What Did You Decide About the Pie Stand?

A few weeks ago, I posted a couple of polls on my Facebook business page, The World Needs More Pie, about reprising my Pitchfork Pie Stand. Bring it back for the summer at the American Gothic House, or rent a retail space within walking distance of the house on Eldon, Iowa’s main street? I stirred up expectations along with an outpouring of support, and now some of you are asking what I decided to do. 

I wanted to give you an update about my decision, my activities, and my plans. 

I’ve decided not to rent the retail space. 95% of the responses were an enthusiastic “GO FOR IT!” including the one from my mom. But there was one friend, who knows me maybe even better than my mom, who said, “ARE YOU CRAZY? You don’t want to be tied down.” Her words snapped me out of my fantasy, though it was an exciting one while it lasted. I miss people. I miss the community that pie creates. So a newly renovated space where I could sell pies, teach pie classes, sell pie-baking supplies, and provide a space where people could gather seemed like a good solution. 
It sounded so good on paper…  
But the reality check was this: I’m a terrible businessperson; I suck at bookkeeping. I want (and need) to travel; a year-round retail space would require me to stay put. The rent was very high for a rural town; I’m not prepared to take out loans or drain my savings. While my shop would bring people to town, the tourist season is short; it would be hard to sustain business (and pay rent) in the winter. And then there’s winter itself. I suffer from S.A.D. and the ONLY solution that works for me (and I’ve tried them all) is go south like a snowbird. 

Which brings me back to my original idea: reprising the Pitchfork Pie Stand inside the American Gothic House for the summer months. 
Sadly, the pie stand will not be returning to the American Gothic House. The AGH is owned by the State Historical Society of Iowa and the state employee who manages it, along with six other historical sites, has a blanket policy for all: No Baking Inside. No matter that I baked THOUSANDS of pies in the house during the four years I lived there. No matter that bringing the pie stand back for the summer would draw more tourists, create community, and contribute to the local economy. Policy is policy. 
Not one to take no for an answer, I considered going above his pay grade and asking for permission from his boss, his boss’s boss, hell, I’d have gone all the way to the governor. Or I might have organized a public campaign with my supporters to lobby for the pie stand. But I have too many other things to do with my time than battle bureaucracy. (For the record, I did consider baking elsewhere and transporting the pies to the AGH, but there’s a long list of reasons why that’s not a viable solution.) 
I’m sorry that Eldon’s visitors will miss out on pie. I’m sorry that I won’t get to bake with you. But I’m especially sorry that the AGH is not getting utilized. (The historical society won’t even allow you to plug in a Crockpot!) The AGH has a soul—I felt it the first time I saw I stepped inside—and I know it’s happier when it’s filled with life. And I don’t mean snakes! The pie stand would have been a win-win for everyone. It’s a shame the rule-makers in Des Moines don’t see it that way.
So what’s next then?

I’ve been working on edits for the second edition of my cookbook, “MS. AMERICAN PIE.” My original publisher took it out of print—such are the disappointments an author faces. I was planning on self-publishing it just so I could get it back out there in the world, but at the last minute, I signed on with Interlink Books. They will release the book next March (2022), and possibly with a new cover. Ten months seems like a long time, but given the high quality of Interlink’s printing, along with its sales, marketing, and distribution abilities, it will be worth the wait. It’s—hashtag—somethingtolookforwardto. 

I’m also working on my next book, “WORLD PIECE: One Woman, One Rolling Pin, Nine Countries, and the Desire to Make a Difference.” I completed my three-month round-the-world pie-making journey in 2015 (watch the 23-min film here), and did not expect writing the memoir would take far more time and effort than the trip itself. But that’s partly because I’ve only been working on it intermittently since my return. I dedicate myself to it in spurts, but I keep getting sidetracked. I’m finally ready—I swear—to get it to the finish line by the end of the summer. Which is another reason for not doing the pie stand. 

One of the projects that sidetracked me from “World Piece” was television—not watching it; writing for it. After a friend encouraged me to enter, I won a contest for a TV Pitch Workshop with Marta Kauffman. You may not recognize her name but you know her TV shows, “Friends” and “Grace and Frankie.” I was always terrified of the script format, but after downloading the software and giving it a try, I discovered that I actually LIKE writing scripts! I wrote my first TV pilot, have a good start on the second episode, and have outlined five seasons of the story arc. I even made a video pitch:
What’s my scripted TV show about? What is anything in my life about? PIE, of course! I had tried—and failed—to sell my memoir about the four years I lived in the American Gothic House, but winning the TV Pitch contest prompted me to repurpose it as a TV series. It works MUCH better as a dramedy than a memoir, because by fictionalizing it I can tell the real story about what happened and no one will know the difference! Marta likes my idea, but said she’s got too much on her plate to take it on. But now that the “Friends Reunion” is finally done, maybe she’ll reconsider. 
That’s the long answer to “What did you decide about the pie stand or pie shop?” Yes, it’s disappointing—for me, too—but I’ve got plenty of other pie-related projects to keep me busy. And I have not discounted the possibility of doing a pop-up pie stand, maybe this summer, maybe at the American Gothic House Center (the museum and gift shop next door to the AGH), maybe somewhere else. Thank you for your continued support and enthusiasm. Life as a writer can get lonely; it helps to know you’re out there, just a Facebook comment or text message away. 
One last thing before you go…

If you’ve read my books would you mind writing a review on Amazon? It would help so much. It’s a sad new reality in publishing that agents and publishers look at the reviews on that giant (some would say evil) website when considering representing authors. This goes for all authors, not just me. Those book reviews matter. 

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Some previous blog posts you might like: 




The Book That Doesn’t Want to Be Born…Yet

The photo to the left (it’s a Bitmoji) is me. It’s me and it sums up everything I am feeling right now about writing my American Gothic House memoir.

I am trying to get my story down — my whole story — about my four years of misadventures living in a rural Iowa tourist attraction. I made pie (god, did I make pie!)  I fended off snakes and tourists and mean neighbors (who could forget The Binoculars!)  I wrangled the flow of houseguests, pie customers, and media (I never should have said yes to Larry “Git ‘er Done” the Cable Guy).  I made new friends–of all ages and backgrounds (think bib overalls, pickup trucks, and Bingo).  I learned about Midwestern cuisine and was treated to an eye-opening array of cultural experiences.  I wrote two books — and even went on two national book tours.  I looked for new love and — after several ill-fated attempts (remember the guy with the guinea pig and the big-screen TV who moved in?) — I finally found it.

That’s a lot of good material. But the words are just not flowing.

I’ve been working on this book for nine months and four years. Nine months since I came back all pumped up and bursting with mojo from my writers’ retreat in Taos. And four years since I first determined — while still living in the famous house — that this was a book I had to write and that I would — and could — commit to it.

Do I have the interest and drive to finish a book-length work on this subject? This is the first question to answer before starting the long journey. (In my case, really long. Painfully, crookedly, stuck in stop-start traffic long.) And my answer, of course, was yes.

Approaching my memoir like a novel, I had also already cross-examined myself on the questions agents and publishers will ask:

What is this book about? How would you sum it up in two sentences? Who is this book for? Who is your audience? What is the protagonist’s struggle? What are the obstacles she needs to overcome? Who are the other characters in your story? What are the elements of suspense that will keep the reader turning the pages?

In other words, Why the fuck would anyone want to buy my book, let alone read it?!

Why? “Because you write it in a way that makes it interesting,” writing coach Jen Louden told me tenderly when I went to her in tears during the Taos retreat last April/May.

