Was romance murdered?

Romance is fickle in the best of times. You light the candles. You pour the wine. You turn on slow jazz. And . . .  the topic of your mother comes up. How did that happen? What went wrong? And why are you sleeping with the dog in the spare bedroom?

But there do seem to be places that are more romantic than others. Sacred spots. We all have them. It might be over a beautiful meal at Lucca, or walking around Gray’s Lake at dusk, or sitting rink-side with a sloshing beer at a Buccaneers game. Whatever works. Heck, on one of these chilly nights, walk up Walnut Street in East Village with the holiday lights on either side and the golden glow of the Capitol in the distance. There you go. Is there any spot more romantic in the world than right there at that moment?

Paris is such a sacred spot.


It begins and ends with the waiters. First, grab that empty table on Rue Cler. Outside, of course. Yes, you both sit on the same side of the table looking out. Why? How else are you going to see the women of Paris walk with such confidence and grace, in high heels, on the cobblestones. And of course you will never look as debonair as that white-haired elderly man drinking espresso in an elegant suit and dress hat. That’s all right. You are here to learn. So chill.

The waiters certainly are. No smiles. No greetings. Certainly, no introductions. They stand on the fringe and ignore you. It’s all right. Lower your shoulders. Take a breath. Count to 10. This is your table for the night. Now just raise a finger or arch an eyebrow to tell him you are ready. He will come eventually. You will order a bottle of wine. Good. Now don’t talk quite so loudly. There you go. And maybe an hour later, you will order a meal. And maybe an hour after that, you will order an after-dinner drink. And you will sit and talk quietly and watch. Now you’ve got the hang of it.

Listen, the Paris waiter has just plowed the field, planted the crop, and given you your only job — to harvest romance. Sure, the softly lit street with its’ narrow bustling sidewalk doesn’t hurt. The low murmur of people talking and laughing in an enticingly melodic foreign language doesn’t hurt. And the on-the-hour sparkling of the distant Eiffel Tower certainly doesn’t hurt. But the languor of the waiters, that’s the key. The waiter has given you the moment, romance is yours for the taking.

And tomorrow you will wander the streets. Going from quarter to quarter. Ah, here’s where Hemingway liked to eat. And over there is the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Picasso Museum, the l’Orangerie, the Centre Pompidou. And there’s the bridge with the love locks.


And, look, Notre Dame Cathedral and Sainte Chapelle. And the Rodin garden. And the perfume stores. And there’s a macaron shop. And . . .

. . . 129 dead and counting. The unthinkable. Paris is violated. Sirens and bodies and screams and explosions and gun shots. All on a beautiful Paris evening. The armless Venus de Milo is weeping tears down her stoney face. Rodin’s Gates of Hell are opened at last. And back in Des Moines, Iowa? I want to vomit.

So, what remains? Is romance dead, killed by terrorists? Is the curiosity needed for romance to exist replaced by security cameras? Is whimsical yearning blown up by a suicide bomber? Do we sit at the cafe table staring out, not with joy and passion, but with a clear field of vision in case we need to draw our concealed weapons?

I don’t know.

But, in the aftermath, I can see the Paris waiter in my mind’s eye. White apron pulled tight at the waist. Vest and tie, impeccable. Standing on the fringes. Looking without looking. After the time that he thinks appropriate, he will approach. And he will answer with that French lilt.

“Monsieur, terrorism?” And he will smile only from the mouth, thin shoulders unmoved, white cloth draped over his left arm like the drape over a coffin. And then he will eloquently spit on the ground, as only a Parisian waiter could.

He will then look up, the consummate professional, and ask: “Monsieur would care for a red or white wine?”

Perhaps this is true.













The tenant farmer’s son

The jury sits attentively. Young and old. Casual and dressed. White and one African-American. They watch the lawyers. They glance discretely at the defendant. And then they look to the front. The judge is seated on a raised platform. Black robe cleaned and pressed. It’s nearly time.

District Court Judge Robert Hutchison sits with his head down, reading documents. His left fist rests against his cheek. Glasses perched. His long forehead smooth and calm above his dark twinkling eyes. He takes a breath, slips his glasses off, and turns to the jury.

“Good morning.”

And another day of trial begins at the Polk County Courthouse.

“We lived on a farm. My dad was a tenant farmer. My first two years I went to a one-room schoolhouse. I had two classmates in my grade. I vividly remember the pony shed in back because many of my schoolmates rode their ponies to school. I lived about a mile away, so of course my story is I walked through the snow uphill everyday.”

Judge Hutchison doesn’t crack a smile at this last small exaggeration. And although facts are delivered dispassionately, you know there’s always going to be a twist. Popping his own balloon is his favorite sport.

“1990 I became a judge. I was sworn in the same day Judge Joel Novak had his heart attack. There are many people who think that was not coincidental.”

Opening statements are made to the jury. Olu Salami, from the Polk County Attorney’s Office, loudly kicks the wood floor, demonstrating to the jury the blows inflicted by the defendant to the victim. Everyone watches and listens. Defense attorney Rich Bartolomei, when it’s his turn, disagrees that any kicks occurred at all. “It just didn’t happen,” he argues.

Fifty-two years earlier, Judge Hutchison was a young student at Carlisle High School.

