Forget First or Second, I Am Third

(You can also listen to this on Tri States Public Radio)  

I hear myself saying a little too often these days that I’m glad I grew up when I did, before cell phones and selfies. Before the internet became a runaway train of disinformation. Before being famous was valued more than being a good person. Before this current era of entitlement where the prevailing attitude is “It’s all about me.” Me first. America first. Look at me. Like me. Follow me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. 

https://happyhooligans.ca/gods-eye-craft-weaving-for-kids/

I’m starting to feel like my grandparents, when they expressed their disapproval of modern ways by starting sentences with, “In my day…” I get it now. It troubles me to see the Christian values I was taught when I was young devolve into the so-called Christian values demonstrated today.  

I grew up in Iowa in the 70s and spent my summers at Camp Abe Lincoln, a YMCA camp on the Mississippi River, just south of the Quad Cities. “The YMCA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to put Christian values into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” This mission was incorporated into every camp activity. As we sat around the nightly campfire, the counselors told stories of peace and love, and led us in songs like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” When we rode and groomed horses, we learned about respect and care for animals. Archery and riflery were a means to teach focus and hand-eye coordination, with an emphasis on safety and non-violence. And when we did crafts, braiding lanyards and weaving colorful yarn around popsicle sticks to create a “God’s Eye,” counselors artfully worked in messages of morality.

More than 40 years later, one of those messages still sticks with me. It was about humility and selflessness delivered in the form of a quote by Gayle Sayers, a Hall of Fame football player for the Chicago Bears. The quote was, “The lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third,” though I didn’t remember it in those exact words. I thought it was “God is first, others are second, and I am third.” I like to think my version is more all-encompassing, as every religion, not just Christianity, worships God, even if they call it by a different name. And by declaring “others are second,” it can include making an outsider feel welcome, helping people less fortunate than you, or simply being nice to strangers, like letting the person with only one item go ahead of you in the grocery line when you have a full cart. All of which leaves you open to making more friends. 

God is first, others are second, 

and I am third.”

Sayers lived his life by this credo, which you can learn more about in his autobiography titled “I Am Third: The Inspiration for Brian’s Song.” He passed away at the age of 77 this past September. If he were still alive, I would reach out to him to ask what he thought about the world today. 

What do you think about people hacking pipeline computers causing others to hoard gas in plastic bags? What about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how instead of sitting down to talk things through, they’re firing missiles at each other? How about antivaxxers refusing to wear a mask during a global public health crisis, claiming it infringes on their personal rights? What about mobs storming the Capitol because their candidate didn’t win? What do you think about the suppression of voting rights, the bullying on social media, and the proliferation of guns, as if we need to arm ourselves against our own neighbors? How about people—church-going, God-fearing Christians at that—closing borders in an outright refusal to aid poor and hungry immigrants, ignoring the fact that not only are these our brothers and our sisters but that we are all immigrants ourselves?

What happened to “I am third?” And how can we bring that message back? 

We can’t all go to a YMCA summer camp, and Gayle Sayers is no longer here to lead the charge, but ironically there is another football player, a coach actually, who is trying to help. His name is Ted Lasso. He’s not a real person; he’s the main character in the charming Apple TV series of the same name. Ted, played by Jason Sudeikis, is hired to coach a soccer team in England. But to everyone’s astonishment he doesn’t care about winning. What’s more important, he insists, is to be a unified team. The problem is, the star player is egocentric and refuses to pass the ball to his teammates; he makes all the goals himself so he can reap all the glory. His selfishness erodes the morale of the team, until Ted finally gets through to him, teaching him, like my camp counselors taught me, the most valuable lesson in the game of life: I am third. 

There is no “I” in team. For a safe and healthy planet, we need to work together. For a more unified world, we have to put others first. Life is better and less lonely when it’s not all about me, me, me. The solution is easy. All you have to do is pass the ball.

How to Help the World

Taking a walk on the wild side

Yesterday morning I wrote in my journal that I want to do more to help the world, but that I don’t know where to start. The world is so desperately in need of help just thinking about it made me feel bad that I’m not doing more. The feeling only became worse as the buffalo herd of “shoulds” charged at me in a stampede of shame. I should be involved with a cause. I should be volunteering for a homeless shelter, an immigration center, a women’s crisis hotline. I should be working with World Central Kitchen. No, I should have started World Central Kitchen. I should join the Peace Corps. I should be giving my time, my money, my plasma, my groceries, my winter coats, my life, to help others in need. It’s my civic duty as a human being to help others in need.

All this to say I made myself feel so overwhelmed, so unworthy of taking up space on this planet, I wanted to go back to bed. 

My casita (before I moved in)

Instead, I spent an hour cleaning the tiny house I’m renting for the winter on an Arizona horse ranch. My landlord is selling the property and informed me a photographer was coming at 5:30 to take photos for the real estate listing. All she requested is that I make my place tidy. Having spent a better part of the week looking at rentals and Airbnb listings in Los Angeles, where I’m heading next, I know what “sells” a place and that means no wet towels or sponges in the kitchen, no shampoo bottles in the shower, no pile of clutter on the desk, no ratty dog bed in the living room, no rumpled sheets on the bed. Luckily this place has ample storage space, so I hid my personal items in the cabinets and closets, down to the dwindling roll of paper towel, dish soap, reading glasses, and space heaters. I fluffed the pillows and smoothed out the duvet cover. I didn’t have to. But I know how important it is to her to find a buyer so I wanted do my small part to make it look enticing. By the time I was done it looked so immaculate and adorable even I would have wanted to buy the place!

Needing to be out of the house at 5:30 gave me a good excuse to take my niece, a sophomore at University of Arizona, out for an early dinner. We met at “our spot” in Tucson, Time Market, for pizza and kale salad. We talked about boys and school and careers, about family and dogs and dreams. It did both of us good to spend time together. 

