Monday, February 23, 2015

No More Excuses: Make Your Own D*amn Movie

I have been resistant to learning about video editing for a long time, always making the excuse that I was a writer not a filmmaker. But I am prying my eyelids open to view a whole new world of possibilities just by acquiring a few video editing skills. There have been too many signs to ignore indicating that video is indeed an asset. Besides, all the cool people are doing it.

I have a friend whose job is running a YouTube channel made up of user-generated content. It's so popular that Dreamworks bought it. Another journalist friend, Lisa, segued from magazine writing to TV news producing, and is now making documentary films. To hear how passionate she is about crossing over to the filmmaking side is definitely inspiring. An upcoming ASJA writers' conference is promoting its video storytelling panel indicating that authors should be making their own book trailers.

Okay, okay, I'm listening.

And then there is the LA Times journalist, Alana Semuels, who made a video to accompany her article about me when she came to the American Gothic House. (Here's the video.)

The newspaper now mandates that the writers make their own video stories, and even sends them to a 3-day workshop to learn the skills. I looked into taking the workshop but realized I would have to also invest in the HD camera, editing software, and the various other accessories (headphones, microphone, tripod, lights, etc.) if I were to be serious about putting the curriculum to use after the course.

Instead of making more excuses, I got busy.

I have an iPhone and a Mac computer that came with the iMovie software. I know sixth graders who are making their own movies. So I channeled my inner 12-year-old and spent Saturday afternoon and evening watching online tutorials and fiddling around with the program. I learned how to add stills and zoom in and out with the Ken Burns effect. I added a music soundtrack, even fading in and out. I also layered in sound effects, editing for length and volume. I included opening and closing titles. And the next thing I knew, I had made my very first movie.

It's not going to win an Oscar, but I was happy with my first attempt. Happy that I overcame my resistance. Happy that I opened up my eyes to this new world. I signed up for the iMovie class at my local Apple store. And after that? I just may sign up for that 3-day workshop after all. Because filmmaking and writing are one in the same in their objective: to tell a story. But the biggest lesson I learned by taking this baby step toward using a new medium was that instead of being overwhelming or frustrating -- in the way learning, say, German was for me -- it was just really, really fun.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Shoes of Palos Verdes

Is this Hawaii? No, it's Palos Verdes (California). My new neighborhood.
I read an essay about 15 years ago titled “The Shoes of Kilimanjaro” by Cameron Burns. In the story he describes his climb up the towering volcano in Tanzania and how he felt bad for the guides whom he assumed were so poor they had only flip flops to wear for the trek through the jungle and, as they got higher, tattered leather dress shoes with slick soles to tackle the steep scree and snow-filled slopes. When he saw the guides in town a few days later they were traipsing around in brand new, ultra-expensive Koflach mountaineering boots. When asked why on earth they didn’t wear the climbing boots on the mountain they answered, “Because we’re saving them for good.” The story and its irony has stuck with me all these years. While this story has little to do with the one I’m about to tell you, my story is indeed about the significance of proper footwear.

I just moved back to LA after four years in Iowa. And when I landed here and moved into my tiny-but-nice apartment I was not in great shape emotionally. After losing my dog Daisy—and almost losing my other dog Jack—to a coyote attack, I was tossed straight back into the Grief Pit, the one I had just spent the past five years climbing out of. I returned to LA broken-hearted and vulnerable.

My new place—a serene, immaculate guest house with a skylight and an exceptionally comfortable bed—was a good place for both Jack and me to recover and rest. But eventually, after two months, I crawled out from under the covers (who can stay in bed when it’s 75 degrees and sunny in January?!) And Jack, well, even with his neck wounds still healing, a Jack Russell terrier is still a Jack Russell terrier. We had come from living in Iowa with endless open space to run and landed in the middle of upscale suburbia with nothing but picket fences and heavy traffic. Some room to breathe and run free would do him—no, both of us—a world of good. What we needed was a beach.

My guest house is located on the Palos Verdes peninsula with horses, orange groves and—oh, yeah, baby—beaches. Dog-friendly beaches. But here’s the catch: the only reason they are dog friendly is because it is impossible to patrol them with a car, almost impossible to get to them period. These little snippets of sand are wedged into isolated coves. At the bottom of sheer cliffs.

I discovered one particularly inviting stretch of sand after leaving a yoga class (where I spent much of the class curled up in child’s pose trying to contain my tears—there’s nothing like a twisting triangle or a pigeon pose to wring out raw emotions) and pointed my car toward the ocean. Every time I ventured out of my house I made a point to explore a little more of my new neighborhood. On this day, however, my Mini Cooper took over like a divining rod, and steered me down one road, then another, and then came to a stop at the top of a grass-covered bluff. I spotted what I thought was sign for a trailhead so I got out to investigate.

