Wednesday, September 11, 2019

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*

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Pedaling Across Iowa for Pie

RAGBRAI, the Des Moines Register's Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa, is really all about the pie. The Amish, the church ladies, home bakers and commercial bakers alike can be found all along the 500-mile route feeding the masses their homemade goods from strawberry-rhubarb, peach, blackberry, apple and more. Sometimes they even have homemade ice cream to go with it. Which is why I just HAD to pump up my tires and join in the fun for three out of the seven days -- along with nearly 30,000 other people on bikes.
 

I hadn't planned on riding this year, but once the event got underway and I started seeing all the pictures and the social media posts of all those people smiling and laughing and exercising -- and yes, eating all that pie -- I developed a severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out) so I hitched a ride to Bloomfield and joined in the sea of bicycles as it flowed eastward.


L to R: Scott Horsley, me, Les Cook
I caught up with Team NPR -- the acronym can stand for National Public Radio or "No Pie Refused," depending on how you choose to see it -- and rode a few days with economics reporter Scott Horsley and business editor Les Cook. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but oh man, I had a hard time keeping up with these dudes. I thought these guys had desk jobs! But they were motivated by -- and fueled by -- pie. (Scott told me that he first read about RAGBRAI in a Wall Street Journal article that said it's the only long-distance bike ride where you'll gain weight. He's been doing the ride every year since.)

Special delivery: banana cream pie! (photo by Madeline King)
Some of those weight-inducing calories were provided by yours truly. After putting in a 50-mile day on my bike, I went home and baked until midnight. The next morning I delivered pies -- banana cream, apple, peach crumble and key lime -- to their support vehicle. When Team NPR rolled in for their daily pit stop they tanked up -- and as you see in the photo below -- some even did a toast with their pie.

photo by Madeline King, IPR
They all commented that you don't see a lot of cream pie on RAGBRAI. That's for obvious reasons -- like 90-degree days with high humidity. (Great biking weather! Especially when there are relentless headwinds. Luckily RAGBRAI provides a sag wagon to transport you to the end of the day's route if you just can't take it anymore.)

Their favorite of my pies, hands down, was the key lime. (The recipe is below.) And guess what? I didn't make that one! Doug did. He's a good pie baker too. But then he had a good teacher. Ha!

I've done the full RAGBRAI ride three times, starting when I was 19 years old -- all the way back in 1981. (RAGBRAI started in 1973 as a bet between two newspaper reporters and is now going into its 48th year.) I've jumped on for a few days at a time during the past nine years I've been back in Iowa, yet never fully committing to the whole week.

But after riding this year -- after getting caught up in the contagious joy and unity of the fellow cyclists (ranging from 10-year-olds to 93-year-olds), after making new friends from all parts of the world, after getting swept up in the common goal of reaching the Mississippi River, after feeling the sense of accomplishment and freedom that comes from covering great distances under your own power, and after breathing in all of rural Iowa's beauty on those car-free country roads...after all that, I am already planning on doing the entire weeklong ride next year.

I even have a team name already -- Team Pieowa.

I posted my team name on Facebook last week. I was only half-joking, but like most of the crazy adventures that happen in my life, it gained momentum almost immediately after several people left comments. They wanted to join, someone offered to help with the support crew, and the next thing you know the idea has gone from wishful thinking to really happening.

If you want to join me, let me know. We'll need a support vehicle (maybe a van or bus or RV or just bike trailer) and a driver. We'll want to get team jerseys designed. (Any graphic artists out there jonesing for a project?) If nothing else, this will be something fun to focus on during the long winter months, something to look forward to and a reason to not slack off on the exercise. There will be no last-minute decision to go, no FOMO. Only miles of cornfields and open sky; thousands of happy, healthy people; new friends to be made; local communities welcoming visitors; pies waiting to be enjoyed. Like labor pains, I will have long forgotten about the trifecta of heat, headwinds and hills, forgotten a
bout the sore muscles and sunburn, and I'll be excited to do it all over again.

Next summer -- July 19 - 25, 2020 -- you will find me, along with thousands of other people, pedaling across Iowa in a community effort of endurance and fun.

I hope you'll come along for the ride.

For more info on RAGBRAI: https://ragbrai.com


KEY LIME PIE 


GRAHAM CRACKER CRUST  

1-1/2 cups graham crackers (about 9 to 12 crackers, at least one sleeve), crushed (increase amount if you’re using a large, deep-dish pie plate)
5 to 6 tbsp butter, melted

Optional ingredients: 1 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 cup sugar (I make mine without these)

Crush crackers by putting in a ziplock bag and roll with rolling pin. Mix melted butter into cracker crumbs, then press into pie plate. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes.

FILLING

1 (14-oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks (save 2 egg whites)
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice (To get ½ cup of juice will take about 6 Persian limes.)
2 tsp lime zest (optional but zesty!)

Whisk 4 egg yokes, add condensed milk and lime juice.

Optional step, but one that I always do: Beat 2 egg whites until stiff and fold into this mixture. This will make your filling lighter.

Pour into pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until filling is set. Let cool, then chill for at least 3 hours. Top with whipped cream. Store in refrigerator up to a week.

TOPPING:

1 cup heavy whipping cream
3 tbsp sugar

Beat cream and sugar until peaks form. Spread over top of cooled pie.

TIP:  
Instead of little key limes, you can also use “regular” limes, also known as “Persian” limes. They are bigger and juicier and thus easier to squeeze, but are said to be less tangy than key limes. However, I did a taste test with a few key lime pie aficionados in Key West, people who swear by using key limes, and they all voted for the pie made with the Persian limes. Even the experts were fooled. Go figure. (This is why I insist on questioning authority and thus dispelling myths.)

TIP:
You can use bottled lime juice. Recommended brands are Nellie and Joe’s or Manhattan (unsweetened). It’s a lot faster and easier than squeezing those mini key limes and will keep your fingers from pruning. That said, I always prefer using fresh fruit.


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!