Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

As 2010 draws to a close I would be remiss not to mention the things that helped get me through the year, my sources of survival, salves in the continuing healing of my grief. Looking back, there were many people (Alison, Nan, Melissa, Stacy, Sylvia, Susan my grief counselor, and yes, even Mr. X), places (Portland, LA, Park City, and the biggest plot twist of the year, Eldon, Iowa), and things (learning to drive the RV, the making of the pie show, teaching pie baking, being a pie judge at both the National Pie Championships and the Iowa State Fair, moving into the American Gothic House) that contributed to my well being. But out of everyone, every place, and everything there were two constant, daily, unrelenting sources of comfort and joy.

Meet Team Terrier.
That's Comfort (Daisy) on the left and Joy (Jack) on the right.
IF there is any doubt as to the benefits of owning a pet, I am living proof that a warm-bodied, tail-wagging, four-legged friend is well worth the four walks a day, the middle of the night disruptions, the barking, the trips to Petco for food, and -- as was the case this year -- the exorbitant vet bills. (Uh,yeah, add to the list stained rugs.) In the face of sometimes unbearable grief, I cannot help but wonder if I would still be here if not for these two creatures who depend so fully on me, who make me laugh until my sides hurt, who keep me in shape by demanding long hikes and stick-throwing sessions, who force me out of bed no matter how down I feel, and who -- for whatever godforsaken reason -- love me so completely and unconditionally.
Just looking at them makes me laugh. (One of these days I'll make them pose with the prerequisite pitchfork.)
Daisy is a rescue from Saltillo, Mexico. Little did she know she would end up in Iowa. (That makes two of us!) But she's adaptable and never complains, even in the midst of a very un-Mexican-like snowstorm.
How can you be depressed with Jack around? His singular love for play is infectious. He brings out the kid in everyone. And has an infinite capacity for a game of fetch.

O, dog of wonder, dog of night,
Dog with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Happy New Year, everyone. May you have a peaceful, prosperous and animal-filled 2011. (And hopefully some pie with that too!)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

All I Want for Christmas is...Pie Supplies, Not (Footie) Pajamas

For Christmas, my mom gave me pajamas. These were not your ordinary pajamas. They were not from Victoria's Secret or Gap Body or Soma. These were bright pink fleece with a dog appliqué on the chest. So far, not soooo bad. I love pink. I love fleece. I love dogs. But the pjs were a one-piece zip-up affair with the feet in them. Yes, footie pajamas. And not just plain footie pajamas -- the feet were like built-in doggie slippers, complete with floppy ears and flapping tongue. Now I admit, I loved wearing footie pajamas long past the socially acceptable toddler years, but, um, hey, Mom, I’m not 4 – okay, er, 14 -- anymore!

I know she was proud of her purchase because all of my siblings had heard about them long before the Santa wrapping paper was ripped off the box. When I talked to my brother Patrick in Seattle, he immediately asked, “How’d you like your gift from Mom?” I groaned loud enough for him to pull the phone away from his ear. Still, his laughter came through the receiver loud and clear.

“I wouldn’t want to be caught dead in them,” I said. And I meant it. I always think about how Marcus died so unexpectedly and so suddenly, he didn’t have time to pick out a stylish outfit or groom himself before the paramedics rushed in. In his case, it didn’t matter. He was wearing what looked best on him, his birthday suit, which made it easier for them to hook up their defibrillators and needles anyway. But, yeah, I do think about how I will go out when my time comes, what situation I’ll be in, and what may or may not be covering my body. I can tell you this: it definitely won’t be pink fleece footie pajamas with built-in doggie slippers.

“You could be like Ralphie in ‘A Christmas Story,’” Patrick said.

“I’ve never seen it.”

“You’ve never seen ‘A Christmas Story?’”

“No.”

“This kid gets pink bunny pajamas from his aunt, and his parents make him wear them. That’s what your pajamas remind me of.”

“Well, they’re not going to be my pajamas much longer. I’m taking them back. Mom enclosed the gift receipt. She must have known I wasn’t going to like them.”

“Yes, I figured,” he said. “But she had fun buying them for you.”

“Yeah, and telling everyone about them.”

The pjs were from Target. I love Target. And while Southeast Iowa isn’t exactly a shopping Mecca, it does have a Target. I had decided that I was going to use the store credit to buy new underwear.

Someone either told me recently, or I read it somewhere, that they were tossing out all their old undies and getting new ones to symbolize a fresh start. I liked this logic. After all I’ve been through the past 16 months, I could definitely stand to get rid of the dingy old boy shorts and threadbare thongs, and kick off the New Year with some new lingerie. Yeehaw.

The trouble is, I got to Target and I just wasn’t in the mood. Or, perhaps, digging through the sale bins of black lace and white cotton and plaid and flowered and polka dot and everything else in every size all mixed together killed the mood. It wasn’t just the disorganized display though. The prospect of buying underwear made me contemplate my future. Will anyone ever see me in these? Will there be new love on the horizon? How can I even meet a man when I live in such an unpopulated place? And anyway, does the style or color of underwear really even matter in the scheme of life? Even if these new ones are marked down to as little as $2 a pair, do I really need to throw out the old ones which are perfectly fine?

I got so fed up with myself I threw the ones I had already picked back into the bins and walked off in a huff.

I had two other things on my shopping list:
1. Silver polish. I use my grandma’s silver as everyday flatware and her beautiful cutlery is due for a cleaning.
2. Detangler. For my hair, which is getting harder and harder to comb seeing as I haven’t cut it since July.

I wove in and out of the aisles, and somewhere in between Cleaning Supplies and Hair Care I stumbled upon Kitchen Gadgets. There I was, as instinctive as a Golden Retriever sniffing out a tennis ball, homing right in on the pie supplies. Perfect! I’m waaaaay overdue on getting a Christmas present for my niece, the 16-year-old beauty who I taught to make pie last summer. In an instant, I knew just what to get her. My adrenaline pumped, my pulse quickened, my mood lifted as I grabbed not one, not two, but five Chop N’ Scoops. I could send one to Lauren and give the others as presents later. They were $2.99! (I got ripped off paying 10 bucks for mine at that BBB store.) I also put in my heretofore empty basket a set of paring knives (my favorite for peeling apples) for my niece -- they were a crazy 99 cents -- along with a set of pastry brushes for $2.50. What a score!

As I drove home elated about buying the pie supplies (you know how I love a good bargain) I forgot all about my underwear buying mission. I figure I don’t have to really think about it again until spring anyway because as long as I’m spending the cold winter in an Iowa farmhouse the only kind of underwear I need are long ones. As for the pajamas, I shouldn’t have to worry about those again...until next Christmas.

Thanks anyway, Mom. It’s the thought that counts!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Going to Church...In my Basement

My phone rang and rang and rang on Christmas Eve -- my local line, I mean -- and I knew why Eldon's residents were calling. They wanted to invite me to church. Worried about me spending the holiday alone, my new Eldonite friends were doing what I've experienced them do best: demonstrate kindness, compassion and generosity. And as kind, compassionate and generous as their invitations were, I was not interested in going to church. Period.

