Friday, April 29, 2016

Time Capsule: A Letter to the Future Owners of Camp Doug

Dear Future Owners of Camp Doug,
If you are reading this it means you are either remodeling the kitchen (and thus gutting it to the studs) or you are tearing down the house (or a tornado finally took it out) and you found this letter in the pile of rubble. Either way, a warm hello from the year 2016.


The red-roofed four-square house in autumn.
This house, which we fondly call "Camp Doug," was built around 1900. It is (or was) what they call a Four Square, a common farmhouse design back then. Practical, functional, simple, solid, and a little plain, the architecture personified Midwest values. The house’s white siding with the red roof was also the common color combo in the region. A front porch, however, was not a standard feature on these houses, and the three-sided porch on this one was added much later.

We don’t know who built the house. It is said a log cabin sat on the site first. A rock foundation remains from some other original structure and there is another foundation built around that. Here’s what we do know: Milton and Ardis Sander lived in it for about 50 years, until 1970. They raised their kids here, including a son who moved to the West coast and became a big executive at Apple computers. (Do they still make MacBook laptops and iPads and iPhones in whatever year it is when you are reading this?) When the house was built it did not have a kitchen or a bathroom. I don't think it had indoor plumbing at all. The section of the house where you found this “time capsule” was built later, a one-story, flat-roofed rectangle addition that included a small bathroom and a kitchen in an uncommon reverse L-shape layout. Before getting a real kitchen the cooking was done on a wood-fired stove in the dining room; evidence of the chimney and stovepipe connection is still visible. We don’t know what the first kitchen looked like, but Milton and Ardis remodeled it in what appears to have been the 1950s. They painted the walls mint green, the color of young caterpillars. They chose a tortoise-shell-pattern of green and yellow linoleum for their floor. Not the most appetizing of hues for a room that is meant for cooking. Fortunately trends and tastes and flooring choices evolve—even improve—with the years.

The kitchen right before its demolition
Our "retro" kitchen, prepared for take down.

Milton and Ardis eventually grew too old to maintain the farmhouse so they moved into town, then into a nursing home until they eventually moved on to the next life. They kept the farmhouse, renting it out for several years, but as soon as young Doug Seyb graduated from college in 1977, he bought the house and moved in. Doug grew up next door (the definition of next door being a quarter mile down the gravel road), where his grandfather, then father, and then Doug and his brother, and then his nephew, all farmed the land. When I met Doug, the Seybs had owned and farmed these 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans and cattle for over 100 years, thus being granted Century Farm status. Maybe, as you read this, it is still owned by Seyb descendants. I wonder if there could be a Two Century Farm status designated in the future.

Doug sitting among the shooting stars.
April 2016.
Because he grew up next door, Doug knew Milton and Ardis very well. It was Ardis who planted the shooting star wildflowers on the hillside located just a short walk across the pasture, and it was Ardis who introduced Doug to the appreciation of these delicate-yet-hardy perennials, their leaves appearing first, then a stem shooting toward the sky, and finally a whole meadow lit up with light pink petals. When Doug moved in, he continued to protect the flowers and their habitat, and always took his guests on springtime wildflower walks to see the shooting stars in bloom.

By the time you discover this letter, Doug and I will have passed on. Doug wants to be cremated and have his ashes spread on this “Shooting Star Hill,” as he calls it. So if you follow the fencerow to the north and turn west at the row of cedar trees (farmers don’t say right or left, they give you compass points), you will eventually come to that wildflower patch. Surely those shooting stars will no longer be so delicate with Doug’s DNA thrown into the soil mix. He was a fit and lean man, a rock climber, kayaker and marathon runner. With all that muscle transferred into the ground as fertilizer, those flowers might be as strong and tall as the trees by now.

When I met Doug he had already lived in the house for 40 years. I don’t think I ever knew anyone else who lived in one place that long. He had lived here at least 20 years before updating the kitchen. He put on a new roof over it (one can only resurface with tar paper so many times.) He raised and angled the roofline as high as the second-floor windows would allow. He then painted the kitchen walls white, the cabinets bright yellow, the door trim burgundy and created a chili pepper theme. Even the light switch was painted with peppers. Alas, Ardis’s tortoise shell linoleum floor remained.

This is what a pork tenderloin
looks like. Pounded & fried and
as big as dinner plate.
When I met him, in 2014, nothing, including the decorative chili pepper cluster hanging next to the door, looked like it had been dusted for a year. Doug was a bachelor. He was a redheaded, freckled farmer and outdoor adventurer whose attention was devoted to all things exterior. The inside was only for showering, sleeping, making toast, and laundering his Carhartts. Even dinners were outdoors, as he grilled meat (beef or pork from his own livestock or venison from his annual hunt on the farm) on his charcoal grill. Unless it was the height of harvest when he drove his tractor until after dark, and the late night meant ordering pizza from the local gas station or wolfing down a pork tenderloin at the local tavern.

This kitchen got a much-needed renovation in April of 2016, which is why we were able to place this letter in the wall.

The current state of the kitchen as
I write this letter to you, when there is still
time to place the time capsule in the wall.
I moved in with Doug last September (2015) and discussions of home improvements soon followed. I always joked to him that the impetus for this kitchen renovation was his beer bottle collection. A numerous but not exactly impressive assortment had been prominently displayed on a shelf close to the ceiling. This shelf was meant to be a plate rail. You’ve probably never seen one as even now in 2016 they are considered old-fashioned, but a plate rail is for displaying decorative dinner plates. Instead of just dusting his bottles, he let me get rid of them. That’s how much he loved me and wanted me to feel like his home was my home too. But it didn’t stop there. Poor old bachelor, he didn’t know what he was in for when he let me move in. No sooner were the beer bottles deposited in the recycling bin, I took the skis off the opposite wall. Yes, skis. He had his cross-country ski gear, including the boots, adorning the door transom, right above the table where we ate. And then there was the triangular beer box. Sure it was clever in its shape, but that box was better suited for a dorm room.

