An Unsung Hero of my Own

This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen, go here.

NPR has started airing a new series called My Unsung Hero. Produced by Hidden Brain Media, its mission is to provide an antidote to the despair brought on by the daily news, with the goal of renewing faith in humanity. According to the HiddenBrain.org website, each episode reveals everyday acts of kindness and courage that have transformed someone’s life.

I know first-hand how daily news can cause despair—the issues are too many and too depressing to bother listing them—but after listening to a few episodes of My Unsung Hero I’ve started focus not on what’s wrong with the world, but what is good about it—not just what is good but who—because I have an unsung hero of my own: my partner, Doug Seyb.

A third-generation farmer, Doug grew up on his family’s farm in Donnellson, Iowa. While many others have traded rural life for an urban one, Doug chose to stay and nurture the land of his ancestors. He grows corn and soybeans to feed the nation. He also raises cows, who may be the most well-cared-for in America, given their access to fresh grass. Doug works hard, building his own fences and baling hay, and never complains, even when his body aches from the physical labor.

He serves on an education foundation board for the local high school, offering financial support to kids who want to go to college or trade school. He donates a large portion of his income to causes like Doctors Without Borders and Camp Courageous, a summer camp for the disabled, and also to public radio stations like this one. He contributes more than just money. He’s given 25 gallons of blood—so far—to the Red Cross, he recently delivered a year’s supply of firewood to widow on a nearby farm, and he subscribes to the Storm Lake Times to support the survival of local journalism, even though we live 500 miles away from the region the newspaper covers.

For 13 years, he hosted a music series, renting out Donnellson’s American Legion Hall and booking bands from all over the country to provide entertainment to our otherwise quiet community. He’s in the process of creating a new music series to raise money for the Democratic party and for Ukrainians, demonstrating just how much—whether in his hometown or on the other side of the globe—he cares about people.

He also cares about me. He has supported me during the many hardships I’ve faced in the seven years we’ve been together. He provided his muscular shoulder to cry on when my dad died, and when my 15-year-old dog died soon after. He has driven me to the airport every winter, braving icy roads, to save me from my Seasonal Affective Disorder. He has listened for hours as I’ve voiced my struggles over my career as a writer. He has also been there to celebrate every special occasion—birthdays, anniversaries, and sometimes just an ordinary day—quick to show up with a bouquet of flowers, a good bottle of wine, and a card that says “I love you.”

He finds joy in the simple things, like walking the creek after a rainstorm to hunt for arrowheads. He pays attention to minute details that most of us miss, like the patterns in the clouds, the sun shining through a spider web, and the way snow melts in stripes on the barn roof. He notices the butterfly on the fencepost and points out the trumpeter swans in the distance. He feeds the hummingbirds religiously and protects the meadow of wildflowers remembering how much it meant to the previous landowners. He cares about nature and the planet. To Doug every day is Earth Day.

He’s a man of few words, but when he does offer advice, his counsel is wise, and for someone who doesn’t travel often, his world view is expansive and all-inclusive. When I spin like a cyclone with worry or fear, he grounds me. As a farmer who plants seeds and waits for them to grow, he has taught me to be more patient. As a big tipper at restaurants, explaining, “That waitress needs that extra dollar more than me,” he has taught me to be more compassionate and generous. His practical way of wearing T-shirts and jeans until the threads disintegrate, and gluing the soles of his shoes together before even thinking about getting new ones, has taught me to be more conscious of waste and to buy less, which is better for the environment. And in his reticence to seek attention or praise—qualities of a true hero—he has taught me about humility. The world needs more unsung heroes like Doug—and like the others featured in Hidden Brain’s radio series.

The news will continue to cause anxiety and despair, which is why I encourage you to think about the unsung heroes in your own life. They’re out there, whether they’re strangers, coworkers, friends, or family. They may be old or young, have opposing beliefs, or speak a different language; Kindness does not discriminate. There is still so much goodness right in front of us. We just have to change our focus to see it.

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Beth Howard is an author and essayist. She blogs at www.theworldneedsmorepie.com. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.

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Past posts you might also like:

Need Hope? Jane Goodall Will Give You Some

Forget First or Second, I Am Third

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 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

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.