Dear Food Dude . . . .

Honestly, I started out blaming you.  Who wouldn’t?  We were lost.  Deep in the vineyards outside of St. Emilion, France.  And vineyards are like cornfields — one row of grape vines is indistinguishable from the next row of grape vines.  Row after row after row.  And those ancient sections of stone fences that spring up in the vineyards?  Well, they’re no different from old volunteer pumpkins you discover in the long grass next to the garden in late fall.  They’re a pleasant surprise, and great to stomp on, but of absolutely no use for directions.  Sure, it’s all very French and very idyllic and very “salle de bain,” or some other French nonsense.  But we were lost.  And hungry.  And thirsty.  And it’s your fault.  Why?  My wife blamed me.  I blamed you.  You are the “Food Dude.”  You’re supposed to tell us where to go for food.  You didn’t.  Simple as pumpkin pie.

Well, when I saw a gas station and some tumbled-down buildings in the distance, I assured my wife we would find water at the gas station.  Of course when we got closer, the gas station had closed its doors, removed the pumps, and had nearly sunk back into the ground.  Not a good sign.

Image 3Then we noticed all these working men walking into the past-its-prime building across the street.  Naturally we followed.

And manna fell from heaven.

An unmarked open bottle of red wine was placed on our table.  And over the next two hours, soup, bread, liver pate, rabbit, beef, chicken, pork, cheese, scalloped potatoes, barley and tuna salad, shredded carrot salad, dessert, and coffee appeared.  No English was spoken.  No questions were asked.  Not a bit of hesitation in setting down bowl after bowl, family style.  The guys in work clothes ate, and we ate.  Until we couldn’t eat or drink anything more.  The place was called La Puce — “The flea.”

But guess what?  I just checked.  There is still no review for La Puce by the “Food Dude.”  Really?  What will happen to other folks lost in vineyards?  Get a grip and get writing.

Signed — Lost in the vineyards.

Dear Food Dude:

Honestly, I started out blaming you.  Who wouldn’t?  We had walked in the rain long enough.  Our sodden clothes matched our sodden mood.  No restaurant had room for us in the mid-sized coastal town of San Sebastian in Spanish Basque country.  Sure, it’s hard to beat walking along quaint Spanish cobblestone streets and hearing loud joyful Spanish shouted from doorsteps and alleyways.  But we were hungry and we were wet.  And we were not in the mood.   If they would have run the bulls through the streets like they do a couple of miles away in Pomplona, instead of danger we would have seen dinner.  We were in dire straights and it was your fault.  Why?  You’re supposed to tell us where to eat.  You didn’t.  My wife blamed me, and, yes, you get it, I blamed you.  Duh.

Then we saw it.  A small bar/restaurant — Hidalgo 56.  Run by the smiling Juan Mari Humada and his wife, Nubia Regalado.  Tapas was the game.  And the dishes lined the bar from front to back.  Grab a plate.  Load it full.  Juan takes away the food that needs to be heated — and you stand or sit while you eat delicacy after delicacy.  Roasted sardines, fish soups, goat cheese delights, small breads with chorizo or ham, rice and tomatoes, beans, eggs, oiled green peppers, olives, filleted oysters, and every combination of the above with potatoes.  All for you.  And wine.  And dessert.  And espresso, por favor.

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Don’t worry.  Juan and I had a long chat about tapas.  Since I understood pretty much nothing he said, he placed the family cook book in my hands to take home, poured more wine, and smiled with patience at my lack of Spanish.

And today, where’s your review of Hidalgo 56?   I need you to take care of this.  Pronto.

Signed — Wet in Spain.

Dear Food Dude:

Honestly, I started out blaming you.  Who wouldn’t?  We had searched Europe for the perfect crepe.  From Amsterdam through Belgium and Germany and all the way to Paris.  No perfect crepe.  It was obviously your fault for failing to direct us to a great crepe place.  Why?  My wife blamed me.  And guess who I blamed?  I hope you are getting the drift of this.

But then we were in St. Jean-de-Luz — the French side of Basque country — at an outside market.  And there was Nicolas Jamet.  A young man from Brittany making crepes.  I have to tell you, his sparkly eyes and pirate smile tricked us into trying crepes once more.  And try them we did.

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Okay, this guy is a certified pastry chef who travels from market to market selling wonderful French specialties.   And his dream?  His own shop.  Not a bad idea, because his pastries and crepes cause death by swooning.  It happened to us.  We ate his crepes, we swooned, and we died.  Simple as that.

And, yes, Food Dude, still no review.  Meanwhile, people are going crepeless.  A horror.  I’m counting on you to take care of this problem.  Lickety-split.

Signed — Looking for crepes in Europe.












Do you know Joseph Haymoff?

The curious, who were mostly French on this early November day, carefully made their way down through the hedges and brambles and thorny bushes of the steep embankment until the spiky plants opened onto the sand.  Everyone stopped to look over the vast beach at low tide.  A glorious sight.  The sun sparkled white off the cliffs to the south.   Billowy clouds floated placidly over the water to the west.  And the beach ran miles to the north until it finally turned back into the sea.  Dark mussels left by the retreating tide were strewn underfoot along with a mix of white-washed shells and the pearl glimmer of palm-sized clams.  Everyone slowly drifted off in ones and twos.  And all that was left was the empty beach, the scattered shells, and a lone sea gull.  Omaha Beach in early morning.

