Friday, May 10, 2019

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!


Oh, the Things You Can Do When You Take a Break from Social Media!

In late March I began what became an extended break from Facebook. I use Twitter and Instagram too, but Facebook is my go-to social platform. It's a place where I get to hang out with my friends and keep up with their news, which is especially valuable to me because I live on a farm where I'm surrounded by goats, dogs and cows. I need people! But I don't need all the news....and all the noise. And Facebook was becoming too noisy and too loud for my sensitive soul. 


The cure for loneliness.
Envy was part of the problem. I found I was getting jealous of my friends (many of them people I have never met in person) and I was feeling bad about myself. It seemed everyone else was doing cool stuff and that I had been put out to pasture. Literally! But that's the danger of social media. We selectively choose our posts, presenting only the highlights, showing ourselves in our best light, and giving others a very limited, very curated view of our otherwise messy, imperfect, difficult lives. I'm guilty of it too. But I'm an adult with the tools to recognize this. I have the capability to step back, assess my feelings, identify the cause of them and, even more importantly, to act. In this case, the solution was to get off -- and stay off -- Facebook. At least for a while.


I feel for those in our younger generations who don't yet have the defenses or life experience necessary to ward off the dark forces of social media and all its anxiety-producing pressures. The bullying. The bragging. The negativity. The competition. It can get ugly and, as we've seen, even dangerous out there. Yes, there are so many, many good things that social media can do. I have made lifelong friends through it. My pie business grew because of it. My books got read thanks to it. And my World Piece pie-making trip around the world would have never been as rich and rewarding without the support I got from it. 


But a break was necessary. And I am here to say the break has been hugely productive.


Taking this time away from social media has helped me stop comparing my accomplishments or goals to everyone else's. It has helped me focus on my dreams, to ask myself what do I want? What more can I do with my life? Because I have to and want to do more! What can I do given my circumstances, living in rural Iowa and needing to stay close to home to care for my aging animals? (My terrier, Jack, is still with us. He is diabetic and blind but hanging in there, and I'm sticking by him to the end. He will be 15 on May 17, which if you know his story is a miracle!) 

That's Jack in the backpack. And me in my pjs.
Just another day on the farm. 
Because I wasn't filling my days -- and my loneliness -- reading endless posts and articles online, I freed up a lot of time and I used it -- privately and quietly -- to ask myself those life-probing questions. In that sacred, protected, sometimes uncomfortable space, I found my answers. 


And then I got busy. 


I realized that I didn't want to travel or play or socialize. I wanted to work! I wanted to contribute something helpful to our troubled world. So I immersed myself in a new project. I spent hours alone at my farmhouse desk to produce something creative and meaningful. And in the process, guess what? I no longer felt lonely! Nor did I feel like I was missing out on anything. (Though I did miss a few birthdays and birth announcements. My apologies to those of you I've neglected!) 


My new project was actually revisiting an old one: World Piece, my round-the-world pie-making trip I took the summer of 2015. I had previously only told snippets of it on Facebook and my blog, and finally, four years later, I sat down to document the whole story in its entirety.

I have a need to create, but also one to stretch and grow. Expanding my horizons and learning new things gives me the oxygen I require to feel alive -- fully, actively alive! So instead of doing what I would normally do as a project -- writing the book/memoir (which I still plan to do) -- I ventured into a different medium. I taught myself how to use iMovie to tell my story visually. And while it is not perfect (because there is no such thing as perfection!) I want to share with you what came out of my Facebook break.

I humbly present you with my short film...

World Piece: A Global Pie-Making Journey



It is 23 minutes long. I know our online attention spans are three minutes max, but I hope you will watch the whole thing. And I hope it will inspire you to spend time away from your screens, to go make a pie, and then share that pie to connect with old friends – and make new ones – in real life. I know from experience, it will do your soul good.



Don't worry, I'm not totally disconnecting! I still post updates on my Facebook pie page, so please like and follow me there for news.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

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? 



Thursday, March 7, 2019

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.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Marking Myself 'Happy' During the Polar Vortex

It’s 3 degrees outside and dropping. They’re calling this the Polar Vortex, the Arctic Blast, or maybe it’s just Hell Freezing Over. News reports say that Midwest temperatures will be the lowest they’ve been in a generation, that it will be colder in Chicago than in Antarctica.

