The monastic life

Neon doesn’t seem the best light for contemplating the contemplative life. Not to mention those bright red shopping carts lined up in front with the red bullseye prominent on the facade. And the smell of popcorn and Starbuck’s coffee wafting out the front doors? I don’t know. This doesn’t seem right. Although, the directions are pretty specific — the northwest corner of Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue. And that’s exactly where I am. And, really, who am I to question the spiritual path? But in all honesty I don’t see a sign of St. Gabriel’s Passionist Monastery that is supposed to be right here. All I see is the Target store at the Merle Hay Mall, Menswear Department, socks.

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Clark Eide is a tall man, hair pulled back tight in a long ponytail, an easy smile. He is of the age when he could be an old young man or a young old man. He stands behind a desk in the heart of the cozy nook that makes up Beaverdale Books, an anchor in a busy world.

“I was born in Mercy Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa.”

Of course he was. The Eide name is not foreign in these parts. His great uncle, Howard Eide, was police chief in Des Moines from 1952-1960. And his grandfather, Clark Eide, fought in World War I before returning to Des Moines as a successful businessman. And his brother, Matt Eide, is a lawyer/lobbyist up at the Capitol. But now, after 30 years, Clark has returned home with a purpose. He’s written a new book — A Monk’s Way.

“The reason I wrote the book is that after a certain point in my life I wanted to go investigate the spiritual side of my life. I’m convinced we all have that dimension.”

With a melodic voice and a storyteller’s rhythm, Eide talks to the crowd with a gentle passion.

“After trying out many paths, I discovered that direct divine connection is the most important thing. You can overlay it with whatever you want in terms of ceremony, clergy, doctrine, but if you get to the fundamental, that’s what it is. I felt I needed to write about that. And that’s the beginning of the story.”

Sure, sure, sure. Everyone is interested in spiritual questions, but what about all the dirt and grime and turmoil before getting to the spiritual questions? So, after Eide’s presentation, I asked about his past.

“I graduated from a high school in Fort Dodge and I got a scholarship to Notre Dame. So I went. Notre Dame was all male at the time. I met some very interesting teachers. I ended up majoring in business. That was good. But what kept me going was, quite frankly, the glee club. I joined the glee club as a freshman. Those were my buddies. We travelled to Europe; we travelled all over the place.”

Hah, now we’re getting somewhere.

“When I was still at Notre Dame, one of my great loves was travel. I wrote some airlines as to why they should have me. My gosh, one of them hired me — the old British Overseas Airways Corporation — to represent them on the campus. It worked. My recompense was free travel.”

And travel he did. Hitchhiking around Europe. Staying in Ireland for lengths of time. Eventually, he graduated from college and his business life blossomed — running travel agencies; a financial business dealing with currency for overseas travel; and then a financial service to reclaim VAT taxes from overseas expenditures. Everything successful. Everything a winner.

It was not enough.

So he eventually sold everything and became a professional singer. Yup, The Fabulous Fourmeldyhides, an a cappella group of four guys. Again, a success.

“We had toured overseas three times, been on national television, sung with some great oldie acts like The Turtles, Gary Lewis, Lou Christie, The Little River Band and performed hundreds of concerts of every kind – from stadiums to theaters to intimate venues, to the Edinburgh Festival and the pubs of Dublin.”

But this too was not enough.

So Eide married the love of his life, Agnes, lived in France, Uruguay, and South Dakota, and began to write his book. Four years later — A Monk’s Way was born, a fictional story about a monk in France named Jean Moreau, who faces the conundrums of any person searching for spiritual answers in today’s unspiritual world.

“I was raised an Irish Catholic. I was already attracted to monasteries. So I placed a monk in the very center of these traditions and had him go through everything that we go through, because he is an everyman. And he finds his way back. How you can incorporate that in your own life? It is a parable. I don’t want to sit here and tell you this is the way it has to be or this is the only way to do something. It’s not. So my guy is able to open himself up. And if he can do it, we can all do it.”

Eide smiles. Encouraging. Searching. Planning even more books on his monk and his monastery.

So naturally I drove away from Beaverdale Books searching for a monastery from where to begin my spiritual journey. The only one I could find in Des Moines was St. Gabriel’s Passionist Monastery, located on the northwest corner of Douglas and Merle Hay. At least, that’s what the directions said.

Which brought me to Menswear at the Target store at the northwest corner of Douglas and Merle Hay. The socks department to be exact.

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Lo and behold, it turns out that St. Gabriel’s Monastery stood on these very grounds only to be torn down in 1958 to make way for Merle Hay Mall. Who would have guessed?

230290_188774494504275_3436963_n-1Still, even a monk has to wear socks and eats popcorn. So, I bought both as an early step on my spiritual path.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The post office

The post office was established at Fort Des Moines in 1845, and was known as Raccoon River until June 1, 1846, when the name Fort Des Moines was given it. Josiah Smart, who was the Indian interpreter for the military authorities at the Fort, was appointed as the first postmaster, but declined to accept the appointment.

“History of the Des Moines Post Office,” by Ilda M. Hammer, as published in the 1933 fall edition of the Annals of Iowa.

Mmmm . . . did Josiah Smart declined the appointment because of the long holiday lines?

The line twists and curves out the double doors to the very front of the building. Customers wait with packages stacked head high, moving forward on intuition more than sight. The woman swamped at the receiving window is calm. She’s seen a few holidays. She smiles at each customer. Warm. Understanding. Efficient. When it is my turn, I actually think she might lean across the window and wipe some fictional smudge off the edge of my mouth and tousle my nonexistent hair. She doesn’t.

“What can I do for you?” she says warmly.

Doesn’t she see the 30 people behind me? Isn’t she panicked?

It is now a month later. The post office in Beaverdale has settled down from the holidays. Winter has decided to remain for the interim. A high of zero, with windchill pushing the temps the wrong direction. The rush from the car to the double doors is just long enough. And now, when you walk into the main lobby, shaking off the cold, there’s Brenda Kelley still at her window. Still smiling.