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Do you know Joseph Haymoff?  Middle initial “M.” I can’t seem to find much of anything about him.  He lived and he died.  That I know.  I can tell you this — he’s not buried in America.  Thousands of miles from home is his resting spot.  However, he was from Polk County, Iowa.  That’s all I can find.  And he’s buried under a white marble Star of David.  82nd Airborne.  Purple Heart.  Plot D, row 15, grave 11.  Died June 6, 1944.

The Normandy beaches were divided into five sections for the invasion by the Allies:  Omaha, Juno, Sword, Utah, and Gold.  At least 10,000 men died on these beaches.  And that doesn’t even count the German dead.  Gun shot, shrapnel from bombs, drowning in water, blunt force from air crashes, and all the sicknesses that followed — that pretty much sums up the manner of death.  But confusion still reigns as to who died when and where and by whom.  But die they did.

Perhaps you know Ben Winks?  Middle initial “W.”  He was a glider pilot.  Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Forces, 82nd Squadron, 436th Troop Carrier Group.  Came from  Sumner, Iowa, in Bremer County.  Died June 6th, 1944.  Purple Heart.  Air Medal.  He is buried under the white marble cross just directly behind Joseph Haymoff.  Plot D, row 14, grave 11.  Does that trigger a memory?

Rain lightly fell as we climbed the slippery path up the cliff.  No curious visitors today.  Too wet.   Low tide again as we looked out on another beach.   Remnants of a makeshift harbor, engineered by the British for D-Day, were visible throughout the water and sand.  The tide pools were long and shallow, filled with a sea suddenly stilled.  We climbed off the path and across the broad-bladed switch grass to stand on the concrete roof of a structure no bigger than a single-car garage.  Two openings were in the wall below us looking out onto the beach.  One for the machine gun.  One for a much larger gun.  A perfect view overlooking Juno Beach.

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Over there is Victor Kakac, Jr.  Middle initial “O.”  Died August 1st, 1944.  Family home in Missouri Valley, Iowa.  Blanche was his mom.  Maybe you knew her.  He’s buried just up a ways from Ben Winks.  Plot H, row 15, grave 8.  Does his name ring a bell?

People walked their dogs on the water’s edge.  One woman braved the chill and was swimming out in the surf.  Children built sandcastles.  Two kites drifted lazily past.  Lovers walked slowly ahead — bumping together as one, then back apart, then together.  The portion of Omaha Beach at St. Laurent-sur-Mer beckoned us all.  Just up the way sat the sculpture by Anilore Banon — “Les Braves.”  Swords or wings?  Your call.

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And there’s George Petersen.  Middle initial “J.”  Private in the 30th Infantry Division.  Died on July 30th, 1944.  Hometown listed as “Iowa.”  Killed in action.  Buried not too far from Victor Kakac.  Plot H, row 15, grave 5.  Perhaps you know him?

And look, over there’s Kenneth Paulsen.  Middle initial “F.”  Died July 28th, 1944.  Came from Iowa.  Buried not far from George Petersen.  Plot H, row 13, grave 28.

What are the stories of these Iowa boys?  What were their lives?  Who were their loves?  What were their fears?  I certainly don’t know them.  I can’t even find them.  I’ve looked.  Was the maelstrom that was D-Day just an eraser of all these boys?  Have these young men turned into numbers only?  And what about the British boys, and the Canadian boys, and the Russian boys, and, yes, even the German boys?  Do you know their stories?

And Arnold Rahe.  Middle initial “A.”  Killed on July 24th, 1944.  An Iowa boy buried just over a bit from Kenneth Paulsen.  Plot H, row 20, grave 15.

At the top of the cliff overlooking Juno Beach, the rain starts falling again.  Anyone left outside has headed for cover long ago.  The German bunker remains out of view.  The beach with all of its war debris is hidden below us.  Dark clouds mass and the hard rain falls.  But off in the distance, out over the sea, appears a rainbow — the sign God said he would use to remember his covenant with Noah not to destroy mankind.

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What is our reminder?

Plot D, row 15, grave 11.  Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.  An Iowa boy.  Joseph Haymoff.  Do you know him?




A moral education

Great teachers are out there, folks.  I’m talking about great teachers who are giants walking today’s earth.  Great teachers who will make you lean in, or step back, or gasp.  Who, when they get done, make you realize you are no longer the same person.  The planet has shifted.  You have changed life forms.  Maybe your teeth are even whiter.  I don’t know.  But goodness, great teachers are out there, and why aren’t we chasing them down?

Take Professor Jay Holstein at the University of Iowa.  He’ll turn your presumptions upside down and inside out — until you’re left on the classroom floor, dazed, wide-eyed, maybe even drooling, wondering if a drone was somehow involved in what happened.   Or take Dr. Greg Robinson at Iowa State.  You’re feeling down about humankind?  A bit pessimistic?  No need to go to a motivational speaker, no need to go to a counselor, heck, don’t even go have a drink — go talk to him.  Duh.  Or how about Maureen Griffin who taught chemistry for years at East High School and now is Hoover High School’s STEM  (“Science, Technology, Engineering, Math”) director?  You think you’re a failure and can’t succeed?  Well, go visit Maureen.  She’ll lift you up by your ears, smilingly point you in the right direction, and then give you a gentle kick down the path — all while teaching you a thing or two about life.

I’m talking TEACHERS here, folks, with a capital “T.”

