About Joe

Formerly a prosecutor, formerly a teacher, formerly a presenter, formerly a janitor, formerly a baker, formerly a dishwasher, formerly a store clerk, formerly a construction worker, and formerly a carny -- still a husband, still a dad, still a dog and cat owner, and still love foot-long hot dogs.

Burnt cornbread

“There’s a reason for everything, but there is no excuse if the cornbread is burnt.”

The old Southern gentleman looks at me with his right eye nearly closed and his left eye so wide he might be peering through a jeweler’s eyepiece. Yup, I am under scrutiny. Did I even know what cornbread was? Am I worthy of his story?

Clearly not.

“Well,” he patiently begins again after seeing my bemused look, “a million dollars was gone and the room full of people wanted to know why. But these folks didn’t want to hear me tell of all the reasons that money was gone. They just wanted the money back. With interest. So I told them, ‘There’s a reason for everything, but there is no excuse if the cornbread is burnt. And the cornbread is burnt.’ Do you see?”

These few sentences are spoken with a drawl so long and drawn that it is possible to eat a sandwich in-between them. But the elongated vowels also lend delightful musicality. Will the old man start tap-dancing next?

Charleston, South Carolina. I’m here for a wedding. I am caught by surprise at the graciousness of the people. When the clerk at the coffee shop tells you to have a good day, she may be just as willing to stop and talk about how you like Charleston, and, by the way, how many children do you have? And what are their ages? My goodness.

And the beauty of Charleston. Wow!

As I wander around, I end up down by the harbor on a quiet Friday morning. There I find Kasmere Sutter. She’s 18 years old and selling roses made from palm leaves.

“I’ve been doing this for like a year and a half. I get the palms from the trees nearby.”

No kidding.

“There is a lot of people doing them, like sweet-grass baskets on the market. They teach people how to make the roses and make sure you have a license and stuff like that.”

It must be a lot of work to make a living.

“I kinda live out on the streets. It’s not fun living on the street, but then again it’s fun. You get to do whatever you want to do. I think it’s fun because I’ve been in so many group homes and foster homes this is different. I left those places when I turned 18.”

And how is it not fun?

“This is also not fun because you have to look for food and it’s kind of embarrassing to ask people for food. You don’t want people to know the situation you’re in. I have pride.”

Do you feel safe?

“No, not really. I just keep myself safe. I have like a friend, not a boyfriend, but he’s male. He keeps me safe and I keep him safe.”

Really? Keep yourself safe?

Back when I was in my 20’s, I hitchhiked around the United States. It was the waning days of hitchhiking as a relatively normal mode of transport. Cities and states and the federal government were starting to pass restrictions on where folks could legally hitchhike because of all the danger posed by hitchhikers and the people who picked them up.

But, of course, I was invincible.

Across Iowa. Across Nebraska. Into Wyoming. Carving my way up into Canada and then circling back across the Trans-Canadian Highway and dropping into New York City.

It seemed like a romantic adventure. You know, on the road (boring). Hopping trains (not really). Cooking in tin cans around a campfire with poet hobos (never).

Yup. Delusional at best.

I spent one night in a ditch somewhere outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. About 20 yards away from my sleeping bag there was rustling in the tall grass. I was not alone on this early morning. Three teenagers. Bedded down like young deer. Skittish. Wary. Coughing softly in the morning dew. Their thin bodies and hollow looks seemed an advertisement for despair. They glanced away from me in fear that I would harm them. Quickly, they packed their few belongings, watching me over their shoulders, and moved on into town, looking for food.

They are what it means to live on the street — hunger, constant movement, and danger. This is not romantic.

But today the sun is shining in Charleston. The stately and colorful mansions line the harbor with their three-layer porches. And Spanish moss hangs from the trees as if placed there by the rowdy antics of high school kids before the Friday night game.

I turn back to Kasmere Sutter and her open-air market.

How much for a rose made from palm leaves?

“Five dollars . . . but three will do.”

I pay the 18-year-old kid and walk back to my lovely life and ruminate about all the reasons Sutter is living on the street. Meanwhile, the smell of burnt cornbread floats on the breeze.




Making banana bread in a crisis

Grease the bottom of your pans. Combine all the dry ingredients including the cinnamon, nutmeg, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Have you noticed that whenever you’re feeling just a little too smart, too strong, too handsome, too successful, too whatever . . . the bottom drops out! I remember finishing a long series of lectures for wannabe lawyers, making sure my kids had all made it to their summer jobs, and hopping on my bike on a beautiful warm day in Iowa, peddling down the road with hard work at my back and the sun of success in my face.

And then a van smacked me unconscious on the side of the road, temporarily paralyzed my body, and crushed my voice box.

Go figure.

Now combine eggs, bananas, sugar, and oil.

