The two faces of Lisa Takes

The smell of clean causes your nose to flare when you enter the room.  Sharp.  Astringent.  With an undertone of earthy.  A fine wine.  Laughter crosses from over the busy side of the counter.  It’s mixed with distant barks and the sounds of people clipping, trimming, talking.  When it is your turn to check in, your dog inevitably decides to investigate the far corners of the room, leaving you with one arm firmly on the leash and the other gripping the counter.  Certainly you would have confessed the name of your dog with a little less drama.  But there you are.  Shouting out her name while stretched out on a self-made rack.

Saturday morning at Starch Pet Hospital.

The vet today is a woman.  Hair pulled back tight.  Blue lab coat open at the neck.  Smile lines high.  Lisa Takes listens and observes.  She’s good at it.  A vet for 24 years, the last 22 at Starch Pet Hospital, there is not much she hasn’t seen — from pet owners and pets.


“I basically have two patients.  It’s very complicated.  The hard part of the job is dealing with the human, not the animal.”  Her lower face smiles as she watches me carefully.

Takes is that kid you knew in high school who took every science course offered.  Disciplined.  Focused.  And just a little scary smart.  The person you want as your vet.

“I like my job.  I’m never bored.  The most common problems are skin issues, allergy issues, gastrointestinal issues.  Older patients generally have kidney disease, cancer.  Yesterday I had to do surgery on a dog with cancer.  Bleeding in the spleen.  Rewarding work to be able help.”

She moves around the room with ease.  Taking care of a dog here, picking up a cat over there.  Calm.  Clear.  Certain even among the uncertainty of health.

“To some extent these animals are an extension of their families.  I treat the animal as such.  I have the luxury of knowing it is an animal.  What applies to humans does not apply to veterinary medicine in every case.  So, like cancer.  We don’t have hospice.  We have to make decisions.  I will treat every animal as part of the family.  But there are different rules.”

She pauses.  Looking at me closely.  Wanting me to understand.

“Animals for a lot of people are good for them.   They make you feel good.  They make you feel happy.  They are a gift.”  And off Takes goes to the next examination room.  Working until the last patient is seen and the day is done.

Life as a veterinarian.

The smell of clean is surprising as you enter through the carpeted doorway.  No wonder.  The owner’s mom (yes, Mom!) is vacuuming, wiping down, dusting.  Constantly.  But the undertone of sweat is inevitable in a gym.  The clang of iron echoes sharply in the large room, although muted by the steady beat of treadmills, and elliptical machines, and new-fangled cardio equipment.  But it is the slabs of iron, stacked and sorted and placed on racks, that beckon.  Like Stonehenge.  They are a little primordial.  A little old school.  And definitely a little crazy.

Sunday morning at Anytime Fitness in Beaverdale.

Hidden at the far side of the room is a woman lifting.  Back towards me.  Tucked behind the lifting rack.  The muscles separate and bulge as she strains at the weights, serrating her back into an anatomy lesson.  Trapezius, Triceps, Biceps, Lats, Delts.  Yup, they’re all there.


Lisa Takes smiles shyly at me.  She isn’t quite comfortable talking about this part of her life.  She’ll tell you she is married.  She’ll tell you she has a 12-year-old kid.  She’ll tell you she’s a veterinarian.  But she probably won’t tell you she is a professional bodybuilder.  Did you know she came in first in her last regional tournament?  Of course you didn’t.

“There was a trainer I started working out with here in Des Moines.  Dado Kantarevic.  I started to see big changes.  Then he asked me to do a show.  I laughed at him.  He had me watch a video of girls competing.  Again, I laughed at him.  It took me a year and a half to actually commit.  I am still with Dado six years later.”

Takes continues her routine.  Straining at the weights.  The point of exhaustion comes and goes as the iron is moved from here to there.  Sweat drips from her forehead.  There’s no stopping today.

“We tried to do Figure first.  There is Bikini, which to me is more beach body.  Real lean.  Not a lot of muscle.  A little bit, not much.  And then there is Figure.  They are looking for wide shoulders, big lats.  Like a V-taper they call it.  Very feminine.  You’re in heels.  I was in beginner and I got third at my first one.  I enjoyed it.”

“Enjoyed it” is an understatement.  Takes was hooked.  But she was looking for something a bit more.

“I’m more muscular, and I decided I was too muscular for Figure.  So I did Bodybuilding.  I like Bodybuilding better.  I didn’t have to be as girly.  Because I’m not like that.  I didn’t have to wear heels.  I like to lift heavy.  And I like to work out hard.  I like it a lot.  I went pro my next year.”

She moves to her next routine.  Methodical.  Practiced.  Nothing too quick.  Nothing to abrupt.  Just hard.  Her against the iron.

By the way, of all people, she must be happy when she looks in the mirror.  Right?

“I’m looking at myself critically.  I never go to the mirror and am totally satisfied.  I look in the mirror and say I need to do this.”  She smiles, shaking her head.

And then there is that small fact that Takes is a month from turning 50.

“There are not a lot of women nearly 50 like me.  There is a master’s category, but I usually do the open — which is everybody.”  She smiles again, giving a small glimpse of the confidence needed to strut on stage.

