The Gothic window

“It was then that I realized that all the really good ideas I’d ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Grant Wood.

Really?

Apparently, Grant Wood also had good ideas when he drove around in small-town Iowa. Which is why, when he was in Eldon, Iowa, Wood asked his friend to stop the car in front of a small, nearly-nondescript home, which he promptly sketched on the back of an envelope.

That was in 1930.

The house Wood sketched was a typical home for Eldon. Small. Well-built. An upstairs area tucked under the roof gables. A wrap-around porch. Three windows facing the front. White on white on white.

Ah, but then the home took a sharp detour from normalcy with that upstairs window. Supposedly purchased from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The window is actually hinged so that items can be moved up to the second floor through the window because of the tight corner on the interior stairway.

But the window is more than a way to get in and out of the upstairs. It is a Gothic window. A large window, pointed at the top, dramatically out-of-place.

Of course, Grant Wood went on to paint his iconic American Gothic using this very house as the backdrop. And, as you know, he placed the Gothic window right over a very sober Iowa farm family modeled by his sister and his dour-looking Cedar Rapids dentist. Eventually, a museum sprang up in Eldon that celebrates the house and Grant Wood.

Ah, but there is a bit more to the story.

Although you’ve heard of American Gothic, you’ve probably never heard of the Dibbles. Most people haven’t. Catherine and Charles Dibble built the American Gothic house in 1891-1892. A little bit of a lark for them. Charles Dibble owned a livery in that same small town of Eldon, and decided his family needed a home. And the Dibble house was born.

Fine. But what about the Gothic window that even Grant Wood called “pretentious”? Gothic windows look good in churches, but in a small-town Iowa home? How did this happen?

No one really knows. Eldon is not a town populated with Gothic windows. No, I suspect the decision to put in Gothic windows was made like many of our decisions — distracted and a bit defensive.

Possibly . . . .

“Okay, there’s no dish washer, no garbage disposal, no upstairs bath. We are living in the smallest town in the smallest state and this is your plan for a house to raise our children?”

Catherine, of course, is right on the money.

Charles, who I’m sure just got home from work smelling of horses and hay and sweat and leaden with tiredness, doesn’t have an answer to these obvious questions. But then . . . ta-dah . . . his downcast eyes fell upon the Sears catalogue opened to church windows.

“Let’s put a church window in the upstairs. A Gothic window!”

Yes, folks, these are alternative facts, totally made up in the spirit of our times, but why not?

And so today, you too can travel to Eldon, Iowa, and see the famous Gothic window up close and personal. A happy ending for all.

Well, sort of.

It appears that Charles got in over his head at the livery. They eventually had to sell the house for overdue taxes long before Grant Wood sketched the house on the back of an envelope. The unfortunate couple was just a hundred years too early to reap the benefits of the small tourist industry kicked off by their decision to put in a Gothic window. The last evidence I can find of them is their names appearing too early for their years on tombstones in Portland, Oregon.

As for Grant Wood, he hung out around Cedar Rapids and Iowa City creating a body of work and teaching college students, although not without a bit of personal controversy.

“It is certainly true that Wood had, as we say now, ‘issues,’” according to Deborah Solomon in The New York Times.

Of course he did. Don’t we all? And then to top it off, he died way too young of cancer.

As for Grant Wood’s proverbial milking cow? I’ve tried it. Sorry. Also a bust. I’m still waiting for a good idea.

Which, of course, leaves us just one sure thing that can be counted on in a world of untimely death, unpaid taxes, and uninspiring cows — the infamous Gothic window. Oh, and let’s not forget the befuddled husbands who install them.

Joe

The Merle Hay Trestle

“I remember, . . .” began the old man.

The streetcar sits high in the air, click-clacking across the tracks. A long bridge, with eight buttresses, wood and steel framing, and exposed sides stretches out in front. There is no idle creek running below, instead, Merle Hay Road heading north to Camp Dodge. Snow is clumped on the ground furthest from the sun. The streetcar, perched over Merle Hay, is heading west toward Urbandale. The infamous Merle Hay Trestle.

Photos courtesy of Earl Short.

“What made the trestle so neat? When the conductor would go zipping across there, it was a blast. I was always looking for the trestle from my seat on the trolley. We’d go across it so fast, I wanted to go back and do it again. 35-40 mph tops. It seemed like 100.”

Earl Short is edging 80 years old. He’s a big man. Tall and broad with a strong, deep voice and attentive eyes. Streetcars, their history, and the people who were part of that era are his passion.

“My father started as a streetcar operator in 1923 and retired in 1961. Streetcars in Des Moines ended in March of 1951. Trolley buses ended in 1964.”

