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.

A wasted day avoided

“I’ve had a good run on this kidney, but it’s about up.”

Really?  Who says that kind of thing?

The school building lies low in the afternoon shadow of the golden Capitol.  The Iowa State Fair is over.  The legislature is long gone.  The parking lots for the nearby government buildings are hushed after the late-summer hustle and bustle.    But all is not quiet for the school in the shadows.  New decorations are on the walls.  Desks and chairs are carefully aligned.  And over there are boxes and crayons and paper and class plans.  Check, check, check, and a final check.  At last!  The first day of school is about to begin at Capitol View Elementary School in Des Moines.  Today, everything is possible.

“I won’t lie, the first three days of kindergarten are the roughest.”

Tim Robinson shakes his head and rolls his eyes and then groans for my comic relief.

“It’s not that they don’t know their letters or they can’t count, they just don’t know school.  Things like — this is how we line up, this is how we sit still, this is how you raise your hand if you have a question, this is how you wait your turn, this is bathroom expectations.”

Perhaps you didn’t talk about bathroom expectations last week at Principal or John Deere or the Public Defender’s Office, but, for Mr. Robinson, this is meat and potatoes.

“I think the two biggest academic transitions that students make are kindergarten and college.  Kindergarten is a huge step.  You’re stepping into another world.  You’ve been with mom, or dad, or whomever, for five years.  Then you’re expected to spend a whole day with not only a complete stranger adult — who might be a big, loud man — but also with a bunch of strange kids.”


Mr. Robinson is a big, loud man.  Slim and muscled, with a tightly trimmed beard, short red hair, arched eyebrows, and a wide smiling mouth.  A man that is certainly up for fun.  You gotta a story?  Let’s hear it.

“One of the kids the other day, a really sweet kid, was talking to me.   I said, ‘Do you know what this color is?’  He didn’t.  I tell him, ‘Well this is a yellow crayon and it’s yellow.  What else is yellow?’  He said, ‘Bananas.’  Great.  ‘Okay, find the flower that is this color.’  He pointed to some yellow flowers.  ‘Wonderful,’ I said. ‘What’s the color of the flower?’  He said, ‘Banana.’”

Laughter all around.

Ah, but there is also a more solemn side to this young teacher.


“I had a little boy that screamed for the first half hour of every day for eight solid days.  We could not figure out what it was.  Come to find out he had a terrible past with his dad and was deathly afraid of men and that’s what the issue was.  We put him with a female teacher. That was really hard for me.  It broke my heart.  That was one of my kids.  I’ve had rough kids every year.  You’re never going to have an easy class.  This job would be boring otherwise.”

Mr. Robinson has goals and plans and projects and fun and play for all his kids.  Teaching is a love.

“This is going to be my 8th year teaching kindergarten and my 9th year at Capital View — I taught one year of 2nd grade.  I’ve loved it all.  This is my career.  This is what I want to do.”  Mr. Robinson pauses.  “And there won’t be any social security left anyway, so I’ll be doing this until I die.”  Mr. Robinson smiles.  “That’s okay.”

But there is a little bump on his road to glory.  A small one.  In the shape of a kidney.

“The kidney thing started about five years ago.  I woke up one morning and had a low-grade fever and both my ankles were swollen.  I knew that wasn’t good.  I didn’t know why.  They informed me I was in end-stage renal failure.  I didn’t know what renal failure was.  I asked him what that meant.  He said your kidneys have shut down.  That wasn’t fun.”

Both of his kidneys failed.  But he had some good fortune.  After a painful five-plus months, Mr. Robinson got a new kidney.  A cousin was a close match and she agreed to give up a kidney.  An angel on earth.

“I would not have said yes to talking to you unless there was a chance it could get word out for organ donation.  I will do anything to get word out.  I was part of the 17% of people who needed kidneys that year that got them.  People wait years to get even a cadaver kidney.  It is so important to be an organ donor.  To even consider saving a life.”

But now his new kidney is going south.  He is thrilled with the five years from his cousin’s kidney and feels it was a wonderful gift.  But at 33 years old, he’s not done and wonders about the next step.

“I don’t think about this all the time.  Whenever I do have a thought about what I potentially have to face, these kids are a huge part of what I have.  A day without the kids is a day wasted.  Every day I get up knowing that these kids expect to see me here.  And if I have expectations of them, I should be here for that.”

He looks down.  Quiet.  Thinking.

“The kids and I have stuff to do.”

Of course.  The day’s a-wasting.






Dressed for success

A suburban Garden of Eden exists south of University Avenue in West Des Moines.  Law offices, corporate buildings, and restaurants are all set within wide manicured green spaces with flowers and trees and wide swept sidewalks.  It’s all sparkly and fresh and new and clean.  People show themselves only briefly as they hustle from their air-conditioned cars to the air-conditioned buildings and back to their cars to beat the late summer heat.  Suits and ties and heels and skirts are the daily wear.  Success is at every turn.

But over there on the corner . . . .

Side by side, they work together.  Chalk line pulled tight to guide the way.  Brick, mortar, brick, mortar, then more brick and more mortar.  Hard work.  A wheel barrow, a trowel, and a level are their tools.  Tools you could find in your grandfather’s tool shed.  Or for that matter your great-grandfather’s tool shed.   Four bricklayers hard at work.   


“R. W. Dalton & Sons is the name of our business,” says 81-year-old Russ Dalton.  An ornery-looking man.  Up to no good for sure, as his eyes twinkle mischievously.

“I started this business.  We’ve had our company for 40 years, but I’ve been in the brick business probably 55 years and I’m still at it.”  Russ grins proudly, looking down the line at his progeny.

