A rowdy crowd

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

Is he kidding?

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

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

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

I think he might be.

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

Who are these folks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would be a mistake.

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

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

My goodness. And where are you from?

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

Margaret then adds with a twinkle:

“They can’t get rid of me.”

My goodness.

Although it has not been the easiest life for Margaret.

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

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

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

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

And your beliefs?

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

And what about Holy Trinity?

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

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

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

And Beaverdale now?

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

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

“People are so interesting.”

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

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

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

Amen to that.


















It was so cold . . .

. . . the water in the toilet froze!

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

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

Apparently not.

And how could this happen in the first place?

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

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

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

My wife looks. “Yes,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

The water in the dog bowl freezes.

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

Fair enough.

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

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

Great, I can do that.

One small problem, what exactly is a water pit?

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

Now is a pipe wrench actually shaped like a pipe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m getting sidetracked.

“How cold was it?”

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







Graziano’s tablecloth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frances pauses, lost in thought.

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

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

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

Really? The same tablecloth?

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

An old tablecloth?

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

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








The unexpected greeter

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

But why here?

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

You’d think.

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

And so it seems.

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

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

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

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

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

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





Cleaning your ducts

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

And negative air?

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

“Imagine a giant shop vac,” says Tom.

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

I scream.

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

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

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

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

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



Family business

The morning sun shines directly into the room bouncing off the walls and floor ending in a splash of bright. The faint smell of oil and rubber and exhaust drifts through the side door that goes into the shop.  A woman sits patiently with legs crossed reading from the stack of magazines, jiggling her top leg. A man stands at the counter, hands resting on the counter, paying his bill. Meanwhile, keys come and go from a peg board on the side wall, mechanics pop in and out, and the phone rings on the counter with an echo from another phone in the shop.

Nichole Allen takes care of all this — the woman, the man, the computer, the mechanics, the bills, the ringing phone . . . and even me. All with a wide smile.

Terry’s Auto Service, in Clive, Iowa, is a family business that has survived for nearly half a century. Begun by Terry Allen at the end of the Vietnam war, he has employed family and friends from the very beginning.

“Even my mom and dad worked for me for a while,” Terry says. “They never charged me a dime. It’s always been family.”

Terry’s hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail. His work shirt is buttoned tight against the chill. His hands are large and dense. His mustache moves up and down to catch the smiling corners of his mouth as he launches into a story.

“It was summer and I told my daughter Nichole she had two weeks to get a job. She didn’t think I was serious. After two weeks, Monday morning rolled around and I told her to get up, she was going to work with me. I brought her in and had her answer the telephone — 20 years ago today.”

The mustache moves.

“I’d never worked in the office, it was new to me.” Nichole picks up the thread. “I had to learn a lot about cars because people expect you to know what you’re talking about. Over the 20 years I’ve worked here, I know a lot about cars. I’ve just been forced to.”

And Nichole’s labor turned into one of “love,” to use her own word.

“The great thing is the mechanics communicate well with me. I can trust what they tell me. They are honest guys, that’s why we hire them. That’s why we keep going. We just try to be honest and fair and you know people come back to see you. It’s not hard to figure out. You’re just nice.”

She flashes another ear-to-ear grin to underscore her point.

“My customers are kind of like my family. I’m very lucky to have such clientele. We are on our third generation of customers, almost onto the fourth. We have children that have come in with their parents, and when they start driving they come in with their own car, and when they get married they come in with their wive’s cars, and then their kids get born, and they come in. We haven’t advertised for over 15 years.”

In 2006, Terry sold the automotive side of the business to his friend Eric Johnson. Terry runs the exhaust side. Nichole works the front desk for both.

“Family is everything to me. You know, I didn’t notice it as much until my mom passed. You don’t know day-to-day how much time you’re going to have with someone. I feel so fortunate to work here with one of my sisters and a brother-in-law married to another sister and my cousin.”

Nichole pauses.

“I was having lunch with my dad yesterday and said we are so lucky to be having lunch together every day for 20 years.”

Nichole smiles to herself.


The old man, the combine, and baseball

“I’d offer you lunch, but I’ve already eaten it.” The old man says without a hint of a smile.

Dry humor fits this landscape of dust and whirling blades and blowing chaff. A foreign country for sure, where everyone operates on a seasonal punch clock. Not my world, even though it’s just a few miles from Des Moines, Iowa.

But I can’t resist a big truck, or, to be more exact, a large combine.

The combine turns at the end of the row and waits expectantly for me to climb up. The machine looks like something out of a futuristic movie — foreign, large, and slightly menacing.