I stood on the grass and as my eyes took in the sweeping view for a moment I thought I had just landed in Hawaii. The water was 50 shades of tropical blues and greens—or as my friend Dave would say, PMS 299 and PMS 306. (I am always amused when artists describe the world in paint names.) The waves were peeling evenly and the sun was reflecting like a rain shower of diamonds off their spray. Palm trees and pine trees dotted the skyline. And if all that wasn’t magical enough, I peered down over the edge of the cliff and below was a sandy beach—with a dog running on it. The dog’s owner was shooting pictures of her canine companion as he swam out to fetch a ball she had thrown. I wanted that to be me with the camera and Jack with the ball.
Staring into the abyss.
The question was, How the f*ck did she get down there? I studied the cliff. It was a sheer drop off of at least 300 feet. I walked along the entire length of the bluff looking for a trail. There were little gullies where maybe someone with suicidal tendencies might scramble down, but these paths were better suited for ground squirrels or geckos. I finally found what looked like an established trail at the south end of the cove. I stood at the top of it and stared down into the abyss. The trail snaked down the vertical wall of a canyon, formed by a creek that flowed out to sea. Just imagining myself going down that trail made my stomach seize up into a knot and my heart rate double. That could not possibly be the way that woman and her dog got down there. It just couldn’t be. Who in their right mind would want to be on that beach so badly as to endanger their life—and, as I was picturing—their dog’s life?

Me. That’s who.
Seriously, how could anyone get down this?
I had to know if that was indeed the route to get down to the beach, that pristine, isolated, beckoning strand of irresistible untrammeled sand. So I waited. I waited for the woman and her dog to see if they were coming up the cliff. I waited at least a half hour, watching them frolic and laugh and splash in the surf as I stared down at them with envy. Finally, they made their way out of the canyon and back up to the top of the bluff. As she neared the top I leaned over the cliff and called down to her, “Is this the same trail you took to get down there?”

She looked up at me, breathing heavily, and kept climbing. Her Weimaraner breezed up to the top and ran past me, wagging his tail and dripping with sea water. “Yes,” she finally replied.  She was blond and fit, wearing jeans and some kind of trail shoes. She appeared to be around my age—which is, um, 52 but who’s counting. In sizing her up in a she reminds me of me kind of way, my desire and determination only deepened. If she can do it, so can I. A little competiveness can serve as a good motivator. Especially when a Jack Russell terrier’s happiness is at stake.

I waited until she got to the top before accosting her with more questions. “Is this the only way down? Isn’t it dangerous? Would it be safe for my small dog?”

She caught her breath and answered. “The trail is fine,” she said. “But there are a few tricky spots where it might be hard for a small dog to jump.” Jump? Good God, what was down there that I couldn't see? How could the trail be even worse?

Then it was her turn to size me up. She looked down at my feet. “You wouldn’t want to go down in those shoes,” she said, referring to my Converse Chuck Taylor's. I lifted my shoe, noted its smooth sole, and nodded. “I got these specifically for this trail,” she continued, holding up her foot for a better look. Our eyes locked onto her shoes. Bright pink with neon yellow soles, their tread was a collection of little spikes that covered the entire bottom. They looked more like soccer cleats than trail running shoes. “I got them at REI,” she added. And then she kept walking, her camera dangling from one shoulder, her dog’s leash from the other, her water bottle in her hand.

I watched her and her happy dog walk across the grassy bluff. I don’t like talking about God and woo-woo stuff, but I could swear meeting this woman was a message sent from heaven, an angel of inspiration, and a reminder that I needed to do more than look longingly at that beach from above. I needed to tackle my fears and find my old self again.

My old self could—and would—tackle something as simple as hiking down a beach trail. Even one with a little exposure. But in my vulnerable state that “little exposure” might as well have been 3,000 feet and not 300. My old self was a strong and fearless athlete who could ride her bike up mountain passes and come screaming down the other side. My old self was the brave girl who competed as the only woman on a five-person team in the 10-day, 300-mile nonstop Eco-Challenge adventure race across the Utah wilderness. My old self was the restless soul who graduated early from high school to spend 3 months on a NOLS course building igloos, sleeping on rock ledges, climbing granite walls, and exploring underground caves. My old self was the determined young woman who traveled Kenya to work on a coffee farm at age 24. My old self would have scrambled down the side of that beach canyon, even in her Chuck Taylors.