On my way home I got a text from my landlord. “You get an A+ on the casita.” I wanted to text her back and tell her that I had been happy to do it, but I was driving, so I just smiled, glad that she appreciated my effort.

Later that evening, having just settled in on the couch to read, I heard yelling outside, not a normal occurrence on a ranch where approximately six people live within a six-mile radius. The only nighttime noise you hear is the coyotes howling and an occasional rooster crowing. I peeked past the curtains and saw the beam of a flashlight sweeping across the black desert landscape. There are a few RV parking spots about fifty yards away from my casita, one is occupied by a couple with a large motorhome and two dogs. It was the wife calling for one of their dogs, Buddy, a Jack Russell terrier. A small dog on the loose at night in this remote area is a death sentence. Even in daylight it can be dangerous as I know from losing my own Jack Russell mix, Daisy, six years ago. Predators don’t discriminate. 

I threw on my coat and boots, found my glasses, turned on my flashlight app, and went outside to see if I could help, grabbing a bag of dog treats on my way out the door. 

The ranch is surrounded by national forest and open range; it’s as wild as the Wild West gets. The only thing separating us from the wilderness is a saggy barbwire fence, and the woman (let’s call her Susan), as well as her wayward dog, were on the wild side of it. I crawled through the fence to join Susan, who was not wearing a coat, even though the temp was 40 degrees and dropping. 

“The more I call him, the more he runs away,” she said. “The only one he listens to is my husband.”

“Where is he?” I asked.

“He’s asleep in the camper.”

“Well, let’s go wake him up.”

“No,” she said. “He’s been drinking. You know how that is.”

The way she said it broke my heart a little. 

We stood in silence for a moment, listening for a clue as to Buddy’s whereabouts. I dreaded the sound of coyotes yipping, the way they do when circling in for a kill, but the only sound was the wind blowing over the mountains, across the rolling grasslands, and through the dried scrub. And then . . . a faint bark. I rattled the bag of dog treats and instantly, appearing in the beam of the flashlight, was Buddy. White and brown, macho and all attitude, he looked up at me with his big brown eyes as if to ask, “What’s the problem?” As if he hadn’t caused the heart rates of not one, but two people to spike.

Susan grabbed hold of his collar while I doled out treats.

“I ran after him in such a hurry I’m just in my slippers,” she said as we walked back to her motorhome. I pointed my flashlight at her feet. These weren’t slippers; they were nylon footies no more protective than if she’d had bare feet!

“I’m sure the adrenaline is keeping you from feeling any thorns,” I said.

“I haven’t stepped on any,” she replied, “but I just got poked in the face by a branch.” 

“Be careful. These mesquite trees are evil and can take an eye out.”

We reached the RV, but between Buddy and her flashlight she didn’t have a free hand to unlatch the door. I opened it for her, careful not to let her other dog out—part black lab, part antelope, a sprinter who would have traveled farther and faster than Buddy, and not one to be bribed back by a measly little dog treat. Susan wedged her body inside, while I blocked the door to prevent the other dog’s escape.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “Now I know how to get him to come.”

“Here, keep the dog treats,” I said.

On my way back to my casita, I thought about what I had written in my journal that morning: “I want to help the world.” I had been thinking on a grand scale, too grand. Because what I realized is that helping the world starts with small acts close to home. Be it supporting my landlord’s efforts to sell her property, treating my niece to a meal while listening to her concerns about becoming an adult, and saving a reckless dog from becoming a coyote snack, helping the world is about making the effort—better yet, the extra effort. To hide all your clutter in your cupboards for the photoshoot when you were basically asked to just make your bed. To drive an hour each way, down the mountain and back up again, for a conversation and a slice of pizza with a family member. To head out into the dark and dangerous wilderness to find a neighbor’s dog when you could have just stayed in your warm house reading on the couch.

Small acts of kindness. Every day. That’s how we help the world. That’s where we begin.

*****

You might also like to read my other blog posts:

Finding Solace in Solitaire 

What to Do With All That Privilege

There is ALWAYS Hope, Bea

Stay Calm and Bake Pie — Episode 7: A Celebration of YOUR Pies

Episode 7 of “Stay Calm and Bake Pie” is here. It may be my favorite one, because it’s a celebration of all the pies you’ve been making this month.

After watching it, my friend Kee Kee (who you read more about below) texted me this:

“When this pandemic started you told me you wanted to make a difference, and maybe go stock grocery shelves (I told you that was insane!), but what you are doing with your YouTube series is inspiring people to make memories with their families, and giving them the courage to bake pies themselves (and I’m sure that courage carries over to having more confidence in the kitchen making other yummy food for their families). Such a special special episode!!!!! Bravo!!!!!”

So I guess that answers that question I still keep asking myself: HOW CAN I BE OF SERVICE TO OTHERS?

A few other people sent me messages saying that while watching this episode they couldn’t stop smiling. “So feel good!!!!! My face is sore from smiling the whole way through.” One woman, who watched it first thing this morning, even said, “I couldn’t stop smiling. And I don’t usually smile until I’ve been awake awhile.”

Even if you haven’t followed one of my pie lesson videos or made a pie, I can say with confidence that watching this video is totally worth 12-1/2 minutes of your time.

Again, thank you to everyone who has been participating in making and sharing pies. And because there were a few pictures that I either forgot or didn’t make the cutoff time, I’m posting them here.

Let’s keep baking, everyone. Let’s keep doing whatever we can to make the world a better place.

Love, Beth

EPISODE 7: Celebrating Your Pies
  

My friend Kee Kee’s pie…

I woke up this morning mad at myself, because… HOW COULD I HAVE FORGOTTEN to include these other pies? Especially when this one in particular is by my friend Kee Kee (see quote above). She made her husband Eric a cherry pie for his birthday a few weeks ago. Eric is Eric Troyer, the supremely talented musician who so generously wrote the “Ms. American Pie” theme song for my pie videos!  (Eric is a former member of ELO, now in the band called The Orchestra.)