There is the distinct feeling that Russ is waiting for the banter to begin.  He does the call, and someone on the line is responsible for the response.  So we wait for it.

Randy, Sr., Russ’s son, gladly picks it up.  “55 years?  I thought you retired long ago,” he says off-handily, while laying a brick.

Laughter all around.

This group has fine-tuned its act with a lot of together time.  I’m clearly the audience for the afternoon as I stand with them on the corner of 42nd Street and Westown Parkway in West Des Moines, where they are laying bricks for a decorative wall.

Randy, Sr., explains their business.

“We are out of Madrid.  We do a little bit of everything.  Brick work and concrete work are our bread and butter.”  Randy, Sr., trowels on more mortar, straightens the line, places the brick, as he talks to me.  Clearly, the businessman in the group.

And how do the four of you get along, day after day, in such close quarters?

Randy, Sr., without hesitation, replies: “When we can’t stand each other, we just argue and scream.  That’s the way we are.”  Everyone chuckles and nods in agreement.

“We always work as a team, when we’re not fighting.  At the end of the day, a cool beer on the way home solves everything.”  Randy, Jr., the son of Randy, Sr., chimes in from the far side of the line of men.

Randy, Jr., takes this moment to tell me that he has the hard job of mixing the mortar and hauling it over to the others.  He bemoans his lot in the business: “I have the dirty jobs because I’m the low man on the totem pole.”

IMG_3086No one disagrees with his self-assessment . . . and no one offers to mix the mortar the next time around.  Someone has to be the low man on this four-man crew.

During all this, Rod, the nephew to Russ, with his bandana tight, just smiles and works his line of bricks.  Mortar, brick.  Mortar, brick.  Quiet and steady.  The Harpo Marx of the family.

And what about these bib overalls that you’re wearing?

“The bib overalls are company issue”  Randy, Sr., says, without breaking a smile.

“The most practical thing you can wear,” chimes in Russ.

“For one thing you don’t have to hitch your pants up every time you bend over,” Randy, Sr., throws out there.

“And a belt buckle doesn’t poke you in the belly,” Russ fires back.

“And you’ve got lots of pockets for all the instruments you carry,” says Randy, Sr.

Then Randy, Sr., pauses.  All of us wait.

“. . . and they fit even though we’re all fat.”

A general uproar.

“I like this work.  I like working with my hands.  I like people to see your stuff when you’re all done working. You can’t go to any town within 40 miles, there’s something we done somewhere.”   Randy, Sr., sums up their job.

And for fun?


“This is it,” says Russ with that twinkle.

And so it is.



The cow days of August

Wet with dew in the morning, dry and dusty by noon, the August grass is course and thin and dying.  Even before each day gets too far along, the heat presses everything into the shade.  Hot and heavy.  Only the cicadas give voice as the birds and squirrels hide in cover.  Sadly enough, it’s time to face the facts.  School looms on the horizon.  Vacations are coming to an end.  Work awaits.  Only one last gasp of summer remains.

It’s the cow days of August. 

The first bull comes out, scared and stubborn.  Can you blame him?  The Red Angus is clearly not liking how his day is going.  He is a hot mess even with the air conditioners roaring.  The arena is packed with spectators.  People are yelling and clapping.  The announcer voice crackles over the loudspeaker.  The smell of corn dogs and nachos and ripe manure drifts around the sanded ring.  The bearded large man in the feed cap, and the tough wiry woman in a white t-shirt, push and nudge and push and nudge to get the reluctant bull onto the scales.  At last we get a weight.

Ahhhh . . . pretty darn big, but not big enough to win the Super Bull contest at the Iowa State Fair.

Meanwhile, at the dairy barn . . . .

“Cows like to be milked.  It really relaxes them.  Most farmers milk twice a day.  Some milk three times a day.  The average dairy cow produces 8 to 10 gallons of milk every single day.”


Celina Young, a student from Iowa State University, smiles.  She is a fountain of knowledge as she lectures outside the milking parlor at the Iowa State Fair.  Even with her microphone on the fritz, she hikes up her voice and carries on.

“She’s going to dip that teat in iodine and let it sit there about 30 seconds.   Then she’ll use a rag to wipe it off.  After that she’s going to take two strips of milk out of the teat and this is going to serve two purposes.  She gets a visual assessment of the milk, she wants to be sure it is the right color and nothing in the milk that might be wrong.  The other thing is, it stimulates milk let down.  We can’t just expect to put a milking machine on her right away and let her milk go.”

The crowd and I all shake our heads in agreement, “No, we certainly can’t expect that.”

Back at the Super Bull competition . . . .

The trailer backs up to the opening into the arena.  The loud and raucous spectators are ready for the second bull.  Heck, we are all old hands now.  We see how it’s done.  Get the bull out of the trailer, guide him to the scales, get him weighed, and whisk him back home.  Simple.  Come on.  Let’s go.

Oh my lord!  What is that?

The crowd stops breathing.  We all stop breathing.  Out of the chute of the trailer comes a massive, white, muscled monster.  On it’s toes.  Rippling, snorting, prancing, invincible.  It roars onto the sand.  And the crowd gasps with delight and fear at the rawness and power spinning off this Charolais bull.


“To milk a cow by hand, It is pretty similar to the machines.  We still want to go through all the hygiene.”  Celina smiles after her group presentation, happy to be talking about milking and farmers and a way of life that she loves.  She comes from a long line of dairy farmers and wants to make a career of informing people about the important role of farmers in our lives.

“Okay, so what I always tell beginners, you want to start by pinching these fingers, like that, and then pulling straight down.  When you get more advanced you can do a rolling technique with the fingers.  When I get going with both hands . . . just like that.”

