Farewell, Our Fearless Little Warrior

Quality of life. Quality of life. Quality of life. This is your new mantra.  

Quality of life is what you have to determine when your pet gets old or sick, or both. How do you define quality of life, and how do you measure it? And when it’s an animal—a pet who is considered a family member—how do you determine that its life is no longer worth living?  

“Can he walk? Can he eat? Can he breathe? Can he glean any enjoyment whatsoever out of his days?” the online questionnaires ask when searching for the answer to the dreaded question: How do you know when it’s time to euthanize your pet?

You begin contemplating the end. You wonder how many more days you can eke out. How many more meals you can try to hand feed your furry friend. How many more sleepless nights you will have from taking him out to pee. How many mornings you will hold your own breath until you make sure your pet is still breathing.

One questionnaire asks, “Are you weary?” Yes, you are weary. You are so very, very weary you want to be euthanized yourself. 

“Who made you God?” you admonish yourself for even considering the lethal injection.

Of course, we would always prefer that end-of-life decisions were left up to nature. We want our pets to die peacefully, painlessly in their sleep. But nature doesn’t operate on our schedule. Nature pays no mind to our heartache—and healthcare costs—and the wish for a natural death as we watch in agony over their steady decline. To be fair, nature often does offer to take our loved ones before they grow too old to stand on their own legs or too confused to find their water dish. Out in the wild, the weak and injured become prey for the food chain. But we intervene with trips to the vet, with IVs and antibiotics, stitches and insulin, teeth cleaning and painkillers. We do whatever it takes to prolong the inevitable.

We love our pets so much. We want them to be with us forever. We cannot imagine life without them. We don’t want to let go. We refuse to let go.

You go back online and take another quiz. “Rate from 1 to 10 your pet’s hurt, hunger, hydration, hygiene, happiness, and mobility.” Your score is off the chart. He aches too much to walk. He won’t eat—even though you’ve offered him baked salmon, grilled steak, roasted chicken. He drinks water like he can’t get enough. His coat is dull and gray. His teeth, once so strong and white, have turned dark brown. He’s blind. He’s got diabetes, congestive heart failure, arthritis. 

You could call a friend, who just put down his 18-and-a-half-year-old dachshund, to ask what you should do. But you know that asking for opinions will just create more drama. It’s your decision. You want to keep it private. So you spend the day doing simple tasks that allow your mind to work it out. You sew—and break the needle. You bake—and burn the bread. 

Finally, you take your dog—your 15-and-a-half-year-old Jack Russell-Yorkshire terrier mix—for a ride on the side-by-side. You speed down the gravel roads as fast as the little off-road vehicle will go. Your dog puts his face into the wind, his hair blows back, his nose twitches with curiosity, he perks up like he’s his old self—the one you haven’t seen for months. Feeling the wind in his face is one of his favorite things, the only thing from which he can still derive pleasure. You’ve given him his last taste of what little quality of life he has left. 

The websites say pet owners often wait too long. Their animals suffer needlessly. But on this windy ride he’s so alert. Maybe he could live longer. Maybe today is not the day for the vet to come to the house. But you’ve already made the appointment. It was so painful to come to this decision that to reverse it now will only cause more confusion, more crying. You’ve cried enough. You’ve been crying for the past two years over his multiplying illnesses and his numerous brushes with death. You have your own quality of life to consider, and that quality has been diminishing along with your dog’s health. 

Like humans, animals have their good days and bad days. For a dog that has had an exceptionally good life, you acknowledge that it’s fitting for him to depart on one of his good days. Even though your heart is shattering into a million pieces and your chest feels like it’s going to implode. You repeat the mantra over and over: Quality of life. Quality of life. Quality of life. You remind yourself that quality of life also applies to quality of death. The word “euthanasia,” as you’ve learned through your exhaustive internet searches, is Greek for “good death.” 

You don’t believe it yet, but in the future you will realize that this “good death” is the greatest love you can show your pet. And love is the greatest, most enduring quality of all.

For Jack Howard-Iken
May 17, 2004 — September 10, 2019
“The Jack Russell Terrier is as stubborn as they come, which may be why this breed lives so long. Given proper care, the life expectancy of this fearless, energetic, vocal dog breed averages about 15 years, possibly even longer.”

Dear Jack, 

We never thought you’d live to see old age, but like with everything you did, you exceeded our expectations. Here’s to feeling the wind in your face on the other side. 

Love,Beth, Doug, and Mali

*You might also like to read Jack’s post from 2017 on life at Camp Doug*

Guest Blogger: Jack Iken on Life at Camp Doug

Hi, this is Jack Iken. The last time I guest-blogged on my mom’s page was five years ago, which is like 42 years in dog time. I only guest-blogged one other time.  I have posted on Facebook a few times since then, but blogging is way better because you can say more and the stories stay around longer.