Still, the house—the way he had it set up, dust and all—was charming, warm and inviting. You could feel the good energy, the solid bones, the happy spirits permeating the layers of wallpaper and plaster.

Our kitchen table has a temporary home in the dining room during construction.
As we began our life together, we started having dinner parties. And house guests. And soon the round oak kitchen table didn’t feel big enough. No matter how beautiful or inviting the other rooms in the house may be, everyone loves to gather in the kitchen. It’s the heartbeat of a home, where nourishment of both stomach and spirit originates.

This is me in my old house, where I
could open my oven all the way.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have a bench seat?” I said over wine and candles one night. “We could fit more people around the table.” Doug agreed so I threw out my next line. “And you know what would be really great? To be able to open the oven door all the way.” I don’t know who was responsible for the earlier construction—surely Ardis couldn’t have lived with an oven door that opened only half way, blocked by the door frame—but this was the one thing I was really hoping to change. I was a pie maker (not a pastry chef, but you could say a semi-professional one given I had run a pie stand and written a pie cookbook.) But I couldn’t get my pies in and out of Doug’s oven without burning my arms. “It’s so much easier to be happy when you eliminate life’s little irritations,” I prodded him.

Doug's key lime pie
Doug had learned how to make pie too—I taught him a year earlier—and he made plenty of them (Key Lime Pie was his specialty), so he understood the issue. So when we talked about what started us on the renovation project and I say “beer bottles,” he says “No, it started with pie.” He’s right. That’s why I’m leaving you a pie recipe in this letter. Because assuming you are renovating this kitchen and not tearing down the whole place, my hope is that you will keep our memory alive and bake lots of pies here.

I wonder what your lives will be like in this kitchen—in your new kitchen. Will you find this note twenty years from now or 50? Or more? Will you be able to read my cursive handwriting? Do they still teach that in schools or has it been relegated to history like hieroglyphics? What will your world be like? Will there still be fighting in the Middle East? Will terrorist attacks have become an everyday thing? Will everyone be armed? With nuclear weapons? Will there still be 4-H and county fairs? How will farming be done? Will tractors be high-speed hovercrafts? Will GMOs and fertilizers and pesticides have caused genes to mutate beyond repair? Will water still be drinkable? Surely there won’t be newspapers in print, but will there still be Facebook and Twitter? Or will you laugh at what we call social media and call it obsolete? Maybe you won’t even have internet, rather something more advanced, something solar powered, maybe telepathically connected with other planets. Whatever it is will surely be an improvement over the painfully slow information pipeline we have today. (One thing I guarantee, Windstream Communications will have ceased to exist. God willing.) The way the world is going we aren’t doing the best job for you and for future generations. I wish we could do better, be more mindful of those who will follow us when we are gone. Still, we manage. In spite of ourselves, our oddities and our imperfections at being human, we are doing our part to keep the species going.

It was a bittersweet day when we said goodbye to the old cabinets.
As I write you this letter we have only just started our renovation—the cabinets carved out, the walls peeled away, the beams exposed. Hopefully we will be lucky enough to enjoy many years in our new and improved kitchen. I say “our” kitchen, because even though we are not married and don’t plan to get married (Doug is 61 and I’m 53), renovating the kitchen has become symbolic of our commitment to each other. We picked out the quarter sawn oak Mission-style cabinets because their wood is a little rough, and will fit well with Doug’s collection of Arts and Crafts antique furniture in the rest of the house. I wonder if there are any pieces of it left behind for you to use. We are building extra counter space into our new design to make it easier to roll pie dough. We are building in the bench seats below the east window to be comfortable when we linger long hours at the dinner table. And since we had to move the stereo, on which Doug’s cat Maybellene liked to sleep to keep warm, we are still trying to configure a heated perch for her out of my dog’s reach. (My terrier, Jack, likes to chase the cat, while Doug’s dog, Mali, a springer spaniel/beagle mix is better at coexisting.)

Maybellene in her favorite sleeping place.
We still need to find a new warm spot for her.
We finally tore up the tortoise shell flooring—someone had suggested they didn’t even want to walk on it because it looked like something that should be wiped up! But we did save a few sections of it. We took our carpenter’s joke seriously when he suggested using it to make picture frames. We’re going to frame some old house photos with this green and yellow stuff (even though it’s probably toxic) and send them to Milton and Ardis’s grandkids. Their nostalgia was ignited when they learned we were renovating. They remember visiting their grandparents in this house and have fond memories of this kitchen. They should have a piece of it as a keepsake.

Doug and I don’t have grandkids to become nostalgic over our kitchen when you gut it. It is your kitchen now. You have to make room for your own houseguests, your own meals and memories, your own choice of flooring. But you have to admit, our neutral-toned, linen-pattern flooring is (or was) very tasteful. I hope it doesn’t look too dated, too “period,” by the time you decide to rip it out. It will have served us well, worn down from the traffic and mud of farm boots and dog paws. I will have spent many days, hopefully years, scrubbing it, cleaning up everything from coffee to ketchup to the colostrum replacement Doug mixes up to bottle feed baby calves, and surely plenty of pie crumbs.

Beth and Doug at Camp Doug
I just hope you love this house as much as we did. And that you love and honor this land—as well as each other, your friends, your families, your neighbors—as much as we did. And that you try your best to leave not just this kitchen, but this world, a better place, like we did.

Now, please, go make some pie!

