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Déjà vu All Over Again

Déjà vu All Over Again

A Year in the Life of Pie & Chai

By Steve Watkins

If the stories in this month’s Pie & Chai look familiar, that’s because we thought we’d mark our one-year anniversary by re-running the articles and essays from the inaugural issue we published back in November 2022. A year later, they still represent the kind of storytelling—personal, eclectic, we hope timeless—that we started Pie & Chai to share. 

If they don’t look familiar, either you missed us the first time around or you’re contending with that all-too-common affliction known as CRS—Can’t Remember Shit—sometimes age-related though not always. But no matter. Whether you’re looking back, looking anew, or still looking for your reading glasses (try on top of your head), we’re glad to have you with us. 

Especially because Pie & Chai almost didn’t happen, and some months we still wonder how it manages to come together.

Oh, sure, things started out well enough. We had time on our hands last year once our youngest daughter left for college, leaving us as empty-nesters—Janet after 22 years of parenting, me after 38. We found a great web design company, a generous and talented friend to design our logo, relatively affordable media liability insurance, terrific contributors willing to work for free, and a name for the magazine that made no sense to anybody but us. Things were going just fine. We were even invited to Boston before the first edition came out to take part in one of former U.S. Ambassador Phil Lader’s Renaissance Weekends (the kind the Clintons used to go to, not to be confused with, though it always is anyway, those Renaissance Festivals that pop up all over the place where you dress up like Robin Hood or Maid Marian, shoot crossbows, watch jousting matches, drink mead, and eat turkey legs).

We took the train to Boston, stayed in the ritzy Parker House Hotel, hobnobbed with our betters, and Janet got COVID, which flattened her for a fortnight and then dogged her for a month or two after that. This was in early October as we were in the thick of writing, editing, and otherwise getting ready for the first issue of Pie & Chai

We soldiered on, Jan from her sickbed with the door closed and sealed, me from downstairs a safe, COVID-free distance away. I had just finished a draft of a new book and sent it off to my editor, so I was able to work in a quick trip to Minnesota to visit my daughter and two grandsons—and find out Eva was pregnant with twins! Her boys call me Boopa for no particular reason except they just seem to like saying it, and I expect the new ones will, too.

Everything seemed to be coming up roses—other than Jan’s COVID, which obviously sucked. We were about to be grandparents to four boys. Jan had just met a bunch of grant deadlines at work. I’d finished one book and just signed a contract for another. Pie & Chai was almost in the can. Just a few finishing touches remained before the November 1 posting, as we had been incessantly promising anybody and everybody: friends, family members, everybody at the Renaissance Weekend, strangers on the street. 

What better time for me to have a sudden massive intestinal bleed, major blood loss, and emergency surgery—right after I got home from Minnesota? And THAT was followed two days later, after release from the hospital and assurances that all would now be well, by a second sudden massive intestinal bleed, a second major blood loss, and a second emergency surgery.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to visualize these sorts of things, recall the elevator scene in The Shining. Better yet, don’t.

Fortunately, Jan was no longer COVID-contagious by then, just ass-dragging fatigued, so she rushed me to the understaffed ER—both times—where she found herself changing out blood-filled bedpans, flagging down a harried doctor and urging him to take note of my plunging blood pressure, and making medical decisions for her delirious and, afterwards, deeply anemic and eternally grateful husband. 

We came home from the hospital on Halloween and, for the first time ever, ignored the trick-or-treaters who flood our neighborhood each year. We sat in the near dark, porch light off, half-asleep on the couch, hoping no one knocked.

On November 1, three days after the second emergency procedure, we somehow managed to put out the first issue of Pie & Chai.

And almost immediately after, a branch of the family informed us that they were cutting off all communication because of something I’d written that offended them. They also rescinded a wedding invitation they’d sent us which was actually just a Save the Date advisory, so maybe didn’t count as a formal unvitation. 

Still, that sucked, too. 

I slept through most of Thanksgiving, seriously low on iron and hemoglobin, but roused myself after all our company left in time to help Janet finish up the December issue of Pie & Chai and send it off to Laura, our wonderful web designer at Metro Nova Creative who saved our asses once again, as she would continue to do for the next ten months.