It was Doug who suggested I write a blog post. I like Doug. He calls me Hot Rod. He’s like my stepdad now. My real dad, Marcus Iken, whose last name I still use (but I only get called by my full name, Jack Iken, when I’m in trouble), died 8 years ago. I miss him.

Daisy & me
aka Team Terrier

I also miss Daisy. Even though I pretended not to like her, and always growled at her when she tried to sit in the front seat of the car, which was my spot, I really miss her too. She died 3 years ago this November when we both got attacked by a coyote. My mom was so sad. She said if she had lost both of us she might not have survived, especially because it was right after we moved out of the American Gothic House and didn’t have a home. I was lucky my neck wounds healed after a few weeks. I’m pretty tough—every time I go to the vet they say things like “he’s one tough cookie.” But that was definitely a rough patch. I was really lonely without Daisy.

I’m not lonely anymore, because now I live at Camp Doug. It’s in Iowa about an hour from our old house. It’s so cool because it’s a farm with cow manure and lots of other super smelly stuff to eat or roll in, like old road kill. I don’t have to wear a collar or be on a leash, ever.

But best of all is hanging out with Doug and his dog Mali.

This is Mali and me waiting for treats.

I love Mali. I like girl dogs who are athletic and not afraid of getting their paws dirty. Mali is like me, half and half. I’m half Jack Russell and half Yorkshire terrier. Mali is half beagle and half Springer Spaniel. She can run really, really fast, like so fast you can’t even see her. I’m fast too, but Mali has longer legs. Doug say, “She’s all lungs and muscle.” She’s like a lean machine. She likes to catch squirrels. I always try to catch squirrels but I never actually do. For me it is more fun to chase them, and then bark my head off at them when they climb back up the tree. But Mali—well, my mom gets really upset with her because she is good at catching small animals, sometimes baby ones, and that makes my mom cry a lot and complain to Doug. When she’s mad like that I just go hide in my man cave, which is the opening under Doug’s desk, where it’s quiet and dark. He doesn’t sit there very often because mostly he is out working on his farm, so I don’t have to worry about his feet getting in my way.

It’s not just my mom, Doug, Mali and me living at Camp Doug. Maybellene lives here too, inside. She’s a calico cat who thinks she owns the kitchen. Sometimes we fight and I always get blamed, but she is the one who usually starts it.

This is Maybellene. And she is in MY chair.

Her son Tiger, who is a redhead like Doug, lives outside and shares the barn with the goats, but mostly Tiger is up in the hayloft and the goats are below. Sometimes Tiger has the neighbor cats over for sleepovers. One of his friends is all black with eyes so light and green and creepy the cat looks like it could be in a horror movie; the other one is black with white paws and, as my mom pointed out, has big balls. (My balls were removed when I was a baby, but that’s okay. I’m still tough and manly. Some people even call me macho.) My mom keeps wondering if there will be kittens, but Doug says Tiger is fixed and we don’t know if the green-eyed-monster cat is a girl. But I don’t want any more pets taking attention away from me. It’s already bad enough with those damn goats.

This is Cinnamon. 

There are three goats and they have big horns. There were four, but Cinnamon died a few months ago, probably from old age because she was 15 and 15 is really old for a goat. She was the shy one, like Daisy, and she never caused any trouble. She is buried on the edge of the cornfield. That was a sad time for my mom, because Cinnamon died right after her dad, my Pappou Tom. (Pappou is Greek for Grandpa.) I loved my Pappou and he loved me, though he did not like my barking. I think his hearing aids were on the wrong setting, because I think my bark sounds pretty awesome.

This is Pappou Tom when he visited us
at Camp Doug last August.

Anyway, I was saying, the three goats…

Mr. Friendly and Tiger
with other 2 goats behind

The big white goat, the one with the biggest horns, is called Mr. Friendly. But he is not friendly! He has tried to butt me a few times, but I’m not scared of him or any of them now that I’ve learned how to be a goat herder. I’m really good at it. My mom lets the goats out of their pen to graze in the yard. She says they need some freedom and extra room to graze. But Doug doesn’t like this too much because they eat the flowers and bushes next to the barn. Instead of getting mad at my mom, he keeps putting up more fences around the yard as a compromise. But he also has me as his secret weapon. When I see them come too close to the house I go berserk and shift into my Samurai mode. You should see how fast those fat goats can run! I round them up and they go straight back into their pen. I’m like WAY better at herding than a border collie. I like helping out Doug.

I’ve been living here at Camp Doug for two years now, which is three months longer than my mom. She brought me back here to spend the summer when she traveled around the world making pie. She remembered how happy I had been when we were at Camp Doug before we moved back to California (for those really depressing six months when I had to be on a leash) and she said she would not go on her Big Trip unless I had a good, safe place to stay.