My experiences living in the American Gothic House — and in Eldon, Iowa, in general — were definitely interesting. But how to corral all those snapshots into a narrative album that that gels into a cohesive story, flows with emotional resonance, that shows not tells, that doesn’t drone on for 412 frickin’ pages (like it does in its current draft form)? How to weave all those outlandish (and outrageous) tales into a tapestry of well-crafted prose and make it sound more “literary” with clever metaphors, fresh new insights, and philosophical revelations? How to write it in a way that ensures reviewers will praise my book instead of ripping it apart? How to make it so goddamn brilliant it lands on the New York Times bestseller list?!

This is what to say to all that self-doubt and inner chatter.

How? How about just not worrying about it? How about writing and not stopping until you reach the end? I’ve heard more than one writing instructor say, “Don’t think about editing until you have a complete draft.” (Otherwise known as the Shitty First Draft.) “Then you can go back and deepen and thicken it. We are storytellers. Just tell your story.”

Besides, as Jen has said, “It’s the attitude you bring to your writing that’s far more important than your inborn talent.”

Attitude? Oh yeah, I copped an attitude. After Taos, my attitude was Git. Er. Done. (You know things are bad when you start quoting Larry the Cable Guy.)

When I got back from Taos in early May I set up a new office in the farmhouse. I put on my big girl overalls. And I got to work. I had the momentum. I really had it going. My start — after four or five previous attempts — was not a false one this time. I was cranking out the chapters (38 of them!) and making steady progress toward those golden words: “And she lived happily ever after.” (Or maybe just “The End.” But most likely “To be continued.”)

I was feeling good about the majority of my work. I had even shared pages with a few of my most critical friends and got positive feedback. There was humor and heartache and honesty and detailed descriptions to put the reader in the scene. My words were flowing like warm honey on toast, baby. I was staying disciplined and keeping my butt in the chair. And, most important, the muzzle I put on my Inner Critic was holding tight. I was almost done with my first draft. Almost. Until I was derailed by a trifecta of interruptions. The Holidays. My dog Jack getting sick. (He almost died!) And the hard drive on my 4-month-old MacBook crashing (It died! Luckily I didn’t lose my data.) Fun times.

My writing came to a standstill for more than a month.

Writer, Interrupted.

Last week I got my butt back in the chair and opened up the Word doc for my neglected manuscript. In order to get started again I read back a few chapters.

And that’s where the exasperated, book-throwing bitmoji comes in.

I texted this bitmoji to my sister (she is the one who introduced me to this amusing app) with the message, “My writing totally sucks.”

She replied with her usual quick wisdom: “You are exactly where you are supposed to be in the book-writing process.”

She then suggested a few books for me to read, starting with Reasons to Stay Alive (by Matt Haig.) Geez, did I sound that despondent?! She also recommended watching a recent 60 Minutes interview with John le Carré (aka David Cornwell.) I checked out both.

Matt Haig writes, “Beware of the gap. The gap between where you are and where you want to be. Simply thinking of the gap widens it. And you end up falling through.”

Funny, I had just heard Jen Louden say this very thing in an online class last week. She reassured the audience that everyone has a gap. Even the most successful authors. “Post a note above your desk and write this on it,” she suggested. “Everybody has a gap.”

Haig also wrote in his book (that I always mistakenly call Reasons Not To Kill Yourself,) “Don’t worry about the time you lose to despair. The time you will have afterward has just doubled its value.”

Again, this struck me, as I had just watched an interview on YouTube of memoirist Dani Shapiro talking about her writing process. She had stepped away from a manuscript for a few months and when she came back to it she wanted to take a pickaxe to it!

That moment when you realize you need to restructure.

She despaired, but she called it “productive despair,” claiming that the time away was necessary and useful because it gave her perspective. Only after coming back could she see with clarity that her book needed restructuring. She said it’s the second to last stage of the book writing when you have to move through the murky waters before touching the bottom, and that the bottom is what it takes to propel yourself back “up, up, up” to the surface. “There’s light up there,” she said, “but first we have to live in the depths.”

I’ve been living in the murky depths longer than my short attention span allows. Three months is a comfortable length of time for me to immerse myself in a project. Three months, not nine months and four years. (I finished my other two books in well under a year.) Worse, my stalled-out period is pushing the finish line even farther out. How much longer is this going to take?!

Enter John le Carré. I watched the “60 Minutes” interview my sister recommended.

Le Carré said of his first book, the bestseller The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, “I wrote it very fast, the story. But I had no idea where I was going at first. And it just flowed.”

That’s how I felt about writing Making Piece. It flowed so easily I felt like someone else was writing it and I was just there to type. So why has my American Gothic House memoir been such hard work? Why does it feel like it’s a baby that doesn’t want to be born?

Le Carré  answered the questions for me as he continued, “I think you get a break like that once in your writing life. I really believe — nothing else came to me so naturally, so fast.”

There you have it. Le Carré had his gaps. He had his productive despair. He had to work at his writing — really work. And look where it got him. He’s made enough money to buy a private jet. (Though he is so humble he would never think of it.)

As I continued to listen, I exhaled (as one must do when Scuba diving in the murky depths of productive despair.) I could feel the air leave my lungs, percolating out in a stream of little bubbles. The fact that I was still breathing was as encouraging as John le Carré’s admission that writing is hard even for him.

I take in all of this as encouragement, a new inventory of helpful wisdom from those who have dredged the sea bottom before me. But I’m still underwater, still struggling. Especially with the overall theme of the book. Because the most important question of all to me is What will the reader take away from my story? Will they be inspired to choose their own fork in the road and follow the path that beckons to a new and unknowable adventure? Or will the reader wonder, “Girl, why the hell didn’t you just move out when you saw that first snake?” and then dismiss the rest of the story.

So while I wait to hit bottom (Seriously?! It’s going to get worse before it gets better?!) I will accept that this is my gap.

I will do the breast stroke through the dark waters and trust that I will eventually swim back to the surface.

I will look for new methods of silencing my Inner Critic.

I will stop putting time pressure on myself. (Who cares how long it takes? Some authors take five, ten years to write their books. And they end up being classics. Hello? Ever heard of Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter, The Hobbit?)

I will clean off my mask and snorkel, and grab my surfboard. Because that flow is coming back and I’m going to be ready to ride that wave when it does.

I will finish (and publish) this book. And once I’m done I will text my sister. I already have the perfect bitmoji for it.

“Never, never, never give up.” – Winston Churchill

Seven Years

“Seven Years in Tibet,” “The Seven Year Itch,” seven chakras, the seven-year Shemitah cycle, there is a lot tied to this particular number of years.  Today marks the seventh anniversary of Marcus’s death. That day. That phone call. That searing pain of a broken heart so shattered I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Or just die.  But I didn’t die. I am still here.

A lot has happened in the past seven years. I have had to rebuild my life. And then rebuild it again. In the process I have made a lot of pies, made a lot of friends, traveled to a lot of countries, adopted four goats, and finally found new love with a man named Doug. I have suffered more loss—the tragic death of my beloved terrier-mix Daisy, who Marcus and I rescued off the streets of Mexico, loss of a place I had called home for four years, loss of several close friendships that shifted, disconnecting to the point of no return.

And so here I am.  Seven years after that day the medical examiner delivered the news—“Your husband is deceased.”

The memory lives in my cells. I am not always conscious of it, of where that unsettled feeling in my heart is coming from, as the August date approaches. And then I realize, oh, yes, I remember. I know why I’m out of balance, melancholy, confused. It’s that anniversary. The day my husband’s life ended and my “new normal” began.