Earl Short’s path was different from his father’s.

“I worked at the Des Moines Register in the mail room for 22 years. Then as realtor for 26 years. I retired in 2003 and just turned that page in my life.”

And that is when his adventures started. In chasing down his father’s past, he discovered a whole world of streetcars and the people who were affected by them. Word got out that he was collecting stories and photos. Before long, folks wanted to hear what Earl Short discovered of this bygone era. He obliged, taught himself PowerPoint, and now has 50 presentations lasting an hour-and-a-half each. He estimates that he has spoken to 150 groups.

Standing room only at the Franklin Library on a recent afternoon. At the front of the room, Earl Short speaks about the various streetcars and their routes throughout the metro. He tells us how the streetcars worked, who operated them, the people who used them, the businesses that thrived along the routes, the remnants that still exist in hidden-away spots, and the hope for the future. We sit mesmerized, while the old folks nod in memory.

Later, he and I sit and talk in his home office. His computer is alive with old photos, lecture notes, and e-mails from folks around the country interested in streetcars.

“I was so young when I crossed the Merle Hay Trestle. I remember we were frequently going out to my father’s garden near the Urbandale Loop. I remember playing in the garden. My dad would get on the streetcar carrying gunnysacks full of potatoes on his shoulders. One hundred pounds on both shoulder. His arms reminded me of Popeye.”

Pictures of his dad, the Urbandale Loop, the location of the garden, are all backdrop to more stories, more pictures, and then more stories with pictures. All told by Short with great passion. And so the afternoon passes.

Listen, folks, I know that horses and buggies no longer promenade down Grand Avenue; that the dime stores and the downtown Younkers are wisps of smoke; and that great-grandma’s mac-and-cheese has been replaced by a macaroni Zombie Burger. But perhaps these old stories and photos are what keep us rooted to our lives as our world becomes a collection of apps and tweets that spin across our screens and dissolve with lightening speed.

Or not.

Earl Short digs up more photos from his computer.

“Streetcars are really my passion. I spend so much time at this. My wife, God bless her, she puts up with it.  Because she knows that this really keeps me busy and keeps me mentally going. I’m very content.”

Earl Short pauses.

“Now, Joe, back to the Merle Hay Trestle. I remember . . .”

Joe

The Merle Hay Trestle as it appears today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another marriage saved on the California Zephyr

My wife is stuck. Having climbed up into the top bunk of the sleeper car, legs forward, head tucked, she can’t unfold. The ceiling is just a bit too close for her six-foot frame to unbend. And now here she is. A human sandwich traveling to Denver on Amtrak.

How did this happen? And, more importantly, am I at fault?

The California Zephyr, the long-distance Amtrak train from Chicago to San Fransisco and back again, cuts through southern Iowa with the rhythmic beat of the steel wheels and the mournful wail of the loud whistle. In the dark, the big engine rumbles past small Iowa towns like Red Oak, Villisca, and Stanton, where I imagine the residents are long used to the clickety-clack of the wheels, and turn over in bed like synchronized swimmers, only dimly hearing the passing racket.

The Zephyr crosses Iowa twice each day. One train going east and another going west. It isn’t complicated. Catch it early to go to Chicago. Catch it late to go to Denver and beyond. It’s all about which side of the track you stand on.

Fortunately, Pat Green will set you right.

For 32 years, Pat has worked at the Osceola station, south of Des Moines, Iowa. She loves it and is proud of the passing years.

“Met a lot of wonderful people. All those years you get to know people well. See the kids grow up from little ones all the way to adults, and then I see their kids.”

Pat’s eyes crinkle with laugh lines. She is where she wants to be on this late night.

And how do the Amtrak conductors treat you?

“The train folks are like family to me. They treat me very, very well. Cindy, one of the conductors on today’s train, actually made my hat.”

Pat proudly dons the pink hat made by her friend.

And if a train is running late and people are angry or frustrated?

“I’ve always try to be nice to everyone. If the trains are late, I try to get the people to go with the flow.”

But the train is not late tonight. Right on time. Pat corrals us all up and marches us over to the westbound track as the train comes in with a roar.

My wife and I are taking a sleeper car for the first time. An adventure to be sure. Although there is the small problem that I am large, inflexible, mildly claustrophobic, and an easily-motion-sick kind of guy. A closed-in sleeper on a moving train may not be the smartest idea.

The porter, apparently sensing that I’m a little uneasy, immediately takes us in hand, gives us fresh bottled water, asks after our needs, and shows us our small cabin of two facing chairs that turn into beds and a wonderfully large window the size of the compartment. And then off we go to the dining car to get a late supper under the direction of our waiter, Armando. All very civilized.

