A tall woman on being tall

A woman is running along a narrow pole in Strasbourg, France. That much is clear. But straight up in the air? She certainly is striding strong, arms outstretched, thumbs up, pushing off at the toes, head pulling forward. A sculpture. Frozen. But with just a few more steps, she will have to answer the ultimate question: Does she run right up into the heavens, fists high, shouting defiance, or does she fall back to the earth with a plop?


The historic nomination of a woman for president by a major political party marks a sea change, whatever eventually happens. On the night she clinched the nomination, Hillary Clinton tweeted:

“To every little girl who dreams big: Yes, you can be anything you want — even president. Tonight is for you.”

When Clinton said “dream big,” I’m fairly certain she didn’t mean “dream tall,” but perhaps she should have. A recent study came out on the comparative tallness of women in eLife that caught the attention of the world-wide media. Everyone loves a contest, and so the media played up which countries were the tallest and which countries were second rate. I’m afraid the United States was in the latter category with its 42nd place, a little shy of the podium for sure.

Although who-ranks-where on the tallness chart is certainly a fun comparison, that is not why it was important to the authors of the eLife study.

“People from different countries grow to different heights. This may be partly due to genetics, but most differences in height between countries have other causes. For example, children and adolescents who are malnourished, or who suffer from serious diseases, will generally be shorter as adults.”

Yikes, what does this say about the U.S. and the health of our country with its 42nd ranking?

The study goes on: “This is important because taller people generally live longer, are less likely to suffer from heart disease and stroke, and taller women and their children are less likely to have complications during and after birth. Taller people may also earn more and be more successful at school. However, they are also more likely to develop some cancers.”

The article then has charts and diagrams and statistics and all sorts of good stuff concerning its findings. The bottom line — tallness is a good thing and we need more of it.

So, I went into the wild to track down a tall woman to see how that was working for her.

“How do you feel about being tall?” I ask a tall woman.

The tall woman looks at me quizzically, gives a small moan, and rolls her eyes.

“People will just stop me and say, ‘How tall are you?’ That happens all the time. It makes me feel annoyed. Do I ask you how much you weigh? Isn’t that a personal question? You want to forget your differences from others for a while. You just want to be plain, normal.”

Okay, I get it. Boundaries.

“So, . . . how tall are you?” I ask Ivana Radosavljevic again.

Radosavljevic, a friend of my wife’s, frowns through her long brown hair, stylish dark glasses, and high Slavic cheekbones. With sparkling eyes and coltish movements, you might forget that this multilingual young woman — with a law degree, a Master’s degree, and very nearly her Ph.D., and a former professional volleyball player — is a highly accomplished lawyer back in her home country.

And she has little patience for fools.


By the way, Radosavljevic, who I estimate is around 6’5”, is Serbian. Number five on the chart of the countries with the tallest women. Next to her is Carine Placzek, another great up-and-coming human-rights lawyer, who is a French woman by way of Poland. Number 26 and Number 33 on the chart.

Radosavljevic wants to make a point about my question —

“Look at that girl over there, she’s just staring at me.”

Yup, that girl is staring at her, along with other staring folks as they walk pass us on this street in Strasbourg, where Radosavljevic is visiting to do legal research.

“I don’t want attention. Or people asking questions.” She pauses. “There is nothing I can do about being tall.”

Radosavljevic almost shouts this last sentence to the staring people.

“I should have a compilation of stupid questions people ask me. Like, ‘Are you tall because of volleyball?’ Well, ‘Are you stupid because your mom dropped you when you were a kid?’ You can’t imagine that anyone would think that the reason for my height is volleyball, but they do.”

So I ask another stupid question, “What about dating?”

“Really? . . . Okay, I guess I would prefer a tall guy. Because it is normal. That is what annoys me so much. It is not socially acceptable to have taller woman dating shorter guy. So annoying and frustrating. That is held up as the normal standard. It is really sad. Great potential partners are out of consideration.”

This stylishly dressed woman then moves from dating to the difficulty of finding clothes and shoes and everything else that just doesn’t fit a person of her height.

Then she pauses, thoughtful, careful with her words.

“People now aren’t realizing the issues tall people are facing. And it’s all sorts of issues, from the very banal, like not every table is fit for us because you cannot put your legs under it, and not every shower is fit for us. For me, it is small problems to the larger problem of it is not socially acceptable to date a short guy who is fantastic for me maybe.”

Radosavljevic takes a breath.

“But I can’t complain. Look at the Syrian people, and look what they’re going through. And look, every five seconds in this world one child dies of hunger. What can I say? When you put this in that perspective, I would be really ungrateful if I’m saying, ‘oh poor me, look at me, I cannot date just anyone.’”

Then Radosavljevic stops talking. Her joy bubbles back to the surface. Life is her oyster.


“This interview about tall is too limiting.”

She fixes me with her gaze.

“You should be talking about other aspects of my fantasticness,” she says with a proud smile.

And with that, Radosavljevic jumps off the narrow Strasbourg pole, pointed to the heavens, self-confident, assured, certainly presidential material.

So, there you have it.

A tall woman on being tall.


Rio bound

“There is always a certain game flow. When you don’t know beach volleyball, you don’t see it.”

The women clear the net with ease. It looks like a water ballet in the air. Soft, gentle, acrobatic. But then the ferocious smash of the ball removes all doubt as to what is happening. I expect to see blood in the sand. But everyone is still alive. Everyone is still breathing. Point to the team that survives.


Ah, it’s that time once again where beach volleyball comes into the public eye at the summer Olympics. Our own U.S. favorite, Kerri Walsh Jennings, is back again, for the fourth time, with a new partner and looking for her fourth gold medal. Although there has been a four-year lapse for all of us, not for Walsh Jennings who has been playing the European circuit, the American circuit, any circuit, almost from the moment of her last gold. I caught her two years ago in Holland, walking with head down in the picture below, serious and focused, where she and her new partner, April Ross, won that tournament.