To think I could be in Florida right now.

I was in Florida until a few days ago. I could have stayed an extra week. But I chose to drive home before the Big Freeze.

I chose this?! I willingly came back to Iowa when the forecast is for 20 below zero with a wind chill of minus 50? I have been suffering from a severe case of S.A.D. and still I chose to come back?

The Weather Channel is scarier than a horror movie.

I knew it was going to be cold if I came back to Iowa. But I also knew I had survived New Year’s Eve of 2018, when Doug, my boyfriend, had his annual bonfire party outside in the woods—even though it was 14 below! (I had also survived waking up the following morning, starting off 2018 with a thermometer reading of negative 19. Happy F**king New Year!)

Doug's wood pile. That's going
 to be one big-ass bonfire.
Doug’s bonfire party tradition spans more than three decades, and he and his farmer friends and family members carry on with it regardless of the weather, such hardy folk are they. That brutal year as 2017 gave way to 2018 everyone joked about how in all the times they’d been to this gathering they had never stood this close to the flames, an inferno so towering it could melt your boots along with your brains. The blaze was so big it could have been used as a funeral pyre, a description that isn’t far off as Doug, in the early years of the party, used to build Burning Man-esque effigies and set them alight.

On that oh-so-festive occasion, our group—there were a dozen of us—huddled precariously close to the fire, holding out our mittened hands toward the heat, continuously rotating our bodies like chickens on a rotisserie to warm all sides evenly. We roasted hot dogs (using 10-foot-long branches Doug had whittled) and drank beer and wine out of thermoses so our drinks wouldn’t freeze. We nibbled on homemade cookies so hardened by the cold they could chip your teeth.

This is what Iowa farmers do for fun?!

Can you feel the heat?

I was only there because my boyfriend hosts the soirĂ©e. I would prefer to spend New Year’s Eve—or any long winter’s night—in my bathtub reading a book or under my down comforter watching Netflix. I tried to be a good and dutiful girlfriend, but I bailed on the party before midnight. Sometime before 11, my friend Carolyn and I announced we were walking home, a distance of a quarter mile away from the fire site, even though there was a fleet of pickup trucks parked nearby and we probably could have taken one. We were tough women. We would brave the elements.

Carolyn and I cinched our coats tighter and wrapped our scarves higher around our faces. We tore ourselves away from the pull of the fire’s seductive heat, turned on a flashlight, and set off across the soybean field toward the house. We trudged over the plowed black soil and ice, taking care not to trip on the dirt clods and snow drifts.

Carolyn and me
As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we could see more of the sky. It was so black and wide, the air so chilled it was crystalline, the stars appeared both closer and more infinite, millions of them illuminated like the dust of crushed diamonds. The night was so serene and surreal it begged the question “Is this heaven?” Carolyn and I, like a pair of baseball players stepping out of the past onto a frozen farm, had to remind ourselves, “It’s Iowa.” We walked in silence, with reverence, as if this were a religious experience or the rapture, as if we were not just communing with the Universe but we were the Universe. No, we weren’t drunk. More importantly, we weren’t cold! And those 20 minutes—outdoors in Ice Age conditions that could kill you—turned out to be the highlight of my holiday.

I wasn’t thinking about this when I left Florida and returned to Iowa of my own volition. Nor was I thinking about my boyfriend and how much I missed him, along with my dogs and cats and goats. Sadly, selfishly, my motivation to go north was based on Florida’s forecast. The Gulf States were going to get a whiff of this Arctic Blast too. If I stayed in the South there would be no dips in the sea or barefoot walks on the beach or margaritas sipped at outdoor cafes because Florida, the Weather Channel declared, might even get snow! Still, I checked my Weather Underground app and Google maps obsessively, toggling back and forth between the two, to see if there was somewhere, anywhere I could go within a day’s driving distance that was warm, or at least warmer. Alas, I wouldn’t be able to reach anyplace summery without getting on an airplane.

This isn't snow, but it felt like it! It's a white sugar sand in Navarre Beach,
Florida, and the wind chill was about 28 degrees when I took this photo.