Theresa Greenfield was on top of the world. She had just turned in all the signatures she needed from eligible voters to formally launch her candidacy for the United States House of Representatives. She had raised more money than any of her fellow Democratic candidates. She had been campaigning hard for a year. And gosh darn, everything was jelling. She was on the road to success.

“I was so excited. I was thrilled.” She tells me, her brow furrowing, still in disbelief.

And then Greenfield got hit by the proverbial van.

“On Thursday night, my campaign manager walked into my office and told me that he had forged signatures on our petition.”


Greenfield didn’t even quibble about what was forged and what was not. She fired her manager and went down to withdraw her papers to run as a candidate. She was not going to run a campaign based on tainted signatures. Her candidacy was essentially over. She was toast.

Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients.

“And then I got to work,” she says with a steely look.

One option was to start all over and collect new signatures by 5 p.m. One work day. The clock was ticking.


“About 8 in the morning people began to deploy and collect for the 8 counties required. We needed 1790 signatures. Our supporters called their supporters who called their friends. People called me I didn’t know and said, ‘Hi, I just heard. I’m in Adel, I can get 20 signatures.’ ‘Hi, I’m in Creston with 50 signatures.’”

Greenfield turned to all the Democratic candidates running for Iowa governor. And they didn’t disappoint.

“All the gubernatorial campaigns helped me out. They released their staff. They provided advice. Their campaign managers were all at the Capitol when I was filing. They were strong for me. They stepped up to be my campaign manager for the day.”

“Someone shouldn’t lose based on a technicality,” says John Norris, one of the gubernatorial candidates.

So he acted.

“We shut down our office for six hours and pulled people off to help her get names. We just sent people out on the streets. At one point we had a meeting point between people collecting signatures at highways 34 and highway 148 for three vehicles and a hand-off.”

Norris smiles at the craziness of it all.

“It’s just like when a farmer gets injured. You all come together and get them through the crisis. You’re always stronger for that.” He pauses. “All of us are stronger.”

And Greenfield kept hustling and calling and collecting and cheerleading as the day slipped away.

“We had people running to the Secretary of State Office with one minute to 5 p.m. with sheets of signatures. There were a lot of cheers.”

It was done.

Fold in nuts.

But it was not to be.

Not enough signatures. Just 200 short.


Ah, but Greenfield, still dumbfounded from the evolving news, reminds me of real disaster.

“I lost my first husband to a work accident when I was 24 and pregnant.”

Greenfield looks me in the eye with her jaw set.

“What I learned at the young age of 24 was how important social security and hard-earned union benefits are. I would have gone to poverty without them. I had one child and was expecting number two. And came from a poor farm family. When the union leaders came to my home after the funeral, they said, here’s how we’re going to take care of you. They explained social security and the union benefits. They couldn’t bring my husband back, but they wanted to make sure that I knew I could pay the rent.”

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 55 minutes.

As I sit with Greenfield in the ashes of her former manager’s mess, she has no room for self-pity.

“When I’d go to church on Sundays after my husband died, two union members would meet me at my car. One would grab one baby and one the other. I’d sit at church and they’d sit right next to me. There were times at Mass that I’d just cry the whole time. And they just sat next to me and said, this is okay. It’s okay to cry. They would hold my babies.”

Greenfield looks away and then looks back.

“People are good. And we saw this again on Friday.”

So, what is Greenfield’s response?

“I know we aren’t stopping. We are going forward with this race for the House. There are other ways.”

And for yourself?

“I had a meet and greet last night. I really spent a long time thinking about gratitude after that event. There are just times you have to stand up and be strong. And when the door is closed, and no one can see, like with my former manager’s bad choices, I still choose what is right. And that’s important.”

So what did you do after the meeting last night?

“My twin sister and I baked banana bread until 12:30 at night. When you’re in a crisis people bring you food. I did the exact opposite. I was in a crisis and I needed to bring people food.”


“I decided the campaigns for governor needed a special thank you. So this morning we delivered banana bread from my kitchen to their campaigns.”

No kidding.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then eat.



Colorado — come for the mountains . . . .

Listen, bumper to bumper traffic is not a concept I’m promoting. Trust me. And, without a doubt, an interstate that turns into a very long parking lot doesn’t seem the best idea to sell the wonders of Colorado. Right? I’m guessing a slogan that promotes being caught in a traffic jam on the interstate might not be the jingle that draws in the tourist dollars.


Nope. That doesn’t work. But here we are at sunrise, on the way to Copper Mountain on Interstate 70, a straight shot out of Denver. Suddenly, a Colorado traffic jam in the making.

Much to my son’s chagrin, we left 25 minutes late.

“A disaster!” he informs me, as we sit with hundreds of cars in front of us and an equal number behind.