With love and gratitude,
Beth and Doug

One of the many apple pies made in our old kitchen.
We look forward to baking many more
in the new and improved kitchen!
APPLE PIE RECIPE

CRUST (Basic Pie Dough for double-crust pie) 
2-1/2 cups flour (white all-purpose)  (Plus extra flour for rolling dough)                                      
1/2 cup butter, chilled
1/2 cup vegetable shortening  (or skip this and use all butter)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Ice water (fill one cup but use only enough to moisten dough)

In a deep bowl, work the butter and shortening into the flour with your hands until you have a lumpy consistency (you want to leave mixed nut-size chunks of butter which will give you a flaky crust.) Add ice water a little at a time, sort of “fluffing” the flour. Keep your movements light, as if you are tossing dressing into a salad with your hands. When the dough feels moistened enough, do a “squeeze test” and when it holds together you’re done. Do not overwork the dough! You are not kneading it like bread. It takes very little time and you’ll be tempted to keep touching it, but don’t! Now divide the dough in two, form each half into a disk shape and roll flat and thin (thin enough to where you could start to see the table through the dough) then fit your pie dish. Sprinkle flour under and on top of your dough, and keep rolling surface and pin free from gunk to keep dough from sticking. Trim excess dough to about 1 inch from the dish edge with a scissors, leaving enough extra hanging over the edge for crimping later.

FILLING
7 to 10 large Granny Smith apples, peeled (see tip below) 
1/2 tsp salt (you’ll sprinkle this on so don’t worry about precise amount)
1 to 2 tsp cinnamon (use however much you like, but remember it’s a powerful spice)
3/4 cup sugar (more or less, depending on your taste, tartness of apples, and number of apples)
4 tbsp flour (to thicken the filling)

1 tbsp butter, to pat on top of filling
1 beaten egg, to brush on top crust

The pie is “assembled” in two layers, which is not only a nice shortcut, it saves you from having to wash an extra bowl! 

1. Prepare the Basic Pie Dough for a double-crust pie. 
2. Prepare the Filling: Slice half of the peeled apples directly into the pie, arranging and pressing down gently to remove extra space between slices. Fill the dish enough so you don’t see through the first layer to the bottom crust. 
3. Cover with half of salt, cinnamon, sugar, and flour. 
4. Slice the remaining apples into the pie, arranging and pressing down gently on top of first layer, and cover with second half of ingredients. 
5. Add a pat of butter on top, then cover with the top crust. 
6. Trim the edges with a scissors, leaving about 1 to 2 inches overhang, and then roll the top and bottom crust together underhand so that it’s sealed and sits on the rim of your pie plate. 
7. Crimp the edge with your fingers or a fork, then brush with a beaten egg. (The egg gives the pie a nice golden-brown shine. Do be careful not to let egg pool in crevices. You will use about half an egg per pie.) 
8. Use a knife to poke vent holes in the top (get creative here with a pattern), then bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes to set and brown the crust.
9. Turn oven down to 375 degrees and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, until juice bubbles. Keep an eye on it as it bakes. If it gets too dark, turn down the temperature. 
10. To be sure it’s done, poke with a knife through the vent holes to make sure apples have softened. Do not overbake or apples will turn mushy.

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE…AND PIE: It’s okay to use a variety of apples. Try Braeburn and Royal Gala. I don’t use Fuji (they are too juicy) or Red Delicious (they have no taste). Tart apples work best for pie. The number of apples you use will depend on the size of apple and the size of pie dish, but the general amount is about 3 pounds per 10-inch pie.

BETH’S TIP: Slicing your apples too thick will mean your pie takes longer to bake. But slicing them too thin will translate in filling that’s like applesauce. I don’t like to suggest numbers, but think 1/4 inch thick. Also, keeping your slices a consistent size will help the pie bake more evenly.

KEEP CALM!
Don’t worry about your apples turning brown. I mean, think about it: what color is cinnamon? Exactly! No one will ever know.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Is World Peace Possible?

This past summer I left my home in Donnellson, Iowa and traveled all the way around the world, baking American pie in 10 countries as a way to promote cultural tolerance. I returned with the intention of writing a book about my experience. I already had the title: World Piece, spelled p-i-e-c-e.  But it is hard to write about world peace when you’ve lost your faith in it.

My trip went well enough. I toured apple orchards in New Zealand. I did a pie demo for the Women’s International Club in Sydney. I baked 75 pies for the American Embassy’s 4th of July reception in Thailand. I learned how to make pie-like pastries in India. I delivered a dozen pies to a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. I picked wild blueberries in the Black Forest to make pie with 10-year-olds, and then with a gay couple in Budapest’s bombed out Jewish quarter. I interacted with people all around the globe, weaving my way through a lattice crust of nationalities, religions and races. I made 211 pies and almost as many new friends. I returned safely.

Baking pie in the Black Forest.
We all wore our hair in braids.
But since I’ve been back, I’ve been listening to a lot of news. Bad news from the places where I had just been. A bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, the exact spot where I had made my pies. A growing garbage crisis in Lebanon. The Syrian refugee crisis worsening. Trains halted from Hungary to reject the migrants. Terrorist attacks in Paris, and then Brussels. Instead of spreading world peace, it was as if I had left only violence in my wake. Add to that the vitriol of the presidential campaign with threats to build walls and ban certain religions from entering the U.S., to divide instead of unite people, and any remaining optimism I had for healing the world evaporated.


Lugging that rolling pin for 30,000 miles was all for nothing. Or was it?

In the Bekaa Valley Refugee Camp.
These Syrian kids are the happy
recipients of homemade pie.
In my state of disillusionment, I reached out to my Facebook friends, the ones who had cheered me on during my 3-month journey. I asked them, “Do you believe world peace is possible? How do you define peace and what examples do you see of it? What do you do to try to make the world a better place?”

The responses were plentiful and thoughtful.

