselves to do something new each day or week. Eat a new food or read a romance or a book on pi, take our dogs on a new trail or say hello to someone we don’t know. Read a new blog or try a different video game or listen to country western. Try karate or dodgeball or tennis (I draw the line at Zumba). Learn how to program a computer or play the banjo. Plan a trip out of the country or explore a nearby town.

Sure, we might fall on our faces and flounder until someone helps us up. But we might see something beautiful.

Change comes whether we hide or not. Our ruts may be comfortable.  They may give us a sense of security and a clear path of where to go.  But if they get deep enough they become blinders, obscuring our vision and keeping us from seeing all the possibilities in life.

Let’s see if we can break free.


Failure to Communicate

My mother-in-law just finished an extended visit. This led to some strange discussions.

Her: “We need to cut off all the lazy spongers who don’t want to work.”

Me: “I think a lot of the spongers are working hard and still need help.”

Her: “This woman in my church had her son move back, and he sits home all day and collects food stamps and does nothing.”

Me: “A lot of unemployed people are looking for work and can’t find jobs.”

Her: “If we keep handing them money, they don’t have any incentive to work.”

I kept trying to tell her we’re on food stamps, and I couldn’t do it. I love her, but she listens to Rush Limbaugh every day, reads the Weekly Standard, and would die before voting for a Democrat. I’m sure she’d be horrified to learn that the meals we served came from the taxpayers. So I sat and listened to her read snippets of news about welfare fraud and government debt and said nothing.

To be fair, I can’t tell my parents, either, and they voted for Obama. Part of me figures they should be able to work it out. After all, they know we haven’t had a profit in almost four years. They know we’ve been living off savings, but do they think they’re bottomless? Since they haven’t asked, I’m guessing they don’t want to know.

But it’s odd. Like hosting a barbecue for PETA and not mentioning that chicken is on the menu.

Children have been hiding hard truths from their parents since Eve enticed Adam. They don’t tell them about failing grades or lost jobs or lovers who don’t meet standard. I look at my kids now and wonder what they won’t tell me when they’re older. I hope I remember this time and keep my beliefs expansive enough to hear whatever they might say. I hope my kids will tell me when their marriage is on the rocks, or they discover a suspicious lump, or get fired from a job.

The privilege of worry belongs to parents. We give up peace of mind the moment we first feel our baby stir, and we don’t get it back no matter how old that child becomes. So call your kids and ask what’s on their minds, and talk to your parents and tell them what’s on yours. Listen for what isn’t said. The silence will come soon enough.

we stayed awake

I want to share this poem I found on the blog bathrobetransmissions. I thought it beautifully expressed the schizophrenic feeling of being on food stamps. My thanks to the author.


It could have been any nighttime

anywhere, but

it wasn’t.

It could have been any season, in any

midwestern midsized town, but

it wasn’t.

We should have been sleeping,

we’re both so responsible.

We were giddy, though.

We stayed awake talking

about food,

provoked over plenty,

like third world refugees;

we hailed from the towards-the-bottom portion

of discount dented groceries and fruit about to over-ripen.

Two too-idealistic not-kids

giddy, sleep foregoing

making spectacles of our responsibility

while we giggled and plotted

at the newly accessible grocer’s shelves.

Our eyes lustrous in the dark,

we conspired to dream

of pastrami and provolone,

of plums, kumquats, and radicchio,

lasagna with fresh mozzarella,

and being well-fed.

The U.S. government can placate us poor so easily with food stamps.

We have so much. Why does this break my heart?

December 7, 2011

revised January 27, 2012

via we stayed awake.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty on a budget isn’t easy. Beauty with no budget is even tougher. For example: cutting your own hair is tougher than it looks. While I first tried to forego haircuts altogether, eventually I couldn’t stand the thicket of hair over my eyes and seized a pair of scissors. I thought the results quite fetching, until I scored a coupon for a $4 haircut and the hairdresser blurted out, “Who in the world cut your hair?” I mumbled something, but we both knew the truth. I vowed to seek other ways to keep my hair in check.

My new gray hair posed a bigger problem. Potential employers shy away from the Cruella De Vil look. So I figured I’d be better off if I got rid of the gray. Checking out the prices at the local salons was a shock, and I learned the color would need re-doing every six to eight weeks.

Then I saw a free trial offer from They promised salon quality, help from on-line hairdressers, and delivery to my door for a fraction of the cost. Why not? I thought. How hard could it be?

I filled out the online questionnaire telling them my hair goals (to look like Kiera Knightley), my hair type (neglected), and my preferred color. I bogged down on this last. They had dozens of color variations from violet to icy to copper to auburn. Did I want “gold brown” or “dark brown”? Reddish? Blonde? Ash?

