The Dutch bike

The Dutch bike stands outside the bike store just off the Frederik Hendrikplein in The Hague. Solid. Sturdy. Immovable. It is unclear if the bike is resting against the wall or the wall against the bike.

The bike has seen better days. Scratched and scraped, it has certainly never heard of the featherlight promise of carbon-fiber tubing, or the latest advances in aerodynamic streamlining, or the notion of multi-gears timed for going up and down hills. What’s a hill in Holland anyway? That slight bump of the bridge over a canal would not even count as a warmup in Dubuque.

“Bob,” the bike man, has rebuilt the important bits of this old bike and left the beat-up exterior in a gentle acknowledgement of the inevitability of age. And there is of course the in-your-face fact that the bike is so heavy that if it fell over, the rider and anyone close to the rider would certainly be crushed. Such flaws, however, are like a puppy in the window to us.

“The cost is 395 euro,” Bob says in excellent English.

“How about 350?” I say in honor of my carny roots.

“How about 400?” Bob says with a smile and a wink.

And with that wink, my wife is the proud owner of a Dutch bike. Black. Upright. Heavy. Baskets on the back. Light on the front. Handbrakes for quick stops. Lock attached to the wheel to thwart those pesky thieves. Chain guard to keep the oil off your dress or pants. Mud flaps to stop the wet and rain from landing on your back. And options galore if you so desire: umbrella attachment, musical instrument carrier, braces to haul lumber for that remodel project, and every kind of child carrier for the growing family.

It all gets a little crazy, of course. For example, you have three kids? Here’s the Dutch bike for you.

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Oh, you need a rack to haul your surfboard? Here you go.

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These are all good options, of course, but not for us. And straight off the lot we pedal, as is.

Bikes are everywhere in the Netherlands. In fact, the number of bicycles exceeds the number of people, according to the Fietsersbond, a Dutch biking institution. And in The Hague, where we are living, the BBC reports that 70% of all trips out the door are made by bike. I think 70% is too low when I pass by this parking lot outside a grocery store. Just imagine if each of those bikes was a vehicle. Now imagine the size of the space needed to park all these vehicles, including your RAM 3500 pickup. Yup, a lot of space.

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So, why are there so many bikes in this Dutch world? Certainly, the high density population, the flat terrain, the tremendous infrastructure that supports biking, and legislation shifting liability against cars in a car/bike accident, is all at play. But I don’t think these are the only reasons.

There is just a Dutch culture of biking. A sense that human power is stronger than machine power. Like skating on the canals. A notion of communal toughness. Strength against the elements. I wonder at bottom whether biking is one more manifestation by the Dutch that they must keep strong in order to be able to shore up the dike when the ocean tries again to take back what is rightfully hers. Who knows?

For whatever the reason, my Dutch friends say with pride when they see me on my bike: “Now you are Dutch.” Particularly if I am biking in the rain. Which I try to avoid. Especially in front of a tram — the silent killer of the unwary biker.

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But it makes you wonder about the Iowa House killing a Senate bill that would have forced cars to pass bikes just like cars pass cars, one lane over. Not to be this year, it seems. We don’t want to infringe on our cars or slow down our busy schedules.

But the writing is on the wall. As more people bike in Iowa, the more those same people when driving will move over to the next lane, law or not. As more people bike in Iowa, the more we will see designated bikeways for increased safety. As more people bike in Iowa, we’ll rightfully see a pridefulness about people riding their bikes to the grocery store, or picking up the kids, or going to a concert. And we will say to a visitor when we see them riding a bike, “Now you are an Iowan.”

But not today. Today my wife buys flowers from the flower stand on Frederik Heindriklaan. Tulips, of course. She carefully puts them in her new bike bag, flashes me a smile, hops up on her saddle, and rides her old Dutch bike home. And I pedal slowly behind.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A short helpful guide to air travel

Flying in an airplane without crying is just one of those skills we are all supposed to have learned after a certain age. Sure, I get it. The jets fire up, the plane lumbers down the runway, and everyone is anticipating the sun reflecting off the sand as they saunter down to the beach, drink in hand, safely at their final destination. This is my wife. Happy. Carefree. Curious as to what free food and beverages will be provided as she arranges her knitting projects over my trembling lap.