I didn’t need shoes, I needed climbing rope and crampons. But screw it, “Whatever it takes” is my motto. I may not have been my old self but I had not lost my determination. And after everything Jack had been through, I cared more about his happiness than my fear. Steep and scary trail, be damned. I went home, changed out of my yoga clothes, grabbed a carrot muffin, and drove straight to REI.
These shoes are made for walking -- in the water.
I now know the price of courage. It is $130, which is to say $120, plus California sales tax. I bought the Brooks PureGrit trail running shoes in all their hot pink and neon yellow glory. I went back to the trail wearing my new shoes, comfortable as bedroom slippers, far lighter than any Air Nikes I had ever owned, ready to conquer my fears.

I left Jack at home for the first outing. First I called my mom to let her know where I was and that if she didn't hear back from me within an hour to send help. Then, taking a deep breath, I descended over the edge of the cliff and gingerly made my way down the cliff, keeping my knees loose, my stride short, and continued to focus on my breathing to stay calm.

Baby steps. You just take one baby step at a time and once you have strung all those baby steps together, guess what, you are at the bottom and sprinting toward the beach with tears of joy and relief springing from your eyes. And ready to do it again. With your dog.
If a song could be a caption it would be Pharrell William's "Happy."

Doesn't look so menacing from below, does it?
I brought Jack the second time, and third, and fourth, and now whenever the car gets near that cliff his mood picks up and he can’t wait to get out of the car and onto the trail. Once we are on the beach I throw the Frisbee for him, he digs huge holes in the sand, he sprints through the surf, and he barks his little heart out with happiness. While he is doing his thing I am doing mine. Instead of going to the dark and sad yoga studio I do my yoga poses in the sunny cove, while looking for breaching whales out on the water, meditating, and just being grateful in general that we can access this beauty and space right here just ten minutes from our little house.
If you are ever in need of motivation to get active and get past your fears, get a dog like Jack. Here he is, wet, sandy, and half way up the trail.
When I go up and down that steep trail now I see it a little differently. Yes, it is exposed and risky, not for the faint of heart or unfit, but it is no longer the terror-inducing, stomach-knotting obstacle it appeared as when I first viewed it. Now Jack and I scramble up and down it faster than that photographer woman and her Weimaraner. Moreover, now I see the trail as the path to my old self. I may be a little older, more cautious, and bruised by the disappointments and tragedies of life, but I am still that woman, brave and bold, determined and adventurous. I just needed the proper footwear to be reminded.

And they hiked happily ever after.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Some Inspiration for National Pie Day

Guideposts magazine asked me to write an essay for their website about National Pie Day.  I was somewhat reluctant to do it -- I had been feeling a little blue about life, a little lonely, and I was busy working on my next memoir (about my misadventures living in the American Gothic House.) But I said yes, and wouldn't you know, while writing the piece I was reminded me of how magical the power of making and sharing pie can be. Even without making pie, just thinking about it lifted my spirits! Enjoy the article. And make sure you click on the link at the end for my apple pie recipe.

Who will you be baking for? Please share your stories (along with your pie.)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Finding Forgiveness in the Face of a Christmas Tragedy

Death is not a fun or festive topic to bring up at the holidays, but death—and sometimes tragedy—does not elude us regardless of the season.

Two years ago I drove my RV to Newtown, Connecticut to make and deliver homemade pies to the grieving community after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty-six people in the school, most of them around the tender age of six, were killed by a lone—and lonely—mentally ill gunman.

The story rocked the nation—distressed by the senseless loss of innocence. It was so blatantly wrong. So deeply troubling. It was impossible for me to sit with the sadness, the outrage and the overwhelming compassion, so much so that I got up from my desk, loaded up my pie-making supplies in the RV, and headed 1,000 miles east from Iowa to Newtown. I spent a full week away—several days in Flanders, New Jersey, where my friend Janice had organized what ended up being 60 volunteers in her neighborhood, and then several days in Newtown, where we handed out apple pie to a community hungry for comfort and support. Our gesture was in the form of food, food made with heart containing the intangible ingredient of love. It felt good to help. To not just read about it and sit alone with feelings of frustration, but to get involved, to actually do something.

It’s exactly two years later and I just moved from Iowa to Redondo Beach, California, so I could be nearer to my parents. (It is also very nice to be nearer to the beach.) I just settled into an apartment about 15 minutes away from theirs.