On the upside, our illnesses provided us with essay material. Jan wrote a third-edition piece on navigating hospital stays, and a killer story for the March Pie & Chai on our fatally broken health-care system. When life gives you lemons….

*** 

The start of the new year was all about saving lives—literally. Our son-in-law Pete, looking out the window during an early morning work break in his upstairs home office in their Midwestern city, saw a guy throw a Molotov cocktail into an old Victorian house next door. Pete’s quick-thinking 911 call brought first responders to the burning home just in time to rescue the elderly couple who were still asleep in their upstairs bedroom.

It happened again in late January—the life saving, not the fire-bombing—only this time Janet was the hero. We had driven our daughter Claire to Dulles for her flight to London and a semester-long study-abroad program in England, but instead of us hanging out with her at the airport for a few hours as Janet and I had planned, Claire dismissed us at the Departures curb, which was why we were back in Fredericksburg an hour and a half later, at around 6:30 p.m., pulling off Route 1 at the traffic signal for our subdivision. It was dark and raining, and there, standing in front of us in the middle of the turn lane, was an older woman, clearly confused, like the proverbial deer in our headlights. Jan rolled down her window and shouted to the woman, asking if she needed help. The woman didn’t respond. The light changed to green and a stream of cars started flying past on Route 1, just a few feet away. The woman, still obviously confused, suddenly turned and started to walk straight into the traffic. 

Janet jumped out of the car and grabbed the woman to keep her from being hit. I called 911. The woman kept trying to speak but was incoherent, muttering about her car, and Walmart, and “Nine-One. Nine-One.” We didn’t see a car anywhere except for the speeding traffic right next to us. While I blocked the turn lane, Janet tried to coax the woman out of the road and over to the shoulder. The woman, still confused, was uncooperative. She kept trying to pull free and step into the busy highway. Janet kept a tight hold on her arm and physically blocked the way. 

Police finally arrived, and as an officer led the woman off to the hospital, she paused next to our car and thanked us for stopping—sounding like someone whose mental fog had finally lifted and who could finally make sense. Two days later we heard she had been carjacked at the intersection, had jumped out, and had been left standing in the middle of the highway as the carjacker drove off in her car. She’d been wandering in and out of traffic for maybe ten minutes before we arrived, trying to get somebody, anybody, to help. 

Police found the woman’s car not far away, parked near a Country Inn & Suites and a Denny’s near the interstate, keys and pocketbook and groceries from Walmart still in the car. Somebody who worked at the Denny’s recognized the possible carjacker. He’d apparently abandoned the car in the parking lot and walked over to one of the cheaper motels next door. The motel security cameras had it on grainy video. An arrest was made. Charges were filed. I testified at the preliminary hearing. The woman was better by then—no longer in shock, though still badly shaken from the experience. Apparently, the young man accused of the carjacking just wanted a ride up the highway a little way. Maybe he was drunk or high at the time. And it was raining. There’s a trial coming up. We’ve been subpoenaed. 

Janet has recently started a new job. I’m on another book deadline. We have a new Pie & Chai to get out. But it looks as though we’ll be spending a day in court at the end of November, retelling the story and once again wrestling with the meaning of justice in America.

*** 

Life puttered on after January’s excitement. In March, Janet and her mom went to England to hang out with Claire for a week. The three generations of Marshall women did shots of Bailey’s together in a pub, and decided the Tower of London was their favorite tourist site, though they wouldn’t want to be drawn and quartered there. Our youngest daughter, Lili, wrecked her skateboard and ended up on crutches for a couple of weeks, but kept up her duties as student manager of a top D-1 lacrosse team. After Jan and her mom came back home, a guy on a bicycle snatched Claire’s iPhone out of her hand at an intersection in London—a drive-by mugging—and pedaled away as Claire gave fruitless chase on foot. From what we could tell, the phone ended up sold somewhere in China. Claire survived incommunicado for the next couple of weeks, including on iPhone-less trips to Brussels, Amsterdam, and Edinburgh, while Janet worked overtime trying to get a replacement phone to London. Meanwhile, our dog Luke threw out his back, but gradually got better thanks to painkillers, steroids, and Jan babying him up and down the stairs. 