Yoda, by the way, is Kee Kee’s late dog. She made a “Yoda Pie” as a thank you gift to her vet after his passing and since then every pie she makes has Yoda’s name on it.

Eric not only contributed a song to my pie video series, he wrote a them song for the pandemic called “I Can’t Stop Touching My Face.” Kee Kee, a talented filmmaker, initiated the music video they made for the song, appropriately in their pajamas and bathrobes. Take another 3 minutes out of your day to watch this.  Then your face is really going to hurt from smiling. And I promise you will have this song stuck in your head for days. But it’s a good song to have stuck. And it will make you more mindful about touching your face….as in don’t!

Meanwhile in Seattle…..

My friend Dixie Wilson in Seattle has three very creative kids who, while cooped up at home, have proven just how industrious they can be. They set up a domino line that stretched the full length of the house. They wrote their own sermons for their stay-at-home Sunday church services. And they made pie!  Here is her 11-year-old daughter Madison making a banana cream pie. The pics came in just minutes after I posted the video and I was so sorry not to include them. But I realized my blog was a way to showcase them, and here they are….

And in Los Angeles….
My friend Winky’s daughter, Kay Kay, is a young musician who has been creating YouTube videos for her preschool-aged music students. She has taken her creativity a step farther by doing a pie-making video, demonstrating my key lime pie recipe. And she’s taken this effort up a hundred more notches by conducting her demo in Portuguese! She is just learning her husband’s mother tongue and, wow, am I impressed! For all the hours and hours I’ve spent studying German, Spanish, and French, there is no way I could teach a pie class in another language. Even if you don’t understand Portuguese, this is fun to watch because Kay Kay is just so dang adorable.

Kay Kay digs in to a slice!

Previous episodes:  Here’s the playlist on YouTube

Please follow me on my social media pages:

And subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Lastly, continue sending me pictures of your finished pies!!! I will post them in my “victory shot” album on Facebook. Or who knows? Maybe I’ll have to do a second episode of your pies.

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

    How I’m Dealing with the Pandemic (And Other Anxieties)

    I want to get back to being a writer, to writing the book I started in early December, or to scrapping that and starting a new one, even just to blogging, but I’m too restless. Like most people, I am sitting in a prickly pear cactus field of fear and anxiety. With the world as we know it ending and the constant onslaught of news and noise, it feels as if there’s no room for my voice. And not just that, but knowing the kind of online mob mentality that exists, how people too often gang up on you in a dog pile of mean-spirited criticism, I feel too thin-skinned and too vulnerable to put myself out there, to share my personal stories and my heart.

    I have people who write to me, not just friends but also people who have read my books and blog posts, who encourage me to keep going. They tell me they appreciate my openness and honesty, and that they like my writing. (Phew! Thank you!) They also say they want to know more about my life. About what happened after I moved out of the American Gothic House. About where I’m living now. If I am still on the farm (aka Camp Doug, and Camp Dough.)  If I am still with Doug. If I still teach pie classes. What my next book is going to be about.

    But here I sit, in the face of a global pandemic, facing a blank page on a Word doc and asking myself What is the point of writing? What the hell even matters anymore?

    Staying healthy. Staying sane. Staying alive. These are the first things that come to mind. But the one thought that keeps pushing its way past the others to the surface of the survival pool is this: Helping others.

    My dad taught me to be of service to others. My husband Marcus’s death taught me that doing nice things for others (like sharing pie) eases the heartbreak of grief. And now, as we teeter on the brink of economic—and possibly societal—collapse, my conscience is telling me to stop worrying about writing and just get out there and help the world in physical ways. Be of service to others.

    I’ve reached out to people to ask what I can do. Social media and newsletters have also been a good source of ideas.

    Here are few things of the suggestions—some I’ve already done—and things you can do too:

    Donate blood.
    I stumbled upon the American Red Cross bus on Saturday afternoon parked outside a coffeehouse and saw a signboard outside it that said “Emergency Blood Drive.” I hadn’t given blood in 18 years (since I’m prone to anemia) but I went in, my iron count passed the test, and I donated a pint.  They are having a shortage due to the virus forcing blood drives to be canceled. Doug, my boyfriend, has been a longtime donor and has given a total of 24 gallons over the years! Got blood? Trust me, if I can spare a little so can you.  Go here to find out where to give.

    Foster animals. 
    I saw a post somewhere, maybe on my Nextdoor app, that said our local shelter was in need of fostering for dogs and cats. I lost my terrier, Jack, in September and I’m not ready to get another dog, but why not foster? My apartment building allows pets and because of the circumstances the landlord agreed to waive the monthly pet fee. So I stopped at the shelter—only to check it out—and came home with Peanut, a six-pound Chihuahua recovering from a prolapsed uterus. She requires medication, which I am an expert at administering after two years of Jack’s insulin shots and heart pills, which is why the shelter asked if I would take a dog with medical needs. Peanut is quiet, cuddly, and very appreciative of the down comforter and heating pad I’ve provided for her bed. And she is excellent company during this time of social distancing. If there was ever a win-win, this is it. This need is not only in Tucson, but everywhere right now.  Check with your local animal shelter.

    Feed the needy.
    Schools are closed for classes, but their kitchens are being put to good use preparing food for kids and others who might otherwise go hungry. I sent an email today to offer help preparing, handing out, and/or delivering meals. I haven’t gotten an assignment yet, but I have my rubber gloves ready and my car tank filled with gas. Schools are doing this nationwide, if not internationally, so check what’s happening in your area.