Dr. Thomas K. Brooks filled the place March 2,1846, as the first regular postmaster. Dr. Brooks had his office in the old Indian Agency House, which was situated where the Tuttle stone packing house was in 1909, in South Des Moines. Later Dr. Brooks removed the office to his own home in Thomas Addition, on Court Avenue. At the close of the year (1846) Dr. Brooks resigned, and Phineas M. Casady succeeded him in office.

“I started with the Des Moines post office when I was 20.” Brenda Kelley gives a long sigh. “I’ve been here 37 years last August,” she says with a “can you believe it” grin.

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Wow. That’s a lot of years to move mail.

“I started working downtown at the main branch. This is the first window I’ve ever done here at Beaverdale. I started that in 2010. Otherwise I always worked downtown. I worked nights, I worked days. Sorting mail. Whatever. Never worked with the public. Never thought I would want to. No way would I do that. But I decided to give this a shot.” Kelley pauses. “And I love it!”

Kelley laughs at herself, still dumfounded by her late-career joy.

People come and go to her window. I watch. She listens carefully to each and every one. Full attention.

“There are a lot of interesting people in this neighborhood. A lot of older people. I love helping them. I love helping people find the right box. Like a guy this morning. He was going to Chicago. He had it in a medium flat-rate box, which is $12.65. Going to Chicago you’re going to pay half that in a different box. So I say, ‘what do you think is we try something else?’ So we got a different box, and it was only $6.35. That just makes my day.”

Post office employee concerned about your wallet? Really?

“I have several women who call me mommy. I think they are Puerto Rican or Cuban. It first took me aback, but now I think it’s cute.”

Come on. There have to be angry and frustrated customers at your window?

“I can’t get upset with customers for being upset. I’ll try to help with anything I can. There’s a lot of it out of my control. I’ll check every recourse that I can. I try to do as much as I can.”

Really? But don’t you just get pushed around?

Kelley laughs.

“This one kid, he’s having his girlfriend do this and that, and then he wants me to write the address on his big box. ‘Is there something wrong with your hands? Are you okay?’ I said, ‘I think you can do it.’ He took offense. He really took offense.”

Kelley shakes her head in remembrance.

“I said to him, ‘Hey, if there is something wrong, I’ll help anybody.’ — One lady comes in who can’t see real good. So I’ll write out all her stuff. — ‘Come on. You’re a young kid. Big old box. You write the address on there. Do not put that box on my scale and want me to write the address when you’re capable.’”

Lord help this kid. He’s outmatched.

“I’ll let them know. You’ve got to try it. There are some people you need to help. Others, here’s the tools, you can do it yourself.”

Okay, but hasn’t the U.S. Post Office had some rough years with reduced money and  shortened staffing and other workplace concerns?

“I love the Post Office. I love my job. But the big bosses are all about the numbers and that’s just not it. It’s about people. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it. They say I’m the face of the postal service at the window. I don’t care what the postal service thinks, I care what my customers think.”

Mr. Casady moved the post office to his own law office on Second Street and the Rock Island tracks, where Green’s Foundry used to be. The mail was not very heavy at that time, for it is said of Mr. Casady that he used to carry it in his hat, and distribute it to the parties to whom it was directed, “ lifting the post office from his head” in order to find the letters.

That was in 1847. And in 2016? Who’s looking for letters under their hat? Who’s carrying our post office on their heads?

The mail sorters work every night. The truck drivers run nonstop with their loads. The carriers trudge through the snow, sometimes hours into the dark evenings. Brenda Kelley goes back to work at her window in Beaverdale.

“What can I do for you?”

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The caucuses: a soldier’s view

The retired Navy captain sat across the table at Smokey Row Coffee. Totally composed. Taking my measure is my guess.

I start to feel a little warm under her scrutiny.

Let’s see — unwavering eye contact, upright posture, an open smile. Check, check, and check. Naval Captain Megan Klee, retired, is on a campaign.

“I decided I wanted to actually see all the presidential candidates in person. It is different to see them in person where you get more than a sound bite.”

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Klee is making the rounds from her home base in Des Moines. She and her husband, Allan Kniep, make forays out to Waukee, or Urbandale, or Oskaloosa to hear and talk to the candidates. But Klee is not a passive observer of these events.

“To see the candidates in person isn’t as much as I’d hoped it would be because the candidates are speaking to their own true believers. And even when it’s an open forum, they still think they are speaking only to their own true believers. And kind of shocked when they aren’t.  So . . . I ask questions.”

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No surprise. I would wager she’s used to getting answers. Klee was 27 when she joined the Navy Officer Candidate School after working for several years as a speech pathologist.

“I joined the Navy because I was interested in computers. I thought there was more of a future in that than speech pathology. I was told I could get into the field through the Navy. And that’s exactly what happened.”

I’m not surprised.

“My other reason is that I wanted to travel.”

And travel Klee did.

“My first tour was to Washington D.C. to a computer command. My second tour was in Naples, and then I was sent to Sicily. I spent two years as the officer in charge of the communication facility there. I went from there to the naval postgraduate school in Monterey. I then went to Norfolk, Virginia, in another officer-in-charge position.”

Wow, and then did you retire?

“After Norfolk, I went to Japan as an executive officer. Spent a couple of years there. Then back to Washington D.C. where I was with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and that was the time Colin Powell was the Chairman. So I worked for him. I did that for two years.”

My head is spinning, but she doesn’t stop.

“I went to an island in the middle of nowhere called Diego Garcia to run their communications. Diego Garcia is south of India. I then got a job north of Malibu at a space command where we monitored various space things.”

Space things? Really?

“Then I wrangled a job in London for a couple years.”

Of course you did.

“My last tour was in San Diego. I was in command there of about 500 people.”

Ah, so then you retired?