“I had wrestled at Carlisle my freshman year. I held the record for being the person pinned the fastest for years. I could never understand how someone could beat it. How could you get pinned faster than I did?”

Then his life took a dramatic turn.

“I started carrying newspapers. Back at that time, the Register had a program with Phillips Andover and Phillips Exeter Academies. If you were a good newspaper carrier, they would introduce you to the school. The recruiters would come out here once a year. You then could pursue it on your own.”

Judge Hutchison was young for his age. But he went to meet the recruiters, he was interested, he applied, and he was accepted.

“I went off for grades 10, 11, and 12. To Andover in Massachusetts. I’d been to Mexico once when I was four, and to Minnesota for family vacations. Otherwise, I had never been out of Iowa.”

And so it went. Andover for prep school. Harvard for college. The University of Iowa for law school. Of course, Judge Hutchison’s description of these times all follow a similar disclaimer — “God knows how, but I did really well there.”

The victim is on the witness stand. He tells Salami of the injuries he’d received by the  defendant. Hard blows. Bartolomei goes after the victim on cross-examination. “Didn’t you give different stories in the past?” The fight is on.

Judge Hutchison was a successful lawyer, but it wasn’t enough for him. He wanted something else.

“The truth is, if you want to make a difference in people’s lives, your opportunity to do that is far greater as a district court judge than as a lawyer.”

So, a district court judge he became. And the differences he began to make surprised even him.

“My single most rewarding experience as a judge was being in Drug Court. That was so antithetical to me. I begged the chief judge to not send me. His response was, it’s your turn and you’re going.”

Judge Hutchison softly smiles.

“Drug Court was special because even though the success rate is about 50%, for those 50% you are the first positive role model they’ve ever had in their life. It’s like having kids all over again. To see someone who has done nothing but screw up their entire life, now they have a driver’s license, they’re working, they have a GED, in many cases they’ve reconciled with family members. That is really really special.”

Is this tough old judge a romantic at heart?

“I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of days I’ve been bored in 26 years. I know this is going to sound corny. I remind myself every day when I go to work, whatever I am doing, it is the most important case to the people there. I may be unsuccessful, but I try to be on my ‘A’ game every day. You just can’t do that unless you’re involved. I’m a pretty active judge on the bench.”

No kidding.

The judge chastises Bartolomei for his method of impeachment. He then prods Salami to clarify how he’s going to use the video presentation. Judge as umpire.

And how does your wife fare in this quixotic search to make a difference?

“I  really don’t mean for this to again sound corny, but from my perspective we are more in love now than we were 44 years ago. We continue to find new things that we like to do. My hope is that we get a long time retired together. We’ll see how that works out. As you well know, there’s no guarantees.”

A hopeless romantic.

The trial ends for the day. The jurors file out. The Constitutional mandate for a fair trial once more fulfilled until tomorrow.  

I sit alone in chambers waiting for Judge Hutchison to take care of other matters in the courtroom. I think of the multitude of decisions he makes every day as he rules on cases and referees lawyers and facilitates the truth. Decisions that affect your life, my life, and the stranger’s life. On the wall, framed, is a quote that can be clearly seen when you sit in the judge’s chair.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing — Edmund Burke 1795.”


By the way, Judge Hutchison retires in a month or so. Twenty-six years of taking care of our divorces, our civil disputes, and our criminal cases. Twenty-six years of bringing his “A” game. As for the triumph of evil? I don’t think so today.













A cat’s life

At 5:15 this afternoon, the vet is coming to put our cat down.

It’s hard to believe.

Chester lies still on a blanket on our son’s bed. An old guy. Eighteen years old. One hundred twenty-six in cat years. A good long life by anyone’s reckoning. But there is no purr today. Just the gentle up and down of his sides as he breathes, limp, eyes closed. Hanging closely onto that last thread.

He was a stray, you know. Found down near the Des Moines River back when we were all a lot younger. Two women rescued him from a life on the streets. Jeannie Vaudt and Anu Vaitheswaran, young lawyers with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office back in those days. Their attempt to house him in a government building was done with great hope but little success. It appears not everyone appreciated the litter box. The young women were forced to make a plea for a new home.

Animals come and go in our house. Cats and dogs and even a goldfish. A helpful pattern has emerged over the years as to how this occurs. My wife and kids come to me and propose that we adopt a new animal. I emphatically say “no.” I give a clear and lengthy explanation as to why the “no” is final. I remark on the heavy responsibilities we already have, the failure of past promises when it came to caring for other cats and dogs, the destruction of couches, chairs, shoes, and rugs, and the general chaos that already exists in our house. “NO” is the answer. Everyone nods in agreement.

The next day the animal is part of our family.

Chester became one of a long line of cats living in our home. And just like with the other animals, I fell in love.

By the way, don’t get smug, you would have fallen in love too. A deep purr that reverberates from him into your chest like the heavy bass from a rumbling car idling next to you at the stop. Golden soft fur that begs to be petted, and stroked, and made smooth. A personality that just wants to be at the party, and, by the way, to BE the party — resulting in any social event being a grand opportunity for Chester to purr loudly and jump on to the lap of every hapless guest. And always finding that one special guest who is allergic to cats. He loves a crowd. It isn’t complicated.