In the midst of agonizing over a tempting invitation to South Carolina (unseasonably cold, but warmer than the Heartland), I had a phone consultation with my friend Kee Kee. After confessing to her that I already had a trip booked to Arizona for 10 days in February, I came to the conclusion that home is where I needed to be. No matter how low the temperatures would go.

And they will be dangerously low. According to media reports, it will be so cold they are advising you should not talk, let alone breathe when you’re outside.

Is this the Arctic? No, it's Iowa.
Oh, Florida...why did I ever leave you?!

No matter how cold, how uncomfortable, how life-threatening, I promised myself I would not complain about the weather when I got back to Iowa. (Doug—or anyone who knows me—will confirm that my proclivity to grumble increases by 99 percent in winter.) And as the temps continue to plummet—it has already dropped to 6 below in the past hour—and the winds howl, their speeds gaining force, I have yet to utter one negative word about Mother Nature’s deadly assault. Because the forecast indicates it will be in the mid-40s by Saturday. In other words, this too shall pass.

In the meantime, I have the means to endure as I am heavily armed with the essential tools. I have a thick suit of armor, created out of multiple layers of fleece, wool, and down. I have a warm house with a trustworthy furnace, a deep soaking bathtub, and an on-demand water heater to fill it. I have cupboards well-stocked with hot chocolate and red wine. I have flannel sheets on my bed, a down comforter and, best of all, a steaming hot potato of a farmer I can snuggle with underneath it.

I consider my return home something like The Hero's Journey, because avoidable as coming back may have been, there is something that feels noble and right about joining in the battle of survival, not running from it but facing it head on, and going through the test of endurance together. It's like Tea Leoni's character in Deep Impact (the doomsday film about a killer meteor on a collision course with Earth that will wipe out humanity) when she sacrifices her spot in the shelter, giving up her chance to live, to be with her dad, her family. Doug and our animals are my family. And whether it's a meteor hurling toward the earth or, as is the case, a dangerous but far-less life-threatening winter storm blowing across the Great Plains, I wouldn't want to be alone in a Florida motel room. I would want to be—and am—with family.

So, yes, I may be in Iowa in this torturous, record-shattering weather, yet I'm feeling triumphant. Because whether this is heaven—or hell—freezing over, no matter how bad this Polar Vortex gets, I am safe, I am warm, I am home—and I’m very happy to be here.
Stay safe and warm, everyone!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Plogging is the New Jogging

This essay originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio (Macomb, Illinois)   LISTEN TO IT HERE

Sticking to my New Year’s resolution to exercise more and spend more time outdoors, I’ve been doing a weekly Sunday morning hike with two other girlfriends. Near Farmington, Iowa, we discovered miles of trails through Shimek State Forest, a managed plantation of timber. The park, which borders Missouri, is enjoyed by hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders—and, as we quickly learned, Busch Light drinkers.

In the winter months, when there are rarely horses on the trails, we hike in the section of the park designated for riding, which gives us more terrain to cover. After all, we are there to get a workout.

Our hikes take us deep into the forest to areas that you would expect to be pristine, but a glint of sun reflects off the ground catching our eye, as we hone in on an object that does not belong there, and then another, and another. Beer cans. Empty cast offs as if the woods—not to mention the ditches of our rural roads—were one big trash bin. Not to single out Busch Light, though that does seem to be the preference of local equestrians, we also find on the trails plastic bottles once filled with Gatorade or Mountain Dew, empty potato chip bags, candy bar wrappers, and some alcohol-spiked seltzer water called Truly, which judging by the number of cans seems to be a new favorite.

During our first hike we picked up as many cans as we could carry, stuffing them in our pockets if they weren’t too dirty and carrying them in our gloved hands if they were.

Thinking the litter might just be a one-off we didn’t bring bags with us on our second hike. But as the snow came and went, more and more cans appeared, like a trail of bread crumbs left behind in the woods, discarded as if aluminum were biodegradable and would magically disappear. We were so compelled to pick up the litter we took turns fighting our way through the undergrowth, getting scratched and tangled up in thorny branches for the sake of Keeping America Beautiful. I sacrificed my fleece jacket to the cause, improvising a garbage bag by zipping it up and tying off the sleeves, filling it with so much trash it looked like a Macy’s parade balloon.