Two nights ago, Doug and I were out kayaking during the full moon and as we paddled through the dark water, drifting with the current under the night sky, I casually mentioned to him, “You know that Friday is the seventh anniversary of Marcus’ passing.” I was hesitant to bring it up. I didn’t want him to think that my heart was still so broken from Marcus that there wasn’t room to fully love him. But given that I am always stressing the importance of communication in our relationship, I thought it was right to say something, so that if he felt I was being quiet or distant he would know why.

His answer only made me love him more. Doug is a farmer. He is hard working, rugged, and possesses the brute strength of a bull. He is also gentle and kind and has a knack for saying exactly the right thing to put me at ease. His response was simply: “You’ve had a lot of experiences in seven years.”

I nodded, brushing a lone tear off my cheek, glad it was too dark for him to see me. And then, as I continued my rhythm, dipping each blade of my paddle in the river, left side, then right side, propelling myself forward with each stroke, I mused over what—and where—exactly I had been in these past seven years.

YEAR ONE  2009 – 2010
I left my little miner’s cabin in Terlingua, Texas and moved back to Portland, Oregon, living in the guest house next to the house where Marcus and I had previously lived. I went to grief counseling twice a week. I learned to drive the RV and took it down to California, where I went on a two-week pie-making film shoot with my friend Janice. A highlight of that trip was making 50 pies and handing them out by the slice in L.A. It was then when I really understood the magic of healing: If you want to feel better, do something nice for someone else. I created my website, The World Needs More Pie. I blogged a lot—about my grief and how I was coping with it.  I traveled to Iowa to be a pie judge at the Iowa State Fair, and in a surprising twist I discovered the American Gothic House was for rent (for $250 a month!).

YEAR TWO 2010- 2011
Instead of going back to the West Coast, I stayed in rural Iowa, making the American Gothic House my home. I opened the Pitchfork Pie Stand. Making pie felt good. It connected me to the community and brought new friends into my life. I stayed for the winter, writing my memoir “Making Piece” at my kitchen table, wearing Marcus’ fleece to stay warm. In spring, I discovered a 6-foot-snake in my bathroom. And in summer I signed up for Match.com. I spent the second anniversary of Marcus’ passing on a dinner date with a suitor who didn’t talk the entire meal.

YEAR THREE  2011- 2012
I fired up The Beast (the 24-foot C-class RV Marcus had bought, that I never wanted and vowed never to drive) and went on a six-week book tour for “Making Piece” across the country, including Seattle and Portland, places loaded with memories of my late husband. I ran the pie stand again that summer. In December, I drove the RV to Flanders, New Jersey, pulling together volunteers and ingredients to make pies to comfort the people in Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting. We delivered 250 pies to Newtown, serving them by the slice to help the community heal.

YEAR FOUR 2012 – 2013
I suffered through a frigid Iowa winter until I couldn’t stand it any longer and by spring coughed up the cash to rent a place in Key West, Florida for a month — but not before discovering another six-foot-long snake in my house! Worse, we never caught it. I celebrated my 50th birthday alone (intentionally) by driving the RV to a campground. Away from my computer and with no cell phone reception, I hiked and swam with my two terriers, wrote in my journal, drank a glass (or two) of wine, and savored my solitude.  When I returned, some friends came over with a chocolate cake and an offer to help me with my pie stand, which had started growing to a point it was getting harder to manage. I had a short-but-fun relationship with a guy who liked biking, and had a house in Colorado ski town. He was a CEO who could still do handstands on his skateboard. He loaned me his snake-catching stick, which I had to put to use several times in my basement. Alas, that relationship didn’t work out, so I returned the snake stick and went to LA for the winter. In LA, I met an artist from Iowa and gave love yet another try.

YEAR FIVE 2013-2014
I gave a TEDx talk about how pie can change the world—and how it helped heal my grief. My “Ms. American Pie” cookbook was published. I did another cross-country book tour, using the trip to get the RV from Los Angeles back to Iowa. I left the artist behind. I spent the fifth anniversary of Marcus’ death having dinner on Doug’s farm. My friend Nancy from Texas came along. Doug and I weren’t officially dating, but we had been spending time together. He had taken me kayaking a few times, and picked me up for dinner on his BMW motorcycle. I hadn’t been on the back of motorcycle since Marcus’ (also a BMW). During that first ride with Doug, I scooted back on the seat so our bodies wouldn’t touch. I wouldn’t even hold onto his belt loops. The pie stand kept growing, along with my stress.

YEAR SIX 2014 – 2015
Year Six was a year of more devastating loss. First, I moved out of the American Gothic House. I had loved that house so much. But too many things were adding up (mean neighbors getting even meaner, a murder at the bait shop, people wanting more and more pie, and other growing pressures) and my gut feeling was telling me—screaming at me—it was time to go. (Ask anyone who helped with my pie stand and they will verify I had turned into tempestuous b*tch.) I put all my belongings in storage and stayed on Doug’s farm for a much-needed rest. I will never forget the (unfortunately fleeting) moment of Nirvana I felt one morning while sipping my coffee on his porch. My face pointed toward the sky, the velvet breeze off the fields acting like a salve on my bare skin, the puffy clouds sailing past the sun, the only sound being the rustling of corn leaves…After four years I could exhale and let my guard down. It was the discovery of something I didn’t realize I was so desperately in need of after living in a tourist attraction: privacy! My dogs loved “Camp Doug,” running free in the pasture and on the gravel roads with no neighbors calling the sheriff about them being at large. But winter was coming and I couldn’t take another bone-chilling season. So I left and headed south—straight into tragedy. I was staying at a friend’s house and let the dogs out the back door for their morning business. Jack came back ten minutes later, bleeding from the neck. Daisy never came back at all. That morning, I rushed Jack to the vet, where he spent several days on an IV. That afternoon, we found Daisy—what was left of my sweet curly-girly’s little body—and buried her in the forest. Doug—oh that sweet Doug— flew down to Texas and drove me and Jack in the RV to LA, where I spent the next six months living six miles from my parents. Unhappy to be back in a big, expensive, congested city—spoiled by the simplicity and ease of a pastoral life in Iowa—I made plans to leave. I mustered up the energy and courage to fly around the world. Using Marcus’ frequent flyer miles which were about to expire, I set off on my “World Piece” journey, making pie in nine countries. But only after driving to Iowa to drop off Jack at Doug’s farm where my terrier would spend the summer. After traveling to New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, India, Lebanon, Greece, Switzerland and Hungary, I spent the sixth anniversary of Marcus’ passing in the country where Marcus hailed from: Germany. Marcus’ cousin Claudia and her family graciously invited me to stay with them in their home in Aachen, Germany. Borrowing Claudia’s bike, I spent August 19 riding a bike trail that crisscrosses the Belgian-German border, stopping for an Italian lunch. Marcus would have loved that. That evening I walked over to the local spa and soaked in the outdoor hot spring pool, and sweated in the variety of aroma-therapy-scented saunas. Marcus would have loved that too. That anniversary ended with a bottle of champagne, where Marcus’s cousins Claudia and Martina, and Claudia’s husband Edgar all toasted to the life of the man we all miss.