And it is civilized. For example, at breakfast the next morning we sit with John Pare, a retired teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent from Wisconsin. Someone who has been around.

Quick with a smile, John says that he’s heading to Reno for a stamp show where he has an exhibit. A hobby of many years.

“I had a little time, and I wanted to do a little something for myself. I could have done it cheaper on Southwest Air, but I wouldn’t have met you, and I wouldn’t see the mountains. I took this trip before. I just remember how spectacular the trip was.”

And the sleeper car?

John gives an easy laugh.

“I haven’t been in a sleeper in a long, long time.”

Ah, which gets us back to the sleeper compartment. A clever conversion of two chairs into bunk beds. A wonderfully economic approach to sleeping. Narrow step leads up to the second bunk, where the sheets are nicely tucked and the pillow fluffed and ready. It’s like the upper story of an Amsterdam canal house. Fun and adventurous.

I point this out to my wife, as I warily look at the narrow mattress pad, the low ceiling, the lack of window, and some kind of safety belt bolted into the ceiling that straps on to the top bunk like a straight jacket, presumably to keep you from jumping in terror.

I’m certainly not going up there.

Yup, look at that fluffed pillow, dear.

My wife gamely gives it a shot, which, of course, results in her transforming herself into a human sandwich. Turned in half. Head against knees. Nowhere to go. Stuck forever in the top bunk.

So, folks, here we are one more time at that juncture where a marriage can go several directions. Most not good for the spouse who wants to remain married.

But she laughs. Yup. I do not lie. She reverses her steps. Tries again. And successfully unfolds to lie flat on the bed.

I wipe my brow and quickly attach the safety belt before my wife rolls out of bed and finds a normal husband.

Whew. Another marriage saved on the California Zephyr.

Joe

 

 

 

 

Robert Waller — the measure of a life

Robert Waller died the other day. Some of you may not know him by name. He was the one-time dean of the business school at the University of Northern Iowa who, by the way, also wrote The Bridges of Madison County. You remember, the book on the New York Times bestseller list for several years and then made into a movie starring Merle Streep and Clint Eastwood. Not a bad claim to fame. An Iowa boy who hit the big time. Good for him.

Sadly, or ironically, or predictably (given your bent), Waller became famous and ended up moving to Texas, divorcing his wife of almost 36 years, and marrying a much younger ranch employee named Linda Bow. I know this because I read about it in a 1997 Texas Monthly story titled Burning Bridges. And I read it again in a 1997 People magazine article by a different journalist also titled Burning Bridges. Neither story overly friendly to Waller.

People magazine claimed that Georgia, his then wife, confronted Waller about his affair with Linda Bow while they were all together on vacation in India.

“Devastated, Georgia flew home and filed for divorce,” according to Texas Monthly.

And, of course, their only daughter was dragged into the mess, the Texas Monthly claims.

“He told me in anger that I was taking my mother’s side because I was in it for the money. My mother is a wonderful, saintly person. The fact is, I’m a female, and I too feel betrayed.”

Not to be outdone, People magazine told of the party for 45 people thrown by Georgia in celebration of the final divorce, where one guest reportedly stated: “It is a pyrrhic victory, says a friend: ‘Now the house has ghosts.’”

Yikes.

And Waller’s response to all this?

“Waller says that there are ‘all sorts of rumors about me,’ and that ’88 percent’ of what has been written is wrong.” So says the Sacramento Bee in 2005. 

Enough.

How do we take the measure of a man’s life? Is there a truth to be found? Are we left with President Trump and his “alternative facts”? Does the outrageous and titillating always triumph? Is everything relative even when the dirt hits flat against the lid of the coffin?

I don’t think so. There is truth. The sun does rise and the sun does fall. If you hit me, I will hurt. Cinnamon rolls are a glimpse of heaven.

It’s just that people are not the best source of truth.

I once had a murder case with an eyewitness. Yup, a person who saw the bad guy actually shoot the victim. A slam dunk case, most would say.

Of course, I lost.

As I moaned and groaned and felt horrible for the victim’s family, I remembered what an old prosecutor told me many years before when we were doing a burglary case out of Newton.

“Joe, I’d rather have one fingerprint at a crime scene than a dozen priests who are eyewitnesses.”

Why is this? Well, we are all fallible it seems. We see what we want to see. We blink and fill in missing pieces. We hear things and develop pictures in our brain that are totally made up. Our past impacts our interpretation of the present. Darkness, trees, TV noises, itches, dirty glasses, and “Get down tonight” humming in our head gives each of us our own picture of reality. Or, is it clearer to say, our own picture of fantasy? Listen, you pay your money and make your choice.

