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!





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.