YEAR SEVEN 2015- 2016
I returned from my round-the-world trip and went straight back to Iowa, to Doug’s farm, to pick up my dog. A year later, I am still here. I started my day—today, August 19—staring at the digital clock while still under the covers of the bed I share with Doug. Doug had left at 5AM, as he does every morning, to do his farm chores. I pulled Jack close to me, stroking his ears and his belly. Marcus and I got Jack as a puppy in Germany. He was the child we never had. Jack is 12 now, happy, healthy as hell, and blissing out on life on Doug’s farm (he especially loves our walks to the pond where he swims and fetches the stick.) This morning I watched the clock as the numbers ticked toward 8:36. Yes, I still remember the time stamped on Marcus’ death certificate. I will never forget the time because this same time, seven years ago, I had felt my heart struggle to beat. I was out walking my dogs and, feeling uncharacteristically weak, I had looked at my watch and saw that it read 8:36. Today, Jack jumped off the bed so I stopped my clock-watching and got up too. I stood in front of the window that looks east, out past the picnic table on the lawn and over the goat barn. The sun had risen just above the trees. I held my face toward it, closing my eyes and feeling its heat penetrate my heart, my bones, warming every bit of my connective tissue.
“Hi Marcus,” I whispered. “I’m thinking of you.”
In that spiritual, nature-connected, sunbeam-driven moment, he answered me back. “Hi, my love. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’m happy you are in such a good and beautiful place and doing so well.” Then he added, “Doug is a better partner for you than I ever could have been.”
I took a deep breath, wiped a single tear from each cheek, and bowed my head in a little namaste prayer before heading downstairs for coffee.

Even if it wasn’t Marcus speaking to me, it’s true. Doug is a good partner for me. Iowa is a good place for me. And farm life is a surprisingly good fit for me.

I am still making pie, and still being reminded of the lesson I learned after Marcus’ death: If you want to feel better, do something nice for someone else. I was in a particularly foul mood last night partly due to the memory of Marcus’ passing, but mostly because our Windstream internet, which is already painfully slow, stopped working altogether. When I called the company they said they couldn’t fix it for at least five days. Five days?! Given I couldn’t get any more work done, I went into the kitchen to make pie from the fresh peaches my neighbor Cheryl had picked from her tree. I made a double crust peach pie for my 92-year-old friend who is in the hospital recovering from surgery. I used the leftover dough and peaches to make two mini pies, one for a man who was traveling cross-country and one for Doug. Instead of crying my eyes out today, I delivered the pies. And I felt good. Happy. Strong. Healed.

Seven years ago I wanted to die along with Marcus. But life goes on. Our spirit, along with our cells, goes through a renewal every seven years. It’s been a hell of a cycle, but I can look back now and say I’m grateful. Not grateful that Marcus died, but grateful for the lessons, the growth, the opportunity to keep living and, even more important, to keep giving. And now, as of today, another seven-year cycle begins. I can’t imagine what challenges and thrills are to come. But it’s sure to be, as Doug says, full of experiences. Check back in 2023 for an update.

Made it to Iowa…Only to Face Forgotten Perils

We made it to Iowa. We may have prevailed over all those near disasters getting from LA to here, but even after only six months away, I had forgotten how perilous living in Iowa can be! It’s the little things that can kill you.

I arrived to a home-cooked meal of Ham Balls. I wrote about this SE Iowa specialty a few years ago., about how one needs to be careful not to eat too many lest they suffer from an overfilled belly and…the likelihood of hamnesia.

I stopped by the American Gothic House — my old home (sniff, sniff) — for a photo opp. The Binoculars were home with their door open so I figured I had about 10 minutes before the sheriff arrived to deliver a complaint.

Not to mention, I parked illegally.
No, a homemade apple pie with a World Piece logo carved on top as vent holes won’t kill you!  But chewing on pie crust right after you’ve had a molar pulled will.

The main objective for driving back to Iowa was to deliver my dog to “summer camp” on my friend’s farm. Within the first 30 minutes of arriving he found a creek to swim in. The next day the creek had turned into a raging river. Maybe I should have bought that doggie life jacket for him after all.

The RV has a sweet parking spot where it will stay all summer. But beware! With all the wind and lightning, parking under a tree can be a hazard.

Jack is guaranteed to get good treats on the farm. Farmer Doug has a ready supply of fresh beef liver. A dog’s dream. But after two days here Jack already has had some “stomach trouble.” Maybe it’s not from the liver but from drinking out of the puddle in the cow pasture.

There’s that apple pie again. Well, at least I could eat the ice cream without hurting my mouth.

This field of dreams looks innocent enough, but that corn will be chest high by the 4th of July, and my dog could get lost in  that jungle.

I have a nice desk for working during the week I’m on the farm. It even comes with a world map — perfect for my World Piece trip planning! — AND it comes with a copy of my cookbook. The hidden danger here is the thunderstorms that roll through. I’ve already had to run to the house twice in the middle of the night and unplug the laptop lest the circuits blow from a lightning strike.

Everything in Iowa is super-sized — including the poison ivy that is growing along this fence line. I’m highly allergic and, not to be a pessimist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I start itching the moment I get on my first flight to New Zealand.
This pasta meal is perfect for my sore mouth (post-dental emergency) but let it be known the sauce is pesto — that I made last fall from the basil in my garden at the American Gothic House. It had been frozen and it tasted okay, but…. My dog may not be the only one with “stomach troubles” after eating this beyond its expiration date. 
Sometimes the biggest perils can come in the smallest packages. It has been hard to sleep at night with these little buggers crawling around in my bed. I’ve pulled at least 6 of them off of my dog so far — and only 3 off of me. 
Jack isn’t the only animal on the farm. He is a guest here on a 1200-acre property inhabited another dog, 2 cats, 4 bulls, 92 cows, 500 pigs. While he would normally chase a cat, this one rules the roost. Jack has to be on his best behavior or else the cat will chase him.

Nothing is sacred. If you leave the milk for your latte unattended, someone might help themselves.
In spite of all the perils, Iowa is a magical place. Sitting on the front porch writing this blog post I looked up and saw a full-arch double rainbow. I take as a good omen. All will be well here, my dog will have a good (and safe) summer, and I will have a successful trip around the world. And when I come back I’m going to find that pot of gold.

No More Excuses: Make Your Own D*amn Movie

I have been resistant to learning about video editing for a long time, always making the excuse that I was a writer not a filmmaker. But I am prying my eyelids open to view a whole new world of possibilities just by acquiring a few video editing skills. There have been too many signs to ignore indicating that video is indeed an asset. Besides, all the cool people are doing it.

I have a friend whose job is running a YouTube channel made up of user-generated content. It’s so popular that Dreamworks bought it. Another journalist friend, Lisa, segued from magazine writing to TV news producing, and is now making documentary films. To hear how passionate she is about crossing over to the filmmaking side is definitely inspiring. An upcoming ASJA writers’ conference is promoting its video storytelling panel indicating that authors should be making their own book trailers.

Okay, okay, I’m listening.

And then there is the LA Times journalist, Alana Semuels, who made a video to accompany her article about me when she came to the American Gothic House. (Here’s the video.)

The newspaper now mandates that the writers make their own video stories, and even sends them to a 3-day workshop to learn the skills. I looked into taking the workshop but realized I would have to also invest in the HD camera, editing software, and the various other accessories (headphones, microphone, tripod, lights, etc.) if I were to be serious about putting the curriculum to use after the course.

Instead of making more excuses, I got busy.

I have an iPhone and a Mac computer that came with the iMovie software. I know sixth graders who are making their own movies. So I channeled my inner 12-year-old and spent Saturday afternoon and evening watching online tutorials and fiddling around with the program. I learned how to add stills and zoom in and out with the Ken Burns effect. I added a music soundtrack, even fading in and out. I also layered in sound effects, editing for length and volume. I included opening and closing titles. And the next thing I knew, I had made my very first movie.

It’s not going to win an Oscar, but I was happy with my first attempt. Happy that I overcame my resistance. Happy that I opened up my eyes to this new world. I signed up for the iMovie class at my local Apple store. And after that? I just may sign up for that 3-day workshop after all. Because filmmaking and writing are one in the same in their objective: to tell a story. But the biggest lesson I learned by taking this baby step toward using a new medium was that instead of being overwhelming or frustrating — in the way learning, say, German was for me — it was just really, really fun.