Regardless of the deceptive bikinis, beach volleyball is not for the faint of heart with its diving saves, miraculous jumps, complicated tactics, and power hits. Walsh Jennings is 38 years old in August. No small thing to still be playing.

Marloes Wesselink will be there in Rio. A professional Dutch beach volleyball player for years, recently retired, she has been asked to provide TV commentary on the Dutch volleyball teams. Last weekend she was covering the beach volleyball tournament in The Hague, talking to all the competitors, pitching the upcoming Olympics, and promoting beach volleyball.


“I quit playing beach volleyball in the same year that the World Championships were in Holland. But I didn’t really prepare that I wouldn’t be a part of it. So when it came close, it became weird. It is the biggest event in our sport and here it is in our country. For 12 years I was a part of it, a player. I was kind of sad.”

Stated matter of factly, without a lot of emotion, Wesselink pauses over her coffee, remembering that time.

“Then I got a call from one of our national broadcasting companies. They said they’re going to broadcast a lot of beach volleyball from the World Championships and they wanted a commentator and an analyst. I had done a little in smaller regional tournaments, but nothing like this.”

And a new career began.

“I totally got sucked into it at the World Championships. It was great to be a part of beach volleyball in another way. It was also great to be useful for the sport and the players. It was nice to contribute. It felt really good. And it was just fun.”

But the tournament ended. Wesselink returned again to her retired life. The end of the story it seemed.

“I was in a rush from the broadcasting. But now what?”

Wesselink decided to make a “mini-comeback,” to use her words, to the sport. At an entirely different level.

“My old partner’s partner was injured and she wanted to play the European Championships. So I agreed to play with her in Austria. It was nice because I was not prepared and it was just fun. I discovered that there are still options to play, to enjoy the sport, but not put all the hours in as a professional.”

She also started her own business — coaching, event management, and media work. Her life is not boring.

But her work at the World Championships was noticed. People liked her commentary and they liked her analysis. And now she’s invited to broadcast to a large Dutch audience from Rio. An amazing opportunity.

So, of course I needed to ask Wesselink about my own fears about Rio, like terrorism.

“Terrorism was never a reason to not go. But the last weeks have been so terrible. Almost every morning, terrible things happen. In Nice, in Germany, in Turkey. It worries me. But I think it is one of the most protected events in the world. Of course it crosses my mind. But it is not stopping me from going or being enthusiastic.”

And the Zika virus?

“You can of course get ill. That would be pretty shitty. But it seems mainly dangerous for pregnant women or women planning to get pregnant. But I’m not planning on that anytime soon. However, it is certainly a big deal.”

So what are you worried about in Rio?

“My biggest challenge is not to be carried away by the game.”


“I know all the players. I know them really well. All the teams that are playing in the Olympics, I’ve played against them. At one time, I did game analysis to analyze their game, their skills, their technique. I know these people — what is typical about their play, what is their game, what is their specialty, how do they communicate, why they make certain decisions. This is all good for my commentary of course.”

And the problem?

“I get carried away in the game.”


Of course you will. Any special goals for Rio?

“There is always a certain game flow. When you don’t know beach volleyball, you don’t see it. And I think my goal is to make people aware that there are moments in the game that defines it. The moment where everything changes. You turn a corner. I want people to see it.”

Time for Wesselink to leave. She stands up from her coffee, gives a smile, and turns the corner.












Old surfers

The old surfers float out just beyond the harbor, waiting, patient, lions in the tall grass. The noses of their surf boards are high up out of the water while they sit on the tails, their faces turned to the sea. The waves roll in. No one moves. Then, a larger curl is spotted. Far out in the ocean. It builds higher and higher. Wait. Wait. Wait. Explode. Paddle, paddle, paddle. There it is. Awesome. And you are up. Dancing on top of the sea. Immortal.

“So, after you go into the water, come up like this, with your hands over your head, so you don’t get hit in the head with the board,” the surfing instructor says.


Why are they going to try to hit us in the head with a board? I wonder.

The white-blonde, long-haired, wiry, freckled, limber, bearded, strong, laughing, smiling, impishly delightful Dutch surfing instructor shouts this advice over the blowing North Sea wind to us very pale folks sitting on the beach. Yup, a surfing class in the North Sea. Go figure.


Joost Bakker is our teacher at this surfing school in the Netherlands. Kind. Gentle. Great for beginners. And he’s my image of a surfer dude, cool as in cheesy movies and pop songs. Actually, I believe surfers might have evolved from a foreign species, you know, like runway models, professional football players, and nuns. But this guy seems genuinely interested in teaching my 25-year-old daughter and myself. So why not take a class?

Well, there is that small hiccup, really just a little bump in the road, a tiny fly in the ointment. Yup, you guessed it. I’m going to drown.

See, water is not my friend. Not for lack of trying, by the way. Back in the day, I would breeze through the two weeks of training in the shallow end of the pool, an exemplary student, a model for my brothers and sisters in the same class. But then we’d get to that last day, the day we show off all that we learned for our applauding parents, on that day they’d throw me into the deep end and have me swim to the other side. A wonderful test of skill and daring to be marked by a ceremony and a diploma that would start you on the path to a successful marriage and a fulfilling career in finance.

Unfortunately, my swimming lesson experience always somehow involved a bamboo pole poking it’s way towards me as I sat at the bottom of the deep end, slowly drowning. The idea of an actual rescue by a real person was apparently reserved for less expendable students. The bamboo pole would poke around until I would grab onto the prodding stick and they’d pull me up, landed and gasping on the side of the pool. My brothers and sisters, all seven of them, would line up to receive their badges of courage for successful completion. Not me. I alone would have to return for another two weeks of exemplary swimming, followed by the prodding bamboo pole, the landing and gasping, and the firm conviction that water is best enjoyed in a glass.