Is she kidding?

Listen, do you want your last thoughts before your horrific death to be whether the peanuts are too salty? Are you going to knit and purl across the Atlantic rather than rend your clothes and pray mightily to any gods who will listen to please keep these 875,000 pounds from falling into the crashing seas?

My wife pretends she cannot hear my concerns and asks the flight attendant for a second glass of wine.

So why shouldn’t I weep just a little? Not embarrassingly so, of course. Just a little in recognition of the obvious. We are going to die today. In a plane crash. End of story.

Why am I so certain?

Well, let’s start with the planes. There we are at Gate C1 at the Des Moines International Airport waiting to take off for the first leg of our trip to The Netherlands. Okay, no big deal. A very small plane sits connected to our gate. Really, just a baby plane. A plane that you might give your five-year-old daughter on her birthday.

The attendant, seeing I am mildly concerned about the size of the plane, reassures me.

“Sir, that isn’t your plane, it will pull up next.”

You can guess what happens. Yup, a smaller plane, the mere wisp of a plane, really just the idea of a plane, then docks at Gate C1. This did not reassure me and necessitates a second trip to the bathroom.

See the man with the flashlights? He is bigger than the plane. I am going to die.

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Then, in Minneapolis, we arrive at the baby plane terminal that is 400 miles from the terminal where the parent plane is going to take us across the freezing Atlantic. No problem.

It is no problem because we have the magic walkways that propel you forward in leaps and bounds across this gigantic airport. A flat escalator, really. Now, a normal escalator, like the ones you used to see in the old Younkers Building, lets you off at the top or the bottom with a gentle nudge. These flat escalators fling you forward as if you’re attached to the bungie cord ride at the Iowa State Fair. But, of course, without the cord.

My agile wife skips from walkway to walkway. After my third propulsion, I decide it is time to again go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, without the aid of the magic walkway, it feels like I have been on the International Space Station a day too long. I decide the bathroom may be an unattainable goal. I want to cry again. And to make matters worse, I can’t even remember whether back in third grade Sister Jean Marie said there were bathrooms in the afterlife. I suspect that I don’t know this information because I was in the bathroom at the time.

At last we are on the big plane. I look out over the hundreds of people sitting quietly and patiently, waiting for take-off. Some read. Some sleep. Some watch the many wonderful movies provided. Others are neighborly and make new friends and show kindness to the flight attendants. It is a very convivial group of world travelers.

I believe they might all be zombies.

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The proof is obvious. All this metal and steel is going to be thrown up into the air and then guess what? Yes, Newton’s Law of Gravity comes for an unwelcome visit.

So, why isn’t everyone gnashing their teeth? Why isn’t everyone weeping and wailing? Where are the sackcloths and ashes of mourning? I start hyperventilating. Nobody else is hyperventilating. I start sweating. Nobody else is sweating. I again start crying softly. Only the baby three rows back is crying. Unpleasantly, by the way.

See what I told you? They are all Zombies.

My wife tells me to quiet down and look out the window.

After I wipe my eyes, this is what I see.

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Yup, I see only one engine. They’ve lost the other one somewhere over the Atlantic.

We are all going to die.

So, you want my advice on air travel? Simple enough. Have you considered spring break in Grimes?

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ebb and flow of the family restaurant

Pushing and shoving each other, we make our way over from St. Mary’s School in Iowa City, through the back screen door off an alley from Linn Street, and into the kitchen at Hamburg Inn No. 2. Boxes are stacked along the far wall, full of large tin cans of fruit cocktail and green beans. The grill sits to one side, hot and spitting. Further over in the back is my friend’s dad, in a white apron, putting away hamburger buns. And not too far away, his wife takes orders out in the narrow alley running between the counters and the bar stool. Fritz and Fran Panther, the mom and pop of this mom-and-pop operation, working hard.

Two burgers are quickly plopped on the grill. Mike, their son and my buddy, works the spatula. In no time, we sit on boxes in the back of this family-run business, eating our burgers. The edges of our mouths greased. A simple pleasure.