And the years passed. He played in the tall grass. He harassed unwary guests. And he raced around the backyard chasing our golden lab. A cat’s life.

“Cancer of the mouth,” the vet said. Not pretty. Strings of drool dripped on my keyboard a few weeks ago as he leaned into me as I wrote. And a stink came from the disease that made my nostrils flare. But then an echo of the purr would be softly heard. The sunken eyes would have a spark. He would butt his head one more time against my cheek.

“Alive . . .  I’m not done yet . . . I’m not ready to go,” he seemed to say.

The idea of putting an animal “down” is complicated. Notice, it’s not “up.” I’ve held and petted many of our animals over the years as they’ve been put down. It’s never uplifting. It’s never purifying. It’s never some wonderful marker that says you’ve passed this step in the stages of grief. It’s just sad.

Thankfully, our vet, Dr. Michael Henning, helps us. A tall, strong-looking man. Wide-smiled and sturdy. I always wonder if he used to wrestle cattle in some former large-animal practice. But for over 20 years, he’s been one of the owner/vets at Starch Pet Hospital and takes care of cats and dogs and miscellaneous critters. Oh, yeah, and takes care of us. He shows up at our house when an animal needs to be put down. He looks at us with his kindly eyes. And talks us all through the inevitable. When tears are all you can see, he sadly sees for you.

So here we are. Chester has stopped eating for several days. He struggles to drink. His skin only covers bones. His old large head droops. His eyes glaze. The purr is gone.

There will be no pardon from the governor, folks. Lourdes water will not save the day. I’m afraid it is time. I call the vet.

Several weeks ago in the warm weather, Chester watched me painting the peeling window frames outside the house. His golden hue melded into the yellow leaves fallen from the maple trees. Crouched down low, only his head showing above the grass, he would change positions with the sun, catching the rays on his still-lustrous coat. I like to think he was dreaming of the high plains then. The big cats coming down to the water. The smell of earth and grass that hint of the winter to come. The warmth of the sun as it toasted his fur. The joy of life.


There’s a knock at the front door. It’s 5:15.






The determined orphan

The youthful looking man comes out on the stage trailing the announcer. He is dressed all in black, with black hair, black short beard, and dark eyes. A dancer for sure, with feet turned out, head upright, and neck long. He stops at center stage — although nothing else about him stops. He vibrates in place. The announcer’s short introduction is not short enough for him. At last, the microphone is in his hands.

Serkan Usta looks out on the audience. Beaming. He takes a deep breath, pauses, and then proclaims to us all, “You will love this ballet!”

An observation? A threat? A plea of hope?

If you visited Istanbul, Turkey, not too many years ago, you probably bought trinkets from the many dealers hawking goods near some ancient museum or some amazing mosque. Souvenirs to bring home to Iowa. While you were standing there, a small boy kept poking you in the leg. Tap tap tap. He is holding out a bag for you to use as a container for your souvenirs. A child of the street. You paid him a dollar and off he went to peddle another bag to another tourist. A blink in your life.

And the boy?

“I grew up in orphanage. I went there when I was five. What happened, in those days my mom had an arranged marriage. The guy was 20 years older and she was 15. She got married and I was born when she was 18. When she was pregnant again, I was five years old, he left us for another woman. My mom was not very educated, but she is smart.  So, she sat in a huge factory and sewed. I would sit next to her.”

Matter of fact. No embellishments. No romanticism. No reprise of “Aladdin.” Life as it is. You fill in the blanks.

“She would take me to school, but I was off to the streets the moment she left. Istanbul is huge. Like 15 million people. I was all over the place. At five years old.”

And Serkan Usta’s adventures would begin, roaming the streets of one of the largest cities in the world. A child alone.

“I would go to touristic areas to make some money. All the tourists, they buy little things and they try to hold them. They have no bag, and I would come to them with a plastic bag, and they’d say, ‘Oh thank you,’ and give me a dollar. I didn’t speak English. I would just tap their legs.”

And what would you do with the money?

“At night I would go to the movies. My mother would come home. ‘Serkan is nowhere to be found.’ I’d show up at 10 at night. She would be crying.”

And so after many such episodes, with no ability to keep him safe, and more than a few brushes with disaster, off to the orphanage Serkan Usta went. From five to 18, he was one of many children with the government as parent and the orphanage as home.

But around the age of 10, Serkan’s life changed. A man came to the orphanage to leave a donation, saw all the boys, and proposed that some of the boys come and audition as dancers with his company. They needed male dancers. Serkan was one of three that made the cut. A new beginning. Dance became his love and the director became his surrogate father. A good time in his life.

Before long, he was recognized as a star. At 16, he was asked to come dance for the Kirov Academy in Washington D.C. He was unwilling to leave the man who taught him dance, but at 17, he accepted the full scholarship to the Kirov.

Ah, but another problem for this orphan, how to get to America with not a nickel to his name?

“I go to the airport and knock on people’s doors, like TWA, Turkish Airlines, Pan Am. Pan Am, one of the managers said, ‘Do you have 12 dollars?’ I don’t have 12 dollars. He takes 12 dollars and gives it to me. And then he said, ‘It will cost 12 dollars.’ I give him his 12 dollars, and he says, ‘You have a standby ticket now.’”

The next hurdle was the visa to America.