“From the military. But before I did, I saw an ad for the Los Angeles Unified School District. The second largest school district in the U.S. They hired me to be their first chief information officer for the school system.”

My goodness.

And now you are twice retired and visiting with candidates. How’s that going?

“Trump had a free lunch in Oskaloosa. By the time we were done eating, the auditorium was full. So we were going over into the overflow area and someone said, ‘We have to fill up the front two rows, do you want to go over there?’ So we did. We are sitting in the second row. No further away than two yards. Fairly close. I could see the spit coming out of his mouth. What was interesting is that there is a slew of true believers in there, screaming and yelling.  And these front two rows were just people sitting — not true believers. He kept looking at us like what was wrong with us. But again interesting. It was an oratory full of insults.”

But you do like to engage the candidate?

“I feel asking questions is my one opportunity. Rick Santorum asked the audience a rhetorical question: ‘Do any of you want your taxes raised?’ Allan and I raised our hands. We think we could pay more, and there are things necessary to maintain the country, like infrastructure.”

My guess is that you were the only two.

“You  know, it’s easy to go listen to people you agree with. But I think it’s also important that you go listen to the people you don’t agree with.”

And what conclusions do you draw from all your experience?

“I think we’ve lost a sense of owing something to society as a whole. You don’t hear candidates ask the American people what they’re willing to do. Like Kennedy said — not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country. I think there needs to be more demands of the American people as to what are they willing to contribute rather than people just looking at government as the bad guy and not wanting to pay taxes.”

You sound like an activist.

“It is kind of in my genes to be an activist. I don’t think necessarily that you can change the world, but if you don’t try, that’s wrong. And too often I’ve been successful nudging things the direction I think they should go in my work and in my life. You’re not going to get change unless you push for change.”

Klee smiles. Open and unguarded. Unwavering eye contact. Upright posture.

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And off she goes to visit her next candidate. To listen and analyze. To ask her questions. To take their measure. And ours.

Joe

Uncovering the dark underbelly of IT

Iowans pride themselves on not being rude.

“Please. Sit down. Can I get you a cup of coffee? Do you want a slice of pie with that?”

It may explain how in a state that has conservative leanings, we early on embraced racial equality, women’s rights, and gay marriage. It’s simple. It’s not that we are some great progressive society. It’s just rude to treat people rudely. Every Iowan knows this from an early age.

Also, it is a common politeness to ask where a person works. In fact, it is rude not to ask.

So, of course, I asked — what do you do for your job?

“I’m the president of Alliance Technologies.”

Wow, really? The president?

Steve Sikkink shrugs self-consciously.

“Well, we started Alliance Technology in 1994. We are a comprehensive IT solution partner.”

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Sikkink has a broad smile, bright blue eyes, and not a smidgeon of guile that I can detect. He speaks English. Nothing is garbled. I can even identify the subject and the verb of both sentences he spoke. Shouldn’t I be able to understand “a comprehensive IT solution partner”?

Trust me, I don’t.

And it reminds me of all the conversations I’ve had with people who identify themselves as doing IT work. “Yes, that’s short for Information Technology,” they always helpfully add. Did that help you?

Not for the first time, I’m suspicious that IT doesn’t really exist. Perhaps all these people who say their work is in information technology are really going bowling. Or is it possible that IT is part of a larger conspiracy involving smart phones, the demise of Dahl’s grocery store, and the Des Moines Water Works? Clearly, anything is possible.

But here’s my chance to get to the bottom of this. I begin a steady barrage of questions to ferret out the truth.

Let’s start at the beginning, I say cunningly.

“I was a student intern at Weitz Corporation in Des Moines while I was going to Central College in Pella. I was captain of the basketball team, but I carried a briefcase on the bus back when no one carried a briefcase.”

Sikkink is a self-described business-nerd who got in at the ground floor of the computer transformation. “Grew up in hotbed of conspiracy,” I jot in my notepad.

“I had a double major, business management and information systems. Computers just weren’t there yet. If you wanted to do computers, you did math. I didn’t want to do math.  So I did information systems.”

Sikkink stayed with Weitz after college, and he and his partner began solving business issues by using computers.

“I was programming. It was a great opportunity for me. I could make a computer do something. People would come to me and say, ‘Could you write a program to help me do general ledgers or accounts payable?’ Of course.”

However, to Sikkink’s dismay, most folks were sticking with the tried and true.

“To watch people who had done things manually to switch to an automated system was amazing. Initially they wanted us to pave cow paths. People would tell you how they did it manually, and they’d ask if I could do it with the computer. People didn’t understand that the real improvement wasn’t just repeating the same winding steps that they did manually, paving the cow path, but it was to reinvent the process entirely — make a new path.”

Okay, “paving cow paths”? Did he just say that? I think I’m wearing him down.

“I didn’t want to just be a geeky programmer. I wanted to be a tool to help us accomplish a new way to do things.”

I didn’t want to tell Sikkink that it might be too late to ditch the geeky programmer label.

“Back when we started you had to do everything. We bought the hardware, we did the wiring, we had to make sure it was being backed up, we had to write the software, we inherited phone systems, which had their own wiring and their own networks. We had to work through all the data communications. We had to do it all.”

Sure you did. And now?

“You don’t need a computer anymore. We will fix your issues. We have 150 employees with connections to multiple services. There is no need to even come to your location. We have clients who are being served by people they’ve never met. It is very efficient. But a very different way to serve. What this misses is the people, and people still want to be treated as people.”

Ah, a businessman philosopher.

“Concern for employees and customers is the constant. Technologies have come and gone. Systems and solutions have come and gone. What hasn’t changed? Good employees and valued clients.”

My oh my. A passionate businessman philosopher.

“I get excited about a vision. The only constant is change. Especially in IT. The vendors prominent in the 80s are mostly gone. Pioneer and Wells Fargo have IT departments bigger than our whole company. But medium to small businesses have the same problems as these big companies and need our help. That is sort of my vision these days. I’m not an IT purist. I’d say IT was just a skill that allowed me to get to where I really wanted to get — to help businesses solve their issues.”