And whose fault is that? Who caused this momentous catastrophe? Who is to blame for all of our ills?

I don’t think pointing fingers really helps the dialogue move in a positive direction, do you? Isn’t that part of the problem in our troubled political times? Doesn’t blaming someone just play into the bullying culture that now seems to exist? Fire off a tweet. Honk your horn. Yell at the person in the grocery store line. We all want to justify our righteousness before God on the poor back of the person who stumbles in front of us.

I say “NO” to blaming.

And, in any case, can a person in good conscience start the day without a coffee? Let’s say a tsunami is coming or the North Koreans have lobbed the big one or the flashing light in your eyes forecasts a small brain tumor. Isn’t that the very reason to stop for coffee? And the coffee shops in Denver . . . please. Superb! And while you’re there, what about a bagel egg sandwich? I call it the Paleo Plus Diet. Forget the Whole 30, try the Whole Nine Yards.

My son is not amused by any of this.

“Unfortunately, those 25 minutes translate into another hour or two on the road,” my son informs me.

Listen, I’ve got to give him credit for remaining respectful of his elderly father, although I notice he is speed dialing potential nursing homes as we talk.

Stuck, barely moving, part of a gas-consuming nightmare. Yikes.

On the other hand, look at the view.


And instead of skiing down a hill in mute silence or hiking up a snow-packed trail unable to breathe, the car allows us to have that family conversation, the one that used to take place after church while sitting around the dining room table eating mom’s cinnamon rolls. Well, almost.

“Dad, why are you squirming?”

You guessed it, I need to visit a restroom. This does seem to be a problem. Here and there, I see a car pulled over with a young man standing upright on the other side of the car, feet splayed, apparently staring intently at the amazing panorama. Or I see a woman sprint towards a pathetically small tree, pulling at her pants, apparently bending over to gather pine cones to spray paint for the next holiday season.

But a bathroom ? None in sight.

At last. A lonely gas station on the horizon.

Look. A portable toilet out front. Oh no. A line 30 deep awaits. People are shifting back and forth from leg to leg like a giant centipede on hot coals.

Ahhhhhhhhhh . . . . . . . .

So I wait in line. I shift like a centipede on hot coals.

By the way, while we are waiting, did you know there are some amazing studies and books out these days about the power of the mind to affect the health of the body? I recently read one of these books involving aging. A wonderful compilation of science-based experiments which show you have the ability to actually think yourself younger. By the time I finished the book, it was clear as day to me: it’s your fault if you die!

Well, I have my own anecdotal support for the mind’s affect on the body. See, I finally make it to the portable toilet. Shut the door. Prepare myself for action. And . . . nothing. Yup, I’m a little shy. The mere idea that 30 folks are sitting outside that door dancing from leg to leg is too much. I leave the portable toilet in failure.

But also a success. Duh, mind over body. I’m going to live forever, I tell myself, as I sit squirming in the front seat.

At last we make it to our destination, hike a little bit and . . .

Of course. Mountains to die for. So it must be true.

Colorado — come for the mountains . . . .













The bartender’s windows

“I don’t do interviews,” he says without a smile. His eyes sweeping both sides of the bar while he pours the beer.


The timbre of his voice catches me by surprise as it rumbles softly across the room like the early hint of an Iowa thunderstorm, dry and gravelly and deep.

“Let’s not call it an interview,” I say, with a nod towards my former life as a prosecutor.

He shakes his head, unimpressed by my sly interrogation tactic, and draws another beer for a customer.

Brian Cooney is an archetype. You know, like “the witch” or “the magician” or “the wise mother.”

Let’s see . . . pressed, long-sleeve white shirt. √ Black vest. √ White apron turned just so. √. White wavy hair. √ No-nonsense, down-turned mouth perfect for dead-pan deliveries. √ And stories about anything and everything, if you can get him to talk. √ Oh, yes, he pours drinks at his bar called, of all things, Cooney’s. √ and √

“The Irish bartender.” In the flesh.

Cooney’s Tavern has been around for over 30 years. It anchors the north end of the Beaverdale neighborhood in a small commercial strip on the west side of Beaver Avenue. You’re not going to be impressed by the outside. But open the door. Yup, it feels like a dip back into an earlier time, a better time. Old bricks that make up the wall come from a parking lot down near North High School. Table tops are marble wainscoting from a downtown building that was demolished. The backbar is pieced together from small-town Iowa bars long abandoned. And signs — old Irish road signs, old Irish pub signs, Cooney signs. All original. All speaking of another time and another place, which, of course, is now this place.

And a front bar that is dark and deep and a mile long.

By the way, Cooney may be reluctant to speak about himself, but he is not reluctant to speak out. There was a time, not so long ago, when he was concerned about the smoking in his bar. His uncle had been sending him literature about the dangers of second-hand smoke for over a year. So, one day he went to a hearing at the Iowa legislature and spoke in support of legislation banning smoking in places like his. But it didn’t go as planned.