“I needed to know English for the visa. I didn’t. The ballet school told me when they ask me about English, tell them to read the second page of my application. The visa guy looked at the second page. It said, ‘Ballet is international language, he does not need to speak English to learn it.’ The ballet school wrote this. Amazingly, I got my passport.”

And now the five-year-old orphan, very fluent in English these days, stands on the stage at Hoyt Sherman Place, the Artistic Director of Ballet Des Moines. Next to him is his wife of many years, Lori Grooters, Ballet Mistress. Her involvement in his life?

“I can do anything next to her.”

And he has done much. Dancing, choreography, running Ballet Des Moines.


And now he wants you. It’s no more complicated than that. Sure, he wouldn’t mind some more money for his productions, and more money to pay his dancers, and of course he’d like a bigger stage. But he makes no bones what he really wants. He wants people in the seats. He believes if he can get you there, you will be amazed and changed and you will never leave.

“People deserve to see something really really cool. I’m 41 years old. I live here, I’m probably going to die here. Before I do, people need to come see this ballet. I need people.”

Serkan Usta looks at me with an evangelical fervor . . . but then we run out of time. Back to practice he goes. The company has another performance and he has work to do. He leaves in a whirl of graceful movement.

So, now that we’re sitting here alone, do you feel that tap tap tap at your leg? Could it be an orphan with a ballet ticket?
















Tin containers with a dollop of love

Her dangling foot hangs loose in the air, tapping to some silent beat as she talks. If you look closely, a spiral tattoo loops around the fine bones at the top of her foot. With a few twists of your neck, the words that make up the spiral become clear: “This above all to thine own self be true.”


“I’m an open book,” says a laughing Brandy Lueders.

No kidding.

The old wooden screen door propped open at the back entrance is a sign that things are not going to be as usual. Not so long ago, hobos jumped from trains and approached folks’ back kitchens for a handout. Not so different today, it appears, as I approach the back door to the kitchen for my dinner.

The few people in line are certainly friendly, smiling, but clearly in recovery from a long day at work or chasing kids. Business attire appears to be the current dress. Nice cars are parked on the street outside. Greetings and small talk are overheard as friends are discovering old friends on this back porch at the Wallace House in Sherman Hills.

The screen door opens wider, ushering the next person into the bright kitchen. Once inside, a man with tattoos running up and down both arms stands behind the table passing out tinfoil containers of food and figuring out your order.


“Hello,” he cheerfully greets each customer.

John Cornish, a psychologist by training, now a wellness coach, yoga teacher, and massage therapist (“John Cornish Wellness”), is here to hand you your take-home supper. He smiles. Perfectly serene. Grounded.

And over there, moving between rooms, is the cook. A vision of piercings and tattoos and colorful clothing. A fairy loose on earth.


“I’m a farm girl from northern Iowa. I spent a lot of  time with my grandma who lived just up our drive. She was a cook. She loved to cook. So I was just up there hanging out with my grandma cooking.”

With wide eyes and a gravelly voice and a seen-some-life verve, Brandy Lueders speaks warmly of her beginnings as a cook.

“Everybody was farming. My grandma put together these meals that she sent out twice a day. She drives to all the fields to deliver these lunch boxes. She had all these tin containers, and she would make these casseroles, and they would get amazing meals — even apple dumplings. This is the environment I grew up in.”

And so began the trajectory of Brandy’s life. Off to culinary school at DMACC for several years, perfecting her cooking skills. Then off to Portland, Oregon, for several more years, cooking in restaurants around Portland. And then over to St. Paul, Minnesota, cooking for a large food service. Then finally home to Des Moines to eventually start her own business, preparing healthy meals once a week for anyone and everyone. Life in a paragraph.

But of course, life is never just that. Two past marriages (“I’m a relationship wreck,” she says with a laugh), two kids that are the essence of her life, a three-year romantic partnership with John, and the home birth of her own business — The Grateful Chef. Grateful indeed.

“At the time, I had two small children at home, still married, and this is when The Grateful Chef was conceived. I had a girlfriend who came to me and said, ‘You know, I am overwhelmed and need some help.’ I said, ‘ok,’ and began preparing meals. It very slowly started from there. I was doing all this from home.”

“All this” is providing prepared meals for all of us. Healthy. Unusual. Fun. A treat to be picked up every Wednesday afternoon. Main courses, soups, salads. Pay your money and take your goodies. And back out the screen door you go.

Ah, but of course this isn’t just about the food.

Brandy reads an e-mail she just received from a woman who has lost her husband — “He showed his love for others by cooking for them. Friends knew this and worried I wouldn’t do a very good job taking care of myself following his passing. You are helping to ensure I am eating healthy. I know this pleases him to no end.”

My goodness. Is there more?

“People have become like family to us. They are so appreciative. It just blows my mind. I donated all these meals to people who are going to get a meal on the day they’re going to have their chemo treatment. It’s through a group called Can Do Cancer. My admiration for these people who are fighting cancer? I bow down to them. One of those persons is in remission and she has become a great friend. It’s just so cool.”

Okay, what is going on here?

“I believe in energy in general. When I’m in this kitchen, I love, and I mean love — because cooking is my passion — every minute that I’m here. Like I just love it. I’m dancing, doing crazy stuff. I try to keep the energy light and fun. That is important to me. We have fun when we’re here. That love and fun goes into the food while you’re making it. It’s in there.”