Joost Bakker gives me a kind, reassuring smile, and in excellent English says:

“I’m not worried that someone is going to drown. I know where I put my people in the water. And if something happens, everyone here teaching surfing is a qualified lifesaver as well. The only thing that could happen, if there is a lot of wind, you want to protect the head as soon as you fall off the board, as soon as you come up. If you don’t, and come up, you might get hit by a board. Of course, you can always have an accident. Somebody could suffer a heart attack or a stroke. Stuff can happen. If something happens, all the people are ready.”

Great. I’m covered. Drowning. Heart attack. Stroke. Head injury. Check, check, check, check.

Enough stalling, time to put on the wetsuit.

Although it is late July, the North Sea still demands a little protection so that you don’t turn into an iceberg while looking for the big wave. Everybody gets a wetsuit and goes into the dressing rooms to change.

“I’m sorry, what do men wear under their wet suit?”

“Really? You’re kidding me?”

All right. I can do this. One leg goes in. Fine. The second leg almost goes in. I fall over. Great. Recover with grace. Excellent. Look around to see who noticed. Nobody. Good. Pull up the second leg. Wonderful. Pull up to the waist. Oops. Why won’t it pull up to the waist? I’m stuck. And a little uncomfortable. And naked. Lord help me. I’m going to need to waddle out to the instructors and have them pull up my bottoms. This is horrible. People will point and shout. My very own daughter will be traumatized and disillusioned. From now on she will tell her friends that her father is dead to her. Listen, I’ve read about this. It happens with less. I’m going to have to move to Boone. This is DISASTROUS!

Next to me stands a middle-aged dad and his eight-year-old son. Part of our class. The dad helps his son into his wetsuit with a lot of tickling and giggling. He then puts on his own wetsuit with a quick tug and pull. Everything done. They’re ready to surf. But before they head out the door, he glances my way.

I’m a mess.

Without a word, he comes over, yanks up my pants, slips in my arms, zips up my back, tightens my collar, and gives me a pat on the back. “All ready?” he says in Dutch. His son and I nod our heads dutifully, we follow him out the door and walk to the water.

And we learn to surf.


The day disappears.

And in the evening, the old surfers are back out near the arm of the harbor. Their wet suits dully gleaming. The nose of their surfboards high. They look to the sea. No one moves. They wait for the wave. There it is. Wait. Wait. Wait. Explode.


Here’s Joe demonstrating his awesome surfing skills.





Saved in Dublin

To save a rabbit is why the man jumped off the bridge, according to the newspaper reports. Somebody threw the rabbit over the O’Connell Bridge into the current of the River Liffey. The homeless man apparently followed the same arc, up and over the bridge railing, flying through the air and splashing into the water, determined to save the rabbit. Barney was his name. The rabbit’s, that is.

The crowd in the Temple Bar area of Dublin swirls about us, unsure whether to surge upstream to the pub on the corner or downstream to the pub in the middle of the block. Stuck in an eddy of drinking options, everyone just mills about. It’s before noon, but those people sitting outside already have a beer in hand. Guinness seems the popular choice from the creamy dark look. On the street, shoulders brush, bodies jostle, folks surge one way or the other. Where is St. Patrick and his big crowd-clearing staff when you need him?

We just arrived, coming from months of rain in Holland, and feeling just a little dour from the lack of summer and warmth. We are not amused by the crowds and are tired of fighting our way forward on the narrow sidewalks where folks, two or three abreast, batter their way into our single-file politeness. “A little grumpy” might not be strong enough to capture our mood. Even for my wife and her much cherished Irish citizenship, things are not all shamrocks.

Then we hear a sound above the street noise . . .


A fiddle singing high, drums pacing the beat, guitars providing the riff. We are mesmerized. Strains of music from Portugal, Ukraine, Lithuania, are laid on top of the traditional Irish fiddle. Is there really such a thing called “Irish fusion” as this band claims? The audience is cheering and clapping and kicking an Irish step dance. Faster and faster the fiddle plays. Quicker and quicker the drumsticks drop. The crowd gets more and more wild. It’s hard not to give a throat-full yell of excitement. Legs move. Hands clap. Shouts are heard. Hooray!

And the music stops . . . we all take a deep breath . . . and then we roar and stomp our approval.

What is going on here?

We travel another block to the south. With a church as the backdrop, the flaming red-haired fiddler and the smooth sun-glassed guitarist are playing a melancholy Irish song. The melody switches back and forth as the two performers intertwine their musical threads. Intimate. Hypnotizing. Entrancing. Slowly the woman begins to move. Swirling red hair captures our attention. Legs lift, head spins, arms go wide with the bow and fiddle. We are soon lost in her private reverie and our own teased-out sadness.


Ah, and then the singing starts. He sets the bottom with a buttery tenor. Strong. Powerful. She, on the other hand, is high in the heavens. Soaring with sparkling clearness, her voice flies above us all. Divine.

Okay, this is too coincidental.

We walk two blocks to the east. The harp strings sound above the construction work. Surprisingly commanding amid the clash of trucks. A song that makes you straighten your posture just a little, breathe more deeply, move with a certain eloquence. A song of grace and beauty. An Irish song from another time. A better time perhaps. The woman bends over her instrument. Lost in the old days. Plucking her own heart strings it seems. And our’s.

Okay, enough. What is going on? Around every corner in Dublin, in every pub, in every restaurant, down every back alley, there is live music of amazing quality. What gives?

“I’ve been out here for about 20 years now on the street. This is a neo-Irish harp I’m playing today.”


Brenda Malloy sounds like some misplaced Broadway musical with her strong brogue and brassy attitude.

“This is a very nice life actually. This isn’t the only thing I do. I play other places. I do concerts and things like that. You’re all over the board. One day you’re in a castle and another day you’re out on the street.”

So, Brenda Malloy, what gives with all the music in Dublin?

“We have a traditions here of playing music on the streets. 200 years ago you would have seen harpers and pipers playing music on this street doing the same thing we are doing.”

And how long have you been doing this?

“I’ve been on this pitch for 20 years. I’m pretty much the grandmother. Everyone knows where to find me. I came here many years ago because I didn’t want to be on Grafton Street between an accordion player on one side and a saxophone player on another. The cacophony drove me mad. And where will I be in five years? I might be dead.”