And that’s enough conversation.  She heads down the floor, a weight in each hand, doing front squat after front squat after front squat.

Life as a professional bodybuilder.










“Life is a banquet”

The old Standard Oil Station in Osceola seemed an unlikely location for the boy’s childhood, given what eventually happened.  Although I could be wrong about that.  In those days, gas station attendants fixed cars, pumped gas, changed oil, and wiped their hands on rags that were washed and rewashed.  The old man who ran this station did it all.  And the boy learned to do it all.

“I got my love of cars from my Dad.  My first job at the station was loading a coke machine with those little six-ounce bottles.”

And the love of cars only became more intense as the boy aged.

“I’ve always been fascinated with Cadillacs.  Got my first in 1982.  I’ve travelled to Berlin and Amsterdam for Cadillac shows.  To me, a car is a work of art.  One day when I die I’m going to be cremated and have my ashes scattered at Willis Cadillac.”

Apparently next to his Cadillac Allante.

Teaching middle school students instrumental music in small town Iowa for over fifty years also seemed an unlikely career for what eventually happened.  Or, again, I may be missing the boat.  Young people do cause you to rethink the universe year after year.  They keep you nimble, open to change, flexible about the future.

“My niche is teaching middle school.  Either you love working with middle school students or you go insane in two weeks.  They are a different breed.  They go brain dead when they get into junior high.”

The boy relished this challenge.  After “retiring” in 2000 from teaching at Osceola, he continues to teach part-time at Valley High School and Valley Southwoods and perform instrumental music in Des Moines.  This is a boy up on his toes, ready to go.

“The last concert I was in, a young couple came up, and the girl said, ‘Can I ask you something?  How long have you played clarinet?’  And I said 61 years.  ‘Wow.’  She got all embarrassed and started to say, ‘Are you that old?’”

And all those students over all those years are a source of joy to the boy.

“One of my former students is now on staff at USC.  Clarinet.  She was a fantastic player.  She could have studied with the janitor and done great.  She wrote and said I gave her the self-confidence to do what she did.  That means a lot.”

And then there is the boy falling in love late in life.  Normally a time to settle down, take it easy, rest your feet on the balcony of your Florida condo — not to do what the boy eventually did.  Then again, maybe I’m wrong about that also.  Courting is a complicated dance at any time in life.

“My husband, Larry Hoch, was a middle school math teacher from New York.  We both started coming out at the same time and met in a chat room.  This was in 2000.  We started e-mailing, and then we started talking on the phone.  And then right around Christmas he asked what I thought about him coming out to Iowa.  My first thought was ‘oh my god.’  Panic City.”

The boy survived.  A couple of years later, he and Hoch were united in a civil union in Vermont.  That he was gay was a minor blip in his world, he claims.

”When I started coming out in 2000 to friends and family, it was about fifty-fifty.  Some people said, “You are?  Really?  So what.’  And the others said, ‘Yeah, we knew it.  So what.”

And that should be the end of the story.

But then life took an unusual turn.  The group pursuing a case for gay marriage in Iowa contacted the boy and wanted him and his partner to be parties to the case.

“We were what we called the old fart couple.  There were six couples and we were the oldest by far.  We decided we would do it.”

Soon followed an avalanche of media exposure for what became known as the Varnum case.  Press conferences, interviews, stories.  The boy’s life was on display for one and all.

“It’s been a great experience.  Right after the first press conference we only had one ‘you’re going to hell’ type letter.  That was it.  I’ve had so many former students contact me telling me it was great.  We would do it again.”

David Twombley, the nearly 74-year-old boy, is surprised where life has taken him.  He is not brave — leaning in to emphasize this point.  He does not know where the courage came from to stand up for gay marriage — shaking his head at me in quiet disbelief.  He doesn’t know why all the excitement didn’t give him a heart attack — laughing at his good fortune to be alive.

He is truly dumfounded.

“None of this is my personality,” he tells me with a wry smile.


So what is?

“I love the line in Auntie Mame — ‘Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.’ That’s kind of been my philosophy.  You have to live.”





Staying out of the mummy museum

The soup pot sits alone on the far burner at the end of the stove.

Out front, the servers and bartenders begin to prep the tables.  Their dark-attired figures weave and  bend and glide around the room.  The white tablecloths are smoothed and straightened.  Silverware is polished.  Chairs are adjusted.  On the bar is arranged row after row of different sized glasses.  Each inspected and wiped for any errant water stain.  The staff’s quiet murmur of misdeeds, family drama, and last night’s adventures all dies away as the early crowd arrives with an elegant swoop of long coats and draped scarfs.  A muted professionalism cloaks the dining room.  The lights sparkle through the large front window, gilding the front.  Everyone at Lucca is coiffed and buffed and standing at attention.

Carlos Fernandez calmly leans over the soup, smiles, and stirs.

Fernandez is a broad-backed young man, his head hunched into his shoulders, arms loose, body low, hands clenched.  You’d guess a boxer by trade.  A head and body that can take pain.  A brawler for sure.

“I made apple cake earlier today for tonight’s desert.  Now I am finishing the spinach soup.”

The smile that reaches across his face is flashed my way before returning to the burner.  Unperturbed by the stream of orders soon to come, he slowly whisks the soup.  One step at a time.


