Stay Calm and Bake Pie — Episode 3: Banana Cream Pie

My “Stay Calm and Bake Pie” series continues with episode 3, and my dad’s favorite pie: banana cream.

A friend pointed out, “This is the first time I’ve heard your story where you didn’t talk about how your parents met.”

That’s true. In fact, it’s a story that has become THE story of my pie journey.

“I was born because of banana cream pie,” I tell people in my talks. “My mom and dad had been dating 6 months when she invited my dad over for a homemade supper of tuna casserole, Jell-O salad, and banana cream pie for dessert. She knew banana cream was his favorite. He hadn’t even finished his first slice when he proposed to her. So if not for banana cream pie, I would not be here!”

My brother Mike with his first pie!

This video is far shorter than the first two, but it took twice as long to edit. The reason, I’m sure, is that I wanted to make it special — for my dad. It’s a kind of tribute to him. You’ll see what I mean during “The Stirring Scene.” The music that accompanies that part is DeBussy’s Clair de Lune, a song my dad used to play on the piano. You wouldn’t know the significance of that unless a) you were a family member or b) I told you. So I am telling you.

One thing that happened since this video went live (and I admit, I am several days delayed in posting it here), is that my younger brother Mike watched it and, as a result, made his first pie. I sent the video to him merely to watch it — to see how I honored our dad. But he surprised me by replying with a text and pictures of him with the pie he made.

After getting the news from one of my large sponsors pulling back their funding promise… I took to pie making… and felt better,” he wrote.

I choked up with a confusing, bittersweet kind of joy, at once being proud of his accomplishment, moved to tears by the giant smile on his face, and hit with a pang of grief knowing how much our dad would have loved it.

I miss my dad so much. But his memory lives on in this pie.

I hope my pie lesson is helpful to you. Send me pictures of your results. I’ll post them in my “Victory Shot” photo album on Facebook.

Meanwhile…  Stay home. Stay Calm. Keep baking. And share your pie with others who need it.

Next episodes:

  •  Key Lime Pie 
  •  Gluten-free pie 
  •  Pie-in-a-Jar and other various shapes and forms 
  • Please follow me on my social media pages:

    And subscribe to my YouTube channel.

    Love, Beth

    Stay Calm and Bake Pie — Episode 2, Mixed Berry Crumble

    I am learning how to do the video shooting and editing on the fly — flying solo, at that. I am using Doug’s iPad to film and iMovie to edit. I’m starting to get the hang of splitting clips and splicing music. But the sound quality needs a lot of improvement. I need a wireless lavalier (clip on) microphone. I want to wait on shooting the next episode until I get the mic, but the next one is banana cream pie and Doug already bought the bananas… So to that I say, videos, like pies, are not about perfection!

    In this berry crumble episode, I think (hope) you’ll find the baking instruction useful and the farm scenery soothing. Even if you can’t hear a damn thing! Enjoy and send me pictures of your pies — and stories of who you baked them with, and shared them with.

    Someone commented on my Facebook page that all this pie is going to make us fat! I had a whole spiel about that in this episode but the footage got deleted somewhere along the way. I was blathering on about how this berry pie is “just fruit,” full of vitamins and antioxidants. I also added that while pie making is good for your heart and soul, exercise is good for your heart and body. So go for a walk or do an online dance class to balance out the eating. I don’t want to be preachy, but I do feel it’s worth mentioning.

    Next episodes:

    • Banana Cream Pie 
    • Chicken Pot Pie 
    • Key Lime Pie 
    • hopefully a gluten-free pie in there somewhere, by request. 
    • and if I keep going, then Shaker lemon, spaghetti pie, French silk, peach…the list could be a long one!

     Please follow me on my social media pages:

    And subscribe to my YouTube channel.

     Love, Beth

    Stay Calm and Bake Pie — Episode One: Apple Pie

    After two months in Tucson, I’m back on the farm in Iowa because….the virus. It feels good to be with Doug, Mali, Maybelline, Chaps (our lone surviving goat), and I even brought Peanut the Foster Dog along, though she is no longer a foster, she has been adopted as a permanent family member. And for a little chihuahua she is adapting very well to farm life. Dogs LOVE Camp Doug!