“I was so busy trying not to hit you, that I forgot to drop the load,” the old man shouts down over the engine noise.

I didn’t realize that hitting me was an option. Or is this another joke?

The old man sits high above the ground in a glass enclosure. He’s 80 years old. He seems friendly enough. And he must have climbed up into the combine by himself. I clutch the only ladder with some misgivings. Don’t the big rock climbers have to tie off before they ascend? He pokes his head out. Waves me up with a grin.

Warm, friendly, easy to smile, Bill Gannon welcomes me into his cab.

And off we go — air-conditioned, two soft seats, Boeing 747 controls, and the ball game on the radio.

How does this machine even work? As far as I can tell the combine runs over the beans and the beans vanish. It’s as simple as that. Magic.

And then the steering wheel begins to steer by itself.

“This combine has auto steer.  So you see it is no hands. GPS. It keeps in touch with the satellite which keeps in touch with the steering mechanism. And it works.”

See. What did I tell you? Magic.

“The combine has changed big time over the years. The first combine I owned I pulled with a tractor. It cut six foot. That was the width of the platform. You could crowd three rows of beans in there. Today we’re doing approximately 22 rows of beans. It is a 25-foot platform.”

We gently sway as we move across the field, down the slope, and over the still-green waterways, all within sight of the valley where the old railroad used to make the run to Kansas City.

“There’s some nice views here.” Gannon gestures with his free hands. “A couple of years ago, we got designated a century farm. This quarter section was the ground that was in the Gannon family for over 100 years. My grandfather purchased this quarter section in 1887. My dad wound up with it. Then my dad left it to me.”

What will happen after you?

“I don’t know. I would hope it stays in the family. But when you’re dead, you can’t control it.” Gannon shrugs and laughs quietly.

And your life? Has it been what you hoped for?

“I liked all the things in my life. When I was doing it, I enjoyed it.”


“Many years ago, I ran for governor in the Democratic primary. Running for governor now wouldn’t be much fun I don’t think. There’s too much acrimony going on. Back when I was in the legislature, we had people disagree, but we were civil to each other. I was in the legislature six years. I was minority foreman four of those years in the Iowa House.”

Sure enough, Gannon was in the House of Representatives from 1965 to 1971. He  ran for governor in the primaries in 1970 and 1974. He ran for lieutenant governor in the general election in 1972. His focus in those legislative days — equal pay for women and the environment. “I ran on the same issues that are still around today,” he points out.

“We didn’t have any money to run. If you don’t have money, you have to do something to draw attention to your campaign. And our campaign was Ride for Reform. I rode that horse, actually two horses, right at 1300 miles total.” He shakes his head at the thought.

After all the excitement of your life, isn’t this a little lonely sitting up in this combine on a cold, fall day in Iowa?

“Not at all,” he says, as he turns the big machine around at the end of the row. “I love listening to the ball games.”

So we sit quietly. The combine whirls its way across the bean field, the steering wheel steers itself, and the cab sways back and forth like the crow’s nest on an old whaling ship.

“Fly ball to center field . . .”
























“Of the moment”

“Our first day at the Johnston bus stop was a cluster that included kids running away from their bus stop TWICE, me realizing Finley had no shoes and had lost her new glasses as the bus was in sight (they’re at Burlington Coat Factory, FYI), and a neighbor regaling all the bus stop kids about the day in third grade she saw a kid get his head rolled over by a bus wheel and die. Happy first day.” Morgan Kent Molden of Johnston, Iowa, writes on Instagram.

Six bottles of wine sit in front of us on the oval table, deep underground in Beaune, France. Emmanuel Paulson is our guide for this tasting adventure.

“I don’t speak very well English,” he says at the start.

A heck of a lot better than my French, which, of course, is limited to the words from songs out of the musical Camelot. I’m not much help.

“I was born here in Beaune, France. Which means that I was born in the wine. I’m 41. My family, my father, my grandfather and now me. For us, wine is a way of life.”

No kidding. Earlier, my wife and I had hiked up into the surrounding vineyards that back up against the walls of the town. Miles and miles of small plots separated by stone walls shaped way before our time.

“In Burgundy, we just want to retranscribe, is the expression, from terroir. Of course, it’s some chardonnay grapes for our white wine, pinot noir grapes for our red wine, but that is too simple. We have some unique terroir with some great soil and subsoil. That is extremely important for us. If you compare with Coca Cola — if you drink a Coca Cola in the United States or here, it is the same thing, because it is a recipe. Our wine in Burgundy is not a recipe.”