After carefully studying the sleek models showing every permutation of brown, I boldly selected medium brown and sent off my request. Soon a package arrived in the mail with detailed instructions, two bottles of chemicals, gloves and a small brush. I waited until I had the house to myself and set up. First direction: clip your hair into four equal sections. I don’t own any hair clips. But being an innovative sort, I figured I could use paper clips. Next, mix the chemicals. The directions didn’t mention that they smell bad. Think of a week-old diaper pail.

Undeterred, I proceeded to the next step. Take a section of hair and get the goop onto the gray. I chose to use the little brush. Here’s where I discovered the next problem. I’m nearsighted. I can’t even see people in front of me without my glasses. After I found myself applying dye to the bathroom door, I put the glasses back on and decided my frames could use a new tie-dye look.

Next, I realized I’d forgotten the gel you’re supposed to apply to the skin around your hair to keep from looking like a tanning-booth victim. Too late. All I managed to do was smear the gel into the already dyed section of hair. The whole process was taking too long. I had visions of each quarter of hair turning out a different color.

I hurried through the first two sections and then had another realization. How are you supposed to see the back of your head? Did I even have any gray hairs back there? How would I know? I tried to find a mirror, but no luck. By now, I was sure the front of my head must be turning black. I hurriedly raked some goo onto the back sections, turning my neck and ears brown in the process, and set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes. I didn’t dare leave the bathroom. What if I got dye all over the house?

The instructions suggested the next step take place in the shower. I then had my next realization: I had no way to get my clothes off over my head without dyeing them. I tried. The paperclips got stuck on my pajamas. More minutes went by while I wrestled my way out. I was sure my hair must be dissolving by then.

I got into the shower. The next step was “shine.” I was supposed to mix water into the remaining dye until it was foamy, pour it back into the bottle and then apply it to the rest of my hair, lathering for two minutes. Again, no glasses. Big dish, little bottle. Not possible to pour it back in. Instead I decided I’d pour the dish on top of my head. Some of it actually made it onto my hair. Most ended up down my back, over my front and all over the shower.

I shined on and then spent the next 10 minutes rinsing the goo from my hair, my ears, my feet and shower. Here I learned lesson number six. Don’t rinse brown dye from your hair in a shower with beige grout.

I emerged with no gray hair looking like a Pygmy. My bathroom looked like I’d slaughtered a brown-blooded animal in it. If anyone ever goes missing in my house, I’m in trouble.

Hairdressers everywhere now have my complete respect.

Despite this experience, it is possible to be cheap and look professional. Dollar-store eyeshadow seems to work as well as more expensive brands. I haven’t gone blind yet or developed any rashes. And my homemade soap takes off makeup and keeps my face clean, although a Mary Kay lady warned me soap would wither my face like an apple doll. So far, so good, unless you ask my daughter.

And I’ve found Goodwill a reliable source of professional-type clothing for those times when I have to leave my office and actually meet people. This last comes with a caveat. Inspect the clothes carefully. They may have been donated for a reason.

This summer I went to a writing conference to meet agents for a novel I’ve written. I felt very spiffy in a $3 pair of black slacks and a jacket from Goodwill. To my horror, right before my agent appointment, I discovered the reason the pants were so cheap. The zipper was broken. I’d been wandering around the conference with a major draft. I raced to the hotel desk and got a sewing kit and ducked into a restroom. No safety pins. Standing in a stall, I sewed the zipper into the up position, (not easy when you’re wearing the pants) and dashed to my appointment, sliding into my seat just before the doors closed. The agent did request a look at the book, but going to the bathroom the rest of the day required something resembling the limbo. At least my hair wasn’t gray.

The Healthy and Basic Challenge

Casu Marzu, a type of cheese. This image was m...

I read an interesting article in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about repulsive foods. The author described some items that would make weight loss easy, including hákarl, which is decomposed, dried shark; and casu marzu or maggot cheese. Apparently, this cheese is made by adding fly larvae to overly fermented sheep cheese and letting the worms’ digestive enzymes transform the final product. Unfortunately, the worms become a live, wriggling part of the result.

This got me thinking about a survey I ran back in December that asked readers if food benefits should be spent on healthy, basic foods or if recipients should be left to make their own decisions. By about a three-to-one margin, respondents voted for further restrictions. Currently, the guidelines only rule out hot, prepared foods (i.e. deli or restaurant food), alcohol and tobacco, medicines and non-food items.

But clearly, people’s opinions about individual foods vary. Otherwise, I too, might find casu marzu a gourmet treat or be out on Puget Sound trying to catch a shark to rot in the sand. To illustrate my point, I spent some time on virtually touring the grocery aisles to determine what might be considered healthy and basic.

I started in the cereal aisle. Most nutritionists say that beginning the day with cereal and milk and a glass of orange juice is reasonably healthy.