    Restock grocery store shelves. 
    One thing we all need to do no matter what is eat. But if you’ve been in a grocery story lately you’ll see that the shelves are bare. This highly unusual sight of scarcity is enough to send anyone into a full-blown panic. Honestly, it could turn any rational person into a toilet paper hoarder. Just today I got an email from Safeway (they had my email because I joined their club card program last week) which said they need people to work in their stores. Someone needs to unload those delivery trucks, unpack those boxes, and replenish those shelves. Sign me up! I clicked on the application form, but apparently so did everyone else who got the email, because the site was down. I’d be happy to do the work and the heavy lifting, but I know there are people in more urgent need of the income and I hope they get hired.

    Buy groceries for those who can’t afford them. (If there are still groceries to buy.)
    It’s been fun (is “fun” the right word at a time like this?) to spend time on Twitter. I find the clever quips to be a source of intelligent and informed humor. But it’s not all snarkiness over there. Someone (and given the quick-paced, fleeting nature of the Twitterverse, I’ll never be able to track down who it was) posted something about paying for groceries for the person in line behind them, or giving money to the person in front of them who didn’t have enough to pay for theirs. And then someone commented that their Aldi Nerds Facebook group…

    Wait, what?? There’s are Aldi FB groups?? How did I not know this given my super fan status for all things Aldi (especially their low prices compared to Safeway)?

    …The commenter said her Aldi Nerds FB group was buying gift cards to give to people who needed food. It’s gestures like this that restore my faith in humanity and, yes, I am going to join that FB group immediately.

    Make pie. And share it.
    Of course I have to include this one. But given that I’m always preaching that “pie is meant to be shared,” well, how does one safely share pies during a “shelter in place” mandate? Do you leave a pie outside of someone’s door, ring the doorbell, and run? Or are you limited to sharing pie in your own house? Then again, some people are confined to separate rooms in their own homes. I don’t know all the safety aspects of sharing pie right now, but I do know two things:  One, people need to eat. And two, people need comfort and love more than ever. Pie is comfort. Pie is love. Pie is baked in a hot oven and surely 425 degrees Fahrenheit is enough to kill that motherfucker of a virus. Even if you can’t share your pie, the act of baking one is good therapy for calming the nerves.

    Make music.  And share it.
    A new friend of mine in Tucson has kids in their twenties who are musicians. One lives in San Diego, the other lives in Nashville, but both are currently taking refuge in their parents’ home in Oro Valley. They aren’t “hunkering down” watching Netflix and scrolling through Instagram though, they are rehearsing for a Cul de Sac Concert! Like the Italians singing on their balconies, or the two kids playing cello for their housebound elderly neighbor, my friend’s kids are going to share the gift of their musical talents (and, boy, are they talented!) with the neighborhood, because sound waves don’t spread diseases.

    Write letters to say “Thank you” and “I love you” and “I’m sorry.”
    Yes, we are asked to maintain our physical distance for who knows how long. When will we get to see our parents and siblings and closest friends again? This uncertainty is what is driving so much of the anxiety. Thank goodness we can still communicate. I’ve been almost constantly on my phone or computer, texting, sending emails, sending photos, staying in touch with my people. But post offices are still open. We have stamps. And we can write letters in longhand, which has an added value. Dragging your pen across the page in curlicue lines or straight upright blocks slows you down causing you to be more thoughtful, which by the way, seems to be an overall theme, if not perhaps a “benefit,” of this virus. I wrote a few birthday cards yesterday. I wrote to my dad, who has been living on “the other side” for the past three years. (I’m convinced he can read my words.) I wrote a note of encouragement to a writer friend who was asking the same “why bother” questions as me (see first paragraph).  And you know what? I felt so much better after writing all this on paper. Not to mention, my eyes felt so much better being away from the screen. Handwriting is like pie in that it’s an endangered art form.  Let’s keep it alive. Next on the recipient list: letters to people I want to thank, just for being in my life, and a few to whom I want to say “I’m sorry.” More importantly, letters of thanks and encouragement to healthcare workers who are putting their lives on the line to help us through this crisis.

    Be a pioneer.
    Also over on Twitter (I have never spent so much time on Twitter!) I saw a tweet from author Celeste Ng. The same Celeste Ng who wrote “Little Fires Everywhere” which is now streaming as a hot new series on Hulu. She listed the things she was doing during the lockdown, shutdown, slowdown, meltdown, whatever you want to call it.

    “I am cooking from scratch, schooling my child at home, knitting and baking and making stock. This pandemic is turning me into a pioneer.” 

    Pioneers got shit done. They did manual labor outdoors in the fresh air (which was so much cleaner before the industrial age came along). Their hard work gave them a sense of purpose and accomplishment and toned muscles. And skin far rougher than our 20-second hand-washing sessions are causing us. Be it pie baking, music making, hand writing letters, planting a garden, making soup, or canning jam, now is a good opportunity to spend quality time at home, to work with your hands, and reacquaint yourself with an era before Alexa could do everything for you without having to get up off the couch. (Don’t get me started on that subject.)

    Get outside. 
    Speaking of getting off the couch…  Do not underestimate the toll that the stress we are currently under takes! I’m lucky to be in Tucson where there are hiking trails through wilderness areas that make it easy to be outdoors and maintain social distance. I’ve been taking regular soul-soothing, stress-reducing walks in the mountains. (Not just good for the lungs, legs, and buns, but for burning the extra calories from all that stress-eating!) I want so badly to be of service to others, but you know that thing about putting on your own oxygen mask first is true. You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. If you can’t get to a trail or a deserted beach to restock your inner grocery store shelves, maybe just step into the backyard and breathe in some of this rare, newly clean air. Seriously. Have you seen the articles going viral about how China’s sky is blue again, and dolphins are returning to the Venice canals? That should tell you just how badly we’ve been treating this planet! So turn off the TV, silence your phone, and pay your respects to nature. Which reminds me: my list of letters to write includes an apology note to Mother Earth!

    ⇹ ⇹ ⇹

    This is only a short list of ways to be of service. There is always more we could be doing. The point is to just do it.  Don’t overthink it. Like bringing home a chihuahua when you have a preference for terriers, this is not the time for perfection. This is the time for taking action. So just jump in.