Church and I were never great pals. Subjected to a Catholic education (Sunday Mass, the scriptures, the prayers, the rituals, the GUILT, et al), the only reason I got confirmed -- or allowed to graduate from my parochial high school for that matter -- was because my dad was a reliable donor and my mom worked for the diocese. I knew -- really KNEW – as early as age 12, when I had to fight for my feminist right to serve as an altar girl, that this political, er, religious institution was not going to be my source of spiritual fulfillment.

So instead of answering my phone only to decline the many invitations to the 6PM candlelit service at the Living Hope Bible Church, I went down to my basement.

Now I realize that spending Christmas Eve alone in one’s basement sounds a little depressing, potentially scary, questionable, even dangerous – after all, suicide rates skyrocket during the holidays and I am a grieving widow... But no. My bike (mounted on the Blackburn Trakstand bike trainer) is in the basement. So while the rest of Eldon attended their church, I attended mine.

Just as making pie is my therapy and therefore my kitchen is my therapist's office, my basement is my church. My body is my temple. My bike is my God. I could have been sitting in a pew for an hour watching candles burn. Instead I was sitting on my bike seat, burning calories.

Instead of singing Christmas hymns, I sang along to Coldplay and pedaled to the French techno groove of my Buddha Bar collection. For good measure, though not a great biking song, I even played the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. (Yes, I have a very eclectic mix of music.)

Instead of being in a room packed with people I don’t know all that well -- a potentially lonely experience, actually lonelier than being alone -- I was getting to know myself better, tuning in to every muscle fiber and oxygenated blood cell, every thought, every breath.

Churches are a place for some to find strength. For me, someone whose heart was shattered 16 months ago with the unexpected death of my husband Marcus, biking literally strengthens my heart. My goal is to be the Lance Armstrong of grieving widows, and that kind of salvation doesn't come from listening to a preacher on the pulpit. Exercise is a moving meditation. And meditation is a form of prayer. Prayer is considered spiritual worship. And therefore I was, to all intents and purposes, like a good Eldonite, worshipping.

I’m not sure how congregation members felt after church, but I felt GREAT after my bike ride. I took a long candlelit bath afterward. And then I talked to my family via a Skype video call. Really, it was the best Christmas I could have hoped for. You know, considering...

I’m continuing to enjoy some solitude this holiday week. So if I don’t answer my phone, please don’t worry about me. I’m probably just in the basement -- going to church.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pie and Wine: Paired or Not, It's All Good

I am drinking a glass of white wine. It’s a varietal called Albariño from Spain. The reason I am drinking this wine is because I don’t have Champagne on hand to celebrate some Very Good News I just received and, as it happened, UPS just delivered this bottle of white wine to my door only minutes earlier. Seeing as it is zero degrees outside, and therefore approximately refrigerator temperature inside the UPS truck, the wine arrived perfectly chilled. And so it is that at 2:30 on an Arctic Iowa afternoon I just opened the bottle of Albariño and am toasting to my news: the sale of my pie show.

A friend of mine in Portland who just took a new PR job sent me the wine. I was her first call. “I thought you might be able to do a story on pairing wine with pie,” she said.

I didn’t laugh at her suggestion, nor did I reply, “That’s a bit of a stretch,” but I could have. I say this because her timing coincided with a recent identity crisis in which I was questioning where I fit into the ever-expanding blogosphere, where food is one of the fastest growing subjects. I may write a blog about pie (which, if you read my blog, you know pie is more a metaphor) but I do not in any way, shape, or form claim to be a food blogger, food writer, or food anything. I bake pie. I teach people how to make pie. I eat pie. Apple is about the only pie in my repertoire, mainly because I can make it without using a recipe. Do you see many recipes on my blog? Exactly. So there you go. A singular love for pie does not a foodie make.

As for the wine pairing, I shop almost exclusively at Aldi, where the wine selection consists of a limited number of budget-priced bottles of Sauvignon Blanc, Chianti, Merlot, a few German varietals I’ve never tried, and Tempranillo, which, like the Albariño wine, is from Spain. You won’t find a bottle of wine at Aldi for more than nine bucks.

Just as I am not particular about what kind of pie I eat – I like all pie! – I am no wine snob. I like all wine! (All wine except for that pink stuff that was popular in the eighties…what was that called, White Zinfandel? And that Concord grape church stuff, Mogen David.) And while I most often drink the everyday bargain stuff from Aldi, I'm equally happy (okay, way beyond happy) to sip a 2003 Shafer Cab or Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir – as long as someone else is buying.

With my decidedly non-judgmental stance how could I ever be an authority when it comes to wine and pie pairing? The most I could say is all wine goes with all pie. Not exactly the kind of press that would endear my friend to her client and garner her a promotion. The press release she sent with the wine suggests that Albariño might accompany an apple crisp, which is close to apple pie. Well, I don’t have any apple pie – or crisp -- on hand so I can’t comment on that, but I do have pumpkin pie in my fridge.
 
So here’s my scientific approach to wine and pie pairing: I like the Albariño wine, plus I like pumpkin pie. The wine is light and crisp and is the perfect complement to the cinnamon-infused custard of our favorite Thanksgiving dessert. Spain, meet America. America, meet Spain. A match made in pie and wine heaven. There! Done!

As for my Very Good News, you will have to wait more to hear about that. The VP at 3Ball Productions said I was allowed to jump for joy in my living room but not make a public announcement until the contracts are signed. Until then, it’s just me and my glass of substitute Champagne. Cheers!

More about Albariño wine

Albariño (al-ba-ree-nyo) is a white grape varietal grown in the D.O. (Denomination of Origin) of Rías Baixas, located in Galicia on Spain’s Northwest coast. Accounting for 90 percent of all plantings in Rías Baixas, Albariño wine has been likened to a Riesling for its minerality and bracing acidity; to a Viognier, because of its fleshiness and peach/apricot character; and to a Pinot Gris for its floral bouquet. Albariño pairs well with seafood dishes, which are indigenous to its seaside region and are highly prized by leading restaurants throughout Spain. Albariño is also one of the few Spanish white grape varieties produced as a varietal wine on its own and designated on labels.

The bottle I am drinking is Martin Codax 2009 Rias Baixas. $12.99/bottle (online) and $16.99 (in stores). Available at grocery stores or http://www.budgetbottle.com/ and http://www.martincodaxwines.com/.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Going to the Post Office without a Parachute

Eldon Postmaster, the ever-smiling and compassionate Kathy
I made it to the post office with Marcus’ coat and bike jacket. Barely. The packages had sat on my desk for several days but I hadn’t sealed them. So before I strapped the tape on the Priority Mail packaging that held the coat and bike jacket I stuck my nose inside each. Big mistake. Because the items had been sitting inside the packages for a few days, they contained a concentrated scent – Marcus’ scent – causing my senses to go haywire. I sat down and sobbed (so what else is new!), cradling one of the envelopes, and wondered, What is it about these clothes??!!

