Saturday, February 4, 2012

Guest Blogger: Jack Iken (My Mom is Going to South Africa)

That's me, Jack Iken. I like sticks. A lot.

My mom is packing her suitcase. The big one this time, not the small weekend bag. I don’t like it when my mom leaves. But she needs to take a break from her long days at the computer. She works too much (and doesn’t throw the stick for me enough.) I think she’s been kind of lonely too, since H left. (I miss H too. He was a good stick thrower.) She is going to Cape Town, South Africa to visit her good friend, my Aunt Alayne. I’ve known Aunt Alayne since I was a baby.

My mom is stopping over in Germany, which is where I was born, and it’s where my dad is buried in the ground. But my mom told me she’s not going to visit his grave because, she says, “He’s not really there.” Sometimes I think my dad is here in Iowa because my mom talks to him as if he is in the room. But I don’t see him. I wish I could see him. I wish he would throw the stick for me and let me pull off his socks and chase me around the living room like he used to. I miss my dad. So does my mom. I know this because sometimes she holds me really tight and whispers in my ear, “I miss your dad so much.”

Daisy and I are going to miss our mom when she’s gone. “Two and a half weeks isn’t that long,” she tells us. But in dog years two and a half weeks is more like three and a half months.

I know some things about my mom. I’ve known her seven years, which is like 49 years in dog time, so you could say I’ve known her for her whole life. I know she is afraid of leaving because she equates vacation with someone dying. Her dog before me, Gidget, died when my mom was on vacation. And my dad died when he was on vacation. She hasn’t left Daisy and me for more than four days in the past two and a half years. She hasn’t traveled overseas since she went to Germany for my dad’s funeral.

I always hear her telling people, “It’s a big world out there.” She tells them that when they get stuck in a rut or get too caught up in trying to hang onto something that isn’t working. She likes to give people encouragement and says other stuff like, “Think outside of the box” and “Get out of your comfort zone” and “Expand your thinking” and “Try something different.” Sometimes, when she’s trying to convince someone to really shake things up and go somewhere and be open to something new, she says, “You never know who you’re going to sit next to on the plane.”

I think she is trying to use her own advice on herself. But I know she’s scared about leaving us. And I think she’s even more worried after tonight because when she took us for a walk we heard like five hundred coyotes out in the cornfield. It sounded like they were having a big party and I kind of wanted to check it out. My mom said, “Get back here, young man. Right now. You don’t want to be at that kind of a party. That’s the sound coyotes make when they’re killing something. Now let’s get back inside. NOW. I mean it.”

Daisy and I will be fine. My mom just needs to go to Africa. Even though we are going to miss her, she needs to get out there and flap her wings like a big bird, like the big bald eagles that fly around our neighborhood. Birds always look like they are having so much fun. But, I wonder, do birds like to chase sticks? My mom needs to remember that even though she misses my dad and his death has made her more scared about life, scared about losing more people she loves – or dogs – she’s doing really well. She used to love traveling all over the world – I know this because she used to take me with her in the airplane everywhere she went. My mom always said I should have gotten my own frequent flyer miles, I went back and forth to Germany so many times.

I hope my mom brings me back some cool stuff. Maybe she’ll bring me a big zebra bone. Or a stick from a baobab tree would be really awesome. I promise to be good while she’s gone. Daisy too. And we promise not to die, not while she's away. Not anytime soon. Promise.

I just want my mom to be happy. I want her to come home with a big smile on her face and some good stories to tell us, maybe even something nice about who she sat next to on the plane. And then I want her to not sit at her computer again all the time. I want her to remember it's a big (stick-throwing) world out there.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Uniqueness of Pie...and People

Like a Miss America pageant, only pie.
I had forgotten what an individual expression pie can be. I get so used to making my same old classic apple pie, stuck on my soapbox preaching "keep it simple" and "I don't like to have to follow a recipe." Apple is certainly delicious pie, but when I attended a "First Annual Pie Palooza" yesterday I was reminded of just how many different pies are possible, and how those pies can reflect its maker. And, really, how variety is the spice of life.

The woman who held the party-slash-pie contest, Carolyn, lives in a neighboring town to mine. She and her twin sister Marilyn and their friend had stopped by my Pitchfork Pie Stand this summer and bought a few slices. Carolyn had been a regular follower of my blog, so when she discovered I was living close by she initiated the outing to the American Gothic House. And now, she claims, I was also the inspiration behind her pie party.

She even included a quote from me in her Pie Palooza email invitation prefacing it with "Why We Should All Bake Pies," leaving me to explain:

“Pie makes people happy. Happy people want to do nice things for others. When everyone is doing nice things for each other all the time there can be no war, and therefore pie can save the world.”

(She found the quote in Gina Hyams' "Pie Contest in a Box," and was using Gina's kit for the party.)

It wasn't until all the emails had gone out that Marilyn suggested to Carolyn, "Why not invite the pie lady?"

