How did you spend your summer vacation?

The blank white paper sitting on the laminate desk glares back unhopefully.  Of course, the early morning fluorescent light doesn’t help.  Nor the scratching sound of other pens.  Your classmates busily write of north woods adventures, trips to Okoboji, the awesome water park ride at Adventureland.  Perhaps if you turn the paper at an angle it will look more inviting?  Nope.  My goodness, is Billy drawing a picture of the Big Bull at the Iowa State Fair?  Mmmm . . . what did I do this summer?  What did I do all these past weeks?  How did I spend my summer vacation?

If you were Carla Dawson, this is simple — YOU GOT ARRESTED.

Carla Dawson is fierce.  Not a subtle point.  And all of you who had her as a teacher at North High School know this.  She glares, she scowls, she stomps her feet.  Don’t be fooled, however, by her wrath.  Underneath the scary glower, the disapproving frown, the hard look, there’s the joy — bursting out for all to see.  Sure, her determination is a little daunting, but she is merely giving you a corrective.  A gentle push in a better direction.  She is all about loving you up, but that does not rule out a crack up the side of your head.  Deserved, for sure.

Image 5 “My friend Windy told me the Methodist Church was having a rally about the deportation of people with no criminal history.  I decided to go to the rally.  I went to DC with the intent to get arrested as an act of civil disobedience.”

That sounds good on paper.  Go off to Washington D.C.  Protest the deportation of illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in this country for years and years.  Stand up for the 57,000 undocumented children seized at our border.  Walk the walk for your beliefs.  Heck, you get to practice the time-honored American tradition of civil disobedience, a tradition as old as the Boston Tea Party.  Demonstrating against  the immigration policy is a chance to follow Thoreau’s directive in “Civil Disobedience” —  “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”   Awesome.

Ah, but there is a rub.  You do have to get arrested.  By the police.  With handcuffs.  Not so fun.

“We stayed with one of the leaders in United Methodist.  They were so nice to us.  Thursday morning we went to United Methodist headquarters in DC and they had a civil disobedience training.  And they told us what our charges would be, the fine, have your ID. If the officer taps you on the shoulder, don’t jerk back.  Answer questions politely.  They just went over some rules for people who hadn’t been arrested before.  And then we proceeded to go on the subway to the park across from the White House.  There was a rally there.  A lot of people.  We lined up in four lines for people who were going to be arrested.  They then had a prayer over us.”

Anything that requires a “prayer over us,” is generally a red flag for me.  If divine intervention is needed, perhaps it is wise to take a pass.  Right?  Not for Carla Dawson.

“The police moved the bystanders away from us.  They put a barricade around us.  The police officer asked us to please disperse and leave.  And they did this again.  The third time they told us we’d be arrested.  Then, they started taking us to a tent area, one by one.  They put handcuffs on us one by one.  I was the 67th person arrested.”

Carla Dawson is no youngster.  She’s been around.  Had some hard life.   Raised kids.  Worked long hours.  And trust me, had more than her fair share of heartbreak and heartache.  But she patiently waited in line to do what she saw as her duty.  Sixty-six people went before her.  And then it was her turn.

“It was the easiest arrest I’ve ever had in my life.  They handcuff you.  Take your ID.  Then they take your picture.  They take you to the bus.  I said to the young man, who was like six foot six, ‘Young man, you’re going to have to help me get up this first step into the bus.’  Because I couldn’t use my hands you see, they were cuffed.  We were taken to a police station.  Went through a maze of ropes.  They took the handcuffs off.  I gave my fifty dollars.  They fingerprinted me.  And said I’m free to go.”

“Listen, I felt called to stand up.  I don’t believe in what’s happening in our country to immigrants.”  Period.

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“I’m no hero, Joe, I’m a human being.”

The blank white paper still sits on the wooden laminate desk in the early morning fluorescent light.  Billy has completed his drawing of the Big Bull.  The other kids are starting to fidget, not yet attuned to the rigors of the classroom.  It’s time to put something down.  What to do?  What’s the right thing to do?

So, how did you spend your summer vacation?

Joe

The train station interviews

Maybe buildings aren’t just brick and mortar and wood and stone and paint and tile.  Perhaps they absorb all the life that scuffs their floors, and gives voice off their walls, and pushes at their revolving doors.  Sort of like that crumpled shirt on the bedroom floor that smells of the food and wine and laughter from the night before.  Is it possible that other people’s hopes and dreams and sadnesses are left like baggage in the front foyer — waiting for your entrance?  Maybe a building is more than just a building.

ROTTERDAM

The Germans bombed the town into dust in 1940.  That had to be a nightmare.  The city heart was flattened.  And the old train station was no exception.  Rubble is what remained.  But out of those ashes grew an amazingly modern structure, a bare chested Abercrombie & Fitch model, ready to prance — Rotterdam Centraal Train Station.

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The young building is happy to brag.  Why shouldn’t it?  The vibrating interior feels more like you are going to a club rather than going on a trip.   The station boasts of connections to all of Europe, a high speed rail that gets you to Paris in two and half hours, and even the omnipresent Starbucks (two of them).  It’s all here.  But this place is about the party.  When you look up, the building flexes its shiny muscles, and grins its rakish smile, and shows just enough flesh to entice when you walk through the concourse.  The chrome, the lights, the action — it beckons with youth.

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Meanwhile, the trains silently roll in and out.  Every couple of minutes the whistle of the conductor sounds, you hear a swoosh, and another train pulls quickly but quietly out of the station.  And the revelers with the hats and horns move on only to be replaced by the next group arriving in streamers and balloons.  An ebb and a flow choreographed by conductors’ whistles.  The Rotterdam Centraal party dance.

