George Arvidson

George Arvidson died the other day. Most of you probably didn’t know him. I barely did. He floated around my legal career as an older fellow lawyer, but we rarely had contact. I picture him in the courthouse with his traditional suit, glasses, and an easy smile. A defense lawyer down to his toes. But he and I never tangled and only shared an easy “hi” as we passed through the doors of a courtroom. Professional acquaintances at best. “That’s George Arvidson,” was the extent of our relationship.

And the years passed.

Eventually I retired and set aside my prosecutor clothes. I found myself on a barstool in the Greenwood Lounge next to my friend Jim Duncan.

I’ll be darned if it wasn’t George Arvidson sitting to my right.

“How’s your wife?” he asked.

What? He doesn’t even know my wife.

“How’s your wife?” he repeated. “Is she still prosecuting war criminals in The Hague?”

I had never realized how deep George’s voice was and how it was wrapped in a quiet softness. I leaned in to catch his words. His shoulders were bent, his head was down, he smiled a lot.

He wanted to know about me, my wife, my retirement, my writing. He wanted to talk politics and law and life. Everything was on the table. He had an opinion, but he wanted to hear mine. Of course, everyone has their own issues, but he seemed genuinely interested in me and my concerns. And then he needed to go. “Better get home and see what the little lady has for dinner,” he jokingly said.

A brief moment in time. I chalked it up as a fluke of kindness.

A month later, I’m again at the Greenwood Lounge before suppertime. Jim Duncan on my left. George on my right.

“How’s your wife?”

It was as if it was a mantra. The way to begin a heart-felt discussion. And the questioning began. The same as last time — wanting to know about my life, my thoughts, my worries. Then home George went for supper with his wife.

I returned weeks later. Yup, there he was again.

“How’s your wife?”

This was no fluke. A truly kind, caring, curious man, George sat next to me on the barstool. He sat without judgement or agenda. He sat comfortable in his own silence and openness to mine. Unbelievable.

So, here I am, back in The Hague with my wife, who’s again prosecuting war criminals. Sadly, just the other day, my friend Jim Duncan sent me a mournful note. George passed.

There is a therapeutic notion about a “cut-off.” The idea is that whenever you last leave a bad or problematic situation, by running away or having no contact, the geographic separation will not solve any of the problems. And if brought back together, even years later, you will find yourself with all the same problems as at the point of cut-off. You know what I mean?  But does the reverse hold true? If the last time you were with someone and it was good, and then there is a geographic cut-off, is it forever good? Do you always return to that moment in the past? Does that good moment, no matter how small, last forever?

I want to think so.

Before I last left town, I saw George at the Greenwood Lounge. He was bright and spirited as I sat beside him. He leaned in, he asked his questions about us returning to The Hague, he listened. And then he left early, as he always did, to get home for supper with his wife.

He stopped next to my chair.

“Joe, be sure to tell your wife I wish her well.” And he shook my hand.

More kind words from a kind man. No surprise. And, of course, these are his last words to me in this life. Who knew?

And then George left.

By the way, I get it, these are small kindnesses George offered. Nothing earth-shattering. No exploding rockets commemorating great deeds of bravery. No rescuing of widows and small children. Just those small kindnesses that change everything.


To this day I can see George, head bent, shoulders stooped, heading out the back door of the Greenwood Lounge.

“Better get home and see what the little lady has for dinner.”

Yes, you’d better, George, because you’re running late.

May his soul rest in peace.










“Keep pumping your arms, Joe. Legs up and squeezed together. Shoulder blades on your back. Keep that pelvis on the mat. Belly button in and up. That’s it.”

The hard-bodied, diminutive instructor, Monique Weevers, rattles off the technique for a Joseph Pilates sit-up called the “hundred.” We all gamely follow. More or less. Okay, I’m a bit on the less side.

But we all keep pumping. Our stomachs start rebelling. But we keep pumping. Our legs start dropping. Yup, we’re still pumping over here. Am I going to get sick? Pump, pump, pump. Maybe.


Suddenly, Monique says firmly, “Enough!”