Fernandez comes from Mexico.  Guanajuato, to be exact.  A city in the center of the center of Mexico.  It is a world heritage site, the location of a yearly artist festival, and, believe it or not, a famous mummy museum.  Yup, petrified bodies.  The mummies were unearthed during a time when the city charged a tax to keep a loved one below ground.  Failure to pay the tax?  Welcome to the Mummy Museum.  Not a good thing.

“It is something to see,” Fernandez adds with a laugh.

But Guanajuato is also known for the people’s skill in working leather.  Shoes, purses, jackets.  You name it.

“Carlos has great hands, just like that area of Mexico is known for,” Steve Logsdon, the owner of Lucca, says.  “He knows what food should taste like in addition to being skilled with his hands.  A wonderful combination for a chef.”

The orders are now arriving one after the other as the early diners rush to finish in time for the show at the Civic Center.  Logsdon and Fernandez are working opposite sides of the kitchen.  Little conversation occurs as the burners are lit, pans are heated, and dish after dish is prepared and placed on the counters for the servers.


“Carlos was like 18 when he started working here.  He is 32 now.  I stuck with him through good times and bad.  He is very liked here.”  Logsdon talks as he keeps working the plates.  “You know he was in a gang in Mexico in his younger years.”

“Why did you say that?” Fernandez scolds with a smile as he flips the meat in the pan.   “Yes I was with a gang and got my teeth knocked out.  Not here.  Back in Mexico.”

“Carlos was fitted with new front teeth.”  Logsdon states, head down.

Neither of them look up.  Work starts at nine in the morning and goes to nine or ten at night.  Now is the time to work.

“I came to U.S. alone when I was 18.  This is the better life.  Mexico is so poor.  I met my wife in Des Moines.  I have two children.  And I learned how to cook from Steve.”

And cook they do, as Fernandez sidesteps from pan to pan, stirring, flipping, placing the cooked food on plates, and starting all over.


“My favorite thing to do in Des Moines is to work.  My mind changes a lot when I’m working.  Work is good.  I enjoy when it is busy.  Maybe I’m crazy.”  Fernandez looks up at me as he places the meat on the plate.  “I have a lot of ideas as a chef.  We are already planning Valentine’s Day.”

“I couldn’t do this without Carlos,” says Logsdon as he applies the finishing touches to an entree.

The plates are brought to the tables in seamless processions.  Wine is poured.  Mixed drinks are stirred.  Beer is opened.  The glasses on the bar disappear in twos and threes and fours.  The apple cake is delivered.

Then, with a bustle of coats and hats and gloves and scarfs, the crowd dashes off to the show.

Fernandez takes a long breath.  Smiles, showing his new teeth.  And begins preparing for the next round.

Another day almost done.  Another day that Fernandez has worked hard in America.  Another day he has paid his tax.  Another day safe from the Mummy Museum.




One good person, well-done.

It’s the voice that grabs your attention. “Booming” seems too violent of a description.  And “piercing” seems too irritating.  But “arresting”?  Ah, the voice does make you stop and look and check out who is making that noise.  Of course, there’s also his size.  A big man by any standards.  Bright-eyed and broad.   An athlete for sure.  From another time.  Well, it all began 72 years ago and counting.   A certain gravitas comes with that.  He’s been around.  He’s seen a few things.   He’s experienced a bit of life.

“The number one thing as a father or as a parent that you must do is set an example for your children.  My father never talked to me about what it meant to be a good father or a good husband.  I saw how he treated my mother.  I saw a man who cared about the community, cared about the children.”

Mike Carver is getting warmed up.  “Ways to Succeed as a Father” is the topic.  His credentials?  Four kids and fifteen grandkids.  And, yes, a willingness to put in the hard work.

“Fall of 1980 went through a divorce.  We had a split arrangement — we shared responsibility.  I remarried in 1984.  I had primary responsibility for four kids.  It turned out well.  All of them succeeded in lots of ways. That led me to write a paper that I used at a parent university where I was asked to speak on parenting.  The people in the room were basically men.  Just a handful.”

And out of this small beginning, Carver was hooked.  In 2001, he was appointed by Governor Vilsack to a task force on responsible fatherhood.  And by 2007, he and others had partnered with the YMCA in offering courses and incentives to fathers under the Polk County Fathers and Families Coalition and the YMCA’s Fatherhood Program.  A program going strong to this day.

How does this happen?

“Both my mother and father were very involved in the community.  When someone came to town and didn’t have any money, they’d show up on our door.  When there was a need to raise money for something, my parents would chair the committee.  I saw so many examples of them getting things done.”

By 1963, Carver was in Iowa City going to college.  He was on the basketball team when a fellow teammate persuaded him to get involved in student politics and national issues.  Before long, he was the student body president.

“One of the players I played with at Iowa was an African American from Michigan.  He had actually pledged at Delta Chi, and that created a big furor that they had pledged this black student at Iowa.  It was kind of a hot issue.  Some of us felt that we needed to do something.”