It was 1966.

Years pass.

Mike Panther is killed by a drunk driver.

Fritz and Fran Panther die some years ago.

Dave Panther, who bought Hamburg Inn No. 2 from his parents and made it nationally famous, announced last week that he is retiring, selling the diner.

And the memories? They will disappear like the last drops of a chocolate malt.

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The twenty-something kid runs the front of the restaurant on Merle Hay Road. Personable, easy smile, quick and sure movements. He waits tables, prepares carry-outs, and makes it all run smoothly. His mother and father are in the back. Bent over working the phyllo dough or dishing out tomatoes and cucumbers for gyros. Heads down.

“I was born in November of 1991, in Bosnia, near the town of Vlasenica, close to the border of Serbia.”

Alex Ademovic talks to me during a quiet moment at his folk’s family restaurant, while at the same time keeping an eye on customers. His birth is significant. By 1992, Bosnia was at war, and where they lived was particularly dangerous.

“In 1992, we had the chance to escape to Slovenia. We got lucky. We managed to get out. There was a war in Slovenia, but it quieted down soon after we arrived.”

Thus began the many-year journey of the Ademovic family around the Balkans, looking for safety and work, which ultimately ended in Des Moines in 2002. But before coming to the U.S., Alex’s father, Adil Ademovic, became a baker. And what does a Bosnian baker bake? Burek, of course.

“There is a lot of different definitions of burek. It’s found in Turkey, it’s found in Ukraine, it’s found in the Balkans. Burek is a pastry made of phyllo dough, it is savery, and it is filled with either meat or cheese or cheese and spinach. It is eaten by itself as a meal.”

Alex Ademovic shows me a large burek pie, steaming hot, and smelling of crispy dough and cheese. I am in heaven.

Back in 2002, his mother and father arrived in Des Moines with nothing except Alex and his brother. They made a life.

“My parents both started working wherever they could. They built up over time. Eventually, they were able to buy a car. And after a while, they got their first house and their first mortgage.”

But his father was not ready to leave his baker days.

“My dad wanted to start something of his own. My dad started doing the burek, just the big pies. He started doing them out of his garage. He built himself up over time.”

And three years ago,he opened Burek at Merle Hay and Urbandale Avenue with his wife Senada. Selling, of course, his famous burek, along with Greek and Bosnian gyros.

“This is a lot of work. A lot of hours. Especially if you’re trying to keep this as a family business. They’re doing all the cooking. Everything. But with the work comes a financial safety net. And they’ve provided for me and my wife and son. I’m here almost 50 hours a week. But it’s all family.”

Alex smiles a big smile. Satisfied. Happy for this opportunity.

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“We can’t complain. We work. Iowa has treated us good.”

More customers are filling up the restaurant. Alex must leave. He looks at me one more time.

“It’s going good, man. I’m grateful.” And laughs the confident laugh of a young man.

I sit and watch the family hustling. They pull as one team. Even the customer feels part of the process, part of the family. Without a doubt, we’re all in it together. We’re all important to its success. And we all reap the rewards.

And the new memories?  They are being built like layers of burek, one on top of the other.

And so it goes — the ebb and the flow of the family restaurant.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wine lady

“I don’t think I’m all that interesting,” she tells me at the start. A little embarrassed, it seems. Put on the spot. A bit uncomfortable.

Really? Can you take your own measure if someone else doesn’t hold the mirror? And isn’t our personal yardstick always a foot or so short? Of course, there’s always the chance she may be right — she may just not be that interesting. But shouldn’t we uncork the bottle and have a taste first?

The class begins.

“Just pick up the glass and smell the wine.”

She smiles at us. Encouraging. Non-scary. Fun.

I dutifully raise my glass to take a whiff.

Of course, I’m a total sham. I wasn’t brought up with wine at the table. It just wasn’t part of the repertoire. Don’t get me wrong, we were as dysfunctional as other families, but we gravitated toward pastries and pies. Listen, I’d shine if this was cinnamon rolls we were tasting.

But I’m game. “Isn’t there a hint of oakiness?” I say to my sophisticated wife, who pretends I haven’t spoken. See? Game, but not smart.