Brenda Malloy gives a mellow laugh at the silliness of her own death. Can a leprechaun die? She then shouts out a goodbye to “Joe from Des Moines, Iowa,” and continues her playing.

We wander down the road, wide-eyed and thrilled. Who cares about the crowds now? Not us. Are you in a rush? Go ahead, cut in front. You need the whole sidewalk? Please, it’s yours. A beer before noon? Why not.

So, we are saved. Guinness is drunk, songs are sung, and everyone goes home happy.

Including Barney the rabbit, by the way. Saved by his owner, a Dublin homeless guy named John Patrick Byrne. Awards were given for the rescue. The bad guy was prosecuted. And Barney was last seen nestled in the hearts of Dubliners.

As were we all.











What exactly is a kidney worth?

What exactly is a kidney worth?

It depends, doesn’t it? If it is 7:00 a.m. and your left eye refuses to open to the world and you have to be at work by 8:00, a coffee, for example, seems worth quite a bit. Right? Or that slice of pizza at lunch? Before you say it’s not worth much, does it have Graziano’s sausage on it and Iowa fresh tomatoes? See, it makes a difference. And that 15th pair of open-toed heels? Well maybe, just maybe, they are the shoes that will boost your self-confidence, that will get you the new job, that will pay for the new BMW, that requires a stop at the gas station, that results in you buying a lottery ticket, that ends up with you winning six million dollars. See, it’s a tricky business this valuation thing.

But still, what exactly is a kidney worth? Especially when you’re on dialysis twice a week and both your kidneys have failed and the replacement kidney, a wonderful gift from your cousin, has gone south also. What’s a new kidney worth to you now?


“Jaime and I for 16 years did not like each other. We were complete polar opposites. She is not a musician, I am not an athlete. Different friends, different crowds, completely different interests.”

Tim Robinson grins at me, all the way over to where I am in Holland, large on my computer screen. 34 years old. A kindergarten teacher at Capitol View in Des Moines. Young, vibrant, bursting with life. The person you want teaching your child. This is a good man doing good things.

“As adults, we discovered that we had each other. She is amazing. I’ve always looked up to Jaime, and she’s two years younger than me. She is considerably brighter and more intelligent. I made my parents proud, but I had to work to get half-way decent grades. Jaime could be anyone. She chose working with kids.”


And Jaime . . . .

“Tim and I are similar in some ways and very different in other ways. I’d say we have a realistic relationship. If someone is going to call him out in my family, it would be me.  Same with him. We have a mutual respect. We both work with kids. We share that passion.”

Jaime Robinson, also an ocean away in Des Moines, gives me a slanted smile. 32 years old. School counselor and behavior strategist at Morris Elementary in Des Moines. Smart, thoughtful, understanding. Someone you’d turn to for a cool head in a crisis. She’s a good woman doing good things.

“It hurts seeing Tim struggle. Living with kidney disease. The anxiety and stress of living with that, with what he knows is coming. It almost puts his life on hold. Your sibling knows you more than anyone else in the world. It’s hard to see his life like that. No one is going through this but him.”

Brother and sister. Sister and brother. Peas in a pod? More like an all-star wrestling tag team that will bring on the hurt — or at least get you out of kindergarten and solve your behavior issues. These are serious folks doing serious business.

So I contacted Tim and Jaime separately to find out what’s going on.

Tim, of course, is a kidney short. Disease took his first homegrown ones. His third kidney, the well-appreciated one from his cousin, lasted five years. But it’s time for a new model.

For now, dialysis is making his life work.

“I did dialysis this morning. Basically, here’s my catheter.” Tim shows me his chest catheter.

Yup, sure enough that’s a catheter on the big screen.

“So, I went in at 6:30 this morning. 6:30 until 9:10. Dialysis is cleaning my blood. There is an ‘in’ tube and an ‘out’ tube. The ‘in’ tube sucks the blood out of my body. Puts it in this machine. It cleans that blood, and then it puts it back in through the ‘out’ tube back into my body.”

Tim is grateful for dialysis. He understands there are many folks with kidney issues that dialysis saves their lives. Three times a week for the rest of their lives. But even with all his gratitude, he is more than ready to be done.

“The dialysis is hard. The nurses and technicians say to me how lucky I am to leave. I know that. Wonderful people work at the dialysis center. But to be chained to a machine is not good.”

As for Jaime . . . .

“The first time Tim needed a transplant, I knew I was a match, good enough to donate. But our cousin was a better match. I kind of figured eventually it would be something I’d be doing for him. And here we are.”

Yup, here we are.

“He would do the same for me. It is an opportunity for me that you don’t get every day to give someone their life back. It is a special opportunity for me.”

Jaime believes this, that her donation is in fact a gift to her. But she is also aware that by the time this article is published, she’ll be fresh in the hospital, one organ less, even though she is totally healthy, and it will be six to eight weeks before she completely recovers. And, to make matters a little more messy, she had a bad hospital experience not so long ago. This is complicated stuff.

So, Tim, what do you think Jaime’s kidney is worth to you?

He gives a long sigh. Too much to measure. Too much to even grasp. He explains slowly.

“How can you ever thank a person enough for something like this. She’s giving me my life back. It’s not just a kidney. It’s what the kidney represents. I owe it to her to live life to the fullest. I owe it to the people at dialysis. I owe it to the people that take care of me at Mercy. To my surgeon. To my parents. How can I ever repay Jaime? I can’t. All I can do is show her by my actions that I’m going to live the shit out of life as long as I can.”

Tim takes a breath. A fierce line has been drawn in the sand. No return and no way out. A life well-lived in exchange for a kidney. A hard bargain.

And Jaime, how about you?

A small smile curves her mouth. A twinkle comes to her eyes. This is not a good thing. I wait for it.

“Heck, maybe Tim can give me a Starbucks gift card.”

There you have it. The value of a kidney.








The angry American

“I’m not waiting in any more lines.”