    To keep myself busy — and to contribute something positive to the world during this most challenging time — I am offering FREE PIE CLASSES, though in the form of homemade videos. I am shooting these myself with Doug’s iPad. It’s not as hard as I thought. In fact, it’s been fun, and best of all it is taking my mind completely off the news!

    This will give you something to do while you’re #STAYINGHOME. And I’ve kept my language family friendly so you can do my pie classes with your kids. ENJOY! And stay healthy!

     

    Next episodes will be:

    • Mixed Berry Crumble Pie
    • Chicken Pot Pie 
    • Banana Cream Pie 
    • Key Lime Pie 
    • …and hopefully a gluten-free pie in there somewhere, by request. 

     Please follow me on my social media pages:

    And subscribe to my YouTube channel.

     Love, Beth

    Tom Howard’s Last Piece of Pie

    My dad and me. Photo taken on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2017

    Two months ago I lost the person I loved most in the world. I lost my dad. He died on March 9, 2017 at 6:30 AM, of metastasized melanoma.

    The spot on his head first appeared in 2015, a raised and rough growth, a pebble of a thing that took up residence on the otherwise smooth and shiny surface of his skull. He had it removed in July of that year (while I was traveling around the world) and when they didn’t get clean margins they removed more from this delicate, non-elastic region, borrowing skin from his thigh to patch the missing piece of scalp. He had been so pleased with the plastic surgeon’s reconstruction that he called him “an artist” and wrote him a thank you note. The scar was barely visible.

    Last family photo, taken February 25, 2017

    Life went on. For the next year and a half he read books—spy thrillers mostly—washed his car, played Solitaire, went on daily lunch outings with my mom to El Pollo Loco where they shared their favorite taco salad, attended U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary meetings, and drank his daily martini at 5:00. But behind the scenes, lurking under the skin’s surface, the cancer was spreading. Like a nest of newborn snakes, it ventured forth, slithering into his lymph nodes, his prostate, throughout his entire skeletal system. It went into his lungs, creating such a deep and growing colony of tumors that he was coughing up globs of blood.

    On a mid-January morning this year, when I was visiting for my mom’s 80th birthday, when I watched him cough into a tissue, leaving a dribble of bright red blood on his chin, I knew it was bad. I didn’t know how bad. We wouldn’t know the full diagnosis until after his PET scan a month later. But I knew, in the way a twin can sense their sibling a thousand miles away is in trouble, that his life as we knew it was over. That the cancer would take him. And, by the looks of the blood clots, soon.

    No one coughs up that much blood and lives.

    After my mom’s birthday, after the Women’s March in Washington, and after a few weeks back in Iowa where I was getting updates from my sister as the oncologist appointments got underway, I flew back to California. I could have saved $150 if I bought a ticket for three days later. My instinct told me every day counted—or maybe it was the news from the oncologist who said there was “no treatment for this” and “We will do everything we can to make you as comfortable as possible”—so I booked the earlier, more expensive flight. Paying that extra money was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I packed a mammoth suitcase thinking I might be there for more than a month. I was prepared to stay six, whatever it took, however long I was needed. I know now I could have just packed a carry-on.

    And so, I was there.

    I was there in Redondo Beach in my parents’ apartment, the sliding glass doors letting in the ocean breeze, the sun’s blinding late afternoon glare reflecting off the dark blue sea, the surfers catching the last waves before sunset.

    I was there because my latest book proposal— about how to stay optimistic in this political era—was turned down. I was so damn lucky for the rejection. With a looming book deadline I would not have been able to spend those three and a half weeks of February into March with the father I loved. The last three and a half weeks of life of the man whose seed created me. The dimming, dwindling last days of the man who loved martinis, hot fudge sundaes and banana cream pie. The man who loved me. Who understood me like no one else. Who could solve every problem I ever had with his laughter. Even if I had gotten the book deal, I would have been there. I would have walked away from the offer. Family—my dad—came first.

    I was there, sitting by his side every one of those remaining days, every morning stretched out on my mom’s side of the king size bed, careful not to get my dirty feet on the bedspread, playing Clair de Lune for him—his signature piece he played so well on the piano—on my iPhone from YouTube, drinking my café lattes and listening to him breathe—or struggle to breathe. I repositioned his oxygen nosepiece, making sure the prongs stayed in his nostrils, and watched his chest closely, making sure it was still moving up and down. Making sure he was still with us. I listened to the rhythm—four or five breaths, then a pause. The pauses were so long I found myself holding my breath along with him each time he stopped. When he coughed, as he inevitably did from the growing number of nodules that choked his lungs, he woke himself up and began breathing again. And I, too, would begin breathing again, not realizing I had stopped.