On Wednesday night, December 17, I spent the evening with my parents at their place. (I never turn down my mom’s cooking so I’m eating there nearly every night.) I was driving home after dinner around 10PM and my route along Pacific Coast Highway was blocked off by police cars, their emergency lights flashing red and blue in the darkness. I followed the other cars around that section of the three-block detour, but managed to catch a glimpse of the police scene. It appeared to be a car accident. Three cars were wedged together, their metal hoods buckled, in the middle of the highway. A team was surrounding it, measuring and documenting. I noted the Channel 5 news truck parked to the side. I continued on to my place, turned on the lights in my living room, and called my mom to let her know I made it home safely (a courtesy ingrained from the time I got my drivers license.) “Turn on the news to Channel 5, mom,” I told her. “There was an accident on PCH and it must have been bad.”

She called back a few minutes later. It was worse than bad. A 56-year-old woman, apparently intoxicated, ran a red light, drove around some stopped cars, and mowed down 12 people in a crosswalk who were just leaving a Christmas concert at St. James Catholic Church. The woman kept driving and only stopped when she plowed head-on into another car. All 12, plus the drunk driver and the driver of the car she hit, were injured. Or dead.

My heart crumpled into what felt like a wad of wrapping paper as I heard the news. Those poor people. Families coming out of a church Christmas concert. The definition of innocence—and the instant loss of it. It felt like Newtown all over again. Only this time a car was the weapon. Two of the people killed were grandmothers. One was a 36-year-old mother. The next day that mother’s six-year-old boy died from his injuries. He never had a chance. The child had been pinned under the tires of one of the cars. Some of the others injured are still in the hospital, several in serious condition.

Mine wasn’t the only heart to break over this story. The tragedy made international news, news that I was following closely, refreshing my news app every hour to see if anything more was known, anything that would help make sense of this otherwise mind-bending senselessness. Just how drunk was this woman? Did she have a driving record? How could this have happened? More importantly, how does a community recover? And what could I do to help? Make pie?

I was back at my parents for dinner last night, a Sunday. The topic of the tragedy came up again, what the media is calling the “Christmas concert crash.” I hadn’t told my mom how deeply I was still feeling for these Redondo Beach residents and their loss, and how I was wondering why it was still bothering me so much. Was it because it was in my own new neighborhood? Or because I came upon the site just two hours after it happened? Were the departed souls still at the scene and I was feeling their presence? Was it the knowledge from my own tragic losses of my late husband 5 years ago and my daughter-like dog, Daisy, only 5 weeks ago?

I wish I didn’t know what grief feels like, but I do. Which is why when grief strikes others in that sudden and unexpected way, my compassion escalates, soars. I have to be mindful not to take on others’ pain as if it were my own.

My mom goes to church at St. James, where the tragedy happened. She had been to noon mass yesterday and gave us the recap over dinner last night. “Father Francis’s eyes were very red. He looked so tired,” she started off. “He must be under so much stress. His sermon was very good. He talked about what happened. There had been a thousand people at the Christmas concert that night.”

I put my fork down, swallowed my bite of ravioli, and told her, “I noticed on my way over here that the shrine of flowers is gone. I thought that was very strange that they would remove it.” I was referring to the sidewalk in front of the church where mourners had left bouquets of flowers and teddy bears and candles. Collections of mementos like these serve as a public sympathy card and the bigger the pile of flowers and bears—the more signatures squeezed onto the card, so to speak—the more people care. (Newtown had so many flowers and teddy bears they had to hire moving trucks and warehouse space.)

“No, it’s still there. They had to move it,” my mom said. “It got so big it was blocking the sidewalk and people were having to stand in the street. With all the traffic it was too dangerous. They moved all the flowers to the church steps so people would also have a place to sit. The priest talked about it. He told a story about a florist who delivered a professional flower arrangement someone had sent. She wasn’t sure where to leave it as she had never been asked to deliver flowers to a street before. She was really choked up by it and Father Francis had to console her. He was already consoling all his parishioners, and he was grieving himself, but he gave the florist a hug.” My mom smiled warmly as she retold the story.

“I keep thinking about the woman driver,” I said. “I can’t believe she pleaded not-guilty.” The arraignment had been on Friday. “Why couldn’t she have said ‘Yes, I caused this. I am so very, very sorry. I accept the consequences of my actions.’ Why couldn’t she just be honest?”