“Get it together!” I warned myself. “Just get these in the mail. NOW!”

I was already two days behind my planned post office outing, an easy six-minute walk from the American Gothic House. It should have been no problem to get there but I managed to find more pressing matters to fill my day – like ironing my pie party aprons that won’t get used again until at least January – and thus pushed time to the limit. I ended up having to drive and even then only made it in the door five minutes before the post office closed. (One advantage of small town living is that there’s never a line at the window, no matter how close to closing time you arrive.)

When I opened the car passenger door to collect my packages, the one with the bike jacket fell into the slush-filled gutter. The snow had melted a little and when I picked up the envelope it was covered in dirty wet snow. What is it about this bike jacket?? I wondered again. Am I not supposed to send it? I shrugged off the thought and mumbled my daily mantra: “Keep moving forward.”

I watched as Kathy, the postmaster, weighed and stamped my packages, and as a kind of after-thought asked her if she would mind me taking her picture. “I just want proof,” I said, “that I mailed these." I didn’t tell her what was in the packages. When she raised an eyebrow I said, “You don’t want to know. It’s a long story.”

“What are you doing for Christmas?” she asked, changing the subject.

Here we go. This, too, could also turn into a long story, about how I had planned to drive to Los Angeles and spend a month or two, but then how last weekend’s icy trip to Davenport (Iowa), only two and a half hours each way but a white knuckle 2-1/2 hours on the way back, made me come to my senses. Eldon to the Quad Cities was hard enough, but a 30-plus-hour-drive to the West coast in winter driving conditions? What was I thinking?! Besides, once I got there I would only spend my time in LA running around to visit as many friends and family as possible, which could be considered productive in some ways, but probably not the best for keeping my stress level in check. And noting the backlog on my To Do List (like organizing logistics for National Pie Day, 23 January), probably not the best use of my time either. Once I got over the fact that I wouldn’t be running around in a t-shirt and flip flops on the beach (sniff, sniff), the idea of spending a quiet Christmas alone in the American Gothic House in snowy Southeastern Iowa didn’t seem so bad. Given that I have a long list of books I want to read, and there’s that pie memoir I keep saying I’m going to write, as well as nice, new friends here and a warm, cozy, adorable home, I’m actually looking forward to the weeks ahead.
It may look dreary outside, but inside it's warm, cozy and colorful. And smells like apple pie!

But in my typical need to include Marcus in every conversation, and as if to justify my choice to spend a traditional family holiday home...alone (oh, the stigma!), this is how I answered her: “Last Christmas was hard. It was only a few months after my husband died. This year, I just want to have a quiet holiday. I plan to take it very easy. You know, just get through the holidays.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of impression Kathy has of me. Eldon may be a small town (pop. 998) but we only see each other on the few occasions I have something to send from her post office window. And in those cases I’m usually in a breathless rush on my way to run errands in Ottumwa, but always with enough spare time to grumble to her about the high cost of postage or complain about how the pecan pie I paid $42 to send via 2-day Express Mail to my in-laws in Germany for Thanksgiving took two and a half weeks to get there. (“Once it leaves the U.S. it’s out of our control,” she explained.) Regardless of what whirlwind of impatient energy I bring with me, she is always friendly and calm, even compassionate.

“Yes, that’s tough. I understand. Holidays are hard,” she said as she carried my packages over to her outgoing mail bin.

“That’s why these packages are so significant,” I started to say, watching Marcus’ belongings move out of my possession. And then I had to stop myself from saying anything more because tears welled up in my eyes. Big. Crocodile. Tears. I waved her off, ran to my car, and sobbed until long after I got home.

Actually, I only cried until it was cocktail hour. Molly, the administrator of the American Gothic House Center, who is an ace friend and all-star listener, came by after work. She let me relay the story of my day, and in return I poured each of us a glass of Tempranillo. Cheers to the bike jacket. Cheers to the cashmere coat. Cheers to friends like Molly. Cheers to better days to come.

Sending those packages was harder than skydiving. I know. I did a tandem jump once. I cried the whole flight up to 10,000 feet. What? Me, cry?! These tears were caused by my fiancé breaking off our engagement the day before. (This was five years before meeting Marcus.) Not great timing for my first sky dive, but I was on assignment for a magazine and couldn’t change the date. Leaping out the door was one of the most liberating feelings I’ve ever experienced. Never mind that I got PUSHED out the door; once I was airborne I learned what it feels like to really surrender.

Surrender is when there is no turning back, no going back inside the security of the plane.
Once out the door there is zero chance of even considering any other options. There is one choice and one choice only: Enjoy the freefall and hope for a soft landing.

Even on that day, in the face of a different kind of loss and letting go (the fiancé hadn’t died, he had merely broken a promise along with my heart), I found peace in the 10,000 feet of empty space, where I floated untethered between the airplane and the Earth’s surface. With the wind rushing past my ears and the freedom of flying filling me with giddiness, my tears immediately turned to laughter.

Marcus’ cashmere coat and bicycle jacket were on their way to Seattle and Park City, Utah, respectively. As if I had scattered his ashes to the wind, they were in a free fall of their own. But they weren’t his body and this wasn’t skydiving. I hadn’t thrown them (or him) out of a plane. I could get the clothes back if I wanted. I could go back inside the post office and tell Kathy I changed my mind. Or I could call my brother in Seattle and John in Park City and explain why I needed these things back.

Instead, I am opting for surrender. No, I don’t need to go sky diving again to recreate the experience. The knowledge is there. “Move forward,” I keep whispering to myself. “Let go.”

The tears haven’t immediately turned to laughter, but in that metaphorical empty space I’ve started thinking about what else is in Marcus’ bins in the basement. Several leather jackets, hand-crafted French leather boots (John’s size), German hunting boots, Austrian boiled wool sweaters, and, the hard one, the Banana Republic suede jacket that Marcus wore on his one-way flight to Portland 16 months ago. (Well, it wasn’t a one-way trip exactly. He did fly back to Germany. In a metal box.) In the pocket of the jacket there is still a Lufthansa boarding pass stub from his Frankfurt to Portland flight, dated 31 July 2009. Ah, the brutal reality that rests in this little three-square-inch piece of paper. I’ll work my way up to sending that suede coat and his other gorgeous clothing to friends, family, and others who can use them. But for that next feat I’ll definitely wait until after the holidays.

Until then, the only packages I’ll be taking to the post office are the Christmas presents I’m sending to my family in California – souvenirs from the gift shop at the American Gothic House Center – gifts that, it’s pretty safe to say, may still cause me to gripe to Kathy about postage prices, but not send me home in tears. Meanwhile, I look forward to news from my brother and John that their packages arrived. The best Christmas present I could ask for is to know they like their gifts. From Marcus. From me.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sweat, Tears and Boxes in the Basement

I've been spending a lot of time in my basement lately. Why? Because it's zero degrees outside, my basement is dry and spacious, and Marcus bought a bicycle trainer before he died and I figured I could put it to use. A trainer is a bike stand in which you hook up your rear tire to a resistance unit, a rolling cylinder that allows you to pedal, shift gears, and pretend you're riding up mountains or across Iowa prairies, all while staying in one place. Like the comfort of the heated basement in the American Gothic House.