Here’s my chance!

So, is there such a thing as IT?

Laughter.

“I don’t think IT really exists,” Sikkink says with twinkling eyes. Then, getting serious, he continues, “I will say one thing, IT is certainly changing and evolving into something different.”

Hah! It’s too late. I have what I came for. The dark underbelly of IT — it doesn’t really exist. You heard it here first.

Sikkink thanks me for the chat and heads back to work. At least so he says.

Now I just have to get to the bowling alley before he does. I don’t want to be rude.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sledding hill

“Dad says it is your turn to go down the hill with me.”

The young girl, her right side dipped in snow, her stocking cap covering only one ear, and a plastic blue sled trailing in her wake, looks up expectantly at the group of three moms standing at the top of the hill. It appears the infamous “dad” is somewhere down at the bottom of the hill. Flat on his back is my guess.

All three women have their arms crossed tightly against their layered coats. They gaze out at the bedlam overtaking Waveland Golf Course. The moms have clearly done their part to get the children out sledding. Coats, boots, mittens, scarves, hats. Check, check, check, and check. And then they’ve packed the kids into the car and gotten them safely to the hills. Quite a chore. Whew. Unfortunately, the young girl does not realize that the moms are now off the clock. They are drinking coffee and hot chocolate. They have done enough for today. Responsibility over. One mom helpfully clarifies the situation.

“Tell dad that it is still his turn.”

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A sledding hill always has two perspectives, depending upon where you’re standing in the arc of your life. When you’re at the top and young, the hill is about the excitement of going down, the anticipation of speed, the rush of wind, the loss of balance, the delight of falling. When you’re at the bottom and not so young, the hill is about making it once more back to the top, the heavy slog through the snow, the leaden drag of the sled, the sound of air harshly drawing through your nose and mouth, and the fear of falling on the icy slope.

Really?

Yup, because for every delighted child, there’s a dad (or mom) at the bottom of the hill. He’s rubbing that sore hip as he lies on his back wondering if this is the good death of which the heroes of old spoke. Probably not. And, on top of his awareness of his lack of heroic dimensions, and the equally hard realization that he’s not going to be doing the bobsled run with Lolo at the next Olympics, all he can hear as he rests in the snow is the peel of children — loudly laughing, delightfully screaming, and excitedly shouting.

It’s hard for him not to smile at the joy of it all. Or is that rigor mortis setting in?

Let’s pause for a moment while dad recovers. In January of 1920, the Iowa Supreme Court faced a slippery issue involving sledding. The facts were not complicated, if you ignore the legal mess.

“The coasting party was made up of seven or eight young people who were making use of one or more small sleds carrying but one or two riders each, and a so-called ‘traveler,’ which consisted of two narrow sleds coupled tandem fashion with a plank or board laid lengthwise over them. This vehicle would carry four or more riders.”

There’s our sledders. And the bad guy in this drama?

“On the evening in question, with a covered buggy and team of two horses, [a young man] had driven to the house of a neighbor, where his companion, a young woman, joined him for a ride.”

Ah, all the fixings for a Downton Abbey-type disaster. Coming down one side of the road, a horse and buggy, and coming down the other, sledders. The young man in the carriage, probably attempting to impress the young woman (and perhaps texting?), ignores warnings that the tandem sled is coming.

“[The young man] does not seem to have realized the peril of the situation, until the coasting party was almost upon him. He then reined his team, or the team in its fright swerved of its own motion, to the right, and as it turned the ‘traveler’ with its load of coasters came in contact with a wheel of the carriage.”

Out of this collision, one young sledder breaks her arm. Thus the lawsuit.

Unfortunately for the young man in the carriage, the 1920 Iowa Supreme Court was made up of sledders. Chief Justice Weaver not only wrote a unanimous opinion in favor of the sledder, but also saw non-sledders as fun-haters. Referring disapprovingly to a similar case in another state, he said:

“[The Maine Supreme Court suggests] that a boy dragging his sled to school may lawfully mount it and ride so far as a friendly hill in the road may carry him on his way to the schoolhouse, yet, if he so far forgets the strict rules of Puritan propriety as to stop at the foot of the hill and trudge back again to the top for another slide for the pure fun of the thing, he becomes an outlaw or trespasser in the highway, bereft of the privileges and protections of an ordinary traveler.”
Chief Justice Weaver, with his sarcastic pen sliding lightly behind him, thought the Maine Supreme Court was nuts. Duh. The Iowa Chief Justice obviously went sledding “for the pure fun of the thing.” He’d certainly be sledding today.
Which brings us back to the sledding hill.
The top of Waveland Golf Course became more and more busy as the day gets on. Bill and Carla Orr show up with a passel of kids.

“We’ve kind of been cooped up over the weekend and we are just ready to get out and have fun.”

Carla Orr is laughing and talking to me, while her kids and the neighbor kids she brought along are running around, asking her questions, and just in general wanting her attention. Then suddenly, off the kids go, flying down the hill.

“The kids love to get fresh air. We have twins and triplets. So if we stay inside too long, we are going to go crazy.”

Amen to narrowly avoiding that disaster.

Bill and Carla Orr watch their brood rush down the hill. And they pause momentarily at the top, posing in the moment of quiet.

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And what after this?

“We will spend the afternoon out here, and then we’ll go home and have hot chocolate.”

Of course you will.

Carla laughs softly. She and Bill bump against each other. More smiles. Then down the slope they go. Mom and dad chasing the kids.

Mmmm . . . so much for the strict rules of Puritan propriety on the sledding hill today.