But don’t get me wrong, there is truth. There is a measurable fingerprint.

Robert Waller wrote some great stuff. He wrote of sadness and joy and love and romance. He wrote about perfecting a jump shot and disappointing his father. He wrote of his only child leaving for college and his utter sadness in her empty room. He wrote of his love for his first wife and his pride in her independence. He wrote of the heart-wrenching death of his cat. He wrote about magic. And he wrote about Iowa.

He loved Iowa so much that he wanted his ashes scattered at the merging of the Winnebago and the Shell Rock rivers below Rockford, Iowa.

“I try to sort out the feelings. I am alive, breathing, healthy. Yet one day I will float out over these waters.”

That was written back in 1987 in his book Just Beyond the Firelight, before all the fame and glory and infamy. And here we are, 30 years later.

“Romance dances just beyond the firelight, in the corner of your eye.”

Robert Waller wrote that line.

That is a truth.

May he rest in peace.

Joe

 

In search of Mother’s Day

“Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.” William Makepeace Thackeray.

Mother’s Day cards in the card aisle at the grocery store are something to behold. Funny. Sincere. Loving. You can choose any flavor. You just sign your name at the bottom and pop it in the mail. Listen, it’s better than nothing, right?

Well, not according to Anna Jarvis.

Anna Jarvis is the woman who spent years trying to get government recognition for Mother’s Day, then spent even more years trying to stop what it became. No kidding. Anna Jarvis was so bent out of shape about the commercialization of the holiday that she was willing the spend the last half of her life fighting against florists and card makers and others she thought took improper advantage of this special day. According to Katherine Antolini, author and historianJarvis was even charged with disorderly conduct for trying to bust up a charity sale of . . . you guessed it . . . Mother’s Day carnations. Not exactly a Hallmark moment for Jarvis.

So where does that leave us with Mother’s Day and its true meaning?

Certainly, the notion that everyone has a mother is somehow comforting in these times where we are busy identifying who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Since we all have a mother, it makes  it harder to really believe that someone is a member of an alien species if they have a different religion, or a different shade of skin, or dare to want to use a bathroom not designated on their hall pass. Of course they’re not aliens. See, they have a mother. Put them with the “in” group.

And then, of course, there is that crazy mother/child bond. Before I married, my wife told me an apocryphal story passed down in her family. It was the story of a great-grandfather, who was described by one and all as a no-account drunk who spent up the family money and was a hard man. The great-grandmother eventually bore him 11 children. One day the house caught on fire. Great-grandmother miraculously rescued all of her 11 children. Great-grandfather died in the blaze while sitting in his favorite chair in the living room. How unfortunate.

“Did that really happen?” I asked my bride-to-be.

“She was later tried and found innocent of murder,” she responded, innocently enough.

The bond between a mother and her children is so powerful that even the National Parks have warning signs posted about the increased danger of seeing a mother with her little ones. This isn’t a mystery.

But there is more. Mary Cassatt was an American painter around the time of the impressionists. She became famous for her paintings of mothers and children. Her art could capture a small moment between a mother and her child that is nothing special — but totally special, loaded with love, connection, and belonging. The gifts of a mother.

Nicolle and Her Mother c. 1900; Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center; Photo Credit: Rich Sanders, Des Moines.

So, I thought I would go look for Nicolle and her Mother at the Des Moines Art Center. I wandered and wandered through our world-class museum and could not find a single dark-haired, blue-eyed mom holding Nicolle.

Come to find out that she is in storage. Bummer.

Turning a corner, however, I found another family portrait at the Art Center.

Rosie and her mother (and friends) c. 2017; Chef’s Palette — Des Moines Art Center Cafe; Photo credit: Joe.

Rosie Punelli recently opened Chef’s Palette in the Art Center. A homecoming of sorts having worked for Lisa LaValle in this same spot for many years. But now it is all hers.

“I get here about 7:30 after I get my two kids to school. Then I start doing prep for the day, baking cake and things like that. I’m ready to open at 11.”

And open she does to the wonderful smells of soups and pastries and today’s special — chicken and sausage gumbo.

“I brought my mom, Jeannie, to help me. And this is Charletta. She is one of my best friends. And her niece, Kira, works in the kitchen. Charletta is like my kids’ other mother. This is a family operation.”

No kidding.

Professional service, high-class food, and one of the best locations in Des Moines. It’s an easy sell. But there’s something else going on here.

“I want the customer to enjoy the experience. That’s why I’m here. I want people to walk away happy — to enjoy the atmosphere and the food. Some people come in, they’re hungry, and a little bit grouchy, but by the time they leave they’re satisfied. That’s what I want.”

And . . . .