Well, I met a great teacher the other day.  In Amsterdam of all places.  Ronald Leopold is his name.  He’s the  Executive Director of the Anne Frank House.  A museum housing the original Secret Annex where Anne Frank and seven others hid for two years from the Nazis.  Every year, 1.2 million visitors show up to walk past the moveable bookcase into the hidden rooms where these eight people ate, and slept, and survived.  Until they didn’t.  It is Ronald Leopold’s job to hold this legacy of Anne Frank in trust for us.

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Take a listen . . . .

“We don’t know what Anne Frank thought when she was in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.  We don’t know whether she kept her hope, her optimism, her idealism, or whether she lost it in the terrible circumstances she was in.  We don’t know.  I don’t want to speculate about it. What is important is to be sure to know that part of the history as well.  When you educate about a life, it is important to know it is not just what she wrote in the diary, but there is more to that.  There is these seven months when she was in Westerbork, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen.  We don’t know.  You have to learn about that.  You have to learn that part of history.”

Soft spoken.  Kindly.  A sad smile lurking at the corners of his mouth like that contemplative guy you see at the end of the bar.  He continues . . . .

“This kind of optimism, very much an American interpretation, an American view, how good will eventually overcome evil — maybe also a little bit religiously motivated — is one part of the story.  You have to be careful to not fast forward to only that part of the story.  You have to take in history first.  With all its tragedies.  With all the reflections on different roles people had at that time.  On the choices people made.”

“How it was possible that people became perpetrators?  Why it was, especially  in the Dutch situation, how it was possible in Holland that 75% of the Dutch Jewery was killed?  By far the highest percentage in Western Europe.  What does it say about civil society in Holland?  What does it say about the choices people made to be a bystander when injustice was done right in front of their eyes?  What does it say about people who became a helper?  Like the four people here who risked their own lives here in the Secret Annex in order to save the lives of others.”

“All these questions are vital questions in the moral education of young people.  They have to reflect on these questions.  They have to be aware this was not Hurricane Sandy; this was not some disaster that came from I don’t know where.  It’s not Ebola.  This came from choices people made.  And that is very important.  I think in order to achieve that with young people, you have to start with history.  You have to start with everything that happened.  What does it mean to you?  Maybe eventually you end up either in optimism — people are truly good at heart — or maybe not.  If you really went through this process, it doesn’t matter where you end up.  Here is something you have for the rest of your life.  It has to do with moral education.”

My goodness.  Did he just say all that while sitting in a room alone with an old guy from Iowa that he doesn’t know from Adam?  Did he just rattle this off extemporaneously with only a few questions priming the pump?  There must be something wrong with this guy; this is too good to be true.  He must have an insufferable ego, right?

He pulls back in his chair and sparkles with laughter at my impertinent question.

“I am a human being, with all my weaknesses, and sometimes, when Beyonce or Barbara Streisand or Billy Crystal, or whomever, comes, I’m like ‘wow wow.’   Then I come back to my office and see this picture I place on my computer.  ‘It is this little girl, it’s not you.’  This is not about me.”

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By the way, I notice that our Repertory Theater of Iowa is presenting the Diary of Anne Frank, April 10 through April 26, 2015, right here in Des Moines.  And it’s interesting that Jim Loos and Randall Vos are co-chairing a Netherland’s International Year at Des Moines Area Community College  Yup, a whole year on Holland at DMACC.  Finally, it looks like the major traveling exhibit from the Anne Frank House is also scheduled to be in Des Moines during April.  Quite a coincidence.

Shouldn’t we invite this guy to come along for the ride?


Steel shutters

Steadily the rain comes down in Amsterdam.  No surprise really.  It is the Netherlands in late October.  The walk from the train station up past three canals was too much for my shoes as they now release a telltale squish.  But still, there’s the line for the Anne Frank House, stretching all the way from one canal to the next.  And even more surprising than the length of the line is that no one is raising a fuss as they wait patiently while the rain drips steadily from the brims of their hats.  Open umbrellas are the only concession to the wet that I can see.   Perhaps a little discomfort is appropriate.

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“Our freedom [in Amsterdam] was severely restricted by a series of anti-Jewish degrees: Jews were required to wear a yellow star; Jews were required to turn in their bicycles; Jews were forbidden to use streetcars; Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their own.”  Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.

Anne Frank’s story of hiding from the Nazis for two years in the Secret Annex, and then of her death in the concentration camps, compels 1.2 million people a year to want to see behind the moveable bookcase into the hidden rooms where eight people ate and slept and survived.  That is, until they didn’t.  Only Anne’s father Otto returned from the camps alive.

“Jews were required to do their shopping between 3 and 5 P.M.; Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty parlors; Jews were forbidden to be out on the streets between 8 P.M. and 6 A.M.”  Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.

Anne Frank’s neighborhood is no longer warehouses, but million-dollar canal homes.  And that price even includes the homes that lean precariously one way or the other.  Literally shifting with the sands of time.

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Amsterdam has over 62 miles of canals (more than Venice), and over 1200 bridges.  But these defensive rings of canals, built in the 16th and 17th centuries as moats, didn’t save the Jews.  Of the 80,000 Jews that lived in Amsterdam, around 60,000 were murdered by the Nazis.  Men, women, and children.  That’s about every person living in West Des Moines.  And don’t forget Anne Frank.  She and her sister and her mother and father all ended up in Auschwitz.  Anne and her sister were transferred from there and died in Bergen-Belsen — shortly before the camp was liberated.

“Jews were forbidden to go to the theaters, movies or any other forms of entertainment; Jews were forbidden to use swimming pools, tennis courts, hockey fields or any other athletic fields; Jews were forbidden to go rowing; Jews were forbidden to take part in any athletic activity in public.”  Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.