I had been thinking of turning my basement into an exercise room for a few weeks now. But like most people do with exercise, I procrastinated. The only thing I would have to do to transform the space into a home gym was break down my empty moving boxes, and push the big plastic gear-filled tubs to the sides. Several of those tubs contain my pie baking supplies, however, others contain Marcus' stuff. The stuff I should let go of, but am still clinging to. Sixteen months after his death I am still trying to make peace with giving his things away. Warm things. Winter clothes that I told myself this time last year could be used by people in need, like the homeless or the poor or the cold. These days I am feeling braver. Almost healed. So I thought, okay, I'm going to try again.

I opened the lid of one of the bins and pulled out a brown cashmere coat. Marcus bought it during one of our trips to New York and had worn it so often the image of him in it was indelible. I couldn’t give this to a stranger! But I could give it to my brother in Seattle. It's cold there, he could use it. I took out a pair of hand-knit socks and a pair of suede gloves to send along with it.

I also took out a bicycle jacket, a silver sleek, windproof, fleece-lined thing that Marcus bought two months before he died at the Assos factory store in Switzerland. Factory store or not, he must have paid the equivalent of at least 300 bucks for it. (I must say, he had exquisite but expensive taste.) He had bought me one too, for my birthday in June. Mine was pink, and I found it in his luggage after he died. (I won’t even go into how heart wrenching that moment was.)
I had never seen him wearing his new jacket except for in a few pictures. The photos were taken in Zurich, during a day-trip with his cousin's 12-year-old son, Felix. Marcus was playing the role of big brother or uncle to Felix, it doesn't matter which -- what I remember is how he called me that day from Zurich sounding so excited that he was giving this kid his first "international" experience (it was Felix’s first trip outside of Germany) and how, during an elegant Swiss lunch, he had introduced Felix to the culinary joys of Carpaccio.
John attaches Marcus' cuff links prior
 to walking down the aisle. 20 September 2003,
Alpirsbach, Germany

The prized bike jacket, I had decided months ago, would go to our friend John Climaco. My relationship with Marcus started in large part because of John and his wife Laura. John and I worked together at my Big Fat Dot Com Job in San Francisco in 1999, and when he and Laura got married in Florence, Italy in 2002, Marcus joined me for their wedding. It was my first date with Marcus. He was only going to stay a day or two, but when he stayed the whole week, it became clear our “date” would lead to much more.

In turn, John and Laura came to our wedding in Alpirsbach, Germany, serving as our Best Man and Maid of Honor. When Marcus died, Laura was seven months pregnant with her second baby (a girl), and in one of those Circle of Life ways, John and Laura surprised me by asking me to be little Athena’s godmother.

Marcus would have liked that. And John would like the bike jacket.

One coat, socks and gloves for my brother and a bike jacket for John was not exactly the generous give-to-the-homeless/clear-the-basement effort I had in mind, but it was a step. I was even slightly proud of myself for my courage to let go of these specific items, so symbolic and loaded with memory. I brought the coat and bike jacket upstairs and packed them into mailing boxes.

Later that evening I went for my inaugural basement bike ride. It wasn’t easy setting up the bike trainer. It’s a Blackburn Trakstand Ultra, a high-end piece of equipment, and it had never been used (underscoring Marcus’ lost dreams and goals for his future). The back wheel didn’t stay locked into place, the tire dragged on the floor burning rubber, and the front wheel was squirrely. But after a few outbursts of profanity I managed to get everything straightened out.

I was pedaling up the mountain, so to speak, and the more energy I exerted the more I felt my cells release the impurities held inside each one of them. The harder I pedaled the more the residual gunk came unstuck from my membranes and exited my body via my sweat. The sugar from all those Candy Cane Joe Joes I’m addicted to. The alcohol from the red wine. The fat from many years of bacon cheeseburgers. And not just the physical but the psychic gunk too. Grief lingers in my cells like plaque hardened on arteries, and heavy exercise taps into this well of grief, a spring that bubbles far below the surface where I prefer it to stay. I used to love long distance running, but I don’t run anymore because when I have tried I’ve only ended up doubling over with sadness in the middle of my workout, bawling so hard I was unable to continue. When you’re three or four miles out on a trail carrying a heavy load of grief, believe me, it’s a long walk home.

I didn’t have the reserves during the first year after Marcus died to manage this deep, cellular level grief. But having had time to heal, rebuild a support system, gather emotional strength, and move to the peaceful prairielands of rural Iowa, I am better equipped. Besides, on a stationary bike, the risk of having a grief burst miles from home is eliminated. If I have an emotional breakdown I can just go back upstairs. To my bathtub and a glass of wine.

I turned up the volume on my iPod as high as it would go and keeping pace with the music moved my legs as fast as they would go. And there, in the safety of my windowless (soundproof) basement I once again touched the void. The recognition that I was using Marcus’ bike trainer crept in, along with the image of his post-office-ready coat and bike jacket on my desk upstairs. And then the flood gates opened. Along with a slide show of mental images of my late husband came the tears. I continued pedaling as long as my legs would hold out, until I practically collapsed. Spent, I laid my forehead on the handlebars and just sobbed. Puddles of tears gathered on the floor, and I was cognizant enough to have the thought “Good thing the floor is concrete.” Sheesh.

My body is like Marcus’ bins of clothes and gear. Inside it my grief has been in storage -- with the lid firmly in place. I’ve been hanging onto it, reluctant to let it go. Letting go of the grief, like letting go of Marcus’ clothes, means letting go of him. I don’t want to lose anymore of him than I already have.

And so, like a snake shedding yet another skin from the inside out, I let the tears come. Crying can be as helpful and cleansing as exercise, clearing out the debris and making room for the new. And because I was both exercising and crying, I figured I would be twice as well off after my little “work out.”After an hour, I wiped the snot from my nose on my shorts, changed back into my overalls, and left my heap of sweaty (and snotty) bike clothes on top of the washing machine.

What happens in the basement stays in the basement.

I headed back upstairs feeling depleted but a little bit lighter, my eyes puffier but my cell membranes more fluid and freer than before I started my bike ride. A few calories burned, a little less burdened by grief, and with memories of Marcus still fully intact, it was all a win-win.

The packages with Marcus’ belongings are still sitting on my desk, but I have willed myself to go to the post office today. I will muster up the strength to say goodbye to a few more pieces of the man I loved -- still love -- and take heart in knowing they will be appreciated and well used by people Marcus knew and cared about.