Why can’t people admit fault? Why was her lawyer telling her not to speak? Instead he spoke for her, shooting poison arrows at empty excuses like, ‘Her brakes might have failed’ and ‘Her prescription medication might have been off.” Why do we have a legal system that doesn’t allow for integrity? If she could have simply said, “I’m sorry,” wouldn’t that help everyone in the aftermath? Wouldn't that allow the families of the victims to move forward in their grieving process instead of being dragged down with legal battles? Wouldn’t the driver then be able to also move forward with her own life, a life that no matter how she pleads is forever changed. Whether in prison or free, she will carry the burden of ending four lives and altering the lives of countless others in that irreversible act, that one disastrous moment. At least one can hope she is cognizant enough to recognize how far-reaching and fatal the situation.

As if reading my ongoing thoughts, my mom continued, “Father Francis also preached about forgiveness. He even mentioned the driver by name: Margo.”

Forgiveness. Yes. Bad things happen. This Christmas carol crash happened. Sandy Hook happened. Marcus’s ill-formed heart causing a ruptured aorta happened. Daisy’s coyote attack happened. But the priest is right. The only path to compassion, the only real way to heal, is to forgive. And to accept that death, no matter how untimely or how tragic, will always, always, always be a part of life.

I’m going to drive over to St. James Church this afternoon (before I go over to my parents for dinner.) I’m bringing flowers and candles. My offerings may be less impactful or nourishing than the 250 apple pies we delivered to Newtown, but nothing could be greater or more well meaning than the prayer of love and forgiveness in my heart.

NOTE: St. James Church has set up a victims fund for the families. Click here to help:

Friday, November 28, 2014

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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

American Gothic House: It Was a Magical Four Years

(Scroll down for pictures of the interior of the house.)

After four magical years, I have moved out of the American Gothic House. When asked why, the easiest answer to give is that one can only live in a tourist attraction for so long. My friends and Facebook fans (follow me here) have responded that they can't believe I lasted as long as I did. Me either! When I rented the house I had asked for a three-month lease. The landlord said, no, one year or nothing. When I found out the rent was just $250 a month, the same amount I was paying for my storage unit in Portland, Oregon, I figured if I didn't like living there I could just use it as a place to store my stuff. But I did like it.

At first I saw the house as a quiet place to write -- and to continue my grieving process (over the loss of my husband, Marcus) in solitude. But I can only do quiet in small doses. No sooner did I move in I started making pies, and then opened the Pitchfork Pie Stand, which much to my surprise became wildly successful, and soon tourists were lining up in my living room to buy my butter-filled baked goods.

I did accomplish my original idea of using the house as a place to write. In fact, I wrote two books -- MAKING PIECE, my memoir about how pie helped heal my grief, and MS. AMERICAN PIE, a pie cookbook with essays about the myriad ways pie can make the world a better place. Both reached bestseller status on various lists.

People ask me if the American Gothic House is haunted. I always say if there are ghosts, they are friendly ones, muses who encourage creativity.

Living in a tourist attraction, you would think dealing with all those tourists would be annoying. The tourists were never annoying. They arrived excited, curious, often giddy. I could hear them laugh as they tried to strike the Grant Wood masterpiece painting pose, depicting the dour father-daughter duo holding the pitchfork. The tourists provided entertainment for me when I needed, and a connection to the outside world when I was craving one.

It was snakes, and not overly curious visitors pressing their face up to the glass for a peek inside, that rattled me most. There was the six-foot bull snake in my bathroom (whose fate I know) and the other six-foot snake in my laundry room (who slithered up into the heating ducts and whose whereabouts remain a mystery), and a sundry of other, smaller ones. There were mice on occasion (you can read THIS story about my crisis dealing with them.) There were infestations of Japanese beetles, disguised as innocent lady bugs until you felt them bite. Later came the swarms of box elder bugs. Thunderstorms were always scary, especially when sleeping so close to the roof, and the tornado warnings were terrifying, but luckily the house has a finished concrete basement for shelter. It seems nature was always trying to move in!

Country living was challenging enough. But living in the limelight became especially wearing. I could feel myself getting tired, keeping my curtains closed more often, and getting irritated more easily than usual by things like the noise of lawn mowers, the peering eyes of my nosy neighbors, and the visits from the sheriff announcing yet another complaint about my two little terriers being "at large." A friend told me a while ago, "Sometimes new stories require new houses." I pondered that idea -- and fought it -- for the past year until I finally realized I am ready -- moreover, I need -- a new story.

My four years in the American Gothic House could read like a novel. But who needs to write fiction when real life is infinity more interesting?! Instead, I'm spending this fall writing another memoir about my zany misadventures there. I'm staying in Iowa for now, on a friend's 1,200-acre farm -- that's 1,200 acres of pure privacy!