“Somebody asked me at the hearing, ‘Is your establishment nonsmoking?’ And I had to say no. So basically that person called me out. You can talk the talk, but you can’t do the walk. So, what am I going to do? I’m driving back, mulling over this stuff, would I do it on my own? Not sure.”

Cooney gets back to his bar, opens it up at the traditional 2 p.m., and one of his night bartenders appears.

“Mandy is here. I asked her why she is here this early. She said she had to talk to me.

“She said, ‘I’m pregnant and my doctor said get out of that smokey bar. So I’m giving you two-weeks notice.’

“I said, ‘You don’t have to quit.’

“She said, ‘I can’t work in a smokey bar.’

“I said, ‘OK  . . . we will not be a smoking bar come Monday.’”

So, over a year and a half before the Iowa legislature acted, Cooney’s Tavern became nonsmoking.

“We can thank Vincent, who is now 10, for turning us nonsmoking.” Cooney laughs.

Cooney suddenly stops scanning the bar and looks directly at me.

“I just want to stress that Cooney’s Tavern wouldn’t be here without a group of dedicated bartenders and loyal customers.”

No doubt.

I look around at the people drinking and visiting at three in the afternoon on a school day. Cooney calls them all by name, knows exactly what they drink, how many drinks they drink, and when to bring their drink. It’s like watching a Paris waiter at work. Understated professionalism.

So, Cooney, what about those blue and purple windows up front?

“Those windows up there? I got those in 9th grade. I was working for a neighborhood contractor and I was cleaning up the job site near Holy Trinity. Those windows were out of the church hall. Nobody wanted them and they’d been thrown out. And so I took them home and put them in the basement. They were there for 10 years.”

Cooney draws a beer for a fellow down on the west end of the bar.

He returns and continues.

“When I first brought  the windows home, my dad asked, ‘What are you going to do with these?’ In 9th grade I said, ‘I’m going to put them in my neighborhood bar.’”

Cooney smiles to himself for a brief moment and shakes his head.

“My dad just looked at me.”

And with that, Cooney goes back to work, as the afternoon light shimmers through the window and splashes purple and blue against the bar.












A day in the life of the Denver City Park

The sun rises.

Okay. Here I am in Denver. That would be me pulling hard on the thin air after coming from the gently rolling hills of Iowa. Let’s see, I’ve tried every type of coffee shop. Wonderful. I’ve eaten all sorts of hot and spicy foods. A league of their own. I’ve spent a day up in the mountains. How can it be warm while walking in a foot of snow? And now I have a day free. What to do?

How about the Denver City Park?

8:00 a.m. The Canadian geese fly low and flat across the still icy pond. A perfect formation. Their large wings beat with a slow percussive thump like the air compressor at the auto garage. They turn and circle and talk loudly to each other. Amazing. But I see the mess of goose poop that the few walkers and runners are dancing around. This is one of those dog/cat or cow/bird videos of mixed species cohabitation. I bet this is a relationship still under negotiations.

9:00 a.m. A decision is made by someone. The geese circle one more time and begin their noisy descent into the pond. Wheels down. Flaps turned vertical. Safety light flashing. Lower, lower, lower . . . a gentle plop. And they immediately preen their wings as if they never left.

I find a bench. The perforated metal already hot from the sun. A breeze coming off the water now blowing over the metal plate in the concrete at the foot of the bench. “In memory of . . .”

10:00 a.m. The early morning runners and bikers finish their Very Serious business. Moms appear walking baby strollers — or jogging with lifelines attached to three-wheeled contraptions. Ponytails seem to be the fashion. Eyes forward. Ears budded up. Sun shining down. There will be no dilly-dallying today.

They all ignore me, a single old man sitting in the park. I get it. I would ignore me too. A public bench in the big city can be the repository of many an unsavory character. Isn’t that what our parents’ warned as they put newspapers down on the suspect benches before our innocent behinds could become contaminated?

Of course I smile at everyone. Why not? I already have a contaminated behind.

12:00 noon. The geese leave as the lunchtime crowd appears. Phones are everywhere. Lunch is not a time to be disconnected. That conversation that waited all morning can happen at last. “Last night’s party was amazing.” “Bill did what at dinner?” “My mother called again, can you believe it.” “Why aren’t these pants fitting better?” “At last those shoes are on sale.” “Is that a good investment?” “Did she really say that?” “Did he really do that?”

I totally understand wanting to connect with others. Although it is a little odd to witness all these people walking and talking alone. A new form of isolation perhaps. But today I belong to the Disconnected. With no phone in hand, I am left to wander City Park on real time. But, rest assured, I will pick up my iPhone at the end of the day, then I too can leave the ranks of the disconnected for the isolation of the connected. Great.