Carolyn replied, "She's so busy. She probably won't come. But okay, I'll send her an invitation." To Carolyn's surprise I immediately said yes.

She's right. I am busy. But I'm also home alone all day every day sitting at my desk in my bathrobe and taking breaks only to walk my dogs or, on a really good day, ride my bike. What Carolyn didn't consider is that while I love my solitude (it's essential for both my productivity and creativity), I am often very deprived of human contact. I get a little tired of having the same daily conversations with my dogs. Their part of the dialog is limited to "We want to go out. We want to come in. It's time for our breakfast. It's time for our snack. It's time for our dinner." Along with the occasional, "Could you please fluff up the sofa pillows?"

So to venture out on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of an Iowa winter -- an actual reason to get dressed! And brush my hair! -- came as a very welcome change of routine. And, hello? Eating pie with a dozen or so other women? This also sounded like great fun.
Having been a pie judge several times over (the National Pie Championships, twice at the Iowa State Fair, and once at the 52nd Annual Hedrick Iowa Barbeque Days), I knew how to approach the bounty: one bite at a time. I took only a small scoop out of each, circling the table like a pie-eating shark, my fork tines sharp and ready to dig in. I had learned my pie-eating capacity the hard way -- as in, all that sugar may not affect you immediately but it will eventually catch up with you. No matter how good the pie, you will feel ill. And you will regret pigging out. So I exercised this self-taught restraint.
A pie sampler. Also a sugar high. And potential ensuing stomach ache.
Everyone had brought a homemade pie. And not one pie was alike. Out of 12 pies I would have expected to see at least three All-American apples. But there wasn't one. (I brought a pumpkin pie, as I, in a rare twist, had no apples on hand.) I had never heard of some of the pies. One that was unusual but particularly tasty, called the "Mystery Torte," was made of Ritz crackers, egg whites, sugar and walnuts. It tasted like oatmeal cookies covered in whipped cream. It was sooooo good. But remember: Just. One. Bite.

Another was a "Spin-Off Boston Cream Pie" and I'm not sure what was the spin, though it may have been the sugar cookie crust. There was a Chocolate Mousse pie, a No-Bake Key Lime pie, a Rum Pecan pie, a Lemon Chess pie, and a Pumpkin-Pecan Streusel pie.  There was Carolyn's Sour Cherry pie with an all-butter crust, her mother's favorite. (Her mom is 92, living in Ohio, and Carolyn sent photos to her during the afternoon so she could see the festivities.) The cherry was my personal blue-ribbon pick. I ate a whole slice of it.

And there was one that surprised the hell out of me because I liked it so much: a Pineapple-Mango pie with....drum roll....a gluten-free crust! I am a person who flees in horror from the sight of anything marked "GF." But this crust had a slightly sweet and crunchy texture reminiscent of a crumble topping. And I love crumble topping. And I loved this pie. I had at least four bites.

After sampling all the pies we were asked to write down on a scrap of paper the number of our one favorite. This is always a challenge to choose only one. They were all good. Excellent, in fact. Outstanding. And none had a store-bought crust! They were all made at home. With love. And sugar.

And the winners are....The envelope please.
Pictured left to right: Mary took third place with her Key Lime. Bev holds the blue-ribbon for her Cranberry Raisin with a lattice top. And Claudia is happy with her second place victory for her Lemon Chess -- made with 3, count them, sticks of butter.

I understood why Bev's Cranberry Raisin won. It was one of those anomalies, not love at first bite, but you found something compelling about it so, curious, you went back for a second bite. And then a third. Maybe it was the mouth-puckering tartness followed by a pleasing aftertaste of sweetness that caused the "I want more, I need more" reaction. It's the same thing that caused me to vote for a Strawberry-Margarita pie at the Iowa State Fair one year. I wasn't sure I liked it at first, and then I couldn't stop eating it. And now I am STILL thinking about it. Those kind of pies don't come along every day. Kind of like people. Or boyfriends. Or books.

Speaking of books...
Note that everyone removed their shoes.
I was so relieved I had worn socks with no holes.
That closet cleaning project over Christmas paid off.
It turns out a good way to digest all that pie was to sit down with a cup of hot tea and listen to me read from my book, "Making Piece." This was an impromptu reading, I had only brought the book for Show & Tell, not to hold court, but it was good practice for me. It was the first time I had read to a group from my book. Ever. And the ladies were a gracious audience. It was especially reassuring to hear them laugh in all the right places. Fitting for the Pie Palooza contest, I chose part of the chapter on being a pie judge at the Iowa State Fair. In this section I describe how tasting Lana Ross's French Silk pie was the pie equivalent of having an orgasm.

I have a feeling the Second Annual Pie Palooza won't have the wide variety of flavors they had this year. But my guess is, seeing how everyone expressed their own individuality in their slightly exotic, beautifully decorated, gorgeous and delicious pies, when they all show up next year bringing the same "Lana Ross's Better Than Sex French Silk Pie" each one will have its own unique style and taste. And they will all be winners.