ANTWERP

This old station was certainly not trendy Rotterdam.  Not by a long shot.  My wife and I first discovered her when we hopped off for a short layover on our way to another adventure.  Heads down, backpacks tight, checking the departure board a little hurriedly for our next connection, we happened to look up.  That’s when the old gal smiled down upon us.  We paused.  She smiled again.  My goodness.  Was that a raised eyebrow she gave us or a wink?  And so went our formal introduction to the grande dame of Belgium — the Antwerp Train Station.

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Dropping our packs, heads swiveling upwards, we tried to take her in.   The stateliness of her posture, the intricate lace filigree around her neck, the muted colors of the brick and stone that draped her frame, froze us.  She was an aged beauty that was dressed and perfumed and bejeweled with time pieces — ready to go to the theater, or the opening, or the gala.  And we were allowed to be the escort.  Why would you ever leave her to get on a train?  Grab your hat and topcoat.  Long flowing dresses and slightly askew black bowties await.  Step onto the red carpet.

OSCEOLA

No tram or subway travels to this lonely station.  The small Iowa town surrounding this Amtrak stop clings precariously to the edge of I-35, as cars and semis and busses roar up and down between Minneapolis, Des Moines, and Kansas City.  This interstate world has no time for romance.  But no matter.  Romance still sits with the low slung brick building just off main street.  Prairie style.  Freewheeling scrappiness in the middle of America.  A survivor of hard times.

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Not too long ago, the town of Osceola purchased the building and rehabbed the outside.  The old fighter now shines with a new roof and repaired windows, rebuilt chimney and fresh mortar.   But like all good gunslingers, the station still only gives you two choices.  You can go east or you can go west.  Good or evil.   And, of course, all points in-between.

Ah, but it is the inside that changes your heart.  Warm wooden benches, the old barred windows, the checkered floor.  Your crazy life is not allowed inside the station doors.  Bring a book.  Time will stop.  The train will be late.  Your other world will vanish.  Perhaps you should tip your gunslinger cap up, sit back, and learn to whittle.  Or maybe just curl into the wood and feel what it feels to wait, like thousands before you on that very bench, with no control whatsoever.  Doing the opposite of killing time.

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And as you’re sitting there, consider this, maybe a building is more than just a building.

Joe

 

 

Included in the price of the ticket

“Don’t stare,” our mothers instructed, as they pulled one arm away from whatever caught our fancy.  This parental technique, always hopeful and always coming from a good place, was always a disaster since our remaining limbs and extended necks then swiveled in the other direction, away from our fast-walking, arm-yanking mothers, and our eyes were now riveted on the forbidden subject as we were dragged away, backpedaling.  Hearing “don’t stare” from our mothers was like hearing the guy with the starter pistol yell “on your marks, get set, . . . STARE!”  Not exactly the result our parents intended.

Which is why I love the Iowa State Fair.

The State Fair provides an open license to stare.  No Iowa-nice here.  You pay your money at the front gates, you buy anything you want on a stick, you stand amazed before a really large pig, and, yes, today only, you can stare.  Unlimited staring.  That’s the deal.

But I notice a lack of structure in this art of staring.  There’s no framework in which to compete against others, to measure our self worth, to develop a grading system.  Sure, you throw a cow pie ten yards, and you know your place in the world.  Whereas if you stare at a young dad wiping cotton candy out of his hair, laughingly smeared there by the child astride his shoulders, what exactly is that worth?

Well, I have a proposal.   In lieu of rules, regulations, administrative standards, appointment of political cronies, and questions about transparency, how about seeing if you can find any of the following scenes at the State Fair.  And, guess what? They all have worth.

A LOVING SCENE

The relationship between a parent and child has so many bad moments, especially in the melt-down nature of the Fair, it’s easy to see an unloving scene in the dog days of August.  But can you see a loving scene?  Here’s an example.  I don’t know these folks.  I saw them the other day in a restaurant in The Hague.  That’s his mom.  When I asked for a picture, she leaned in, placed her hand gently on his chest, and smiled.  She didn’t say a word.  But, I will swear that every bone in her body said, “this baby boy means more to me than life.” And, by the way, “this baby boy” needs to take that kind of love to the bank.  Forever.

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AN HONEST LOOK

An honest look can be hard to find in all the swaggering and posing we do through life.  The State Fair is no exception, as we put on our East Side T-shirt in our new, north Ankeny ranch.

A sure bet for honesty can be found in the total absorption of a child in a wondrous event.  Mouth agape.  Maybe even drooling.  They don’t care.  It is a pure moment.  Uncluttered with lies.  Oh, and bonus if you can catch an adult similarly engaged.  A flyover by the Dutch Air Force caught these boys, young and old, in a rare moment of candor.

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A HUMBLING MOMENT

Humility is not a prized commodity in today’s world.  So you might be driven into the livestock barns to find this one among the winners and losers of a recent competition.  But nothing humbles like poverty.  How we see it, who we blame, our own responsibly — it is just too daunting to contemplate for very long.  That alone is humbling.

Here’s one for you, a father and two sons in Paris a couple of weeks ago.  They’re living in a telephone booth.  Work that around in your mouth.  Were they hustling us?  Maybe.  A humbling moment?  Under any version.

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PEACE AMONGST CONFUSION

All sorts of bedlam can be seen at the Fair.  Kids running.  Parents shouting.  Rides whirling.  Music blaring.  Where is there peace in this uproar?

I saw her yesterday on the North Sea.   She was pushing her walker on the boardwalk, surrounded by a typical August beach scene — surfers, kite flyers, shouting parents and children, zippy skateboarders, and hordes of teenagers.   She was dressed to the nines.  White jacket, white skirt, pressed blouse, loosely tied scarf.  Smiling.  She made her way to a bench.  Slowly got situated.  And sat.  And watched.  Quietly.  Peace amongst confusion.