Joe

 

 

 

Julius Brooks, the world, and the horn

It was unexpected to be sure. The plunk of the piano wound its way back through the narrow hallway to the furthest alcove in the back room and drifted above the chile rellenos and the enchiladas and the taco salad. Distant. Muted. Fading in and out, but certainly there. A pleasant surprise coming from the front of the house on a Thursday night at El Patio Mexican Restaurant. Was it live music or the radio?  But then a different sound floated under the last piano note. Low, seductive, mournful at the edges. A sax player. An old man, as it turns out. Accompanying Max Wellman on the piano. A pied piper for late-night diners. The old man eventually gave way to Wellman’s voice, but he continued to finger the keys, playing along in silence.

“I’m 88 years old. The most fun thing I do is play music. It is my life. The more I play the better I feel. It keeps me young.”

With one foot up on the brace of the stool, Julius Brooks sat nearly standing, his left shoulder turned inward, his right arm cradling the sax. Immovable. Silent. An old lion in repose.

Two nights later, at Chuck’s Restaurant. Chuck’s Trio with Gina Severino-Gedler is performing in the back. They are tight and focused. A fifty-dollar performance for the price of your pizza. The old man is a presence. He has donned a Santa Claus hat, not out of good cheer it seems, but to offset his eyes that definitely sparkle with naughtiness this night. Severino-Gedler and the trio treat him as royalty. They defer, they joke, they direct the applause his way.

“The great Julius Brooks. An inductee into the Des Moines Community Jazz Center Hall of Fame in 2004. Has played with all the greats,” the bass player announces, as he ticks off all the jazz players and singers Brooks has played with over the years.

And Brooks grins and laughs and is, undoubtably, exactly where he belongs.

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“I was born in Inverness, Florida. My mother died when I was 5, my father died when I was 7. My grandparents raised me. I left Inverness because of the school. I only got to 8th grade. I eventually left town and went to Jacksonville and started high school at Edward Waters College.”

While at Edward Waters, Julius Brooks was enticed into the band room. There he discovered the saxophone. Soon, he was playing in nightclubs in Jacksonville. It was a heady experience for a young man. When he lost his scholarship to Edward Waters because he was making too much money playing at night, he dropped out of school and played music full-time.

“I got a room for seven dollars a week and I continued playing. I decided it was going to be me and the world and the horn.”

After a while, Brooks thought he needed to go to California to play in the big leagues. So he saved up, took the bus, and showed up in Los Angeles with his sax and a suitcase. After a couple of years playing at clubs, teaching the saxophone, and working at a day job, he got a call.

“I was sitting in my apartment and the phone rang. ‘This is Louis Jordan. You know Caldonia don’t you? I’m the man who made Caldonia.’ He said, ‘I need a saxophone player. I heard about you. You like to go to Lake Tahoe?’ That was my first big break.”

Louis Jordan was big time in the music world and his song, Caldonia, was on fire in the 1960’s. Brooks played with him for several years.

“He died of a heart attack on the bandstand. I was up there with him when he died. We were in Reno, Nevada.”

After Jordan’s death, Brooks was courted by the Ink Spots, an iconic African-American group singing rock and roll and doo-wop. Brooks stayed with them until 1980. Then he followed his former wife back to Des Moines, her home town.

“I started working at a funeral home. Estes Funeral Home. Helped with the bodies. Drove the hearse. The guys didn’t know I was a musician.”

What about your love of the saxophone?

“I started going out at night to play my horn. I went down to the Hotel Fort Des Moines. Met a girl called Susie Miget. She’s a bass player. So I asked to sit in. ‘What’s your name?’  It was now 1982. I jammed with her. She said, ‘What did you say your name was?’ That got me started.”

Gina Severino-Gedler, the singer at the microphone, tells the audience that Brooks is going to take a break from the sax. “Julius is going to sing a few tunes for us now.”

A mellow tenor, rich with experience, floats out over the crowd.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
But they’re really saying I love you.

What a wonderful world, ooh . . . . 

He laughs at himself. He gracefully acknowledges the applause. A “isn’t this fun” grin appears. He returns to his sax.

And so it goes.

But every once in a while, if you watch the old man carefully, his eyes steel up, his jaw sets a little more rigidly, and a weary fierceness is reflected, born of experience and grit and longevity.

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How long can you do this?

“I can do this as long as God let’s me.” He proclaims without hesitation.

Really.

The set of his jaw becomes even firmer. “I had a friend who played until he was 100.”

And that’s enough of that. Time to get back to the show.

The new set begins. The low, seductive, mournful sound of the saxophone again floats under the piano and the bass and the singer. One more voice among the many. And then they all eventually break away. The wash of music subsides. All that remains is the old man and the horn and the simple melody. But then he takes the strands of the melody and shakes them up into something else — and he soars.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The artist and the doctor who sits next to his patients

The door pushes inward to warmth and people and noise. The young men in front of us are momentarily stuck at the entrance. The cold of the outside is fighting to move upstream into the coziness of the inside. But then the young men are in, with us closely following. Andy’s Frame Shop is hosting an art opening. Most folks still have on their coats from the snowy weather. The wet wool smell and the dripping boots and the blast of cold air at the entrance when the door opens all act as a small reminder of things to come. But the artist merely shrugs it off. He stands at the door, a half-smile permanently fixed, mildly embarrassed to be the center of attention, and properly greeting each person. Good manners trump the inclination to flee.

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“I’m an introvert. I’m a very happy introvert. But beyond a one-on-one conversation, I am mostly drained.”

Randy Hamilton gives me a small smile. His face gives away nothing of how he’s feeling. No tell. No forecasting. No strange tick with which to attach meaning. Nope, it’s only the eyes. Caring eyes. Soft eyes. Eyes that have seen some things. Eyes to trust. But tonight it’s about the art.

“This art started in 2007 when I took a collage class. Generally, collage is taking one image and another image and putting them close together and feeling a visceral emotion. There is usually a visceral response by me. I’m either laughing or I’m freaked out or creeped out by it. If I’m not too creeped out by it, then I’ll use it. If I’m super creeped out by it, if I’m super disturbed by the juxtaposition, I won’t do it.”