And Brandy smiles at me. I can buy it or not. Her beliefs won’t be shaken by my doubts. She is who she is. Period.

I take my two big tins of food. My soup. My salad. I pay my money. The screen door shuts behind me.

As I drive off, the two tin containers sit stolidly on the front seat. Mute. No more smiling fairy dancing around, or tattooed John speaking softly. But, I think as I turn onto the freeway, what if these tins are in fact mixed with a dollop of love?

I hurry on home to supper.




“I was never pretty enough.”

“I was never pretty enough. I was never thin enough. I was never good enough. I was never smart enough.”

The cold wind blows around the parked cars and down the buildings and up the broad sidewalks in the East Village. This taste of winter-to-come causes a quick shiver. A foreshadowing of red-chapped cheeks and cold fingers. Lord, winter might not be as fun as it sounded back in mid-August. Cold and ice and slush and snow and cold. Did I mention the cold?

Then the smell of hot coffee sneaks out the door at Village Bean. Smokey. A little harsh. Tickling your throat. A life-line.

The interior is warm and softly lit. A grizzled man is tucked into himself against the far corner, music plays softly, and the barista is hard at work on my latte. Art is displayed on the walls. In the back, there hang vintage pictures of a woman from another time. A  kaleidoscope of moods splashed across the 12 photos. Pensive. Happy. Melancholy. Observant. Gushing. Waiting. Wondering. Flirting. Yes, even one where she’s had enough of this silliness.


And around the edges are written words of self-doubt — never thin enough, or smart enough, or good enough, or pretty enough. A mantra of human anxiety.

The female artist who did this work must still be young. She’s clearly not tired of railing against the craziness of life and the ever-present lack of self-confidence. She’s obviously a revolutionary. I’ll bet she wears long flowing dresses and ties her hair up with a strip of cloth and has a weakness for poetry and Victorian men of a certain age. I want to meet her.

The barista points to the crumpled man in the corner. The artist at rest.

Don Hirt sighs. A broad-chested man, no longer young, top buttons open on his shirt, an earring dangling from his left ear, a weariness around his eyes. He unfolds from the stool.

An ID on a lanyard hangs around his neck. I’ll be darned, this guy’s on his afternoon break.

“I have worked at the Iowa Historical Museum for the past 14 years. I manage the historic structure inventory, which is over 130,000 records of historic buildings across all of Iowa.  And then I do Geographic Information Systems, which is electronic mapping. Map locations of historic structures, archeological survey areas.”

Oh my. And you’re the artist?

“I was always creative with photography, and I had dawdled with art over the years.  Sometimes people say if you just decide to be something, and start pretending to be that something, you might become that something. Does that make sense at all?”

A photo book with a mirror on the front cover hangs on the far wall. Snapshots poke out from the inside.

“The mystery snapshots that you can’t see because the album is pasted shut. This piece is called Frustration.” Hirt chuckles softly.

He walks to the front of Village Bean to show me his favorite piece in this show of a dozen items of mixed media and collage mounted on old wooden cabinet doors — “Erector Boy” he calls it.

“It may sound strange, but because I’ve been in data processing, I mull things over. I get an idea in my head and it kind of churns. Then you sit down and it comes in 20 minutes. Erector Boy is that way. I thought about that for a long time. I found the metal box from an erector set in one antique mall, they were dumping it for a buck. The parts came out of a different erector set out of the original wooden box. So the parts are much older than the lid. That piece fell together quickly, but I thought about it for a long time.


And what about the “I was never pretty enough” woman?

“When I lived in Seattle, I’d ride bus a lot and I wrote in journals.  What do people write in journals all the time? ‘I wish I could be better at what I’m doing. I wish I could be happier.  I wish I could be thinner. I wish I could be more active. I wish I had more free time.’” Hirt pauses, remembering that time.

“Sometimes you go back to a journal that you wrote 15 years ago, and you’re writing the same things today. ‘I wish I was prettier.  I wish I was happier.  I wish I was thinner. I wish people liked me.’” Another pause by Hirt.  “As for the woman in the images? I had a whole stack of those old photos and she just looked like a real cool person.”

Hirt then gives a small smile, drinks up the rest of his coffee, tells me the show runs until the end of November, and back to work he goes. His day job.

The barista wipes the counter. The fall wind pushes the front door with the unsurprising news of winter’s coming. The espresso machine whirls out another two shots in defiance.

The woman-who-was-never-pretty-enough hangs in the back, forever laughing and squinting at the sun and looking surprised and just a bit embarrassed and perhaps in love. Certainly in love. She is mesmerizing.

“I was never pretty enough. I was never thin enough. I was never good enough. I was never smart enough.”
















We were here

“Kilroy was here.” It’s simple enough, a slogan that accompanies a crude drawing of a bald head and eight fingers looking over a wall. Whatever its actual origin, it was graffiti that inspired hope and humor for GI’s in World War II. If Kilroy had already been there, then it was possible to go forward. Somebody marked the way. A friend. Not unlike the trail-marker trees bent to point the correct direction for Native Americans, to guide those who followed. Or the pile of rocks at a fork on the trail, showing by sheer mass those who have taken that path. Kilroy was there. Obviously.


