Friday, March 7, 2014

Isn’t It Ironic?

Daisy. Posing on the front porch of the American Gothic House.
This photo appears in my new cookbook, "Ms. American Pie."

I bought myself a bottle of my favorite white wine, La Crema Chardonnay, in anticipation of celebrating the end of a long, productive week.  But as they day wore on and cocktail hour approached, I felt less and less in a celebratory mood.

I took one of my two terrier-mixes to the vet this morning. My sweet little Mexican rescue, Daisy, grew up on the streets of Mexico and due to poor nutrition in her early years her bones and teeth are in bad shape. She was desperately in need of dental work so I made the appointment, dropped her off, and felt good about getting something done that is so helpful and important to her health.

Not so fast. No sooner did I get home, the vet called and said her blood tests showed that there might be something wrong with her kidneys or liver and that giving her anesthesia for the dental work could be risky. The blood will be sent to another lab for further analysis, but the results won’t be in until tomorrow. Oh, and Daisy may require further diagnosis before her decayed teeth can even be addressed. Instead of having relief over resolving her dental issues, I picked her up and spent the rest of the day fighting back my concerns (and tears) over the what-ifs and doomsday scenarios.

Yesterday my publisher said my cookbook was being sent to me via FedEx. She was sending an advance copy and it would be the first time I would see my new cookbook, Ms. American Pie, in print.  I spent the day in anticipation. Yes, this would definitely be a reason to crack open that bottle of wine. I’ve worked for a solid year on this one project. To see it in print for the first time would be a thrill. I assumed FedEx meant “overnight delivery.” I kept looking out the window all day. I saw not one, not two, but three FedEx trucks parked on the street at various times. I waited for the doorbell to ring. Nothing. I finally emailed the East coast office and learned that the book was sent via 2-day service—that’s 2 business days—so I won’t see the book until Monday. Fine. I’ve waited this long. What’s another 3 days.

I had surgery in December. Relatively minor. I won’t go into it. But it was something that has helped me tremendously by alleviating some ongoing pain. I was told my insurance policy wouldn’t cover it. But I found out just this week that, in fact, they paid a good portion of my medical bill. Pour me a glass of that wine now! This afternoon I opened a letter from them. “We are raising your premium.” Gee, thanks.

What a difference a roadside strawberry stand can make.
It’s 2 hours past the official start of cocktail hour and I still haven’t opened the bottle of wine. I’ve been too busy making pie. On the way home from the vet I saw a strawberry stand on the side of the road. It’s strawberry season in California. I practically slammed on the brakes to have a look—and a taste. I bought an entire flat of them and spent the afternoon baking—2 large strawberry crumble and 6 mini pies.
This photo is not to scale. It does not show the
 ENORMITY of both the strawberries and the pies.
I always preach—and I know from experience—that doing something nice for others can make you feel better. I made the pie to share with some friends, neighbors, and the local handyman. And maybe the FedEx guy on Monday. Yes, thanks to that pie—the soothing task of making and rolling dough, slicing all those strawberries, crimping the crust edges—and making it with the goal of sharing it, I've forgotten all about the disappointments of the day. Yeah, well, sort of.

I’m going to get out the corkscrew now, pour myself a glass of that chardonnay, and go snuggle with Daisy on the couch. And because I know the lyrics of Alanis Morrisette’s song all too well and know how this day has already gone, I will bring the fly swatter with me.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Sneak Preview: The Intro to my Cookbook "Ms. American Pie" (In stores April 2014)

My second book, "Ms. American Pie," will be in stores in another month. Giving birth to a book for the second time is just as scary as it was the first. It involves all the same labor pains and anticipation I felt before. You would think it would be easier knowing how well "Making Piece" was received. But this is a different kind of book for me, a cookbook, filled with recipes and essays, and pictures of pie, of my famous little house, and...gulp...of me.

My hope for this book is simply that it helps people get past their fear of making their own pie. And that once they do, they will make it and share it with others. Sharing something that you made yourself, with your own two hands, taking the time to put your heart and soul into it, well, I'm convinced that this gesture of generosity, care, and love can make the world a better place.

With permission from my publisher, I'm sharing a sneak preview of the introduction from the book. If it's too small to read, just click on the pictures to make them larger. Better yet, just buy the book. You can pre-order it now for arrival in April. The book has 10 essays and 80 recipes, all simple, easy to make. And no food processor required.




To pre-order "Ms. American Pie" please click here, where you can choose from several booksellers.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Letter to my Housesitter

Dear K,                                           March 2, 2014

I’m so grateful you are taking care of my house while I’m away, but I’m sorry you are having to deal with my [insert your own adjective here] neighbors. It was bad enough this fall when you first started house sitting. I remember your story about how your sweet little poodle ran out to greet your husband when he drove up and in her excitement ran a lap around the car and thus inadvertently touched one, maybe two paws down on the neighbors’ grass in what must have been a millisecond while circling around in a sprinting state of unbridled joy. This display of love is the precise reason we have dogs, is it not? You told me how the woman next door, whom we call Mrs. Binoculars (the name is self-explanatory), came outside shrieking at you. Oh, I know that shrill voice too well. She acted like your dog had committed some heinous crime, even though your sweet pet wouldn’t have even been on the grass long enough to leave behind one drop of pee.