Camp Doug is an awesome place. That summer, Doug took me to the pond every day. I swam and he threw a stick for me. I love playing stick. It’s my favorite thing, besides playing keep away, tug-of-war, digging big holes in the dirt, and chasing squirrels (and goats, cows and cats.)

Also that summer, Doug took Mali and me on long walks to the creek and threw the stick for me there too. One time he even brought his saw to cut extra sticks so there would always be one ready to throw. The supply would run low because I like to take my sticks home with me–I collect them like trophies–and sometimes it takes a while to find a new one. I’m very particular about the size of my sticks. I won’t chase just anything. It has to be big, like a branch or a log, but small enough that a person can still throw it.

This is what I’m talking about!

Doug also took me kayaking (and still does.) He taped a piece of carpet to the bow so I can stand on the front of the boat without sliding off. That’s the best!

Seriously, this is the most fun thing ever.

He took lots of pictures and videos of me while my mom was traveling and sent them to her. He posted them on Facebook too. My mom got kind of jealous because people liked the posts about me better than her posts about being in what she called “exotic places.” Not my problem. It was her choice to see the world when she could have just stayed in Iowa. But I was having too much fun to give it any thought.

The best part about that summer was the treats. Doug has pigs on his farm so sometimes he has fresh pig liver. It’s pretty slimy, but it’s cold and refreshing on a hot day and it’s a healthy snack.

When my mom came back to pick me up from summer camp I told her I wasn’t leaving. I said, “I love you, mom. You can do what you want, but I’m going to stay at Camp Doug forever.” She saw how happy I was, and she also loves Doug (though in a different way than me), so she said, “Okay,” and moved here too.

This is me in the truck. I love it.
It smells like farm animals.

It is so cool to live on a farm. I’m like the happiest I’ve ever been. I love to ride in Doug’s pick up truck. I don’t like to get in my mom’s car anymore because that means leaving the farm and maybe going to a city and being on a leash. But Doug’s truck always goes somewhere fun, someplace that involves dirt, like to the pond or to a cow pasture. I wasn’t allowed near the cows at first, but now I have proven myself to be good at herding cows too. They don’t run as fast as the goats, but it’s still fun to get these big beasts to move. I mean, they’re like huge. Plus there’s so many of them and they make a lot of noise.

Doug has a lot of cows. So that’s a lot of herding for me.

Speaking of noise, that’s one of the best things about living here. I love to bark. Every night from about 7:00 to 9:00 PM, I get to be outside and bark as much as I want. Doug calls it “Guarding the Perimeter,” like I’m a watchdog. But that’s not it. I just really like to bark. It’s my way of expressing myself, the Jack Russell side of me. It’s also a good way to communicate with our neighbor’s dogs that live on the other side of the cornfield, and they like to bark back.

This is Mali and me doing the daytime version
of “Guarding the Perimeter”

Sometimes we hear coyotes barking too. This makes me bark even louder, and sometimes I even howl. But the coyotes make my mom crazy with fear. She yells at me, “Jack Iken, you get in here right now! I mean it. NOW!” She is practically panicking but Doug is pretty relaxed and tells her, “He’s fine. The coyotes aren’t that close. And they have plenty to eat out in the field.” She snaps back at him, “You know what happened to Daisy. I am not taking any chances.” And then we all go to bed (I sleep under the bed) and try to sleep, even though we can still hear the coyotes yipping and partying and killing stuff outside. I would never admit it, but I kind of understand why mom worries about me.

That thing that looks like a Moon Rover is the side-by-side.
It’s perfect for trips to the pond.

Farm life is awesome!

I’m 13 now and Doug is 62, and as much as we like to go on long walks around the farm, we both get a little more tired than we used to, our joints get a little achier than we’d like. So Doug got this really sweet off-road thing for us to ride around in. It’s called a side-by-side, which is kind of a weird name, but it means you can sit next to each other on the bench seat. It’s got a roll bar and seat belts, and netting on the sides that keeps me from falling out. When we don’t feel like walking, especially when it’s too hot, we drive this new 4WD rig to the pond. Mali doesn’t like riding in the truck—she gets really nervous—but she likes the side-by-side as much as I do. Sometimes after swimming, my mom will drive it really fast on the gravel road so my hair will dry. But I think she does it because more than anything my mom likes to make me happy. She knows I like feeling the wind in my face. But I know she likes it too.

Our family portrait

My mom said I could guest blog again sometime, but I might not have time. I might be too busy signing autographs after the August issue of Farm and Ranch Living Magazine comes out, since they are doing a story on me. I wasn’t looking to become famous; they approached me and what could I say? Plus I already have a full summer schedule with pond swimming, stick fetching, herding goats and cows and my other farm chores, like climbing on the hay bales and napping. And tonight we are going canoeing because there’s a full moon. My mom is going to make me wear my lifejacket. Life was a little more relaxed when it was just the guys—Doug and me and, well, Mali, since she’s like one of the guys—but I’m very glad my mom is here too.