Nor is raising kids.

Morgan Kent Molden writes on Instagram: “When my kids go quiet, it usually ends with a mess.”

“Today, I found Fin and Cece here. But earlier, Cece brought me the decapitated head of a Barbie and said she was going to eat it,” Morgan Kent Molden writes.

Emmanuel hands us our first glass of wine.

“This wine is something different. With something to eat, a delicate fish, a goat cheese, it is more complex. This wine is more buttery, a little like honey.”

It IS buttery. It IS like honey. And, by golly, it WOULD taste great with a delicate fish. Although I’m fairly certain that if Emmanuel with his French hat would have said the wine tastes like old tennis shoes, I would have responded equally enthusiastically: “It is like old tennis shoes! I’ll take several bottles.”

On to the next bottle.

“This is a feminine wine. It is pretty and velvet. Smokey to the nose and red fruit to the mouth. Raspberry and strawberry. We do not have full wines in Burgundy. We have long wines. Complexity is more important than a large wine.”

Okay, is this where the poetry of the Song of Solomon came from?

“The next wine is very spicy. First choice vineyard. We don’t put pepper into the wine. That is the wine. It is a complex wine.”

And so it goes.

But, Emmanuel, what is the best wine?

“It is very personal. The best wine is the one you like. That is it.”


Bedtime. Room on the Broom is the story of choice. Morgan Kent Molden writes on Instagram, “Is there room on the broom for a . . . face palm?!”

It is the end of the day for us also. The last tour is gone. The cavern is quiet except for the distant sound of dripping water. The wines are all back on the oval table. We drink the last sip. Emmanuel raises his glass critically, looks at the color and texture of the wine.

“The most important is of the moment. The wine creates some emotion with friends and family and with your wife. That is more important. What do you eat? That is important. But the moment is important. Enjoy the life. My opinion, no?”





The drag queen and us

“Everyone does drag. Each one of us in our everyday life puts on a costume and does a performance piece as whoever it is we are.” Joe Fraioli.

The Garden Nightclub was just beginning to fill as folks got off work on this weekday night. T-shirts, a sprinkling of suits, dress shirts, and jeans. Drinks are quietly ordered, people sink comfortably into chairs, conversation is a low murmur. An exhale at the end of a long day.

Eventually, a long-legged woman in a purple skirt, sequined top, and spiky heels comes on stage to loud cheers. She’s clearly running the show. The Master of Ceremonies. Domita Sanchez is her drag queen name.

Warm, engaging, sultry, and in command, Domita begins her patter with the audience. Laughter, gentle kidding, she walks into the crowd with microphone in hand. Of course, we are the first table and I’m the first person she engages.

“Are you a bear?” she says to me.

“I don’t know, what’s a bear?” I respond. The crowd laughs.

“Perhaps you’re a polar bear.” She points to my salt-and-pepper beard. Laughter again.

And before long, I’m up on stage with Domita, drinking a shot of something called “Fireball” and singing with her the Disney classic, “The Bare Necessities.”

How did this happen?

Sandra Gay O’Connor is the reason. No, not the former United States Supreme Court Justice, but Joe Fraioli. You know, the lawyer. Smart. Warm. Funny. Fighting the good fight. Joe Fraioli, aka Sandra Gay O’Connor. Drag queen.

“I was more flamboyant in high school, but for almost a decade after that I tried to assimilate into being a straight person who happened to be gay. I sort of rejected the gay community. It was very arrogant of me.”

Joe explained all this to me the next day over a cup of coffee.

“I told myself, I’m going to become a civil rights advocate. I’m going to go to law school. I’m going to work for the ACLU. I’m going to be a civil rights lawyer. That’s how I’m going to contribute. I’m going to fight for any marginalized group. I will then be fulfilled. That will be enough to advance the rights of gay people. That is enough to be a part of the community.”

It wasn’t enough. Joe felt alone, isolated, and depressed.

“At the end of the day I was just a lawyer. If anything, I felt even more put in a box. The ACLU does amazing things, but it has to work within the system. And that does work to create change. But I was still not satisfied.”

Ah, but then a door opened when some friends introduced him to drag queen shows.

“I started seeing how talented these people are and how confident they are. Not in an arrogant way. How extremely sure of themselves that being in drag made them. Why are they so confident? Drag allowed them to be funny, to push social barriers, to be themselves, but in a way that is totally not themselves. Drag is a subversive form of art. It is about challenging societal norms. It lets you do that while showcasing things about you, your talents, your humor. It is a way to get all that out. I was enamored with it.”

