Thoughts from an outdoor cafe

An outdoor cafe in early spring in Holland.

IMG_2057

The hat comes off first. Your head drops back. Your eyes shut. Your surroundings disappear. And all you feel is the sharp heat of early spring raising pinpricks of red on your cheeks and a rosy hue under your eyelids. And your thoughts? Gone to a time of warmth and good cheer. Perhaps to a beach. Maybe to a ball field. Or possibly just adrift on an Iowa river, floating languorously past the lowing cattle drinking at the banks, while a blue heron slowly flaps its wings, hugging the curve of the water, marking the way. Sure, the biblical warning of “peace, peace, when there is no peace,” is still lurking in the background of your thoughts — but shouldn’t you turn your face just a little to one side?There you go, feel that toasty sun.

All this from just taking off your hat.

Admittedly, a sunny day in spring is a bit of a rarity in Holland. Most days it rains, at least a little. But when the sun shines, coats come off, sleeves are rolled up, eyes are closed, and the outdoor cafe crowd slowly pivots in their chairs like sunflowers in a field, looking for the tiniest ray of warmth on their upturned faces. Relaxed and glowing.

That is, until reality returns.

The Dutch daily newspaper on the table, the AD Haagsche Courant, blares a headline above a picture of Donald Trump:

“Alfamannetje heft problem: de dames molten hem niet.”

My Dutch friend translates: “Alpha male has problem: women don’t care for him.”

Is this really news? Of course, women aren’t keen on a man who focuses so much on their looks and bodily functions and who personally dislikes so many women. But more shocking, does Europe think Trump is an alpha male?

It should be no surprise that politics comes up while you’re soaking in the rays at an outdoor cafe. Politics and outdoor cafes are no strangers. It is reported that the 1968 Paris revolution, where students barricaded the streets and the unions shut France down with strikes, began in outdoor cafes. And the 2011 Egyptian revolution, where a government was overturned and the ripple of independence stretched across the Middle East, also began in outdoor cafes.

So even on this sunny day, politics wants a seat at the table. Even if uninvited.

Take the British daily, The Guardian, popular reading in this neck of the woods:

“Cruz, the red-meat Texas senator with an army of conservative followers, raised eyebrows on Tuesday when he told the Texas Tribune that people who believe global warming is real are ‘the equivalent of the flat-Earthers.’”

Really, with Cruz’s evangelical fervor, this can’t be a surprise. Supporting Cruz is like going to the front of the tent and agreeing to renounce Satan. Who wouldn’t want to renounce Satan? Well, maybe ex-felons. Cruz has identified ex-felons as Democrats, which is why Democrats want to restore ex-felons’ right to vote. It’s good to know who’s who without resorting to fire and a stake.

See, once you get started on these rants, the warm sun seems to just nurture more and more heated discussions until eventually you have a revolution, or, more likely, table guests anxious to leave.

Ah, the sun has shifted. With precise choreography, we all stand, turn our chairs, and sit back down. And begin arguing again.

IMG_2061

There is the BBC News coverage of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia:

“He was one of the most prominent proponents of ‘originalism’ – a conservative legal philosophy that believes the US Constitution has a fixed meaning and does not change with the times. In 2008, Justice Scalia delivered the opinion in District of Columbia v Heller, a landmark case that affirmed an individual’s right to possess a handgun.”

“Affirmed” might not be strong enough. Justice Scalia suggested that we need to be armed not only for self-defense of home and hearth but to fight against the tyranny of the government, just like the old days. Well that’s certainly “originalism,” but does that mean we should take up arms against Governor Branstad’s regime because of the unreasonable licensure requirements for braiding hair? Talk about tyranny getting you where it hurts. Although, as they say at the salon, one person’s tyranny is another person’s updo gone awry.

As politics devolves into silliness, the afternoon begins to wind down. The drinks change from coffee to wine. Food starts to appear at various tables. Conversations become muted. Sweaters are pulled back up. Coats are wrapped across legs. And politics is left to the side. Quiet drifts in with the ocean mist. A candle appears on the table. It is a time for peace to return.

Just over the dunes at the beach is a line of German bunkers, lost today in the sand and high grass. The Atlantic Wall. Ready to repel an invading force of Americans and Canadians and British.

Image 10

But that invasion turned out to be much further south, with its own horror. But I wonder what those German boys talked about on a warm day in April, as they sat outside their bunker, helmets off, turning their faces like sunflowers toward the heat, their thoughts adrift on some German river. At peace.

Thoughts from an outdoor cafe.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prague in three acts — an Iowan’s view

The street is tight with tourists. Some jostling rudely, some floating adrift, some wary of every brush of the pocket, and some, of course, looking to brush your pocket. But all of us, innocent and guilty alike, are pushed away from the river, across the tram tracks and careening taxis, up into the ancient beauty of Old Town.