It’s almost said with disgust. “Enough!” To do one more pump would be not only too much, but would be ethically inappropriate. It would be immoral. “Enough!” We have done all we should do. We have obtained our goal. Anything else is excessive, unbalanced, over the top. “It is simply enough to do 100,” Monique says with a smile, “101 is one too many.”

No kidding.

“Enough” is hard for most of us. I myself am the poster child of too much. I always feel if I do just a little more it will be the secret to staving off old age, or finding fame, or solving the answer to world peace. This isn’t rocket science. One more whatever will finally get us all the love we deserve. It’s a little sad, a little pathetic, but a lot true.

The Louvre is a massive museum in Paris. Their collection of art is so large and covers so much territory, it is impossible to even get through all the collection when laid out in a book, let alone see it all in one visit. But it has highlights. Certain art that is world-famous. Things you have to see. A bucket list.

The Winged Victory of Somothrace is one of those pieces. Majestic, gigantic, billowing, moving, and sensual, even when trapped inside the Louvre. Amazing.


Of course, I can barely see it through all the cameras and phones and iPads. Hands are raised high, devices are gripped tightly, pictures are focused, tiny screens light up, buttons are pressed, images are collected, instagrams are sent. And then everyone races to the next room. “Quick, snap a photo of that painting. All right, don’t forget a photo of the artist’s name. Yikes, we are falling behind. Get over to that painting. Hurry. Snap a photo.”

And over and over. Thousands of pictures.

Eventually, we all come to the Mona Lisa. Ah, the frenzy is at its height.


Cameras are imploding with excitement. At last, a photograph of the Mona Lisa. The thrill is too much.

See what I’m talking about, folks?

We can’t get enough pictures. None of us can. We race around our life collecting images: there I am in the meeting at work — now I’m picking up my kids from school — here we are at the dance recital — wow, I just kissed my partner — ah, time to take out the trash. Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. Yup, I have all those images. I’ve collected all those photos. Let’s race on to the next image. The next photo. The next event. The next whatever.


I always hated art. My wife would make me go to museums over the years. I’d pout. I’d complain. I’d drag my feet. I’d poke fun at what I thought were pretentious people looking at old pictures that obviously meant nothing to anyone. As my wife correctly says, I was a reverse snob. And that was a kind way to put it. I was a first-class jerk.

Somewhere along the line, however, I stumbled upon a little secret. I would stand in front of a painting and look for a way to get inside the picture. Usually, that meant an open door, way in the back of the painting, that went into a kitchen. Or a window, off to the left, that looked out over the town. Or a distant road that I could follow up to the village. Or the reflection of a light in the wine glass that showed another room behind the still life. So I would go to that tiny spot and make my way back into the picture. The picture became real. The picture became full of emotion and feeling. The picture lived. And that was enough for that visit to the museum. One great experience. One painting. Enough.

What’s my point?

Listen, do your holiday lists. Go to your parties. Buy all the gifts. Bake those holiday goodies. But, perhaps, as you are gently guiding your kid’s hands as he stamps out a snowman cookie, you might say to yourself, “This image, this snapshot of my life, this small slice of time full of tenderness and love, is special. It is enough.”

And it is enough. Trust me.

As for the 100 hundred, I’m going to tell Monique that’s 99 too many.












A Thanksgiving story: the Pilgrims and same-sex marriage


”I’m prepared to advocate that the States look at just simply abolishing civil marriage, civil unions, civil relationships entirely and let that be the exclusive province of the churches.” Iowa U.S. Representative Steve King speaking in Pierson, Iowa, June 26, 2015, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage.

Knocking on the door of No. 9 Beschuitsteeg in Leiden is unsettling. Don’t get me wrong, not the unsettling of eating slimy raw herring by the tail, a Dutch delicacy that is plenty unsettling, but more like “my wife is going to wonder one more time why she’s married to such a dope” type unsettling.

This nondescript door, in a deserted, narrow, cobblestone street, with darkened windows, and an ancient exterior, does not seem like the entrance to a major museum about the American Pilgrims. Of course not. It’s Holland, not America. I have so made a mistake. Perhaps I should try Plymouth, Massachusetts, next time? Duh. I turn to flee down the street before some elderly Dutch man opens the door insisting that I join him for raw herring.