I finally got a couple of iron infusions and was able to start exercising again—and once again walking a miraculously recovered Luke in the mornings. But I also found out I was going to have to have another heart procedure the end of March for a pacemaker upgrade and an ICD implant to address concerns about a genetic variant we’d recently discovered I have. It runs through one side of our family and predisposes those of us who have it to any number of heart problems, including sudden cardiac death. I struggled with anxiety for a time and ended up in the hospital one Sunday with chest pains and shortness of breath that turned out to be a panic attack. Janet was in the ER waiting room that day when they brought in a young man who’d been shot multiple times, and she spent the next hour or so in lockdown with his anguished family after the surgeons were unable to save him. Lili knew the young man from school. She also knew another boy who was shot and killed in our town a few months later.

Gun violence, sadly but not surprisingly, has been the focus of several pieces we’ve published this past year in Pie & Chai.

If this was a Christmas letter—Jan says it’s already starting to sound like one—I’d mention that Claire turned 21 after coming back from London, where she left a big piece of her heart, and she took Jan to a Grateful Dead concert where a fellow concertgoer offered them acid. Jan declined, for them both. Lili, meanwhile, took up photography, transferred to VCU, had her bike stolen two days after moving into a group house in Richmond in August, and then miraculously found her bike again locked in front of somebody’s house several miles away. Police showed up with bolt cutters and cut off the lock so she could get it back. I’d also mention that I landed another publishing contract, and now have three books coming out in the next year, my literary annus mirabilis, while Jan left her job as a nonprofit director advocating for abused and neglected children in late June to take a new position as a technical writer—with good health benefits, something we haven’t had around here in quite a while. And, of course, if this was a Christmas letter I’d have to include the big news that Eva and her husband had the twins! That’s a picture of the new babies at the top of this essay. Singing, shouting, crying, all the above? I’ve been up twice to see them, and Janet and I are eager to go back, though we’ll have to get the next issue of Pie & Chai finished first.

The only predictable thing the entire past year, as it’s turned out—besides our love for one another—has been a new Pie & Chai the first of every month, come rain or shine, hell or high water, hospitalization or subpoena. Janet says when I was waking up from the anesthesia after my heart procedure back in the spring, I asked if she had proofread the next issue of the magazine. I’m thinking that story might be apocryphal—I certainly don’t have any memory of it happening—though my oldest daughter Maggie, who was at the hospital with us that day, swears it’s true. 

If you’ve ever wondered why we put out Pie & Chai, one big reason, as anybody who knows me knows, is I need a creative project like a MAGA needs an election conspiracy theory. Even writing three books in a year, while challenging and gratifying, doesn’t quite do it for me. This magazine and the people who write for it and read it bring the kind of joy that has me sitting at my desk no matter what else is happening, getting the next edition ready for publication. Jan, too.

When we started Pie & Chai, Janet wrote in our manifesto (actually more of a mission statement; see Maguire, Jerry) that we were doing it for a simple reason: to provide good writers with a place to tell good stories, the kind worth sharing. Under the broad categories of Deep Dives, Being Human, Prescriptions, LOL, Etcetera, and 22401(ish), she said, we wanted to explore humanity “in all its glorious messiness.”

“In our dreams, Pie & Chai has been a physical place for dishing up warm desserts and bringing people together,” Jan added. “But we don’t own a building, and we’d rather write than cook. So, this is our virtual effort to expand minds, forge connections, and sweeten lives.”

Here’s hoping that’s what we and our incredible writers have managed to do this past year, and can continue throughout Pie & Chai Year Two.

“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.” That’s how Dante begins Canto I of The Inferno, and it’s how I often feel as well. I expect many of us do, especially the contributors and readers of Pie & Chai: in the middle of our journey, coming to ourselves in a dark wood, realizing the direct way is lost. 

And thank god for it, because how boring otherwise, and how exciting for us all going forward.