In the meantime, here is a look inside the house (pictures in no particular order). It's empty now. But a place as special as this will find someone new to look after it, and in turn there will be more stories to tell.
This was probably the dining room of the house back in the day. But fast-forward to the
21st century, it's wired for telephone, Internet and cable TV.  I used this room as my office,for pie classes, and as the pie stand grew I used it for pie production as well. 

These are the windows on the front side of the house, as seen from inside. It is outside
these windows where tourists pose day after day. Tourists of all ages, races, nationalities, etc. What fun to watch all the activity, the happiness, the smiling faces, the costumes, people posing with their cars, motorcycles, horses, sheep, goats, llamas, rock bands, you name it! It was never boring!

The living room sits empty now, but this was the site of the Pitchfork Pie Stand.
I made sure the pie crumbs were cleaned out from between the floorboards before I left.

This is the front door. I would let my dogs out every morning and  they would chase
the squirrels out of the yard. Over the past four years, a lot of good friends, family, pie customers and pie students came through that door. But think of all the people who have entered through this door since the house was built in 1882!

The view from the "other side" of the world famous Gothic window. Tourists never knew when I was behind it, hiding out, reading books in my bed. What a nice place to hide, it was!

The ceilings upstairs are so low I had to have my king-size mattress on the floor!
Friends called it "glorified camping." I called it "just right.

Forget having a walk-in closet. Just be glad you have ONE closet at all! This is one of the
reasons I pared down my wardrobe to just overalls and jeans. I did keep my Armani suit and a few gowns though. Just in case.

The Gothic window on the back side of the house swings down and sideways.
It's how the furniture is moved in and out of the upstairs
because the staircase is too narrow.

The upstairs is so sweet. Though as you can see, not for tall people.

Heading upstairs to bed, you're greeted by a second Gothic window.  But watch your head! The stairway is steep and the ceilings are low.

Thank you to GE Appliances for donating the fancy fridge and stove. I put both to
very good (and hard) use! That oven baked all my pies for the pie stand.
I hope it will see more pies in its future.

It's a small but mighty kitchen. I painted the cupboards red, which I LOVED.
And check out that gorgeous sink and faucet, donated by Kohler. What a
fantastic improvement this was to the house. Thank you again, Kohler!

Keep that kitchen curtain pulled or you will have curious tourists peering inside!

The world's smallest bathtub. But by god, I used it! Better than nothing.
It required doing yoga poses to get your torso wet.

The view from the loo. Keep the curtain open at your own risk.
You never know when a tourist might walk by!

This doorway saw a LOT of traffic during my stay.
We shuttled hundreds of pies from the kitchen to the living room for the pie stand.
The wall on the right is where I had my kitchen table, where I made pies, drank
wine with friends (and martinis with my dad), and wrote BOTH of my books.

The American Gothic House from the back side. It's just as cute.
And most people don't know it has a matching Gothic window on the back.

I would leave the lights on when walking my dogs at night.
That way, I could look back and admire the beauty of my little cottage.

I heard so many people say, "These stairs remind me of my grandma's house."
Beware, they're charming but dangerous to navigate when you're sleepy.
And NEVER wear socks or you will slip!

A bittersweet sign. The pie stand was SO MUCH WORK, but I met
so many amazing and nice people because of it. I kept the sign as a souvenir.

Well, what it says is true! The neighbors -- AKA: The Binoculars -- keep a very close eye on the activities at the AG House. They are the quintessential Kravitz characters from the old TV show "Bewitched." I didn't actually leave the sign behind, but the picture of it alone makes the point.

This was a "gift" from my friend/coworker LeAnn. I never did use it but I made
sure to leave it for the house's next occupant. It's the least I could do! For more about my
snake adventures, read my blog post, "Wayward Reptiles in the American Gothic House." It's a good one. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

An Ode to My Four Years in Iowa (AViD Speech, 12 August 2014)

Four years ago almost to the day I arrived in Des Moines Iowa for the first time in 30 years.

I was born and raised in Iowa. I was born in Ottumwa and lived there until I was 12. Then we moved to Davenport where I graduated early from high school at 17 and announced that I was never coming back.

I went to college in Olympia, Washington, and went on to have a zillion different careers — coffee entrepreneur, public relations, journalism writing for magazines, web producer. My jobs took me all over the world but never back to Iowa.