Too late. The top half of the door opens, and a square, solid man with grey hair looks out, blinking rapidly in the bright light.

“Are you Dr. Jeremy Bangs?” I ask hopefully.

Gestured into the small room, I duck my head under the door, breath the dry, stale smell of old books, and look around in the light and shadow. Half a dozen folks are sitting or standing in the cluttered room. Candles are lit. Large volumes are spread out on the center table. And Dr. Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, begins his presentation.


“I offer people various rates to come into the museum. The normal cost is 5 euros. University students are free, but they have to pay tuition, which is 5 euros. 7.50 is if you try to convert me. 10 euro if you don’t want jokes.”

No smile. No change in the flat, deep, monotone delivery. No pause for a laugh line. This guy has taken dry humor to the furthest reaches of the Sahara.

I come to find out that Dr. Jeremy Bangs left Chicago 30 years ago. He received his doctorate at the University of Leiden in art history and began working for the town archives in Leiden. And it was the folks at the town archives that got him started on the Pilgrims.

“They said to me, ‘You’re an American, what do you know about the Pilgrims?’  I said, ‘nothing.’ I had specialized in 15th and 16th-century artistic and cultural activity in Leiden. But, as a result of their request, I started doing Pilgrim stuff.”

Well, “Pilgrim stuff” resulted in authoring multiple books on the Pilgrims, several years as the Chief Curator at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, visiting curator of manuscripts at the Pilgrim Hall Museum, and finally, director of the American Leiden Pilgrim Museum. Yup, he’s as close as you’re going to get to black shoes and a buckled hat — which, lo and behold, is not a true Pilgrim fashion statement after all.

“I wrote an article about all the myths prevalent on the Internet about the Pilgrims. One of my favorite was the claim that the Pilgrims dug up buried Indians and ate them that first winter.”


A deadpan stare, daring me to laugh.

Dr. Bangs told me that the Pilgrims came to Leiden because they had problems with King James and his religion back in England.

“The Pilgrims were Calvinist dissenters from the state Church of England–the Anglican Church. They called themselves ‘separatists,’ because they wanted to be separate from the Anglican Church. So, they made their way from England to Amsterdam and then to Leiden in 1609.”

Leiden was still reeling from the war with Spain, where they had survived a long siege of the City, but lost half their population.

“Leiden was the largest producer of wool cloth over any other European city in the 1600’s. The town’s population was decreased because of the war with Spain, and the City openly welcomed refugees because they needed workers.”

The Pilgrims was one of many groups of refugees in town. And not the largest by far, as folks of various religions from around Western Europe gathered in Leiden where jobs were plentiful and the City was tolerant.

And this is where it gets weird.

“Civil marriage was invented in Leiden. In 1575. The Dutch Reformed ministers were chosen and appointed by the magistrates of the City of Leiden. Which meant that for purposes of marriages, they were civil servants. Catholic priests, Lutheran priests, Mennonite leaders, were not. To provide for legitimacy in marriage and inheritance, Leiden invented civil marriage and it was followed very soon by other Dutch cities.”

Okay. Interesting. But why is this important?

Well, in 1620, the Leiden Pilgrims left Holland for America with a short stop in England to pick up the Mayflower. Dr. Bangs said that they left Leiden because of concern that Spain would soon start up another war with Holland. They wanted no part of that. So off to America they went, husbands, wives, and kids.

“And now we have the book William Bradford mentions by page number as the source for civil marriage in America.”

Of course. I knew that. Now, who exactly is William Bradford?

Bradford, it turns out, is an original Pilgrim on the Mayflower and was the governor of the Plymouth Colony in 1621 — and for about 30 years after that. A big shot, as my mom would say.

“Bradford mentions the practice in Leiden and he also points out that marriage is not a function of the church in the New Testament. They realized the colony would have people who weren’t part of their church. But they thought everyone had the right to legitimacy in marriage and inheritance. Civil marriage in America starts with the Pilgrims, and it comes from Leiden.”

No kidding.

“The Pilgrims introduced civil marriage and consequently the beginnings of the separation of church and state. Bradford’s authority for this claim, according to him, is found on page 1029 of the History of the Netherlands. And here’s the book and here’s the page.”


Great! Awesome! Unbelievable!