    I was there to rub lotion on his bald head, now dotted with moles and rough spots and scars. I was there to massage his feet, to give him some semblance of comfort, the way the hospice pamphlet suggested. I was there to hold his hands, studying his age spots and fingernails, memorizing the heft of each digit, including the digitus medius manus, as he taught us the Latin term for “the middle finger”—as in giving it. They were strong yet gentle hands that had healed so many people. As a dentist, a holistic one who truly cared about his patients overall well being, he helped improve not only their smiles (and in turn their confidence) but also their health. He understood how every part of the body is connected to another, that through orthodontics (without pulling teeth unnecessarily, mind you) the curvature of the mouth’s palate would change and, thus, this would change—improve—the structure of the cervical column and that would affect the entire spine for the better. His hands had practiced therapeutic massage and cranial osteopathy. His hands had played Clair de Lune just a week earlier, shocking us all when we thought he lacked the strength to get out of bed, let alone sit at the piano to serenade us with classical music.

    The dying process is like that. Death can come slowly, gradually, and just when you think the final hour has arrived life can burst forth again in unexpected, fleeting fragments. These energy bursts, confusing as they may be, give bystanding loved ones a tidal wave of hope that perhaps, hey, wait, he’s not as sick as we thought. Maybe he is not going to die after all. And then, no, the terminal, evil, motherfucker of an illness sends him back to bed, weaker than ever, and you call the hospice nurse to increase the morphine.

    I was there to make him his favorite dessert, banana cream pie, the pie that prompted my dad to propose to my mom when she made one for him six months after they started dating. I made the pie just the way he liked it, with a graham cracker crust, made-from-scratch vanilla pudding, and meringue topping. I made three banana cream pies in three and a half weeks, wondering, worrying, if each pie would be his last.

    I was there to spoon feed him bites of the pie when this once robust man no longer had the strength to lift even a small fork, cutting the sliced bananas into miniature sizes he could swallow. With his appetite diminishing by the day, we had to ask him what, if anything, he was hungry for. His big blue eyes would brighten and he would say with a smile, drawing out the syllables, “Piiiiiie.”

    The day before he was moved to the hospice house—euphemistically and somewhat disturbingly called a “transition center”—he couldn’t finish the tiny sliver of banana cream pie I had served him on a cocktail plate. The plate was part of a collection of four, each decorated with a different martini-themed design. Martini glass-emblazoned items could be found in every corner of the apartment—a cutting board, cloth napkins, coasters, a decorative plaque that read “Martini Bar,” a flag that had hung on his old sailboat but now waved on the balcony to signal when it was Happy Hour. Anything with a martini glass on it was an obvious gift for the “man who had everything”—as long as said martini glass contained three olives.

    I left the martini plate, with the remaining piece of pie and the teaspoon still on it, in the refrigerator, in case he would want to eat more later.

    There was no later.

    Tom Howard’s last banana cream
    pie, his favorite.

    When I came back to my parents’ apartment from the hospice house (er, transition fucking center) the morning of March 9—after he was gone, after our family had gathered around his hospital bed with his body still slightly warm, after saying our final goodbyes before he was placed in the lime green body bag (so thoughtlessly, so visibly the only item in the clear plastic bag marked “Patient’s Personal Items” even though he was wearing a grey Washington State University t-shirt when he arrived), before he was sent over to the crematorium—I went to get something out of the refrigerator. I was looking for milk or cheese or juice or something, who knows. I was so numb I can’t remember. When I opened the fridge door the remains of his last slice of pie stared back at me. The bananas had turned brown, the crust soggy, the meringue sagging and weeping. The martini design on the plate, which had previously looked so cute now seemed offensive as the day’s approaching Happy Hour would be anything but happy.

    I was there, sleepless the entire week after he died, in my bed that looked out over the King Harbor marina. I stuck earbuds in my ears and listened to Clair de Lune, the extended play version, over and over. Gone was the humming, hissing and pumping sound of his oxygen machine. Gone was the moaning and crying sound of his pain from down the hall. Gone was the beloved man whose spirit had been so big and so vibrant. To fill all that empty space I played the music at full volume for hours while the moon rose—and then set—and the rest of Redondo Beach slumbered.