The woman continues.

“The first thing you see people do is pick up a glass and swirl the glass. I always tell people to not do that. The reason being that there’s so many different layers in wine as far as the aromas and the flavors, I need you to experience it on every layer.”

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Abbe Hendricks runs the wine department at Gateway Market & Cafe. But her real forte is talking to you about wine. Wine from anywhere and everywhere in the world. A little bit different from her beginnings.

“I was born and raised in Cedar Rapids. That’s where I grew up. And ended up in Des  Moines by default. I started off going off to college as a journalism major. I attended the University of Missouri in Columbia. I loved it. But since I’ve been 15-years old, I’ve worked in restaurants. That’s what I did. That’s how I paid my way for things. I never wanted to be dependent on anyone. My mom was a single mom. I wanted to take as much pressure off her that I could.”

At college, Hendricks realized that she missed the restaurant business. So, back to Cedar Rapids she came, finished the restaurant management program at Kirkwood, and was off and running.

“Gateway was going to be opening up. So I went in and applied. I was an assistant in the wine department to start with. When that manager left, I took over the department. I originally applied for the wine department specifically because that was my passion, that’s what I was interested in. It was 2007 and I was 23.”

I don’t even remember 23. Will this glass of wine help?

“Just pick up the glass and smell it. The juice has been sitting there, so you do’t have a lot of evaporation yet, and you don’t have the molecules starting to break up against each other. So you’re going to get really really primary root and floral and earth aromas, all that stuff. That’s a really good indicator whether or not you’re going to like the wine.”

Hendricks is almost breathless in the telling. She’s a 5-year-old running out to her new bike with streamers on the handlebars. Her eyes sparkle, strands of long hair wisp out from behind her ears, her lanky body twists and bends with joy.

“I am really passionate about wine. I like to educate people, and share knowledge with them, and get them excited. Because what’s most appealing to me about the retail side of it is that you get to sometimes do that ‘aha’ moment with customers. That’s what I live for.”

No kidding. How does Hendricks spend her spare time? Besides family, she reads wine books, travels the world visiting vineyard after vineyard, and, of course, drinks wine.

“After you’ve smelled it, now it’s time to swirl. You’re now going to introduce oxygen into the wine. You’re going to start the evaporation process. This is where you’re going to see the wine blossom and you get the secondary flavors and aromas coming up. Oh, there’s more going on than it smells like lemon. There’s more happening here. Twirl it and smell it again.”

I dutifully swirl and smell. My goodness.

“I usually have people taste it twice. A lot of time when people taste wine, they don’t think about it. You’re just having a glass of wine. When you do that you just kick it back like you would a glass of water. That is the general way that most people drink wine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you are not getting everything out of that wine that you possibly could to enjoy it. So let’s first just kick it back.”

Oddly enough, I’m good at just kicking it back.

“It might just be very linear. Not a lot of depth or breadth to it. So go back and put it in your mouth almost like you would mouthwash. Up against your gums, under your tongue. Touching all those places that we taste salt, we taste sugar, we taste things that are bitter. And it also allows aeration in your mouth that pushes those flavors out through your nose where you’re actually picking up raspberry or peaches or bay leaves.”

And I taste raspberry and peaches and bay leaves. I wonder if I would have tasted old horseshoes if that would have been suggested.

But, listen, who can really afford this luxury?

“Gateway is not expensive. I always find it interesting when people come in and I say to them, ‘I’ve got this really great wine, it’s $12.’ And people are blown away. You don’t have to spend $60-$70 a bottle.”

Enough. What do they call you here?

“My title? The wine lady.”

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So there you have it. The wine lady. Not that interesting, she said. But did you smell the raspberry, peaches, and bay leaves?

Joe

Defining “rad”

“You’re certainly not cool enough to go in there.”

I knew that, even without the helpful observation of my wife. I wasn’t at 16 and I’m certainly not at 61. If coolness is the test, I am always good for the overall curve. But here I am, walking past Mars Coffee Bar with its sleek industrial look; next to Raygun with its clever slogans, smart t-shirts, and hip clientele; around the corner sign on East Grand that announces “other cool shops ahead”; and up the concrete sidewalk bordering the modern concrete building all wrapped in an Iowa-winter concrete sky. A slate-grey palette on which to be cooly cool.