By our third hike it sunk in: if hiking was going to be a regular thing, then so was picking up trash. We came armed with garbage bags and I started wearing my big backpack to carry out what we collected.

After one of our hikes, we posed with our bounty for a selfie, which I later posted on Instagram. The comments came flooding in, along with the revelation that there is actually a name for what we were doing. It’s called “Plogging.” A combination of the Swedish word “plocka upp” (meaning “pick up”) and “jogging,” plogging is defined as “picking up litter while running.” And like fitness trends are wont to do, this new sport is catching on across the world.

There are plogging organizations you can join, events you can sign up for, tips, hashtags, apps, grant programs, and a whole community of ploggers.

The Keep America Beautiful website, kab.org, where you can find all these resources, touts that “Plogging combines cardio and strength in your workout with every squat you take as you pick up litter to be thrown away or, better yet, recycled.”

Lifesum, a Swedish fitness app, claims that 30 minutes of plogging can burn 288 calories. That’s a half hour of trash collecting to work off one slice of apple pie, two Twix bars, or three cans of Busch Light. That’s right. Only 96 calories per can means we’re picking them up by the six-pack.

My friends and I may be hiking, not jogging, but we are definitely burning calories and doing a lot of squatting. We are also doing a lot of grumbling. With each beer can added to the bag we vow we’re going to write to Anheuser-Busch and suggest they run an ad campaign instructing their customers to dispose of their cans properly. Their commercials might also advise that littering is a misdemeanor, and those guilty of the offense—should they be caught out there, say, in the far reaches of a state park—can be fined up to $625 per occurrence in Iowa, even more in other states. What I don’t understand is why risk a fine when you can get your five-cent deposit back on every can? How hard is it to carry your cans to a recycling or trash bin? (Shimek State Forest offers them in several convenient locations around the park.) But what’s most confusing is why anyone would sully the very land they come to enjoy for its purity.

Plogging may be catching on as a positive environmental trend, and I hope more people join in, but how nice it would be not to have this extra incentive for exercise, how nice if more people would “give a hoot and not pollute,” because frankly, all those squats are starting to wear out my knees.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

For the Love -- and Grief -- of Goats

Mr. Friendly, Mamacita & Chaps asking, "Yo! Where's our breakfast?"

Three weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I went out to the barn, as I do every morning, to feed the goats. The three of them—Mamacita, Mr. Friendly and Chaps—are normally waiting at the gate, having already been staring at the house with anticipation upon waking, as if they could will me to come out sooner with their breakfast.

When the two males, Mr. Friendly and Chaps, see me coming they rear up on their hind legs and head butt each other, slamming their horns so hard the smacking sound echoes off the barn. I first thought this was an act of aggression, but after observing it repeatedly, always in this context of me bearing breakfast bowls of grain, I realized it was the goat version of a high five.

But on this particular morning—Sunday, November 11—there was only one goat waiting at the gate.

Our goats are old. They were already at least 12 when we adopted them from an elderly couple in Selma, Iowa, the tiny village just down the road from Eldon. I had fallen in love with the goats during the four years I lived in the American Gothic House; I would bring them carrots while out on my road bike rides, I would feed them through the chain-link fence, and we developed a bond. They got to know me over time, always running to greet me when I pulled up on my bicycle. Given they were already at the top end of their lifespan when we adopted them, and we’ve had them for three years, they are now well into a very advanced age. Camp Doug is their retirement home, and as with any senior citizens, I know I need to be prepared for their departure.

Prepared? When you love someone—whether man or animal—who is ever prepared for a goodbye that is so final?

We lost one of the four goats a year and a half ago, in April of 2017. After spending a month at my dad’s bedside in California, caring for him through his aggressive cancer and doing the unthinkable: saying goodbye to him, I returned home only to find myself right back in hospice.

Cinnamon
Cinnamon, our tan-colored fainting goat, had stopped eating while I was away. So for two weeks following my return, I alternated between sitting with her in the barn and driving to the vet with her stool samples or to get medicine, desperate for a cure to whatever was ailing her.