And a stream of milk shoots from the cow, who continues to chew, nonplussed.


Meanwhile, the monster Charolais stands on the scales.  He barely fits.  Muscles dance under his skin.  Listen, there is no doubt to any of us watching that this bull is doing exactly what he wants to do.  He’s willing to get weighed, he’s willing to get fussed over and have his picture taken, and he’s willing to not jump the barrier and crush us.  For this we are all thankful.  Unless, of course, he changes his mind.

“Dairy cows eat about 100 pounds of feed every day and a bathtub full of water,” explains Celina.  “Why are dairy cows so skinny?  Dairy cows are like Olympic athletes.  They are high performance animals.  They eat all that feed and drink all that water and all that energy goes into making milk.  Other cows are like body builders.  They are meant to put on lots and lots of muscles.”

The Charolais bull, owned by Gene Bedwell of Osceola, does not win this day.   With a weight of 2,726 pounds, the Charolais was 167 pounds short of the title.  As for the milk, it keeps flowing from the dairy cows into large containers.  Splashing and rolling in a stream stronger than the flow from a garden hose.  And then it’s suddenly over.  The cow is meekly led away.  Show is done.  End of the night.

So we all start to drift home.  School, work, no fun, all await at the other side of the fair.  September is pulling us forward with an unwelcomely firm grip.

Ah, but what’s this?  In the birthing barn.   A new calf is born.


Hah!  It’s still the cow days of August.
















The death of a doctor

Children should not die before their parents.  Parents should not die before their grandparents.  And husbands should die long before their wives.  This is not complicated, right?  There is an order to the universe.  This domino has to fall before that one falls and the next one and the next one.  “To everything there is a season . . . .”  Get with the program.  It’s either your turn to die or it’s not.  Rules are rules.

And, by the way, doctors should not die before their patients.  Ever.

But Doctor Charles R. Caughlan did die the other day.  Most of you didn’t know him.  He was a thoughtful man, who listened well to complaints, and had a deep competence.  A rare thing, that.   Doctor Caughlan’s job at his office on Mills Civic Parkway was the stuff of life and death.  With his stethoscope placed gently at your back, he would listen to the workings of your body, looking for anything amiss, anything not behaving as it should, anything that might foretell the end.  There was no room in this doctor-patient relationship for his own ending, his own death.  But die he did on the first day of July, when children’s laughter echoed in neighborhood parks and the orange day lilies blossomed in Iowa yards.  He was 66 years old.

Don’t worry, I get it.  A relationship with a doctor is always intimate.  Doctors look at every wrinkle and spot and discomfort that you hide from even yourself.  Especially from yourself.  They will tap your knee, listen to your insides, have you cough and move around, and then discreetly probe even further.  Yup, count on it.   Samples will be taken, and blood drawn, and scrapings taken here and there for even further examinations long after you’ve left the office and are waiting in some drive-thru for your large order of fries.  It’s exhausting work to keep you alive.  And some guy or gal has agreed to the challenge.  But Dr. Caughlan was unique even among these special folks.

“Call me Charlie.”

The fit man, with meticulously combed grey hair, a back that was ramrod straight, looked at me with a professional appraisal.  Not exactly a father figure, but a man of authority, a man to rely upon in a tight spot.

“Call me Charlie.”


“Well, Charlie, I don’t feel so hot.”

And Charlie would figure it out.  Tie pulled tight against his neck.  Two pens properly aligned in his white doctor’s coat. He would go to work on your body.  Sickness would be banished.  Aches and pains diminished.  Tests and probes would conquer ill-founded fears.

“You’ll never die of a heart attack.”


“Brain tumors are not contagious.”

Are you sure?

“Pain is not acceptable as a way of life.”

My oh my.

No matter the problem, no matter the issue, Charlie diagnosed, treated, and solved the puzzle.  A miracle man.

Several eulogies were given at Charlie’s funeral.  Beautiful eulogies.  Come to find out that Charlie was a man of humor and joy, who loved his family, his children and grandchildren and above all his wife, and took care of his friends.  He talked with others about religion and grace and golf and accepted all that they were, just as they were.  I loved that he sometimes had a wicked temper on the golf course and he had a real joy in cooking.  Who knew?

“You should retire,” Charlie said to me one day with a serious tone.

What??????  I’m too young.  I have a career.  I have work to do.

“You should retire,” he repeated doggedly.

Why, Charlie, why, after all these years, are you giving me this unsolicited advice?

“You have a stressful job.  You had a bad accident that surely didn’t lengthen your life.   It is a good time to retire.”

I sat dumbstruck.  But it was Charlie, so I listened.

And retire I did.

Then Charlie died.

What is going on here?  My expectation was that he would usher me into my own death.    Didn’t I make that clear from the get-go?

More than several years ago, I lay in a hospital bed, paralyzed, breathing out of a hole in my throat, unable to talk.  Charlie picked up my file.  Looked it over slowly.  Straightening up he gave me a small smile, tight and serious above the mouth.

“You’ll make a full recovery,” he said to my silent shock.

“He’ll make a full recovery,”  he assured my ever-present wife.

“You’ll live forever,” he summed up to both of us with conviction.

And Charlie went off to take care of his other patients.  Making the rounds.  Reassuring us all.  And we all breathed easier at his light step and steady hand.

Listen, none of us believed that we would live forever.  Of course not.  And none of us believed that we would make a full recovery.  Nobody makes a full recovery.  Rather, we all expected that Charlie would be there to reassure us through the next catastrophe.  And the next.  And the next.

