Friday, January 28, 2011

There's No Place Like Home (Yes, Eldon, Iowa)

One week ago today I drove to Chicago, to spend the weekend participating in National Pie Day activities. Even though this "pie holiday” should have been as exciting to me as, say, Thanksgiving—after all, pie is "my thing"—it was hard to get enthused about extracting myself from the comfort of my house to make the five-and-a-half-hour drive across rural Midwest backroads in sub-zero weather, knowing my main mission was to hand out 1,000 free slices of pie on the freezing Windy City streets. I love making others happy through pie, but, really, what was I thinking?

Fine. It was too late to back out. I was going to Chicago whether I wanted to or not. And as long as I was going, I would stop at the Art Institute to see the American Gothic painting. After all, I live in the house that appears in the painting and while I’ve seen countless posters and parodies of the place, I had never seen Grant Wood’s original piece of art.
At the Art Institute, I asked the door greeter where to find the painting and, with directions in hand, made a beeline for the American Art wing. The Art Institute is a quiet, dimly lit, rather austere place, appropriately so for its collection of famous works meant to be viewed with reverence. And then I walked in. When I first arrived in front of American Gothic, I was in the gallery alone. I stood as close to the portrait as possible, in awe, inspecting every fiber of Wood’s paintbrush, every glossy stroke of oil in the man’s black jacket, examining the variances in texture in the woman’s apron, layers of paint that had been impossible to glean from the one-dimensional reproductions. I studied the house—my house. I had just left Eldon, Iowa, and here I was, looking at my own house in the painting. I felt such a surprising attachment to the place. The longing it evoked was so strong I wanted to crawl through the canvas and go inside the house, where I had been drinking coffee at my desk five and a half hours earlier. I wanted to be in my bed that sits behind the Gothic window. I wanted to sit on the couch with my dogs, who were at that moment inside the house. Without me. I was flooded with memories of my life there. All five months of it. I could see every pie I had made in the kitchen. I could smell the vanilla scent of the candles I burn every day while I write. I could feel myself opening the front door to let the dogs out. I wanted to go home.

“Ma’am, you need to step away from the painting. You’re too close.” The female guard approached me, waving me back to what she deemed a safe distance. I wanted to tell her, “I live in that house!” But she wouldn’t have believed me.
More people filed into the room, stopping in front of the painting to gawk and pose for a snapshot in front of it. Did they know the house exists in real life? Certainly they didn’t know its current resident was right behind them, feeling a homesickness that she had never known before.

Home. I haven’t had a real home for many years. I don’t even remember the last time I had a sense of home. I lived in Ottumwa, Iowa from birth until I was 12. After that, it’s a blur of temporary residences. My dad still complains about how I’ve filled up all the pages of his address book. My adult life has been a revolving door of apartments spanning from Seattle to Hawaii to New York to Germany to Mexico and beyond. But living in the American Gothic House, even though I rent it from the State Historical Society, feels more like a home than any place I’ve lived combined. I love everything about it. The uneven plank wood floors. The cracks in the kitchen doors that let in the drafts. The creaking of the front porch. The short, squatty bathtub. The weathered posts of the clothesline. I love the neighbors who come to the back door delivering homemade treats. I love the space surrounding the house, the soybean field where deer graze, and the park-like setting of my expansive yard, where my dogs chase squirrels. I love how my furniture fits into every nook and cranny as if it was custom designed for the house. I love the quiet, the solitude (well, in the winter when the tourists are scarce), the lack of airplanes overhead, the lack of cars, the lack of any noise at all.

My friends come to visit and while they too fall in love with the house, its quirks and its quiet, they all leave saying the same thing: “This is a good place for you. For now.” I bristle at their addition of the words “for now.” What if this is it? What if this is the place I will live for many years to come? And why shouldn’t it be? Just because my friends can’t imagine living 20 miles from the nearest grocery store and movie theater doesn’t mean I don’t love living in this remote setting. I prefer it.

My resistance to the weekend in Chicago was not because I couldn’t handle city life. Au contraire. I lived in Chicago 25 years ago and still know my way around like a local. I’ve since lived in Manhattan and LA and traveled in even bigger cities where English isn’t spoken. It’s just that now that I have discovered how good it feels to have a home, home is the only place I want to be.

I eventually tore myself away from the lure of the American Gothic painting—suppressing any further homesickness—and tackled the rest of the weekend with as much strength and determination as I could muster. I taught a pie baking class to a group of at-risk youth on Saturday. Then, on Sunday, we loaded up a borrowed van filled with 120 pies, generously donated by Bakers Square. Along with a team from the American Pie Council, we set up a table in a parking lot near Soldier Field to hand out free slices of apple pie and caramel/pecan/French silk pie to the game-goers.
On the big Pie Day—or Game Day, depending on how you view the world—I dressed in so many wool and fleece layers I looked fatter than the Pillsbury Dough Boy. But, by god, I was warm. In the end, it wasn’t Chicago’s frigid temperatures that challenged my endurance. It was the derogatory pie jokes made by the football fans, whose goal was to get as drunk as possible before the game began. It actually took some convincing to get them to set their beer bottles down long enough to enjoy a slice of pie.
Even if the sports fans didn’t display their best manners, I reminded myself that somehow the message of pie might still get through to them—that a stranger handing them a free piece of pie was a gesture—one too rare these days—of kindness and generosity, a display of caring and desire to connect through the simple goodness of comfort food. Beer may fill their bellies but pie fills the heart. If nothing else, those that passed up pie for Budweiser surely regretted the decision as they stood in line for the bathroom and missed seeing their team score.

My mistake was going for quantity and not quality. A thousand slices of pie was a lofty goal, and quantity is not what pie—well, my definition of pie-as-vehicle-to-happiness-and-healing—is about. Less is more. Small is beautiful. Less and small. Like living in Eldon, Iowa. At last, after my mid-January Chicago pie adventure, I am happily, safely, warmly back in the American Gothic House. There’s no place like home.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My NPR Debut: In Case You Missed It

Every morning I start my day by snuggling with Team Terrier in my bed directly behind the famous window of the American Gothic House, after which I go downstairs to make a cafe latte, hitting the "on" button of the radio on my desk as I pass by. The first voices I hear each day (and sometimes the ONLY voices I hear all day) are those of the NPR hosts, either on Morning Edition, or on weekends, Weekend Edition. I'm often making pies in the American Gothic House on Sunday mornings while listening to the confident yet comforting voice of Liane Hansen. Because NPR is such a big part of my life (and has been for many years, long before moving back to Iowa), the opportunity to be on Liane's show carried more significance than any other interview I've done. I always remember how my friend Lisa Tabb's dad told her, "You'll know you've really made it when you're on 'Fresh Air with Terry Gross.'" I didn't care which show I was on -- it was still NPR and I felt extremely privileged.


The problem with caring so much about an interview like this was that I was more nervous than I've ever been when talking about pie. "It's just pie!" I kept reminding myself. Pie is supposed to be a calming and comforting thing for me. And yet I had insomnia for two nights over doing this little segment -- the night before because of stage-fright and the night after because I thought I botched the interview.

You can listen to the 3-minute segment (link above) and decide for yourself whether or not I botched it. But it must not have been too bad because I've received a lot of emails from people sharing their pie stories and telling me they were inspired to go make pie. If I accomplished that, then yes, I guess it went well.

The best part of the interview, however, was after we stopped recording I was able to tell Liane how I listen to her show inside the American Gothic House, while I'm making pies. I think she liked hearing that. I'll think she'll like it even better when she receives the apple pie I'm going to send her.

And now we return to our regularly scheduled NPR listening. Phew.