1:00 p.m. The sun shines hot. The ice on the pond begins to break off and drift just below the surface. Isn’t that how the Titanic went down? The hidden iceberg?
Fortunately, tragedy will be limited to that unsuspecting goose who hits the ice like a snowboarder and skids right up to the land. Perhaps that will be the latest thing at the Winter Olympics — goose-boarding.

3:00 p.m. A faint roar echoes across the park. A lion’s roar. It comes from the zoo . . . hopefully.

I can’t resist a visit.

Wow. There’s lions and hippos and rhinoceroses and elephants and tigers. Goodness. But look at those seals. Pushing, shoving, hugging, barking. Clearly teenagers out of control and having the time of their lives. I can hear my mom yelling from the kitchen: “Now, don’t get wet!”

5:00 p.m. Believe it or not, time to head home. Back to the interior of the park I go. The night shadows are already stretching out from the base of the trees, filling in all the snow-flattened brown grass with darkness. So, I dodge the goose poop through the deepening darkness anxious to get home.

Oops, I feel a soft squish under foot.

And the sun sets.




A rowdy crowd

“I’ll only give you my first name,” says the dapper old man with the swept-back white hair and trendy suspenders.

Is he kidding?

“You see I used to be an IRS agent.” He pauses. ”I’ve got too many enemies out there.”

Paul, first name only, doesn’t break a smile during this delivery. Sweet-faced Tony, who is sitting across the table from him, seems to bite his cheek to stop smiling.

Is 88-year-old Paul (“I’m going to be 89 pretty darn quickly”) making fun of me?

I think he might be.

One glance at this sober group of people with twinkling eyes and sharp wits and you realize that Paul is not alone in this congregation. Better be on your toes if you’re going to sit with this crowd.

Who are these folks?

Come to find out that every morning they all drift north from Holy Trinity to The Donut Hut on Douglas Avenue. Apparently, the combination of prayers and early morning Mass creates quite a hunger for coffee and donuts. They come. They hang out. They talk.

Joyce Ott and Jennifer Laxton are working behind the counter today.

“They’ve been coming in for a while. We look forward to it. They’re nice ladies. I like hearing their stories and stuff. I’ll sit here and listen. I eavesdrop.” Joyce laughs. “Their husbands are fun too.” More laughter.

Jennifer adds: “It makes you look forward to getting older.”

A week earlier, I corralled one of the women from the group, Margaret Durbala.

First, let me warn you that Margaret is someone you might dismiss as just another lovely grandmother-type, someone to look past as you’re ordering your donuts, the invisibility of older women.

That would be a mistake.

Tall. Forceful. Engaging. Open. Coiffed. Smart. Stylish. Smile lines that go five or six deep. And strikingly resilient.

“I was 19 when my mom and dad died,” Margaret states matter-of-factly. “We have five children. They never got to know my parents.”

My goodness. And where are you from?

“I was born in Beaverdale. Lived there my entire life. In fact, I’ve lived in the same home in Beaverdale for 53 years, the length of my marriage.”

Margaret then adds with a twinkle:

“They can’t get rid of me.”

My goodness.

Although it has not been the easiest life for Margaret.

“I worked at John Deere for five years. Then stayed home when we had our five children in six years. Then went back to work and worked at Mercy Hospital for 16 years. When you have five children you do what you have to do.”

She says all this with a shrug and almost a challenge — don’t you work hard too?

But there were obstacles for Margaret beyond the reach of hard work.

”I had cancer for a lot of years. Eight different kinds of chemo and radiation. The works. My last radiation was 2012. The more you read about different ways to get better, the main one is socialize. I think that is better than any medicine. I just think it is the best medicine there is.”

And your beliefs?

“Prayer is a big thing. You know you can get a lot of things taken care of with prayer. You don’t have to say a thing. Not even a structured prayer. I know it works. You can start with your family and pray out from there.”

And what about Holy Trinity?

“I’ve been with the Church forever. Baptized in Holy Trinity. Married at Holy Trinity. I go to Mass every morning. Recently there has been discussion about transgender people. Listen, you cannot close the door of the Church on anyone. You can’t judge them. That is the future of the Church.”

Margaret spoke of the old Beaverdale — Reed’s Ice Cream shop, the Bon Ton Tavern, Halliburton Grocery Store, and the movie theater where Farrell’s is now.

“My mother loved Jerry Lewis. She would laugh so hard it would just embarrass me. She’s been dead all these years, but I can remember her plain as day. I loved my mother.”

And Beaverdale now?

“There’s been a lot of change in Beaverdale over the years. You might as well enjoy it. Life is so much easier when you just go with the flow . . . Although, Beaverdale still has no parking.”