His voice raises uncontrollably as he faces off with the bored Paris train attendant at Gare Nord, a major railroad hub in Paris.

“I’m not going back to the end of the line. Have you ever waited in a line? Answer me. Have you ever waited in a line? Hey, I’m going right in here. Get out of my way.”

The last comes out as a shout even though he doesn’t move. The 200 or so of us waiting in the security line watch passively. Even poor behavior can’t muster too much of our interest today.

An American, for sure. The loud voice. The accent. The beefy well-dressed look of a traveling businessman. Unmistakable.

“Quiet down, buddy, you’re going to be embarrassed about this tomorrow.” But I don’t say a word.

I think of the opening and closing scenes of Love Actually — where the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport is full of love and love stories. Not so much at this railroad station in Paris on a rainy late afternoon in June. Anger Really. Now that might be a better title. Everywhere my wife and I look, couples are arguing, people are upset and frustrated by delayed trains, even the wet dogs that have wandered into the station wish they were still with the homeless guys outside. Weary travelers sit on their suitcases, heads drooped, shoulders down, resigned to living and dying in Gare Nord. These are not happy campers.


Perhaps this was foreseeable, given our earlier ride to the station on the metro . . . .

The metro near our Paris hotel is hopping busy on this rainy early afternoon. But we are game. With our backpacks cinched tight, raincoats in hand, my wife and I head down the many stairs, weave our way through the labyrinth of tunnels, rush past tiled walls, and join the streams of people flowing beneath the earth. Finally, we make it to the subway platform, a narrow space in an arched vault. A place out of the 1950’s. We made it. Whew.

Almost immediately, a rumble comes from down the long dark tunnel. The waiting people surge toward the tracks as the approaching noise gets louder and louder. The train roars into the station and abruptly stops with a loud hiss.

“All aboard,” a conductor should yell from somewhere. But there’s only an indistinguishable tinny sound coming over a loudspeaker. In French.

There is a small problem, however, that is immediately apparent — there is no room. Sorry. Every car is jammed with standing people pressed up against the walls. The doors open with an empty promise, there is just no room. No one gets off, and there is of course no additional room. We obviously must wait for another train that actually has room. Bummer, folks, this train has no room.

Ah, but for my wife and everyone else on the platform, the crowded conditions, the fact that there is absolutely no room, is merely the starter’s pistol of a challenge.

My wife used to watch Sunday football with her father when she was a young girl. She knows everything there is to know about the game. So she follows the lead of every good quarterback with one yard to go. She heaves herself into the mass of people at the door, backpack high, head down, looking for the open slot. What determination. What drive. The crowd goes wild. And the door shuts, barely creasing her backpack. She makes it in the nick of time. Success. A touchdown for the good guys.

Well, almost.

I never understood football. What exactly is a halfback? And do they have to do additional schooling and maybe a special diet to grow into a fully fledged fullback? Are tight ends fiscally conservative? Do nose tackles ever tackle any other part of the body? Listen, I know a lot of other really good man stuff, no matter what my wife says, but football? Not so much.

Yup, you guessed it, I’m on the wrong side of the door. Left behind. It’s one of those slow-motion tragedies.

My wife turns too late to see my plight. We have a sad reaching out of hands towards each other, as fate inevitably pulls us apart, to live out our destinies with new families, always wondering what could have been. She stares intently, perhaps trying to memorize my face, as the train whooshes away, cold to the drama playing inside this metro station in the heart of Paris.

Now usually this is when the curtain drops, you take the rest of your popcorn, and try to find your car in the parking lot.

But for me, I have no popcorn. I really don’t know where she’s getting off. Our phones don’t work below ground. All I know is that we have to eventually show up at Gare Nord sometime before the day is over.

What to do?

This is one of those pivotal moments in your life where you have a real option. You turn one way, and you are a good citizen of Des Moines, Iowa, responsible, hard-working, raising a family, buying only from the organic section at Hy Vee. You turn the other way, and you are doing cabaret with your shoulders bare and feet high at the Moulin Rouge. I’m leaning toward the Moulin Rouge option.

But then I sit on the bench at the empty platform. It is dead quiet. No people. No train. No nothing.

And I sit.

And I sit.

And I get on the next train.

Several stops down the line was a spot we had talked about getting off to see a little more Paris. Nothing definite. Just a thought.

I get off. There’s my wife.

There’s a particular joy in being found. A speeding of the heart. A quickening of the soul. I see you. You see me. Everything is all right with the world.

Partners find you. Children find you. Family finds you. Friends find you. Dogs and cats find you. I think even a place can find you.

I was found.

But what about the angry American at Gare Nord? We ignored him. The train attendant ignored him. Paris ignored him. No one found him.

Although maybe luck found him, because he never got to act on his blustery threat to bust through the security line at Gare Nord. The train arrived, the security guards must have figured they could not get a security check done in time for everyone to make the train, and the gates were flung open. No security check. No line. A free-for-all.

The angry American, being at the very front where he was yelling at the bored train attendant, was the first on.








The Paris waiter

The Paris waiter stands immobile at the top of the sidewalk. Tall. Imposing. White shirt, black vest, white waiter’s arm cloth, black bowtie, white apron, black shoes. Everything is where it should be. His right arm tucked behind his back and left arm bent to drape his white arm cloth, ready to wipe a spill or wrap a bottle of wine. Cars speed behind him. He is unimpressed. This is his show. Eventually, a customer’s finger raises, a head nods, a glass is emptied. And the waiter, with measured dignity, not too fast — not too slow, comes to the table. Silently. Competently.

“Oui, monsieur?”


“Gunmen have shot dead 12 people at the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in an apparent militant Islamist attack.” BBC News, January 7, 2015. 

“The Paris area reeled Friday night from a shooting rampage, explosions and mass hostage-taking that President Francois Holland called an unprecedented terrorist attack on France.” The New York Times, November 13, 2015. 

“Rapidly rising storm waters across Paris have forced thousands of people out of their homes, while museums scramble to protect world-famous artworks and artifacts from the worst flooding seen in decades, officials say.” CNN June 3, 2016.