Also on my agenda for today? It’s back to the basement for me. I have clean bike clothes, a rocking new play list on my iPod, and a box of Kleenex. Just in case.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Pie Teacher

When I was 22 I took a career interest test. I had always wanted to be a writer but my parents didn't consider writing a real job. But if not a writer then what would I be when I grew up? In a fit of desperation to find out I consulted a career counselor. The test results suggested I become a hair dresser or a florist. What???! While I recognized the value of these jobs and the fact these high scores showed I possessed a strong sense of aesthetics, I was, at the time, insulted. (Okay, fine, I was incensed.) Further, I was advised by the career counselor, "You scored lowest for teaching. Do not ever plan on becoming a teacher."

Which is why, on Thursday -- 26 years after taking that career test -- I found it somewhat miraculous to be standing in a classroom in front of 26 high school students at Cardinal School in Eldon, Iowa, teaching them how to make apple pie. Me, a teacher.

I was originally invited to speak to the freshmen and sophomore Literature Enhancement class about my career as a writer. That’s right. After trying on many other salary-earning pursuits for size – sales, public relations, coffee entrepreneur, and a summer as a forest ranger -- I finally mustered up the courage to defy my parents regarding my career path. I had had a lot of practice defying them for everything else, but my professional life was somehow the last stand I took against them. I officially became a writer after my Grandma Genny died and left me just enough of an inheritance to buy a laptop and printer and pay for a UCLA Extension class called "How To Write for Magazines." I was 30.

Fast forward to my current age -- and no, I’m not going to lie about it, I'm…cough, cough, 48 -- where I can say I’ve been successful because I have accumulated a fat portfolio to show for it, with articles published in magazines including Elle, Shape, Fitness, Sports Illustrated for Women, Travel & Leisure, and, don't tell my mother, Playboy. I’ve written a memoir about living in Germany (for better or worse, not published). And I have been writing this blog, The World Needs More Pie, for the past three years. It was because of the public nature of my blog – and its dependence on technology -- that the teacher, Patti Durflinger – or “Miss D” as she is called -- brought me into the class.

The technology component is significant because the school has a well-funded program which provides each student with their own Macintosh laptop. Lucky them. The school’s mandate is to utilize the computers to the fullest in their curriculum, which is why Miss D originally suggested I give my talk via Skype. Seeing I live four miles from the school, I thought this was a ridiculous notion. “Let me come in person,” I said, adding, “and I’ll teach them how to make pie.”

I can’t explain exactly how I made the leap from writer’s lecture via Skype to teaching pie-making in person. Maybe it was because of my own history, how I rebelled against a high-tech (high paying) web producing job in order to do something tactile. Creating virtual environments online made me in turn crave creating something tangible, something you could touch, taste and smell, for god’s sake! Technology and its simulation of real life is no substitute for, well, real life. So during the height of the dot com boom I traded one extreme for another and became a (minimum wage) pie baker in Malibu.

The adorable Miss D
I promised Miss D, however, that in spite of my apparent conflict of interest I wouldn’t bash on technology. I would instead try to tie the benefits of technology into my lesson. After all, I would sooner cut off my arm than live without high-speed Internet. I also suggested as a compromise they video tape the lesson, so they could still use their tech equipment and I would have some instructional footage to use for my pie website.

In spite of my best intentions I was dreading going to school. School, to me, has always felt akin to being locked in a cage -- too confining and so contrary to my free-spirited nature that I spent most of my student years looking for ways to escape. I won’t go into all of my bad, detention-awarded behavior, but my parents, principal and I found a win-win in the end with me graduating a semester early from high school and a full year early from college. I’m no brainiac; I’m just impatient. As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” I was born with an abundance of will.

Unlike my own high school track record of tardiness I made it through the door of Cardinal School well before the final bell at 8:15 a.m. After all, I am a responsible adult now! And I am no longer a student but a teacher! I carried my tub of pie supplies into the Home Ec room and laid out all the rolling pins, bowls, measuring cups, and pastry brushes, and awaited the onslaught of hormone-raging teenagers.

They filtered in, coming in waves, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, backpacks slung over their shoulders and with cell phones firmly placed in hands. Miss D kept count so when I heard her say “26” I knew it was show time.

I have taught many people how to make pie over the years, but never in a group of more than eight. The size of my pie classes is contingent on available oven space. The Home Ec department at Cardinal has five ovens, only four of them work, but based on capacity of eight pies per oven, we could accommodate this large group. Well, the ovens could accommodate. I wasn’t sure how I would do.

If you have met me then you know I am bossy, opinionated, and when I get set on an idea there is no getting me to back down. I put these personality traits to work in my new role as school teacher. I greeted the class, briefly introducing myself as world traveler, writer, widow, pie baker and Native Iowan, and then immediately engaged the kids by having them wash their hands and choose an apron from my personal collection of the most hideous, old-fashioned aprons one can own. After that the next three flour and sugar-filled hours are a blur. It was as if I entered an altered state, a place where my focus was so extreme nothing else outside of the present moment existed. I wonder now, is teaching always like this? Is it the kind of job where you’re so engaged you not only don’t watch the clock, you’re not even aware if there’s a clock in the room? And if it is, could this be a good job for me?

I could explain to you how everyone was spread out around six long tables, how I had to stand on a chair to be seen, how I had to talk loud and fast and deliberately to keep everyone’s attention, and how I raced around the room (thank god I wore my sneakers…and deodorant) from student to student to student to offer my assistance or approval on their pie progress, but I’ll let the videos below speak for me. I can only shake my head when I watch the clip of me giving apple peeling instructions while standing on a chair in my overalls and checkered apron. I’m part schoolmarm, part stand-up comedian. Did the students think I was bitchy or funny? I couldn’t tell, and I didn’t have time to care. We had 26 pies to get in the ovens!

APPLE PEELING



MAKING PIE DOUGH



SHAPING AND ROLLING PIE DOUGH



PIE IMPROV: USING WATER BOTTLES AS ROLLING PINS


I used the 45 minutes of baking time to give my speech. My life story. At least a few snippets of it. And I used the opportunity to convey a few lessons I’ve learned in life: 1. Learn a foreign language while you’re young, it’s harder to learn as you get older. 2. Good communication skills, including proper grammar and ability to write, provide the foundation for everything else. 3. Exercise. A strong body is a strong mind.

My talk was interrupted by smoke billowing out of one of the ovens. It was nothing serious, just overflowing pie filling, but it signaled the pies were done.

What a sight to behold. Twenty-six pies lined up on a table, surrounded by 26 beaming, bouncy teenagers who couldn’t wait to cut into their works of art. Every single pie looked perfect. Perfect in that homemade, no-two-are-alike kind of way. They weren’t allowed to cut their pies until after lunch, when they had cooled, and it gave them time to think about whom they would share their pie with. Sticking with the theme that “Pie Heals,” I set a mandate that they give away at least one slice to someone in need, someone who might be going through a hard time, having a bad day, and needed cheering up.

They really liked this idea of giving pie away to make others happy and they took it seriously. I was so impressed with this as well as everything else they did during the course of the three-hour class. They went from not wanting to get their hands dirty in the dough, to not wanting to put the dough down. They were very flexible when told we were short on rolling pins and some were going to have to roll their pie crust with water bottles borrowed from the athletic department. They listened, they participated, they asked good questions, they jumped right in to do the work, they asked for help when they needed it, and they helped each other. If the dough was stuck to the table, extra apples needed peeling, or a pastry brush was in demand, I watched as they came to each other’s rescue.