The vet prescribed a homemade “goat drench,” a concoction of corn oil, molasses and Gatorade, which I was to squirt into her mouth with a turkey baster. I squirted. She pursed her lips tight and jerked her head away. I pushed the baster into her mouth again. “Come on, beautiful. You have to eat something.” The sight of the drench running out of the side of her mouth, leaving a sticky trail of brown and sugary oil on her beautiful fluffy coat, was as upsetting to me as her failing health. I went back to the vet again and again, pleading for something, anything to help.

Finally, the vet held my shoulders and stared straight into my eyes. “She’s 15,” the vet said.

“But…” I started to say.

The vet interrupted me, repeating more sternly, “She’s 15.”

And then one morning, after Doug left to do his farm chores, he came back inside to find me. “She’s gone,” he said tenderly. I went outside to find her in the far corner of the barn, the life drained from her body after her drawn-out struggle. We buried her on the west side of the farmhouse, between the garden and the soybean field. Doug shoveled out the grave and I bought flowers to put on top. When we had pushed the last of the black soil over her, Doug went back to work and I went on antidepressants.

My dad died in March. Cinnamon died in April. And in June of that same year, 2017, Jack, my dog and surviving member of “Team Terrier,” developed both diabetes and congestive heart failure. He has nearly died at least four times during the past 18 months. Miraculously, after thousands of dollars in vet bills and countless tears, he is still alive—14 and ½ years old, blind, his strong spirit still intact. Every morning when I wake up, I hold my breath as I check to see that he is still breathing. When I see his chest rise and fall, I exhale with relief.

Jack is blind, but he still likes to go for walks --
even when I have to carry him in the backpack.

It’s the same with the goats. Every morning when I go out to feed them, I scan the goat pen to make sure the three of them are accounted for.

But on that Sunday, three weeks ago, only Mr. Friendly was at the gate.

Occasionally the others hang out in the barn until breakfast is ready, but they always come running at the clanking metal sound of the gate opening. That Sunday, no one came running.

I pushed past Mr. Friendly, who is a big, white, lovable lug, and walked further into the pen where I saw Chaps, who looks like a miniature wildebeest. He was lingering in the doorway of the barn. But I didn’t see Mamacita.

Mamacita

Mamacita, who is a pygmy goat, is Chaps’ mom. She’s a feisty little thing with one horn (the other broke off years ago) who Doug so accurately describes as Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” She may be the smallest of the herd but she’s in charge. She’s the adventurous one who leads the others to the far reaches of the yard, discovering the parts meant to be off limits, like the garden when everything is ripe or the hay barn when the door has been left open. If there is a feast to be had, she is the one who will find it.

She is also the one who pushes through the gate if I leave any bit of space to squeeze through. Lately I had been encouraging her to escape so I could feed her outside the pen, allowing her the extra time she needed to eat so the boys didn't steal her food. She could go back into the pen when she was done eating by pushing the gate in, but the boys could not push it out. She didn’t always go back in though. She would take advantage of her freedom and graze in the yard while the boys watched with envy from behind the fence. I had been allowing this, giving her special privileges, though I give the boys equal time to roam freely too—much to Doug’s disapproval. But Doug knows how much I love the goats, and he loves me, so without saying anything he simply puts up fences around the mock orange bushes, flower beds and other areas he doesn’t want them devouring.

With Mr. Friendly and Chaps accounted for, I went looking for Mamacita. “Maybe she’s just around the corner, warming up in the sun,” I thought, hopefully. But she wasn’t, so my next option was the barn.

The barn is cavernous and dark inside. I walked in, pausing to let my eyes adjust to the darkness, and headed toward the back. And then I saw her, Mamacita, lying on her side in the straw.

Was she was sick? Was she going to be okay?

As I got closer, I felt the energy shift around me, the molecules of air rearranging themselves. I was filled with a simultaneous sense of dread and hope and knowing—that moment of teetering on the precipice right before falling, that last precious nanosecond of time before discovering that life as you have known it has just permanently, irreversibly changed.

She was dead.

I knelt down in the straw to feel her body, rubbing my hands on her white and brown hair, long and coarse. Given she was cold to the touch, she must have died during the night.