    I was there to clean out his closet with my brother, even when it felt way too soon, helping to load the SUV with my dad’s sport coats, sweaters, t-shirts and trousers, ties and belts, and a surprisingly extensive collection of size 12 shoes, including several pair leather loafers tucked so far back in the closet they were covered in a layer of light green mold, such is the humidity living by the ocean.

    I was there to write the obituary and place it in the Ottumwa Courier and the Quad City Times for $156 each, editing down the word count to save money from the original $300 quote each. I didn’t know obits were so expensive. And I didn’t know I would find myself arguing with the editor over AP Style Guidelines—over the correct placement of commas, semi-colons, and parentheses—after she changed my format, which I had spent hours so carefully crafting.

    I was there to design the memorial card, collecting photos from my four other siblings, sorting through 81 years’ worth of memories and culling them into the mere four photos the online template would allow. I was there to buy stamps and place them on the pile of 150 cards so that when my mother felt well enough to create a mailing list and address the envelopes it would be one less thing for her to do.

    I was there. And now I’m not. And he’s not. He has “transitioned.” To where—well, isn’t that is the ultimate nagging billion-dollar existential question? To a “better” place? God, I hate it when people say that. At least he’s in a place—or space—free from pain.

    It was so good yet so hard to be there. It made my heart physically hurt listening to him cry out during the night, in distress from the cancer that terrorized his bones, cancer that caused unimaginable pain, cancer that according to the PET scan—which he never read because he was determined that he wasn’t that sick, that he was going to get better—had deteriorated his left ribs, clavicle, and humerus (the shoulder head, a term I had to look up among many other body parts listed in the report.) No one, especially not my dad, should suffer like that. Ever.

    It was so fortunate to be there. I will forever be grateful for that time—those last three and a half weeks—I had with him. Even when it meant cleaning the commode, wiping the urine off his private parts, holding him up in the shower. Even when all that tore at my heart so badly and squeezed my chest so tight I laid on the guest bed thinking that I was the one who was going to die. (I found out later, after my doctor sent me to a cardiologist, that I was suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome. It’s a real thing, caused by trauma and stress.)

    I am thankful I could be there to give back to him, to have had even the smallest chance to repay him for all that he gave me, the many, many gifts that have made my life so rich—a healthy childhood, a college education, trips abroad to give me a bigger world view, a feisty and generous spirit, and above all, a mandate to be positive, to see the good in people, and to be of service to others.

    He was there to bring me into this world. I was there to help him out of it.

    He said just three days before he died, “Words matter.” I write these words for him. I write these words so I don’t lose him.

    But I haven’t lost him. He is always with me. His spirit lives through me. I carry on his values. I carry his DNA. And for as long as I live I will continue to carry on his love of nature and cocktail hour and banana cream pie. He had a good, long life, sticking around longer than many humans do—longer than my husband who died at 43.

    When Marcus died I was annoyed when my dad said, “We all have to die sometime, Boo.” But he is right—was right. We are all like a juicy novel with a beginning, middle and end. Our lives unfold like turning pages of a book, each varying in length. We are just passing through, each of us contributing our own chapter to the bigger story, and as such our purpose should be to live—and die—as gracefully (and painlessly) as possible, striving for a happy, morally sound ending.

    My dad also said, in one of his ever-surprising nuggets of wisdom doled out over the years, “When I die don’t mourn for me. Just go out and have a hot fudge sundae.” Another thing he would say, especially during times I was down, was, “Onward and forward.” I have never been as down as I am now.

    So in the spirit of my dad, the Great John Thomas Howard, I am going onward and forward—straight to Dairy Queen.

    I love you, Dad. And I miss you.
    (For more about my dad, read my Father’s Day post from last year.)

    Blogging in a Noisy World: Why it Matters

    You may not have noticed my absence but I am fully aware of the neglect of my blog. Aware, I say, because I miss writing here. I miss the process of mulling over topics, asking questions of life and writing my way into the answers. That’s not to say I have not been mulling, asking and writing! I’ve been doing plenty of that by way of meditating, talking with friends and writing in my journal. It’s only that I haven’t been sharing my thoughts and words here.