And why should you care about something that occurred nearly 400 years ago?

Well, if you go to the amicus brief arguing in support of same-sex marriage, filed by the California Council of Churches with the United States Supreme Court in the landmark same-sex marriage case of Obergefell v. Hodges, you will find a citation to Dr. Jeremy Bangs and the practice of civil marriage by the Pilgrims. In the very first sentence of the very first argument. No kidding.

And, according to the Council of Churches, civil marriage begets same-sex marriage.

“I was very surprised. I was very pleased,” Dr. Bangs smiles for the first time during my visit.


So there you have it, a direct link between the Pilgrims and same-sex marriage. Go figure.

As for Representative King and his advocacy to end civil marriage, you might wonder if his anti-Pilgrim stance includes doing away with turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie? As you know, slippery slopes are notoriously slippery.

But really, at the end of the day, silliness only begets silliness.






“Fences and Storks and Donald Trump” — A child’s tale

“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.” Donald Trump, announcing his candidacy on June 16th, 2015.

“I will build the greatest wall you’ve ever seen. . . . I want it to be so beautiful because maybe someday they’ll call it The Trump Wall.” Donald Trump, Derry, New Hampshire on August 19th, 2015.

On day one [of a Trump presidency], we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall.” Donald Trump, Arizona on August 31, 2016.

Okay, boys and girls, gather round. Time for a small story about storks and fences and Donald Trump. Yes, you can lie down on the floor. And, yes, you can have your juice. But, no, you can’t do Pokemon. Now listen.

Once upon a time, storks covered the land, living wherever the thermal winds would blow. With their single mate, they would sit high above people, and watch over the world in their giant nests. But then a dark time descended upon the land. Violence erupted along simmering seams of discontent. The leaders thought that guns and walls and fences were the answer. And so they armed the population and built their fences and walls.

As for the stork . . . .

The stork nest stands empty. It sits inside a large patch of land that is enclosed by a ten-foot fence. A fence that encircles the woods, and the water, and protects everyone inside from the outside. A secure border. The Trump fence in action.


But is the Trump fence really secure? The heron on the nearest low branch is unimpressed with this fence. Her head is held high, neck stiff, chest forward, all business. The business of fishing that is. She flies low and flat off the branch, skimming the top of the fence and landing in the shallow water on the other side. A border has no meaning to someone who is hungry. The heron fishes where there are fish. So she stands patiently in the water, calm, quiet, focused, even her cellphone is turned off. Survival breeds innovation. A fence? A mere challenge. And the minnow on the wrong side of the fence? Sushi for the heron.

But many inhabitants love the Trump fence. Take ducks. They are usually busy with their heads down in the water, their bottoms up, and their orange legs dangling. The clowns of the bird world.


They’re interested in the fence because they love a show. A fence is always good as a dramatic device for digging a tunnel underneath, or flying over with a kite made from sheets, or as something to separate two star-crossed lovers singing about their impossible love while tap-dancing and clicking castanets. By focusing on a fence, there is no need to talk about the dried-up wetlands, disappearing food, and changing weather. It was a smart decision to distract the ducks with a fence.

But, remember, these are just ducks. As Donald Trump said, “It is our right to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us.” Ducks love Donald Trump. That certainly qualifies them as GOOD immigrants. Of course, their heads are frequently under water, which doesn’t hurt either.

Further on down the fence, strange-looking deer are resting in the sun. Reindeer? Resting up before the busy holiday season. “On Dasher, On Dancer, On Prancer and Vixen” gets a little exhausting. But look at this? A soccer ball has come from one side of the fence and landed on the other. A clear provocation. A breach of the border. An international incident of the gravest matter.


Will there be retaliation? Will armies amass at the border? Should we launch a preemptive strike from our nuclear arsenals?

Fortunately, Rudolph is nonplussed. It’s the off-season. His red nose is in storage. The ball is probably an invitation from those teenage girls across the way looking for a pick-up game with four-footed competition. Whew, international crisis prevented by a tired reindeer unwilling to leave the warmth of the afternoon sun.