Margaret speaks of neighbors and friends and family and coworkers from Mercy Hospital and her Church buddies and the many people who have flowed in and out of her life. She pauses to take a deep breath, looks me in the eye, and smiles.

“People are so interesting.”

Back at The Donut Hut, the group is, according to their words, “solving the problems of the world.” Children and grandchildren and the latest political malfeasance are on the table. Paul-with-no-last-name wants to show me a bottle of cologne labeled “Trump.” Really?

Jennifer, selling donuts from behind the counter, leans over the glass top and says with a hearty laugh:

“Listen, when there’s six or seven of them, they definitely get rowdy.”

Amen to that.


















It was so cold . . .

. . . the water in the toilet froze!

Yup, there I am, minding my own business after the holidays, watching our adult kids go back to their own lives, putting away holiday decorations for another year, and feeling the gentle quiet of a cold Iowa winter settle peacefully around our retired lives. Meanwhile, the dark underbelly of bad luck was stirring. Our little hired-man’s house in the middle of a cornfield, our beloved getaway, was busy turning itself into an ice cube. Frozen solid.

How could this happen in a time of Siri and Alexa and drones? Where’s Big Brother when you need something besides a traffic ticket? At a minimum, I expected the minions from Dakota Access Pipeline to notice something amiss in their frequent helicopter flyovers near our home to check for leaks in their unleakable pipeline.

Apparently not.

And how could this happen in the first place?

Well, have you ever seen those big tanks next to houses in the country? No, they are not the same as the tanks you see at the local brewery. The tanks next to houses are propane tanks. When they run dry, the heat in your house stops. And when the heat in your house stops, and it’s -3 degrees outside, the goldfish in the bowl need to head south. Quickly.

So, of course, it is a late Friday evening. Everyone has left work. And we walk into a very cold house. My wife, the brains on our team, notices the faucets won’t turn and calls the plumber.

Jason Anderson, our plumber, says, “Oh no. Is the water in the toilet frozen?”

My wife looks. “Yes,” she says.

“Oh no,” repeats Jason. “Is the furnace running? Is the pilot light on?”

Hurry down to the basement — “Nope! And, by the way, the water in the coffee maker is frozen.”

“Oh no, it looks like you’re out of propane and the pipes are frozen. It’s too late.”

Yikes. “Too late,” said by a plumber is worse than coming out of surgery and being informed they took one look inside, saw it was hopeless, and closed you up again. There is no holy Lourdes Water to cure frozen pipes.

My wife and I can see our breath as we sit in our living room waiting for the propane truck to arrive. We pour water from our water bottles into the dog bowl for our thirsty dogs and we pull our hats down a little closer and add another layer of mittens. We shiver.

The water in the dog bowl freezes.

My wife calls Jason again. He tells us that we need to turn off the water to the house because once there is heat, the pipes will thaw, and we will have leaks everywhere. I get it, if we don’t want to start a hydroponic farm in the bedroom, we need to get the water off.

Fair enough.

But the faucet to turn off the water is frozen. There is no turning it off.

Ah-hah, Jason has a solution. We need to turn off the water from the outside of the house, from the water pit.

Great, I can do that.

One small problem, what exactly is a water pit?

It turns out that on the other side of the creek is a manhole that goes down to the rural water shut-off valve. The manhole is camouflaged by snow. I’m told to go down this hole with a pipe wrench, turn the knob clockwise, and then climb out of the hole. Easy as pie.

Now is a pipe wrench actually shaped like a pipe?

Luckily, our neighbor, Beau Perry, stops by. Beers for both of us in hand. He knows what a pipe wrench is and actually owns one. He gets his tool bag, we find the manhole under the snow, we pop the lid, we pop the seal under the lid, and look down in the darkness.

It looks a long way down. What else would like the warmth of such a lovely hideout? Duh, snakes, skunks, and alligators. Oh my.

We decide it’s too cold to open the beers.

Beau offers to go down in the hole, referencing my advanced age. Not a smile cracks his lips. Clever for such a young man.

I take the pipe wrench, slide into the hole, and balance with my elbows resting on the edges and my legs dangling in mid-air. Afraid to drop down. My wife comes out and takes a picture of her foolish husband. One more photo to add to a thick file.

Eventually, I drop the couple of feet further into the hole and turn the knob clockwise. It works. The water is off. The house is saved from becoming a lap pool. A victory for the good guys. Yahoo.

Ahhhh, there remains a tiny issue . . . I can’t get out of the hole.

Listen, I know this isn’t like being bombed by North Korea or waiting in a really long line at Starbucks, but I panic a little bit. There’s no place to get a grip on the sides and I’m not agile enough to pull myself out. I can only dangle. Forever. With snakes and skunks and alligators for companions. Hoping for an early spring.