“We are one big family. I depend big time on my crew. I couldn’t do it without them.  I couldn’t do it without Charletta or my mom or without Kira. They all help me so much. It’s a dream.”

Love, connection, and belonging. Mary Cassatt could not have drawn this portrait any better.

So where is Mother’s Day and its true meaning? Is it in our shared humanity? Is it in the fierce bond between a mother and her children? Or is it in the spirit of love, connection, and belonging?

Got me. I’m a struggling dad.

By the way, would you mind passing me another slice of Rosie’s homemade lemon-ricotta cheesecake?

Joe

 

 

 

Bob Harvey

Bob Harvey died the other day. Most of you wouldn’t know him. He was an agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation during most of my years as a prosecutor. A quiet man. Usually buried away deep in the bowels of the DCI building, in isolation, where he did his best work. A pro.

Firearms is what he did. He could tell you anything you wanted to know about a gun involved in a murder. Trigger pull strength. Markings the gun left on the shells. Operational ability. Where the gun came from. What shells it could fire. Bullet identification. And on and on and on.

And Bob’s opinion was unerringly the opinion the jury or the judge found true. Once I even dragged him out of retirement because a national gun expert said Bob’s work in an old murder case was wrong. I was stunned and worried. I shouldn’t have been. After Bob reviewed the national expert’s work, he carefully explained to me how the expert made a crucial mistake in his analysis. And, at the end of the day, the national expert agreed. No kidding. Listen, Bob knew his stuff better than the next guy. It’s just who he was.

But, frankly, smarts are never enough, and Bob brought more to the table. He brought credibility. When he spoke, the jury listened, the bad guy listened, and I listened. Why? Because he was never invested in the result. He was a scientist. It was never about winning for him. Ever. It was about getting the facts right. Period.

But Bob did care. He cared about the process. And he cared about all of us, even though personally I was a bit player in his life. He came across as the father we wish we had. Over the years, he would listen to my crazy questions and concerns, and patiently and clearly explain the facts. I would bring Bob into a grand jury to testify, where I would be rattled and on edge and dancing with out-of-control witnesses, and Bob would sit at the witness stand, smile, and calmly tell us about this shell casing coming from that gun, his deep voice resonating around the room like dark chocolate melting on your tongue. Warm and rich and comforting. And we all settled down and examined the facts. Not a bad trick.

Whenever Bob and I finished a case, he’d ask me: “How did I do, Joe?” And I was always surprised because he didn’t realize what a star he was. He genuinely didn’t get it. Everyone else did. The juries did. The judges did. I certainly did.

So, one last time, . . .

“Bob, you did great.”

May he rest in peace.

Joe

What does democracy look like?

Bundled against the cold, with a pink pussy hat, pink gloves, and pink scarf, the woman looks over the crowd of 26,000 gathered at the foot of the Iowa State Capitol. She raises the bullhorn to her mouth and calls out to the crowd:

“WHAT DOES DEMOCRACY LOOK LIKE?”

Wow. Not really a chant to storm a building, or tip over a car, or topple a dictatorship. Who chants about democracy? Who incites a crowd about . . . yes . . . togetherness?

And the crowd calls back to the woman with the bullhorn:

“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”

My oh my. Loud. Festive. Excited. Determined. Exhilarating.

Back when I was a young prosecutor consumed by kids, soccer practices, and PTO meetings, my assignment to cover weekend court in Polk County was an international flight to another planet. Don’t get me wrong, weekend court itself was simple enough. It was just a way for a judge to make sure an arrest was based on probable cause, to set bond, and to appoint a lawyer if necessary. No, what was exotic were the folks arrested. There were prostitutes selling themselves for a hungry fix, trespassers trying to get off the street and out of the cold by breaking into downtown businesses, thieves desperately cleaning the shelves of baby diapers and canned goods, drunk drivers in from the suburbs smelling of sweat and booze and urine, and the remnants of Saturday night bar fights looking battered and bruised. All paraded in front of the judge who forwarded them on to the next stage of the judicial process, or dispensed justice and left them to their punishment or their freedom. It was quick and it was final. It was another world.

Society was just beginning to demand domestic abuse laws. But it had not happened yet. We saw men in court who were arrested for battering their wives, but only to have the charges dropped when the wife, for all sorts of real reasons (kids, money, fear), testified that she now remembered that she fell against the stove in the kitchen. Of course, the assault took place in the bedroom. We had few tools to stop this cycle. We were frustrated and worried for the victims and we waited for the escalation of violence and maybe even death. Not a pretty picture.

It was an early Sunday morning. The drunks stood before the judge, pled guilty, and were sent back out into the world. The prostitutes, thin and wasted from drugs, were given bond and a new court date.