American Gothic House: It Was a Magical Four Years

(Scroll down for pictures of the interior of the house.)

After four magical years, I have moved out of the American Gothic House. When asked why, the easiest answer to give is that one can only live in a tourist attraction for so long. My friends and Facebook fans (follow me here) have responded that they can’t believe I lasted as long as I did. Me either! When I rented the house I had asked for a three-month lease. The landlord said, no, one year or nothing. When I found out the rent was just $250 a month, the same amount I was paying for my storage unit in Portland, Oregon, I figured if I didn’t like living there I could just use it as a place to store my stuff. But I did like it.

At first I saw the house as a quiet place to write — and to continue my grieving process (over the loss of my husband, Marcus) in solitude. But I can only do quiet in small doses. No sooner did I move in I started making pies, and then opened the Pitchfork Pie Stand, which much to my surprise became wildly successful, and soon tourists were lining up in my living room to buy my butter-filled baked goods.

I did accomplish my original idea of using the house as a place to write. In fact, I wrote two books — MAKING PIECE, my memoir about how pie helped heal my grief, and MS. AMERICAN PIE, a pie cookbook with essays about the myriad ways pie can make the world a better place. Both reached bestseller status on various lists.

People ask me if the American Gothic House is haunted. I always say if there are ghosts, they are friendly ones, muses who encourage creativity.

Living in a tourist attraction, you would think dealing with all those tourists would be annoying. The tourists were never annoying. They arrived excited, curious, often giddy. I could hear them laugh as they tried to strike the Grant Wood masterpiece painting pose, depicting the dour father-daughter duo holding the pitchfork. The tourists provided entertainment for me when I needed, and a connection to the outside world when I was craving one.

It was snakes, and not overly curious visitors pressing their face up to the glass for a peek inside, that rattled me most. There was the six-foot bull snake in my bathroom (whose fate I know) and the other six-foot snake in my laundry room (who slithered up into the heating ducts and whose whereabouts remain a mystery), and a sundry of other, smaller ones. There were mice on occasion (you can read THIS story about my crisis dealing with them.) There were infestations of Japanese beetles, disguised as innocent lady bugs until you felt them bite. Later came the swarms of box elder bugs. Thunderstorms were always scary, especially when sleeping so close to the roof, and the tornado warnings were terrifying, but luckily the house has a finished concrete basement for shelter. It seems nature was always trying to move in!

Country living was challenging enough. But living in the limelight became especially wearing. I could feel myself getting tired, keeping my curtains closed more often, and getting irritated more easily than usual by things like the noise of lawn mowers, the peering eyes of my nosy neighbors, and the visits from the sheriff announcing yet another complaint about my two little terriers being “at large.” A friend told me a while ago, “Sometimes new stories require new houses.” I pondered that idea — and fought it — for the past year until I finally realized I am ready — moreover, I need — a new story.

My four years in the American Gothic House could read like a novel. But who needs to write fiction when real life is infinity more interesting?! Instead, I’m spending this fall writing another memoir about my zany misadventures there. I’m staying in Iowa for now, on a friend’s 1,200-acre farm — that’s 1,200 acres of pure privacy!

In the meantime, here is a look inside the house (pictures in no particular order). It’s empty now. But a place as special as this will find someone new to look after it, and in turn there will be more stories to tell.

This was probably the dining room of the house back in the day. But fast-forward to the
21st century, it’s wired for telephone, Internet and cable TV.  I used this room as my office,for pie classes, and as the pie stand grew I used it for pie production as well. 

These are the windows on the front side of the house, as seen from inside. It is outside
these windows where tourists pose day after day. Tourists of all ages, races, nationalities, etc. What fun to watch all the activity, the happiness, the smiling faces, the costumes, people posing with their cars, motorcycles, horses, sheep, goats, llamas, rock bands, you name it! It was never boring!

The living room sits empty now, but this was the site of the Pitchfork Pie Stand.
I made sure the pie crumbs were cleaned out from between the floorboards before I left.

This is the front door. I would let my dogs out every morning and  they would chase
the squirrels out of the yard. Over the past four years, a lot of good friends, family, pie customers and pie students came through that door. But think of all the people who have entered through this door since the house was built in 1882!

The view from the “other side” of the world famous Gothic window. Tourists never knew when I was behind it, hiding out, reading books in my bed. What a nice place to hide, it was!

The ceilings upstairs are so low I had to have my king-size mattress on the floor!
Friends called it “glorified camping.” I called it “just right.

Forget having a walk-in closet. Just be glad you have ONE closet at all! This is one of the
reasons I pared down my wardrobe to just overalls and jeans. I did keep my Armani suit and a few gowns though. Just in case.

The Gothic window on the back side of the house swings down and sideways.
It’s how the furniture is moved in and out of the upstairs
because the staircase is too narrow.

The upstairs is so sweet. Though as you can see, not for tall people.

Heading upstairs to bed, you’re greeted by a second Gothic window.  But watch your head! The stairway is steep and the ceilings are low.

Thank you to GE Appliances for donating the fancy fridge and stove. I put both to
very good (and hard) use! That oven baked all my pies for the pie stand.
I hope it will see more pies in its future.

It’s a small but mighty kitchen. I painted the cupboards red, which I LOVED.
And check out that gorgeous sink and faucet, donated by Kohler. What a
fantastic improvement this was to the house. Thank you again, Kohler!

Keep that kitchen curtain pulled or you will have curious tourists peering inside!

The world’s smallest bathtub. But by god, I used it! Better than nothing.
It required doing yoga poses to get your torso wet.

The view from the loo. Keep the curtain open at your own risk.
You never know when a tourist might walk by!

This doorway saw a LOT of traffic during my stay.
We shuttled hundreds of pies from the kitchen to the living room for the pie stand.
The wall on the right is where I had my kitchen table, where I made pies, drank
wine with friends (and martinis with my dad), and wrote BOTH of my books.

The American Gothic House from the back side. It’s just as cute.
And most people don’t know it has a matching Gothic window on the back.
I would leave the lights on when walking my dogs at night.
That way, I could look back and admire the beauty of my little cottage.

I heard so many people say, “These stairs remind me of my grandma’s house.”
Beware, they’re charming but dangerous to navigate when you’re sleepy.
And NEVER wear socks or you will slip!

A bittersweet sign. The pie stand was SO MUCH WORK, but I met
so many amazing and nice people because of it. I kept the sign as a souvenir.

Well, what it says is true! The neighbors — AKA: The Binoculars — keep a very close eye on the activities at the AG House. They are the quintessential Kravitz characters from the old TV show “Bewitched.” I didn’t actually leave the sign behind, but the picture of it alone makes the point.

This was a “gift” from my friend/coworker LeAnn. I never did use it but I made
sure to leave it for the house’s next occupant. It’s the least I could do! For more about my
snake adventures, read my blog post, “Wayward Reptiles in the American Gothic House.” It’s a good one. 

A Letter to my Friend Sue McGuiness Wall (1962 – 2012)

Sue and her daughters with their piping hot apple pies.
American Gothic House, August, 11, 2011

Dear Sue,

I just got back from your funeral. It was a full house at the Catholic church you attended. You were attending today alright. Just not in the way you would have liked. You would have approved of the service. Your students were there in matching T-shirts taking up several rows. Your whole family was there, your parents and siblings, and god knows how many other relatives and friends of all ages. Your girls sat in the front pew. They were very brave and they looked beautiful. You did a really good job raising them and though you left early you can be assured you gave them a strong and solid foundation on which to continue building. Everyone was so sad at your farewell, I think Kleenex stock went up today as a result.