I really have to pee, so I’m going outside. Bye for now.

Until next time,
Jack Iken

Seven Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rescuing The Beast — and Revisiting its History

Today I was planning on writing about the evolution of a logo — the World Piece logo, which turned out so beautifully thanks to a certain artist friend who you’ve previously read about on this blog. But the day didn’t go exactly as I had planned. And thus, instead of the logo, I can’t stop thinking about the evolution of my RV, affectionately known as The Beast.

My parents drove me to Pasadena this afternoon to pick up the RV — more like rescue it — from a distant and dismal parking lot where it has been sitting, neglected, abandoned, since I arrived in LA in late November.

When I left it there five months ago, I had parked it wedged awkwardly and tightly in between a rusty Jeep Cherokee with a broken windshield and four flat tires and a semi truck—just the tractor part—which was shiny and new-looking with no apparent reason to be unused. I never felt good about leaving it there. But at 50 bucks a month for RV parking in SoCal, well, I couldn’t find a better deal anywhere, not even close. And believe me, I looked.

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it was wedged in there.

When I arrived in LA this past November, I had been anxious to get away from The Beast. After driving it from Iowa to Dallas, towing my car behind it for the first time, my nerves were shot. It’s one thing to drive a 24-foot RV, but to add another 10 feet with your precious little Mini Cooper bouncing around behind? No, that was too much for me. I marvel at those giant bus-type RVs that tow big SUVs behind, driven by senior citizens, no less. How do they manage?!

With my stress already running high from the drive, no sooner did I arrive in Dallas, Daisy was killed in a coyote attack and Jack was wounded. No way was I going to stay there so I had to hook up the Mini to the back of the RV again. This time I enlisted a friend to drive for me. I sat in the back during the 3-day trip west, keeping a protective eye on the Mini, holding vigil over a swollen and bandaged Jack, crying about Daisy, and playing endless games of Solitaire to keep my nerves from breaking down completely.

By the time we got to LA I had sworn that no only was I never going to drive the RV again; I was going to sell it. Forget the emotional ties and its rich history, that the RV was Marcus’s dream, that it symbolized me facing my fears after he died. I was done with it. After putting 40,000 miles on it, I had reached my limit.

Not only had my nerves been tested, so had my budget. Not only was the cost of gas sucking funds out of my bank account (8 miles per gallon, you do the math), the list of things needing repair was growing, along with the leak in the roof that no amount of caulking could stop.

Once in LA, I cleaned out the RV, emptying it of every single personal item and gave it a deep scrub. I bought a “For Sale” sign at the hardware store and taped it in the window. I posted an ad on Craigslist. I announced it on Facebook. But there were no takers. Not even one nibble from Craigslist. So it has just stayed in Pasadena, alone, all winter.

Until today.

“There she is. Miss America.” The Beast looks like a
beauty queen next to all the other vehicles.

When we arrived at the parking lot I spotted it right away. The “Pie Across the Nation” decals made The Beast stand out like a sophisticated beauty among the derelict cars and trucks. My heart ached a little, my guilt flared. Why had I been so anxious to be rid of this sweet house on wheels? It had carried me far, and safely. It was an important part of my life.

I climbed into the driver’s seat and held my breath as I turned the key in the ignition. It started on the first try. I could hear my dad outside. “Good job, Boo!” he cheered. Besides my mom and dad, there were a few other people in the lot so I had extra eyes to help direct me out of the tight parking spot.

Once I was on the highway, the anticipation I had been feeling on the way to Pasadena dissipated. I haven’t driven the RV for five months. I wasn’t sure I would feel comfortable driving it again. Especially through downtown LA traffic. Ah, but just like that very first time I drove it five years ago in Oregon, all those imagined fears vanished the minute I started moving.

The fears vanished and the memories flooded in. As I drove The Beast back to my guesthouse in Palos Verdes, I had a full hour to reflect on its chronology. As you will see, emotional ties and rich history might be an understatement.

The History of The Beast

2008

Celebrating the new purchase with Champagne.

May of 2008, Marcus bought the RV from a coworker in Portland, Oregon, thus taking a step toward fulfilling his “European dream” of touring America’s national parks. A job transfer to Mexico didn’t stop him.

That June he drove the RV to his new job post in Saltillo, Mexico, towing his BMW motorcycle behind in a Wells Cargo trailer. (His nerves for this sort of thing were way stronger than mine.) I followed in my VW Beetle.

Marcus, the brave road warrior, proud of his big rig.
In front of our house in Portland.

The roads in Mexico are not exactly “smooth” so we didn’t take the road-trip adventures we had planned. Though we did have one wonderful, memorable weekend driving The Beast to Real de Catorce. We couldn’t drive through the tunnel into the mountain town, so we slept in the RV outside of town and took a taxi into the village. And we got a flat tire on the way back. After that the RV sat in front of our house on the pecan farm.