The fact is, your poodle was probably still on city property as there is an easement between the gravel road and their actual property line. The other curious fact is, Old Binoculars used to have a dog herself so why this would upset her is difficult to compute. Nonetheless, I was so sorry to hear that Mrs. Binocular’s shouting, screaming reprimand to you about needing to keep your dog on a leash and off her lawn left you so upset. I know the subsequent shock and soul-crushing aftermath of such an unexpected and unwarranted tirade as I have endured the same type of treatment from her many times.

It doesn’t surprise me that she called the sheriff about the matter—she’s got him on speed-dial—but it disturbed me to hear that the sheriff knocked on your back door (er, my back door) at 11 pm. You said your husband drove to the house around 2pm, which would have been the time the dog ran her lap around the car, so it seems both unnecessary and inappropriate that the sheriff would come at such a late hour. I would have been scared no matter who knocked on the door that late! But then to first have to open the door to a stranger in uniform, only to get questioned over something so harmless, so mind-bogglingly miniscule, well, it makes you wonder how our tax-payer dollars are getting used! Why the sheriff bothers to show up, let alone listen to these neighbors’ unfounded complaints at all, is a mystery.

I had hoped you were still enjoying your time staying at the house. I love how you are using it as a weekend getaway and how you brought your art supplies and sewing machine. There is something magical about that house, about the creative energy it inspires. Everyone asks me if it’s haunted. But I tell them well, if it is, it’s inhabited by some very nice, very helpful ghosts who act as my muses. I wrote two books in that house. I hope to write a third—in fact, a story about the misadventures of living in a tourist attraction. I feel like that house has a soul, like it’s a living being in its own right. There have been times I’ve thought about moving, but then I will spend some time meditating on my dilemma and I swear I hear the house telling me, “No, please stay. I need you to take care of me.” I wonder if anyone has ever taken such good care of the house or loved it as much as I do—except for maybe you! I know from when I came back for a week in December that you are keeping the place spotless. I cannot thank you enough for being there, for keeping an eye on the place, for continuing to breathe warmth and positive life into the 130-year-old space.

I thought I was only going to be away for a month, maybe two. I just needed a break after an overly busy summer. I was burnt out from trying to run the pie stand while simultaneously finishing my cookbook. (Can you believe it will finally be published in a month?!) And then on top of the exhaustion that vegetarian boyfriend I had been dating all summer broke up with me, leaving my heart bleeding like beet juice. So it seemed like a good idea to take some time away, go visit my parents in California (I really miss them), hit the re-set button, and eat some red meat. That I’ve been away for more than 5 months now is a complete surprise. When I return the first of May, I will have been away 7 months. That’s more than half the year!

These months in California have been good for me. I’m so grateful for the time with my parents. Besides my mom’s home cooking, I’m loving all the restaurants, and eating so many good meals—Thai, Japanese, Korean, Greek, Mexican. The variety here is endless and so much better than my boring sandwiches, bland soups, and take-out pizza from the BP gas station. I also love the elegance of city life. Even the breakfast diner down the street has chandeliers, fine art on the walls, and you can eat pancakes while listening to classical music. I wish Eldon had a café like this. Hell, I wish Eldon had a café period. What are you doing for meals, by the way? Feel free to use my crockpot. It’s on the back porch, though it’s probably cracked now from the bitter cold, like what you told me happened to the glass on the front storm door window last month.

Chandeliers, artwork, classical music and pancakes!
At Russell's Cafe in Pasadena

The other thing I’m so grateful for here in California is, obviously, the weather. Last year I got cabin fever pretty badly—so badly I wrote two blog posts about it, about my envy for India Hicks and her seemingly charmed life in the Bahamas. (Here's the 2nd one.) I had vowed I wouldn’t spend another winter in Iowa. Don’t get me wrong; the house is so cozy in the winter. That Vermont Castings stove heats the house so well it almost gets too hot. (Well, when it works. Sorry it hasn’t been repaired yet.) And there is so much beauty in the quiet season. I love watching it snow—even though I am terrified of driving in it. My Mini Cooper, even after outfitting it with snow tires, is not the best winter car.


I was planning on coming back to Iowa right after New Year’s, driving the RV (aka: my Eldon privacy fence ), and using the remainder of the winter to write my next book. But this year has been an example of how life doesn’t go as planned. First, as I said, I never planned on being here this long. And second, as much as I have missed my house and wanted to spend at least part of the winter there writing, I wake up every morning in California thanking God for holding me here, for delaying my return until the snow melts and the ground thaws. What a harsh winter you’ve had! And what a warm, dry winter here. I don’t mean to rub it in, but my flip flops are getting a lot of use, while my boots are still in the back of the closet.