But look, the geese are certainly aroused. The geese can be found in a large group inside the fence. The big gander, with that dramatic sweep of hair, is undecided how ferocious he wants to be. Usually he honks and honks, then he stretches his neck and fluffs his wings. A lot of action. Who knows what he’s promising his entourage. A return to the old days, when only the white-colored geese blanketed the sky? Or maybe he’s telling them that Canadian Geese will be kept out of the fenced-in area until everyone is assured they are not practicing Canadians? Or maybe he wants more leg-banding of female geese, but only those female geese who could easily have been models for high-fashion geese magazines? I don’t know what was said. My command of Goose is rusty.

Regardless, the stork platform remains empty. No matter how high the fence, no storks. No matter how tough the rhetoric, no storks. No matter if you’re armed with an AK-47 for your daughter’s dance recital, no storks. It doesn’t even matter that the building of the fence created union jobs. NO STORKS.

Children, we want storks. Trust me. Since the beginning of time, storks have been a sign of prosperity. The old tales speak of the Dutch fairies going to Egypt to talk the storks into coming and eating the frogs that had taken over Holland. And the storks came. If a farmer can get storks to nest on his land, the crops are better. And if the stork will only nest on the farmer’s house, the farmer’s family will prosper. Children will come. A new sofa will be purchased. Mom and dad will get a babysitter and go on a date for the first time in a long time.

But not a stork to be found inside the fence. They left. They don’t like fences. They don’t live in isolation from the world. These are the birds that fly across whole continents with the beat of a wing.

So where are the storks?


Look up. High in the air. There’s one nesting on that chimney. Watching over the house. Making sure everything is all right. Free to the wind. No walls. No fences. No nothing.

Contrary to popular opinion, the storks believe that Trump fences do not bring luck and prosperity. Nope. They will be the first to tell you that for luck and prosperity you need a stork. You want to prosper? You’d better open your door. You want a stork? Tear down your wall.

And that’s all the storks will tell you, because storks are notoriously close-lipped. Except when looking for a romantic fling. Then their jaws click and clack with such a clatter that their mates give in just to stop the noise.

And that’s the story of fences and storks and Donald Trump.







“I am Iowa”?

“’Gov. Robert Ray was a phenomenal governor and a true statesman,’ said [Gov. Terry] Branstad.” Office of the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, September 26, 2012.

“In his speech, [Gov. Terry] Branstad said, ‘Throughout his career, Ambassador Quinn has displayed leadership in protecting the world’s most vulnerable, working for causes to ensure we can continue to feed the world, and fighting for freedom for refugees and helping welcome them to our state.’” Office of the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, May 30, 2014.

“Today, Gov. Terry Branstad ordered all state agencies to halt any work on Syrian refugee resettlements immediately in order to ensure the security and safety of Iowans.” Office of the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, November 16, 2015.

The Anne Frank House sits quietly on the last interior ring of canals in Amsterdam. Prinsengracht. The Prince of Orange’s canal. A safe place you would think. Three canals further away from the moat that originally protected the city from invaders. This is where the middle and upper class built their homes as they waited for the next ship to come in from the Dutch East Indies. A good place to be. A fine neighborhood. Good schools. Free of crime. Clean and wholesome.

I sit on the canal bench and sip my cappuccino.

The crowd ebbs and flows. The canal boats dock, load up, and move on down the water. Bicyclists impatiently ring their bells as pedestrians meander into the bike path. Cars slowly try to navigate their way home. Not a lot different from Amsterdam in 1943, I imagine, except for that young girl and her family hidden behind me in the Annex.

“Once the United States entered World War II, the State Department practiced stricter immigration policies out of fear that [Jewish] refugees could be blackmailed into working as agents for Germany.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In 1993, Ayla Heder didn’t exist. Her parents met in a refugee camp after fleeing the war in Bosnia. No English, no money, no nothing, they came to Des Moines, Iowa. Young and alone.

Why Des Moines? Governor Robert Ray had a vision. A grand vision. In the 1970’s he set up a State bureau to help assist refugees coming out of the Vietnam War. He committed to settling 1200 Tai Dam fleeing from Laos after the fall of Saigon. And Iowa took them in with open arms — with a little goading from Governor Ray. Several years later, Governor Ray came knocking at our conscience again. 1500 Cambodians fleeing Pol Pot’s massacre needed a home. Iowa took them in. Then, in the 1980’s, refugees from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary came. Again, Iowa didn’t blink. And then, in 1993, came Ayla Heder’s parents. Two of the early group of Bosnians to arrive. They were fleeing the Serbian Orthodox Christians in the Bosnian war. And Iowa took them in.