Carver chaired a committee that organized an exchange of fraternity and sorority students from Iowa with students at an all-black college in Mississippi.  And out of this an activist was born.  A string of leadership positions soon followed —  President of the Iowa Commercial Real Estate Association, President of the Urbandale Development Association, member of the Urbandale City Council, President of the Urbandale Chamber.  And then there is that Urbandale Citizen of the Year recognition.

“Years ago I thought I was going to be  a Lutheran Minister.  I went from that to a political science major.  I got into the whole focus of working in the community.  I did banking for 19 years.  Because of the nature of banking, you’re involved in the community.  Then I left banking and got into commercial real estate which is also community focused.  Been doing that for 30 years.  I just enjoy connecting with people.”


Is that it?  Good parents?  The right peer group?  The correct nudge here and there?  Suddenly you’re Urbandale Citizen of the Year?

Mmmmm . . . .

“Every Monday at 5 a.m. I go to a chapel at St. Pius.  I’ve done that for seven years.  It’s a pretty good way to start the week.  I’m there by myself.  It’s a small chapel.”

Really?  Is there more?

“My wife’s a pretty incredible woman.  I have the greatest respect for her.  I’ve been married now for 30 years.  My wife is very private.  She doesn’t like the press.  If anything you write could leave her out, that would make her happy.  But my wife has been extremely supportive.”

Okay, take all the above, stir slowly, cook for 72 years.  There you go.  One good person, well-done.









A winter forecast

“The squirrel nests are high in the trees, have you noticed?”

My mail carrier is a fairly sane looking man.  Not a youngster by any means.  He hustles every day, working long hours, hanging on to a job that seems to be fading away before the ever-present digital devices.  I see him often through my window, striding across lawns, sorting catalogues and letters, bills and newspapers, steadily walking as he works.  An old plow horse.  And so when he takes a moment to talk, I listen.

“Yup, the squirrel nests are high in the trees,” he says, as he looks skyward to the branches in the neighbor’s oak.


Well, so they are.  What does it mean?

“The winter will be mild,” claims my mail carrier, with more than a smattering of wistful thinking.

A mild winter?  Why not?  Although predicting the weather all the way to next spring seems a little dicey.  Particularly in Iowa.  Particularly these days.  Perhaps the squirrel nests are so high in order to avoid the upcoming flood waters.  Who knows?  Listen, you pay your money and take your chances when it comes to squirrels.

Downtown, the wind whips across the flat concrete parking lots and jumps over the open stretch of wide river.  Cheers from Iowa Cub fans are nonexistent on this day.  It’s the wrong time of year and just too cold.  Multiple lines string out high above the water next to the stadium.

And there the birds gather.


“If you see large numbers of birds perching on power lines, look for a storm.”  So says Emma Springfield of Nature Center Magazine.  Really?  But what if the birds are just resting and enjoying the view?  A well-needed afternoon break.  A siesta, right here in downtown Des Moines.  But the birds aren’t talking.  They just sit and stare at the skyline.  Silently.

Don’t fret, there are even more signs for you to observe.   The wooly bear caterpillar and its brown middle band, thin or thick.  Cattle bunched together in a field.   Rabbits fat in November.  Roosters crowing during the midday.  The list goes on and on.  And I haven’t even jumped species to mention the ache in Aunt Martha’s knees . . . .

The high grind of the tractor engine echoes off the partial walls of the new building going up on University Avenue in Windsor Heights.  The motor is stilled.  Stiffly, Jay Parker climbs out of the cab.  A wry, smiling man with soft eyes in a weathered face.


“We come out of the ground with stuff so they can build on it.   But we’ll be done after this job.  The biggest problem is trying to keep it warm enough.  You see, we do footings.  And then everyone comes on top of our stuff.”

The outside construction season is coming to an end for Parker.  It is unclear if that is a good or bad thing.  Perhaps it is just the nature of things.

And what do you think the weather will be this winter?

“It’s going to turn out cold.  Everybody’s going to be locked out of more work outside.  Farmers Almanac said it’s going to be really cold.  We’re going into single digits tomorrow. There might be some work going on, but I know we’re done.”

Parker and I both stomp our feet trying to stay warm as we talk.  The cold wraps us in a blanket of quiet stillness.  But there is no warmth.  The air is clear and sharp and raw.  Our toes and fingers are beginning to sting.  It’s possible that Parker and I are the last survivors in the outdoors.  Alone in the wild.  On University Avenue.

I ask Parker if he’s freezing.

“Kind of.  Are you?”

And we race to the warmth of our vehicles — unconcerned about tomorrow’s forecast.







“Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . . .”

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?  Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?”  Robert Burns.

The concrete of the parking lot reflected the last rays of the sun as it fell behind the businesses on the other side of the road.  A hard reflection in winter.  The Drake neighborhood sprawled out to the south and east.  The Beaverdale neighborhood to the immediate north.  And anchoring the end of the parking lot, nearly at the top of the hill, was a grocery store made of brick and metal and glass.  Indestructible materials.  When the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers finally flood this entire plain, future societies will excavate this hill and say, oh yeah, this was the famous Dahl’s Foods.  A marketplace where the rich, and the poor, and the in-between, all rubbed shoulders, all pushed shopping carts, all bought a donut for the ride home.  A Des Moines institution.