After watching my predicament for a while, apparently entertained by my bobbing in and out of the hole like a jack-in-the-box, my wife and Beau decide to grab under my armpits the next time I surface and give me a boost.

With a few grunts, I am saved. A happy ending.

But I’m getting sidetracked.

“How cold was it?”

It was so cold . . . the water in the toilet froze.







Graziano’s tablecloth

“Tablecloths represent the good experiences of sharing a meal with friends and family. It represents the idea that we are a community. Where does community get its start? It gets it start from family and groups of friends around a table.” Leo Landis, State Curator, Museum & Historic Sites, curator of over 70 tablecloths in the Iowa collection.

“Decorative tablecloth of Iowa and Iowa symbols. Ca. 1950s. 44 x 51” White border with an outer decorative band of pink flowers. Inside the band of pink flowers is an outline illustrated map of the state of Iowa showing major cities, historic sites, parks, colleges, etc.” Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, Museum Object Catalog 2012.027.02, tablecloth stitched and hemmed by the women from the Iowa Federation of the Blind. 

“Tablecloth, linen, handmade (spun and woven) by Mrs. W.W. Conklin in Fort Plain, New York in 1840. Brought by her to Fayette County, Iowa in 1864. Donated in 1901.” Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, Museum Object Catalog A 08607.

“Tablecloth, diamond pattern. Woven in the home of Hezekiah and Sarah Gilbert Gear from flax raised on their farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The weaving was done by an Indian woman who came each year to their place to do the necessary weaving for family uses. This table cloth was given to their daughter Angelica, for her household outfit at the time of her marriage to Charles Mason of Burlington, Iowa.” Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, Museum Object Catalog MF 051.

“The tablecloth was tattered and stained when I first saw it.”

Frances Graziano sits in her narrow office located just to the left of the meat counter where  a butcher is weighing a mound of sausage. Her cell phone buzzes faintly. An adding machine awaits an arm’s length away. A computer is propped open and nearly cradled in her lap. Invoices and orders and notes cover her small desk. A clerk pokes his head in the door to remind her of a vendor visit.

Francis, with twinkling eyes, a broad smile, and a bit of vibrato to her voice, continues.

“This is not just a material item. There is so much sentimental value, so much history, so much human emotion based on the material in the cloth.”

Graziano’s tablecloth is not why I’m here. Food is what got me here. Exhausted from eating turkey and ham and party potatoes, my family demanded pasta, cheese, olives, and sausage. Italian food. Salt-of-the-earth food. Graziano-Brothers-Italian-Grocery food.

But, after entering the store and going through the swooning decompression of breathing one part oxygen and two parts Italian spices, I see a framed tablecloth.

“John Murano walked in with this tablecloth and told me this story.”

Frances pauses, lost in thought.

“He said when his mother, Rose Graziano, was young, she lost both her parents. Her last name happened to be Graziano, but she was no relationship to us. Being an Italian in Des Moines you knew each other. That was a community. So my grandmother felt bad for this young girl, so she took her on as a godchild.”

By accepting Rose as a “godchild,” Frances’ grandmother agreed to care for and guide Rose as she grew into adulthood.

“When Rose married in 1939, my grandmother had the tablecloth made as a wedding present. Rose was so touched that someone not even related would do such a wonderful gesture, just like a mom or an aunt. Because of that gesture, Rose used that tablecloth every day for the rest of her life on her dining-room table.”

Really? The same tablecloth?

“When Rose passed away, her kids were cleaning up the estate and they all stopped when they got to the tablecloth. They thought it was of such high value to their mom they needed to do something with it — even though it was tattered and stained. Over 40 years of use, you  know. But that tablecloth had a story. John gave it to us.”

An old tablecloth?

“We had to have it framed and hanging in the store because what I heard immediately from his story is that it represents a sense of community. No matter who you are, who you’re related to, you’re still family. We still take care of each other as a community.”

And with that Frances goes back to work . . . and I drive home . . . to put a tablecloth on the table.








The unexpected greeter

On With Life, this is Carol, may I help you?”


Carol Murken’s desk is just in the entrance. An entrance with couches and large windows and sunlight and plants and airiness. I’m not fooled by the casual spa feeling of it all. Not even by the scenic pond out front. Nope. This is a place for those needing to learn to live as best as they can after brain injury. Period.

On With Life — for “post-acute inpatient rehabilitation,” the card in the tray says at their Ankeny complex.

I’m here because my daughter’s friend is here. She walked in this same door as me. Well, actually, not walking. Or moving her hand. Or lifting her arm. A bad situation.

So I’m a little wary on this first visit. Unsure of what I’m going to see or hear. Is it going to be overwhelmingly sad? Can I be supportive when all I want to do is run to the car and pretend bad things don’t happen to good people? I think I need a bathroom.