Probably everyone can agree on plain Cheerios as a basic option. After all, mothers everywhere feed them to their toddlers. But if we allow Cheerios, do we also allow Chocolate Cheerios? Or Fruity Cheerios? Or Cinnamon Burst Cheerios? Do they still count as healthy? And what about General Mills Cookie Crisp cereal or my favorite, Count Chocula? Each box still contains the same added vitamins and minerals. (Check out this fun experiment for separating out the added iron. My kids loved it.)

On the flip side, how would you categorize a cereal like Annie’s Homegrown Totally Natural Cocoa & Vanilla Bunnies cereal? It’s organic. Totally natural. Would it count as healthy? It is expensive. sells it for $3.50 for 9 ounces ($6.22/pound). Or how about some other choices that are marketed for their health benefits: Kellogg’s Special K with Red Berries, a 12-ounce box for $6.65 per pound; and General Mills’ Fiber One Original Bran cereal, $5.82 a pound for the 16.2-ounce box. Do we consider these too expensive when other cereals cost less?

How do we sort these choices? If we want healthy, do we limit the grams of sugar? Dictate a certain amount of fiber? Say no one can buy cereal with an animal or a monster on the box? And if we want basic, what does that mean? Nothing organic or containing nuts or berries or marshmallows? No spin-off products like Chocolate Cheerios?

So let’s try to decide by price instead. Generic Raisin Bran is fairly reasonable. But I could buy Fruity Dyno Bites in a bag as cheaply, and I’m guessing I’d get a few frowns in the check-out line.

If the cereal aisle is difficult, the snack aisle is worse. Everyone seems to agree that people on welfare shouldn’t buy chips. But what if they buy baked sweet potato chips? Or Good Health Veggie Stix? Or Quaker Plain Salted Rice Cakes? Are these still too unhealthy? Too unnecessary? Okay, so then maybe we say no one should buy anything they don’t need in order to live. But then what about nuts? Most nuts are a great source of protein and heart-healthy oils and make a good alternative to meat. They’re also expensive. Wouldn’t you wonder if you saw someone buying a big can of Planter’s Peanuts with their food stamps?

And so it goes from aisle to aisle. Maybe we can rule out frozen burritos and pizza. But how do we decide about Lean Cuisine Chicken Stir Fry with Ginger Garlic? Or Healthy Choice All Natural Tortellini Primavera Parmesan? Or Boca Vegetarian Organic Burgers? They’re not unhealthy. But they’re not cheap either.

Even in the one aisle where you’d think you wouldn’t have a dilemma, the drinks aisle, you run into questions. Soda’s a no-brainer. But what about sparkling water or juices? Too unhealthy? Not basic enough? And what about other juices? Orange juice is healthy. It’s approved by WIC. But what about pomegranate juice? Or orange-carrot-mango juice? Or blended vegetable juice? You can’t say these aren’t healthy (fattening maybe). You can’t say prune juice or apple juice isn’t basic. But would you allow people to spend their benefits on them?

In the end, I think a lot of our unhappiness when we see these items in the carts of EBT shoppers comes not from how unhealthy the foods are, or how processed, but from our discomfort with knowing these people are buying food with our dollars. We automatically assume they’re not making the best choices. Otherwise, why would they need our money? We worry they’re buying things we ourselves can’t afford. How many people can purchase steak or pomegranate juice every week? What it comes down to is that no matter what people on food stamps buy, they are getting for free what others have worked long hours to earn. And no healthy or basic guidelines will make that easier to swallow.

In reality, the system we have may be the best one. Give people the lowest amount of assistance possible, and that number will ensure reasonable buying decisions.

Our own experience has been that the amount is overly generous. Every month, by buying generic brands, no processed foods, no expensive meats and no junk foods, we’ve had money left in the account. From October to January, the unused amount now stands around $1,100, or $275 each month. It helps that the garden provides most of our vegetables, and I realize these numbers vary from area to area and from family to family. We’re blessed to live in an area where groceries are plentiful and reasonably priced. The formula isn’t always as generous for everyone as it has been for us.

But I don’t think costly decisions on each food or food category will improve the system. Such micro-management would be difficult and expensive to maintain. The current guidelines are reasonable. Instead, reformers should re-examine the benefit amounts and the qualification guidelines.

And I challenge everyone to go to their grocery stores and try to choose which items to include and which to exclude. See how far you make it down the aisles, and let me know if you come up with a workable plan. And remember, one person’s necessity is another person’s casu marzu.

February 15, 2012–Recently the Florida legislature has been debating a bill (SB 1658) that would restrict food purchases under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The bill, proposed by Florida Sen. Ronda Storms, would ban the purchase of all “non-staple, unhealthy foods.”  According to the bill, these would include “foods containing trans fats; sweetened beverages, including sodas; sweets, such as jello, candy, ice cream, pudding, popsicles, muffins, sweet rolls, cakes, cupcakes, pies, cobblers, pastries, and doughnuts; and salty snack foods, such as corn-based salty snacks, pretzels, party mix, popcorn, and potato chips.”

Here are a few articles that discuss the bill: