Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pie Swag!

When I was writing for magazines as an outdoor adventure/sports and fitness journalist I got a lot of swag -- free stuff -- from companies who hoped I would review their products. Back then I'd get packages in the mail containing fleece jackets, snowboard boots, trail running shoes, bike clothes, water bottles, carabiners, poison oak repellent, and the like. I did write the reviews and they were usually glowing, probably because my mother always preached, "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all." I would never get hired as a film or theater critic because I'm not capable of producing the scathing, career-ending diatribes they write. And as I've said before, I barely qualified as a pie judge for the National Pie Championships because my pie taste isn't very discriminating -- I like all pie! So those companies got lucky with me.When I returned to Portland last week I was surprised to find a pile of packages on my doorstep. Reminiscent of my adventure journalism days, it was SWAG! But this time it was pie swag. I shake my head when I see what direction my career has gone. I used to get sent on extreme adventures, assignments that no one else would take -- sky diving, scuba diving with sharks, a week-long trail running trip, bicycling across Iowa, and the most hard core of all, the 10-day, 300-mile Eco-Challenge race across the Utah desert. These days my most challenging assignments include peeling apples, scraping pie filling off the bottom of my oven, learning how to use my new iPhone, and getting to my grief therapy appointments on time.

Still, getting the pie swag was thrilling. For one, that means these PR people not only found my pie blog, they weren't completely turned off by all my talk of death and grief in between the occasional pie story. (Hey, EVERYONE dies, so yeah, we NEED to talk about it!) Secondly, I could use all this stuff.

Here's what the booty included, and my preliminary reviews of it:

1. A 5-lb. bag of Stone-Buhr Flour touted as the "first certified sustainable flour. Locally-grown by family farmers in the Pacific Northwest, milled near the fields and farms it was grown on - in Spokane, Washington." Sounds environmentally responsible. But does it taste any different? Make a better pie crust? We shall see!

2. A newly released cookbook called "Pies, Pies, and More Pies" by Viola Goren (Imagine Publishing, 2010), which is about -- you guessed it -- pie! Her baking techniques call for a food processor -- of which I am not a fan! I have never owned one as I insist that handmade pies be made with your hands. And her dough calls for egg yolk and heavy cream, which seems too rich for my puritanical pie values. HOWEVER, I am going to keep an open mind, and reserve judgment until I give it a try. After all, I didn't think I would ever like gluten-free pie, and look how that turned out.

3. A red t-shirt from Love the Pie (find them on Facebook and Twitter.) It's Pillsbury's Social Media arm of their publicity machine and one of the best examples I've ever seen of corporate PR. They are not pushing their packaged pie crust, they are focusing on building a bigger pie community. They get the idea of a soft-sell and I admire them for that. AND it's working.

What perfect synergy. I can use the flour to make a recipe out of the cookbook while wearing my new t-shirt! And what great timing. I just bought four pounds of strawberries. So instead of spending the Memorial Day holiday climbing Mount Whitney or dog-sledding across Alaska, I'll (quite happily) be trading my adrenaline rush for a sugar rush -- and making pie.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What the Psychic Says

I love my grief counselor. She is helpful, compassionate and wise. I don’t know how I could have survived these past nine months without her. But because I can’t live with my grief counselor 24/7, I supplement my counseling sessions with my own forms of therapy – hiking in the forest with my dogs (see photo below), writing in my journal, yoga, massage, reading, and of course, pie baking. And even all that sometimes isn’t enough, especially on the occasions when life’s questions – like why did Marcus die, where is he, what will become of me -- become too much to bear. Even my sweet grief counselor cannot come up with answers. It is during these despairing times I talk to a psychic.

(PHOTO: The best therapy of all is a hike in the forest with Team Terrier.)

Now where better to find a psychic than in LA! They’re as abundant as 7-Eleven stores. Lucky for me I was just in La-la land. So before I returned to Portland I made an appointment with a woman recommended by a friend of mine. I drove – and drove and drove and drove – to the outskirts of LA’s metropolis arriving at a suburban ranch house that smelled (and looked) like a dirty cat litter box. We're not in Beverly Hills anymore!

The psychic, Linda -- who, like Patricia Arquette on Medium, works with police to help solve murder cases -- greeted me at her door. Funny, she didn’t look anything like Patricia Arquette. She looked more like Kathy Bates in “Misery.”

"Hello, Vicky," she said. Groan. Minus points for getting my name wrong. She poured me a cup of weak coffee and we sat down at a table littered with old newspapers on top and an aging yellow lab lying underneath. I copped an attitude, kept my arms folded across my chest, and tried not to breathe in too deeply lest I contract leptospirosis from the cat fumes.

"What's your subject?" Linda began. Without hesitation I answered, "Marcus."

"Marcus loves you," she said. "But you're not going to get married."

Groan again. Not a good start. I had to explain, "Oh, but we were married. For six years. Marcus died nine months ago."

This took her aback. In fact, shocked is the word I would use to describe her response. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.” And I’m paying how much for this??? I hugged my arms tighter around my chest. She paused for a few moments. Was she trying to channel Marcus? Eventually she settled back into her black leather swivel chair, wiped a few tears from her eyes (bonus points for having a soft heart) and began our hour-long appointment.

Here's the thing about psychics: you never know what you're going to get from them. Most often they're wrong. (See above.) But what keeps me going back is that they almost always tell you what you need to hear, positive things, things that may simply affirm what you already know but just need to be reminded of. Even if it's just some basic reassurance that in spite of your best efforts to sabotage your life -- or someone you love dies and you think you can't keep living -- everything is going to be okay. In other words, life goes on.

Reassurance, though, costs money. At $125 for a session, this alone is a reason why I don’t make a regular practice of seeing psychics. But sometimes when you’re desperate a few extra bucks can be justified. That’s one tank of gas for the RV. And if I don’t buy that dress I had my eye on…
(PHOTO: The psychic was right. The wet ground is communicating with me – right through the hole in the bottom of my left rain boot!)

As I had hoped, Linda had some affirming things to say. But she also shared insights I didn't agree with. Therefore, I felt compelled to do a Yes-No tally of her comments to see if my "reading" was worth the time and expense. Or if it was going to be like my haircut and color -- a total waste of precious funds! Here we go.

1. Marcus loves you. -- YES

2. Marcus is sorry that his death is making you so sad. -- If he really could communicate through this woman that sounds like something he would say. They do it on the Ghost Whisperer all the time. -- YES
3. Marcus is with you all the time and is determined to stay with you until you feel better. -- Hmmm, well, I would like it if this were true. Might as well give that one a yes. -- YES
4. Your definition of death needs to change. -- No one knows what death is, so how can one ever define it?! -- NO
5. In your writing you will teach people about death. -- If she means I will write about how much it sucks to lose someone you love and then experience the long, painful, nearly-suicidal grieving process then yes. -- YES
6. You need to eat onions, they're good for you. -- No, well, maybe...okay, they're full of vitamin C, but still, what a random and odd thing to say. -- YES
7. You will write a bestselling book. -- How cliché for a psychic to make such a grandiose claim! It may be too good to be true, but why not think big?! -- YES
8. Your TV show will be very, very successful. -- She said "very" twice. Better start preparing my Emmy speech. Yeah, right. Still, better think positive if this thing is going to sell at all! -- YES
9. There's something wrong with where you live. -- Duh! It's the endless rain! -- YES
10. You will move out of your apartment, but you will stay in Oregon. -- Did you not just hear me say I need to live in a SUNNY place?!?!! -- NO
11. You gain strength from the earth, the ground. -- This one's a no-brainer. I've always been a nature girl and love camping. -- YES
12. And wet ground communicates with us better than dry ground. -- Huh??? Look, lady, I was blissfully happy living in the Chihuahua Desert of Texas last year and the earth was communicating with me just fine. I only came to Oregon to work through my grief. I'm not meant to live in this moldy climate long-term. -- NO
13. You and Marcus were together in previous lifetimes and you will be together again. -- I don't believe in reincarnation (ahem! See #4) but I spend a lot of time thinking about how and when I might be with Marcus again. The thought of never, EVER being with him again is too much to bear, creating despair of the darkest kind. It's a stretch to say this, and I only say it because I want it to be true, but…yes. -- YES

Final tally: 10 YES, 3 NO.
Was it worth it? Yes and no… I don’t know. The truth is it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that my life is moving forward -- even if I don’t know where it’s going. Isn’t that the beauty of life anyway? The mystery. The surprise. The organic unfolding of events whether good, bad, exciting, boring. And no matter what a grief counselor, a yoga teacher, a psychic or anyone else has to say, the right answers to our questions are always right inside of us -- for free!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Dance Recital

Less than 48 hours after my long haul from LA to Portland, I drove the RV north to Seattle -- with my parents and two dogs as passengers, in the rain -- for my 9-year-old niece's dance recital. Tired and cranky and clenching the RV steering wheel as semis whizzed past, kicking up curtains of blinding rain, I wanted to turn "The Beast" around and go home. But, by god, I was not going to miss this dance performance.The last time I went to my niece's dance recital was five years ago, her very first performance when she was four, when she still had baby fat on her little body. Now she is long, lanky, and muscular, a graceful athlete with big brown eyes and excellent coordination. She is full of strength, beauty, and confidence -- and some fine dance moves. And I was an aunt full of pride. (Photos: That's my niece Eleni above, far left -- and below, front and center.)When the youngest dancers came on stage for their turn it brought back a flood of memories. I remembered watching Eleni in her first recital, a gasp-inducing pageant of cuteness. I can still hear the collective "Awwwwww" from the audience when the baby ballerinas came on stage. I remembered my own dance recitals from my own childhood. My sister and I spent our entire elementary school years in ballet, tap, jazz, and gymnastics classes. Over time we collected trunkfuls of tutus, leotards, and sequin- and feather-covered costumes, which we used for subsequent talent shows, well-organized events that included choreographed song and dance (thanks to my sister), and profit-earning ticket sales to the neighborhood. I marvel now at our pre-Game Boy era creativity and industriousness, underscoring the advantage of growing up in a place (Iowa) and time when TV didn't air 24 hours a day.Now in this Seattle suburb, I studied this new crop of wide-eyed 4-year-olds. I observed their innocent faces, watching them take in the enormity of their on-stage debuts. This experience would be their first time in front of a big audience, first time wearing makeup and princess-like layers of satin and tulle, first time hearing the seductive sound of applause.

My sister remembers her first time on a stage like this. She told me that the feeling was so powerful, so addictive, it formed her entire future. She knew at that precise moment, hearing all that clapping -- just for her -- at the age of four, that she was going to be an actress. And that's what she did, she became an actress, and a successful one at that.

So I sat there and wondered, what are all these little girls thinking right now? Are they so smitten by this glorious moment that they're going to spend their lives seeking to recreate this stage-loving feeling? What will they grow up to be? Will some of them prove to be such talented dancers they'll end up in the New York City Ballet? Or will some go the other direction, maybe become strippers. Will they become doctors? CEOs? Pastry chefs? Pie Bakers?! Will they win scholarships to Harvard? Will they get into drugs and drop out of high school? Will they have children? Will they get cancer? Have their hearts broken? Will they be freelance writers who marry sexy, smart German men, work really hard at the marriage, threaten divorce only to lose their husbands to ruptured aortas and become grieving widows? Do they have any idea of what life holds for them? To look at their beautiful cherubic faces, it was clear. No. They have no clue. Lucky them. Lucky, lucky them.After the little girls took their bow, the older girls came on stage. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn't inspire the same kind of wonder. It was clear they were already forming their life's direction, already having created some kind of history. By their wild gyrations these girls expressed what I was feeling at that age: Let me out of the house, I'm ready to see the world! I'm ready to have sex! Okay, maybe not all of them. But there were a few suggestive hip-hop numbers that indicated their innocence had left the building.The recital ended and the lobby filled with parents handing bouquets of roses to their happy dancers, exuberant girls with cheeks glowing pink from all that rouge and adrenaline. Between glimpsing all this hope for the future and reflecting on all my nostalgia, it was well worth the white knuckle RV drive in the rain.

But it wasn't my musing and memories that stand out. It was one specific moment, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it kind of thing. My niece spotted me sitting in the second row, next to her dad (my brother Patrick), and flashed me the biggest, most magnificent smile, a smile that said, "Look at me, Aunt Beth. Isn't this cool? I'm so glad you're here." Glad I'm here? I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world right now! That moment made me forget about everything else -- my grief over Marcus, selling my pie TV show, the Iraq war, the Gulf oil spill, my overdue taxes -- even if just for a few blissful minutes. Which is why I'm already looking forward to next year's recital. No matter how far I have to travel for it.