Four years ago — August 2010 — was the one year anniversary of my husband Marcus’s sudden and unexpected death. He died of a ruptured aorta. He was 43. I gave myself one year to grieve. I was living in Portland Oregon. When that year was up I decided I needed to be somewhere else, somewhere grounding and nurturing on the one-year anniversary of his death. There was only one place I wanted to be. And that was Iowa. I had childhood memories of summer — the smell of freshly cut grass, the sight of puffy white clouds against an expansive blue sky, and the feel of how the humidity warms the bones. Oregon summers were too cold and rainy for me.

I would go to Iowa, I had determined, but what would I do?  Well, the one-year anniversary of my husband’s death happened to coincide with the Iowa State fair. And the Iowa State fair is synonymous with pie. I don’t know about the pie competition specifically, but the food competition at the Iowa State fair is the biggest of all state fairs. I volunteered to be a pie judge.

I had long been involved in pie and it featured prominently in my life. I always tell the story that I was born because of pie. How when my mom and dad were dating in Milwaukee Wisconsin my mom knew that my dad's favorite pie with banana cream. So she invited him over for dinner one night. Though in Iowa it's not called dinner, it's called supper. I learned that the hard way. Anyway, my mom invited my dad over for supper and she made him tuna casserole, Jell-O salad, and a homemade banana cream pie. That pie prompted him to propose to her. My parents are here tonight by the way. They are still married. And my mom still makes my dad banana cream pie. And that tells you something that the power of pie.

I didn’t learn to make pie from my mom. I learned when I was 17 and on a bicycle trip down the West coast.  My biking friend and I came upon what appeared to be an abandoned orchard somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula and stopped to help ourselves to a free snack. An old man stormed out of the house and after he got done yelling at us realized we were just nice kids from Iowa. Turns out he was a retired pastry chef from the Merchant Marines. He invited us into his house and taught us how to make apple pie.

I made many pies after that — not all of them good. My crust was practically inedible it was so hard. I was guilty of overworking the dough. But I still managed to impress prospective husbands.

I had a dot com job in 1999 and 2000, where I worked 16-hour days in front of a computer. It was this job that inadvertently turned me into a full-time pie baker. I got up the courage to quit my six-figure job and told my bosses I wanted to go do something with my hands, that I wanted to engage my senses, that I wanted to make pie. And that’s what I did. I moved from San Francisco back to Los Angeles and got a job at a gourmet take out called Mary's Kitchen.

I had heard about Mary’s, located in Malibu. It was new and it was supposed to have great pie.  I went there to check it out and they didn’t have any pie. I asked why and they said “We’re too busy to make any.”  So I said — I blurted out — “I’ll make it for you.”  And they asked, “Well, what are your qualifications.” And I said, “I’m from Iowa.” And I got hired. I worked there for a year and learned to make all kinds of pies. But apparently I still hadn’t gotten the knack of the seduction pie because for all the pies I made for Robert Downey Jr.  he still didn’t ask me out on a date.  Could have been because he was in rehab at the time.

It was during my pie baking job in Malibu when I met Marcus. I made him a pie — a pie that prompted him to propose me to — it was apple — and we got married. We lived in Germany, Portland, Mexico, and then he died. We were married six years.

So after that year of grieving, after taking the road trip from Portland to Iowa,  after the state fair that August of 2010 — after judging something like 17 different categories of pie and eating hundreds of bites of pie — and sorry to say, not all of it was good pie —I drove 90 miles southeast of Des Moines down to my birthplace of Ottumwa. I figured I wasn’t going to be back in Iowa again anytime soon — if ever — so I should go see all my old childhood haunts.

I drove all over Ottumwa, emailing pictures from my phone to my family as I navigated the town. And then I got back on the highway — the FOUR LANE as they so proudly call it— and was on my way to Davenport to see our other family homes, as well as my high school, the one I got kicked out of — and then I saw a road sign.  It said “AMERICAN GOTHIC HOUSE, 6 MILES.”  I had no idea the house was there — just 15 miles from my birthplace. Of course I had heard of it. And I knew the famous painting of the couple with the pitchfork — I even knew the painting was by Norman Rockwell.

[I had to pause here for the uproarious laughter.]

And, yes, I know -- now -- that the painting is by Grant Wood.

I pulled into the visitor center parking lot and it was love at first sight. The little white house was recognizable in an instant. It looked exactly like in the painting, with the famous Gothic window. It looked really small. Like a doll house. Built on a movie set. I loved not just the house but all the open land surrounding it, a green park-like setting. I went into the museum and learned that the house was a rental — and  looking at the museum timeline saw that the last tenant had been there two years previously. I started asking questions. I got the phone number for the landlord — the house is owned by the State Historical Society of Iowa — and two weeks later I moved in.