I keep a close watch on the Eldon forecast and saw you got another 6 inches or more. But I was still surprised to get your message about needing a shovel. I’ve never needed more than a broom to clear the snow off my steps, so it must have been a big storm. But then I got your next message about not being able to park in the little parking spot behind my house, that the snowdrifts were too high. It made me miss my old neighbor, Don, who used to come over with his snow blower and clear my parking space, my sidewalk, and my whole back patio. The first time he did this I woke up in the morning and saw the path was already cleared and wondered what magic elf had come by during the night. He didn’t even want to tell me it was him, and he always did it without asking. He also towed me out of the mud in spring and tilled my garden in summer. His kindness was so touching and I felt so loved and protected. But he lived right next door to The Binoculars and they had had their share of feuds (so you see, it isn’t just me—or you—that they harass.) Don had had a family picnic in his backyard and they were having a good time, laughing and enjoying their afternoon together, and The Binoculars raised hell, treating it as if Don was having a keg party or a rock concert at 2am. Lawyers were called in to mediate, charges were filed, counter-charges were filed, then a fence was erected between the two houses—er, between the two double wide trailers--then Don finally moved.

That is what The Binoculars are hoping I will do. It’s like that old movie “Pacific Heights” starring Michael Keaton who plays a psychopath trying to scare the apartment building owners into moving out so he can have the place. I have already talked to someone about filing harassment charges and I am told I have enough of a case to move forward, but I don’t have the desire to treat a negative situation with more negativity.

And yes, of COURSE, I have tried to talk to them, I tried to bring them a homemade pie (more than once), I’ve tried to be NICE. I went over to talk to Mrs. Binoculars when I first moved in and she shut the door in my face. I tried again later and she refused to answer the door at all. I’ve tried other things—someone suggested hanging a mirror in a window that faces their house, turning the mirror outward to deflect their energy. Someone else suggested I bury a St. Joseph statue in the yard. Another person told me to imagine my body engulfed in white light to protect myself whenever I walk past. I’ve tried a lot of things, but as you have learned, there is not enough armor in the world to protect oneself from the verbal attacks by these people. Their mentality is harsher than this Iowa winter.

What happened in their lives that makes them so unhappy? I used to ponder this question for hours, until I realized I was using up precious energy trying to figure out something that probably has no concrete answer. All I know about them is that they are not originally from Eldon, and that Don used to own their property. I’m sure he wishes he had never sold it.

If Don still lived next door he would have plowed the parking spot and sidewalk for you. You would have arrived this morning to an already-cleared, welcoming place to park and easy access to the backdoor.

I got your last message about seeing the man driving down the gravel road with his snowplow. You are from a small town in Iowa so you know that people are generally friendly and almost always willing to lend a hand to someone in need. Almost always. Unless it’s The Binoculars. When you wrote that you asked Mr. Binoculars if you could pay him to clear that one small spot so you could at least get your car off the road, you did the right thing, because surely he and his wife would have reported you for parking illegally (and you might have been awakened by the sheriff’s late-night knock again.) But for him to answer, “Oh, hell no! There is not enough money anywhere to pay me to come close to THAT house for her or her house sitter.” Well, that just makes me so sad. I’m also sad to hear that you are so rattled. I’m pretty sure you have a thicker skin than me so to learn that, once again, you butted up against this unkindness and were so upset by it makes me feel upset too. Even from 2,000 miles away.

What are they hoping to accomplish by treating people this way? I don’t know what they have against me. (Or you by association). I also don’t know why their behavior is tolerated by the town. Has my pie stand, its publicity, and subsequent increase in tourism not been an asset to the area? Isn’t that something the town would want to protect? Why are the complaints even allowed to be filed? Oh, I already know the answer to that because I was told by someone in a position of authority: “It’s because we live in a free country, which gives people the right to be a**holes.”

I just called another neighbor, Bob, and he said you could borrow his shovel.

Please do not think you are being a bother. I’m so sorry you had to go through this—again. I’m sorry these people are living there and giving our nice town a less favorable reputation.

I don't plan to stop commenting on the happenings there—good or bad—as writing non-fiction is my career. I am a journalist and I am merely reporting the neighborhood news. The pen is mightier than the sword. I also don’t plan to move. I love my house and it loves me. It has been a very good place for me to live, to work through the grief over my late husband, and to rebuild my life into one that is thriving by publishing books, making new friends, and being open to new possibilities.

This fall/winter break has indeed been restorative and I’ll be coming back in spring with renewed strength and energy. I will once again be doing the thing that I know is guaranteed to make the world a better place—I will be making pie. Maybe this will be the year The Binoculars will finally relent and accept a slice. I know you will be one of my first and best customers. But this year you are not allowed to pay. It’s the least I can do for all you’ve done—and put up with. Come by for pie whenever you feel like it. I know the house will be happy to see you again. And so will I.

Love,
Beth

PS: Thanks for sending the pictures of your adorable and WELL-BEHAVED dog and for a glimpse of the snow that I'm missing--or NOT missing as the case may be.