Should I have worn a disguise?

“Domestica,” it says on the door. I gaze into the brightly lit, many-colored space. Inviting, funky, intriguing.

“A lot of the items we show in the store are made by women. These are their full-on businesses. So it’s pretty rad. Everything at Domestica is either made or designed by somebody. There are no, like, things from China. Somebody actually touched this item, put their own work into it. So we really wanted to show off what people were doing.”

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Wow. I’ve never used the word “rad” in a sentence. Perhaps that’s because I don’t really know what it means. I’m in awe.

Chrissy Jensen looks at me matter-of-factly. Gold fingernails, half-dozen rings, multiple bracelets, hoops piercing her ears, a loose strand of short blonde hair drifting across her right eye. Cool, cool, and cool.

I adjust my non-slim-fit pants and take note of her half smile and empathetic eyes. A pragmatist/dreamer is my guess. Today she is working hard helping customer after customer and juggling a conversation with me.

“I went to Iowa State for journalism. I graduated in 1990. I really really wanted to be a copywriter. My specialty was advertising. I graduated and advertising was going down the toilet. I started freelancing with a friend, here in Des Moines. Just little projects, prop-styling for film shoots. Got into Meredith. A friend whose mom needed some help in the home design department. Started doing photo stuff there. I did that for 11 years, freelance. I loved it.”

But then, of course, the bottom dropped out at Meredith as the permanent staff were laid off, leaving the freelancers without a job.

“I loved it at Meredith. I’ve always been into design. I kind of knew I wanted to do a pop-up show for this or that. We worked on opening Domestica for about a year. We knew the people in the craft-and-handmade trade. It’s a small community and we all knew each other. It’s geek culture. You’re geeking out on something you think is cool.”

So Domestica was born.

“I got a space in the Northwestern Hotel. 400 square feet. Great way to start. Started there for five years. We expanded into the office next to us, which was really great, then we had like 800 square feet. It was great down there. So fun. The skate shop and the bike shop guys. They’re like my brothers. So so nice.”

Before long she was expanding Domestica to her new spot next to Raygun. She built an amazing store of hand-made products and gifts and cards and prints and everything else. A great success.

Wow. Wonderful job you’re doing. Domestica is one heck of a business. Kudos to East Village. Thank you so much.

But . . .  what about you and today?

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“This is super scary up here. It is super expensive compared to down there. The size is like three times the size. It’s really scary. But if I sat down where I was and someone else did this shop, I knew I’d be totally pissed. So I had to do it now. It was like I didn’t have a choice.”

And your fear?

“What’s the worst that could happen? It could go under. That would suck really bad. I’d be in debt. But not so much debt I couldn’t figure it out. And I got to do what I wanted to do.  That was kind of rad too.”

This attitude has paid off. Jensen’s willingness to push the edges has resulted in several national recognitions of her business.

“Pinterest came out, and you had to have an invite back then to belong. Being the Meredith girl that I was, I’m going to find out who their PR person is and get an invite. Well, then I found out the guy the owned it, Ben Silbermann, was from Des Moines. So I just wrote him — ‘Hey, help a homegirl out man, give me an invite.’ His response? ‘Most def. Here you go.’ And then they did an interview with me giving me great exposure.”

Jensen is philosophical about those opportunities.

“This is just luck. Just people not being mean. You see a lot of old prints these days that all say — ‘Don’t be a dick.’ I think that is such an important thing to remember because things just open up for you. And you are also giving. You are also promoting other people shops. We try to push others. I instagrammed five businesses of other people today already.”

Jensen needs to go back to work. But she turns to me one last time.

“Listen, I just hope that people do see that some of the big things that happened in our town is due to one person, not some big institution. People are sitting around waiting for this or that to happen, or people think I’m not really the right guy. . . .  No, you probably are the right guy. You’ve probably already thought of this thing. You can see how it should be.”

Jensen takes a long breath.

“All the things I should have done, I could have done. I just didn’t know I could. Now I know.”