But there was no flood.  Dahl’s Foods is just an old man today.  Sagging a bit at the waist.  The top coat a little tattered.  Not moving too nimbly, nor with too much pizazz.  But still alive.  Still selling groceries.  Still watching over us as we make our way through the aisles.

“Bankruptcy” is the word whispered on the street.  $41 million in liabilities.  The chain of Dahl’s stores is going under.  It can’t survive in any form except through bankruptcy.  Various reasons are given as to why it has come to this.  Does it matter?

Driving by the Dahl’s store out on Merle Hay Road, the Dahl’s sign is blinking out.  Two letters gone today.  How many tomorrow?  Tick tock.


So I went to check on the Beaverdale Dahl’s.

The Salvation Army bell ringer looked hopeful as I approached the narrow entrance.  As he should.  Everyone dropped something in the red bucket.  Rich or poor.  Who wouldn’t?  This isn’t complicated.  The message is clear.  “We’re all in this together.”

And the double doors opened inviting me in.

The Beaverdale Dahl’s was humming.  People were smiling, bustling around, working, steady.  I asked for the manager.  He was at the cash register checking out customers.  Of course.

“There has been a lot of support.  This neighborhood has always done a lot to support this store.  And they have the same hope for us.  People are uneasy, but they’re still in shopping.  We have a lot of employees here who have been her 10, 15, 20 years.  The customers know them by name.  Hopefully they will continue to come and give us the support they have given us the last 83 years.”

Tom Day is not an old man.  He smiles and works and talks and gets the job done.   He has been the manager for three years at the Beaverdale store.  He is responsible for around 70 employees.  A lot of people.  A lot of families.  A lot of worry.


“My new years wish is that my employees here will continue to have a job at Dahl’s, whether it be Dahl’s or some other chain name, that is my biggest hope.”  He looks at me seriously.  This isn’t some ad campaign.  This is a man who wants to make it happen for his “family.”  And then back to work he goes as another customer comes to check out.

The deli is a Dahl’s trademark from years past.  Today, of course, there is a deli in every grocery store, mall, or gas station.  But not back in the day.  Dahl’s was at the forefront in serving those beans and fried chicken and salad.  Iowa food.

Sherrie, the Deli Manager, has worked the deli since 1991.  She personifies the tough, no-nonsense-but-kind Dahl’s women that staff the bakeries and delis and cash registers across the Des Moines metro.

“No last name, please.”  As if I was being a bit too forward.  Then she looked me over — to perhaps straighten my shirt or wipe a smudge off my face.


“My New Year’s wish?  I hope we all prosper and have jobs.  See Dahl’s come back to life again.  That would be awesome.  This is one of my favorite stores because of the neighborhood.  They treat you like family.  I love this store.”

On the other side of the store is Nick Hanian.  He is a young man, still unformed.  New to the meat department.  Proud of his job.  Tucked away in the corner, preparing meat, he can’t stop smiling when I approach.

What is your New Year’s wish?

“I want to keep honing my trade as a meatcutter.   I’m 5 months in and I’ve never had more fun in a job.  My coworker and supervisor have turned out to be my new best friends.  I’ve had a lot of fun.”


So, there you go.  Perhaps it is the end.  Perhaps not.  Life is fickle.  So I grab two Dahl’s donuts.  One for the road and one to savor.  Maybe that’s what you do.  Savor.

“For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”  Robert Burns.



A homemade sweater.

“Why thank you.  You are so kind to think of me.  A homemade sweater.  Yes, those are bright colors you knitted.  Neon, aren’t they?  Wow, look at that size.  No, I’m sure I’ll grow into it.”

My oh my.  A gift of love to be sure.  Perhaps given to you by your Aunt Edna from Boone.  No doubt your favorite aunt.   But a homemade sweater?  This is a gift nightmare.  The sleeves usually are long enough to multitask as both arm coverings and a neck scarf at the same time.  Sort of a straight-jacket look for the young urban professional.   Then there is the problem of mass and gravity.  “Competing in the super heavyweight division on the center stage at Wells Fargo Arena is . . . The Homemade Sweater.”  And, yes, you do have to wear it to the family holiday party on Sunday.  Smiling.  Grateful.  And so overheated and itching that the family will assume you are having some type of flea attack.   Yup, nothing says the holidays better than a little mange.

So, I had to check it out when I heard that down in Peru there’s a group of women who knit amazing jackets, gloves, sweaters, and whatever else there is to knit.  The web site,, called them the Ñaña Knitting Collective of Peru.  A knitters’ circle.   Rumor had it that they were not making the proverbial homemade sweater.  Rather, their sweaters are beautiful, well-fitted, stylish, feather light.  And with a local connection to boot.


“When I say we make handmade sweaters, you think of something with a bunch of animals on it and it’s like 17 colors and shaped like a box and about an inch think.  And when I say it is a fair-trade sweaters the image is even worse.  From the very beginning we committed that this was going to be fashionable apparel.  It going to be current. It’s going to be very high quality.”  Lexi Wornson Young smiles at me patiently, recognizing that I’m a victim of past sweater trauma.

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Young, daughter of the original owners of Back Country Outfitters and a present manager at the Beaverdale store, started the small business, Chiri, with her friend, Emily Fifield, in 2011.