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So, stare away.  I’m certainly going to.  And if you see an old bald guy staring impolitely on the Grand Concourse catwalk in the waning days of the State Fair, please smile.  That would be me.  Don’t worry, assure your mom staring is included in the price of the ticket.

Joe

Perhaps it is time to draw attention

Quiet is the only sound to be heard in this old neighborhood.  Until a distant bird starts to chirp.  Softly.  Ah, and there’s the ever-present squawk of a seagull.  Demanding attention.  Irritating.  No different than that scolding squirrel in your own backyard.  Tossing the husk of an acorn at your head.   Speaking out in the silence.

The brick house sits placidly on the south side of the street. The address is large and clear on the outside — Brugsestraat 74.  Scheveningen is the town.  Just a poor fishing village back in the day.  Herring was how people made their living.  Small attached apartments still line block after block.  But here is this lovely home in this lovely neighborhood off the market street of Stevinstraat.  A dream home tucked out of harms way.  Safe and secure.

January 17th, 1942.  The search of the brick house by the Nazi SS must have been particularly chaotic.  The day was cold, below freezing.  Although not rainy, which is rare.  In all that sunshine, maybe a dozen thugs came through the door at Brugsestraat 74.  And for what?  I suspect they didn’t even know.  Pamphlets, for sure.  Perhaps a printing press.  Maybe they wanted to put hands on the wife and kids.  Roust them a little bit.  Haul someone in for questioning.  Create a little terror.  But the guy they really wanted wasn’t even there.  Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg was up the road in Amsterdam.  Preaching against them.  Well, they were soon going to put a stop to that.

“Of course . . . to speak out will run the risk that one will face persecution. But so what? There are times that Christians must endure such persecution if they want to save their souls and be true to their calling as believers in truth and justice.”   Such were the words of Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg, as translated into English by his late son Isaac.  The dead passing on the words of the dead.  That’s how it works.

Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst, a hair’s breadth from 90, remembers the sunshine, the happy faces, the good times, and the Rottenberg family.  She speaks of Sunday school classes with all six of the Rottenberg’s kids and visits to the Rottenberg home at Brugsestraat 74.  That’s her in the front row of the Sunday school class clasping her legs.  She says it is too long ago for her to recognize the Rottenbergs in the group.  But look at her back then.  A seventeen-year-old girl giving us a cool appraisal.  Is that a smile?

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Seventy-two years ago this picture was taken.  What did Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst know of the future any more than any of us?  As she leans in to show me this photograph on a hot day in mid-summer in her senior living apartment, there is an urge to reach into the picture, grab the young Elisabeth by the shoulders, and tell her to run before it is too late.  Tell her that her mother will die of cancer before the year is out.  Tell her that she will be alone, holding her father as he dies from starvation in the winter of 1945 during the last gasp of the German occupation.  Tell her that some of her friends in that photo will be executed by the Nazis.  Tell her to just unclasp those hands, spring up, and run until those white bobby socks are shreds of cloth.  Just go.

But to where?  Where do you go to escape your life?

Many years before this photograph, the young Alter Mendel Rottenberg was following in his father’s footsteps.   Born in Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland, in 1890, Alter Mendel came from a scholarly Jewish family, where his father taught the Talmud and Torah down the road in Krakow.  Both towns, by the way, just a short bus ride from Auschwitz.

When Alter Mendel turned 21, off he went to study with a famous Talmud teacher in Switzerland.  Instead, he became interested in Christianity.  He ended up at a mission in Rotterdam, where he was assured a job and could continue his studies in Christianity with another Jewish convert.  His father sent scholars to Rotterdam to bring him back to Judaism.  Alter Mendel refused to return to the faith of his father, and his father never talked to him again.

From there, Alter Mendel’s biography is short on facts and long on travels.  From Rotterdam, he studied theology around the world, ending up in Scheveningen by 1940.   During that time of travel, he published pamphlets and married and had six kids.  His was an itinerant scholar’s life, arguing to any who would listen about the need for a Jewish understanding within a framework of Christianity.  But by the time he returned to the Netherlands to continue his writing and preaching, he couldn’t have been more in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In 1942, Alter Mendel gave a sermon in which he said, “National Socialism is in conflict with the Bible.”  Yikes.   By German definition, a Jew, publicly preaching against the Nazis.   A double danger for sure.  The same year that Anne Frank, just up the road a little bit in Amsterdam, was hiding out in the secret annex.  Not good timing.

“The Nazis picked him up.  They put him in jail in Sheveningen.  Transported to Amersfoort.  Taken to Buchenwald, and he died in Mauthausen, the mines, in June of 1942.”  Jan Kleiweg de Zwaan translates this information to me by rote from the various church documents at Duinzichtkerk, where he is a member of the church board.  Kleiweg de Zwaan, 74 years old, is genteel and proper, with a soft voice and a busy demeanor.   It turns out he was the Dutch Ambassador in Belgrade in 1998 when things blew up with Kosovo and he had to quickly shut down the embassy.  And then, if that wasn’t trying enough, he became the Dutch Ambassador in Beirut.  I imagine the murder of Alter Mendel is one more injustice on a long list of injustices he has witnessed.

But the mines were particularly evil no matter how often you hear these stories.  Mauthausen was another Nazi invention where torture and death was disguised as work.  Made up of multiple camps in Austria, it was known for having its victims quarry rock with their bare hands and carry the rock up the sides of the pit.  When the victims were too ill or too weak to work any more, they were sent to the gas chamber or pushed off the edge of the quarry.  Simple and horrible.