And off she goes. Mmmm . . . did she just define “rad”?

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary’s picture on a semi

Crowds storm the Hy-Vee on Valley West Drive. No, it’s not a riot, but carts are nearly full even though customers are only halfway through the many aisles with the many smiles. The weekend of the big game is coming, causing momentary logjams as people debate what sauce to use on their little smokies. I stand, faking patience, waiting for a husband slumped over the handle of his cart to get going and catch up with his wife, who is pulling down cans and collecting pasta. He’s like an ox in the field. Lumbering. Waiting to be told what to do with a gee and a haw. I expect to soon see the wife prod him in the belly with a staff. That’ll get him going.

I then feel a poke in my own belly. From a distance. My grocery list, no longer lovingly handed to me on flower-bordered paper with smiley faces and hearts, is now scrolling across my smart phone. With a vibrating prod, I lumber forward.

But then I see an oasis in my shopping struggle. A sanctuary. A safe haven.

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“Try a sample. Pretty good. I’ve put some more of the crab cakes out. Yes, I’ve got some jalapeño chutney over there. Oh, it’s really good. It’s got onion in it, it won’t be so hot.”

And Mary Lou Coen Sigler gives a low laugh, which turns into an isn’t-this-fun chuckle, ending with a sigh of satisfaction at the joy of it all. Yup, she’s a sweetgrass breeze across an Iowa pond in late August.

I wait my turn for a sample.

“I’ve been here forever. I first started with Hy-Vee in 1975. I stayed until 1978 and I left for about a year and a half and went back to Indiana and went to West Virginia. I’m originally from West Virginia. Been back here ever since April of 1979. I was cashier for over 30 years up front and then I did demos for a second job for many years.”

Ah, that explains the southern accent. And a “demo”?

“You know, hand out food samples. I had a little table and used an electric skillet.”

People continue to stream up to her area as we talk. An older man approaches.

“Hi, sir. This is our prepared fish. I have recipes in the basket.”

Sure enough, there are recipes in a wicker basket. They’re hand-written.

“I enjoy cooking. The more I cook, the more I cook. I started running out of recipes when I started. I was helping people, and a lot didn’t know how to cook. Now I have recipes stacked everywhere. All these written-out recipes are mine.”

And Sigler lifts a hefty binder of recipes with papers poking out at the top and bottom.

“Someday I want to do a cookbook.”

The people keep coming up to her, engaging in conversation. Many on a first name basis. Sigler smiles. Laughs frequently. And continuously serves food she’s pulling out of pans as she talks to one and all. She’s a pro.

“I used to be shy, I thought, but Hy-Vee brought out another side of me. I’m 67 years old now.” Another laugh at the ridiculousness of growing older.

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Suddenly she turns from her customers to look me in the eye.

“Do you like pork chops? If you like apple pie, you’re going to love this pork chop recipe.  This is a really good one.”

Loving to be mothered, I nod my head to pork chops, apple pie, and whatever else she might suggest.

She reaches behind her, shuffles through her papers, and pulls one out in delight. I now have a hand-written recipe for Stuffed Apple Raisin Pork Chops. A signed copy. A collector’s item.

So, how long are you going to continue doing this at Hy Vee?

“I hope to do this for a long time. But I can’t leave until I get my picture on a semi. And maybe after that I’ll cut down to part-time. As long as I’m upright.”

Get her picture on a semi?!! Work as long as she’s upright?!! Really?

So I called Hy Vee to see what it takes to get your picture on a semi. Tara Deering-Hansen, Vice President of Communications, told me there were two ways:

“If they are selected as a Hy-Vee Legendary Customer Service Award winner; or after they reach 40 years or more of service with Hy-Vee.”

Of course, there are more than 82,000 Hy-Vee employees. All worthy of a picture on a semi. Mary Lou Coen Sigler is just one of many cogs in a well-oiled machine.

So off I go to continue my shopping extravaganza with my vibrating list. But then I stop in the middle of the aisle blocking the man faking patience behind me. I’m just thinking.

Really? Isn’t it time for Mary Lou Coen Sigler to have her picture on the side of a semi?

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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