The middle of another Iowa summer at the downtown Des Moines Art Festival. The couple laughingly sit at the table and paint. Focused on the job at hand, they work on their designs, self-consciously aware that they aren’t supposed to be artists. But here they are.

Not far from them, a giant bird rests tilted with wings outstretched in the middle of Grand Avenue. Smaller birds are aligned on tables under a large tent. Folks are donning white gloves, dipping into the paint, and adding their marks to the large bird as they pass by.

The artist, Bounnak Thammavong, living in Swisher, Iowa, conceived of this unique idea of a large bird sculpture trailed by a group of smaller birds — a piece he calls Birds of a Feather.  All to be hung during this month of October at the Des Moines International Airport in the baggage claim area. The clever twist by Thammavong? We were all invited to paint these birds during the Des Moines Art Festival. Thammavong made us all artists.


And Rhonda Karr and Ron Karr decided to take advantage of this opportunity. So they grabbed an apron, picked up a small bird each, and began their art projects.

“I thought it was a neat idea to be part of something that was going up in the City,” said Rhonda. Bemused at the entire endeavor and making no claim to greatness, but happy to be a part.

Ron also made no bones about his skills.

“This is a simple idea. And a lot of people will get to be a part of it. I thought it was just a neat idea. But I am no artist.” They both laugh at the obvious. At least to them.

But Rhonda comes to his defense, the good wife.

“Well, you might consider him an artist in wood. He’s a carpenter. I, on the other hand, am in accounting. I followed him here.” Rhonda pauses, thinking about the implications of what she just said.

“Oh my goodness, what are we doing here? I’ve followed him here, just like I have for 46 years.” They both laugh. “Last Monday was our anniversary.”

Arms around each other, they agree to pose over their creations and the creations of many other folks who stopped to leave their mark. And, by the way, the creation of a 46-year-old marriage. That’s something that says, “The Karrs were here.”

IMG_2246Later in the summer, at the Iowa State Fair, was another opportunity. The large wind turbines sat near the southwest gates. On their side. And people climbed a ladder to sign their name to the giant wings. Or profess their love by initials and a heart. And now during the months of fall, somewhere in Iowa, those turbines are turning, proclaiming to the geese flying south — “Bill loves Annie.” It’s good to know. A mark has been left.

One theory has Kilroy being a rivet checker at a shipyard during World War II. He would make his sign in chalk to show that he had actually checked the rivets. “Kilroy was here.” Whatever the origin, the message became popular with American soldiers. Robert Capa, a World War II photographer, wrote of the rescue of GI’s trapped near Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. When Capa pulled into Bastogne, white chalk on the charred remains of a barn wall announced: “Kilroy was stuck here.”

So we leave marks. On birds high above baggage claim, on the blades of a wind turbine, or on a barn in Belgium.

We were here.






Rain and cold and dark were all that awaited the women and children riding the late night bus when they were ordered off into the rain and cold and dark. Terrified.

“The military men took all of us off the bus and they put us in a line to wait for something. What for? No one is talking to anyone. They were just keeping us there. The kids had to go pee. A guy said, you can just go behind those bushes. So I took my son and my niece, and we went behind the bushes. By the time we came back, I see my sister, absolutely petrified, just shaking, my mom next to her. My mom is holding my other son, my sister is holding her son. ‘What happened?’ I asked.”

Zeljka Krvavica sits across from me, gracefully leaning into the straight-back bench. The scarf around her neck perfectly looped and tied. Stylish. Legs crossed. Eyes glistening with tears of memory. This is not easy. Even 23 years later, in her comfortable living room on a sunny fall day in Des Moines, Iowa, this is still not easy.

“This is one of the experiences I really really try to forget.”

Zeljka Krvavica was born and raised in Sarajevo in a time of peace and prosperity. A multicultural European city made up of Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and everyone else. She had family and friends, went to college and studied English and English Literature, and was highly successful in her work. By the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, she was one of the leaders in charge of the opening and closing ceremonies. Unbelievable at her young age. She met her future husband, and life was good.

“Sarajevo is a cosmopolitan town. Crossroads of East and West. It has always been a very politically involved town. In former Yugoslavia, it was a mixture of everyone. It was a very exciting city.”

The Olympics ended. People were so impressed by her work, she was invited to be on the personal staff of the Yugoslav ambassador to the United States. With husband in tow, off they went to Washington D.C. Four wonderful years later, with a new baby, they were given a choice — return to Sarajevo or continue working in D.C. Zeljka and her husband chose Sarajevo, the home they loved. It was 1989.

Zeljka, smart, politically savvy, an intellectual, says that she was oblivious to the dangerous changes taking place in her world. She was in love with her husband, her son, and her soon-to-be second son. She, like many people living in Sarajevo, thought the violence brewing around the Balkans from the breakup of Yugoslavia could not possibly include them and their beautiful city. So they chose to stay.

“We were thinking this would never happen in Bosnia. Part of the reason we went back to Bosnia was to vote. We knew something historic was going on. We wanted to cast our voices for the independence of Bosnia Herzegovina. The majority of Bosnians, especially in urban areas, were people who were more laid back, and not homogenous like in the villages. They did not think anything was going to happen. Then, we suddenly realized something was happening.”