So the Duinzichtkerk church commissioned a stained glass window to honor those members of the church murdered in the war.   And there is Alter Mendel, the guy looking at us with his chin in his hand.  A good man, according to Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst.  Always moving.  Always in a hurry.  A man on a mission.  A kind man.

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“I was not aware that Mr. Rottenberg was arrested at the time.  Probably the family did not talk about it.  They did not want to draw attention.  After they were forced to move from Brugsestraat 74 [so the Germans could build their Atlantic wall], he was just not there any more.”

Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst, of course, had her own problems by this time — she was young, mother dead, father dying, and forced out of their own home in Scheveningen.  And she’s right.  It was not the time for anyone to draw attention.  It was time to keep your head low.  Time to survive.

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And so Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg disappeared.  “He was just not there anymore.”  The end of the line.

Not quite.

Out of the sandy dunes of Sheveningen, across the Atlantic Ocean, over the East Coast through its big cities, into the Midwest and dropped down into Des Moines, landing at a far table in Centro Restaurant, there sits a man.  Paul Rottenberg.

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Yes, our Paul Rottenberg of Gateway Market – Centro Restaurant – Django Restaurant -Zombie Burger fame.  Paul Rottenberg, son of Isaak Rottenberg, son of Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg.  The grandson of a man who said there comes a time you must speak to save your soul.  Paul Rottenberg’s existence is a reminder in our own strange times.  A reminder of past courage.  And a prompt for the future.

Look around.  Is that a squawking seagull?  Speaking out in the silence?  Perhaps it is time to draw attention.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Are you all right?”

Every four years she resurfaces.  Magically it seems.  Not a sighting for months and months, then “bang,” there she is on our TV screens.  Surprising us with her raw power, her vertical jump, her quick reflexes.  Suddenly we are rooting and cheering as if she’d never left.  Our long lost daughter returning, like four-year cicadas, after doing whatever it is she and they do in their off years.  Drinking cappuccinos and having pleasant conversation is always my hope.

So the timing caught me by surprise.

In the center of a large office complex on the south side of Amsterdam, where you could feel the vibration of young professionals buzzing with their busy lives, I was hopelessly lost.  All I could see were ties and jackets and pressed women’s suites scurrying with serious intent between the high buildings.  Clearly, they had important places to go and important things to do on this warm workday in July.

The strength coach for the Dutch beach volleyball women players, Rik Priester, had me in tow.  A fierce, large, block of a man, he parted the crowd.  Suddenly, out we came into a cleared square — converted into a sandy beach — volleyball net up, music blaring, and a sprinkling of business people taking lunch in the newly-created arena.  A game was in play.

The Dutch women looked strong, but who was that woman on the other side of the net — dominating, controlling, a force?

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Kerri Walsh Jennings!  2004.  2008.  2012.  Three-time Olympic gold medalist for the U.S.   A superstar we’ve all watched with awe.  And on this day, she lived up to her billing.  Effectively shutting down entire portions of the court.  And at the net?  She was almost playful in her swats, smashes, and gentle plants.  Although there to see the young Dutch women trained by Priester, it was hard not to smile and cheer her mastery and studied casualness.  Olympic champion indeed.

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With a little digging, I come to find out that the retirement of her old partner, Misty May-Treanor, apparently has not slowed her winning ways.  She joined up with April Ross, her opponent in the 2012 Olympic finals, and they’ve made a stir in the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour, winning multiple tournaments in 2013 and 2014.  Amsterdam was no exception, as they beat the Dutch team in two sets to move up the bracket to the next match.

So, there I was at the next match, this time in Scheveningen.  Walsh Jennings and Ross were the top seed and were facing a good German team.   The German’s were rattled.  The Americans quickly dispatched them in the first set.  No sweat.  Ah, but then life got a little complicated.  Trouble serving, trouble at the net, a few bad bounces, and, when the sand settled, the Germans advanced to the finals.  The American team went home.  The end.

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Of course, that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.

Did you know Walsh Jennings is the mother of three kids?  The last one born a little over a year ago.  In fact, she was pregnant with her second kid at the time of the 2012 Olympics.  At 36 years old, she is a grand dame on the beach volleyball circuit.  When she won her first Olympic gold medal, most of the present crop of volleyball players were just finishing 8th grade.  Yup.  And she continues to play and continues to win.  Truly an accomplishment.  An inspiration to “leaned in” women everywhere — not by transforming from a caterpillar to a butterfly, by the way, but by transforming from a butterfly to a rock.  She isn’t about beautiful flight, she’s about stolid immutability.  Look at her picture.  She wants to be the last person standing at the age of 36 and 56 and 86.  It doesn’t matter to her.  Pay your money and slap on your bikini.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about either.

In this age where 298 people are shot out of the sky with a shrug, where 65 Palestinians and 12 Israelis died in the Gaza rubble the other day, where it is reported that the three-year death toll in Syria has now exceeded 160,000, and where 57,000 unaccompanied kids are detained at our borders, I saw something weird on the volleyball court.  As Walsh Jennings was struggling with her game, and the Americans were clearly going to lose, Walsh Jennings successfully smashed a ball so hard down the inside net into the chest of the German woman that the German was driven to her knees.  Literally.  The force made the back of my eyes sting.  Walsh Jennings’ response to this successful score?  Well, before her feet returned to earth from delivering the spike, her head swiveled in concern for the downed German player.  She landed and immediately reached out under the net to the woman, touched her gently, and asked, “Are you all right?”

I’m not kidding.  In a loss that was going to cost her $72,000 (you heard me correctly), there was no anger, no yelling, no blaming the refs, and no sniping at her partner.  Instead, a little kindness — “Are you all right?”