We didn’t know it but there was a leak in the roof…

Happy Campers.
Marcus and Daisy in Del Rio, Texas (Lake Amistad).

By November of 2008, I took a job in LA and Marcus accompanied me up to the Mexican border in the RV (pic above). We camped at Lake Amistad National Recreation Area in Del Rio, Texas. We had just *adopted Daisy and I was taking her with me to the US. (*Adopted as in rescued the homeless, worm- and lice-infested dog directly off the streets.) We had a fun weekend with the newly formed “Team Terrier,” swimming in the lake, BBQing, and making lattes in the RV. That was the moment I was irreversibly hooked on RV camping.

Over Christmas, Marcus drove the RV from Mexico to LA bringing some furniture for me to use in the studio apartment I rented.

Team Terrier on the step of the RV.

2009 

In May of 2009, Marcus’s Mexican stint ended and he was transferred to Germany. He packed the trailer with our furniture and drove the RV back to Portland, stopping to spend several days with me in LA on the way. He started shopping around for a trade-in with the RV, wanting a smaller, newer one, the kind built on a Sprinter van chassis. Even though he was moving back to Germany he wanted to keep an RV in the US and keep his dream alive. I supported him in his dream. Before he left for Germany, he left the RV with a small dealer outside of Portland where The Beast was for sale on consignment. Marcus died in August. The Beast stayed at that dealer’s lot until I picked it up a few months later.

In the fall I loaned the RV to some German friends who took it to the Oregon coast.

In December, I drove it for the first time — all the way to Los Angeles. It was so much easier to drive than I ever expected. I actually liked driving it, which made me feel VERY guilty because I had growled to Marcus that I would never, ever drive it. (You can read all about this story in my memoir, Making Piece.)

Driving to Arizona, Dec. 2009. No wonder I was afraid to drive the RV!
You never know what dangers lurk out there in the desert.

I spent the Christmas holiday of 2009 in the RV, driving to Arizona through one of the worst windstorms in history. But by god, I held onto the steering wheel and had a safe passage. The news the next day told of countless semis and RVs that had overturned in the wind. But I had prevailed. And though I was visiting friends and family in Arizona I slept in the RV. I loved having the cocoon of it, my own private sanctuary to read and rest, to write in my journal, snuggle with my dogs, and make my lattes in the mornings.

2010

In January, The Beast was used to make a TV pilot (or documentary or web series or whatever, as it has yet to be completed). For two weeks I drove all over California with my producer friend Janice, taping stories about pie. In the RV we hauled boxes of apples to make pie, then we ferried 50 apple pies around LA, handing them out by the slice for free. (Here’s the 2-minute sizzle reel on YouTube: https://youtu.be/2GjwZ4–8gM)

I drove the RV round-trip a second time from Portland to LA, this time hauling a motor scooter inside (to use as transportation to get around LA) and drove back with my parents accompanying me one-way. We had to climb over the motor scooter to get around, but that was part of the adventure.

The Beast at Crater Lake National Park with my Swiss friend Eve.

In August of 2010, I moved out of my Portland apartment, put my stuff in storage and headed to Iowa to be a pie judge at the Iowa State Fair. The RV went on vacation without me, driven by my friend from Switzerland, Eve, and her daughters, who drove down the coast to California. In an ironic (bittersweet) twist, the RV got to stop at Crater Lake National Park, where Marcus and I met in 2001.

Eve left the RV with my brother Mike in Costa Mesa, who used it for surf weekends. And as a scaffolding for painting murals with his non-profit Operation Clean Slate.

Turns out, the RV makes a good ladder. 

2011

The RV spent a whole year with my brother in Southern California. I had promised to bring it to Iowa, but kept putting it off. Until Mike got a warning from the police that it was time to move The Beast, or else.  So in July of 2011 my friend Patti’s husband Terry drove the RV back from the west coast to Iowa. And that’s when The Beast became both a guest room and a privacy fence at the American Gothic House.

RVs make good fences.

I had a boyfriend “H” that fall (alas, short lived with a bad ending). We loaded the RV with Team Terrier, plus his dog (a chow) and his guinea pig (not kidding), and drove the RV to South Dakota. We visited Mount Rushmore and the Badlands — and ate donuts at Wall Drug. Marcus had bought the RV to visit the national parks. I could never have imagined I would be carrying on his dream without him. And with someone else.

2012

My book, “Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie,” came out April 1, 2012. Given that the RV featured prominently in my story, it was fitting that the RV be used for a book tour. So The Beast got outfitted with some nifty pie decals, fueled up with gas, and Team Terrier and I set off cross-country on a six-week tour.