The Anne Frank House is an unusual museum.  Just ask the Executive Director, Ronald Leopold:

“This museum is basically an empty house.  It’s empty because it reflects the absence of people that should be here.  The same is true for 60,000 other places in this city.  There are, underneath the reality of Amsterdam that you experience right now in 2014, there are 60,000 of these empty places.  This sight, this house, this position, reflects the history of these 60,000 empty places here in Amsterdam.  What does this mean in 2014?  I think this has to do with identity.  Who am I?  Who is the other?  The way I perceive myself.  The way I perceive others.  Why do I use prejudice in categorizing people?  Why is it important to be aware of that?  What is the step from prejudice to discrimination?  Basic questions for everybody.”

So people line up to see the Secret Annex.  To remember the past and to reflect about today.

“Jews were forbidden to sit in their gardens or those of their friends after 8 P.M.; Jews were forbidden to visit Christians in their homes; Jews were required to attend Jewish Schools.”  Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.

Ronald Leopold explains:  “They had to go to separate schools in 1941.  In Anne’s class there were every week and every month, fewer and fewer pupils.  Fewer and fewer students.  And it all ended up in 1942 when there was nobody left.  The same for teachers.  Today, you might miss class for one thing or another, but not because you were on your way to your death.”

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality.  It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”  Anne Frank, Saturday, July 15, 1944.

Anne Frank was arrested a few weeks after she wrote those words.  And she was dead by March of 1945.

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As for “never again”?  Notice the windows to the Anne Frank House.  Giant steel shutters on a rolling track.  They’re not steel because of the rain.  I ask Ronald Leopold about the shutters.

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“Do you mind if I prefer not to answer? . . .   But we’re not naive.”  He shakes his head.

And the rain keeps falling.



Water into wine

Dead would not be too strong to describe the wine industry in Iowa just a few years ago.  Only 30 acres were in grape production as recently as 2000.  I’m not kidding.  30 acres.  My goodness, there’s residential homes in Waukee with more acreage.  Herbicides, bad weather, and row crops tolled the bell for what was once a vibrant Iowa crop.   And if you stirred in all those problems with the post-2000 years of recession, the increased push to plant corn, and the forecast of a Zombie Apocalypse, the dark days were close upon us.

A miracle was needed, folks.

The barker stood several feet up from his audience.  Microphone clutched in his left hand.  Iowa State Cyclone t-shirt front and center, walking his narrow stage.  Bespectacled, balding, and bearded, his patter was smooth and comfortable — mashed potatoes and gravy for the soul.  As he talked, the underbelly of a joke seemed cooking just on the other side of whatever he said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, keep on stomping.  And don’t give a worry about your feet.  All we have to do is strain out the warts and the toenails and it’s ready to drink.”

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Dead silence.

“Warts and toenails”?  Is that what this guy said?  Is he kidding?  Is this legal?  Why is anyone taking off their shoes and dipping their feet in that barrel of grapes?

Oh, a joke!

He had us hooked.

“How come that juice won’t come out, young man?  Act like a windshield washer. Yahoo.  There you go.”

Enthusiastic, with a stage-quiet voice that could quickly crescendo to a boom, Michael White of Iowa State Extension, a Viticulture Specialist, was hard at work at the Iowa State Fair in August.  Teaching us how to stomp grapes.

And so now it is harvest time in October — more than two months later — and time for Mr. White to answer a few questions.

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“You see, the 101 Iowa wineries now have 5.93% of the market share of the retail wine sales in Iowa. The average Iowa adult consumes approximately 1.4 gallons of wine per year. The national average is approximately 2.8 gallons per year.   Just promoting Iowa wine to a few Iowa wine consumers is not enough.  Part of the mission of the Wine Experience at the State Fair is to introduce Iowans to the culture of wine.  The music, meals, socializing and wide range of wine types.  In many parts of the world, wine is part of the meal and the center of family and friend get-togethers.  The native Iowa wine industry would like to see our wine culture grow in Iowa.”

Now as you consider the virtues of Iowa wine, remember that just 4500 miles away, grape fields stretch for miles and miles and miles.  Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Alsace, Rhone, Languedoc, and Provence.  To name just a few.  And I’m only talking about France.  What about Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, California?

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The lesson from White?  Don’t leave out Iowa.  Remember, the wine industry has existed for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.  Heck, even Noah planted a vineyard.  And Iowa was a part of this boom in times past.  Believe it or not, our heyday was 1919.  Ranked sixth in the country in grape production.  A powerhouse.  “The 1900 U.S. Agricultural Census showed that Iowa produced 7,403,900 pounds of grapes and 76,301 gallons of farm-processed wine,” according to White.  Wow.  But by 2000, White says that only 30 acres of grapes remained.  Not a pretty picture.

“I jumped on board ISU Extension in October of 1994 taking a job as a regional crop specialist.  It was while I was working as the Central Iowa Crops Specialist that Ron Mark of Summerset Winery located north of Indianola contacted me early in 2000.  He asked if ISU Extension could put on some grape growing classes because he needed grapes. At the time Iowa had 13 wineries of which only two grew grapes – Summerset Winery in Indianola, Iowa, and Tabor Home Winery in Baldwin, Iowa.  The rest is history.”

Well, with a little work.  White started holding monthly meetings at Summerset Winery.  And the industry slowly started to take off with the efforts of a lot of people and a lot of institutions — Iowa State University, community colleges, the Iowa Departments of Agriculture and Economic Development, and the Iowa legislature, to name a few.