Ah, but then Carol’s laugh echoes around the room. It begins as a throaty “hah, hah, hah, hah,” that eventually lilts up, like she’s sliding across ice, and then ends with a musical hiccup. It’s a Broadway musical in itself. Joy-filled. A shaking fist to sadness.

“Welcome,” Carol Murken says to me. “How are you?”


Several visits and several months later, I sit with Carol. Curious. Why would anyone choose to be a receptionist in a place that deals with such hardship?

“My history is in advertising agencies,” she explains. “I was at a point in my life where I got up, went to work, went to bed, and there just wasn’t anything fulfilling. I’m fulfilled when I feel like I’m helping others. I was feeling empty. I wanted to do something that made me feel like I was making a difference in someone’s day.”

But why here?

“It is an amazing place, which is what I love. Miracles happen here every day. You’d think it might be a sad place since it deals with brain injury.”

You’d think.

“But every day you hear therapists in the hallway giving people high fives, cheering, ‘Yay, you’re doing great, keep it going.’ It is a fabulous environment. It is so positive. And everyone here is so nice. It has been a fabulous career change.”

And so it seems.

My daughter’s friend, my friend, learns how to walk. She learns to lift her arm. She learns to type with both hands on her computer. A few months later she roams the halls like a politician at the Beaverdale Fall Festival parade — giving waves, passing on encouraging words, cheering everyone’s success and commiserating with their struggles. I attend her graduation from On With Life with thirty other people. A gigantic group hug with a few tears. I am awed.

“I get to know the families of the person served because they’re here every day. I try to be their advocate. How’s it going today? Just a happy face when they come in the door not knowing what today is going to bring for their loved one. And if they need anything, I’m the go-to person. Anything I can to make their stay better.”

The “person served”? Not a patient? Not a client?

“Isn’t that great? Person served. That’s what they are and it’s what we do.”

“Excuse me,” she says as the phone rings again.

On With Life, this is Carol, may I help you?”





Cleaning your ducts

Having the  air ducts in your home cleaned is apparently something you can do. I never have. The idea has always fallen into the category of vibrating weight-loss belts, colon cleansers, and healing magnets for arthritis. Aspirational for sure. Things we all want. But really? A clean duct?

But my wife is nothing but persistent. She tells me we’re getting clean ducts. She argues that they haven’t been cleaned since 1935. (So what’s the rush?) She says it will solve all the dust problems in our house. (How about we get rid of a dog or two and trade-in the cat?) She says it will help our allergy-prone adult kid who is living with us. (How about the kid moves out and gets a job to support her aging parents?) I suspect what is really going on is that my wife is going through a list in her head that has “clean air ducts” as item-number 46 and then further down the list is “divorce lame-o husband.” I get it.

And, of course, it turns out that I was wrong. About the ducts that is.

Dustin Kistler and Tom Brown are the two technicians that appear for Clear Air, a company on the north-east side of Des Moines.

Professional, friendly, and nonplussed by my snoopiness, they work around my questions.

What’s that big machine? Are there really two vents in every room? Won’t the old ducts explode when you suck out the air? And what is “negative” air? Is that like a house with a bad attitude? Have you ever found anything weird in a duct before?

You get the idea.

“We found bath towels, cigarettes, UNO cards, toys, half of a cheeseburger, a syringe, a dead bird, five bucks. One of our coworkers found a stack of nudie mags once.”

Dustin, with his boyish grin, shakes his head and continues:

“Once we went to a woman’s house, they didn’t have all their returns and supplies covered, and so Tom went through and sealed them. We turn on the compressor and this lady comes flying out of the house, ‘My cat’s in the ducts.’ Sure enough, the cat was in the ducts trying to get out, but we had sealed it up.”

“He had some trauma, but he was all right,” says Tom with deadpan delivery.

And negative air?

“You’re not the first one to ask that,” says Dustin. “The negative air speaks to that machine. It is a negative-air machine. It puts your whole system under pressure. In layman terms it essentially creates a giant suction. We then use our air wands to push down each vent. Anything airborne gets pulled out. It is like a big sweep.”

“Imagine a giant shop vac,” says Tom.

Dustin then shows me pictures of a before and after look at one of my ducts they just cleaned.

I scream.

Some people are embarrassed by all the dirt and debris,” Dustin says. “But it is what it is. We aren’t judging.”

“You might as well claim responsibility for a forest,” Tom says.

“I prefer them dirty. It justifies what we do. It’s much more beneficial for the homeowner. It just promotes indoor air quality. It really does help,” says Dustin, “you never know what you’re going to find.”

And that’s that. They pack up their giant negative-air machine. Take away all the garbage they collected out of our ducts. And get ready to leave for the next job.

“Every day is a new adventure,” says Tom.