And with the game lost, the crowd gone, the players in their enclosed tents out of the sun, I was nearly alone in the stands, thinking about what I’d seen, as Walsh Jennings, the loser, returned to the court and jogged over to each of the refs in the far corners, shook their hands, and thanked them for their time.  No TV cameras, no applause, no audience.  The refs stood humbled.  As did I.

“Are you all right?”  Not a bad question for this day and age.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sense of place

Look for Iowa farmers before planting.  You’ll see their pickups parked at an angle in the entrance to their fields, like they didn’t have enough time to park it straight what with all the traffic in the ditch.  Driver’s doors left wide open in the supposed rush.  And a short distance away, there they are, squatted on their heels, their ball cap tipped back just enough to see the  pale portion of their forehead, their eyes vaguely looking into the middle distance.  Perhaps they are meditating.  But if you look closely, they have a clod of dirt in one hand.  They are slowly crushing it.  Nostrils flared because they are smelling for that sharp odor of basement damp.  Fingers rolling the soil back and forth because they want to tease it down to a grain.  And all the while they are thinking and planning and measuring their own worth.

Well, folks, that farmer’s checking the soil for what your wine friends call terroir.  A French word that is supposed to capture that inexplicable part of the grape that is due to climate, earth, and plant.  It is distinct and it is individualistic.  So much so, that if your vineyards are on one side of a valley that gets more morning sun, and your neighbor has vineyards on the other side with more afternoon sun, the terroir will be different between the two.  No kidding.

But terroir is also used to describe a sense of place.  The uniqueness of place.   In the Netherlands, believe it or not, that terroir would include eating herring.  Yup, herring. Specifically, eating what the Dutch believe is the greatest of treats — “Hollandse Nieuwe,” or Holland’s new herring.  Raw.  Lightly scaled.  No head or guts.  But a tail to hold onto.  Maybe white onions on the side.  But for the purist, not even the white onions.  Just raw oily fish on a plate.  Yum?

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“Once a year it is coming.  The moment just comes.  This is really Dutch.  When you’re in Holland you eat herring.  When you are in Spain you drink sangria, when you are in Italy you take pizza and pasta.  But, Joe, you will never be a real Dutchman just because you eat herring.  Just like I won’t be a real Italian because I eat pizza.”

A little educational, a little philosophical, and probably all malarkey, Denis Navarro smiles and laughs and ducks his head and races to the front of his restaurant and then quickly races to the back, joking, eyes scrunched small then suddenly sprung large, as if to make a small child laugh from the surprise — it all works for me.  I laugh.  Clearly, a carnival barker disguised as a restaurant owner.

Denis Navarro knows fish.  Raised in the Dutch fishing town of Scheveningen, owning restaurants since he was 21, and loving food, he speaks of fish almost in song.  And herring is clearly the chorus to his favorite tune.

“This is a good year.  It has to do with the fat.  The more fat, the better.  This herring we have is not salted.  This is the natural flavor.  The new herring cannot yet give birth to other fishes.  The head is going off, the skin is going off a little bit.  They cut them open, in one time they take it out.  It is the work of five seconds for a fisherman.  This is something special.  It is a delicacy.  Although this is a cheap delicacy.  You should not eat it with the bread.  You should eat three or four to be filled.”

The herring season is very short.  The boats go out in mid-May and by late June it’s all over.  The arrival of Holland’s new herring is celebrated every year on Flag Day in Scheveningen.  The fishing boats arrive in the harbor decked out with flags, and the first wooden basket of herring is handed over to the Queen, who then puts it up for charity.  Thousands upon thousands of people show up to eat the first catch, more than a few garbed in traditional Dutch costumes, and all buying herring right off the boats.

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Even during normal times, Denis Navarro has his own fish man go down to the boats three time a week and pick fish for the restaurant.  Herring season, however, is special.

“People used to live off of herring.  It was their main income.  At that time it was something very different.  They used to go out for a half year to fish for herring.  Now they go three days before.  The charm is gone, but it is still good herring.  They catch them in the boats and directly freeze them in.  In the early days, they salted them to keep them good.  No need to do that anymore.  Fish is very delicate and more difficult to prepare.  Meat is easier.  For fish you have to have a good address.”

So, you ask, how does one eat this six-inch slimy critter?  Ah, Denis Navarro and his wife Nathalie demonstrate on a willing victim, my wife.

“You hold it by the tail, just so, now tip your head back, and then slide it down your throat.  Excellent!”

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And there you have it.  Holland New Herring.  The terroir of the Netherlands.

And Iowa terroir?  Duh.  You grab the top of the ear where the silk shows, pull the roasted husks down to the bottom, dip the golden kernels in butter, add a splash of salt, and bite.  Now you’ve had Iowa herring.  By the way, just because you eat this delicacy doesn’t make you an Iowan.  But, trust me, if you add a dash of Iowa State Fair, you can’t get any closer.

Joe

 

 

 

Aging in wonder

THE STYLIST

Leaning in over the chair, his right arm held up and out in classic ballroom dance form — elbow high, left hand centered, body balanced — he cuts hair.  Elegant, poised, and the center of his world.  No orchestra, just the sound of the scissors.  Snip, snip, snip, snip.  The customer sinks lower into the chair.  Relaxed.  Snip, snip, snip, snip.  The sound of an old sprinkler turning back and forth on a warm summer day, comfortably marking time.

“When I was young and an intern, I turned a famous Dutch singer’s hair green.”  Willem Arnoldus twinkles over the tops of his glasses.   “She was crying one minute, and angry the next.  She came in with long blond hair, I added a chemical to her curls — she forgot to tell us she had added metal to her hair in England — and her hair turned green.  So she went home with short and brown hair.”    Willem laughs softly at this long ago silliness.

So, your advice for women as they age?