And the bombing of Sarajevo began. Zeljka’s world turned upside down. The men were trapped. She, raised as a Catholic, and her husband, raised as a Muslim, faced another choice — to separate and get the children out, or to stay together in a city under siege. They chose for her and the children to leave. Zeljka and her two babies, her sister and her two babies, and her mother, were allowed to leave on a night bus evacuating women and small children. And so they were on the bus, in the middle of the night, traveling in Bosnian Serb-held lands. Everyone was terrified. The bus was stopped. They were all ordered off the bus. They were told to stand in a line in the wet and the cold and the dark.

Then, the unthinkable.

“The soldiers announced that we had to leave one child there and just take one child with us. ‘No, no, no! You are not taking all your children,’ they shouted. ‘One child for one woman or family!’”

Zeljka pauses.  Lost in the memory.  Lost in the choice.

“And then we all started crying and screaming.  And the soldiers were like, ‘We will kill you.’”

Zeljka’s words begin to tumble together.

“And then suddenly, another military man came up. We were standing there freezing. He told us, ‘GO GO GO!’”

Zeljka calms her breath.

“And we just all jumped on the bus with all our children and left.”

It was the beginning of her life as a refugee. Eventually she ended up in Croatia with other refugee women and children. No men. She lived in a small room with her two kids for a year and a half. Teaching English for extra food. There wasn’t much to go around.

“There was a lot of solidarity and a lot of helping each other. My feminism really got stronger there, seeing these women being able to survive and be pillars for their families and save these kids. With all due respect, I have always been a strong believer that women are much stronger than men. In every aspect.”

Zeljka’s husband joined her (courtesy of a U.S. military flight out of Sarajevo because their first son was a U.S. citizen) and an offer was made for resettlement. Come to Iowa.

“I got a cable asking if I would accept a job in Iowa. I said, ‘Yes I would.’ I didn’t ask any more questions about what the job was.” Zeljka laughs softly.

Later, when they were approved and she asked the woman doing the resettlement paper work for any information on Iowa, the woman paused and said, “Well, I’m from New York.” The woman paused in thought again. “Yes, yes, potatoes. You will be eating a lot of potatoes in Iowa.” Again, a soft laugh by Zeljka.

But Zeljka did come to Iowa and is presently a case manager with the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services.  She has worked with every refugee population that has come to our state since 1993, doing everything that needs to be done to get them settled. She has a special affinity for women refugees and runs several programs to address issues of mental health and domestic abuse and to teach diversity training to our kids in school. But the job is rarely easy.

“Over 8000 men and boys were killed in three days in a tiny little village in eastern Bosnia, just because someone thought they were different and were of a different religion. So, can you imagine serving the mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters of these men?”


Recently, Zeljka Krvavica went to Washington D.C. to collect an award from President Obama. She was honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees. What does that mean? Well, she saves people.

And so it sometimes goes with choices.










Room at the table

If you’re all the way to the mermaid tank at the Des Moines Renaissance Faire, you’ve gone too far.  This is understandable, because you were probably distracted and beguiled by the smiles and colors and beauty of the sights when you walked in the gate.  How could you not be?  And, in fact, how will this orange-hatted baby ever reach for the dull black-and-grays of adulthood after this experience?


But here you are at the mermaid tank.  A red-headed siren to be sure.  But her pool is just a wee bit further than we are going right now.  So, first let’s take a left down near those stalls.  There you go.  We are here at last.  A jousting tournament, with knights and squires and decorated horses.

“I’m 23.  I’ve been doing this for about 8 years now.  I’m head squire.  I set the field and deal with everything field-related.  Making sure that everything we need on the field is on the field the way it’s needed to be.”

Alex Lundy is our squire.  Yup, to a knight.  Although, there’s always more to the story of a squire.  He’s also a car detailer for Adesa in Grimes.  His full-time job.

“That’s how I pay for the apartment, pay for my internet, pay for my phone, pay for my water, pay for my car, pay for every single thing.”

But these mundane worries are not for today.  Today he is impish and laughing and entertaining.  Unsurprisingly, his stage name is “Happy.”


And, no, he’s not happy because he just got done cleaning up horse poop from the last jousting match.  He’s happy to just be out in the mix of things.  To be with his friends.  To play a character from another time and another place.  To be himself and to have fun.

“Getting to be able to fight my friends is the most fun.  I don’t know if you saw the first show, but me and my friend Grayson did a squire fight.  I love doing the fights.  Coming up with new ways to hit each other and not hurt each other is always exciting.  We have a spring run of shows and a fall run of shows.  We travel around the Midwest.  As far down as Wichita, and as far east as St. Charles, next to Chicago.  We practice whenever we can.”

Grayson Gambrall, his buddy, readily agrees.

“I play Grumpy.  He’s a squire for either Sir Daniel or Sir Joseph.  He wears a mask to disguise his face and identity.  He’s kind of mischievous.  I’m back and forth between good and evil.”

IMG_3162  So, Grumpy, what’s in this for you?

“This is something very unique.  It is very fun.”

Is that so?  What do you do for your full-time job?

I’m a senior in high school this year.  Dallas Center-Grimes.  I’m only 17.”

My goodness.  And what do your classmates think of all this?

“They think it’s cool that I do this.”