I drove up from Eldon, which as you know since you had come down to see me last summer, is a two-hour drive. Six months ago when you came down with your two teen daughters to bake pie in the American Gothic House you were beaming and energetic. And though I knew you were still fighting back the cancer I thought nothing could keep you down. I remember you telling me how you had originally gone to the doctor about a sprained ankle or something and came out with a diagnosis for ovarian cancer. Oh man! But this cancer wasn’t going to get YOU, by god. Not you. Not fierce and fiery Sue. I was sure, with your determination, that remission was the only possible outcome. I was so impressed with your positive attitude, moved by it, inspired by it. If I were in your position I can only imagine how much I would be complaining and crying and carrying on. But not you. You made chemo look like a cakewalk. I used to get your emails with your doctor’s reports. You never wavered in your hope, your optimism, your humor. “More chemo?” you would say. “Bring it on!” Your display of strength and grace is something that will always stick with me. I wish you knew what an impact you’ve had on me, how deeply your warm, strong spirit has touched and influenced my life.

I thought about you as I made my way north for your service, about how of all the things, you probably won’t miss Iowa’s winter weather. It was 19 degrees today, bordering on bitter cold. But the roads were clear (thank goodness, because I wouldn’t have been able to make the drive otherwise — I never did get snow tires on my Mini Cooper). The sky was blue and the sun was shining brightly, which made me think you had a clear view from wherever you are now. Some call it heaven. Some say you are in a parallel universe. Some say you become energy that can move anywhere. I wish I knew. I wish we could still talk and email each other. If there really is some other world “up there” then I hope you’ll go find Marcus. Give him a hug from me and then ask him to take you on a motorcycle ride. There’s nothing nicer than feeling the wind in your face. (Well, to me there was nothing nicer than feeling the wind in my face while having my arms wrapped around my husband’s gorgeous body.)

Speaking of gorgeous husbands, I finally met yours. He was standing in the chapel, the small one off the main church, where you were –how do I say this respectfully – on display. I had just gotten done talking to you, saying goodbye, telling you how disappointed I was that you couldn’t stick around. I leaned over to sniff the roses that adorned you and when I turned around I spotted a very handsome, fit gentleman who stepped toward me. I figured it was Brad. It was. Before I could introduce myself he said, “You’re the pie lady.” I had to laugh. He started right in on how good those pies were you and your daughters made last August. I was nervous and didn’t quite know what to say, even though I know from losing Marcus that the only thing to say is “I’m sorry for your loss.” But we managed to talk about a few other things – besides pie, I mean – and he said running is helping him. I said I wished I could still exercise the way I used to but that instead of producing endorphins, running only dredges up suppressed grief. I told him he could send the girls down to my place this summer to help with my pie stand. He said thanks but he’s going to take some time off and focus on family, and stay busy.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that your husband possesses similar strength, grace and optimism to yours. You guys even look alike. I’m not sure how his clothes came up in the conversation, but he pointed out that you had picked out the suit he was wearing. That broke my heart to think of you having that conversation with him, that you knew you might not make it and how you might have prepared for it, and even picked out his clothes for the funeral. Two things of note here, Sue: one, you have excellent taste (in both clothes and men) and two, your husband actually did what you asked! I think you must have had a very good marriage. I also think he must be a very good dad and will love and protect your daughters with all his heart.

Oh, and speaking of funeral clothes, you looked very pretty in your grey sweater set and your sparkly hoop earrings. Your head was bald. I was glad they didn’t try to disguise you with a wig. Bald suits you. Not everyone can pull off the look but with your freckled complexion it worked. Last time I saw you your hair was just growing back for the second time, coming in soft and fuzzy and a little grey. Of course it was very disappointing – to say the least – to see you just lying there and unable to have a conversation. I really wanted to see you smile. Your smile was one of your greatest traits (of many.) The picture they used on the funeral program showed your impish grin. The shot really captured your essence and I kept staring at your picture throughout the service. Seeing your smiling face in that picture didn’t help stop the tears or make me forget you were in that casket just a few feet away—au contraire—but it did remind me of what a force of life you were. By the way, the priest got a few laughs when he described you as stubborn. That made me a little proud. If you ask me, stubbornness is an essential quality and I liked how yours was acknowledged in a loving way.

You and your crazy curly
red hair — and striped socks.
Ah, high school.
Those were the days.

I know we weren’t that close in high school. Friends, yes, but you know how in our small parochial school we all split off into our little cliches. But when I returned to Iowa in August of 2010, you came to see me judging pies at the Iowa State Fair. You charged through the crowd in your yellow slicker (it must have been raining that day) and I recognized you and your bright red hair immediately. You wrapped your arms around me in a powerful embrace and you flashed that signature smile of yours. You made me feel so welcome, so special, and in that instant we were connected in a way we hadn’t been in our teen years. We didn’t get to see each other that often in the past year and a half since I moved back to Iowa, but I liked how we kept in touch through emails and phone calls. And then, of course, through the pie lesson. That was such a great day, last August. I still have the adorable apron you brought me, the blue and white checkered one with the jewels sewn around the bib. It’s my favorite and I will always cherish it because it will always make me think of you rolling pie dough in my kitchen that day, laughing, talking, sharing stories, so full of life.

Ah life. Why do I still have one and you don’t? Well, maybe you do. Yes, definitely you do. Just in another form now. That energy of yours could never die. It continues. It permeates. It remains. It reminds us to stay strong. Like you.

When I got home from your funeral – when I got done bawling my eyes out – oh, and I’m very sorry I didn’t stay for the burial or the lunch afterward. I could feel the grief building and I didn’t know how long I could contain it. I wanted to talk to your parents and your girls. But I knew and respected my limits. The last funeral I went to was Marcus’s. I knew it was going to be tough to go to yours. It was. It seems very wrong that the last two funerals I attended were for people – good people – in their forties. I hope the next funeral I go to is for someone who lived to 105. That would be cause for celebration, not tears. Anyway, I was saying, when I got home from your funeral I read through our exchange of emails and came across this one from exactly one year ago to the day. Here’s what you wrote:

“Last weekend I participated in a retreat at church to tell my ‘story’ and the importance of having such an amazing community of people to rely on. While I was there, I purchased a daily devotional book entitled Heaven Calling. I had to laugh at the devotional for yesterday (chemo day). It was entitled ‘Mission Impossible?’ and I’d like to share an excerpt with you: ‘I know you child—your strengths and weaknesses. I also know your beliefs about what you can or cannot do. As a father has compassion for his children, I have compassion for you. Yet I wouldn’t be a good Father if I didn’t know when to stretch your limits. Precious one, trust me to know what you can and cannot do. Whatever task I call you to, I will give you exactly what you need to do it.’

Then you added:

“From one strong woman to another, sometimes it sucks being this strong, but at day’s end I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

No, Sue. As one strong (and stubborn) woman to another, I’m sure you wouldn’t. I am so grateful to have known you, to have learned from you, to have been infected by your contagious smile. Good luck on your new journey, my friend. I look forward to seeing you again. Until then, I send you all my love and gratitude.

Beth

PS: Brad said you were an avid reader of my blog, so I thought it only fitting to write this blog post for you. Miss you, girl!

A Good Reason to Wear Orange

Jack & Daisy. “We’re dogs, not deer. Please don’t shoot us.”