Limit exposure to news. Meditate or pray. Spread joy. Practice kindness and tolerance. Teach children to be good citizens. Invest in the education of the next generation. Focus on the good. Live with a soft heart. Dig deeper for awareness and understanding of yourself. Choose to think positively. Help others. Talk to your neighbors. Share a smile. Cooperate with those you don’t agree with. Believe in the ripple effect. (Like pay the bridge toll for the car behind you and see it continue for hours.)

One woman in Des Moines said, “Each Sunday at the end of our service we sing words of John Wesley: Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” She believes an individual's inner peace created by these words will lead to collective world peace.

A bike shop owner in Ottumwa said, “Peace is yin and yang because energy is in constant flow. There is goodness and there is anger. Anger has its place, because oftentimes it is what pushes a change for more goodness.”

Some of the comments included links to videos—of the Dalai Lama, a CNN story on the peaceful kingdom of Bhutan, a TED talk. There were also links to organizations, a Dutch one called World Peace is Possible, whose website states, “There was peace for 1 percent of the 3,500 years of civilization, so we know it’s possible.” There is the “I Declare World Peace” hashtag movement on Twitter. There’s “A Peace of my Mind” —p-e-a-c-e— book of photography and interviews. And in LA, there is a man whose Global Vision for Peace non-profit is organizing a LiveAid-type concert to be held on September 21, the annual date the United Nations has established as International Day of Peace.

Humans share 99.9 percent of the same genetic makeup. So why can’t we get along? Why is there not 99.9 percent peace in the world? We may try to be good and do good, hardwired for survival, but we are tribal. We are opinionated, power hungry, fearful and hotheaded, with some more prone than others to strap on an explosive vest and detonate it in the middle of a crowd. Still, I want to believe mankind is basically good. I want to have hope.

One commenter suggested that wanting global piece is too daunting. “You should scale it back,” he said, “and just think about your own world, your own piece of the pie. Each piece put together in harmony can add up to the whole.”

These beauties (Margaret, left, age 94 and
Rosalie, right, age 92) know a thing or two
about life. Sharing stories pie with them
 over pie is the definition of peace.
With this in mind, I’ve reimagined my own view of world peace. It is sleeping soundly under my down comforter, next to the man I love, in a country we are blessed to live in. It is doing yoga as the sun rises over the barn. It is walking through the hay field over to the creek to look for wildflowers. It is watching the baby calves nurse on their mothers. It is dropping by my old neighbor’s house after his heart surgery and seeing his face light up at my arrival. It is listening to the stories of two 90-something-year-old sisters in my town, made even sweeter over pie. And it is about community, people connecting with each other, even if just on Facebook, who lend each other a helping hand, restoring their faith in humanity and, in my case, to push them past their writer’s block.

That last commenter was right. It is not about world peace as a whole. It’s about having one little slice of it. And that I have found. Right where I started. On a farm in Iowa.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

World Piece: The Homecoming...But Where is Home?

Goodbye, Frankfurt!
My very last stop on my World Piece itinerary was Frankfurt, Germany. This was where my flight would take off for Los Angeles.

LA was the place where I started, the place where three months earlier I said a tearful goodbye to my parents as they waved to me from the other side of the airport security checkpoint. I sobbed for a solid hour—all through the TSA scan, through removing and putting back on my boots, through the entire length of the concourse as I passed all the fast-food and Starbucks outlets on my way to my gate. Through getting onto the airplane and into my seat, the tears wouldn’t stop flowing. Instead of being excited about my journey, I was scared. I was terrified, mostly, over the idea I might never see my parents again, that something would happen to them while I was gone—or that something might happen to me.

I made myself get on the plane anyway. I had committed to doing this.

You would cry too if you had to say goodbye to these people.

And then, finally, after three months, 30,000 miles, 10 countries, and 211 pies, the day arrived. I was going home. Except I didn’t really know where home was.

Exactly one year earlier I had moved out of the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa, where I had lived for four years. (It had been a surprise to everyone, especially to me, that I stayed so long, as I left my native Iowa at 17, vowing never to return.) I was sad about moving out—I would have liked to have stayed—but the pressures that came from living in a tourist attraction had worn me down. So I went back to LA, which is where I was planning to move before I detoured to that irresistibly cute house in Iowa. I thought I would stay in LA indefinitely. I stayed for six months.

LA had been my home for many years. No matter where I flitted off to, trying on a new town or country for size, LA was and is always the place I go back to. It’s where my parents moved 15 years ago, leaving Iowa to live closer to three out of five of us kids. And given that my parents are 80 now, it’s important to me to live closer to them.

But when I returned to LA this last time, living in a furnished studio guesthouse 6 miles from my mom and dad, and 2 miles from the beach, I struggled throughout the entire six-month stint. Why? Because I discovered something I had not realized: Iowa had changed me.

My parents' ocean view
I was different and needed different things. Instead of trendy wine bars and power yoga—and traffic jams—I needed space, quiet, solitude. In rural Iowa, I was just as happy—no, happier—sitting at my kitchen table sharing a $10 bottle of wine with a friend and doing yoga guided by a 20-year-old Shiva Rea CD, rarely ever needing to get in my car. When I did drive, the only traffic was the occasional lumbering combine or Amish horse-drawn buggy.

My LA lease was month-to-month so I was free to leave anytime. But I’m not a quitter. All through the winter, I tried to readjust and find my old California self—the free-spirited and social surfer girl I was before I morphed into “the Iowa pie lady.” By spring, seeing how my life had been reduced to daily dog walks and nightly dinners with my parents, and how the one time I went surfing I got seasick, I accepted that there is no going back in time, only forward. I began itching to find a new home. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, or live, so instead of forcing a decision, I bought myself some time. I would finally make my World Piece dream come true.

Still, I had hesitated. The enormity of a round-the-world trip was so daunting. I had a million excuses not to do it. But my inner-taskmaster barked—and barked—“What the hell are you waiting for?” until I actually called the airline and booked the ticket. Admittedly, I was also spurred on by the looming expiration date of the frequent flyer miles. Either way, I was sick of talking about it. It was time to stop feeling stuck and Just. Do. It.