I am struck with wonder.  Knights, squires, minstrels, jugglers, fairies, yeomen, pirates, Scottish golfers, gypsy dancers, a king and a queen, and even you and me.  All exist together at the Renaissance Faire.  Young and old.  Happy and grumpy.  Kilted and unkilted.  All are accepted.  All support each other.  All coexist.

Even the mermaid.

IMG_3160It makes you wonder about things — after a summer of political wrangling of who’s in and who’s out, who’s a refugee and who’s not, who can stay and who has to go — if there’s room at the table for a mermaid, there must be room at the table for everyone.  It seems simple enough on a warm fall day in Iowa as the leaves turn towards winter.











A rack of clothes

“I don’t have any trinkets under the counter,” the man looks at me, cheekbones smiling, eyes soft, freckles splattered across his face, “I only have service.”

He stands in front of a rack of clothes that have been tailored and cleaned and are waiting for pick-up.  His sharply pressed shirt, well-fitted slacks, and a tape measure draped around his shoulders all speak of a different time — a time of sleek black cars, long dresses with feathered hats, and pocket squares with dark suits.  An elegant time.

“I do major to minor alterations.  Everything from silk to leather.  Dry cleaning.  I do everything in dry cleaning from slacks to bridal gowns.”

IMG_3152And so the day begins with J.D. Daniels, Jr., owner and manager of Frederick’s Tailoring and Quality Cleaners in West Des Moines.

“I’ve always had to work.  I’ve never had my hand out expecting people to give me anything.  I believe you have to put something in to get something out.”

His voice is buttery and smooth.  The slight cadence of a preacher without the drama.  Honeyed tones.  The calming voice you want by your sick-bed when your mom is not around.

“I’m only as good as my last job.  Okay?  And I also maintain that each time I see a customer, it is the last time I see them until they come back again.  I never take anybody for granted.”

Daniels never has.  He got off the bus in downtown Des Moines on September 19, 1965.  Seventeen-year-old Daniels looked around at the rough crowd milling about the station and decided this was a bad idea.  But with encouragement from his mother back in Tennessee, he decided to give it a shot.

And fifty years later, here he is.  Of course, it was not a straight path.  He tried being a masseur, a car salesman, a construction worker, a furniture salesman, an office worker, a warehouse man.  You name it, Daniels gave it a whirl.  But it was clothing that drove his passion.  Selling it, buying it, fitting it, cleaning it.  He loved it all.

Daniels worked at various clothing stores around Des Moines.  Became the top salesman at every one.  “Made top book there,” he says.

“I sold more furnishings — shirt, ties, and slacks — than the furnishings people. Clothing, you see, is sports coats and suits.  When the garment came in, I’d take time to put it together with shirts and ties.  The objections I had to overcome were always the same, ‘Well, we already have some ties at home.’  ‘Yes ma’am, but when you bought those ties, they went with something you already had.  So if you put an old tie with a new suit it makes it an old suit.’”

A deep, melodious laugh echoes around the room.  The salesman at work.

“The only month I didn’t outsell was the month I lost my brother.  I named my shop for him.  Fred.  Frederick.  Fred had character.  It is difficult for me to pack up and leave this store because, as you noticed in the phone calls I’ve had, his name is mentioned every single time, every single day.  Every time my phone rings.”

“Thank you for calling Frederick’s Tailoring and Quality Cleaners.”

At 68 years old, however, Daniels is feeling his bones.  He can see the end in sight.  But, the good days are still awfully good.

“When I can bring happiness to someone based on something I have personally done for them, that they didn’t think could be done, it is very fulfilling to me.  It just happened a week ago.  Young lady with a wedding in Dallas, Texas.  A bridesmaid dress was way to small for her.  I turned it around in one day.  She came in, she couldn’t sleep the night before.  There was no material to make it larger.  But we work small miracles.  Magic is one thing, but a miracle is something else.  Magic is making something appear that wasn’t there.  A miracle is just making it happen.   She cried because I saved that dress for her.”

This is all fine and good today, but wasn’t it unnerving back in 1965 to come to Des Moines, alone and only 17, to try to start this new life, and then struggle through job after job?

“I wasn’t nervous.  I had seen a lot of different things in the past.”  Daniels looks off, remembering.

And then this successful, mature businessman, operating a tailor and cleaning shop in a strip mall in West Des Moines, told me of a different time and a different place.


Back in 1963, Daniels, seated on the far left, was involved in the civil rights movement.  It was a heated time, a time of change, a time of protest.  In one protest in which he participated, he and two high school buddies were refused admittance to the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, Daniels’ home town.  Separate but equal was the rule back then.  Each young teenager had the dollar admission raised in his hand.  Refusing to move.  This image was captured by a fellow schoolmate, Charles Howell, just before the teens were arrested by the group of white police officers.

“I am not bitter because of growing up with racism and segregation.  I have always looked at people as just being people.  Not being better than, more than, or less than me.  I respect people for what they’ve accomplished.  I don’t hold anyone in awe for what they do, or where they live, or what their last name is, or what their profession is.  With the support of my wife of 42 years, I’m able to continue to do what I do.  I am truly blessed.”

And Daniels laughs softly, adjusts his shirt, and gently touches the rack of clothes behind him, his life work.

“I take pride in what I do.”