I have no reassurances to give those touched by Charlie.  It’s not fair.  Life is out of sync.  Your doctor should not die before you.  Charlie was a good man who should be here today.  But I will take to my own grave the picture of him casually leaning against the examining table, his small smile as he looked at me, scared and unsure, and his gentle reassurance that all would be right.  And it was.

May he rest in peace.












When life hits you with a metal chair

The trainer sits large at his desk.  Clothing loosely draped.  Arms and legs wide and open. Hair pulled back in a tight pony tail.  He seems too meaty to be your typical trainer.  Too much bulk.  Picturing him doing a downward dog seems like a stretch.  It’s much easier imagining him driving rivets on a steel girder.  Yup, a hard man doing hard work.

But the truth is that yoga and kettlebells and free weights and weight machines and bosu balls and rubber bands and TRX straps are all the tools of this man’s trade.  Justin LeHew is a certified trainer at Anytime Fitness in Beaverdale.  A good one.  But at night?  Mmmmmm . . . .

IMG_2552“All right.  Ladies and Gentleman, here to defend his IPW Heavyweight Title, is Juuuuuustin Decent.”

Rock music thunders.

Boos and hisses and catcalls reverberate around the room.  A giant of a man at 260 pounds jumps up into the ring.  The boos only get louder as he flexes to the four corners.  Then the young men in front of me, one with an iconic mullet, begin a chant:  “We want Ryan.  We want Ryan.  We want Ryan.” Ryan Slade is Justin Decent’s opponent for the night.  The crowd takes up the chant, stomping and screaming.

Justin stops his posing.  He points a furious finger at the crowd.  The scowl permanently etched on his face becomes only more menacing.  And he bellows:

“I don’t care what you want.”

With a  roar of defiance, he jumps out of the ring to confront the hecklers.  And the audience screams back at him with delight.

A typical night of professional wrestling.  Impact Pro Wrestling.  The main event for the IPW Heavyweight Title is Justin Decent, the current champion, versus Ryan Slade, the challenger.  A match for the history books.

“When I was 10 years old, my dad owned the Country Kitchen in Grinnell.  Several of the WWF wrestlers at that time had done a show in Des Moines and were on the way to the next town and had stopped at our restaurant.  It was late, the buffet was just closing.  They came in and asked my dad if they could have the buffet.  My dad said, ‘If you don’t mind signing a placemat for my kid, you can have the run of the buffet.’  I spent the night with the Junkyard Dog, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Hercules, some of these older named guys who I loved and still love.”

Justin LeHew wanted to be a professional wrestler.  But this desire had to go on hiatus for awhile.

“Two things I wanted in my life.  I wanted to be a pro wrestler and I wanted to be in the army.  So no one was surprised when I enlisted.”

After several years in the army, he went back to civilian life and began the extensive training to become a pro wrestler.    As life will have it, he was then recalled to go to Iraq.

“I was very proud to be doing what I was doing in Iraq — doing security and road clearing missions for explosives.  I finally felt I’d fulfilled the oath I had sworn to.  I was very scared during that time.  Anybody who says otherwise in that situation, I’d call baloney.”

But safely home he returned, back to becoming a pro wrestler.

And the fight begins.


It is out of control.  A Street Fight, they call it.  No Holds Barred.  Ryan throws Justin out of the ring onto the hard floor.  Justin flips Ryan up in the air and then throws him into a large trash can that then careens into the concessions.  Ryan lifts Justin and throws him into the chairs and then climbs up on the ring and jumps off the top to land on Justin’s prone body.  Justin tries to bash Ryan with a metal chair only to have Ryan grab the chair and crack Justin over the head.  Kicks and punches and eye gouges and elbow throws.  All in a days work.

“I was very active in theater and speech and debate in high school.  I thought I’d become a theater teacher when I left the army.  I did one semester of that.  I helped coach the debate club at Osceola.  But professional wrestling soon took care of my theater urge.”

Justin LeHew, the Iraq vet, trained hard and became a professional wrestler.  And once he’d achieved that goal, he was looking around for a day job.  With the advice of his wife, who reminded him of his love for the gym, he became a certified trainer.  A match made in heaven.

“I get to teach other people to exercise.  I get to help them lose weight, gain muscle, whatever their goals are, doing what I love doing.”

But few of his clients know him as Justin Decent.

“I started out with tights that had a parental advisory label on them and I went and bought an inflatable doll and carried it around as my manager for about five years.  I proposed to it in the ring.  It was a popular character with the crowds.  So I became Justin Decent.”

I didn’t get it.  Seeing my befuddlement, Justin said the names slowly again — Just-in-Decent.  Ooooh.

“To this day I still have a rewards point card for an adult novelty shop because in five years I bought 13 of those dolls because inevitably someone would fall on it and it would pop during the match.  I’d freak out like my wife just died.”

And what do you think of your career choices today?

“When I’m in the ring, the middle of the show, the crowd is having a good time and I’m having a good time, I’m right where I’m supposed to be.  And the kids that come are really part of that.  I feel a kinship with them.  I look at them, they’re having a blast, they’re cheering, they’re booing, and I think back to that kid at my dad’s restaurant, hanging out with those guys having dinner.”


Mmmm . . . Justin LeHew, aka Justin Decent.  Perhaps Just Decent.  A good man to tag team with when life hits you with a metal chair.








The waitress and the Good Samaritan

“A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead.”  So begins the story of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to give aid when those more upstanding in the community, the Levite and the priest, had no time in their busy lives.  Of course, this is just an old story.  A parable at best.  And even if it was a true story, the Good Samaritan is long dead.  If you stopped to give aid today, you’d probably get mugged by the victim.  Or at least get sued.


The dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho is not the same as Robert D, Ray Drive.  Trust me.   You should not plan on getting beaten or robbed or stripped of your clothes as you make your way down that road to Trellis cafe.  As for being left half dead on the side of the road, ignored by both a Levite and a priest?  I only saw joggers pass, a friendly, waving group.  Not a single Levite in sight.

Trellis cafe sits in the midst of plants, and trees, and ponds, and windows so large you don’t know whether you’re dining in or out.  Murmuring voices cover the room like a soft blanket.  The muted clink of dishes and silverware and wine glasses and the occasional high-pitched laugh make you wonder what you’re missing.   You want to be a part of this scene.  You want to raise your glass.  You want to exclaim over the desserts and soups and entrees.  This is an experience and you want in.

Ah, here comes the waitress.


Jeannie Punelli is in motion.  She flits gracefully from table to table, to kitchen to bar, and back to the tables.  Dipping in and dipping out.  Quick, concise movements.  Her lean form and slight stature evoke a fairy out of some ancient book.  A 60-year-old sprite right there among the lilies in the outdoor water garden.

“I’ve been a server for about 15 years.  Before that I was mostly a mom.  I love doing this, I have to say.  I really love doing this.”

Jeannie has three kids and eight grandkids.  She started serving food for Lisa LaValle years ago at the Des Moines Art Center, while her daughter, Rose, worked for LaValle as a chef.  And when LaValle moved to Trellis at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Jeannie and her daughter were part of the easterly migration.

“I get to be with my daughter every day at work.  My daughter’s daughter comes in and helps us bus tables.  We are just a big family here.  I see myself doing this as long as I can.  My mom is 84 and still works.”

And the customers?

“I’ve built a relationship with so many of these people, they’re my friends.  I’ve watched people have babies, I’ve watched people die.”

But more is going on here.  Jeannie loves the restaurant, loves the food, loves her coworkers, but she has a plan for her customers.  Even when they are a little grumpy.

“I love to have fun with my customers.  Some are more fun than others.  Sometimes we have customers come in and they are just grouchy.  But a lot of times I have found they are just really hungry.  So once you get them some good food, it can be a whole new thing.  It’s kind of a challenge for me.  See if you can make them smile.”

“See if you can make them smile”?  This is your goal?  This is part of why you come to work each day?  This is meaningful?  Really?

And Jeannie’s smiling eyes tell it all.


But naturally that’s not the only story floating around at Trellis.

Jeannie tells me of a person who appears about once a week.  An anonymous person.  This anonymous person picks a table.  When it is time for the bill, that table is given a sheet of paper.

Our paths have crossed at one time or another

Maybe a hand shake

Or a short conversation

Eye to eye contact

A nod to each other that confirmed respect

You are a part of my life history

As I am of yours . . .

So today, I bought your lunch

As an unexpected kindness.

“We just give them that poem and say this is your bill today,” Jeannie says with a twinkle.

How does the anonymous person pick the table?

“The person just gets a feeling or a vibe about what table to pick.  Sometimes I’ll tell the person about somebody I think is deserving.  For example, there’s a couple I’ve waited on for about 15 years.  He passed away last year after having Parkinson’s.  She was in with a friend and I told the anonymous person a little about her.  See, I’ve been through cancer with a three-year-old grandson, and she and her husband were good to me throughout that.  They came in every week and checked on me. . . .   The bill at her table was picked up.”

Jeannie tells me that these random acts have trickled down to all of them working at Trellis.  “It’s really cool how it’s affected so many people.  It’s a neat thing to be part of.”

I smile at the thought.

And that’s enough for her.  A smile collected.  A poem delivered.  And Jeannie is off to serve another slice of chocolate zucchini cake.









The strangeness of life and war

The nasal, clipped tone of the August 1945 radio broadcast reaches across 70 years.  It is up-to-the-minute coverage of the loud celebration in downtown Des Moines after the announcement that Japan would surrender.  WHO Radio is reporting:

“Des Moines tonight personifies the State of Iowa at the end of the war.  You can hear the noise.  Thousands of persons of all ages appeared from nowhere as soon as the news was flashed.  They’ve jammed the business district with noise makers and confetti, to say nothing of fireworks and bombs.  It gives the Des Moines loop the appearance of a thousand state fairs.”

World events caused this mob scene in downtown Des Moines.  August 6th, 1945, Hiroshima was struck with the first atomic bomb.  August 9th, 1945, Nagasaki was hit with the second.  August 15th, 1945, Japan announces it will surrender.

Almost exactly 70 years ago.

The late July heat dances with puffs of wind, dosey-doeing down the nearly empty main street of this small Nebraska town. The road is wide enough to be a six-lane beltway around some grand big city, but the tractor hauling a trailer of hay does not have to worry  about merging traffic or restricted taxi-only lanes.  The farmer in his air-conditioned cab lifts one finger from the steering wheel as he passes.  The old man and I wave back from our spot on the wooden bench, where we are taking a break from being guests at a wedding.


The old man continues his story.

“I was young and a patriot during that time.  The Second World War was not like any other war.  That was a just war.  If it wasn’t for that war, you and I would be under Hitler.” The words come slowly, thoughtfully, and with precision.

“When the war started, I had my basic training in the army.  They made a radio operator out of me.  Morse code, you know.  Then they sent me to a little island off the coast after that.  There were 25 soldiers there.  All morons.  I was the only radio operator there.”


Clearly, Russell Tershy does not suffer fools.  His first job, at the age of seven, was to gather the plums his father shook from the trees in the fields of California.  And that was just the beginning of years of harvesting, selling, managing, and ultimately founding a successful job training program throughout California. He has no time to waste on those who don’t want to work.