    Why?

    Because it’s become such a crowded and noisy app-happy world out there. Besides Blogger (where you are now), there is Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Snap Chat, Pinterest and LinkedIn, Tumblr and Google Plus, YouTube and WhatsApp. To name a few. There are so many ways of connecting it makes my head spin. It also makes me want to unplug and crawl back into an electricity-free cave.

    It’s not just the plethora of social networking sites; it’s what’s on them. I believe everyone has a story to tell. I believe everyone should have a voice. But when I read some of the mean-spirited stuff out there it gives me pause. Worse, it makes me afraid to put my own words—myself—out there. Not only am I reluctant to heap more on the slush pile of chatter (and, god forbid, with the incoming administration end up on some watchlist), I am reticent to subject myself to the vicious comments of some who feed on ripping others apart—trolls, as they are called, who unleash an unbridled viciousness that is, unfortunately, on the rise. We’ve seen this kind of unseemly behavior growing in the past several years with politicians decimating each other like Barbarians in the Coliseum. We’ve heard the rhetoric sink so low it has been deemed hate speech, only to see it repeated and reprinted as headline news. That’s a lot of noise. Mean-spirited, negative noise.

    I got a taste of this negativity, albeit a tiny morsel, a few months ago on Facebook when I posted a photo of President and Michelle Obama that included a caption (not mine) asking people to share if you wanted to thank the Obamas for their grace and dignity through these past eight years. Yes, I did want to thank them. I marveled (still marvel) at their strength and grace, diplomacy, class, and integrity as they’ve handled all the *&$%# that’s been flung their way, all the obstacles so obnoxiously placed in their path. (Which, I consider our path, the path to health, human rights and individual freedoms.) So I posted.

    In response to this post I was greeted with comments negating my fond sentiments—and several people voiced some pretty harsh opinions. So I hastened to add, “In the spirit of what this post says about grace and dignity, I will delete any negative comments.” I deleted a disturbing number, including one from a high school classmate—from our Catholic high school. Upon noticing her comment had been removed, she shot back with claims to her right to free speech. In turn, others jumped in on her angry response, until there was a long thread of people arguing back and forth about free speech, about how a person’s Facebook page belongs to that person and therefore exempt from any constitutional rights, followed by more polarized opinions about the Obamas. On my post. A post that was supposed to be positive, an innocent means of saying thanks.

    My parents. I appreciate
    their old-fashioned values
    more than ever

    All through my childhood, my mother hammered us kids about minding our manners. I can still hear her voice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.” And her other frequent refrain: “That’s not charitable,” a reprimand in response to any of our unkind or selfish missteps.

    Say something nice or don’t say anything. Be charitable. These are the simple rules I learned from my mom. The ones I learned from my dad are just as important: Surround yourself with positive people. And, above all, always remember to say thank you.

    But it has become glaringly evident—from my fellow Catholic school classmates to our president-elect—that not everyone was raised with these rules.

    I really do believe that each of us has a story to tell. But stories need to be told in a way we can all hear. Shouting doesn’t work. Negativity is unnecessary. And bullying is unacceptable. Without civility and good manners our society will topple faster than a tower of Jenga blocks.  And you shouldn’t need me—or my mother—to tell you that. It should be common sense!

    I kept wondering about the high school classmate and why her reaction to my post was so strong, so angry. So I dug a little into her Facebook page and saw that she was divorced and a single mom. I am cautious about making assumptions, but I wondered if her anger had more to do with her and less about the Obamas or free speech. Maybe she was devastated by her divorce. Maybe she was struggling to raise her kids on her own. It made me think of another of those oft-reposted Facebook quotes:

    “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” 

    So I held her in my thoughts, sending her telepathic waves of love and compassion. And then, in a proactive move of self-protection, I unfriended her.

    Forget your closet, apply this
    method to your social media 

    My sister would advise, “Garbage in, garbage out. What we take in affects us and we send it back out. So best to avoid the garbage.” I am not saying this in reference to the classmate; I’m referring to the bigger picture. I’ve needed to do a Marie Kondo on social media, my blog included, and tidy up. Sharing my innermost thoughts, my hopes and beliefs, was not sparking joy; it was invoking dread, even fear.