When I got home instead of being drained after the chaos and constant motion I was energized. I was as beaming and proud of the students’ efforts and outstanding results as they were. Maybe even more so. What was that Swedish proverb I just quoted in my last post? Ah, yes. “Joy shared is joy doubled.” If joy shared is joy doubled, then what is joy shared times 26? I’ve been baking pies for three months straight for the Pitchfork Pie Stand, and while baking makes me happy, I’ve never been as fulfilled as I was giving birth to 26 new pie bakers. Days later, I'm still ecstatic.

I’m not sure how I would do as a full-time teacher, but I’m just sorry it’s taken me 26 years to discover the results of that career test were wrong. Very wrong. I hope this is only the beginning of a lot more time spent in…yes, in school.

**To get another perspective on my pie class at Cardinal School, see the article that appeared in the Ottumwa Courier the following day. On the front page.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Why We Blog

My friend Jill is a gorgeous, sassy, accomplished, articulate friend (and fellow pie baker) who asked my advice on her new blog. She was feeling insecure and deflated after her husband so generously offered his opinion. "My husband thinks blogging is a waste of time."

In fact, her husband feels so strongly, and so negatively, about this he wrote a diatribe against the whole social networking trend on -- oh the irony -- a blog.

"The underlying impulse behind all this frantic networking is the veiled desire to affirm both one's ego and one's identity," he vented online. "The result is a gusher of trivia that is almost psychotic in its ferocity and pathetic in its quest for attention. But perhaps its greatest fault is that by embracing trivia and fostering human contact it demeans the English language. In the course of its flippant abbreviations both of speech and thought, it banishes certain values, which it has taken centuries to develop and, in place of creativity, it champions banality and encourages self-adulation."

His tone was critical, closed minded, and, let's face it, archaic, but still, I couldn't shake the dark cloud his opinion had cast upon me. It caused to stop and take stock of my own essays -- er, blog posts. Was I being self-adulating and simply trying to affirm my ego in my efforts to share my life's challenges and adventures? Was I merely seeking attention? Further, do other people even care about what's going on in my life? I mean, everyone has their own unique universe to focus on without wasting their time reading about mine.

There was a time -- only three years ago in real time, the equivalent of three decades in Internet time -- when I shared Jill’s husband's sentiments. I even wrote my own diatribe against Twitter and Facebook -- yes, on my blog, which at the time was brand new. It was my fifth post, to be exact. There are still many aspects of my story that still hold true -- like the importance of spending real life face time with people, getting away from the computer to exercise and get fresh air, and creating something artistic – like pie – with your own hands. But my opinions -- and my life -- have evolved considerably since then.

Which is why I was quick to reply to my friend's email. "No, Jill!" I wrote. "I know you love your husband and respect his opinion, but he is wrong. Social networking is an invaluable communications and marketing tool. And seeing as you're the bread winner, he has no room to talk. Go ahead and put yourself out there. You have every right to express your own creative voice."

My mother might side more with Jill’s husband. She has always told me I tell people too much. "Things you say could come back to hurt you," she warned. It's a good thing she doesn't read my blog because not only do I tell people a lot, I tell them EVERYTHING. I am a firm believer that “honesty is the best policy” and what I have learned from living by this creed is the only thing that hurts is staying silent.
Try telling Kelly Sedinger that blogging is a waste of time. If you do, you'll probably get a pie in the face.
On Sunday I received an email from a man in Upstate New York who has become a regular reader of my blog, which he discovered not from doing a Google search for pie, but for bib overalls. I find this highly amusing as wearing overalls ranks somewhere near the bottom on my list of attributes. Nonetheless, he wasn’t writing to me because of my farmer pants. This stranger (Kelly Sedinger, who I would now consider, well, a Facebook friend at the very least) was writing to tell me how much he appreciated my raw honesty about grief, about my long, emotional and sometimes suicidal process of dealing with the loss of my husband, and how my stories have helped him deal with his own grief over the loss of his two-year-old son. He also told me how he and his wife have used pie (coconut cream) to help heal, though in a most unusual way, by throwing it in each other’s faces!

I have received many emails like this (minus the pie throwing part) since Marcus died, since I began pouring my pain out onto the virtual pages of the Internet. Not a “gusher of trivia that is almost psychotic in its ferocity and pathetic in its quest for attention,” as Jill’s husband says. No, I’m gushing about REAL life. There are people out there who have no one to relate to, to talk to, to share with – for one, because our society is so reluctant to open up about death and other difficult subjects. And so, I relate, talk, share. And people, like my overall-wearing, pie-throwing reader in New York, relate, talk, and share back.

My friend Christine Buckley just started a blog called Seeking Shama about her cross-country road trip to help resolve her “existential crisis” after getting fired from a job she didn’t even like. She’s 41, fit, beautiful, well educated, highly employable, and, at face value, has nothing to complain about. Surely Jill’s husband would have a field day with this one. He would call it “banality,” while so many others are so starved for soul-searching stories like these that her essays are now published on the Huffington Post. I can just picture him fuming over this.

We, as human beings, need each other. We need to share our stories no matter how trivial, dramatic, or death-related they might be. We need to be honest. If we don’t share things, things that scare us or fill us with shame, what happens to all that fear and shame? It’s like I’ve said about grief when the baby rabbit died: Emotion is energy that needs to get out of your body. If you don’t release it, it will manifest itself in other ways like disease. Or, as my friend Nan reminds me, “Disease comes from dis-ease.” We need to share the good stuff too, the happiness, the victories. A Swedish proverb sums up in 12 words (plenty short to be posted on Twitter) perfectly: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” If you get instant gratification -- or relief -- from sharing your joy and sorrow and everything in between over the Internet, well, good!

As for the “flippant abbreviations both of speech and thought” -- and countering my own initial reaction of “who cares what I’m doing now” -- I've come to enjoy the banter on Facebook and Twitter and marvel at the creative use of English. It really is like learning a new language, one that is short, to the point, and often twisted in ways so funny I laugh out loud. Flippant is good. Irreverent, even better. Thank god for the social break that these social networking sites provide amidst stressful or sometimes uneventful days. I live in a rural area and to be connected with smart, sophisticated, successful types from NYC to London and beyond keeps me from feeling cut off from the outside world, it stimulates my mind and keeps me from sinking into the vortex of despair where one can go when lacking human contact. Out there on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and beyond is a big, entertaining, often useful conversation going on 24/7 that I can drop in on anytime I feel the need for some company or want to speak my mind. And god knows, it's better than TV. Harmful to our language? Hardly. You want to talk about the demise of English? Come to my town where there’s rampant use of the word “ain’t.”