Creeped out? Super disturbed? Do I want to know?

“One of my favorite games as a kid was the memory game, where you turn over two cards, and when you make the pair you can keep it. So I think my brain holds images for a long time. And I’ll see this and think, ‘Huh, I wonder how this would look next to this?’  And I’ll go find that piece. Meaning starts to form as I make it. I tend to have my own narrative as it develops. There is generally a gender bender thing going on. I don’t know why. The narrative is what is interesting.”

But being an artist is not Hamilton’s only career.

“I wanted to be an architect ever since I was 10.”

So, from 2004 to 2007, Hamilton went to Iowa State for a Masters of Architecture.

“It was awesome. I loved the training. I loved the professors. It is a rich subject. I learned how things work, how to design, how to think about design. It changed me.”

Ah, but Hamilton graduated with his masters during the recession. There were no jobs. Architecture firms were not only not hiring, but they were laying off their staff. A grim time.

In any case, Hamilton had already returned to his first job, which was neither architecture nor art. Believe it or not . . . a doctor.

“My goal after college was to get into medical school. Once I got in, it was like, ‘oh shit, now what.’ I just wanted to get in, I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to be accepted. So my plan changed where I was going to do medical school and, when I’m done and paid off my debts, I’ll go to architecture school.”

But Hamilton found another dream in medicine.

“Neurology was very challenging and I loved neural anatomy. If there is anything that is going to keep revealing secrets to sustain my interest for my whole lifetime it’s neurology.  It turns out that’s probably true for everything in medicine, but neurology deals with things like, what is consciousness. That attracted me.”

And so Hamilton and his partner, Bruce Hughes, are neurologists. Hughes focuses on MS, as the director of the Ruan Neurology Multiple Sclerosis Center at Mercy Medical Center, while down the hall, Hamilton’s interest is movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease and essential tremors, as a physician with Mercy Ruan Neurology Clinic.

“Neurology has a lot of sadness. Especially in the hospital. We diagnose coma and brain death. That tears me up.”

Hamilton pauses.

“I’ve had many patients die. I’ve seen some of these people for 10 years or more. How do I handle it? A few simple things. I write a sympathy card once I find out. I also print out their obituary and their photograph. And I make a document of remembrance. Sometimes I’ll hang it up for awhile. Then I’ll file it. So I keep a memory album in a way.”

Doesn’t this all leave you drained and feeling hopeless?

“As a result of this work, I feel stronger, not more fragile. It helps me live in the moment. Of course, that doesn’t make me not think about death.”

Again, Hamilton stops talking as he thinks about his patients.

“I am close to my patients. I listen, make eye contact, and know that they know I hear them. That takes time. I spend twice as much time as the other doctors. But that’s why I get to know them well. I have to hear them in order to understand . . . .  I sit next to the patient.”

You sit next to the patient?!

“One of the best things that happens to me is when we turn on and program a deep brain stimulator for the first time. A man or woman who has had a horrible high-end tremor where they can’t drink or write, they’ll be able to do both. It’s amazing. It’s heart-rending. We cry in the clinic when that happens. They cry. I cry.

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And then the quiet introverted man, who daily mediates between life and death, must leave to talk to another patron.

I finish my wine, put on my hat, and head back out into the snow. Again, I am stuck at the door, and turn one last time into the warmth to see the final juxtaposition, the final collage of the show — the artist and the doctor who sits next to his patients.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bird lady

“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag
Feed the birds, that’s what she cries
While overhead her birds fill the skies.”  Feed the Birds, Mary Poppins

The multicolored pigeons cooed, the exotic chickens clucked, even that bird on the wire gave a  loud squawk. No matter their voiced concerns, the woman offered them no thoughtful advice, or special daily inspiration, or clever aphorisms to guide them on their life journey. Instead, in her chore boots and long coat, she brought them what they wanted, a bucket of food. Opening the aviary with pail in hand, a slow, wide smile crinkled the women’s face and her dark eyebrows rose with pleasure. “It’s going to happen,” the birds seemed to shout. And they clattered with joy as she bent over the feeding tray. Ah, breakfast time — courtesy of the bird lady.

“When I was in graduate school, I found a baby crow. It was at University of California, Davis. One of my professors, just a few weeks before, showed me a baby robin he was feeding. So I called him up and asked him what I do with this baby crow. He said, bring him in and I’ll show you how to feed him. That little crow, his name was Clover, changed my life.”

Perhaps an understatement.

“I’m a wildlife rehabilitator. I specialize in wild birds. But I do get called bird lady quite a bit.” She self-consciously smiles. And over she goes to feed her non-wild chickens.

IMG_1165Jenni Boonjakuakul takes in wild birds. She’s done it for many years. Not the only thing she’s done, by the way. She has a degree in microbiology. She’s done a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Fransisco. She was a microbiologist with the United States Department of Agriculture. And she ended up at Iowa State doing more post-doctoral work. Her husband, Jay Heaverlo, is a licensed acupuncturist practicing out of Midwest Acupuncture Clinic, in Urbandale, where she now helps him run the business side of his clinic. And, yes, she takes in wild birds, but not in that crazy bird lady way.

I think.

“You have to have a permit through the DNR to be a wildlife rehabilitator. I get a quarter of the birds from Des Moines Animal Control. And then more from Polk County Conservation and DNR officers. The rest, people just drop off. Last year I took in 354 birds. This year I really feel like it is over 400. I haven’t done my final count yet.”

Boonjakuakul does everything to stabilize the birds brought to her. She always hopes to get them well enough to release back to the wild. But it’s a bit of an effort.

“I take birds to work with me at the clinic because of their needs. There was a point this summer where I had about 65 baby birds in the car because the baby birds need to be fed every hour.”

Okay, maybe she is the crazy bird lady.