I stood at the front of the room below the judge’s bench, handing him the charges for each arrested person.

Next appeared a large, burly man.

“Assault,” the preliminary complaint says. The victim? His wife.

“How do you plead?”

He is smug and sure as he stands before the judge and pleads “not guilty.” He knows his wife. These assault charges will never stand. It is easy to guess that this is not the first beating she received at his hands. Nor will it be the last.

The courtroom is on the second floor of the Des Moines Police Department. The public is allowed to sit in the back, but access is controlled by locked doors, and there are plenty of Des Moines police and Polk County deputies throughout the room.

The accused man stands before the court in handcuffs. He smirks at me as I’m working off to the side, then he turns, bored and surly, to the judge.

There is a rustle from the back of the room. Unbeknownst to everyone, the wife is in the courtroom. The black and blue bruises on her face are just beginning to appear. Her shirt is askew and her hair uncombed. She comes out of the chairs in the back, past the two officers, then sprints to the front of the room.

We all watch, frozen in amazement. Not quite believing what we are seeing. A thin woman rushing toward us.

Her husband is facing the judge and doesn’t see her running at him with curled fists and determination. She swings her arm like a baseball bat, cracking him as hard as she can on the side of the head.

Her husband falls.

She remains standing at the front of the room, breathing heavily.

Reluctantly, I charge her with assault. She pleads guilty. The judge orders a small fine. And, at the end of early morning court, she is released. Alone and vulnerable once again.

End of story.

So what’s the point of all this?

The thin woman floats around the edges of my memory on this day about women and women’s rights. Perhaps she is at home, isolated and alone, in fear. Or perhaps she is here with her sisters and her daughters and holding a sign saying — “I’m with her” — supported by 26,000 of her closest friends.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Ah, there they go again . . . .

“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”

Joe

 

 

 

 

Edit for the old lady in Dubuque

“THE NEW YORKER will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” H.W. Ross, Editor, prospectus for The New Yorker, 1925.

The white hair is carefully combed back to just below the ear, where it falls softly against her neck. A regal white. All the more dazzling when you realize her hair used to be hidden by the then-required habit of her religious order. Tucked away from a common sinner like myself. But not now. Not today, where it flows back from the breeze as the wheel chair scoots down the hall and into the communal dining room.

My 94-year-old aunt, Sister Marla, is having a rough spell. She lived a vibrant life helping people in hospitals in both Dubuque and Ames, but now she is back at her home in the convent in Dubuque. She’s been a nun for a gazillion years. A member of the Sisters of St. Francis. Their job, according to their website, is to follow a “vision of service and compassion to the most needy.”

“In our words and our actions we are challenged to treat all with respect and dignity, responding to the needs of our poor brothers and sisters, the destitute and the outcasts among us, finding a home among them.”

Hard to find the negative in that.

But here she is. Recovering from a fall to the floor. And her fellow Sisters are taking care of her now. So my 90-year-old mom and I head out on a car trip to see how she’s doing.

“Joe, watch out for the ice,” my mom advises, as we take off from the slick streets of Boone, Iowa. Even at 90, cautionary warnings are the meat and potatoes of any mother’s repertoire. Although, at 90, my mom has a bit of a devil-may-care attitude, which prompts a giggle rather than a scold as we slide on the slippery streets.

And the miles begin to drift behind us along with the ice and snow as we head east.

When I was much younger, I lived for a time with my grandfather who needed a little help. We whiled away our days talking of women, horse racing, and the price of corn. Surprisingly, my aunt, who lived nearby, decided I needed a piano. The rented piano was delivered one day into my grandfather’s tiny home that had no room for a piano. But there it sat, swallowing up the space. Then written music appeared. Elton John. Billy Joel. Popular music of the time. And I played. And I played.  And I played. A small joy, courtesy of Sister Marla.

My mom and I make it to Dubuque, although I can’t seem to find the convent among the hills. “Get thee to a nunnery” is a harder command to follow than I thought. Ah, at last.

Several smiling women come to greet us and take us to see my aunt.

Many years ago, my aunt set me up on a date. She chose a lovely young woman who worked with her at the hospital. The woman was a dietitian and her speciality was white sauce. Since gravy is my primary food group, it seemed to be a fortuitous match. In preparation for this all-important date, my aunt signed herself up for dance classes and took me along. Disco dancing. It was the rage, and my aunt was determined I learn.

And we did. We mastered the Hustle, the Bus Stop, and the Bump. She was certainly the better partner as we twirled and twisted with her one hand raised high and her stylish light-blue pantsuit spinning around the room. Saturday Night Fever indeed. And although my gravy credentials weren’t enough to forge a relationship with the young woman, I did do the Bump with a nun. That has to count at the end of the day.