Social networking, and blogging in particular, is not a waste of time. It is an essential means of broadening our minds, our creativity, our friendships, and, mainly, our connections. Man is not meant to be alone and if we find each other in cyberspace, so what. It’s a good place to start. And after making those initial connections, sharing our stories with each other, and discovering common ground from which to launch meaningful relationships, there's a lot further we can take them. I look forward to meeting my blog readers, fellow bloggers and Twitter followers in person. And my life will be so much richer for it. All because of a of a little blog about pie.

I wish I could give you the URL to Jill’s blog, because she really is a great writer with a wicked sense of humor. She’s got the kind of charming voice where she can sling insults and make them sound like compliments. Kind of like getting a coconut cream pie thrown in your face. It’s so delicious you don’t even mind how it arrived in your mouth! She has talent. She also has a wonderful little business, which deserves to succeed. But Jill isn’t even her real name. She loves her husband, even though he is resistant to change, and I don’t want to offend her anymore than I already have, so I’ll stop there.

Everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard. Where and how are you sharing yours?  Creating a blog is free. Ditto for Facebook page, Twitter and LinkedIn. And by all means, please feel free to connect with me on Facebook or Twitter (worldneedspie).

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Murals Make a Difference

My brother, Mike, is the coolest. He runs a non-profit business called Operation Clean Slate in Southern California, where he paints murals with school kids to fight graffiti. Or as he calls it, a "campus beautification program." The premise is that kids -- or taggers, as graffiti vandals are called -- want recognition, even if it's negative recognition. Even if it lands them in Juvenile Hall. But Mike knew that if the kids painted "authorized" murals they would not only get positive recognition, they would help protect their public art against other taggers.

He learned this when he had a job teaching at Juvenile Hall. He conducted a survey to find out why these kids ended up in, well, kiddie jail. The answer was overwhelmingly graffiti, a national problem which costs tax payers $10 to $15 billion annually. It was either this revelation or the fact that a couple of particularly bad seeds tried to escape and part of their plot was to kill their teacher (Mike) if necessary, that prompted him to leave his teaching job and create Operation Clean Slate.


Check out his new time-lapse video of creating a mural from start to finish. Love the surfer-music sound track!

The point is, it's been going strong ever since -- going on nearly 20 years. His work has evolved to be less about graffiti and more about promoting healthy living. His mural themes focus on fitness, pedestrian safety, anti-tobacco, water conservation, and eating more vegetables.

Now if I can just get him to shift his theme to Eat More Pie.

The LA Daily News just published an article on the positive effect his work is having on the community. I know I'm proud of him and the work he does. I've painted on several of his projects and it's as fulfilling as baking pie and giving it away. Regardless of whether it's pie or paint, he's doing his part to make the world a better -- and more beautiful -- place.

To sponsor a mural, make a donation, or get involved, contact Operation Clean Slate directly.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pie, American Gothic Style: My Latest House Guest Writes About Her Stay

I don't normally do this, re-post someone else's blog, but this story by Christine Buckley still resonates with me. Christine was my latest house guest at the American Gothic House and she wrote about her pie baking experience here. In her piece, she truly captured the essence of pie and how it heals, something I am still attempting, after hundreds of my own blog posts, to articulate. She's on a cross-country, soul-searching road trip, and Eldon, Iowa was just another stop along her planned three-month journey. I like to think it will be her most memorable one.
Christine and her Prius, ready to get back on the road.
If you are a Facebook friend of mine (or you "like" The World Needs More Pie page on FB), then you've already seen her story. But I felt it warranted a place here, a little more permanence (if that concept is even possible in the blogosphere), so here it is-- Christine's Seeking Shama blog, where the Pitchfork Pie Stand makes its debut.

Christine is also blogging for the Huffington Post and rumor has it she'll be posting something about the American Gothic House there too. I hope she'll write about our night volunteering for Bingo at the community center and going for milkshakes at the Southside Pharmacy -- and, of course, more about pie. We shall see.
Christine's new blog design was created while she was here, upstairs in the American Gothic House. Using Skype to connect screens with webmeister Shanti Sosienski, they used 21st century technology in this 19th century house. Pretty cool!
One last word, then I have to go back to the kitchen and check on my pies in the oven: I highly recommend this road trip, drive-to-self-discovery kind of travel to anyone as you never know what road sign will lead you to a new and surprising destiny. Um, Crater Lake. American Gothic House. Just saying. I hope Christine will find what she's looking for out there on the road. Or, better yet, it will find her. Either way, it's sure to be -- and already has been -- an exciting adventure.

The American Gothic Hotel is now taking reservations for the next house guests.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Day the MINI Coopers Came to Town

Just another day at the American Gothic House.
When you live in the American Gothic House you never know who -- or what -- is going to turn up on your doorstep. Case in point: yesterday, a group of 15 MINI Coopers, driving in two groups from Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, converged in Eldon, Iowa. Looking like escapees from "The Italian Job," first they assembled in the American Gothic House Center's parking lot. They seemed to know the drill. They backed into the parking spaces, bumpers perfectly lined up, and out came the cameras.
But that was just Phase I. Phase II included lining up the cars in front of the American Gothic House -- er, my house -- for the "real" shoot. They even brought a ladder to get better shots.
Here they come.
Forget the pitchfork and costumes and usual parodies. These cutie pies need no adornment.
Not sure what my neighbor would say if she saw the cars on the lawn. Good thing she's gone until spring!
Roger and Me. Roger Sitterly of Des Moines organized the day's outing. Besides pre-ordering the pies, he had trivia questions for the MINI drivers to answer and prizes to hand out.
But the drive/photo shoot was really just an excuse. They came for pie. But they had to wait.
At last, the paparazzi cleared (at least that's what it felt like), and I opened the doors to the Pitchfork Pie Stand -- a.k.a. my living room -- and cut into an apple pie. Mmmm, still warm. As you may be able to see in the background (below), the crowd was still snapping photos inside the house. They even took a picture of my brand new oven as if, by virtue of simply being in the kitchen of the American Gothic House, it was a celebrity!

I may have missed out on the group road trip, but my own MINI Cooper was given center stage in the photo shoot. Always one to stand out from the crowd, mine was the only one with a bike rack on the roof. As for my Oregon plates, I wasn't the only one from out of state. There was another MINI from Virginia, en route to Wisconsin, by way of Iowa. Ending up at the American Gothic House was just another roadside attraction for him. But for me, every day here is a great adventure. Who knows who -- or what -- will turn up next on my doorstep. I can't wait to find out.
Cute cars, cute house. Life is good.
Links to more pictures and stories from the day:
MINIs of Eastern Iowa: "A MINI Event as Sweet as Apple Pie"
Eldon MINI Pie Fest
"Pie Lady" photos by Dean
American Gothich House Center Newsletter

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Aldi Fever: My Love Affair with a German Grocery Store