But there was one catch. I needed someone to take care of my dog Jack for three months. I knew just the person—and the place. So before setting off on my big international trip, I took a big domestic one. I packed up my dog and all of my belongings into my RV (aka The Beast—yes, it’s still running!), drove cross-country, and delivered dog and all to my friend Doug’s farm. In Iowa. It was the best decision I had made all year, one that I couldn’t have guessed would lead to another, bigger decision upon my return.

50 pounds is the weight limit. This
beast weighed in at 50 exactly.
After all those months that it took to make World Piece happen—two to plan it and three to execute it—I was dragging my tired body and overweight luggage through the Frankfurt, Germany Flughafen. I wandered around the duty-free shop, sniffing bottles of perfume and buying chocolate bars to kill time. Having nearly completed a full circle around the globe, I was counting the hours and minutes until my flight departed for the Great Homecoming.

But where was home?

I missed my parents. Every time we Skyped—from Auckland, from Sydney, from Bangkok, Mumbai, Beirut, Athens, Bern, Aachen and Budapest—a wave of solace filled me when seeing their beaming faces, but this was always followed by a riptide of longing whenever we hung up.

I also stayed in touch with Doug during my travels. And every time Doug sent a video of my dog Jack fetching the stick, swimming in the pond, or trotting down a trail—and he sent at least a picture or a text almost daily—my heart ached not just for my dog, but for the peace and simplicity of Iowa. And maybe something else, something I didn’t yet grasp.

One day in July, during my trip, while staying at a friend’s apartment in Bangkok and bogged down with a head cold, I sat outside by the pool and tried to meditate. I say “tried” because I’m not very good at keeping my brain quiet.

I was trying to do that “clear mind” thing, but I kept thinking about the American Gothic House and how much I missed it, how much I missed living in the little historic cottage—a whole house big enough for dogs and house guests and pie classes. I missed having all my stuff so perfectly placed in it—my overstuffed daisy chair, my railroad freight cart coffee table, my flannel sheets, my down pillows, my grandmother’s china—and having what felt like a real home, an anchor, and a community.

Inhale. Exhale. I took more deep breaths—through my mouth, because my nose was so stuffed up (which is what happens when you fly in an enclosed airplane and sit directly in front of a kid who is coughing without covering their mouth the entire eight-hour flight)—and tried to push the American Gothic House—and everything else—out of my mind.

Daisy, my sweet little angel
But then I started thinking about Daisy, and how much I missed her, my sweet little terrier-mix who had been killed by a coyote eight months earlier. (Jack, also a terrier-mix, had been wounded in the same attack, but he survived.) I missed her sparkling brown eyes, her Winnie-the-Pooh-like calm, her unconditional love. She asked for nothing and yet gave so much.

I tried not to let the sadness over Daisy interfere with my meditation. I was going to really relax, damn it! But grief is a tangled vine that wraps itself around the heart until it chokes and suffocates it. I gasped for breath, acknowledged the feelings and the subsequent tightness in my chest, and after a long exhale, I returned to my mantra, which was something akin to BE QUIET IN THERE!

The next thought that popped into my mind was Marcus. This wasn’t a surprise because he is always there, living on the surface of the cerebrum’s folds. But in my congested, sinus-clogged state I didn’t have just thoughts of him, I actually heard him. He was talking to me, gently and lovingly. “It’s time to let go, my love,” he said in his British-German lilt. “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband. You should find another man.”

Marcus was reiterating something I had read in one of my grief books, something an Indian philosopher said whose advice was seemingly heartless yet so practical: “Your husband died? Go find another one.”

Marcus was offering the same practical advice. I had tried to be practical, but I was still holding on. I needed to let go—and not just of Marcus, but of the American Gothic House and Daisy and whatever other ghosts and grievances of my past that were holding me back.

The voice of my late husband opened a gate and led me through it. All my other thoughts were preempted and my synapses started firing right past my post-nasal drip. Suddenly, I had a clear idea of where I wanted my life to go after my World Piece trip was over. God knows, I had been asking myself the question and had been asked by others almost daily during my travels: “What are you going to do when you get back?” Each time I tensed up, unable to answer. But right there, in the tropical sun, jet-lagged and sick with my feet dangling in the 100-meter-long swimming pool, I had an epiphany. (Proof that meditation really can work, even when you suck at it.)

I had an answer, better yet, direction. I was going to find a new house, another cottage in Iowa where I could recreate the country lifestyle I had come to love. And once I got settled, I would adopt another dog. Daisy had been a rescue, one who had been badly in need of care. There were many, many other needy, even desperate, dogs out there I could adopt. I would do it to honor Daisy. I would also stay open to letting another man in my life. Yes, I had dated in the past six years, but there was never room for a real relationship, because Marcus was taking up most of the space.

That epiphany was in early July. I still had two months and six countries to go in my round-the-world trip, so I couldn’t put my plan into immediate action, but the clarity gave me peace and helped me to stay more focused on the present. (Traveling solo, by the way, with a packed itinerary is a good exercise in staying in the present. There is no time to focus on anything beyond the logistics of making your next flight or finding your next bed.)

At last, it was August 27, the date I had been eyeing on the calendar since I flew away on June 2nd. When they announced my Lufthansa flight to LA was ready for boarding, I tried not to run down the jetway. I was heading back to the USA. I could finally get going on my plan.

I landed at LAX on a Thursday afternoon. My parents had dropped me off three months earlier, and now they would be there to pick me up three months later. My heart pounder harder as we taxied toward the gate, my iPhone already buzzing with messages from my mom saying they were waiting in baggage claim. I zipped through immigration and rolled my 50-pound beast of a suitcase past customs one last time. God, I would not miss dragging that bloody bag around!