Shortly after midnight, warm light spills out of the Cafe de Flore. The heat lamps, high above the outdoor tables, can be felt all the way to the chilly sidewalk on Boulevard St. Germain. Giddy with the beauty of Paris, my wife and I are unwilling to let the night end. And of course there are those heat lamps and the lovely waiter and perhaps another glass of wine.

“Monsieur and Madame, of course you can have that table.” The waiter from the sidewalk responds to my bumbling French with a wide sweep of his arm, a ready smile, and good English. It’s late. Near closing time. The waiter must want to go home. But we are invited to stay. Really?

Cafe de Flore is a landmark cafe in the Paris scene. It is the old stomping grounds of Picasso, Hemingway, Sartre, de Beauvoir. Even today, it sponsors it’s own yearly literary award with a prize worthy of someone who enjoys the pleasures of life — 6000 euros and a glass of a fancy white wine at the cafe every day for a year. The reviewers say it is impossible to get a seat at Cafe de Flore because it is wildly popular as a Parisian  hangout. And be warned, they say, the waiters can be a bit snooty. “Aloof” is the word they use. “Best to speak French,” they all caution with some trepidation.

So we sit down at closing time at the Cafe de Flore, unaware of the traps and dangers and  unsophisticated things we might do.

“How about a creme brûlée to go with our wine?” I ask our waiter. Not in French.

The waiter stands before us. Respectful. Quiet. Smiling. There will be no introductions. There will be no inquiries about our day. Nothing will be said about the weather. He will never ask if we like the food. And I will guarantee that nothing will be written on the tablecloth in crayon. He is simply there to serve. This guy’s a pro.

“I always try to makes happy my customers, try to feel their moods. Some want to be quiet reading their books or working. Some want to come to have fun. Some pick up the same newspaper everyday. Some want their coffee very hot — so we put hot water in the cup before we serve. Some want their bread toasted at the same time as the coffee. Some want their orange juice filtered. These are many of the small details that makes the difference.”

Dany Sou, our waiter, is giving me a lesson in what it means to be a Paris waiter at Cafe de Flore.

“Cafe de Flore.” Sou brightens. “You can work in many different restaurants as part of the trade, but when you’re in Cafe de Flore, it is like you’ve never worked before in a restaurant. It is like a lot of small details. Like these are digestifs for outside. The plate is white for the outside. Silver for the inside. It is all small details. It is like a body, right?  It is like, I don’t know how to explain this, like this lady’s body is moving all the time and you have to respond.”

A moving woman’s body? Did he just say that?


Cafe de Flore is a professional waiter’s dream. “You start at small restaurants with two table and you finish at Cafe de Flore,” says Sou. People come for the waiters, all are hired for their personality. And the feelings of attachment are strong. “I love this place.” Sou says.

So, Dany Sou, what about the terrorism and the flooding and all the angry, scared people, doesn’t that change the Paris of old, even for a waiter?

“This year was hard with terrorism and the flood, but what makes me question about my job is whether people come to a restaurant to have human interactions or do they just come to have a coffee or have a salad? That’s probably why I wanted to work so much at Cafe de Flore. There is definitely a strong and charming spirit behind this cafe, more than just food. This is about people.”
Other waiters are leaving for the night. Before they depart, they come out to the sidewalk and shake Sou’s hand. One after the other. Ritualistic, formal, and respectful. It’s just what one is supposed to do at the end of the day. Terrorism and floods are buried under tradition and good manners and civility.

It is also time for us to go. Sou shakes our hands. Why not? A large smile appears.

“You like Paris, I’m very happy.”

We smile back, also happy, and head off down the softly lit boulevard.

Of course, Paris is easy to like. Who doesn’t?  But a Paris waiter at Cafe de Flore after a hard year? The creme brûlée at the end of a long summer evening.









Under the umbrella

Do you have a moment today? I know you’re awfully busy. But why don’t you walk under the Crusoe Umbrella. That’s right, it’s downtown in Cowles Commons. No, it won’t be weird. In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised. Trust me.

Cologne. Up from the river we stroll in Cologne. Away from the renovated river walk, with its shops and restaurants. Past the early morning joggers with their early morning religious intensity. In front of the young couple pushing a stroller, where the reason for their forced march is happily sound asleep. Around the old man and old woman, with their aged hands sliding together in well-warn grooves. And above us, seagulls squawk, a foghorn moans, church bells ring. Yup, all is as it should be in on this Sunday morning on the river.

The Rhine flows Missouri River fast. Already barges are moving past the docked cruise boats, barely noticing the massive Cathedral on the banks. But we leave it all behind. Past museums and closed cafes and shuttered shop after shop, we search for a cappuccino. We are just too early. So up the valley we go.

Life slowly begins to unfold. Tables and chairs are unchained at the cafes and placed out for the upcoming crowd. The sound of shutters being cranked open echo down the cobblestone streets. The shop owners with their straw brooms sweep away items thrown by the wind or the drunks. We keep walking.

And then my wife says, “Look up, Joe.”

My oh my. A giant ice cream cone. Fallen from the clumsy hands of some careless god. It’s actually dripping down the side of a building. Unbelievable.


Rotterdam. The rain crests, then washes across the plain in front of the Rotterdam train station in a whoosh. It drenches the folks running just steps from the door. I watch from inside. Glad to be dry. This station is built like the prow of a gigantic ship. It’s not inconceivable that the building will unmoor itself and just float away on this rainy day in the Netherlands. It doesn’t.


I head in the rain towards the museum, maybe a mile down the main canal. Within a block, my jeans are bleeding bluish water, my feet float freely in my tennis shoes, and the attached hat on my raincoat has turned into the Saylorville Reservoir. I’m damp. I’m chilled. And I’m thinking about heading back to the train station. But when I look up through the mist, all I can see are those indomitable Dutch. They stroll hatless, hair wet, rain running in rivers down their cheeks — and affecting an infuriating nonchalance. I decide to move to Boone.