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“I eventually became a full-time Viticulture Specialist in 2007, leaving my agronomy days behind. We now have 101 licensed wineries and 312 vineyards covering 1,250 acres in Iowa.”

My goodness.  An increase of 88 wineries in 14 years.

But why would anybody get into this business?

“People get in the wine business primarily to have a good time.  Nobody in this business is bad.  It is a great industry to be with.  I enjoy being up on stage promoting the industry.  I don’t even think, I just do it.  I like to work with families and kids like this.  I’m married- myself, with three kids, four grandchildren and one on the way.  When you work with Extension, you’d better like kids.  We have this little program called 4-H.”

Back up on the stage in August, White is dancing around, helping each group to stomp grapes, and congratulating everyone for just showing up.

“Give them a hand everyone.  Now you all know how to do this.”

Really?  Is this really possible?  A wine industry in Iowa?  And if wine is possible in Iowa, what else is possible?  A cure for Ebola?  Why not.   World peace?  We’re ready for it.  East High School facing Ames in the final of the Iowa Football State Championships?  Ah, now that would send you back to church.

“By the way, everybody who participates can get a ribbon,” Michael White says to the crowd.

Mmmm . . . water into wine.  A miracle.







Smart phones

Now, don’t push.  Everyone will get to see everything.  That’s it.  Okay, sex and drugs to the left.  Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Gogh straight ahead.   And the Anne Frank House to the right.  What’s your pleasure?  Of course it’s sex and drugs.  I know, I know, it wasn’t a fair test.  Duh.

Let’s just follow these young men and women as they pour out of the central train station in Amsterdam.  Be careful there on the tram tracks.  Yikes, the bikes have the right of way.  Look out, here comes a tram.  Lord help us.

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Just go straight up to Dam Square.   Over there to the right is the main building of Amsterdam’s government.  You’re not interested?  Okay, how about that carnival and wax museum?  Wow, that’s a pretty high ride.  Where’s the fried brownies you always get at the State Fair?  I’m afraid they don’t have them.  Now, I can get you a brownie with a little marijuana flavoring.


Okay, let’s veer to the left, down the canal into the Red Light District.  Mmmm . . . you smell the marijuana?  Of course.  Yes, I know they are called coffeeshops.  No, they don’t sell coffee.  Yes, that is a very large condom.  No, you can’t take a picture.


See all the signs for “no pictures”?  Rumor has it that the prostitutes will chase you down and smash your camera.  And at the sex toy shops?  They will yell and bang the counter and almost get violent.  You don’t want that.  NO PICTURES please.  It’s the law.

Okay, do you see these women in bikinis behind the large glass windows?  Yes, all down those alleyways and across the canals.  The red lights turned on mean they’re in business. A curtain closed?   It means they’re working.

Let’s walk down this narrow alley.  See them perched on their stools or standing next to the full-length window?  Yes, they will make eye contact, or rub a provocative tattoo against the window, or wink suggestively.  Look, over there is the slow moistening of a lip.  This isn’t a mystery.  They love sex.  They love to have sex with strangers.  They particularly want to have sex with you.  From Iowa.  Their dream come true.   And, yes, they are working their way through college.  Yes, this is their vocational choice.  No, there is no issue concerning human trafficking.  Trust me.

Just enjoy yourself.

There goes a nice young man through a door.   Wow, that curtain closed quickly.  Did you hear the swoosh as the metal rings slid along the rod?  Look, all his buddies are waiting outside.   They’re here on behalf of their friend.  I’m sure they hope it develops into a great relationship.  Long term.  Let’s move to the next window.  Yes, that one four feet further down.   Or that window four feet further after that.  Or the window four feet after that.  My goodness, here’s a whole house of windows.

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But look again.  That woman over there in the window with that not-very-warm-looking bikini?  She’s on her phone texting.  Yes, and there’s another woman on the phone in that window.  Talking talking talking.  And there’s someone checking her e-mails.  Perhaps looking to see who’s friended her while she was busy for the last 15 minutes.  My goodness, everyone is on their smart phone tonight.

You know, my friends, smart phones are a wonderful way to keep in contact with your mom and dad and boyfriends and girlfriends, check on sales at the grocery store, read Tolstoy or romance novels, and, frankly, a great way to keep an eye on your kids.  Smart phones are a window to the world.

Of course, as with all windows, you can look in or you can look out.

Oh, there’s another customer.

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One day in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower

Being underground is always a little unnerving.  And certainly when you are more than six feet under.  The old Paris subway system smells of dark, dripping dankness even in the morning.  Wet underfoot.   People jostle and collide as they hurry to work or home or school to board the next train.   All are going somewhere.  My wife and I wait patiently like good Iowans.  Ticket stubs in hand.  Looking down the tunnel.  Not too close to the edge.  Hoping that they don’t brick over the passageways before we get out.  We know the Eiffel Tower is up above somewhere.  Shading our subterranean crypt.


We are here for reasons of romance and art, and I’m hoping to see that old carnival ride, the Eiffel Tower, up close and personal.  Built for the World Expo in 1889, the contract with the City said the Eiffel Tower was supposed to be dismantled in 1909.  Thankfully, it wasn’t.  Over 1,000 feet tall, and weighing in with 7,300 tons of metal, this gal is a presence.  Wherever you go in Paris, there she is.  Holding down the left bank even from as far away as the Pompidou Center on the right bank.  And, yes, she’s more than happy to challenge a sunset.