And Ayla Heder’s parents worked. They cleaned rooms, they waited tables, they learned English, they bought cars, they paid taxes, they built homes, they had children, — and they thrived.The American dream. Played and replayed by them, by us, and by our ancestors.

Now graduated from Iowa State University, and enrolled in a Master’s program for Public Health at Des Moines University, Ayla Heder is taking a break from her summer internship in Sarajevo for a weekend in Amsterdam before returning to Des Moines to school.

I tag along.


Heder comes out of the Anne Frank House.

“It is surreal to actually go in the house and walk through and realize this is actually where they were at. And at the end of the tour, there are all these other people, like famous actors, reflecting on their visit to the Anne Frank House. And there was a woman, who was from the war in the former Yugoslavia, who said that knowing and reading about Anne Frank as a young girl helped her get through the war. In fact, she wrote a diary throughout the war and it helped her keep sane.”

We sit quietly. Heder stares off over the canal.

“I think it is so ironic that there is all this picking on groups and their religions today. This house is a reminder of what bigotry and hate is capable of doing.”

She takes a breath, thinking.

“I hate that ‘never again’ stuff. People who have experienced bad stuff since the Holocaust – that phrase ‘never again’ is kind of a kick to them. But it does happen again and again and again. Cambodia. Rwanda. It’s happening in Syria.”

Ayla Heder sighs.

There is an iconic sign in Amsterdam, a trademark used by the city, with 10-foot letters, that spells “I amsterdam.” Heder follows me up to the Museumplein where the sign is located, and, without hesitation, she climbs up the middle “m,” plops down at the top, and flashes a smile.


I am Amsterdam. A simple slogan with a simple meaning — we are all Amsterdam.

Governor Ray’s legacy is a legacy of tolerance. But where does this tolerance come from? Are we born with it? Can we be taught it? Have we lost it?

Russell Shorto’s book, Amsterdam, argues that Dutch tolerance grew out of the need for everyone to take their turn on repairing and watching the dikes. If you’re intolerant, you might find yourself quickly under water.

And Iowa tolerance? Perhaps it comes out of our historical connection to survival on the land. Without the help of our neighbor, the harvest doesn’t happen, the crops don’t get planted, the isolation of farming life is not made tolerable. If you’re intolerant, you might find yourself alone in a field of thistles.

Governor Ray reminded us of our better selves. Sometimes he had to drag us along, but drag us he did. He demanded that we recognize our tolerance. And we did.

So, “I am Iowa”? You tell me.












A tall woman on being tall

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, I get it. Boundaries.

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

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

And she has little patience for fools.


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

Radosavljevic wants to make a point about my question —

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

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

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

Radosavljevic almost shouts this last sentence to the staring people.

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

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

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

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

Then she pauses, thoughtful, careful with her words.

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

Radosavljevic takes a breath.

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

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


“This interview about tall is too limiting.”

She fixes me with her gaze.

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

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

So, there you have it.

A tall woman on being tall.


Rio bound

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

And a new career began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Zika virus?

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

So what are you worried about in Rio?

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


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

And the problem?

“I get carried away in the game.”


Of course you will. Any special goals for Rio?

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

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












Old surfers

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough stalling, time to put on the wetsuit.

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

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

“Really? You’re kidding me?”

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

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

I’m a mess.

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

And we learn to surf.


The day disappears.

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


Here’s Joe demonstrating his awesome surfing skills.





Saved in Dublin

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

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

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

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


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

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

What is going on here?

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


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

Okay, this is too coincidental.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And how long have you been doing this?

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

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

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

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

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

As were we all.











What exactly is a kidney worth?

What exactly is a kidney worth?

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

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


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

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

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


And Jaime . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, dialysis is making his life work.

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

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

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

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

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

As for Jaime . . . .

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

Yup, here we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jaime, how about you?

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

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

There you have it. The value of a kidney.