At last I reach the museum. As I’m trying to find the entrance, I’m reminded of the quirkiness of life. Yup, the sun comes out. I don’t smile. But then, straight ahead, a gigantic screw, bent, touching the ground. Really? Is someone messing around? This could be a sculpture memorializing every one of my failed home-improvement projects. Did my wife commission this? I’m in awe.


Des Moines. Des Moines has been sweltering hot, the newspapers say. Bad for the folks fishing the rivers and bad for the mid-day strollers along the river paths. Those paths were my old running and walking grounds. No cooling breezes came up the rivers in those days. I suspect they still don’t. But vendors would set up on the other side of the Civic Center and I would buy treats and lounge in the shadow of a crazy gigantic umbrella.

The Crusoe Umbrella. Tipped on its side. Questionable in a rainstorm. Reliable in a strong wind. A vision of whimsy, particularly when packed in snow. It’s truly Des Moines.


Okay, enough of all these sculptures around the world. Who’s doing this? Who made the Crusoe Umbrella? Who made the ice cream cone? And who made that bent screw?

And, since you’re asking, who made the Meredith trowel also in Des Moines? And the spoon and cherry in Minneapolis? And the shuttlecocks in Kansas City? And the bow and arrow in San Francisco? And the saw in Tokyo? And the lion’s tail in Venice? And the needle and thread in Milan? And the spring in South Korea? And the bottle of notes in England? And the match cover in Barcelona? And . . . on and on and on.

Yup, you guessed it, it’s our old friends Claes Oldenburg and his now sadly departed wife Coosje van Bruggen. They built the Crusoe Umbrella 37 years ago. Yup, it is both a beginning and an end. You can stand under the umbrella in Cowles Commons and taste the ice cream in Cologne, turn the screw in Rotterdam, light the matches in Barcelona, shoot the bow in San Francisco, and be back for supper. The threads of culture.

Isolationism? Build a wall? Ban a people? It’s too late to keep anyone out.

As for keeping our sons and daughters in, Robinson Crusoe said:

“When I took leave of the island, I carried on board for relics, the great goat-skin cap I had made, my umbrella, and one of my parrots.”

Mmmm, I can see him or her now, our young high school graduate from North or Roosevelt or Hoover or East or Dowling, umbrella clutched tight, goat-skin cap pulled down, parrot scolding energetically, as the whole menagerie heads east on Grand Avenue for the Interstate, following the outbound threads of Oldenburg’s and Van Bruggen’s creation.

Trust me. All this happens from walking under the umbrella.










Capturing the wind

The 160 acres of black dirt was near Stratford, Iowa. Corn and beans and cattle and chickens and a large garden made up my grandpa’s farm back in those days. I would wake before the sun and he would take me to the landing by the side door, where we dressed in coveralls and old coats and billed caps and dirty gloves and heavy rubber boots. Then across the road to the cattle barn. The old windmill creaked and groaned in the dark as my grandpa went to let the cattle out. And my job as a little boy? To break the ice in the water trough that had formed during the night as the windmill pumped the gurgling water.

He was small and grizzled and tough, my grandpa. And when I was older, he talked to me of the beauty of dark-haired, dark-eyed women. A song of joy, which I heard in my head against the creaking and moaning of the old mill as the wind slowly turned the blades high overhead. A cadence to set your life by.

It was like yesterday.

Today I bike along the cobbled streets near the North Sea in Holland, unhappy with the wind. It is a little strong. Okay, more than a little strong. This is not a gentle breeze pushing at your back with the smell of fresh-cut hay. Nope. I know this because my thousand-pound Dutch bike has the amazing ability to act as a wind sock by always pointing directly into a sturdy wind no matter which way I go or how calm the day. It is a scientific wonder that brings tears to my eyes.

No, I’m not happy with the North Sea wind. It sees way too much when it blows around with its inappropriate intimacies and unrelenting advances. And it’s fickle. One moment it’s bracing you up, the next moment it’s pushing you flat on your back. Yup, even on those days when it curls into your ear with a tickle, you know it will soon push you off balance with a whoosh.The North Sea wind is not your friend.

Okay, that might be a little harsh. There is another side, of course.

One-third of Holland’s land is taken from the sea. Yup, it used to be under water. Tulips now grow where the herring swam. Today, the wind blows over sand and black peat and the Red Light District rather than crashing waves and high surf. And why is that?

The picturesque windmill. A man-made device created to do the impossible — capture the wind and tame the water.


A little history. One of the first mills in Holland was in use around 1200 A.D., according to Windmills of Holland. Like most early mills, it was used to mill corn. But before long, the mills were used to drain the land, to move water from canal to canal, and, most importantly, to keep the sea over on its proper side of town.

“You have to be up there before the bad weather starts. Because if you’re up there when it is already happening, then you’re too late.”


Gently smiling. A husky laugh. Measuring eyes. Danielle Boer has worked at this active windmill and museum in Leiden — “Molen Museum De Valk” — for the past 24 years. She speaks three languages fluently, and understands three more. Today she speaks in English of the peril of bad weather hitting the windmill while the sails are out.

“It happened to me once that I was too late. The windmill starts to turn backwards. That isn’t good.”

When Boer speaks of going “up there before the bad weather starts,” she means UP THERE. Seven stages up. She climbs the many steep steps, then she goes out on a platform and grabs a gigantic pirate wheel to turn the sails, lock them down, and roll up the cloth.

“When I applied for the job, I had to climb into one of the wings to see if I was afraid of heights. And that’s what I did. And I’m not, no.”

I am, yes. But at the prodding of my sister-in-law, who’s also afraid of heights but braver than me, we went to investigate.

IMG_3068The stairs between stages are made for a Sherpa. Steep and narrow, a joke for my size 14 shoes. We climb past the ancient hoists, the main axle, the gigantic cogged wheels, the milling stones, the sacks of flour, the tools for repair. Up and up and up. At last we arrive at the platform. Stepping outside the mill, we can see over the city of Leiden. We smile with joy . . . until we both look down through the wide spaces between the floor planks. We can’t breathe. My sister-in-law kindly says, “Don’t look down.” Too late I’m afraid. We are at the highest point in any direction. This is not a comforting thought.