    Of course, this is advice I could also apply to writing. Yes, I’m restless and anxious. But writing about that anxiety helps me feel less anxious. Yes, I am vulnerable, and not just to criticism and trolls but to the coronavirus. But I’m not going to let that stop me from living, from sharing my experiences, or from adding my voice to the crowded mix.

    Because words do matter. Stories matter. And there can never be too many stories (or blog posts) because it’s our collective voice that tells the bigger tale. We don’t know where this current saga is going or how all it ends, but we are all part of it. We are in this together. We have to keep doing our best and help each through the confusion and struggle as it comes. Because when you strip everything else away, isn’t helping each other the true meaning of life?

    As for all those questions about what I’m doing now, where I’m living, who I’m with or what pie classes I’m teaching, I’ll save that for another post.


    You might also like these posts: 
    Blogging in a Noisy World, and Why it Matters
    What to Do With All That Privilege
    There is Always Hope, Bea

    World Piece: A Humble, Homemade Film About Making Pie Around the World





    During the summer of 2015, I traveled around the world making pie in 9 countries. At long last, I have gotten the story down, but not on paper as you would expect. Instead, I taught myself how to edit a film using iMovie.

    Forgive my amateur skills, but like I always say about making pie: It’s not about perfection!  I also tell my pie students, “It should look homemade!”

    So that’s what you get here:

    *  a heartfelt story
    *  in the form of a homemade film
    *  that’s as humble as pie.

    I hope you like it.

    More so, I hope it inspires you to connect with your friends, family, neighbors, foreigners, and strangers alike. Because now more than ever, we need to unite our world, to heal the wounds and bridge the divides, and what better way to do that than to sit down and talk over pie!

    Make America Nice Again

    This aired on Tri States Public Radio March 21, 2019   LISTEN HERE
    The 2020 presidential campaign has begun and with it the Democratic candidates are descending upon Iowa. Flying in from all parts of the country, they are bringing with them the promise of new ideas, new policies, and, god willing, a new administration. 
    The (media) circus comes to town

    Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand are just a few of the contenders making the rounds in the Hawkeye State this month. These politicians and their entourages, along with the hoards of reporters trailing them, are traveling through our communities, gassing up their cars with ethanol, giving their speeches, shaking hands, and staying just long enough for pork chops and photo ops before rushing off to the next town.

    It’s a privilege to live in the state where the journey to the White House begins, and to meet the candidates up close. 
    But as the race gathers momentum, so does the outrage. 
    The news channels—you know, the ones that serve up opinions and speculation and call it news—are all awash in analysis and criticism of each candidate. Commentators are scrutinizing them down to the most minute details of their past, going all the way back, as we’ve seen, to their birth. The coverage, even on public radio, gets so excessive I have to turn it off.
    And on social media—a forum that amplifes both good and evil—a new round of vitriol and bickering between friends has already started.
    For example, no sooner had I attended a Beto O’Rourke “meet and greet,” I saw a friend’s Facebook post attacking him with a viciousness that was unwarranted. Beto hadn’t committed any sin—he hadn’t mocked a disabled reporter or paid hush money to porn stars; he had merely announced he was running for office. The friend’s Facebook comments were so mean I wanted to blast him back with positive counterpoints. But instead of engaging, I took a calming breath…and then I unfriended him. 
    Throughout my childhood, my parents engrained in us rules of conduct, like, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.” Now is a crucial time for everyone—citizens and candidates alike—to heed that parental advice.
    During the last election cycle, in his video that went viral, actor Scott Siepker coined the phrase, “Iowa nice.” The term depicts Iowans as friendly, agreeable, hospitable, and showing trust in strangers. But “Iowa nice” needs to expand beyond our cornfields and cows. We need to be “America nice” instead of “America first” or “America great.”

    Americans in general used to have the same friendly, hospitable and trusting reputation as Iowans. Sadly, that image has become tarnished. 
    “America’s standing in the world has dropped catastrophically,” says Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network think tank. 
    Why? 
    Because we aren’t being nice.
    “Bombastic rhetoric and policies of Trump have given the country a serious branding issue,” US News and World Report states. They cite that in the Best Countries rankings of 2018, the United States dropped from fourth down to eighth place after Trump took office. 
    However, as David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reminds us, “America is not its president [alone].” 
    He’s right. It’s up to all of us to make America nice again. 
    This year we have the opportunity to do that. We can elect a new leader, someone who will uphold our democracy and raise up our country. But we cannot get there without everyone being on their best behavior and acting with decency. 
    That guy on Facebook slinging insults at candidates in his own party? That’s just a tiny sampling of how polarized, combative—even hateful—we’ve become. We’ve already divided ourselves into tribes, but this kind of rancor further separates us. Well, I’ve got news for you. We are all human beings, and we need to treat each other as the single species that we are. We don’t just live in one country; we live on one planet. And we need to take care of it and each other, no matter what our beliefs. We need to be tolerant. We need to be respectful. We—the media included—need to stop making such negative, inflammatory comments. 
    In short, we need to be nice.
    Let’s start by changing the vernacular. Instead of emphasizing the extremes between progressives and conservatives, let’s put party affiliations aside and focus on values—like integrity, equality, accountability, compassion. And here’s a big one: compromise. Because nothing—absolutely nothing—will change in Washington—or anywhere—unless we stop clinging so stubbornly to our own political agendas. 
    The American ideal is not one of Us vs. Them. It’s about being united. Finding common ground is possible, but we need to keep the pendulum from swinging too far to either side. It’s vital that we meet in the middle and getting there starts by being more civil to one another.
    Election Day is still a long way off and it remains to be seen who will be on the ballot. But let’s choose someone who makes bipartisanship a priority, someone with good manners.
    Wouldn’t that be nice? 