You must accept growing old.  It is really important. If you just want long hair to stay young, that’s wrong.  You don’t have to cut it short.  You do have to look after the color.  And look after who you are.  You will wear it different when you’re older.  If it is grey, you can make it classic and put it up.  To make it blond with stripes is wrong.” Image “Be close to yourself.  Behave like your age.  Because then you are beautiful.  Don’t put Botox on your face.  Older women can be beautiful.  I see them every day.”

And what about for you as you age?

Willem laughs.  “When I get older I want to cut only men — then we can talk about women and talk about football.  No more talking about trouble with the children anymore or husband’s going with other married women.”  He laughs and goes back to cutting.  Arm raised.  Elbow high.  Snip, snip, snip, snip.

THE  NEWSPAPER EDITOR

A former professional bodybuilder was my first guess, as she prowled the gym floor.  Even the heavily-muscled men stayed clear of her intensity.  I was just a smidgeon off — a big-city editor of a big-city newspaper in The Hague.   Focused.  No nonsense.  Attractive.  Tough.

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“I think it’s a gift to be 52 years old.  The way you look at life is shifting as you age.  I could never understand it at 17, 20, or whatever.   When you are young, you do not realize the ups and downs need each other.  When you realize that they go together, you will flow.  You will have trust in yourself.  Balance.  That is growing older.”  Thessa Slootmaker wipes the sweat from under her hair.

The squat rack is abandoned for the moment, and off she goes to the shoulder press.

“The gym and the spiritual element together is important.  I don’t think it will really help you if you only exercise the body, or if you only exercise the mind.  I really truly believe it is a unit.”

The dumbbells are raised above her head with a familiarity, an intimate ease.  Triceps bulge.

Exercise the mind?

“Meditation in all its forms.  A lot of people think meditation is sitting down.  That’s not what meditation is all about.  For some people it works.  But meditation can be during the workout, or when you walk or sit on your bicycle in the dunes.  Meditation is really being in the moment.  To be always in the moment.”

Thessa’s upper lip is now glistening with sweat.

“I think you have to try to keep your body moving.  You have to find a way that is suitable for you.  For me it’s the gym.  Someone else wants to jog, walk around, whatever.  You have to find something you like to do.  Because otherwise you won’t do it.”

The bar is lifted up by Thessa, and the bar is slowly lowered.   Lifted again with a push, lowered again back to the start.   Lifted, lowered.  Lowered, lifted.  Hypnotic.

“As for your mind, you must explore things, have curiosity.  Life must be able to surprise you again.   Every time again.”

Thessa pauses, gives me one of her treasured smiles.  “Life is a wonder.”

THE WOMAN FROM IOWA

The elegant lady from Des Moines, Iowa, came to see Europe.  Walking between five and ten miles a day over two weeks, she explored the blue pottery of Delft, the old church and markets of Leiden, the almond blossoms of Van Gogh, the canals of Amsterdam, and the harsh winds off the North Sea.

What else do you want to see, Peg?

“I want to see it all.”

Here’s Peg O’Connell, at 80 years old, standing in a narrow alley in the Red Light District of Amsterdam.  Seeing the good and seeing the bad.  Eyes open.

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Aging in wonder.

Joe

 

 

 

 

Girl with a volleyball

The Girl holds herself with regal deportment.  Shoulders down, back straight, head turned, ready to receive her fans.  She comes home after being gone from Holland for too long.  Japan, New York City, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Italy.  She was sorely missed.  The crowds on this Friday in The Hague are backed up several hundred deep in eager anticipation.   Two marching bands, the King and Queen, and assorted street artists herald her arrival to the restored Mauritshuis Museum.  It’s a fine day for the Girl with the Pearl Earring.

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Across town, another woman holds herself with brash directness.   Shoulders leaned in.  Eyes bright.  No wilting flower.  She also returns after being gone for too long.  Shanghai, Moscow, Berlin, Prague.  But there are no crowds to see her home.  Not even one baton is twirled on her behalf.  In fact, she advises me to lead with the picture of her in her bikini — “otherwise no one will read further.”  But, if asked, she’d tell you it is a fine day for Marloes Wesselink.

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The Girl with the Pearl Earring was painted in 1665 by Johannes Vermeer.  She wasn’t such a big hit in those days.   She was painted as a “tronie,” which just meant Vermeer didn’t have a commission and was hustling for money by painting a model, maybe his oldest daughter, in costume.  Perhaps Vermeer was hoping for a quick sale down at the Des Moines farmer’s market on a hot Saturday morning.  Unclear.  But when Vermeer died, the painting disappeared.  For 200 years.  No parades during that time.

Marloes Wesselink turned professional at 16.  By 19, she was deep into the world of beach volleyball.  The international circuit was her playground.  She travelled around the world from April through September — with some success.  Heck, she even had her own Wikipedia site.  Her life was practice, practice, practice, travel, competition, practice, practice.  An ordered life for sure.

But then events turned a little south.

“My Wikipedia site is not up to date because I think I got less interesting,” Marloes says with a self-conscious smile and a shrug.   After a decent year in 2013, she was cut from the Dutch beach volleyball program.  26 years old and put out to pasture.  A very public rejection.

“It was pretty weird.  I think I’m a realistic person.  I know your spot is never secure.  That you always have to prove yourself every year.  We had results.  And I really liked the team.  It was pretty crushing.  ‘What’s happening?  We just got a great result and now you tell us this.’  It was pretty painful.  It actually came like falling out of nowhere.  It was a difficult situation.”

So, Marloes disappeared.  Not for 200 years, but disappear she did.  Off the circuit, off training, and onto the couch.  A hard time.