Before
After

Iowa City, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, San Diego, Orlando, Austin, Jefferson (TX) — the tour was so grueling I ended up in the ER with tendonitis in my neck. No fault of the RV; traveling with my own down-filled bed in the back of the RV made the trip really comfortable. The neck problem came from the red-eye flight I took from San Diego to Orlando mid-tour.

Not only did the ER visit set me back six figures, the RV needed new brakes. So while in Seattle, we spent a $1000 day at Les Schwab getting new rotors. Fun times.

The Beast became a kind of celebrity, appearing in many TV news segments and articles. Tourists who came to get pie at the Pitchfork Pie Stand liked to walk around to the back of the house where the RV was parked so they could take pictures of it. Who cares about the American Gothic House when you can pose in front of The Beast!

That June, I spent my 50th birthday in the RV, camping at a nearby rural Iowa lake to have a night of solitude and welcome my new decade quietly.

That July, Kyle Munson, the Des Moines Register columnist, used the RV for his team’s support vehicle during the weeklong bike ride across Iowa called RAGBRAI.

Delivering pie to Newtown.
Pie delivery vehicle (aka The Beast) in background. 

In December 2012, after the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the RV served its greatest mission yet. We drove from Iowa to Janice’s house in New Jersey (the same Janice with whom we shot the pie documentary), and rallied 60 volunteers to make 250 homemade apple pies. We then loaded up the RV — and it was REALLY loaded — and drove the pies up to Newtown where we handed out free slices and free pies to bring kindness and comfort to the grieving community. I have never been so grateful for that RV and what it made possible. People wrote me letters later saying how seeing “the Pie Truck” in their town gave them a sense of hope and joy amidst the sorrow.

2013

The RV and I always liked coming home.

Back at the American Gothic House, not only did the RV make an excellent (and well used) guest room — and privacy fence to shield us from the prying eyes of The Binoculars next door—the refrigerator in The Beast also served as overflow storage for my pie stand ingredients.

My dad giving the RV a wash.

In September, I drove the RV to LA — just for a respite after a very demanding summer with the Pitchfork Pie Stand (and another failed attempt at a relationship) —and was planning on staying in LA for a month, maybe two. I fell in love with an artist from Iowa, who lived in Pasadena, and two months turned into six. That’s when I found the $50 parking lot in Pasadena. But at least I was close by and could periodically check on The Beast’s well being.

2014

Book Tour #2! In April, The Beast got a new battery, an oil change, and some updated decals with my new book cover and tour dates. I set off from LA to promote my cookbook “Ms. American Pie” along the way back to Iowa. First to Arizona. Then Albuquerque, Austin, Dallas, Kansas City, Des Moines, and home to Eldon. This tour was a more manageable three weeks. No ER visits. No breakdowns, mechanical or otherwise. Just lots of pie. The RV featured prominently in every stop.

A book tour stop in Texas.

Back in Eldon, the RV once again resumed its duties as guest room and privacy fence. Do not underestimate the importance of this. It got a lot of use!

Looking out the RV window at Dockweiler.

In September 2014, I moved out of the American Gothic House. Some people were very happy about this. Others, like my pie customers & would-be students, not so much. As for me, I miss the house terribly. But I still had my house on wheels. I moved the RV to a friend’s farm and used it as a guest room for myself until the weather started turning cold. By November I was determined to head south for the winter. The RV and I have that in common: we prefer warm weather. I decided on Dallas. Which we know now was a Very. Bad. Decision. Not knowing where else to go, I hobbled back to LA. Again.

When I first arrived, I camped at Dockweiler Beach State Park. It’s the closest I could legally camp near the beach and still be close to my parents. The park, located directly beneath the LAX flight path, has a three-week limit. Not to mention, it cost $60 a night. But I was in such a down state I could not put a price on my mental health. I stayed the maximum allotted time.

The beach can be very soothing to the soul (when jets are not passing overhead). I spent HOURS lying in that cozy nest of down comforters and pillows in the back of the RV, listening to the ocean waves and petting Jack’s belly as I grieved the loss of Daisy.

Exactly six years to the day after Marcus and I camped in Del Rio, Texas in December of 2008 with our newly adopted member of Team Terrier, I had lost both Marcus and Daisy. I still had Jack. And I still had The Beast.

2015

I rented a sweet, quiet, sunny apartment in Palos Verdes. Sadly, the parking situation could not accommodate a 24-foot RV for a long-term stay. After calling around and not finding any RV parking for under $200, I went back to Pasadena to the old lot I had used last year. And that’s where it stayed for five months.

I thought I was done with The Beast. I thought it was time to let it go. Retire it. Sell it. Let someone else enjoy it. I mean, an RV’s lifespan could be measured in dog years. Which would make this 2002 camper the equivalent of 91 years old! But I was so happy to be driving it today. I was so filled with big, life-affirming memories. And instead of feeling like I wanted to be rid of it, I felt the sense of renewed possibility, that with a little TLC—and money—I could tackle some of those repairs, breathe some new life into it, have some new adventures.