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But not everyone loves the Eiffel Tower.  Before it was built, many of the Paris art establishment fought against a structure that would rise above Notre Dame and other Paris landmarks.  Even after it was completed in 1889, Guy de Maupassant still didn’t like it.  “I left Paris and even France, because the Eiffel Tower just annoyed me too much.  Not only did you see it from everywhere; you found it everywhere made out of every known material, displayed in all the shop windows, an unavoidable and horrible nightmare.”

Lord, what would Guy de Maupassant think of the carnival surrounding the Eiffel Tower today?

And there is more.  The Local, a newspaper in France, reported in 2013 that several feminist groups had united against the Eiffel Tower claiming — “For too long we have lived under the shadow of this patriarchal monstrosity . . . .  Every day, women in this city are forced to glare up at the giant metal penis in the sky. It may be good for tourism but as long as it stands there, France will never have ‘egalité’.”

Yikes.  Those are some enemies.

But on this fall day the sun is shining.  The large park at the base of the Eiffel Tower is a picture of humanity.  Couples, here and there on the grass, sit with glasses and a bottle of wine, content not to move.  Young immigrants sell Eiffel Tower key rings in bunches of hundreds spread out on blankets as they look out with one eye for the cops.  Two young boys wrestle and chase as a third is caught up in his own imaginings.  Other young men relentlessly circle, asking if you are in need of champagne or beer — encouraging you to test the coldness of the bottles.  Frisbees spin, soccer balls bounce, and balloons float.  And dotted across the park — lovers embrace.  Kissing as an art form.

Off to our right, there’s even a strolling bride and groom.  Come on.  Is someone making this up??!

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And with our bottle of wine, and loaf of crusty bread, and pungent soft cheese, we wait.  Because soon it will be dark enough for the lights to go on.  And when the lights go on, it won’t be long before they do a sparkling dance, which occurs every hour for just a few minutes.  It is the 4th of July over and over and over again.  Perhaps a stolen kiss is possible.

But then storm clouds begin to gather.  The first drops of rain are felt.  The wind is starting to blow in off the Seine, picking up blankets and napkins and sending them flying across the park.  People are running for safety with their heads covered by newspapers.   But, at last, the lights go on . . . .  Hooray!  Image

On the edge of the park, as my wife and I run towards our hotel, we glimpse a group of people surrounding long folding tables under a canopy of trees.  A white van is parked at the end of the tables. Metal containers are spread across the flat tops.  Each person has a bowl in their hands.  They wait patiently in line.  We can see the ladle dip and pour, dip and pour, dip and pour, as we scurry past.  No lovers seem to be embracing.

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And so it goes.  One day in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.





Lifting to failure — Part 1

The big man in the tight singlet dips his hands into the chalk.  His gaze is elsewhere.  Fingers spread wide, he brushes his callused palms back and forth letting the white powder fall back into the tin.  Smooth as silk.  His legs forced bowlegged by the shorts and knee wraps, he makes his way up the ramp.  Popeye from days long past.  The heavy-metal music crashes around him when he gets to the top.  And on the brightly lit stage, the bar with too many heavy weights stares him in the face.  There is not enough saliva to go around.  Failure is as certain as old age.

The first lift, 590 pounds in the squat, is a disaster.  The Czech female announcer has one of two option, “And it was a good lift,” or “Sorry, it was no lift.”   We wait for the verdict.

“Sorry, it was no lift.”

Iron is unforgiving.  You either lift it or you don’t.  Period.  Sure, you want to talk about the problems of your game at the net, or the opponent’s amazing free throw percentage, or that weak defensive tackle that is getting run over.  Go for it.  Talk away.  But it is meaningless in the universe of power lifters.  You either successfully lift the iron up, or you don’t.  No guesswork, no instant replay, and certainly no one else to blame.  Your knee hurts?  The iron doesn’t care.  You’re fifty-nine years old?  So what.  The iron weighs just the same.  You’re a man or you’re a woman?   Hmmm . . . I don’t see any pink or blue weights.   Trust me, iron forgives nothing.

Seven guys and one competitor in two cars driving to the Czech Republic.  Across Holland, through Germany, racing down the Autobahn to the town of Pilsen in the former Czechoslovakia.  Women’s and Men’s World Masters Powerlifting Championships.  Once a year, competitors come from around the world for this week-long competition.   But this hard-core group of seven came to support just one — a fifty-nine year old man.  An old man in anybody’s book of sport.


Rik Priester from the Netherlands is not loquacious.  He is chronically unshaven.  And, yes, unnervingly truthful.  And, of course, as big as a barn.  Or, more accurately, he can lift a barn.  Okay, maybe not an actual barn, but he can lift a large motorcycle — a 1998 Honda Shadow Aero weighing in at 623 pounds.  Yup, he can do that . . .  I think.

So, of course, 623 pounds are placed on the bar for the next lift.  Five spotters swarm on the stage.  The spotters are there for safety, but there is a sense of a Greek Chorus about their on-stage-but-not-really-to-be-seen presence.  They are big men in their own right.  If the bar starts leaning too much, or the weightlifter’s muscles fail, or if it is all just too darn heavy, they swoop in for the rescue.  But they are not the show.  Nope.  They are the Greek Chorus.

Priester is a smidgen intense today.  Focused.  But, trust me, he is intense on a normal day.  “How are you?”   A common greeting in Des Moines, Iowa, right?  And even if your arm is hanging by a thread and one ear is torn off, you respond: “Great.  And you?”  Just a variation of Iowa nice.  But a “how are you” from Priester is a demand for a mental and physical assessment of your life.  Yikes.  But such intensity creates loyalty.  And so two of his sons and five friends are here in Pilsen to support his quest.