I used to live in Venice, California in a neighborhood referred to as “The Hood.” A transitional neighborhood, this is an area where young hipsters can afford to buy fixer-uppers, nudging gang members out of their dwellings, one half-a-million-dollar house at a time. Even Whole Foods invested here, knocking down Big Lots and opening up (in a brand new LEED certified building) one of its high-end health food stores. (This location has become so popular – read: crowded – there’s even a rap song about the battle for parking. It’s also known for its pick-up scene for singles where yoga babes and filmmakers cruise the organic produce aisles for dates not vegetables.)

In The Hood, it is a regular thing to hear gunfire. Marcus was staying with me one weekend (when we were temporarily living apart for our respective jobs) and we were on our way to the dog park at 8 on a Sunday morning. “Pop, pop, pop!” we heard as we were leaving the house. I can still remember the look Marcus gave me as we ducked back inside for cover – “What made you choose to live here?” his face expressed. I’ll tell you what: It was an affordable cottage within walking distance to the beach. (Affordable in LA translates to $1,250 a month for a one-room guest house.)

Now I live in rural Iowa (where I rent a whole 3-story house for $250 a month.) I moved thousands of miles away from the Crips and the Bloods. And yet, I am not safe from getting shot.

That’s because in Iowa it’s hunting season.

Don’s hat. My field of dreams.

Every day I walk my dogs in the hay fields next door to my house, hiking through a corner of the 1,300-acre unpopulated parcel of rolling hills and open space. I look forward to this daily walk, regardless of the weather. It is my therapy, my thinking time, my church. Pulling on my rubber farm boots signals to the dogs we’re ready and they start bouncing up and down with happy anticipation.

A few weeks ago I had just finished my hour-long loop of the hay fields late on a dark, rainy afternoon and was met at the gate by an SUV, parked there waiting for me. A man dressed head to toe in green and brown camo raced out, making a beeline for me.

“I almost shot you!” he barked as he approached. He looked panicked and ashen, his adrenaline clearly pumping. His eyes were wide, his breath short. “You could have been killed! Don’t you know you need to wear orange?”

I looked at him blankly, as my dogs sniffed around his pant legs. I had never considered how my outfit — a gray raincoat, black fleece tights and brown hat — blended right in with the drizzly gray dusk. I had also never considered that all those deer I came across during my walks, let alone me, had guns pointed at their heads.

“And you need to watch your dogs,” he continued, intense and breathless, his dark eyes fixed on me as if to force the seriousness of his message to sink in. “We set coon traps out there in the timber.” My two terriers, one brown and black, the other as blond as the hay, could have passed for raccoons or rabbits or any small mammal who might stumble upon a trap.

“Thanks for letting me know,” is all I said and left him to deal with the decline of his adrenaline.

His message did sink in as I went home and searched for all the orange and red and bright and fluorescent wearable items I could find. I came up with two red bandanas to tie around my dogs’ necks and an orange bike jersey for me.

Then I went to my neighbor Don’s house and borrowed his hunter-orange cap. Don is the same neighbor who towed my Mini out of the mud, tilled my garden plot, and rescued me from the snake who had invaded my house. And now I can add to the list: saved me from getting shot.

My lucky orange sweater.
A happy day with Marcus in Germany, 2007.

In spite of being required to dress for safety I don’t mind wearing orange because the color makes me think of so many positive things. I was wearing an orange sweater when I met Marcus – a bulky Ecuadorian wool cardigan with giant daisies on it. Orange was Marcus’ favorite color. He had lived in London when the British cell phone company came out with its catchy slogan, one we used to repeat to each other: “The future is bright, the future is orange.” Orange makes me think of sunny California and all those citrus groves. Orange is healthy. Orange is Vitamin C. Orange is the color of pumpkins and that means pumpkin pie!

And, according to Precision Intermedia’s definition of the psychology behind this shade, orange is “the most flamboyant color on the planet. It’s the color tied most with fun times, happy and energetic days, warmth and organic products. It is also associated with ambition. There is nothing even remotely calm associated with this color. Orange is associated with a new dawn in attitude.”

So with my “newly dawned attitude,” now I don’t just walk the fields in my eye-popping garb, I yell out to the tree line as I’m walking, “Coming through. Put your guns down. I’m walking with my dogs. Don’t shoot.”

Wearing orange seems to be the best rule for safe field-walking in Iowa – where, happily for me and my dogs hunting season ends in three days. But I doubt it would do much good in The Hood in Venice, where “hunting season” seems like it will never end. Not that I’ll ever move back there, but if I did, I might invest in a bullet-proof vest. For my dog walks to the beach. And to Whole Foods.

(If you missed it above, you have to watch DJ Dave’s rap video. I too have been cut off by a Prius — with Save the Whales license plates, no less — in that same Venice parking lot! He captured it perfectly. Except for the background noise, that is. Pop, pop, pop.)

Iowa Caucus Mania

In spite of this brilliant parody by Mike Luckovich, I was surprised
that none of the politicians showed up on my doorstep.
They missed an ideal photo op!

I maintain that pie is not about politics. “Pie is non-partisan,” I have been known to insist. “It is meant to be shared, to build community, and spread good will. Pie knows no cultural boundaries.” Thus, I normally avoid any discussion of the subject. But as I am living in Iowa during the 2012 Iowa Caucus, the subject of politics cannot be ignored. Admittedly the media buzz is rather exciting. I  mean, to have our humble state be the center of such acute interest with top level journalists from all over the country doesn’t happen every day. That said, the story here has become less about the politicians and more about the media itself.

There was an article published in The Atlantic in early December. It was written by Stephen Bloom, a University of Iowa professor who has lived in Iowa for 20 years. According to his piece, he feels Iowa is not representative of the diversity in America and therefore shouldn’t hold such power over choosing a president.

States Bloom, “Whether a schizophrenic, economically-depressed, and some say, culturally-challenged state like Iowa should host the first grassroots referendum to determine who will be the next president isn’t at issue. It’s been this way since 1972, and there are no signs that it’s going to change. In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of it. Iowa’s not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities, and the state’s about to lose one of its five seats in the U.S. House because its population is shifting; any growth is negligible. Still, thanks to a host of nonsensical political precedents, whoever wins the Iowa Caucuses in January will very likely have a 50 percent chance of being elected president 11 months later. Go figure.”

Ouch! No wonder people are up in arms over his story. (See Kyle Munson’s story in the Des Moines Register for more.)

Instead of being outraged by Bloom’s article, I first stopped to remember the tenets I live by: “The Four Agreements” that come from a book of the same name by Don Miguel Ruiz.

1. Don’t make assumptions.
2. Always do your best.
3. Be impeccable with your word.
4. Do not take it personally.

Therefore, I did not take the writer’s words personally. They are merely the opinion of one man, a man who clearly doesn’t appreciate the countless advantages, positive aspects, and the abundance of heartfelt kindness of living in the Heartland.

Mr. Bloom is from San Francisco, a city that, in my experience, has its own issues. When I lived there someone left a note on the windshield of my car while parked at the Marina Safeway. Written on a scrap of a brown paper grocery bag, it said: “You asshole. You should be reported to the humane society for leaving your dog in your car.” What this righteous passerby did not account for is that I had just taken my well-cared-for, very lucky dog (rescued from a shelter, no less) on a two-hour wilderness hike, I was only in the grocery store for a mere 10 minutes, there was a dish of water in the car, the windows were left sufficiently cracked open, and the day was perfectly cool. This makes me an asshole? Really?

Contrast this to Iowa, where it is so safe I could have tied up my dog in front of the store instead of locking it in the car. That note and the attitude it portrays is one of the reasons I have no desire to live in that part of the country again.