“I was asked by the military if I wanted to go to a university to study a foreign language.  Chinese is what it turned out to be.  So I was sent to Stanford University for 12 full months at the start of World War II.”

Tershy’s mother and father did not have the luxury of such an education after they immigrated from Lebanon.  In fact, Tershy’s mother never did learn to read and write.  The family ended up in Oklahoma in the ’20’s running a successful grocery business.  Good for several years, but like many Americans, they lost everything in the dust and depression.  When Tershy was five, they moved to California.

“There were 65 students in the Chinese class at Stanford.  The military kept knocking them out.   Finally there were 25 of us left.  Three of us were sent in the middle of winter to Texas and we were trained to ride and pack and take care of horses with the 1st Cavalry Division.”

Tershy’s family set up shop in California as soon as they arrived from Oklahoma.  They sold vegetables, worked in the fields, did whatever needed to be done to survive.  Tershy was there with his family when war broke out across Europe and the Pacific.  And now as a member of the U.S. Army, he had learned Chinese and was training with the cavalry in Texas.  Go figure.

“Then we were sent from San Francisco on a troop ship.  It was destined for India.  They were building the China-Burma Road and I believe we were supposed to be assigned there using our Chinese.”

Of course, this made sense, but life is never a straight line.

“So we were on the troop ship headed for India.  The troop ship stopped off of New Guinea.  We languished there.  We couldn’t understand what was happening.  It is my belief that they changed the orders of the troop ship right then.  To our great chagrin, we landed in the Philippines.  So, we became infantrymen with the 1st Cavalry for the rest of the war.”

Tershy was assigned to an eight-man squad that was sent out in the jungles of the Philippines for four months to ferret out resistant cells of Japanese.  His group was eventually brought back to prepare for the invasion of Japan.

“Two weeks before we were scheduled to hit the shores of Japan, the war ended.  The atomic bomb ended the war.  When we finally got to Japan, the 1st Calvary Division was the first to put their feet on Japanese ground.  The three of us who spoke Chinese did nothing with our Chinese.”

I ask for a picture.  So 93-year-old Russell Tershy takes me inside the air-conditioned community center, grabs his 92-year-old wife Ellie, and gives her a kiss.


Tershy turns from his wife:

“I discovered that the 12th Regiment of the 1st Calvary Division, my regiment, would have been the first regiment to hit the shores of Japan and they estimate we would have had 80 percent casualties.  I was chagrined about the atomic bomb when it happened, I had a lot of questions.  But I am convinced that was the only thing that saved my life.”

The live WHO radio broadcast from 1945 continues, reporting reactions to the Japanese surrender:

“Up in Waterloo, Iowa, Mrs. Thomas Sullivan, mother of the five brothers who perished in the sinking of the Juneau back in November of ’42, was unable to speak.  Her daughter, Genevieve, explained that Mrs. Sullivan was glad for the other boys returning, but her sons won’t be back.”

Russell Tershy shakes his head at the strangeness of life and war.  And he and his wife walk down the empty main street in this small Nebraska town, leaning together, 70 years later.






People actually do show up at the Downtown Farmers’ Market.  Handsome couples.  Striking men.  Beautiful women.  They are dressed in all types of fashions, from easy and relaxed to hipster heaven.  They promenade up and down Court Avenue showing off their most recent piercings or tattoos or beach-ready bodies.   Every Saturday.  And the children, my goodness, brigades of children in strollers, or strapped to mom or dad, or toddling unsteadily down the main concourse.  There is no getting around it, the Downtown Farmers’ Market is a people watching paradise.

But, of course, no one is watching.

They’re watching the dogs.  German Shepherds, Labs, Poodles, Great Danes, Burnese Mountain Dogs, Golden Retrievers.  Mutts and purebreds.  You name it, that dog is at the market.  And there is a crowd of people petting, stroking, poking, and generally being silly in front of that dog.  And heaven help you if there is a puppy.  The sidewalk shuts down in adoration.  No kidding.  It becomes a dog-a-palooza, right there in downtown Des Moines.

And, surprisingly, most of these dogs are pretty well-behaved.  What is going on?

“I try not to go to the farmer’s market because I’ve trained half the dogs down there.”

A boyish grin breaks over the large man’s face as he tells me this.  I almost expect the “aw shucks” of a school boy up to mischief.   Is he pulling my leg?

“You’ll hear ‘phooey’ echoing across the downtown market crowd.  Phooey means ‘No — Stop — Don’t.’  If one of my dogs hears phooey, it means, ‘don’t make me come and help you not do what you’re doing.’”

Derrick Honore has a deep well of a voice.  There is no breath in it, no nasal sounds.  It echoes up through his large body as a boom reverberates from way down in the shaft.  People and dogs stand to attention.

“In dog training the middle man is the correction or redirection that bridges the gap between the command and the response. It’s the dog’s job to cut out the middle man during training.  My philosophy of training dogs uses their predatory instinct and their ability at self-discovery.  I use what dogs already know against them to train them.”

Honore is a graduate of the Tom Rose School for Professional Dog Trainers in Missouri.  He has trained dogs professionally now for over 15 years under the business name of Kai’s Obedience Dog Training, named after Honore’s first dog.  He is a businessman. He is a professional.  And watching the group of dogs he’s training, he gets the job done.  He will train your dog, and with some luck, he’ll train YOU to not mess up your dog’s training.

“You are the hard one to train,” says Honore with a smile, “never your dog,”


Ah, but his life was not always so straightforward.