By the way, Priester is too old for this.  Injuries that used to never occur, occur — and take months to heal.  He’s teaching high school, running a family gym, strength training Olympic athletes in their own search for victory.  There is no time for this foolishness.  But here he is in the Czech Republic.  Sitting in a quiet corner.  Contemplating a squat of 623 pounds.


Up the ramp Priester comes again.  Blaring over the loudspeakers is music by Linkin Park.  The lyrics are not hopeful — “I’ve given up.  I’m suffocating.  Tell me what the f___ is wrong with me.”  Perhaps not as inspirational as one would like.

The bar rests on the middle of his upper back.  A place holder.  Up the bar goes and off the rack.   A humbling recognition of the extreme weight.  A staggering backwards step.  Oh my.  Is this really possible?  Then down down down, past the knees.  Squat, and you can see raw-eyed understanding of what he’s gotten himself into.  And now the hard part.  From the core of his being, from that spot below the belly button, curled tight, the weights are pushed upwards and upwards and unbelievably upwards.  The legs lock.

“And it was a good lift,” the woman announcer intones.

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“I am done after this,” Priester told me awhile ago when his knee was bothering him over the course of several weeks.  Naturally.  The cost is too high.   But this was before the Worlds.  Anyway, weight lifting is all about failure.  You lift until you can’t lift anymore.  It is in that spot of failure that all the gains are made — where a person becomes more powerful.  If you don’t fail, you don’t grow.  A simple lesson.

Next year, Priester turns 60.  Age is racing him down.  But the age of 60 also means a new age class.  The best lift in the squats in that class at the World Championships was 579 pounds.  A good lift.  But certainly not 623 pounds.

“Joe, next year the World Championships are in Denver.  What do you think?”  And Priester smiles at me.  I already know what he thinks.






The Frog King

The young girl sat on her dad’s shoulders.  Waiting.  Not a muscle moved.  Fidgeting is apparently not allowed at such heights.  The rest of us stood on our toes, dancing back and forth, trying to get an early peek.  After a while, we began to envy the young girl.  Her back and shoulders were comfortably curved as she held firmly around her dad’s neck.  No doubt, his was a supporting role.  You need a pair of sturdy shoulders?  One dad coming right up.

Suddenly, the band began to play the national anthem.  Everyone sang with great fervor.  Of course, not a word was understood by me.  But people began to tear up with the music.  Sobs were heard.  Just as I began to tear up, the balcony doors opened.  The Queen and King appeared.  We all shouted, and clapped, and waved . . . and they waved back.

Image 1Okay, hold it.  Kings and queens?  Bands playing?  An emotional national anthem?  Waving royalty?

Yes, it is true, and I haven’t even told you about the carriages.

It turns out that on this day in the Netherlands, Prinsjesdag, the King opens the yearly legislative session with an address to the parliament.  Thousands of Dutch wait outside the Noordeinde Palace for the King and Queen to appear and travel the short distance to the parliamentary buildings.  But, this short trip is not by bus, or tram, or bicycle.  Nope, it’s in a Golden Carriage.

The first carriage was black.  Impressive.  A footman walked next to the two horses calming them, while the driver sat stolidly — with his tri-corner hat perched atop his powdered wig, whip in one hand, reins in the other.  A character from another time.

The second carriage was identical to the first.  But by now, the late September sun was shining off the high gloss from the black finish reflecting the excited crowd back onto itself.  We all cheered.

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Ah, then the third carriage arrived.  The Golden Carriage.   Eight horses.  At least as many footmen.  Gold leaf blazing in the sun.  A gift to the former queen of the Netherlands in 1898, it is brought out of moth balls only a few times a year for special events.  Prinsjesdag is just such an event.  We cheered with delight.

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The King of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, is the first male to rule in over a hundred years.  A big deal, you’d think.  However, the Dutch seem to only mildly tolerate him — somewhat like a younger brother who is not quite up to snuff.  In the Dutch press, his photographs usually show him as befuddled or just a little off.  It seems unfair for all the good work he does diplomatically and for Dutch business.  But so it goes in families.

As for Queen Maxima, she is considered the best thing King Willem-Alexander has going.  Smart, beautiful, always says the right thing at the right time.  She greatly enhances the street cred of the King.  She is loved by one and all.  Without a doubt, she is the belle of the ball.  And today she is waving to us from the Golden Carriage in a red floor-length Valentino gown.  Exquisite.

So I ask my Dutch female friends about this mystique of the Golden Carriage.

“Every Dutch girl dreams of riding in the Golden Carriage,” they explain.  “You know, it’s the classic story of the Princess and the Frog.”

The Princess and the Frog?  Mmmmm, . . . generally, this is the story where the frog helps the princess in return for a kiss.  The frog meets his part of the deal.  When the frog asks for the kiss in return, the princess demurs.  After a bit of tension, the frog is kissed, he turns into a prince, and the happy-ever-after ending takes place.  Simple.

But why is the story of the King and Queen of the Netherlands the classic story of the Princess and the Frog?

“Because many of us dream of finding a prince and riding in the Golden Carriage,” say the Dutch women.


“Unfortunately, Queen Maxima kissed the frog and he remained a frog.”

And the Dutch women fall over each other laughing.