Vermeer took a similar trajectory.  Sure, he had some early success during his career.  Sold a few paintings.  Made some money by running a bar and art gallery.  Elected to run the artists guild.  But he had eleven surviving kids and times were tough.  War and disease were the order of the day.  Sadly, when he died at 43, he left his wife and children in debt.  His paintings were auctioned off.  His work was soon forgotten and his reputation as a decent painter vanished within a couple years.  Gone like a puff of Vermeer light blowing across canvas.

End of the story.

Or not.

After doing nothing for several months, Marloes realized she loved the game and she missed it.  Eventually she searched out another volleyball star, Laura Bloem, and they decided to make a run for it together.  They found a strength coach, a ball coach, a practice area, and sponsors.  They formed a team.  All on their own.  And between the two of them, they had enough points earned from past performances that they could start competing on the international stage in the 2014 World Tour.  So they did.

As for Vermeer, in 1881, at an obscure auction in The Hague, there was a dirty, grimy picture waiting to be sold the next day.  Two art-collector buddies from The Hague recognized it.   It was agreed that one would buy it.  Which he did.  For a song.  Two guilders.  After the auction, the painting was sent to Antwerp for restoration, and lo and behold, the Girl with the Pearl Earring was reborn with her glistening parted lips, the wet corner of her mouth, the drop of moisture at the edge of her eye, and, of course, the translucent pearl.  My oh my.

And Marloes, our other girl, now waxes philosophical about the twists of her life.

“You can say it’s just a game.  It’s not.  It’s your life.  Some people say it’s just sport.  True it is just sport.  Of course, it’s more important to be healthy, to be happy, and to be loved, and to love, that is most important.  But you cannot make it that simple.  You really dedicate your life to the sport.  You just have to find your way back after the sport doesn’t work.”

“Every week you’re somewhere else.  One week you’re happy, one week you’re sad.  It’s a roller coaster.  We would like to play in 2016 in the Olympics.  But even if it doesn’t work — I would of course feel bad if it doesn’t — but I have many things to feel proud of.  Now I am playing only for me and my team.  It feels like it is our own battle.  I think it’s good.  After 2016, I will definitely be done.”

Maybe.  However, today, even the strands of her hair seem to dance with energy.  There is a zing to her every sweep of hand.  Her flower is definitely the hard-scrabble Iowa rose.  I don’t envy those on the other side of the net.

When the Girl with the Pearl Earring was in New York this last winter, 235,000 people came to see her.  No wonder.

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And for Marloes?  What will be her future?

FIVB Berlin Grand Slam, Main Draw Women

Hmmm, is that a pearl earring in her left ear?

Joe

 

 

 

 

A Dutch bar — in three games

The high gloss on the wood shines as the rag wipes the first spill of beer to the side.  The movement of the rag continues over the wood, back and forth, polishing, as the young bartender patiently waits.  He is almost indolent at this early stage of the evening.  Why rush?  The beer taps are perched and ready to deliver.  Glasses are clean and within reach.  Coasters are strewn over the top of the bar.  And the shot bottle is upside down, ready to perform.  Waiting is all that remains.

Game 1 — Spain against Holland

The Sien bar in The Hague is bursting.  Orange is in every nook and leaking out the door.  A big screen TV is placed so that the dozens of fans who cannot fit into the bar can watch from outside on the street — an alternative Drive-In Theater.  Five bartenders are pouring  beers and shots for the customers who are standing in a space the size of a large American living room.  Raucousness is the scent in the air.  Spain scores.  No matter.  Everyone expects it.  Spain is a mighty team from the past.  Aging but powerful.  They shamed Holland last time around.  An ugly defeat.  Beer flows regardless of the score.

Image 7On the bar stool next to me is a slight man hidden among the Dutch giants.  A Spaniard.    Identified immediately by the bartenders.  The bartenders’ response after the Spanish goal?  An orange t-shirt, orange sunglasses, and a big orange hat are placed on the counter next to the Spaniard.  An offering from the Dutch.  And a free beer.  A sacrifice on the altar of good will.

It works.  A flying header by Dutch striker, Robin van Persie, starts the rout.   Two, three, four, five more beers and a shot for good luck arrive in front of the Spaniard.  Holland 5, Spain 1.   The lone Spaniard smiles and dons the orange shirt.  The crowd cheers.  There will be another day.

Game 2 — Australia against Holland

Admittedly, it was a mistake to come in costume.  The bartender almost immediately sidles over to me as I try to blend into the masses.  “You know that shirt you’re wearing is not orange, don’t you?”  Well, apparently not.  I am a red cherry floating in a sea of orange sherbet.

Jaap, the bartender, is young, mischievously handsome, and focused.  He tells me there are around 120-130 people in the bar.  They’ll sell around 2000 beers this evening.  Not bad.  Tonight they’ve brought in seven bartenders, their entire staff, because they’re going to try to move some food also.  Packed like sardines, without an inch of elbow room, my guess is that a few fries will go missing as they are passed hand to hand to the poor customer who actually ordered them.

Australia, one of the lowest ranked teams at this World Cup, is dominating.  Tim Cahill for Australia line-drives a shot so hard into the Dutch goal that my teeth hurt as I sit thousands of miles away on my barstool.  Unfairly, it almost seems, the Dutch team hangs on.

Jaap tells me that these evenings are a little nerve-wracking.  “It is nervous because it is busy, nervous because of the game, and nervous because you want a good result.  It is worth it.  But, handling this crowd should not be every month.  Not good for your health.”  He laughs and runs to pour beer from the tap where he unerringly fills four glasses before he throttles the handle back.

The Dutch team has regained their balance.  A quick score moves them ahead.  The crowd erupts.

Image 9And, like as after every Dutch goal, the room breaks into song for several minutes.  Sung at the tops of their voices.  With stomping involved.  And some swinging of the lights.  It is infectious.