Joe reached out to Domita Sanchez. And a few weeks later, Sandra Gay O’Conner was born.

“Pushing boundaries and eliminating boundaries is a goal of drag. You can identify as one thing and have a degree of attraction to other things. That is one thing straight people, especially men, do not understand. It’s why you end up with a strict Republican in an airport knocking feet with the person in the stall next to him.”

Ah, so that explains my vertigo at being a straight man watching a gay man dressed as an over-the-top woman and thinking how nice she looks. Go figure.

So, Joe, aren’t you worried about being judged harshly for being a drag queen?

“Listen, we all know what it’s like to be ostracized from a group, to be hated for nothing more than who we are. We all want to be liked. We all want to like others. In the end, we all have a strong capacity to be compassionate. I used to be too judgmental. For me, I’m working on not doing that.”

Coffee break over. Joe Fraioli — aka Sandra Gay O’Conner — goes back to work.

And me? I sit with my coffee, a pastry, and a tune that won’t get out of my head.

“Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife . . .”










A peek through the glass doors

Walking down the hallway at Rieman Music, it is impossible not to sneak a peek through the full-length glass doors appearing every six to eight feet. Music lesson rooms. Although it feels like walking through the Snake House at the Iowa State Fair.  What is hidden inside that room? Or the next? Is that snake poisonous? How strong is this glass? Where is that python, anyway?

But instead of a snake, there’s a student holding a violin, gliding her bow back and forth as the teacher taps his hand against the music stand. In the next room over, a young girl plays the plunky notes of a piano as the teacher turns the pages of music. And through that door is a young flute student trying to copy her teacher’s spidery finger movements. My goodness. Saxophones, violas, guitars, harmonicas, clarinets, drums, trumpets. You name it, it’s here. A door for every instrument.

“The ages of my students? Well, I have a student in 2nd grade and I’ve taught a women who was 66. It is easier for that 2nd grader to do it. So you might have to work harder if you’re older. But if you love it, it doesn’t feel like work.”

Gabe Scheid looks like an old jazz standard. Goatee, thin upper body, dark eyes. Cradled in both arms or held in a firm hand is whatever instrument he’s teaching or playing. Where his love lies is not a mystery.

“I was born in Sioux City, a great place to grow up. I got my BA in Jazz Studies at the University of Northern Iowa, then I went to the University of Northern Colorado and got my Masters of Music Degree.  In the jazz education world, UNC is in the top three.”

Gabe ended up in Des Moines with his wife, who is pursuing studies at Iowa State.

“So I came back and tried to build a student base for private lessons. I tried to make connections and go to gigs. I’ve been told that if you are doing anything in the music field and you’re making money and surviving, you are lucky as hell. I’ve been humbled by that. I’m not making a lot of money and I’m fine with that.”

Gabe went to Rieman Music in Ames and Urbandale and had some luck. He is now teaching over two dozen students in saxophone, clarinet, flute, and viola.

“Teaching is by far the most money in my budget, and it takes quite a bit of my brain power, and I’m happy with that — I love teaching. I love seeing kids make strides and get self-confidence. I like doing lessons. I am humbled by many things, but teaching fits me, as well as performing.”

Really? You’re just saying that because that’s what you’re supposed to say, right?

“Listen, my youngest is a little Iranian boy, he’s going into 2nd grade. He’s a boss. He’s hilarious. He’s a little genius. He practices every day for about a half hour. I ask my students to do 10 minutes. He’s already better than some of my 7th and 8th grade students. He’s flying. He’s already writing his own music. Last week he wanted me to give him some blank manuscript paper. I love to do that. I’ve taught composition before. I compose my own music. He was like, I really want to do this. And I would love to fuel that.”

Okay, that must be a rare exception.

“No, I’ve got a student who has hearing issues. He and I performed together at his middle school talent show. He plays viola and saxophone. Seeing him grow from the first lesson to the lesson yesterday is amazing. For viola, I put tape on the fingerboard so that he can place his fingers on the tape so he is more accurate because he can’t hear the pitch as well. He will play an open “A” string and say, “This note is really annoying to me.’ I say, ‘Why is it annoying? Is it a certain frequency that is not matching up with your hearing aid?’ So we would work around it to another note that doesn’t vibrate as loud. Alternate fingering. I find this fascinating.”


“I know we are here for something, and it’s not to make money. We all have an inherent creative side and we have to learn how to use it. Art is a way.”

Gabe goes back to his teaching. And I stand outside looking in, watching him gently position the hands of the student.

Teaching as art.

Now . . . maybe that python is in the next room over.