And in spite of trying not to make assumptions, as well as being impeccable with my word (always remembering “The Four Agreements”), I cannot refrain from suggesting that perhaps Mr. Bloom is simply unhappy living in this “landlocked, flyover state.” He ought to consider moving back to Northern California instead of remaining here with the “hicks and meth addicts.” Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Or better yet, in the spirit of Grant Wood who said, “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa,” maybe Bloom should visit Paris. I can only imagine how critical he would be of the people and lifestyle there.

After having several discussions with friends who were disgruntled by Bloom’s controversial story, I was heartened to see a clever and well-produced rebuttal. Below is Scott Siepker with his now-viral video on YouTube (see below). In a concise and deadpan comedic way, he reminds the world that Iowans are not only well educated, forerunners in progressive politics, and the inventors of the computer, they are, in a word, nice.

To have people like that influencing who is going to become the next president is all right with me.

I haven’t lived in Iowa since I was 17, so I have never voted here. And while I won’t be voting in tonight’s caucus, I will be attending to educate myself on what an Iowa caucus is all about. And after that, once the media has packed up and left, the state can get back to its normal way of life and I can get back to thinking about my favorite non-controversial, non-political subject: pie.

Grief: A Progress Report

Eldon, Iowa’s McHaffey Opera House Thrift Store transforms
into a magical “Winter Wanderland” at Christmas —
but what did they do with all of Marcus’ clothes?

With the holidays here again (my, how fast a year goes by!) and H gone for good, I’ve been experiencing a collision of past and present. As I try to make sense of what the hell my 4-month relationship with H was all about and how all that is left of it is…nothing, I have been simultaneously reflecting on my life at this same time last year.

This time last year I blogged about bicycling in the basement, about how my grief was stored in my cells and how physical exertion dislodged the sorrow that was burrowing in my cellular membranes, to the point I couldn’t exercise anywhere but in the safety of my house. I wrote about clearing space in the basement to set up the bike track stand and how that effort resulted in me letting go of a few of Marcus’ beautiful pieces of clothing. I didn’t handle the letting go with grace. I couldn’t even get to the post office without having a complete meltdown – as if sending Marcus’ cashmere coat to my brother in Seattle was reliving Marcus’ death itself.

With the smoke still clearing from the detonation of H, I have made the surprising discovery that grief – as if it were an entity of its own – is no longer dominating my life. (For the record, it has been 2-1/3 years since Marcus died.)

It only just occurred to me that I haven’t written about my grief in a while. That’s because when H was here, living in my “teeny house in the middle of nowhere” (as he put it) for the past three months, there was not time nor space for shedding my daily tears over my late husband or writing letters to him in my journal or looking through our photo albums of our weddings, our European motorcycle trips, our life in Mexico, and our wilderness adventures. There was no privacy for expressing my sadness over losing Marcus, and certainly no blogging about the subject for god’s sake, not with a tall strapping man around.

With H around I didn’t ride my bike in the basement (How could I indulge in that, especially when I had even started calling it my “Crying Machine?!”) Instead, H and I spent long afternoons riding the beach cruiser bikes on the flat gravel roads — with our destination a barn, where we fed carrots to a family of goats. (Happiness is feeling the wind in your face – and admiring the sexy ass of the guy on the bike next to you.)

And really, there was no need to cry, no ability to feel sad, when there was nightly entertainment in my living room. Letting H’s guinea pig out of his cage resulted in hilarious circus-like performances of guinea pig, H’s Chow and my two terriers chasing each other around and under the furniture. Seeing how a little one-pound rodent could intimidate three dogs made us howl with laughter. The only tears were the ones from laughing too hard.

It is also of note that when H first arrived, in my attempt to make him feel at home – and in my attempt to make room for new love in my life (both literally and figuratively) – I took down my shrine of Marcus’ framed photos in my living room and next to my bed. I also loaded up the rest of Marcus’ belongings (minus a few very special items, like his Lederhosen, Geiger sweater, Haferl boots, and German hunting boots) and hauled them off to Eldon’s thrift store at the McHaffey Opera House. I even donated the clothes that still held his scent – I had sealed them in a plastic garbage bag and because H was standing next to me when I put them in the washing machine I didn’t get to bury my nose in Marcus’ shirts and breathe in his scent one last time. It was an impetuous, “just get it over with” move and though I felt sick about it, I kept my mind on the future – I was making room for new love, damn it! – and pretended to H that I was fine with letting go. “I’m ready to give away his stuff,” I told H, while secretly trying to convince myself it was true. If only I could have just smelled his shirts one last time…

My relationship with H ended a week before Christmas. One could consider this to be bad timing. But it worked out well for me. True, being alone for the holidays could have sent me into a panic. I could have felt the need to run away from Eldon for fear of feeling isolated in my “teeny house in the middle of nowhere” (insert eye rolling here). Or I could have embraced being home and simply hibernated like I did last year. But here’s the thing: The weather has been unseasonably, freakishly warm and sunny. It feels more like May than December. And that has made all the difference.

With balmy weather beckoning me out, not only did I spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day making the rounds to several friends’ houses, I also did something I haven’t done in a very long time. I went for a run. Outside.

Just this morning, I laced up my sneakers and hit the gravel road, following the Des Moines River downstream. It felt so good to move, to breathe in the country air, to feel the sun on my face that I ran at least six miles. I didn’t break down in tears. I didn’t feel the weight of grief bearing down on me. I didn’t have to walk home carrying a heavy load of sadness. It’s hard to be sad when it’s 50 degrees and sunny on a late December Iowa morning and you still have the strength and athleticism to go for a long run after an extended absence from the sport. And it’s especially hard to be sad when you are accompanied by a view of bald eagles soaring over the river.

The weather will inevitably turn cold. January will surely bring snow and ice. But I am ready for it. I am no longer riding my bike in the basement. I moved the bike and its track stand upstairs to the top floor. It’s in what I call my “dressing room,” in front of the “other” Gothic window that mirrors the famous one on the opposite end of the house. It’s another step away from the darkness and toward the light. The back window has a beautiful view of my big yard, several rows of pine trees, and open sky. But instead of staying inside, I know now that I can also put on my fleece tights and gloves, and keep running – snow or not – outside. And that is significant progress.

Part of Marcus’ mini shrine

I don’t have anything more of Marcus’ that I will be taking to the post office or thrift store. It took over two years, and H moving in, but I have let go of the bulk of his belongings. Whatever is left I am keeping. Including an unwashed bath towel of Marcus’ packed in one of his boxes. (You didn’t think I was that stoic, did you?! I knew there was still something to sniff when I loaded that washing machine.) When I need a hit of his scent I know where to get it. And whenever I want to look at his pictures, well, I just have to look across my desk. With H gone, Marcus’ shrine has been resurrected. Albeit a scaled down version, proving further progress.

As for making sense of H, I can already see how that relationship served as therapy, stripping away yet another layer of grief. Time heals, they say. And if that time was filled with someone who helped keep me from indulging in the daily sadness, someone who kept me from focusing on the past, someone who helped me to laugh again, then yes, absolutely, spending four months with H was worth whatever disappointment and confusion he left behind.

Still, it’s not as if my grief packed up and drove off with H. It’s just that I can see now how it has lessened, how even though grief is still present (and I understand that it will be for the rest of my life) it doesn’t have to hold me back. Oh, I still cry over Marcus. Even when H was here I still had my moments where I hid in my closet and let the tears flow. But the tears don’t debilitate me like they used to.

And so, with past and present now thoroughly examined, the nuclear fusion contained and wrapped up as if in a pretty Christmas package, it’s time to look to the future. Bring on the New Year. I have a feeling it’s going to be a good one.