What are they singing after each goal?

Jaap, drinking his traditional shot after a goal, takes a breath, and says:  “It’s called ‘I Will Survive.’ A song we stole that was popular in the clubs.”

Of course.  The Dutch don’t sing  “We Are the Champions,” or “Another One Bites the Dust.”  They are a people where one-third of the land is below the ocean.  Another third is at sea level.   They are survivors fighting for every inch of the ground they stand on.  This is not about winning.  It’s about not dying.

Holland 3, Australia 2.

Game 3 — Chile against Holland

The bar has a different tone this evening.  The Dutch can lose and still advance.  Everyone is relaxed.  There is even a sense that it might be too greedy, too impolite, for the Dutch to win a third time.  Moderation in all things, please.

Although, that feeling doesn’t stop a little money from being placed.  Why not?

Sjoerd, a soft-spoken bartender working my corner, explains in perfect English how the betting works.  He might as well have been speaking Dutch, however, as I drink my beer and am lost in the vagaries of the explanation.

“So, what number do you want, Joe?”

In my early days as a prosecutor, I was enlisted to review charges and assist in investigations dealing with a type of gambling that rocked upstanding Iowans.  Yes, mothers of River City, I’m talking bingo.  Played in church halls and social clubs.  Dens of vice.  In these days of Prairie Meadows, where grandma is playing the slots while hooked up to her breathing machine, someone shouting out “O — 3” seems a bit less of a gateway to organized crime.  But  the old days haven’t disappeared for me.

So I hesitate, as Sjoerd patiently waits for me to choose.  I turn to my barstool neighbor, Aeisso, for advice.  Why do I turn to Aeisso?  Because I had earlier made a determination that Aeisso was a  trustworthy and knowledgable legal advisor based on his selfless act of sharing his french fries with me.

“Is this legal?”  I ask.

With a loud laugh and a clap on my back, Aeisso leans in:  “A question like that would not occur to a Dutchman.”

And that’s all the tolerant Dutch have to say on the subject.

“Five euro on number 2, please.”

Amazingly, the late game subs, Leroy Fer and Memphis Depay, come out of the shadows of the massive stadium and win the game.

Holland 2, Chile 0.

Jaap, with blurry eyes and a mischievous grin, drags his rag one more time over the wood.  The  luster is returned to the high gloss.  Patiently and slowly.  His movements are almost indolent at this late stage of the day.  Why rush?  Closing time beckons.

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So there you go.  A Dutch bar — in three games.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer solstice with a Witch

The witch sits across from me at the table.  Smiling.  No pointed hat.  No flying broom.  Not a single cackle is recorded during our long conversation.  She is smart, open, answers each question carefully, and is aware of “being made a fool” by others.  She does suggest that I don’t eat elves’ food at the time of summer solstice —  “when you eat their food, you are their servant forever” — but then she also speaks of kindness and love and the disheartening sadness of all the violence in the world.  It is not easy to clearly label this woman.

Why am I sitting with a witch?

Well, in small increments, in small ticks of the clock, the longest day of the year is approaching. Summer solstice occurs on June 21.  This year, there will never be another day with this much light.   Heck, why even go to bed when the sun certainly doesn’t?

Celebrations and feasting will occur on this day.  Stonehenge, the place in England that has the strange stones set on end, is a destination for many.  For about $24, you can get a timed slot to visit on June 21.   There will be modern druids, pagans, wicca, and even astronomers, all there to see the stones in a long-forgotten farmer’s field line up with the sun.

Margreet David-den Adel, the Dutch witch with whom I am sitting, is friendly, polite and caring.  She asks about my family.  She is curious about my time in Holland.  She wants to know of my wife’s work.  A model of a socially gifted person.  But a witch?

“Wicca is a religion of nature.  Nature is the driving force behind all life.  Nature is god.  There is an unbelievably intellectual force behind nature.  And he wants the best for us all.  He wants that we live in the heart, not in the mind.  When you treat somebody not so well, there is a force from the universe that you will get it back ten times harder.  It is a universal law.  That’s how it works.”

Margreet knew that she was tied to nature from when she was a very young girl.  However, it was not until she read her first Wicca book at 27 that she discovered, “Wow, that’s me.”  It explained her extreme sensitivity, her healing hands, her need to be next to animals and plants and trees, her “old spirit” that at one time was an Inca shaman, the protection offered by Archangel Michael, and why even strangers on the train come to her for help.  It just made sense.

And now we sit together in this coffee shop in The Hague.

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“The wicca celebrate the changing seasons.  The solstice is the celebration of Litha.”

On solstice, Margreet will prepare a meal and a special wicca tart for her husband, her children, and her friends.   It will be served on a blue tablecloth.  Everyone will have sunflowers for their hair.  And sunflowers will be on the table.  She will speak some words about the solstice and then all the guests will write wishes on small pieces of paper.  These wishes are then put in a fire.

“The wish goes into the air and everyone leaves with a sunflower.  It is a lot of fun.  It is not so important how you do this ceremony, it is the right intention.  Why you do it?  You do it with love.”

Of course.

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This evening, shortly before the solstice, the sun sets slowly over the North Sea, dragging its feet reluctantly, refusing to go to bed.  But things are closing down.  Out on the arms of the harbor walk only lovers, using the shadows and early night wind as an excuse to meld even closer.  Storm clouds rest low on the horizon.

And hidden in the kernel of summer solstice is a small darkness.  For on the very next day, summer is dying and the shades of winter are getting ready to blow down from out of the north.  Relentlessly and without remorse.  “A time to be born and a time to die.”

And so there you are.  You get one wish on one sheet of paper.  With love.  What is your wish going to be?  And don’t forget the blue tablecloth.

Joe