“It’s all based on women knitters in Peru who are in a cooperative.  The group I’m working with is 18 women.  It’s a wide range of ages.  Some grandmas in their 60’s and some young women in their early 30’s.   There are always babies and small children under foot causing mayhem.”

“When she lost her husband at a young age, Eliciana turned to knitting to support herself and her two children.”  

Young buys from this cooperative and then wholesales the items in the U.S., including at Back Country.  But that doesn’t really explain her relationship to the cooperative.  She and her partner have invested in these women.  They are part of their lives.  And Young is more than a buyer — she sizes and designs the sweaters, then goes to Peru to iron out any bugs in the production.  She works hand-in-hand with the women in the cooperative.

“Her artistry isn’t limited to knitting, though; Beatriz also has a captivating voice and loves to sing traditional huaynos, both happy and sad.”

“I’d like to get to a point that we are selling enough sweaters that we are able to sustain this group of women year round with consistent work and they can start to add more women to their group or a second group.”

All these hopes pinned on a homemade sweater?

“I’m aware that I work with a group of women who each own probably not more than 3 outfits when they’re making these sweaters.  But I don’t think clothing is silly or supercilious.  How you dress is how you express yourself.  It’s a service these women are providing to women in the U.S.”

“When she was a teenager, Edith knitted garments with her mother to sell at the market in her hometown of Juliaca.  Now she has three children of her own.”

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Okay, a women’s business run by women, where the items are created and produced by women, and the finished product is sold by Young — a woman.   Oh, yeah, and then some woman buys it.

“There are all sorts of marginalized populations around the world.  Wherever you look, women are struggling a little bit more.   And there is strong evidence that supporting women supports community.  When you look at all the social science, if you support women entrepreneurs, women community leaders, the resources end up back in the community so much more.”

Young brushes back those bangs that want to disguise one eye, and looks directly at me with her Peter-Pan smile that asks me to climb up on the sill and jump with her out the window.

“Epifania has her hands full raising five children and is grateful that her work as a knitter allows her to earn the money she needs to support them while also letting her spend time at home.”  

“When you buy a Chiri garment, it actually has the name of the person who did it on the tag.  You can go onto the website and look it up and read about her and see her portrait.  I would love to close that circle and in my wildest dreams we would invite some of the people who own the product to come to Peru and take some knitting lessons and spend a couple of days with these women.”

“Frida is pure spunk.  You can count on this feisty woman for anything, as her younger siblings will testify.  With no children of her own, Frida at one point took on work as a construction worker to help send her brother through school.”

Mmmm . . . Eliciana, Andria, Amelia, Frida, Graciela, Juana, Edith, Hilaria, Ines, Marleni, Paula, Yolanda.  Mothers and grandmothers and caring women.  A knitters’ circle.

So there you go.  A gift for you.  A homemade sweater.














It isn’t personal

Entering into the public meeting on this early winter day in Iowa was reminiscent of visiting a new church eager for converts.  Smiling faces greeted everyone at the door.  Materials were placed into calloused hands as the staff kept everyone moving forward.  Coffee and donuts were displayed on long tables — church-basement style.  And the murmur of voices rose and fell in a comforting way as we were shunted to the auditorium.  It all ran as smooth as oil.

Crude Oil Pipeline Project — Iowa Informational Meetings — Newton, Iowa.

Bunched at the back door of the auditorium were large men.  Farmers.  Beefy.  Strong.  Their feed caps were pushed up higher on their foreheads today.  No sun beating down in here.  Their bulk blocked the narrow entrance into the auditorium. Clogging the line.  The people behind milled and gathered, perplexed as to what to do next.  A person at the mike was encouraging the flow to continue.  It didn’t.

Eventually, the people in charge of the meeting cleared the blockage.  The farmers and union folks and Grannies-for-a-Liveable-Future and everybody else were placed into seats.  Sound equipment was tested.  The meeting began.

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It’s a bit of a tough sell when you think about it.  How do you tell Iowans that their land will be dug up, a pipeline planted in their corn field, 38-inches down, and crude oil will be pumped underneath the land they have stewarded against harm for generations?  Really?

Well, the pipeline company spokesman, Chuck Frey, was the man for the job.  A voice that was down home just enough, but not too much.  Not young by any means.  No tie or jacket on stage.  Eyes that crinkled with humor on a worn face.  Smart as a whip.  A pen showing in his shirt pocket, as if to write down anything important you might say.  And don’t forget the Mr. Rogers’ lilt, that comforting sing-song we all love, where the sentences end on just a fraction higher musical note.  The perfect choice.

Image 1And Mr. Frey did his job.  Safety, security, non-invasive construction, and 100% promise to pay for any damage to the land, any loss of crops, harm to livestock, and to clean up all “events.”   “We will meet or exceed all safety requirements,” Mr. Frey assured us.

Oh, yes, and did I mention the money?  Lots of money.  Money for Iowa.  Money for the 15 permanent jobs.  Money for the construction.  Money for the land owners.  Money for taxes.  Short-term money.  Long-term money.  Money money money.