But then I look up at the gigantic framework for the sails. My goodness. The wings, the length of my body several times over, reach up into the sky. A raised arm into the heavens. Ready to take flight at the merest puff.


Those same wings capture the wind. Tie it down in their sails, carry it through the bearings and windshaft, past the brake wheel, down the main axle, to finally force the wind to turn the stone that grinds the meal, or cuts the wood, or makes the cloth, or lifts the very ocean off the land. Victory. The captured wind saves the day.

As I gaze into the sky, I feel something against my cheek. Whispering. Feathery light. A breezy reminder. The wind.

And I am soon lost in the cadence of the slowly turning creak and moan of an old Iowa windmill and my grandpa’s song of the beauty of dark-haired, dark-eyed women. It is a time long gone and a man long dead. But there it is, sneaking up out of the past. An Iowa reverie high in the Dutch air.

Okay, maybe the North Sea wind is your friend.

By the way, you might ask what my grandpa would think about these blond-haired, blue-eyed Dutch women?

Well, it was only years later, when he was 98 and both of us bachelors living together for a short time, that I discovered an important truth. According to my grandpa, all women, no matter the color of their hair or eyes, are dark-haired and dark-eyed. Obviously.

So, enough talk, now how do I get down from here?










A graduation gift of three stories

Listen, I don’t have an actual gift. And of course I missed both parties. Not to mention seeing them walk across the stage. But I’m an ocean away as my friends’ boys graduate from Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. It’s a big deal. Will and Henry Gunderson and Eli Dotson are their names.

I’m the first to admit I’ve really never been part of their lives. But I was there at the beginning for the Gunderson boys. A wild time was had with those twins (and the third brother who followed so quickly he could have been holding their heels at birth). Those tiny babies took my friend to the mat. Hard. But she survived with grace and style. And my other friend’s boy of course had a health scare early on. Every family gets one it seems. But I wonder if the gods counted on my friend’s fierceness? I don’t think so. They won’t underestimate her again. Of course all the boys thrived. How could they not when they were wrapped in laughter and love? And now they’ve graduated from high school. Bright stars all.

But what now?

I have three stories to tell them.

The first is sobering as all first stories should be. While walking around Sarajevo, my wife and I came across a statute of man with hands cupped around his mouth, calling to someone. The statute was in a beautiful park that had been partially turned into a cemetery, as most open land was turned into in this town that was under siege for an entire war. He seemed out of place. Something was wrong about this statute being here. The grey and the mud and the hollow eyes were more of death than life.


My wife knew the story already, had reviewed the actual Serb video. But I read the sign posted off to the side. The man’s name is Ramo. He is in Srebrenica on July 11th,1995. He is a Bosnian Muslim. He has been captured by the Christian Serbs. He is calling to his son Nermin to come out of the hills and surrender to the Serbs. He is shouting that they will not harm him, that all will be well.

And Nermin comes out of the hills.

The end of the story is not hard to guess, especially when you know that hate loves to cloak itself in piety and nationalism and justice. The posted sign states:

“Exhumation teams found Ramo and his son Nermin in a mass grave near Srebrenica.”

The middle story is about work and family, as the middle has to be. It takes place in Holland. I was walking the cobblestone streets of Haarlem with my sister-in-law when we came upon a wonderful old bookstore hidden among store fronts from the 1500’s. The smell of ancient books and clutter and musk wafted out the door. A heady brew.

“I have been in this book store 50 years. It is a long time.”

Paul Vernout is thin and wiry and grey and tall. A long crease on each side of his face runs from the middle of his nose to his mouth. His chin is firmly set. A high, lined forehead and large, observant eyes peer out of glasses. A character out of a novel.

“It is a nice bookstore. I am a big reader about history and art and about Haarlem.”

Vernout smiles for the first time. He is unsure of his English. Clearly, he is exactly where he belongs. Happy among his books. In love with his work. My guess is that he will die standing behind the counter.

How did this job start for you?

“I was 21 when I started.”

And your father?

“My father worked here.”

Really? And his father?

“My grandfather worked here.”

Are you being serious? And his father?

“My great-grandfather worked here.”


May I take a picture of you?

“Ahhhh . . . not important.”

Of course it isn’t when you’re one in a long chain of family and work and love. Or is it?


The last is about dreams as last stories ought to be. This time in Lille, France. We stumble upon a shop displaying hats of mesh and silk and ribbons and weaves and banana leaves and wool. Amazing creations. My wife and her sister are soon oohing and ahhing and trying on hat after hat. Sarazin Chapeaux the business is called.

So, Nathalie Sarazin, how did this start?

“My family with me and brother, we lived in the same rooms, and my father is the first to have a suit for work. I was three or four years old. I brought a pair of scissors and I cut the trousers because I imagined how the trousers should be. My father and mother say it was a little twisted. They give me the next day to see the doctors.”

Sarazin apologizes for her English, which is lightyears beyond my French, and then slowly smiles at the memory of her creative work on her dad’s suit pants.

And what did the doctors say?

“The doctors was saying, ‘No, she is not mad. But she has to play with the cloth.’”

So, after years of schooling and study and apprenticeship — “playing with the cloth” as the doctors ordered — Sarazin was ready to open her own hat shop.

“Once I had 23-24 age, I said I wanted to make the hats for myself. My father said ‘no’ because not enough money.”

Sarazin forged ahead anyway. Now, years later, Sarazin makes hats for the various queens of Belgium, for the children of the King of Spain, and, yup, even Princess Caroline of Monaco. And let’s not forget you and me.

And what of your father?

“My father does not think I’m mad any more.”


There you go, boys. Take the stories for what you want. They’re yours. A gift from me to you.

And now?

Don’t ask me. Go write your own stories.