    Luke Perry, I Knew You When

    Former “90210” Publicist Remembers the TV Star

    Luke Perry, aka Dylan McKay, in 1990

    When I heard Luke Perry had had a stroke, I expected him to live. That’s because a friend of mine recently had a stroke, his second one, at age 56 and he is recovering. My friend, like Luke, is fit and determined. He’s doing the rehab and regaining use of his left side. So after Luke’s stroke I figured he too would recover. A few days later, when I learned that he had passed away, my nonchalant “he’ll be fine” changed to “WTF?!” He was only 52.

    I met Luke Perry—aka Dylan McKay—back in 1990, when I was a publicist for “Beverly Hills, 90210.” I worked for the venerable PR agency Rogers and Cowan in its television division. They hired me to help with the launch of Aaron Spelling’s new production (and Darren Star’s first series) despite the fact I didn’t watch TV, let alone own one.

    My job was to get attention for the new show to increase its viewership by pitching story ideas around the show and its actors. This was before social media. Hell, it was before email. I had to call or fax—remember landlines and fax machines?—editors of publications like TV Guide and Tiger Beat, and talent bookers for shows like “Entertainment Tonight.” I had to write press releases and mail them—in envelopes, with stamps—a phenomenon now referred to as “snail mail.” Getting coverage was no easy task because even though it was Aaron Spelling’s baby, “ 90210” was brand new and the editors and talent bookers didn’t want to give it column space or run segments until they were sure the show would still be on the air after a few episodes.

    They were so young then!

    I managed to book a few interviews. I got one for Tory Spelling who was still too young to have a driver’s license. I had to pick her up at her family’s mansion and drive her to the meeting with the reporter. I got one for Jennie Garth and Shannon Doherty, to model second-hand clothes on ABC’s “The Home Show.” That one was a stretch but it’s the only show that said yes. And I booked one for Luke. I don’t remember who it was with, but I do know it was before he became the poster child for Teen Beat, a publication that at time was still reluctant to do anything.

    He was meeting the journalist at the Hollywood Athletic Club, then a hip cafe and pool hall, and I was to accompany him—as if he needed a chaperone. As if the reporter were going to ask something so out of line I would be needed to run interference. But Luke had no scandals or skeletons. So all I did was sit there and listen, worrying the entire time about who was going to pick up the check. I wasn’t fully trained in publicity etiquette or PR budgets so when the bill was placed on the table I dared to ask Luke, “When your publicist from the network goes on interviews with you, who pays?” He replied, “Janine is pretty quick with the plastic.” I cannot count the times I’ve thought of that over the years in the face of a dining dilemma, and I have Luke to thank for the frequent use of my credit card.

    I often hung around on the set, hoping to find some anecdote I could use for a story pitch—though it was also a ruse to get out of my windowless office. One day the cast was shooting a scene in the Peach Pit and the director had them repeat the scene eight times. I thought the first one was good enough, so was the second. By the third, I had the lines memorized and began to question what I perceived as a waste of both time and film. By the fourth, I would have stormed off the set in exasperation. I dare say Shannen would have too. But not Luke. He remained cool and calm, warm and friendly. In real life, he wasn’t a rich and troubled rebel; he was from the Midwest. He was humble and hardworking. He had done construction jobs before his big break and understood that if the show got canceled he might have to again.

    “BH, 90210’s” Peach Pit was modeled after one of my favorite places
    to eat pie, The Apple Pan in West Los Angeles.

    A year later, he told “Entertainment Tonight,” “We start slapping each other when anyone gets too big headed. We made a promise going into this, ‘Look guys, no one expects we’re going to do anything beyond these 13 episodes, but if by chance we surprise the world and put out a quality program that people want to keep watching, let’s remember how we got there and what makes the show so good.’ The show is good…because it’s an ensemble piece. Everybody works and everybody brings something to it.”

    Forget his good looks; Luke’s modesty is what made him so attractive.

     “Call us back when the ratings go up,” the editors and talent bookers had said.

    The ratings did go up. And up. And up. But I left my job before the show became the sensation it went on to be.

    The work of whoever became the publicist after me would end up being more reactive than proactive. Instead of begging the media for even just a mention, they would be turning down requests for cover shoots and guest appearances. Which probably only made the job harder.

    Once I no longer worked on it, I never watched the show, even though it aired for an impressive 10 seasons. It set a new record as Aaron Spelling’s longest running series, surpassing his eighties hit, “Dynasty.”

    I may act like I don’t care about the show, but I’ve always taken note whenever the “90210” cast appeared in the media. Like when Tori Spelling, all grown up, graced the cover of People magazine each time she married, divorced, or gave birth. Or when Shannen Doherty displayed herself on the pages of Playboy. When Jason Priestley grabbed headlines for crashing a racecar at 180 mph. And when Brian Austin Green, who was a pipsqueak of a kid when I met him, dominated the tabloids when he married that stunning thing of beauty, Megan Fox. When Luke Perry’s role as Archie’s dad in “Riverdale” was announced, it caught my attention mostly as I had read the comic books as a kid, but also—as with any “90210” news—I felt the remaining threads of a connection to the actors’ lives. After all, I had in my own small, short-lived way as a publicist, helped launch these youngsters into stardom, at least by making the initial introductions to the press.

    The news of Luke’s death worked its way into my subconscious as I had a dream about him the night after he died. I was at his wake. Luke was sitting off to the side, looking relaxed and dapper in a suit and tie. I went over to talk to him, not sure if he would remember me. He said he did, and invited me to sit down at his table. I wanted to ask him for his parents’ address so that I could send them a condolence card, but I didn’t have the heart to be a buzzkill and tell him that his funeral was the next day.

    Fox Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

    I like to think that Luke really is sitting at that table, as relaxed and well mannered as ever. That maybe he’s still alive in a parallel universe, while being remembered and celebrated in this one as if he were still here. And he should be celebrated. He was one of the good guys. And god knows, we could sure use more like him.