I scanned the hundreds of faces lined up along the barricade and spotted my mom. She looked so petite among the mass of tightly packed bodies and tall chauffeurs holding name signs. It was her, her short dark hair in a spunky new cut, her matching yellow top, pants and flats, her flowered shoulder bag coordinated to complete the outfit.

Like animal instinct, the recognition of a mother and her offspring was more than visual; it was visceral. Once we found each other we locked on. Her brown eyes, which had been hunting for me like a lioness looking for her cub, turned from expectant to shining to misty. We both teared up in an unspoken moment of relief, a release of that underlying anxiety we had apparently both been holding onto for the past 15 weeks.

Hooray, she said without words. You are home safely.
Hooray, I said with my tears. You are here and you are okay.

And then our silent-film moment dissolved suddenly, replaced by the full volume of airport noise that nearly drowned out my mom’s voice when she said, “Come on. Dad is over here.”

My dad pushed through the crowd as he saw us approach, and without regard to the people trying to pass with their bags, grabbed me in a bear hug. “Welcome back, Boo.” His blue eyes twinkled from beneath his seaman’s cap. He fixed his eyes on my face, his smile lighting up the Tom Bradley terminal so brightly he could have brought down 747s with it.

The moment I had been waiting for. The "Victory Shot."

Whatever stress, sadness and sickness I endured throughout my journey, the magic of this reunion made every bit of it worthwhile. We took a few “victory shots” before leaving the airport, recreating our parting shot with a return one.

This is what love looks like, surrounded by luggage.
I studied the photos later. My parents looked the same: healthy, happy, and vibrant. Which was a tremendous relief given they had both had skin cancer surgeries during my absence. Their scars were already healing, their prognoses positive, and neither looked worse for the wear. In fact, they looked better than I remembered.

Did I look the same? My hair was a little longer. I had lost maybe a pound or two, though that could be wishful thinking. Surely my face looked tired, if nothing else from the dehydration of the transcontinental flight.

The bigger question was, was I the same person I was when I left? A young woman I met during my travels insisted that this must be a life-changing trip. I paid lip service to her and nodded in agreement, but inside shook my head at her naiveté. No, this trip wasn’t the stuff that changes lives. It is not life changing to get on and off airplanes and make pie for three months. Life changing is when your husband drops dead at 43. Life changing is when your angelic terrier’s body is ripped open and eaten by a coyote. Life changing is having to move out of your tourist attraction house after four years upon realizing you have inadvertently become the attraction. (Perhaps this last one isn't so traumatic when you remind yourself that six-foot-long snakes lived there too.)

I can think of many adjectives for my World Piece mission: interesting, informative, enlightening, educational, exhausting. But did it really change me?

The best answer to that, I think, is summed up in a comment left on my last blog post about Budapest. “The reward for effort is sometimes not realized until long after the work is done,” this person wrote. “Like a farmer, you've sown a seed and somewhere it's growing.”

I stayed with my parents in Redondo Beach for three days, basking in their love and their hot tub, and their homemade meals of creamed tuna on biscuits. I was in LA. With my parents. I was home. Sort of. But not really.

My dog Jack was still back in Iowa, with Doug on his farm. My trip wouldn’t be complete until I was reunited with my “Little Man.” Restlessness and anticipation—and jet lag—nagged at me until I was once again airborne—headed for the Midwest.

Doug gave Jack a bath before my arrival.
This picture always makes me laugh.

Doug picked me up at the Quad City Airport and didn’t bring Jack with him. He wanted to video tape our reunion and for that he wanted us to have room outdoors on his farm. Doug may not have had Jack in the car, but he had a bouquet of wildflowers. And a card. With a gift certificate for a massage for me. We stopped for milkshakes at Whitey’s and talked the entire two-hour drive back to his house.

Iowa (aka Home)

The reunion with Jack was all that I had envisioned—the face licking, the tail wagging, the racing around in circles to shed the energy that couldn’t be contained in his 15-pound body, me crying tears of joy while smothering him with kisses. Doug got it all on tape.

But reuniting with my dog after my round-the-world journey is not where the story ends. It is just the beginning.

Sowing seeds for the future.
One of the pictures Doug sent me during my trip.

My meditation by that poolside in early July proved prescient. I’ve only been back two months and I have already ticked everything off my list of goals. The reality, however, isn’t exactly what I had imagined. No, it is far better and came with some added bonuses.

I found an Iowa farmhouse to live in. I moved into Doug’s. The place, with its original wallpaper and crown molding, is every bit as quirky and charming—and old—as the American Gothic House. But it is not a tourist attraction. It sits on 1,200 acres surrounded by crops and cows (instead of mean neighbors!), and offers a luxury I had been missing: privacy. Doug and I worked together to rearrange two of the upstairs bedrooms in his four-bedroom house—a big one for my office and a small one for my dressing room—so I have my own space.

"Country roads, take me home to the place I belong."

I have not adopted another dog—yet. Instead—or, should I say, in the meantime—Doug graciously sacrificed some of his pasture and barn space to give a home to four goats whose owner could no longer care for them. I used to go on long road bike rides from the American Gothic House and one of my favorite routes took me past these goats. I would stuff carrots in the back pockets of my bike jersey to feed them. I loved them so much they often became my destination rather than just to pass by. I cried the last time I visited these cute shaggy creatures last year, thinking I would never see them again. And now they live at my house!

Meet our four goats.

Except that it isn’t my house—it’s our house, Doug’s and mine. The big, seemingly elusive and hardest to accomplish goal on that list was to make room for love again.