Luckily, I don’t have to decide right now. I am buying myself a little more time. The RV will go back to my brother’s in Costa Mesa for the summer while I am traveling around the world. It will have another stint as weekend surfer camper. And I will have the peace of mind in knowing that it is getting good use, having a happy time by the beach, and not sitting abandoned in a distant parking lot.

For the next few days though, I have it parked outside my apartment, where I can wipe off the dust, wash the windows, and appreciate what an incredible history we have shared.

I am already picturing how nice the RV would look with the World Piece logo….

RETURN TO THE WORLD NEEDS MORE PIE .COM

Finding Solace in Solitaire

I’ve never been a fan of card games. It’s just not my thing to sit at a table and dole out little rectangular pieces of coated paper with numbers and symbols and faces of royalty printed on them. It seems pointless, a waste of precious time that could be—should be—spent doing something productive, like exercising or making a pie to share. Or writing a blog post.

But on November 17, I found myself sitting in the back of my 24-foot RV navigating Los Angeles’s traffic-clogged freeways with someone else driving because I was too stressed, too depressed, too lacking in energy to make the trip from Dallas, Texas to Southern California alone.

On November 6, I had left Iowa, driving my RV solo, loaded with my entire wardrobe, bicycles, computer and two terriers, and towing my Mini Cooper behind. I left Iowa—left the American Gothic House where I had lived the past 4 years, left the farm where I had been staying for the past 2 months, left the cold weather—and planned to camp out in a friend’s yard outside of Dallas where I would work on my new memoir for the next few months.

My dear, sweet Daisy

Only 36 hours after arriving at my friend’s place in Texas my terriers were attacked by a coyote in the woods behind the house. I had let the dogs out for their morning pee while I made my coffee and 10 minutes later Jack came back to the door, bleeding badly from his neck. Daisy, my curly white-haired rescue from Mexico, didn’t come back at all. Given that she never liked to miss breakfast, and seeing what had happened to Jack, my adrenaline was pumping; I feared the worst.

I drove Jack to the animal emergency hospital, left him there to be treated for shock and multiple deep puncture wounds, and rushed back to my friend’s where I spent hours frantically searching for Daisy. A neighbor found her later; she was dead and the coyote who killed her clearly left its marks. I won’t describe the awful scene. I can only imagine—or hope—her death had been quick. I can only hope she didn’t suffer.

We buried Daisy in the forest. I placed one of her favorite stuffed animals, a small squirrel, in the grave with her. And later, bought a bouquet of daisies to place on top of the dirt mound. After two nights in the animal hospital Jack survived. But the tragedy—and the trauma—left me shaken. I was vulnerable, exhausted, lacking trust, and in need of a helping hand.

Help came in the form of an Iowa friend, D, who offered to fly down to Dallas, load my Mini back onto the car trailer, and drive me to the place I should have gone in the first place: home.

I have long considered Southern California home ever since I took a job in LA back in 1990. I didn’t love the job but I loved living at the beach, and learning how to surf and mountain bike. I loved being in a big cosmopolitan city combined with having such easy and immediate access to outdoor adventure. And the sun. I loved the warmth that radiated deep into my bones. Besides, I always feel better with a tan. LA has been my home base off and on ever since. And with my parents and several siblings in the area, it was the place I needed to be after losing my angelic little dog I had loved so deeply, like a child, for the past six years.

D is used to driving a tractor but not my RV—and not my RV with my precious tiny car towed behind. I tried very hard to abstain from bitchy, backseat driver comments, like “When you see brake lights a few cars ahead that means you need to start slowing down” and “You’re too close to the center line.” Even after two long days of D’s decent driving it was so hard for me not to be vigilant—er, bossy and controlling—that I forced myself to stop looking out the front window and sat in the back facing the rear. After already having driven myself 800 miles from Iowa to Dallas with the added worry of towing my car, then bearing the unspeakable anguish of the dog tragedy, followed by the 1,400 miles heading West in an aging RV whose weakened walls were about to collapse from water damage, my stress was running high, and increasing along with the traffic. It was too bouncy to read. Too noisy to talk on the phone. But I desperately needed to do something to distract myself. So I did something I never thought I would do. I downloaded an app on my iPhone for Solitaire.

I learned how to play solitaire back in grade school. Back when people used real cards. My dad plays it regularly on his computer and I saw how it occupied and calmed his restless mind. Often to my mother’s irritation. So I figured if it helped my dad it could help me.

My new form of therapy

The digital version makes the game quicker, easier, and, when bouncing around in the back of an RV, obviously more convenient than spreading out 52 cards. I hit the play button and—whoosh!—all the cards, bright, crisp, and colorful in their digital form appeared perfectly laid out and game ready. I tapped on an ace of clubs and it magically, swiftly flew to the spot I intended, without me even having to drag it. The program knew where the card was supposed to go. The same thing happened each time I clicked on a card. The queen of hearts flew over to rest on top of the king of spades. Another tap and the two of clubs landed on the Ace above.