The connection to past and present, lit up in neon.
I love Aldi. Aldi is a German-owned discount grocery store chain in both Germany and the U.S. (Aldi U.S. has 1,000 stores in 29 states. And, a little known fact, Aldi also owns Trader Joe’s.) Marcus introduced me to Aldi when we were still dating. I flew to Germany for our first Thanksgiving together and had hauled a suitcase full of ingredients -- like canned pumpkin and pecans for pie, and fresh cranberries -- to prepare an American Thanksgiving dinner for my future husband and in-laws. When Marcus took me to Aldi to get the rest of the supplies I had reverse sticker shock from the prices – they were beyond cheap! After we got married and I moved to Germany, I made almost daily trips to this store during the two and a half years I lived there. I was as smitten with Aldi as I was with my husband, so much so that Marcus’ grandma used to tease me. “Du hast Aldi Fiber,” Oma Inge would say. Aldi Fever. Yes, it was true. I was delirious over the organic produce, the variety of dairy products, spicy sausages, fresh roses, and the German specialty foods (like Maultaschen, Spätzle, and Rote Grütze), and -- my favorite -- the weekly, rotating offerings of non-food items like Turkish bath towels, bicycle gear, sheepskin slippers, rain coats, DVD players, juicer machines, flannel sheets, pajamas, running tights, ski gloves, and so on. All high quality for low – very low -- prices. If there is anything I love in this life, it’s a good bargain.

So when I moved into the American Gothic House and discovered there is an Aldi in Ottumwa, 15 miles away, I was thrilled. Until I walked in the door.
Aldi: Same store, different country.
Not only did the Aldi in Ottumwa, Iowa look similar to the Aldi in Stuttgart, Germany, it carried many of the same brands. I made it two steps down the first aisle when I saw the chocolate display with the Moser Roth label. That’s the same chocolate we bought in Germany, same name, same box, same everything. Then, because it is a German store after all, there was a display of sauerkraut, red cabbage, pretzels, and even Spätzle (egg noodles). I had to laugh. I had not liked living in Germany, and yet now I was practically doing cartwheels over finding German food – and the rock bottom prices -- in my Iowa town. (I had even been excited to find that many of my neighbors in Eldon have German names.)
Is this heaven? No, it's European chocolate at Aldi. In Iowa.
I wanted to call Marcus at work and tell him where I was and what I was putting in my shopping cart. He would love to hear this and would definitely tease me about my change of heart toward All Things German. For a moment I actually thought I could call him. But in the split second I forgot, I also remembered again. I lost my breath, along with my composure, as reality struck like a John Deere combine barreling over my chest. “I can’t call him. He’s dead.”

I stood there in that first aisle, tears streaming down my face. What a strange site I must have been to the other Ottumwa shoppers. Why is this girl crying about chocolate? Or is she crying over the egg noodles?

I made it to the check out where I wished I could tell the clerk – or anyone in the store who would listen -- my story. My story about how I had shopped at Aldi in Germany and how shopping here was a powerful connection between my past and present. About how I was born here in Ottumwa, had lived all over the world, and now, as if by some divine intervention, I’m back. Would this clerk know that Aldi’s first U.S. store was right here in Southeast Iowa? Would she even care? Would she or any of the other shoppers appreciate the ability to buy these wonderful European goods here in rural America?

As the clerk pulled my purchases off her conveyor belt, I wanted – needed -- to tell someone how Marcus taught me that sauerkraut is “full of vitamins,” how he pronounced “vitamins” the British way, with a soft “i,” and how he could make something as mouth-puckering as sauerkraut sound delicious, sexy. But gushing my jumble of thoughts to her would have only confused her and embarrassed me further, so I left as quickly as I could (with my Belgian chocolate and German sauerkraut) and drove home.
Aldi is known for its extra long conveyor belts. In Germany you're required to lay your bottles down...or else! Also, no bagging clerks here. And you have to bring your own bags. It's the European way -- and I like it.

Like everything associated with grief, there is a conditioning process. The first anything is hardest – first Thanksgiving (um, last year…), first anniversary (yeah, that too was brutal…), first birthday, first time driving past the hospital where he was pronounced dead. But you get used to things. You adapt. You survive. And as long as I am still alive I have to eat. Therefore I have to shop for groceries (and, of course, pie supplies.) And thus I returned to Aldi.
A quirky Aldi thing: you need a quarter to release the locked shopping carts. (In Germany it's a Euro coin.) You get it back when you return your cart. This way, no need to hire parking lot help and no driving into stray carts!
Back in the store for a second time I braced myself for the possibility of another grief burst. I made it past the chocolate and egg noodles with no problem, but felt my chest tighten when I walked past the shelves of lotion and shampoo bearing the same Lacura brand name I’d bought at the Stuttgart Aldi. This time I embraced the nostalgia, and even stopped to read the labels, in both English and German. My mood lifted entirely when I got to the produce and found ripe avocados for 40 cents each. And then the Granny Smith apples for – are you kidding me? – 31 cents a pound. Yes! The bargain prices were doing wonders for dealing with my grief. I bought 60 pounds of apples (for my Pitchfork Pie Stand) and was feeling much better about life by the time I left the store.
You cannot get apples cheaper than this unless you grow them on your own trees!
I’ve continued to shop at Aldi for the two months I’ve lived here and I was doing fine. Until last week.

Aldi’s seasonal specials now include Christmas cookies and candies. The same ones I used to buy in Germany. The soft gingerbread cookies called Lebkuchen. The chewy cinnamon stars called Zimtstern. The almond paste-filled chocolates called Lübeker Marzipan. Marcus and I had traveled one summer to the Northern Germany town of Lübeck where these very chocolates are made. I could picture the old brick buildings there and the ships moored in this harbor town. I could also see the wooden advent calendar in which Marcus’ mother had stuffed each day’s box with these same Lübeker Marzipan chocolates. Sigh.

I picked up a package of the cinnamon stars and with it came a flash of vivid memory. Just the thought of eating one of these bite-sized hazelnut biscuits put me right back in the living room of our tiny hilltop apartment with the sweeping view of Stuttgart’s juxtaposed picturesque vineyards butting up against the industrial Mercedes-Benz factories. I could see the steam pumping out of the power plant across the river and the Mercedes-Benz lit star logo spinning on the tower of the train station. I could feel the pang of looking at Marcus' office further on, wishing he would get home from work soon. I was so transported I forgot I was in Iowa. I pushed the tears away and, instead of crying, I stood there in Aisle #3 and opened the bag of cookies. I popped a little frosted star in my mouth. I could not only see Germany, I could taste it. I could taste Marcus.
I ate a lot of these Lebkuchen in Germany. And now I can eat them in Iowa. Note: Trader Joe's carries these too during the holiday season.
Thanksgiving is next week. It will mark the eight year anniversary of that first shopping trip to Aldi in Germany with Marcus. Life has certainly presented unfathomable events and almost insurmountable challenges since then. But some things haven’t changed. I still love Marcus, I still love Aldi, and god knows, I still love a good bargain. This week’s non-food specials include baking supplies -- oven liner, oven mitts, baking pans, pie plates, and pastry brushes. I’ve got to get back there before they sell out! So, yes, as Oma Inge would say, I still have Aldi Fever.