    The reprise of “Beverly Hills, 90210” was just announced, ironically on the same day as Luke’s death. As sure as the world keeps turning, the show will go on, but this time without Luke as Dylan McKay and without me as its publicist. They would never hire me back anyway, as three decades on I still don’t own a TV.

    RIP, Luke.

    Could Today Get Any Better?

    Today has been surreal. I woke up to discover that the story I wrote for the New York Times about living in the American Gothic House was placed on the front page of the Arts section.

    Early this morning, a friend sent me a picture of the print version of the newspaper —since we don’t get it delivered here on the farm. Taking up almost the entire page was a photo of me, dressed in overalls and braids, posing with a pitchfork in front of my beloved old house in Eldon, Iowa.

    It was exciting enough to get a piece published at all in the mother of all newspapers, but to get a feature this big? Seriously, I am still in shock.

    Read the article online here

    The article is even bigger inside the section!

    But the day just got stranger. In a good way.

    I had been putting off a trip to the grocery store for days now, until—NYT excitement or not—buying groceries was imperative. I had been so busy, ahem, self-promoting my story on social media all morning, I forgot to eat, so I stopped at McDonald’s on my way to the store. (I was going to go to Cottage Cafe, but their parking lot was crowded and I figured I would be more anonymous at McD’s.  Besides, I like their pancakes, plus they have lattes.)

    I waited for the three people in front of me to order and then it was my turn.

    “Do you still serve pancakes?” It was just before noon.

    “Yes,” the counter person said.

    Phew! Adding an all-day breakfast is the best decision McD’s has ever made.

    “Great. I’ll have the pancakes and a small latte, no flavor.”

    A petite, redheaded woman was standing next to me quite close, and as I reached for my money to pay she moved in even closer.

    “I’ll get that,” she said.

    I didn’t know what she meant. She was holding a receipt so I knew she had paid and was waiting for her order. As I dug into my wallet, she pushed her hand in front of me, handing a ten-dollar bill to the cashier.

    I was so confused. What was going on? Why was she paying–for me? 

    “I’ve got this,” she repeated.

    While she paid I just stood there, immobilized with disbelief for the second time today—and it wasn’t even noon!

    We moved to the side to wait for our food. She looked straight ahead at the counter, not showing any further interest in me, nor in any desire for conversation.

    “What made you buy my breakfast?” I finally asked.

    “Just think of it as a random act of kindness,” she said. “Like paying it forward.”

    I looked into her eyes for a moment, searching for the reason she had singled me out. There were other customers who looked like they needed a free meal more than I did. Surely, in Fort Madison, Iowa, she hadn’t read the New York Times, so I ruled that out. Did she recognize me as “the Pie Lady of Eldon?” Or had she read my recent blog posts about my despair with the world (as well as the recent loss of a friend to cancer) and bought me breakfast because she felt bad for me?

    But she wasn’t going to say anymore or give me any specifics.

    “I’m just so….” I started, choking back tears. “I’m so touched.”

    She still didn’t say anything. She wasn’t asking anything of me. She just wanted to do something nice, and I needed to be nice in return by simply accepting her gesture without demanding an explanation. Making a bigger fuss was only going to make her–make both of us–uncomfortable.

    “Thank you,” I said. “I will just accept your gift graciously.”

    The lump in my throat was so big it took me another minute before I could speak again. “I write about kindness in my blog,” I said, wiping my tears. “I’m going to write about you.”

    She smiled shyly, but didn’t say anything.

    After another awkward pause, I added, “Funny enough, I was just thinking about that paying it forward idea on my way here. A friend of mine just did a huge favor for me and there is no way I can do enough to repay her. So I was going to tell her that I would pay it forward.”

    I did not tell her that the friend is a staff writer at the New York Times who was responsible for connecting me with the Arts editor—not just connecting me, but pitching my story to her, the story that was on the front page of today’s Arts section!!!

    “How are the pancakes here?” she asked, changing the subject. “I always get the Egg McMuffin.”

    Man, she was not going to explain anything more!

    “They’re good,” I said. “But I almost always get the Egg McMuffin.”

    “I like the lattes, too” she continued, “but not with any flavoring. That makes them too sweet. No whipped cream either.” 

    “Same here,” I said. “I drink the iced lattes in the summer. I like those a lot.”

    “I’ll have to try one,” she said.

    “Sometimes they’re too milky, so ask for extra espresso. That’s what I do.”

    The counter person handed her a brown sack—presumably containing an Egg McMuffin.

    “Have a nice day,” she said as she left.

     “You too. And thank you again.”

    And that was it.

    Breakfast with a view.
    McDonald’s in Fort Madison, Iowa 

    I took my tray and found a table by the window. I sat there looking down at my food — tears landing on the plastic lid that covered the pancakes — too emotional to eat.

    This stuff isn’t supposed to happen to me. I’m the one who is always preaching about kindness, sharing, giving of yourself, building community, contributing something valuable to society, blah, blah, blah…you know how I go on about world peace (and world piece.) I expect to be the one to give, not to receive. And here, in the span of a few hours, I had received an overabundance of riches.

    It was too much to handle.

    I couldn’t stop crying. But the tears were not of grief or despair, or even tears of joy. They were tears of gratitude. Because today, surreal as it was, I was reminded —in newsprint and in pancakes— that I have so very much to be grateful for.

    Never has a McDonald’s breakfast been so delicious.

    All it Takes is a Few Words, a Few Bites, and a Willingness to Try

    As you can see, I am really focused on promoting peace, love and understanding these days. It’s a reaction to all the political maneuvering going on, a lot of policies being changed that are resulting in putting lives at risk, all because some people (too many) live in fear of what they don’t know, what they don’t understand. Even sadder, they don’t even try to understand. They want to build walls around our country, because they have already built walls around themselves.