When I returned to Iowa, I saw something—someone—that seemed new but had been there all along. Doug and I had been friends for a while, and we had had a brief romance a year earlier, but after moving out of the American Gothic House, I was sure I was destined to move back to California, so I never really gave him a chance. But Doug, who has the patience and faith of a farmer (because, well, he is a farmer), never gave up. He had not only texted me photos and videos of Jack during my trip, he took the time to write me long, newsy emails with stories of his farm, his outings to the city, his arrowhead-hunting creek explorations, his kayak trips. He offered me words of encouragement when he could tell I was tired, cheering me on every step of the way. His letters were an especially noble effort considering he doesn’t like to type.

The happy couple, Doug and me.
When I came back to pick up my dog, I felt a seismic shift in my heart; that resistant muscle in my chest cracked open like the San Andreas Fault. Not in a broken way but in a way that a dam bursts and a rush of water flows in to fill the empty space. Doug was that flood, that tsumani.

Doug had not only shown the utmost love and care for my dog, he had shown it to me. I just hadn’t been willing to accept it. Until Marcus showed up in Bangkok and whispered in my ear. Until I visited Marcus’s homeland of Germany and said my final goodbyes to him. Until I made it back to LA and made sure my parents were in “good order,” as my dad likes to say. Only then was I ready and able to open up to a new life.

So yes, maybe my trip was life-changing after all. Just not in the way I expected. It took traveling all the way around the world to learn the meaning of home. And now that I know what home is, I have learned there is no place like it.

And they lived happily ever after. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

World Piece: Budapest (And a few other thoughts)


It is ironic that I was traveling around the world with the goal of spreading peace, love, comfort and community building through pie, yet in my wake so many troubling events unfolded.

 A month after I was in Bangkok, Thailand, a bomb exploded at the Erawan Shrine, killing 20 people and injuring 125. It detonated at exactly the spot and time I walked past each evening after making pies at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel.

 Then, in Lebanon, I watched as the little cabana that held the neighborhood’s handful of garbage cans filled. It filled some more, and then more, and as the days ticked by the garbage eventually began spilling out in a heap onto the street. And that was just the garbage for one building. Beirut was facing a new war—a battle with garbage and where to put it as the old landfill had reached capacity and was closed before a new one was designated. It didn't take long for this to turn into a crisis. The garbage piled up so high around the city center that restaurants closed. The country has been without a president for over a year and the parliament members couldn’t—or wouldn’t—make a decision to create a solution. So citizens took to Beirut’s stench-filled streets protesting the situation. Several months on, the temporary solution was to reopen the old overflowing landfill.

I was in Athens, Greece during the height of their financial crisis. The fear-mongering media reported that tourists shouldn’t go there or they might get robbed, that cash-needy Greeks might see tourists as their personal bank tellers and mug them. (I went anyway. I did not get mugged. And I found the people—cash-needy Greeks and all—to be some of the nicest of my entire trip.)

And then, Hungary. I spent four days in Budapest—eating, making and sharing pie—and just two days after I left they closed the train stations, halting transportation to Germany so as to keep the migrants from, well, migrating. Luckily I had booked a flight instead of the train. After I left, the news was—and still is—dominated with the growing refugee crisis and Hungary’s refusal to let them pass or even enter the country.

So much for pie and world peace. Sigh.

Ah, but this post is supposed to be about Budapest and my time there. And the point—not just of my blog but of life—is to focus on the positive, to be the change you want to see in the world, even in the face of disappointments and discouraging events.

Keep calm and bake on, I say!

Budapest was a good surprise. It is an impressive city with its old architecture, grand and stoic buildings. Although Hungary is a landscape of rolling green beauty, Budapest isn’t known for ample parks or green space. The apartments and hotels are towering blocks, creating a claustrophobic dark alley feeling, made darker still when you see how much of the still city bears the pockmarks of war and the neglect of its communist years. But to walk along the banks of the Danube River is to find relief, open space along with Old World European postcard views.

With Ryan (L) and Ron (R) enjoying
some breathing space along the Danube
My hosts were Ron and Ryan. Ron is an old family friend from Southeast Iowa. Ron used to be a priest. He left the priesthood to get married. To a woman. He eventually left that marriage and got remarried. To a man.

When Ron learned I was setting off on this round-the-world trip he extended an invitation to Budapest where he and his husband run a bed and breakfast, called Budabab, out of their charming apartment. I could stay there, he said, and teach a pie class in their kitchen.

I had never been to Hungary and I admit it wasn’t high on my priority list of places I wanted to go, but I had said from the beginning: World Piece is about the people, not the places. I liked that Ron and Ryan’s story fit with my cultural tolerance mission, particularly as in late June the US Supreme Court had just approved gay marriage as a civil right. I also liked the thread of Ron being connected to Iowa, to my family and to my childhood, as this rooting into my past seemed to emerge as a secondary theme to my journey. That Budapest was an effing cool place was a bonus.

The days there were a blur—we packed in sight seeing, always taking public transportation around the thousand-year-old city. I loved hearing the female voice over the intercom as she announced each tram stop, coating the hard Hungarian words with flannel sheets and making the “sh” endings sound softer and more slurred than what one hears on the streets.

I arrived when the country was celebrating its biggest, most important holiday: Saint Stephen’s Day. There were festivals taking place all over the city, including a food festival where we grazed on local fare like potato pancakes fried in a pool of oil then covered in sour cream. Take note, health-conscious travelers: Hungary is not good for your cholesterol!
A pig roast! Just like Iowa. Only this is on the banks of the Danube in Budapest.
Potato pancakes. With a little grease on the side.
We walked across the Chain Bridge, a Budapest landmark connecting the towns of Buda and Pest. It was the first permanent bridge across the Danube, opened in 1849. The bridge is flanked by lions, two on each end. Every sign and symbol of courage I could get was appreciated. And anyway, I was glad I was seeing lions instead of my previous animal token of snakes—live ones, as some of you will recall from my days in the American Gothic House.