    And yet, my profession is writing, communicating, networking. It’s my calling. I need connection the way Simone Biles needs backflips. Even if it means spending time on social media. (And when you live on a farm in rural Iowa, sometimes social media is the only practical means of having a social life.)

    Even when I have vowed not to, I have continued to post on Facebook, and sometimes Twitter. I have also continued to break my personal rule about staying politically neutral. For years I have preached that pie was not about politics, that pie creates community, unifies and bridges some of the most disparate gaps. I’m confident that I have proven this principal over and over—all the way around the globe, in fact—by baking pie with people from some of the widest ranges of cultures, socioeconomic groups, religions, and political beliefs.

    Making pie with kids in a South African township.

    Pie, for me, has always been a metaphor for peace. (As if that wasn’t already obvious.) And because peace is eluding us in our current climate, it’s time for me to drop the “no politics” rule entirely. It is time for me to speak up. To add my voice to the noisy world. To contribute any constructive, positive, peace-making thoughts I can to help counter the dark forces of fear, greed, ignorance, and bullying.

    My politics are not about party-based divisiveness. My goal going forward is to keep bringing the conversation back to basic values, like empathy and inclusiveness—you know, the foundations of Christianity—while keeping the conversation polite. My mission is to preserve decency and manners, and to promote respect—for each other, as well as for our environment. We all have to breathe the same oxygen from our atmosphere; we all depend on clean drinking water for our survival. Forget politics. Preserving earth’s limited resources and saving our species starts with remembering we share just one planet, and therefore we all have to get along.

    Obviously “getting along” is a hard charge for us. But we can at least try. For example, even if it takes some effort, we can start by restraining ourselves before venting on social media. Instead of making negative, contrarian, inflammatory comments, how about not saying anything at all. The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. Even a baby step like this is a good start.

    And lest I sound like a hypocrite, let me say this blog post is not meant to be a rant or negative commentary. I am simply trying to sort through the confusion of life and use my best means of solution seeking: writing an essay.

    Mull over the topic. Ask the questions. Write my way into the answers. In this case, the answers are really very simple, so simple I could have conveyed them in five words instead of 1,500:

    Have courage and practice kindness.

    And write more. On my blog.

    It may be a crowded, noisy world out there but everyone has a story, everyone has a voice. This is my story, my voice. And just like I would with a homemade pie, I’ve put my heart and my best intentions into my words before sharing them. Thank you for reading them.

    Father’s Day 2016

    I wrote this essay as a birthday card to my dad last year. When sitting down to write him a Father’s Day card this week, I kept thinking about this gift to him. On that birthday night, our whole family sat down to a celebratory meal at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Marina del Rey, where I read my piece aloud. I tried to keep my composure as I read, which was a challenge when I could see out of my peripheral vision the tears welling up in my dad’s eyes. The waitress, a true professional, did not interrupt. She sensed the importance of the moment and waited until I was done to take our dinner order and I was always so grateful for her giving us that space. Later, my mom, who generally doesn’t approve of my habit of sharing my life so publicly, suggested I submit this piece for publication. But no, this was one story that was sacred. I wrote it for one person only: my dad. 

    A few days ago my best friend from childhood, Nan, lost her dad. He was 94. He had a good, long, healthy life. Even on his last day on this planet he was well enough to go fishing with some friends from the nursing home. His passing was another reminder to cherish every moment and always say what you need to say–before you can’t any longer. My dad is still with us–he’s 81 now, still drinking martinis, still giving me advice and still reminding me to embrace the goodness in life. I can’t think of anything more I’d like to do to honor him on this Father’s Day than share my very personal, very heartfelt gift to him with you. I hope you are all honoring the fathers or father-figures in your life–not just this Father’s Day weekend but every day.

    For Dad on his 80th Birthday, May 16, 2015

    Dear Dad,

    You always said, “The best birthday present I could ask for is a card telling me how much you love me.” This is a lucky break for me because (A) I don’t really have a lot of money to spend, (B) you can be a little hard to shop for since you are already the “man who has everything”—not to mention, I don’t really like shopping in the first place, and (C) I write for a living so writing you a card is like getting off easy. Not just because writing comes naturally to me, but because telling you how much I love you is one of the most effortless things in the world. Effortless, yes, but you are turning 80 and the list of reasons I love you and appreciate you has kept growing with the years, so this is going to be a long “birthday card.”