I thought I would live in the house for maybe three months. But that detour, that fork on the road, has lasted four years.

I spent the first few months — after scrubbing the house to the bone — it hadn’t been lived in in over two years and the spiders and mice had moved in — making pie. I opened the Pitchfork Pie Stand as a fluke, a little side job to keep me busy and help me engage not only with the tourists but the community. I never expected to stay for the winter — I thought I would visit my parents in Southern California — but I survived the subzero temps and the deep snow. Even without winter tires on my Mini Cooper. Of course I learned my lesson and have a set of winter tires now.  Mainly, I spent the first winter writing my memoir, "Making Piece." I sat at my kitchen table wearing my fleece pants and Ugg boots, drinking lattes, and writing writing writing. I am always amazed that I possess such discipline. It’s true what they say, if you want to write a book, you have to be able to keep your butt in the chair.

I continued running the Pitchfork Pie Stand, but only in the summers. I did it for the next four summers, including the first half of this one. And it grew and grew and grew — until it outgrew my tiny little kitchen in my tiny little house.

It grew past my ability to haul 50-pound bags of flour and sugar, and hundreds of pounds of apples, peaches, strawberries, and the like.

It grew beyond the capacity of table space. I sacrificed both my living room and my office for the pie stand. We pushed furniture against the walls to make space for the folding tables where we could roll dough and assemble pies.

I moved my oven to the back porch to make more space in the kitchen, and to keep the house from getting too hot from all that oven heat.

The pie stand grew too big for the customers, who lined up out the door and all the way down the sidewalk.

And it grew beyond my ability to be NICE. I was so exhausted and stressed trying to get all those pies made — over a hundred pies, weekend after weekend — that I finally decided I just couldn’t do it anymore.

A lot of people have been disappointed about this. My buttery good pie had turned the American Gothic House into a popular destination for pie lovers. Too popular.  But fear not, I say! I wrote a second book — this time a cookbook, called "Ms. American Pie" — and in it are all the recipes from my pie stand and more. So you can make your own.  Or as I have been known to say, “Make your own damn pie.” I even had t-shirts made that say this. Much to my mother’s disapproval.

In fact there are recipes in the book from the Iowa State Fair — from bakers whose pies I had tasted when I was a pie judge four years ago.  Pies by blue ribbon winners like Kathleen Beebout and Lana Ross. There is even a whole chapter called “Pies to Compete in the Iowa State Fair.” Bringing life around full circle, we are sponsoring a pie contest tomorrow at the state fair — it’s at 2PM in the Elwell Family Food Center — and contestants have to make a pie from the state fair chapter of my cookbook.

But in the cookbook there are also other chapters — like 100 Reasons not to open a Pie Stand (just kidding), Pies to Seduce — starring my mom’s banana cream pie recipe — and Pies to Heal.

I got an email last night from a Facebook follower who asked me “What kind of pie should I make to honor Robin Williams? I am feeling so sad.” I didn’t really know what to say — even though I wrote an entire memoir about this subject and several essays in my cookbook. I finally told her apple. I like making apple pie because having to peel and slice the apples slows me down and I find the process meditative and soothing. I told her that when Nora Ephron died I was sad about the world losing such a great talent. So I made an apple pie and cut out extra dough to add her initials on top. Making that pie did provide solace and it did make me feel like I was honoring her and I highly recommend doing this and then sharing it with someone. Because there’s not just comfort in pie, but comfort in community.

It doesn’t matter what kind of pie you make — and whether that pie is to heal or comfort or say thank you or seduce or to compete in a state fair. The point is that there is value in making your own pie, in taking the time to create something from scratch, using your own hands, putting your heart and soul into your work, sending loving thoughts into that pie for the person you’re making it for.

In a few days it will be the five-year anniversary of my husband’s death. I am still here in Iowa. I am still appreciating the smell of the freshly cut grass and the huge blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds.  I am still soothed by how the humidity warms my bones.

I am not grieving the way I was when I arrived back here four years ago. I have come a very long way in my journey. I spent more nights than I care to think about bawling my eyes out in my bed — my bed that sits directly behind the lace curtain that covers that famous Gothic window. But the peace and quiet that house offered me for writing — and the appreciative pie-loving visitors it offered me during my pie stand seasons — have been an ideal combination to help me get my balance back. My heart will never be completely healed but I’ve learned a hugely important lesson — that giving of yourself to make others feel better in turn makes you feel better. And when pie is part of that giving, well, it’s guaranteed to make everyone feel especially good.