“I am a thug.  But I’m not that kind of thug.”  Honore hesitates, thinking.  “Although I still don’t take no shit.”

Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Honore had a complicated life.  Left to his own devices as a young kid, he gravitated to stealing and fighting.  But dogs were a big part even back then.

“As a kid, I used to run from one neighborhood to another neighborhood in Baton Rouge.  I’d steal people’s dog.  I’d bring it over to my neighborhood, train it, and sell it to someone else.”

Honore shakes his head at those hard times.

“As crappy as that was, I didn’t think about it until I got older.   When those kids came out the next morning and saw that puppy wasn’t there, it must have been a terrible feeling for them.  It is a terrible feeling for me to think about what I done as a kid.”


Honore is not proud of his past.  He is also not ashamed of it.  He stresses to me that he is no rags-to-riches story.  But he believes he’d be in prison or dead if he was back in Baton Rouge.  He attributes much to a woman who ran a horse stables in Iowa City and assisted him in going to dog training school, to parents of an ex-girlfriend who became his surrogate parents, and especially to his grandmother.

“My grandmother pushed me hard.  She didn’t push me hard by being hard, she pushed me hard by expecting good from me even though I was bad.  So, I spent time trying to be good, even though I was actually bad.  Even though I was bad, I tried to spend more time with her to be good.”

I’m one step behind as I’m dancing through the “good” and “bad” and wondering if we ended on him being good or was it bad?

“She was one of those soft grandmas.  She got up in the morning and made biscuits in the morning.  She was the grandmother everyone dropped the kids off with. She wasn’t the typical ghetto grandmother that beat your ass and threw you outside no matter how hot it was.  She would always tell me,  ‘Don’t quit, dear.  Your daddy tell you you aint’ shit, everyone tell you you ain’t shit — keep going.’  I was supposed to be the crazy one.  I am.  Dogs keep me mellow.”

And he is mellow as he laughs.  And he is mellow as he talks politely to his clients.  And he is mellow as he professionally takes care of business.


“People trust me with thousands of dollars when they give me their dog.  I come in hat to the back, shoes untied, and I expect you to write me a check.  I can’t be bullshit.  I can’t snow people.  I am always respectful.  I may hurt your feelings, but my heart has nothing but respect.”

No doubt.  As for your dog . . . .

“Don’t make me come and help you not do what you’re doing.”













Traveling and haircuts

After the haircut was complete, the barber bowed politely.  I rubbed my head and gave a broad smile, hoping to convey my appreciation of a job well done.  The haircut was tight, precise, and nothing out of place.  I smiled again.  Another bow . . . and then a young woman was brought to my chair.  I was confused by her presence but again smiled.  The barber, seeing my confusion, grinned in a wide pantomime of lewdness, and pointed at the young woman.  Apparently there were further services included in a haircut and shave in South Korea in 1988.  Who knew?

Don’t get me wrong about traveling, I love home.  I am a homebody.  I love to wake up in my house, make a latte, and stay in my pajamas until noon.  Des Moines is a place of comfort and warmth.  At any time of day or night, you can find someone in Des Moines who will hold your hand, pour you a drink, rub your back, listen to your story.  Then you can politely get up and go home to bed.  Your own bed.  With your own pillow.

Which is a problem.

Complacency is my go-to spot.  I am more than willing to be satisfied with what’s in my hand at any particular moment.  Of course, the United States is the best country in the world.  Of course, Iowa is the best state in the country.  Of course, Des Moines is the best city in the state.  But maybe I’m wrong.   How can you really judge if you don’t go and see how other people live?

So you have to travel.

And while you’re on this journey, you need to get a haircut.  It’s a surefire way to see what’s going on, to connect with a group of people, to expand your horizons.  The barber shop is a cultural equalizer.  A window to another world.  For example, did you know that while traveling in South Korea in 1988 you needed to learn the Korean words for “I am married and I must politely decline your offer”?  Of course you didn’t.

I had walked up and down this street in The Hague, Netherlands, many times.  The store was always empty.  When I’d peer inside, I could see a single barber chair.  Outside, stenciled on the large plate-glass window was a simple sign: “Loek Schmits — herenkapper.”  But what really grabbed my attention was the high-end espresso machine resting prominently on the counter.  Interesting.

One day a man was inside the shop as I walked past.  When I entered, his eyebrows raised.  You see, I have nothing on my head for a barber to actually “kapper.”  So there I was.  Standing stock still.  Unsure why I really entered.  As was the barber.  He suddenly gave a hearty laugh.  Shaking his head at my bald head, he said in hesitant English:  “Do you want an espresso or a cappuccino?”

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Loek Schmits spent about 15 minutes making me the perfect cappuccino.  He gave us each a cup and sat down and told me his story.  The preliminaries were succinct:  born and raised in The Hague; married to his childhood sweetheart; two kids; five grandkids; 69 years old.  He had cut women’s hair for 40 years.  He was one of the best and had a large clientele.  He raised his family, paid his bills, and was moderately happy.

Then he quit it all.

Loek Schmits stopped talking here.  He knew how to tell a story.  He slowly walked over to his high-end espresso maker and made us each another shot.  Settling back into his barber chair, he reached around for a plate and served us each two small ginger cookies.  With a deep breath, he continued.

He decided his life did not match who he wanted to be.  He sold his car, paid off his house, and built this small, tiny barbershop.  One chair.  He had two requirements for this new life: first, every day he would drink the best espresso with his customers; and, second, when he cut hair, he would play only the music he loved.  That’s it.  No other rules.  No ten-step program.  No Younger Next Year.  No 30 Days to Perfect Thighs.   It’s simple.  Good espresso with friends and good music.  End of story.