    You have taught me so many important lessons that have carried me through my life. Your wisdom, your strength, your passion and your humor have shaped the person I have become. And I’d to think I’m speaking for the other four kids, your five grandkids, and even your two granddogs. While this is only a small sampling, I’ve come up with a list of 10 lessons I learned from you, lessons so valuable that I have made it my mission to share them with others.

    1. Surround yourself with positive people

    You have always told me to surround myself with positive people. This is one of the single most important pieces of advice I have ever had. It is so simple but so powerful. I might have inherited my “people radar” and healthy skepticism from mom, but it’s your voice I hear when I realize I need to move on from certain friends or situations that are too negative. It’s a formula that works. I have traveled far and wide, alone, and I have never had anything bad happen, because you taught to me stay away from the “ass-hoooooooles” (your favorite line from “Meet the Fockers”) and focus only on the good.

    2. It’s OK to tune people out

    I sat in the passenger seat of your car when I was 10. I had just gotten publicly reprimanded and humiliated by Mrs. Wonderlich in front of my whole fifth grade class. She told me I needed to come down off my pedestal. Which, looking back, is the same thing as saying, “I will not allow you to be your big, beautiful, confident self.” As I sat in your white Mustang—or maybe it was your brown Gremlin—you told me I did not need to listen to her, that I could just tune people out. To this day, I think of you propping me up that afternoon and I am so grateful for that advice—and for what may be considered your unconventional parenting style. You helped me to understand that people put others down only to make themselves feel better. And then you taught me that I didn’t have to listen to the naysayers, that I could just do my own thing, and that I could—and should—become the big, beautiful, confident self you raised me to be.

    3. It takes 37 fewer muscles to smile than to frown

    Long before the “positive mental attitude movement” came along, you were extolling the virtues of turning a frown upside down. Of course as a dentist you had to put it in dental terms by defining the number of muscles it takes to do this. And that alone, to this day, makes me smile.

    4. Follow your passion

    Unlike you and your early and unrelenting love for dentistry, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. You might have had some suggestions for me along the way—like be a dental hygienist or an executive assistant—but because you told me it was okay to tune people out, I didn’t listen—even to you. Why? Because you also taught me to find my passion and follow it. The words I can still hear you saying—and on more than one occasion—were this: “As long as you can convince me why what you want to do is important to you, I will support you.” I convinced you. And you supported me. Just like you promised you would. Even when I did things that challenged you as a parent. Like graduating early from high school to do a NOLS semester. Going to Africa alone at 24. And more. How lucky can a kid get to have a dad who supports their passion, even when that passion turns out to be wanderlust?

    5. Give to others

    You spent your whole career as a healer. It was one thing to see how many people’s lives you improved by taking care of their teeth, but I also watched people come away transformed just from your touch. You made people’s health a priority. You made our family a priority. You always put others first. It would be hard to rank all the lessons you taught me in any given order, but this one has to be in the top three. You recently reiterated to me a phrase that I have been leaning on more than you know—one I will take with me as I go around the world. You said, “When times get hard, just remember what you are doing is helping others.” What kind of dad says that? I’ll tell you what kind. The best kind. The very best kind.

    6. Always eat well — and remember to say thank you

    You have always had a great enthusiasm for food. Good food. Our family dinners provided a
    foundation for our lives, not just by having healthy home-cooked meals but by being encouraged to engage in open communication around the table. With that, we were nourished in both the body and the soul. Beyond the home, you expanded our appreciation of delicious food—and created a love for a wide range of dining experiences. It started back in the Ottumwa days with banana cream pie at The Canteen Lunch in the Alley and hot fudge sundaes at Dairy Queen. And then it progressed all the way to the top of the scale with filet mignon and Grand Marnier soufflés at Café Martinique in the Bahamas. The extremes may have balanced out with spaghetti and meatballs at “the garlic place” (Alejo’s), clam chowder at Blue Water Grill, and tostada salads at El Pollo Loco, but the appreciation for eating well remains strong. What you also taught us is that a dining experience isn’t just about the food; it’s about the importance of saying thank you. Beginning a meal with a heartfelt blessing of gratitude and remembrance of others less fortunate, and ending a meal with an acknowledgement of thanks to the cook, the host, or the person treating, this kind of mindfulness is the starting point for making the world a better place. This is one of the earliest and most valuable lessons I remember learning from you.