This is the same king, by the way, who visited Emmetsburg, Iowa, just the other day.  King Willem-Alexander stopped by to promote a Dutch-U.S. plant that brews up ethanol using the inedible parts of plants.  His little visit was picked up by most Iowa papers, national radio and TV news, and the New York Times.  He looked splendidly regal as he toured the plant and cut the baling twine for the grand opening.   He said all the right words, shook Governor Branstad’s hand, and said hello to our own United States Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack.  A great success.

But not in his own country.  In Holland, all rise for Queen Maxima.  And for King Willem-Alexander?  Not so much.

Back at the palace, the little girl finally dismounted from her poor father’s shoulders.  She had waved with the rest of us.  When she got down, she picked up a cardboard mask of the royalty.  A Queen Maxima mask.  And off she and her father went.  He following dutifully behind.

And the Frog King?  He just kept waving from the balcony.  Making sure we all got our money’s worth.







“For everything there is a season . . . .”

There’s a man.  And there’s a man.  And there’s a man.  Yup, another man.  Of course, one more man.  And there’s a . . . hold it, my goodness, it’s a woman.

It’s not a shabby crowd in which to hang.  Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, Fabritius, Steen.  To tell your mom that your painting is hanging just a few steps from The Girl with the Pearl Earring is not exactly embarrassing.  Although it certainly can’t be denied that it was a men’s club back then, however great they were.  A men’s club . . . and that seventeenth-century Wonder Woman, Judith Leyster.

But first things first.

Westrum Optometry sits in the heart of Des Moines East Village.   A lovely shop in a lovely building in the lovely historic district.  A mom and pop business.  Joel Westrum and Karime Reveiz Westrum run this show.  Joel is the optometrist and Karime is the office manager.  A powerful duo.


They are young.  They are enthusiastic.  They are hard-working.  They genuinely want to help you — in English or Spanish — whatever works.  It is no surprise to find out they are small-town Iowans from Webster City and Stratford.  The heart of farm country right here in downtown Des Moines.

And Judith Leyster?

Well, Leyster was a rare female Dutch Master.  And one of her few paintings, Man Offering Money to a Young Woman, hangs in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, Netherlands.

ImageThis painting by Leyster isn’t about the crucifixion of Jesus, or Adam and Eve in the Garden, or David’s defeat of Goliath.  Nope.  This would be an unsuccessful solicitation of prostitution.   Perhaps there a gender issue here.

Leyster was a star, according to Judith Molenaer for the National Gallery of Art:

“Leyster achieved a degree of professional success that was quite remarkable for a woman of her time. By 1633 she was a member of the Saint Luke’s Guild of Haarlem, the first woman admitted for whom an oeuvre can be cited, and in 1635 she is recorded as having three students.”

Now, nearly 400 years later, Leyster sits in the main hallway — Rembrandt is in the room to the right and Vermeer is in the room to the left.  Not bad.

And what about Karime Reveiz Westrum?

Reveiz Westrum went to college in Environmental Studies.  But she loved art.  All forms of art.  And took as many art classes as possible from the University of Iowa.  Soon she had enough for a double major.  It turned out painting was one of her true delights.

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“This picture was an assignment that I had due.  I didn’t realize it was due until a half hour before class.  My cat was laying on the picture as I was doing it.  You can see some of it’s paw prints.  I didn’t realize what the picture was at the time.  But I love it.”

As she should.

But then life does a few twists as it is inclined to do for all of us.

First Leyster.  She married in 1636.  She had five kids and helped with her husband’s business.  Which was art. A big job.  As for her art?  Brought to a standstill with marriage.  Life took over.  She had kids to raise, a business to run.  She ended up burying three of those kids and died herself at the age of 50, not so unusual back then.  She is an old Dutch Master who did all her art by 27.  Children, husband, and business were the stuff of her remaining 23 years.

The End.

Is that unfair?  Are you offended?  Was she robbed by her husband and children and business of even more artistic accomplishment?  Did she get the short end of the stick by dying at 50?  Should she be shaking her fist at the gods?

Consider Karime Reveiz Westrum.   Spread throughout Westrum Optometry are other paintings and pottery, all created by her.  But if you ask, you will find that all the art is at least nine years old.  Nothing produced since 2005.  The year of her marriage.

“After we got married and started the office, I just got out of the habit of making stuff.  I’m always a little bit disappointed in myself.  It’s like the classic, ‘Oh, I don’t have time for whatever.’  But I plan to someday get back into making stuff.  And then I always think it doesn’t have to be that you’re creating formal art.  Every day you make little creations. Whether it’s my child’s drawings, different things we do together — I don’t know how to put my finger on that — maybe I say this to make myself feel better.  But people create things every day.  They can be small things.  Or large things.  Or things that nobody else really sees.  Hopefully, I’m creating something.”

And with your business?

“We just went into this business as a team.  We did what we had to do.  Neither one of us had experience at running a business.  For example, the medical part of it — the billing, insurance — I learned as I went.  And I’m still learning.  We have come a long way.  It is not just the two of us anymore.  We have learned to delegate.  And three years ago, Helena arrived.”

Did your new baby turn everything upside down?

“No, she turned everything right side up.”

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And your art?

Karime Reveiz Westrum smiles.

“Right now I want to be a good mom.  That’s kind of what it comes down to.”

Mmmmm . . . perhaps that old rascally Preacher in Ecclesiastes wasn’t pulling our leg.  Perhaps we are all piece workers in our own life, just going from job to job.  Seasonal help.    Today you’re a mom, tomorrow you’re an Old Master.

Why not?