“I’m setting wings, setting legs, giving antibiotics as needed. I have a wonderful vet who helps me out. A lot of vets won’t take in wild birds because they don’t want to worry about contamination with pet birds. Plus it’s a whole other field.”

Don’t you get attached to your birds?

“I don’t name anyone. You want to make sure you’re not taming anyone. I don’t pet, I don’t hold, I don’t pick up. By the time they are healthy, they don’t want anything to do with me. But the ones I get attached to are the ones that are injured. There are a few every year where I cry when they don’t make it, or ecstatic when they do.”

All of this care and feeding is provided for “free,” which means that Boonjakuakul mostly pays.

“The worms, they are my biggest expense. I have to do live worms — because baby birds see them wiggling in the dish and they are attracted to that, plus they are a good protein source. I probably go through 10,000 a week.”

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Does any of this gross you out?

“Not the worms. Although, maggots gross me out. They’re usually on a live, injured bird. They are usually on the bigger birds that can survive for a bit with injury.”

Great. Now I’m grossed out.

Boonjakuakul has taken care of birds as small as hummingbirds and as large as pelicans. And everything in-between.

“I get a lot of wood duck babies. They are one of the hardest birds to rehab. People find them and people think something is really wrong when nothing is really wrong. Unfortunately what happens is mom gets scared off. They need to be left alone. They die from stress.  So, if you bring them in, it is too much. They do a little better if there are several. You can put a little mirror, or a duster to make them so they don’t feel alone. But I dread getting them as babies.”

All of this care occurs in Boonjakuakul’s clinic in her basement, a second out-building in the backyard, and her home-built aviaries. And nope, this is not located on some reserve in Africa, or on a millionaire’s thousand acres in Texas, but in a backyard in Beaverdale. Yup, Beaverdale. And she’s not doing all this undercover, but can be easily reached at the Iowa DNR website or at iowabirdrehab@gmail.com.

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But what about your poor husband? Second fiddle to 400 birds?

“We don’t go anywhere in the summer, or take any vacations, because feedings have to occur every hour.”

She pauses with this not-so-happy reflection, then she gives a slight smile.

“But he knew what he was getting into. Our first date, when he arrived at my door, someone showed up at the same time with a pigeon.”

She laughs softly and adds: “He’s supportive.”

Of course he is.

And so she returns, not to steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, as in the Mary Poppins song, but to her broken wings, her wiggly worms, and her squawking charges, right here in Beaverdale.

A tuppence a bag.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“As American as pumpkin pie”

“As American as pumpkin pie.” An interesting thing to say about our relationship to a  squash. Certainly, the ingredients are a melting pot of pumpkin, ginger, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, milk, cloves, eggs, and, of course, a pie crust made with lard. But, “as American as pumpkin pie”? That’s a lot of pressure to put on a wanna-be vegetable that is stuck being a fruit.

Sure, most pumpkins you meet are low-to-the-ground, rotund, and not very dynamic personally. But they are certainly jolly. The very image of a pumpkin can make you smile. Pumpkins are like cute animal videos, but instead of a dog opening a door or a cat flushing a toilet, the pumpkin wows you with its preposterousness.

Yup, preposterousness. Pumpkins are constantly performing slapstick without any physical movement. They exist at the edges of reality. Look at them. They look like aliens. The fun-uncle kind.

IMG_2958And that isn’t the end of their story. Big or little, round or misshapen, bright orange or pale yellow, pumpkins have a certain gravitas. They have grown into their environment and have adapted and changed to conform to the very ground under their feet. A stone is in the way? No matter. They grow around it. Quite a trick when you’re really not that far up the food chain.

Ah, but this doesn’t answer the question — how American is pumpkin pie?

Kate Colquhoun, author of “Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking,” said in an article in the New York Times several years ago:

“While the English hung on to their pudding with steadily decreasing enthusiasm for centuries, they let go another great Elizabethan favorite that might have had more staying power: pumpkin pie. First introduced to Tudor England by the French, the flesh of the ‘pompion’ was quickly accepted as a pie filler. However, while pumpkin pie sailed with the Pilgrims back to the birthplace of its main ingredient — where it survived in more or less its original form — it all but disappeared in its country of origin.”

Pumpkins are home grown, folks. And a pumpkin pie recipe was brought over by the Pilgrims themselves. Perhaps this is why we love pumpkin pie. And, make no mistake, we do love pumpkin pie.

“I come from a bakery family. My dad owned a bakery in Marshalltown. I started working with him when I was 15. I have worked in the bakery business for 37 years. And I’m 52 years old. That’s a long time.”

IMG_1120Dave Kelderman, the bakery manager at the Hy Vee on Douglas Avenue in Urbandale, gives me a tired smile. A post-Thanksgiving smile.

“We sell a lot of pumpkin pie here. We sold hundreds of pumpkin pies Thanksgiving week.”

My goodness. Baking must be your life.

“I’ve been managing bakeries since I was 22. You know what? I swore I’d never do this for a living. I was going to be a rock star, but the hair went and so did being a rock star.”

We both pause to contemplate our bald heads and lost dreams due to hair loss.

Is there a secret to pumpkin pie?

“I make pumpkin pies from scratch. We use the same recipe I’ve been using for 30 years now. I couldn’t tell you exactly where it came from, but it’s the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever had. Better than mom’s.”

Kelderman leans into me smiling.

“I never told mom that while she was alive. Now that she’s gone, I can say it out loud.”

Kelderman then gives me a large meaty handshake, a broad friendly smile, and back to work he goes. Goodness, there IS a friendly smile in every aisle.

Okay, clearly pumpkin pie is all-American, it is loved and it is lovable. So, it is fair to use the phrase that something is “as American as pumpkin pie.” Great.

The only obvious question remaining — can pumpkin pie consumption reveal who is a true American? Of course, in this time of presidential caucuses, this is an important concern. No candidate has addressed this pumpkin pie issue. Sure, many have said who is welcome in this country and who is not. Even our own governor has banned a whole group of people from entering our state based on their place of origin. But these are just irrational shots in the dark. Is pumpkin pie consumption the litmus test we’ve been waiting for?