Prague awaits.

Act 1: Barkers work the crowd. Standing stolidly as humanity flows against them, they hand out leaflets with the hope that you will reach out for the flyer. When you do — and how can a boy and girl from Des Moines not politely take their offering? — they launch into their spiel.

“The best music ever.”

“In the very hall where Mozart performed.”

“It is the location for the movie Amadeus.”

“Hear members of the Royal Czech Orchestra perform chamber music just for you.”

They guide us out of the stream to a portable podium, where a young man in low light has a seating chart. He wants to collect money for the admission to the show, supposedly later that night, and to provide us an assigned seat. The Civic Center Box Office it isn’t.

“800 koruna please.”

Eight hundred what???

We buy our tickets, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, fully expecting to have just given a donation to Prague street culture, and leave with little illusions.

Several hours later, we return for the nonexistent performance. Unbelievably, the young men are still there. We are directed up a broad stairway to the next floor. The stairs are chipped and crumbling. The walls are missing large chunks of plaster. The banister is doubtful as a means of support. And the dark landing at the top is equally discouraging as the ambient light reflects red silk wall coverings torn and faded.

But then we walk into the music hall. My oh my. A glorious ballroom from another time. Paintings and pillars and balconies and hidden alcoves. A beauty. But patch-work and two-by-four braces tell that she is long past her prime. Then we look to the ceiling. A magnificent chipped fresco, still bright with color and gods and light. My goodness.

IMG_1935

Still, the frosty room is without heat. The wooden folding chairs are without pads. The notion of an assigned seat has disappeared like a chair in a cake walk. Of course, no one dare take off gloves, coats, or hats. We sit, uncomfortable and cold.

Is this the necessary suffering you read about in Slavic culture — One Day in the Life of a Prague Audience?

Then the music starts. Violins, bass, viola, and cello. The sound drifts through the room. Clear. Crisp. Intimate. It soon entangles us. We are carried up past the disrepair, beyond the broken balconies, into the high reaches of the fresco. We are part of the pantheon of the gods. Tears settle behind my eyes. The cold, the lack of comfort, the strangeness, all disappear. We are bewitched.

Act 2: The bridge is like an old stone field marker. Heavy, man-made, plunked down in the middle of nature, claiming land on both ends. The Prague Castle sits on one side. Old Town Square sits on the other. But the bridge is its own destination. It is full of large statutes of Czech heroes and crucified Christs and bishops and martyrs and even Saint Ivo of Kermartin (the intriguing patron saint of lawyers and orphans). This bridge was built to replace the old one washed away in the flood. You know, the flood of 1342. The new bridge was up and running by 1390. No kidding.

IMG_1857

The bridge is wall-to-wall people today. And lining the two sides of the bridge is a gauntlet of artists selling their wares.

IMG_2008

“My name is Maltin Bulis, I am selling jewelry for six years on the bridge.”

Bulis smiles with soft, sheepish eyes and an artist’s goatee, unfazed by my English and prying questions. Let’s see, Bulis is a 29-year-old metal engraver (check), selling his work on the Bridge (check), going to school in a Prague art program that takes eight years to complete (check), and helping to raise a young baby with his economist girlfriend (check, check, and check). See, prying questions.

So, how does one get the opportunity to sell their art on the Charles Bridge?

“You have to have license, and every year you must take an exam and prove that you have something to contribute. There is a special committee and half the voices have to agree with it.”

“Half the voices.” I am impressed with Bulis’ clever us of English to get his meaning across with such eloquence. I say as much.

“I taught myself English. I was sharing from Youtube. Watching the Simpsons.”

Of course, he learned English from Homer Simpson and  “sharing” with those crazy puppy videos on Youtube. What can Maltin Bulis not achieve? He’s a rock star.

Bulis gives us his shy smile, thanks us for the conversation, and off he goes to help another customer. So we move on to the next artist three steps further down the Bridge.

Act 3: The cemetery seems haunted by the past. Perhaps the set for an apocryphal movie? Can there really be 100,000 people buried here?

IMG_2025

The Old Jewish Cemetery sits on a high-walled slope in the once-vibrant Jewish quarter of Josefov. The story of the Jews in Prague is the story of the Jews. Placed in ghettos as early as the 11th or 12th century, forbidden to hold most jobs, kept out of markets and restaurants, required to wear some kind of special clothing, or yellow hat, or yellow star, and then facing Easter pogroms, or forced evacuations, or later-day Nazi extermination camps. A story that stretches down through the centuries.

On this sunny day, however, long lines of noisy crowds form to enter the cemetery. Once inside, there is the hush of the sacred. The heavy stones, bent and lusterless, are disintegrating even after death. We quietly weave our way through the grounds, chastened by the tipped stones and disappearing Hebrew epigraphs, feeling the call to return to dust.