Today she smiles as she sits in a wheelchair pulled up to the table. We are invited to stay for dinner. We laugh about the vagaries of life. I talk of my family and my travels. She speaks of her health and her plans for the future. Dessert is brought.

As my mom sits by her side, my aunt leans over to brush my mom’s hair back off her face with a well-practiced swoosh.

An ordinary scene played out in many families and many cultures over many centuries. An older sister taking care of her younger sister. And at 94 and 90? Why should it be any different?

Okay, what’s going on here?

Listen, when H.W. Ross wrote that The New Yorker was not for the old lady in Dubuque, he was trying to carve out a niche in the magazine world for a sophisticated big-city magazine. Big fashion, big food, big people. Not for the little old lady in tiny Dubuque.

But in this time of a larger-than-life president with “big big plans,” “huge plans,” does the small gesture of kindness still have value? Do the acts of renting a piano, taking dancing lessons, and brushing hair from another’s face have any measure in this twitter age defined by capturing reality in 140 characters?

“In our words and our actions we are challenged to treat all with respect and dignity.”

Really?

Perhaps the little old lady in Dubuque is exactly the person to whom we should be looking these days. Edit her out? No, I don’t think so. Let’s edit her in.

Now, how do I get out of this nunnery?

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the checkout counter

Winter sits heavy in Des Moines, Iowa. Grey skies, bare trees, and a cold wind blowing across the Urbandale Hy Vee parking lot and down my sweater, turning those last few steps into a run to the finish line. I make it through the front doors just as the sun sets over the concrete. A winner of sorts.

And since everyone gets a prize, I look at the pastries displayed in the case at the front. In the upper right corner are creme-filed long johns. The fulfillment of my greatest wish. Creme-filed long johns are God’s life raft during the dark days of winter.

I’ll take a dozen.

It has been a long day. Twice I sat in cars that wouldn’t start in the cold. When the first car refused to start, I confidently jumped out, grabbed the cables, popped the hood, and looked very smart as I examined what I thought was the battery. After my son told me I was looking at the radiator, I hooked up the cables to the other battery-looking thing and jumped the car. It actually started. A Christmas miracle. Although, when I tried to drive, it died. I jumped it again. It started again. I tried to drive it again. It died again. After careful thought, I decided that when I need to go somewhere, I can start this car, but then actually drive another car. Pretty clever, right?

The other car was my mother-in-law’s hybrid car. It also didn’t start. So, when I opened the hood, I was not surprised to see a lot of plastic containers. And nothing else. My lord, they not only forgot the battery, they forgot the entire engine. Apparently, it runs on pixie dust. I shut the hood.

Which is why I am buying creme-filled long johns and seriously contemplating leaving town. Everyone else has left town for Mexico or the Caribbean or Hawaii. Warm climates to warm the toes on cold Iowa days. Why not? A time-honored tradition of retirees, college students, and post-election depressed Democrats.

But these trips all require a plane ride. I’ve done a lot of plane rides in the last year and I refuse to get on another plane without someone stepping up to answer the obvious questions — Is that kid sitting next to me able to put on my oxygen mask in case of an emergency? If they worry about de-icing the plane before take-off, what about the ice when we are flying through winter clouds? What if the pilot sneezes? Do the seat cushions really float? Do I need to stay awake to keep the pilot awake? Are emergency doors just painted on?

So, for various good reasons, I’m staying in Iowa this winter.

I eventually make my way up to the Hy Vee cashier. She smiles. I have a cart full of groceries and, of course, a dozen creme-filled long johns.

“Hi. Did you find everything all right?” Kris McCarthy says.

I’m slightly embarrassed by my overflowing cart and apologize for slowing her lane down.

McCarthy gives a laugh and then her face settles into her permanent smile lines.

“I love it when people come with full carts. It gives me a chance to talk and get to know people. You know. A chance to visit.”

Whaaat????  A chance to visit?

McCarthy explains: “The bigger the order, the more time you have with a customer. You get to know them. I see a lot of faces that come through every week. Some I get to know by name. I even have a set of Tuesday morning regulars. And there’s also people I see every day.”

Is she kidding?

“I love it. I can build a relationship. It’s a lot of fun. My customers will wait in my line for me. They could easily go in the lane next to me, but they will wait a couple of extra minutes to say hello to me. They know I’ll take care of them. If you take the time, people remember. This makes it great.”

Build relationships at the checkout counter? Why not.

Brene Brown, a professor out of Texas, writes about her observations and studies of people dealing with shame. Yup, she’s a shame researcher of all things, and as a result of thousands of interviews she has a lot to say. One of her primary observations running through several of her books is that the good life requires connection and belonging.