With this kind of expedited play I continued, game after game. I won a few, lost a few. I played so many games my palms were sweating. But by god, I did not look out the window. I did not think about the traffic. And I stopped obsessing about D’s too-quick braking methods. I also stopped thinking—for the moment—about what happened to Daisy and how much I missed her, her big brown eyes, her crazy mohawk hair, her wagging tail, and her snoring. I passed the time, and the miles, and several hours and 25 games of Solitaire later, we crested over a hill. I deigned to look out the front window, and before us glistened the vast Pacific Ocean, the setting sun reflecting off the breaking waves. THANK YOU, GOD, I whispered. I finally put down my iPhone and wiped the tears from eyes.

A parking place in paradise

Once I got settled in my oceanfront campsite, just 20 minutes from my parents’ apartment, D flew back to Iowa and I was on my own. With my wounded-but-recovering terrier, Jack. And my grief. I knew grief too well from the sudden and unexpected loss of my husband, Marcus, five years earlier. I became an expert at grief. I did the grief counseling. I did the crying. I read the books. I even wrote my own book about it.

But what happens when you lose a dog? What happens when that dog was connected to your husband since you rescued Daisy when you lived with Marcus in Mexico for his job? What happens when you lose Daisy on the heels of leaving a house you loved (even if you did not love the neighbors) having convinced yourself that life holds something bigger, better for you, but instead find yourself on a rocky, boulder-strewn road of missteps with no end in sight? What happens, even when you are camped on a million dollar-view beach with your loving and supportive family just down the road, but your heart is so troubled, so broken that you cannot sleep at night? I’ll tell you what you do: you play Solitaire.

Team Terrier and me at the American Gothic House on a happy day.
Who knew life would hold such huge challenges in the months ahead?

Distraught and disoriented from all the recent upheaval I’ve been so tired I’ve been crawling into bed around 8PM, falling instantly into a deep sleep. But only for a few hours. And then I wake up—wide awake with my heart racing and pounding irregularly, trying to push out of my mind the image of Daisy’s little body lying in the woods, wondering what I could have done differently to change the course of events. Should I have not moved out of the American Gothic House? Should I have stayed in Iowa? What am I going to do now? Where am I going? I try to meditate and do deep breathing exercises to encourage sleep to return. But it doesn’t. So I play Solitaire. Game after game after game. Several pre-dawn hours at a time. I play so much Solitaire that when I finally close my eyes I still see the cards, still trying to make them move.

I told my friend Susanne about my new obsession. “I’m so embarrassed to admit it,” I said.

“It makes perfect sense,” Susanne replied. “It’s repetitious ordering. You feel out of control of your life, but by ordering the cards you feel like there is something you can take charge of.”

As the insomnia continues—and thus I continue to play cards on my iPhone—I have been observing other reasons why the game is helpful.

Solitaire mirrors life. Just when you think you’ve lost, you discover a move you hadn’t seen before, or wasn’t there before. A black five on a red six and—voila—by moving the red four on top of the five opens up a space to put the king and with one or two more cards your luck has shifted and you win. Sometimes you feel stuck, you’ve looked through the cards 10 times and there really is no conceivable move, no way to win, but with a tap to the “new game” button you can start over. And you can use the “Get tip” button—“Oh, I can transfer a few cards from one line to another to clear the path for a winning move? Thanks for pointing that out.” It’s not cheating; it’s like asking a trusted friend for advice.

Jack on the mend. The sign says it all.

I have appreciated having Solitaire to distract me through my days (and nights) of late. But I am weaning myself off the game. I am determined to reclaim my balance, my sense of direction, my ability to sleep—without the aid of cards—or drugs or red wine or even chocolate. Okay, maybe a little chocolate. As I work through my grief over losing Daisy, a little voice creeps in that suggests her sudden death may have spared her any drawn out suffering from the arthritis that was ailing her. Still, a creature as appreciative and innocent as she was didn’t deserve such a violent death. But what can you do? You cannot go backward in life, only forward.

I am putting one foot in front of the other, taking long walks on the beach, riding my bike in the shining sun, spending time talking with my family (or just sitting quietly in their comforting company), and writing more in my journal. I made pies for Thanksgiving. And now, at last, I am sitting at my computer typing out the feelings from my heavy heart, hoping that by sharing my words, my story, my grief and my gratitude, I will find my way back to productivity and purpose. That said, I’m going to keep the Solitaire app on my iPhone. It will serve as a reminder to have faith in life, that by drawing just one or two more cards, the road can get smoother, you can still find a way through, and there’s still, always a possibility of winning.