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Listen, I don’t want to appear all Susie Sunshine about this guy.  He talked of some adversity.  Spoke of his wife suffering from enough blockages in her heart to require several angioplasties.  Difficulties with old cars.  Concern about one daughter.  But then I asked him whether the last 14 years as a one-chair barber was worth it.  Loek Schmits smiled and said, “I have angels over my head.”
See, this is why you travel, and this is why you go to a barber.  And, just maybe, when you get home you will wonder whether you have angels over your head.  You know, that same head with the nice haircut.







Wedding planners, marriage, and pipe cleaners

Marriage is certainly a line in the sand.  One day you’re single, and your foolish behavior goes unnoticed, the next day you’re married, and your partner is the first to tell you that shirt doesn’t go with those pants.  I didn’t know that.  Now I do.  I’m married.  My clothes mostly go together.  Unless my wife is out of town.

I love the hot mess of marriage.  Marriage is an institution wrapped in the rigorousness of deeply held religious beliefs and the casualness of a minister who is really a Las Vegas Elvis impersonator.  Don’t you love that?  The right to marry is fought tooth and nail all the way to the highest court in the land, while at the same time some lawyer is preparing prenuptial agreements in a small back room in downtown Des Moines, getting ready for the divorce.  You have to love the law.  Every silver cloud has a dark lining.  One could even argue that gay marriage is all about the right to divorce.  Just like everyone else.  Equal protection under the Constitution as long as I get the sofa.

But all this presupposes something the Iowa Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court failed to talk about in their landmark decisions on gay marriage — yup, you guessed it. Where is Aunt Regina going to sit at the wedding reception?  Or what about an open bar, given Uncle John’s propensities?  And do we worry about the guests who are vegetarians or octogenarians or vegetarian octogenarians?  Important wedding questions.  Ignored by everyone.

Well, not quite everyone . . . .

“Trust me,” the classically blond hair, blue-eyed woman says in a low soft voice, “I’ll take care of everything.”


Ah, a wedding planner has entered the room.  Please bow to the gods in thankfulness.

Maya Boettcher, with her assistant Lucy Solarz, lights up as she talks about weddings.  As should you.  Because things are in her hands.  Things are under control.  Things are going to go all right.  Sit back and enjoy.

This is Maya’s seventh year of full-time wedding planning.  And she’ll do anything you need from location, food, music, flowers, to where to buy the dress.  Even including bringing the Hawaiian Dance Team from Chicago to your reception.   She shows me a picture of one of her recent weddings that reflects the grace and beauty surrounding that happy day.


This reminds me that I was not graceful or beautiful on my wedding day.  My wedding was a shotgun wedding without the pregnancy.  I needed to marry fast, before my soon-to-be wife discovered what a schmuck she was getting hitched to.  So I married in the nick of time, two months after our first date. You could safely say I was a little difficult at my wedding. Surly and anxious, I even demanded we leave the reception less than an hour after it began.

“There are two types of clients: difficult and not difficult.”  Maya holds my gaze with some softness and much steel as she explains her philosophy of dealing with clients.  “If they are difficult, we pretend that they’re not.”

Lord, what a concept.  Deny a reality you don’t want for a reality you do.  Perhaps not the best choice if you’re gambling at Prairie Meadows, but perfect for a wedding.

“I empathize with difficult clients.  I have been in every situation that a client presents.  I have been in their shoes somewhere along the line.  People don’t know me and they feel embarrassed about their drama.  I don’t want them to feel that way.  I want them to feel like they can be honest and comfortable and that we aren’t going to judge them.”

Her company is called Plum Event + Design.  She does just about any event, but weddings are her meat and potatoes.  She did eight in the last five weeks.  And I mean WEDDINGS.

“Weddings have become such a thing.  People used to get married and have punch and cake in the church basement, now it’s $100,000 later and then you’re married.”

My oh my.   It reminds me of how I behaved so badly to the photographer at my own wedding 34 years ago. Yes, quite a jerk. Wouldn’t line up, wouldn’t smile, just generally uncooperative. He later told me I was the most difficult groom he’d ever worked with.

“I’ve had plenty of jerk grooms,” Maya assures me.  “I stroke egos.  ‘You look so handsome.  Don’t you worry.’  I don’t have to swallow any kind of pride.  Jerks are not just at weddings by the way.  Every day you have to be nice to people and know that it’s not about you.  You have to fix things.”

And brides?

“Message to upcoming bride:  trust me.  Let it go.  I have a therapist’s phone number.  I have someone who can help you with those feelings.  Don’t take it out on your significant other.  Get married.  Just think about what you’re really doing.  That is the fun part.”

Maya is a pro.  She’ll make everything as fun and as wild and as extravagant as you want, and then she’ll straighten the chairs around the tables.

“You want to cut the cake with a sword?  Great.  I can handle that.  For example, I can take a difficult father-in-law and give him a really important job and make him feel really special.  Give him the spotlight that he feels he deserves in a way that is controlled by my team.  And at the end of the day everyone is happy.”

Wow.  Really?  A sword?

“My whole thing is just being nice to people.  I know that is a cliche.  But you have to be nice to people, no matter who they are.  It might be the crazy girl, who is hammered, making a pipe-cleaner tiara at the kids’ table.  We still say to her, ‘We are so glad you had fun at the wedding.’  And really mean it.”

Goodness.  Listen, but what are we supposed to make with the pipe cleaners?

Maya just shakes her head, laughs, and she and her assistant head out the door to prepare another wedding.  The responsible people have definitely left the room.

So, what do you think?  Does this shirt go with these pants?