But then we see a small piece of paper under a small rock placed on one ancient tombstone. And then more rocks and more papers on more tombs. Until there is an entire top of a grave covered with small papers and rocks.

IMG_2030

What are the messages written on the papers — wishes, prayers, confessions? Certainly a statement that someone remembers, someone was here. And if someone remembers and someone was here, isn’t it hope in the face of hopelessness? Why not.

Prague in three acts — an Iowan’s view.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tulips and candles

Temperatures continue to drop this day in late March. It is now below freezing, and the drizzly rain has turned sharp with just an edge of ice. The grey sky is an old Dutch Masters’ painting — dark and a little foreboding. A Rembrandt sky. And the wind? Busily searching for that small crevice next to your neck, so as to slip below your shirt and whisper that spring will never come. Shivering seems the appropriate response.

I stop, adjust my stocking cap, pull my scarf tighter, and then continue biking. To the beach. I’m in need of a beach holiday today, even if the beach is at the North Sea. It is time for a break from current events.

The news from Brussels is everywhere in The Hague. Death, mayhem, blood. A picture we’ve all seen before. Innocents lying injured or dead. Smoke fogging the shattered debris. A distant woman crying somewhere in the background. Confusion.

Too much.

The smaller fishing boats are already docked and unloaded at the first harbor. The boats arrive early in the morning, long before the sun. The catch is deep in their hulls when they come heavy to the wharf. The fish are unloaded, processed, and on the way to their destination by the time the sun hits the drying nets. Only to repeat tomorrow, of course. But for now, they are docked and cleaned. Resting from a hard day’s work.

IMG_1791

The news coverage is incessant. Today the politicians are weighing in. One suggests fighting terror with waterboarding, another says more money for security, another asks for fundamental change in the isolation of ethnic neighborhoods. Their proposals are a mix of thoughtfulness and absurdity. Regardless, all the ideas seem unlikely to stop anyone wearing a vest made to explode.

The sand beach stretches for miles and miles. Not so busy today. People are tired of the cold and wet and want a few days in the 50’s, where the grey skies have cleared and the sun is warm on their hatless heads. But not today. The wind and cold only become more daunting as the North Sea stretches uninterrupted in front of me.

Out on the right arm of the harbor are only a few people. A fisherman sits against the lighthouse at the furthest point into the ocean, resting, wind at his back. His two long poles are wedged between the rocks with lines drifting out into the sea. Patiently he eats a sandwich pulled out of his crumpled bag.

Ahmad the fisherman tells me that the fishing is poor today.

“The seas are rough,” he explains in broken English. “It is cold.”

At least that’s what I think he says. Our ability to understand each other is not good. So we look out over the ocean together, unsure what to say next. I ask to take his picture. He agrees and poses with his long fishing pole. Then, smiling a goodbye, Ahmad hunkers back down next to the lighthouse, back to fishing for fish that are unwilling to be caught, and back to eating his sandwich alone. A fisherman’s story.

IMG_1772

Heading back to shore, I see that there are two other people on this arm of the harbor. A couple. Laughing and flirting with each other it seems. He is jumping on the big boulders that protect the sides from the pounding waves. She appears not so keen on his idea of jumping from slippery rock to slippery rock.

And your names?

“Mahtzel and Aza.”

IMG_1788Why are you out here on such a cold day?

“Yeah, it is cold day. I bring her here. All my life I fishing. I love fishing. So, I have free day from my work so I bring her here. But she doesn’t let me fish. She says, ‘All fish, get out.’”

Laughing, hugging, touching each other, they wander away, not wanting me to pry anymore into their day. A lover’s story.

I head home, past the cookie-cutter Dutch houses, past the ducks and swans on the canals, and past the Belgium embassy.

Brussels is 110 miles away from this embassy. Almost the exact distance from Des Moines to Iowa City. And, like Iowa City, Brussels is a place of youth and excitement and the beginnings of life. Not the end.

As I pass, I notice flowers have appeared in front. A make-shift memorial to the dead and injured. Tulips and candles.

IMG_1832Tulips and candles make sense in the Dutch world. When the old fishermen die, the small church near the harbor rings its bells to mark their death. And before long, tulips and candles appear at the statue of the Dutch woman looking out to sea. Alone and vigilant she stands, waiting for a son or a husband or a lover to return. Hoping without hope.

On TV, the next day, more videos surface. As I look through the smoke and fear, past the legs of the dead and injured, I see survivors hunched together. A mother with her child held tight beneath her body. A man on the floor holding close a woman. Two more people in the distance, one draped over the other, arm and chest providing protection. These unremarked heroes will be forever at the airport in Brussels, long after they’ve safely gone home.