And when people raised questions about the environment and the need for an environmental impact review, or were worried about the past-record of spills and clean-ups, or were concerned that the promised jobs were really Iowa jobs, or whether the estimate of economic impact was correct, or whether the pipeline was really a public purpose, or whether the ultimate use of the crude oil after it was refined was for outside the U.S., or whether the impact on train and truck transport would be reduced by moving oil through the pipeline, or whether it is wise to support an industry that is contrary to Iowa’s use of alternative energy sources such as ethanol and wind . . . .  Mr. Frey looked concerned. Engagingly concerned.  Helpfully concerned.  We’ll-get-to-the-bottom-of-this concerned.

He didn’t know the number of “events” or “releases” in the past.  Sorry.  He stuck by his economic impact numbers (although Professor Dave Swenson, an economist from ISU who is not for or against the pipeline, finds them seriously exaggerated).  And, as for the grumbling about the environment, Mr. Frey spoke of America.  God love it.  The need to be free of foreign oil.  We as citizens demand the oil, the pipeline just satisfies our needs.   End of story to a smattering of applause.  An amazing performance.  Bravo.

So, I had to talk to him.

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“How does it feel for you to do these meetings where so many people are emotionally invested in hating you or loving you?”

Hesitation.  Well, actually, he looks down at his feet like an uncomfortable young boy.  Shucks.

“I don’t think I can really can’t talk about that.  You’ll have to talk to the media representative to see if I can answer that question.”

Media representative:  “Gosh, I never want to say no to the media, but I’m afraid it is . . . no.”

Mmmm . . . I get it.  It’s simple.  To ask about “feelings” is a personal question.  It’s treating Mr. Frey as a person.  This isn’t personal.  Don’t try to make it personal.

This is a thirty-inch pipe traveling the length of Iowa wrapped in money.  Lots of money for the pipe-line people.  Some money for the people who own the land.  Short-term money for the workers, whatever their number really is and whoever they really are.  And money for the State.  That’s all this is.

It’s just about money, folks.  It isn’t personal.







One cup of Iowa nice

Nothing seems to be free during the holidays.  Your money appears to be made of a special paper that dissolves upon contact with air.  Now you see it sitting crisply in your wallet, now you own a plastic Santa that sings a Rastafarian remake of “Jingle Bells.”  Really?  And, let’s be honest, everyone wants so much from you.  Your list of gifts only gets longer as December picks up speed.  Shoes, shirts, toys, games, smart phones, and fruitcakes.  My oh my.  Sure, we all want Tiny Tim to get what he wants, but who will pay off the Ghost of Christmas Past come January?

And what about you?  Heaven forbid.  A mocha and a donut costs nearly an hour of labor under Iowa’s sad minimum wage.  A movie with your sweetie consumes the weekly food budget in one fell swoop — and forget that bucket of popcorn.  A cup of good cheer at the local tap?  That’s a slippery slope that usually doesn’t bring glad tidings the next morning.

Nope, nothing seems to be free this time of year.

Well, I have a surprise for you.  Today only.  Free gifts for the entire family.  Yahoo!

Let’s start with a gift for that problem aunt.   We have to go to Lisbon, Portugal.   It’s laundry day.  Yup, just like us, they have washing machines.  But, unlike us, they hang their clothes out to dry.  Fresh air.  On the clothes line.  Old school.

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Surprisingly, with drones and high-tech cameras around every corner, no garment is too sacred to keep from hanging over the street.  Boxers and panties, bras with padding peaking through the wiring, too-worn pajamas, socks that must have seen less airy times, and everything and anything else.   A person’s life displayed on three thin wires.

All for the passersby’s viewing.  Free of charge.  The perfect gift for that snoopy aunt in the family.  She’ll love you for this.  She can stare at A stranger’s laundry and make disparaging comments to her heart’s desire.  Perhaps it will even discourage her from remarking on your weight.  It’s worth a shot.

And what about your brother who is always looking for love in all the wrong places?

Check out Sevilla, Spain, where every bench is occupied by lovers.  Embracing, kissing, entwined and entwining.  The soft-lit small streets of the old Jewish quarter seduces you towards real romance.  Heck, why shouldn’t you kiss the person next to you, throw aside your job at Principal, and devote yourself to love?  It’s a no-brainer.

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This is the perfect club venue for your brother.  Slow down the throbbing beat and heat up the glow.  And, yes, the best part, the romance is all free of charge.  The ideal gift.

Ah, what about your hard-to-satisfy parents?  Well, in Grenada, Spain, lies the Alhambra.  It is a group of palaces and fortresses built on a mountain top.  The first palace was built in 889 by a Moorish emir.  Many emirs followed over the centuries building their own palaces an extending the fortress.  The Alhambra even includes a palace built by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1527.  And a gigantic garden that will knock your bell-chiming socks off.

But check out this pool deep inside one of the palaces.

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The reflection?  Your parents will love it.  It will remind them of beauty and grace and divert attention while they are paying your college loans.   All this for free.  See, gifts for everyone.

Finally, I have one more gift — just for you.  A cup of Iowa nice.

The other day in Des Moines, Iowa, it was a holiday disaster.  I was broken down at a Casey’s on Douglas Avenue.  It was evening and the holiday lights began to glow on the light posts around me.  But my car wasn’t feeling in a festive mood.  Dead as Jacob Marley’s ghost.  Even the hopeful grinding noise of the ignition had long faded away.  I was stuck.