    7. Cocktail Hour is sacred

    You were there for me when Marcus died. You came to Portland and joined me at the hotel where I was staying with Nan. We were on our way out for dinner but you insisted on having a martini before we left. In my harried state I scolded you, saying, “That’s alcoholic behavior.” Your reply was quick and light and unabashed. “That’s not alcoholic behavior,” you said, “it’s cocktail hour behavior.” Nan thought that was the most brilliant philosophy ever. And now that the fog of grief has lifted, I can see you were right. It’s that simple. Life’s rituals are important. They keep us in balance. Cocktail hour is like a religion. And drinking a martini is a holy, spiritual experience that honors and celebrates the day. Not to mention, it’s way more fun than going to church. You taught me that. Along with the importance of putting three olives in the drink.

    8. Silence is sacred

    Cocktail hour isn’t the only sacred experience you taught me about. Silence is another. As you recall, I didn’t take well to Catholic indoctrination. But Tom Howard showed me another way to find God. It was called silence. This wasn’t about tuning other people out. This was about tuning yourself out and going deep within. And while meditation is one way to do this, I am not good at sitting still. But you showed me a way to access the stillness while moving. First you taught me how to ride a bike. Then you taught me to drive. Then you taught me to sail. You helped me discover that nature was my true religion, the place where I could feel closest to a higher power. And then you came with me on trips—motorcycling through Europe where we couldn’t talk and instead just focused on feeling the wind in our faces. That was magical. But there was nothing more divine—divine in the literal sense—than walking in silence in the Sahara Desert. I will always marvel at how we did not plan to be silent for those several days, but how the power of the endless red sand dunes and expansive blue sky seemed to require it. In that silence I’m not sure I ever felt closer to the Great Creator—or to you.

    9. Solitaire is a competitive sport

    While these past few months have been challenging for me, one of my favorite memories I will take away is the fun we had playing Solitaire—and how we turned it into a competition. It was silly and pointless in a way, but fun to put a new spin on a solo game. We weren’t really playing to beat each other; we were just bonding in the race to improve our game and beat our own best time. For a long time I poo-pooed people who played Solitaire, but now I appreciate it immensely, how putting the cards in order gives a sense of order to life. It’s better and cheaper and faster than Prozac! Out of curiosity the other day, I looked up the origins of Solitaire. In some countries it is actually called “Patience” and in others, “Success.” You possess these traits in spades. No wonder you love the game! Another name for it is “Kabala,” which means secret knowledge and it seems your favorite game has been used as a means of fortune telling. But you don’t need a game to see the future. You have psychic abilities. When you predict things for my life, I hang on to every word. And if I end up working for Hilary’s campaign when I get back from my travels—or fall in love with an Australian and move to his seaside ranch—it will be further proof that your psychic powers reach far beyond a deck of cards. As for our competition, we are both winners.

    10. Have more fun by breaking the rules and teasing a little

    If I learned nothing else from you, Dad, it is how to laugh. We have had such a fun time in our family teasing each other—and then spending the following decades reminiscing about how fun it was to pull that prank or tell that joke or light that fart. I still think of the times you took us out for hot fudge sundaes before dinner and made us promise not to tell mom. She always found out anyway. “Tooo-oooom,” she would say, drawing out your one-syllable name into two. We laughed when you got scolded, because we kids were complicit in the act. It was sweet and innocent fun that taught us it was okay to bend the rules, to not conform, and most of all, just to embrace life. Also on the subject of how we learned to be naughty, it amazes me to think that I still hold the record for the biggest—or one could say, worst—prank in the family. You know the one, that time I asked you to look at my tooth and then I burped as soon as you looked in my mouth. I officially apologize. But it’s your own fault for raising us to be the little pranksters that we became. Still, I learned that teasing is an expression of love, the relaxed kind of love that comes from being secure in a relationship. You brought the fun, you and mom added the security and the love, and the rest is history. And, PS, it’s not too late to retaliate for the burping incident.

    So with all that, let me say Happy 80th Birthday, John Thomas Howard. I hope this card is the best present you could ask for. Because you are the best dad I—and all of us—could ask for.

    ALL MY LOVE,
    Boo

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