The guilt came hard and fast. “Did she freeze to death? Did I not feed her enough to keep her warm?” I asked myself. Iowa has had an early winter. It had snowed two days earlier and temperatures plummeted to a record cold of nine degrees. Nine degrees! In early-November!  “Should I have gotten her a coat?”

Doug came out to the barn and held me in his arms as I sobbed on his shoulder. In his soothing way, he said, “Bea, she just ran out of gas. She didn’t suffer. Her heart probably just stopped. What a peaceful way to go.” Then he left me to sit with her a while longer while he got his shovel and went to dig her grave next to Cinnamon’s.

Our funeral for Mamacita

We held a little graveside service, lighting a candle, reading poems to her from John O’Donohue’s “To Bless the Space Between Us” and sprinkled baby carrots into the pit. We said our thank yous and our final goodbyes to her, then Doug picked up his shovel, while I picked up a handful of dirt to toss into the grave in the symbolic way they do at human burials. But I didn’t stop there. I dropped to my knees and started pushing the icy soil on top of her, at first gently, then shoving it in faster with my bare hands, until she was completely covered.

We worked in silence as the dirt piled up into a mound, the physical effort and connection to the earth serving as therapy for my sadness. Yet my tears—and my remorse—continued. “Did she freeze to death? Did I not feed her enough? Did I not keep her warm enough?” I asked myself again and again. “Could I have prevented this? Surely there is something I could have done.”

“She was 15!” the vet’s voice from a year and a half earlier bellowed in my head. “15!”

In reality, she was older than that, maybe closer to 16 or 17, living well beyond a pygmy goat’s 10- to 12-year average life expectancy.

For as much as I want to keep my animals alive forever, there comes a day—not just for the animals but for all of us—when our bodies expire, when no amount of medicine or molasses-based goat drench can keep us going.

“It’s sad,” my mom said when I told her about Mamacita’s passing, “but you have prolonged all of their lives by taking them in and providing such a good life at Camp Doug.”

Her words provided some consolation, but they didn’t erase the added heartache of watching our two surviving goats grieve. Yes, goats grieve. For about three days, Chaps stood off on his own, his head pushed up against the barn as if he didn’t want anyone to see him cry, while Mr. Friendly paced around the pen, the barn and the pasture, as if looking for Mamacita, determined to find her, willing her to return. But she would not be back. At least not in the same form.

Tiger, our barn cat who hangs out with the goats,
consoled Chaps after Mamacita died.
It was a beautiful thing to see animals
showing compassion for one another.

“Every day is a bonus” is an expression we utter daily in our house full of elderly animals. Doug’s dog Mali, an athletic but incontinent spaniel/beagle mix, is 14, maybe older. His cats, Tiger and Maybelline, while still strong and healthy, are at least 15.

Every day Doug reminds me to stop worrying so much, to stop anticipating the losses, and start seeing the days as half full.

Chaps in his new coat
“Every day is a bonus, Bea,” Doug reminds me.

Every day I have been spending a lot of extra time in the goat pen with Chaps and Friendly. I have been bringing them warm water with molasses, and increased their feed. I have been petting and petting and petting them, like some massage therapist for goats. And I bought a new sewing machine to make coats for them out of fleece blankets and an old nylon tarp. (Making the coats was so easy I wished I had made them three years ago.)

Every day I give Jack his insulin shots, his heart pills, his liver pills, his skin pills. I kiss him every time I walk past him, snuggle with him and tell him how much I love him.

Every day I brace myself, holding my own breath until I’ve made sure everyone is still breathing—the dogs, the cats, the goats, and yes, Doug (who is 63). And every day I say my prayers of gratitude as I confirm each one is still with us.

All I want to do is keep everyone alive. Given that I do not possess the power to do so, all I can do is shower them with love for as long as they are still here—and, sadly, grieve them when they are gone. I have lived through too many losses already, and the cumulative grief chips away at my enthusiasm for life. But as Queen Elizabeth said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” And I cannot and will not stop loving. Fully. Deeply. Courageously.

Mamacita. Forever loved.

Thank you, Mamacita, for your sweetness, your feistiness, your girl power, for the four years I visited you in Selma, and for the three happy years we had together at Camp Doug. You are so very missed, and forever very loved.