We popped into the Four Seasons Hotel, the old Gresham Palace of Art Nouveau design. Ron insisted we walk through the lobby and I was so glad we did. It is restored to perfection, with polished marble floors, wrought iron gates, velvet sofas, and as a somewhat incongruous touchstone to Seattle, a Dale Chihuly glass chandelier, which is one of his most beautiful works I’ve seen. I stayed at the Four Seasons in Mumbai, getting a room in exchange for teaching pie classes. Had I known about the elegance of the Four Seasons Budapest, I would have volunteered to teach classes there. Ah, next time!
The Four Seasons lobby with the Chihuly chandelier. A dreamy place.
Ron took me to the healing waters of the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, another must-see landmark in Budapest. We spent several hours soaking in the outdoor pool and, wow, talk about a veritable melting pot. I floated around trying to count how many different languages I heard spoken and came up with more than 10—French, German, English, Hungarian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and a few I couldn’t identify.

World peace in a pool—it seems warm medicinal water is the answer to cultural tolerance!

The thermal baths of Budapest. Healing the world one dip at a time.
Because I was teaching a pie class at Budabab, Ron took me to the Great Market Hall to shop for ingredients. This is the place to come for souvenirs, especially if paprika is on your wish list.
We bought apples, peaches, and a few slices of strudel—called rétes in Hungarian and pronounced “ray-tesh.” It was “WTC,” as my friend Jane would say. Worth the calories.



Hungary isn’t just known for its strudel (er, rétes). The streets of Budapest are lined with pastry shops, the fancy, cream-filled kind of cakes. We sampled some on a Saturday afternoon, sharing bites of Dobos, Eszterhazy, and some other delicious poppy seed, almond-paste filled things, while sipping coffee at an elegant outdoor cafe. Talk about the quintessential European experience.
European grandeur. Felt like a step back in time.

Too many good choices.

Yes, there was pie! A fancy kind.

Come on, you know you want some....

Another outing took us through the streets of the Jewish quarter, taking in memorial sites and artistically rendered reminders of the atrocities of WWII. “People used to live here,” a plaque on a building declares in a tone just short of shouting a reprimand. Plaques embedded in the sidewalks spell it out more specifically with the names of individuals killed by Nazis. These are for people who had no relatives to keep their memories alive, but were later immortalized by the donations of these name tags.



Behind the peepholes in this wall are old photos of people who used to live here.
There is a heaviness about this city. And if the Jewish district memorials are not enough to make your your chest seize up with a chokehold on your heart, just go down to the river to see “The Shoes of the Danube,” a “sculpture” of cast iron shoes—60 pair of them in styles of the war period—lined up on the bank depicting where Jews were shot and pushed into the river. H-e-a-r-t-b-r-e-a-k-i-n-g. I only got a glimpse of this from the window of the tram as we passed by and I was fighting back tears for the rest of the day. I still cannot think of it without a lump growing in my throat.

We explored the Jewish district further and dipped in and out of some hipster cafes called “ruins bars.” As the name suggests, these are bars built out of ruins.

We strolled through Szimpla Kert, the first ruin bar in Budapest (where ruin bars have become a big trend), and my mood was buoyed by the eclectic and whimsical art. The mosaic mermaid on the bathroom door. The shell of an old car outfitted with seats and a table. The gnome statues and colorful flags hanging overhead.


One piece in Szimpla Kert that caught my eye was a potted plant—a skinny young tree with little white paper tags tied to its delicate branches. At the base of the tree was a sign that read “Wish Tree for Peace.” Given I was on my World Piece (yes, peace) journey, I stopped for a closer look.

It was an idea that came from Yoko Ono, to “create a peace trail to explore various aspects of peace.” You make a wish, tie it to the branch, tell your friends to make a wish too, and keep on wishing. The hope is for the collective consciousness to work its magic. Put the positive energy out there and you will manifest it. If only everyone would wish for the same thing—say, no more war, no more killing, let’s all just get along—wouldn’t that be a grand thing?

Budapest may have exceeded my expectations but my round-the-world trip did not. My goals were too grandiose. Any happiness and hope I may have spread—in Bangkok, in Beirut, in Budapest—felt diminished, swept away in the flash flood of negative news on CNN. My ambition to save the world was way out of line. On top of that, I was still affected, subdued, from visiting Gandhi’s house in Mumbai in July, seeing the photos of him dead, assassinated, dark blood seeping out from his bullet wounds. If Gandhi couldn’t save the world, who the fuck was I to think that I could?

Not long after I posted a photo of that Budapest Wish Tree on Instagram, I got a message from an acquaintance in Wisconsin: Deb Nies of Waunakee. She had seen my photo and asked me for more information. It had sparked an idea for her, she said. There was a damaged pear tree in her yard that had been struck by lightning. She was considering cutting it down, but instead she found a new purpose for it: as a wishing tree.

She put up a sign and set out a bucket of tags and markers for passers by, and the next thing you know the tree was not only filling up with wishes—meaningful ones, like “I wish for my mom to get cured of cancer” and “I wish for my husband to come home safe from the Middle East” and “I wish to never get bullied again”—it was quickly becoming a beckon of hope for Deb’s small town. The tree (and Deb’s effort) has grown so beloved it has been featured in the news and now even has its own Facebook page.

Deb has been sending me updates about the tree and the wishes on it ever since. And every time I see one of those wishes, especially those heartfelt ones, I am reminded that my trip was not in vain, that there is still so much goodness in this world, and that in my own small way I helped add to that goodness.

It makes me think about that poem by Bessie Stanley which defines success, or some modified version:
To give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition—or a Wish Tree!—to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded. 
My wish is for world peace. And in spite of being inundated with troubling news, I will keep wishing for it. I hope you will too.

Pie class in Budapest, the last one of my World Piece journey.
Leaving the world a better place, one pie and one smile--and one messy oven--at a time.