But life goes on. The ocean is fished. Boys flirt with girls. Heroes go unnoticed. And nature is cold and wet and unforgiving.

Tulips and candles seem as good a response as any.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National crisis looms — dramatic shortage of groups to hate

Dear subscriber: this is an article for Cityview’s April Fool’s issue. Some quotes may be fictional. Okay, one quote is fictional. But, trust me, not any of the quotes from Donald Trump.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.” Donald Trump, speech announcing his candidacy.

“I would build a Great Wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I will have Mexico pay for that wall, mark my words.” Donald Trump, speech announcing his candidacy.

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” Donald Trump, talking about himself in the third person, The Washington Post.

“I have black guys counting my money. … I hate it. The only guys I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day.” Donald Trump, U.S.A. Today.

“Who the fuck knows? I mean, really, who knows how much the Japs will pay for Manhattan property these days?” Donald Trump, Time.

“You have to treat ’em like shit.” Donald Trump referring to women, New York magazine.

Wow, let’s see, Mexicans, African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, Japanese, women. The list is so long, I’m afraid it has finally happened. We are running out of groups to hate. Sure, I know, hate is popular right now, but there is only so much to go around. It comes in a limited supply, folks, and we are consuming it faster than it is produced. So be warned. The shortage is upon us, and there is no one standing up lobbying the Iowa Utilities Board for a pipeline of hate across Iowa. As a result, we’re running dry, folks.

So we have to act quickly to save hate. And it’s up to us to solve this problem. As John F. Kennedy said, “It’s not what the country can do for you, it’s who you can hate.”

Before we get started on this hate search, let me be clear, this shortage is not our fault. Like global warming, it is just part of the natural earth cycle. But there is a realistic fear here: if we run out of others to hate, we might start turning inward and start hating our sons and daughters. Well, except for Donald Trump, he still wants to date his daughter.

But as we begin this search, don’t start getting all moralistic and whiny. This is something we can solve. From the beginning of time, we always chose a group or groups we don’t like based on “age, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability.” Sure, Iowa law tries to give some protection to those very groups — well, less so for gender identity, as we recently saw — but, come on, this is our go-to hate list. And, frankly, it’s just the history of the world. It’s the way it goes. And trust me, you don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of this list. Duh.

So what to do?

Well, I was hoping a historical approach might give us some answers to this hate shortage. Perhaps an analysis of how other groups in the past figured out who to hate.

Bingo. The one variable I see repeated time and again is the haters telling the world that the group to hate is stealing and killing babies. Look it up. Nazis said this about the Jews. Serbs said this about the Bosnians. Kuwaitis said this about the Iraqis. Catholics said this about the Muslims. And everyone said this about the Roma. And if that isn’t enough hate to go around, the hated group is then accused of eating the babies. I’m not lying. And the newest variation of this theme? Selling the “aborted babies” for research. My oh my.

Of course, it’s all hogwash, but is it instructive?

Not as helpful as you’d think. It tells us how to talk about the hated group, but not how to identify them. Listen, it’s good to know what to say next time we hate someone, but it doesn’t solve our hate-group deficit.

Then I stumbled upon the answer. I decided to look for the dominant trait of a prospective hated group. It doesn’t take a Donald Trump to see that the hated group is somehow weaker — politically, economically, socially, maybe even historically. Under this analysis, it is just nature’s story about the school yard bully. Survival of the meanest. Target the weaker individual and hate.

But we live in a brave new world, folks. The weak are not so weak. You know what I mean. Not so long ago, you beat up the hated kid, all your buddies patted you on the back, and you went off and spent the poor schmuck’s lunch money. Not anymore.Today, your righteous use of hate is being recorded on someone’s iPhone or by the Hy Vee parking lot video or a camera on an officer’s vest. And you’re screwed. Unfairly, of course. You know what happened to Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens football player. Yup, caught on video knocking out his fiancée in the elevator after we had all come to his defense just the day before. Egg on our face. Not a good day for hating the victim when that video was released.

But there is a lesson here. We need to pick on someone we can beat up. Someone who won’t videotape our nonsense. And someone who we can ultimately accuse of stealing and eating our babies.

Mmmmm . . . .

The answer’s obvious — we need to hate puppies.

IMG_6721

And maybe cats. Although, cats scare me just a little.

Whew. National crisis averted. Hate is again safe.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

IMG_6359

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

IMG_8009

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.

Image 4

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.

Image 1

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.

IMG_1549

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.

IMG_1579

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.

IMG_1599

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.

IMG_0117

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.

IMG_1539

“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.”

IMG_1462

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.”

IMG_1456

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.”

IMG_1416

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?

FullSizeRender

“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.

IMG_1439

“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.

IMG_1443

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