Who knows.

Although, I haven’t even mentioned the divisive issue of whip cream, which, when put on your pie, is as American as pumpkin pie. Obviously.

Joe

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By the way, if you’re not totally sick of pumpkin pie, Peggy Baker, the Director and Librarian from the Pilgrim Society, published the following recipe from The Compleat Cook; London: printed for Nathaniel Brook, 1671, found on the website for the Pilgrim Hall Museum. It is an example of a recipe from a cookbook used by the early Pilgrims.

Pumpion Pie

Take about half a pound of Pumpion and slice it, a handfull of tyme, a little rosemary, parsley and sweet marjorum slipped off the stalks, and chop them small, then take the cynamon, nutmeg, pepper and six cloves, and beat them, take ten eggs and beat them, then mix them and beat them all together and put in as much sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froize*, after it is fryed, let it stand till it be cold, then fill your pye, take sliced apples thinne round wayes, and lay a rowe of the froize, and layer the apples with currents betwixt the layer while your pye is fitted, and put in a good deal of sweet Butter before you close it, when pye is baked, take six yelks of eggs, some whitewine or vergis*, and make a caudle* of this, but not too thick, cut up the lid and put it in, stir them well together whilst the eggs and pumpions be not perceived and so serve it up.

*froize = a kind of pancake or omelet
*vergis = verjuice, juice from unripened grapes or from crab apples or other sour fruit *caudle = a warm spiced and sugared drink

 

 

 

 

 

Cartoonist by night

“My nickname is Bucky. My real name is George. My mom didn’t want to call her little boy George, although she did agree to the name. My next oldest brother had an imaginary friend named Bucky. So they took the name from him and stuck it on me . . . I’ve been a mess ever since.”

If this was a cartoon character, his neck would be twisted around 360 degrees, there would be stars around his head, and his tongue would be trying to catch up with the rest of his face.

But not this morning.

The fit, slender, bright-eyed man energetically works the room. Bustling from small child to small child. Helping with jackets and hats over there, pulling chairs out over here, and then making a newcomer feel welcome around the table. With his hair pushed straight up from his forehead, and his wide glasses perched askew on his nose, he could be a slightly off-kilter fifteen-year-old boy. He’s not. Bucky Jones is an associate in the preschool program at Urbandale.

By day.

Ah, but by night, this 54-year-old is something quite different.

“I was raised in a military family. My dad was extremely strict. You couldn’t find a stricter man on the face of the earth. But at the same time, a very funny man with an off-color sense of humor, bathroom humor.”

Jones looks at me. Testing the waters. Will I be offended by bathroom humor? Just where do I stand on the absurd? Do I read Mad Magazine? He decides to plow ahead, unfazed.

“And so as a kindergartener, I remember sitting down with him and he would draw little pictures, but he would draw off-color, like dogs urinating on a fire hydrant. That’s what got me going. He made me laugh, and I remember thinking, ‘If I could do what he does, I could make people laugh.’ And that’s always been my drive.”

He pauses, collecting the strands of his early years.

“It is kindergarten when I started drawing. It quickly became my passion. Because in military families we would move every two years. So you gotta go make friends. The quickest way to do it is to just start drawing. The kids like to see you drawing. So that became like a friend-maker for me. So that’s where it all started.”

By high school, at Iowa City West, he was winning awards for his illustrations. College was also a big success. Although there were a few sceptics.

“When I went on to college at Truman State in Kirksville, Missouri, I told my art teacher that I draw cartoons. He said, ‘We are going to break you of that.’”

Jones grins and gives an aw-shucks shrug.

“So I brought my drawings to class, and he walked by, stopped, looked, and said, ‘Maybe we can do something with this.’ He became a big supporter.”

After college, Jones did political cartoons for a stint, but found it was not his strength.

“I’ve done political cartooning. But I realized I’m faking it. My heart was not in it. So I got out of that.”

But then he found his niche as a freelancer, generally doing humorous cartoons.

“The first job I ever did as a freelancer was for an agency in Cedar Rapids where I illustrated their materials. Their product was a device to help collect bull semen.”

Really?

“But I handled it in a tasteful manner.”

Should I laugh? Is he being serious? I can’t keep up.

“I always had work. My big break came in late 1987. Better Homes and Gardens decided to do children’s activities books. I ended up illustrating over 25 books for Better Homes and Gardens. And then later about 25 books for a book company formed by Cat Fancy and Dog Fancy Magazines.”

Unfortunately, with the advent of the internet and cheap stock art, illustrators have taken a hit. Jones was no exception. So he picked up a part-time job with the Urbandale Schools and continues his passion the rest of the day and night, marketing illustrations for businesses and advertisers, and continuing to sell pet cartoons and drawings and holiday cards at buckjonesillustrator.com.

And your humor, has it gotten darker with the tougher economic times and the more violent world?

“This may sound corny, but if I can make people happy through what I draw, that is my driving thing. If I can draw something and put it in front of you and get a giggle or smile out of you, that is my reward.”

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And your wife, what does she think of all this?

“Well, I really draw a lot of stuff to entertain my wife. Part of it is that’s how I courted Kim. She is the one person who has always appreciated everything I’ve drawn. I could draw something for her, she’ll act like it’s the first piece I’ve ever drawn for her. I take great pride in drawing something where I can make her laugh or smile or brighten her day. Listen, I know this sounds corny, I love being in love.

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And that’s enough of that. Back to drawing he goes. Head bent down. Swift strokes on paper. Drawing while the rest of us sleep. Then eventually it’s time to pack away the drawing materials, the cape, and the stronger-than-a-locomotive powers, catch some quick shut-eye, and then off to work with preschoolers in Urbandale.

Bucky Jones — associate teacher for preschoolers during the day, cartoonist by night. Superhero.

Joe