I popped the hood, called my wife, and pulled out the jumper cables to wait.  Coming east on Douglas was a large tow truck from Perry’s Service & Towing.  I gave it only a passing glance.  I was resigned and stoic as I waited next to the car.  I did have a small concern that my wife had taken this opportunity to find a better marriage partner.  But otherwise I was just fine.  Well, I was feeling a smidgeon sick.  Perhaps the beginnings of tuberculosis?  And my coat was too thin for the cold.  And one leg felt it might be going a little numb.

“You need a Good Samaritan,” said Greg Bunce.

Bunce hopped out of the Perry tow truck.

“Put away those cables,” he directed.

And he hooked up his own cables.  Started my car.  Wished me “Merry Christmas.”  Jumped back in his truck without collecting a nickel.  And was gone with a nod.

Did I hear a “Ho Ho Ho”?

So, what did I tell you . . . one cup of Iowa nice and gifts for the entire family.  Free today.















Home for the Holidays

The fast train from Madrid, Spain, to Avignon, France, departing Monday afternoon.  Train 9724, Car 1.  Seats 71 and 76.

Shoulder to shoulder, the men stood.  Hundreds of men.  Singing, yelling, chanting.  Deafening.  Frightening.  Empowering.  Solidifying.  Their roar began in the highest seats of the stadium, floated across the mass of men in the middle, then descended until it washed out across the playing field.  It was immediately followed by another roar, and another, and another.  Until they all stood with one voice.  One sound.  One gigantic family with hands raised.  Home.

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“Most of the people use the word ‘hooligan,’” said the young man who preferred not to be named.   “My opinion is that it is a stupid word. When you translate it most of the time you say they damage things, but I never damaged things.  And never will do that.  I never call myself a hooligan.  I’m a fanatic fan.”

Window seats on the high-speed train from Avignon to Brussels departing on Tuesday morning.  Train 9860.  Car 3.  Seats 15 and 16.

The young man is my guide for the evening.  He is smart, stylishly dressed, employed in a good job, pays his bills, and shows up for work five days a week.  And some days, like this week, works seven days in a row.

“I am hardcore.  I love the game of soccer.  I love the club.  And I love the people around me.”  My guide looks at me intently, hoping I hear his emotion.

He has been a fan of ADO Den Haag since a boy.  ADO Den Haag is the professional soccer team in The Hague, the Netherlands.  Some fans have a reputation from years past of participating in a violent form of hooliganism.  Assaults, destruction of property, riots, arson.  Not a good history.

“I would never do that,” my guide said.  “That was the past.”

Tuesday evening, the intercity train from Brussels to The Hague, Netherlands.  Train 1242.  Platform 18. Any available seats.

My guide took me to a club get-together at a local bar before the match.  Club members came and shook my hand, patted me on the back, bought me drinks.  Smiles, laughter, jostling.  The boisterousness soon sent a mass of them out the front door and onto the street.  An edge of excitement.  An edge of out-of-control.

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“Sometimes my love was so big for the club, there was not a lot of money, so we collected bottles to travel to games.  The old members watched our backs.  They told us when we were stupid.  We all have the same love, the same loyalty, the same hobby.  I have a very big group of friends.”

Tram 17 in The Hague.  Second car for people with luggage.  Standing room only.  Tuesday night.

My guide is respected.  When he walks into the room, people approach, want to talk to him, press his flesh.  When he passes through the crowd,  people move to the side.  A quiet earned authority.

And the fighting that we hear about?

“I work.  Friends of mine work.  Sometimes we fight.  We fight in the stadium or the city.  This is our hobby.  Most people say this is strange.  What I say is strange is when you go out to another man’s garden and take the laundry for underwear.  That’s strange.  People like to see boxing.  Okay, then when I fight with somebody who also wants to fight, then what’s the problem?”

Are there rules?

“I don’t take part in a fight where the enemy does not want to fight with us.  They are afraid we will use weapons.  In the early days, it was common that people used knives or other weapons.  But personally I never used a weapon. Ah, once, it was for my own protection — a broom stick.  At a tournament in Amsterdam.  We were 20 and around 70 people attacked us.  I’m not a he-man.  I must protect my friends.  I’m not a fool.”

“Most of the time there is no fight.  Well, with the police maybe.  But then you will be arrested and go to jail.  I’ve never been to jail.  Ah, for six hours, but not more.”

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Amsterdam Schipol Airport to Minneapolis.  Delta Flight 0163,  seats 12B and 12C, departing at  3:00 p.m., Wednesday.

After the match, my guide took me to meet the players in a special room and then to the clubhouse.  I was given beer and food and introduced to players, managers, trainers, and club members.  All smiled.  All answered my questions.  All were polite, friendly, and welcoming.  A solid group.  A group with whom you feel safe.

My young guide leaned into me: “This is my family.  This is a great part of my life.  This is home.”

Minneapolis to Des Moines.  Delta Flight 3351, seats 8D and 8C.  Departing Wednesday night.  For Des Moines.   

Home for the holidays.