“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”

Aha!

So, for all you snowbirds lying out on the beaches getting roasted during the dog days of Iowa winter, realize that on Douglas Avenue, for no charge and no plane ride, there can be found connection and belonging. You might have an unlimited bar with little umbrella drinks, I have Kris McCarthy, the Hy Vee checkout woman, taking care of all of us.

And let’s not forget the power of creme-filled long johns.

Joe

 

 

David or Pinocchio?

The loud and angry Italian couple leaned into each other as they faced off like professional wrestlers getting ready for the big, slingshot-catapult, missile-dropkick finale to their match. Waving their arms and posturing on the narrow, crowded street, they left little room for us to politely walk around the drama. And, of course, not understanding the language allowed us a breezy freedom of interpreting the action. Is he that lout who frequently cheats on his wife and was caught this morning sneaking home with freshly smudged lipstick on his white shirt ? Or is this just the daily discussion about who’s picking up little Angelo from school?

No matter the reason, these are two people not at their best on this chilly morning in Florence, Italy. We’ve all been there, by the way, whether in Florence or Des Moines. It’s why we have New Year’s resolutions. We have to try to be better in the future because our behavior in the past is sometimes nothing to write home about. As my mom would periodically say to me, “You’re better than this.”

I’m good with that mantra. In fact, I love self-help programs that claim they will make me better. Get Thin. Get Happy. Lose Your Belly. Lower Anxiety. Brighten Your Teeth. Defeat Aging. Save Your Marriage. Yup, I love a clear path to perfection. Whatever can possibly be put into a program with multiple steps, I’m doing it. 30 Days to Better Spelling? Sign me up.

Until yesterday.

I was walking in the Accademia Gallery Museum in Florence, doing the normal tourist stuff, when I turned the corner and saw the worst thing possible for a guy with a self-help fetish.

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Whaaaaat? Gigantic arms — muscled legs — rippled stomach — smooth skin — good hair. Michelangelo’s David in all his glory. No wonder he’s forgotten his pants as he heads out the door to slay Goliath. Lord, if I looked like that, I’d forget my pants too. Give me a break.

David is unbelievably . . . horribly . . . frighteningly . . . perfect!

What was Michelangelo thinking? This is disaster for all of us. Who could possibly be David? The last time I had  smooth skin was when I was two. Where are my stomach muscles even located? How can I have good hair when I have no hair? And, I’m sorry, I’m just getting older. My future is not the slaying of enemy giants but the promise of green jello  salad served cafeteria style.

Here’s the truth — I WILL NEVER BE A BETTER SPELLER IN 30 DAYS!

I’m done . . . . . . . .

Okay, okay, breathe. There’s got to be another option.

Let’s see, besides Michelangelo’s David, there is a second example that comes out of Florence, Italy.

“As soon as he reached home, Geppetto took his tools and began to cut and shape the wood into a Marionette. ‘What shall I call him?’ he said to himself. ‘I think I’ll call him PINOCCHIO.’” The Adventures of Pinocchio, Annotated, Carlo Collodi. 

Yup, that would be our guy. Interestingly enough, that same Pinocchio was dead by the end of Chapter 15 for being such a bad boy. Yup, Pinocchio was so far from perfection — such a rotten kid — Collodi killed him off in the original story. Thankfully, the editor of the newspaper in Rome, where the story was serialized back in the day, asked Collodi to resurrect the puppet and do another 20 chapters. And, lo and behold, in Chapter 16, Pinocchio is saved by “The Lovely Maiden with Azure Hair,” and has many more adventures before turning into a real boy. Not bad.

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And you have to love the life lessons in Collodi’s Pinocchio story:

  1. Don’t tell lies;
  2. Take your medicine when you are sick;
  3. There is no such thing as a Field of Wonders that will suddenly make you rich;
  4. Don’t believe everything you hear;
  5. Don’t take things that don’t belong to you;
  6. Don’t be too proud to work;
  7. It’s never too late to learn;
  8. Choose your friends carefully;
  9. We are in this world to help each other; and
  10. There is always hope for someone with a kind heart.

And if you do all of this you might turn human. Maybe.

Okay, isn’t Pinocchio our guy? Forget the six-pack abs. Forget the perfect hair. Forget being a hero. Isn’t it enough of a program to work on not turning into a donkey by the end of the day?

Back in Florence, the couple stopped yelling at each other as we watched. And, as is not uncommon in Florence, a passionate embrace followed. Leaning into each other with all their problems and scars and messiness. Wonderfully trying to be human.

That’s enough for 2017.

Joe