    I keep searching for ways to break through those walls, and the solution I keep coming back to is simply this: connect with others outside of our own culture and language. Connection can mean something as simple as trying to communicate, even if just with a few words. Trying each other’s food, even if just a few bites. Visiting each other’s countries and homes and workplaces. To stop living exclusively in our own comfort zones and be open to seeing that our way isn’t the only way.

    I once dated a guy who wasn’t interested in trying new things. For 25 years he has had the same job, lived in the same house, and has eaten at the same restaurants. One of those restaurants is Thai, which is the closest he’s come to visiting a foreign country. He’s a tea drinker so when he took me to the restaurant I asked if he had ever tried Thai iced tea—tea with sweetened condensed milk. No. He didn’t want to. “Come on, it’s only $2,” I insisted. No. No thanks. He’s progressive and caring and supports immigration rights, but he’s just not that open. But openness is what is needed from each of us, as individuals, to really understand each other, and understanding is what we need in order to make progress toward global harmony. A passport would be good too.

    I always remember some friends returning from their vacation in Rome, Italy. They were complaining that the sidewalks weren’t straight. WHAT?! Those sidewalks are one of the main reasons you go to Rome, to walk in the steps of ancient Romans on the very cobblestones they laid centuries ago! They also complained about the food. “We got so tired of eating Italian food and all that pasta that we were thrilled to find a McDonald’s at the train station.” WHAT?! I gained at least 10 pounds in a week after eating my way through Italy—oh, the cannelloni! The calzone! The prosciutto! The cappuccino! The gelato! I couldn’t get enough of it. I wish my friends—along with another certain Big Mac-obsessed individual—could open up their worldview and have more appreciation—more acceptance—for life outside of America. To vivere la differenza.

    One of the reasons this is on my mind is because I’m not in the USA right now. I’m in Mexico.

    Parked at the grocery store.

    Last night I was in a grocery store, standing in the coffee section, trying to read the labels and figure out what kind to buy. (I have a coffee pot in my casita.) A large man pushed his way into the section and I stepped back to make room for him. He was clearly on a mission. He was older, weathered from the sun, with gray hair and a jowled face and, from his skin tone, I figured he was Mexican. He was homing in on a brand called La Finca so I asked him in my bad Spanish if it was good. He answered me in broken English, with a French accent—so I started chatting with him in my bad French, and tried to help him find the La Finca espresso beans he was looking for.

    Speaking of farms…

    I made my coffee in the morning—Café La Finca’s Europeo blend, grown in Chiapas—and I thought of the man in the grocery store. (I also thought of Doug, because La Finca means The Farm. How perfect is that!)

    In the afternoon, I finally left my casita for a break after a particularly productive day of writing (I’m making progress on my book!) and rode my rusty rented beach cruiser to the fruit stand a few blocks away.

    As I looked around at the produce, not recognizing half the ripe and wrinkly-skinned stuff in there, I had a hard time figuring what to buy—and how to pay for it. (The conversion of dollars to pesos still confuses me.) Finally, when the woman at the cash register had a break in customers, I asked her some questions—in Spanish.

    Do you have Oaxaca cheese? Can I buy a small amount, just enough for one person? I will buy it later—what time do you close? What are these juices? What is the white one? The green one? Which one is mango?

    She had a slight but constant scowl on her face as I asked one pregunta after another. She was short and barrel chested with black hair that she had tried to dye orange (black hair isn’t easy to color!) and she was wearing a plaid apron or pinafore, I’m not sure which. But she was definitely someone whose bad side you didn’t want to be on.

    When I finally paid for a bottle of fresh mango juice I thanked her for her patience with my terrible español. “I’m trying to learn,” I told her, “poquito a poquito.” Oh how I wish our American schools placed an importance on learning other languages, and starting from an early age like they do in Europe.

    I smiled extra hard to emphasize my apology—and my embarrassment. And then—que milagro!—she smiled back and said, “Sí, poquito a poquito.”

    Her smile melted my heart like butter left out in the Caribbean sun.

    When I went outside to unlock my bike, a couple of gringos were walking in. In front was a white-haired woman with sunburnt cheeks as red and round as the tomatoes on display, and behind her was her husband. I recognized him! It was the man from the grocery store. I blurted out—in French—“La Finca café était très bon.” The coffee was very good. My français is as limited as my español, but it didn’t matter because his face lit up in happy surprise.

    If I do come back for 2 months, I’ll be in the classroom!

    He’s from Québec, he said, not France. And he comes to Mexico for two months every winter. (Which explains why his skin is as brown as a Mexican’s.) “I don’t want to go back to that cold weather,” he said.

    “I know! Same here. Next year I want to come back for two months,” I replied.

    I finished unlocking my bike and as I tucked my mango juice and bike lock into the bike basket, he pointed to the rusty chain, thick with corrosion from the salty moist air, and asked, “Is that working okay for you?”

    Oui,” I said. “Ça va bien. And, anyway, I don’t mind, because I’m in Mexico, it’s sunny, and I’m wearing flip-flops!”

    As I pedaled away I waved and said, “Hasta luego!” See you soon. And if it keeps going like this, I probably will.  (And, by the way, the fruit stand closes at 6:30 and I did go back for the cheese.)

    My point is that all it takes is a little openness, a little courage and humility—okay, maybe more than a little. But who cares if you don’t know very many words and don’t even correctly pronounce the ones you do know? The fact that you even try is so appreciated. (Think of this the next time someone makes an effort to speak to you in English when it’s not their native language and commend them for their courage.) A few words can go a long way in making a connection and making someone smile. And a smile is the most basic, universal language of life, the first step across the bridge of understanding.

    If we all just opened up a little to try to understand each other—to stumble over a few foreign words, to drink the Thai iced tea, to eat the fettuccine, to walk a mile in each other’s shoes—even if on crooked cobblestone sidewalks—the world could be a more peaceful, happier place.