The reality of Reality TV

Watching reality TV is like peeking down the alley into the curtained windows of the Red Light District.  Tittilating to be sure, but certainly not something you want to know too much about.  Right?  Listen, of course she’s on break from her final year of pharmacy school at Drake University.  That’s what her bio said.  Satisfied?  Too often we are.

Aren’t you just a little curious if “reality” is really reality for reality TV stars?  Do they sit down during a break from the show, shake their heads at what they did onscreen, smoke a cigarette, and quietly watch the diaper commercial?  Does Kim Kardashian, amidst all the concern about her public displays of lactating through her clothes, just noiselessly step away from the camera, nurse her kid, and wait for us to get back with the popcorn?  And Honey Boo Boo?  Seriously?

And then this brouhaha when a reality TV figure says something that shocks our sensibilities so badly that we vote them off the island.  Like the character from “Duck Dynasty” who made anti-gay comments recently.  This must be confusing to them.  Aren’t they supposed to shock our sensibilities?  Isn’t this what the audience wants?  The more unusual their behavior, the more they turn traditional good manners upside down, the more they act out as bad boys or bad girls, the more the audience loves them.  We ask them to edge some undefined line, and then we take away our love when they miscalculate.  It’s a precarious existence for sure.

The Dutch love reality TV.  In fact, they are the creators of a fair chunk of what you see out there.  Jon de Mol, yes, the man who was the spark for “Big Brother,” is the king of reality TV. De Mol is Dutch and his reality shows usually first appear in the Netherlands before they get exported.  Most recently, he sold the Dutch reality show “Utopia” to Fox for distribution in the U.S.  “Utopia” seems to be the horrible idea of abandoning 15 people for a year to create their own society — with all but the  “indispensable” persons gradually being cut from the show.    I’m thinking this isn’t going to work out well for “the poor, the orphaned, and the widowed.”

Right now in Holland, there is a reality TV show centered around a gal the public knows as “Barbie.”  Her actual name is Samantha de Jong.  Her shows are compared to “Jersey Shore.”  It’s all in Dutch, but my Dutch friends tell me that Barbie is quite a wild persona.  “She says whatever crazy thing comes into her head,” they say.  “The more inappropriate the better.”  Marriage proposal, birth of a child, fighting and making up with her husband.  My friends shake their heads.  But they all watch it.  Along with a million of their neighbors.  Yup, a million.  Except usually the first episode of the season.  That’s 1.5 million.

Two other characters appearing each week on the show are Barbie’s sister and the sister’s fiancée.  The fiancée, Patrick Huegen, is the solid-looking man on the left.  Yup, the beefcake.

Image 5Patrick, 30 years old, arrives early to our meeting.  He waves back to everyone greeting him — and there are many, as we sit at the small table.  He is curious about others, he solicits feedback, and he appears to be just one of those truly “nice guys.”  Oh yeah, he also can’t stop smiling.

When I ask him about the show, Patrick is visibly excited.

“It’s a very popular show.  Everybody in Holland talk about it.  ‘Did you see that?’ They say each week.  There happens a lot of crazy stuff in the show, but they like it.  Maybe that is the power of the series, because when there is something, we say it.  People who don’t do that, we are an example.  A lot of people talk about it.”

Patrick shows me clips from past episodes where he is a major character:  “I give my brother-in-law some tips for his marriage. And here, my brother-in-law got implants for his hair.  We are together at the clinic.  We are always laughing.  It is nice when we are together. And here, I am driving back from vacation in Spain.”

I watch the old episodes at home.  Barbie talking, laughing, crying, shouting.  Episode after episode.  I don’t understand a word.  It doesn’t matter.  This is voyeuristic heaven.  Lord, there is even a hazy clip of Barbie making love to her husband.  Amazing.

“In about two weeks, my fiancée is getting implants, we are going to film that,” Patrick tells me without a blink.

Really?  Is he kidding?

I have to tell you, Gentle Reader (as only Miss Manners can put it), my neck is getting sore.  My morals are getting bruised.  And I’m feeling self-righteous indignation about reality TV.  Enough is enough.

Ah, but of course Patrick, in his uniquely expressive English, has more to tell me.

“I was raised in The Hague,” Patrick explains.  “With my parents.  My parents break up when I was 11 years old.  My father goes this way, my mother goes another way.  My dad has gone the wrong way.  He has gone to prison.  A lot of criminal activities. . . .  He doesn’t drink anymore.  I learn from his mistakes.  I rarely drink.  I learn from him.  His faults he make, I try not to make.  It was learning.”

“I was a window washer for almost ten years.  Low to high buildings.  I worked very hard. I always worked six days in the week.  No vacation.  No holiday.  Not much money.”

“I started small on the show.  Everybody wants to be on TV sometime in their life.  It was good.  I did not expect more.  The second time they said come again.  The third time I got a small contract. This is my third contract.  I enjoy it.  I’m a character, but I am not crazy on the show.  I am just myself.  I don’t say curse words or bad things.  I am the same off the show.  I enjoy it.  I go on vacation.  I get to eat anywhere.  I am happy.”

And when the show ends?

“This show is not forever, it is not forever — I hope to get my work out of this for personal training.  It comes extra.  Maybe some guy watch the show and will come to me for training. The show is advertisement for my training profession.   I’m happy when I finish this. I am a happy guy.  When the show is on TV, I can get a lot of response from clients.  It is a big opportunity for me.  Everything from TV is extra.”

Patrick looks at me with clear eyes and no smile.

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“Listen, I know it is reality TV. . . .   At least we don’t have to sing.”

And if they do ask you to sing?

“Then I can do it.”

Mmmm . . . how’s that self-righteousness thing working for you?






Somebody had to.

Des Moines really is the center of the universe.  I know, I know, there are a few doubters out there.  If you are cosmopolitan, or worldly, or perhaps a model for Abercrombie & Fitch standing shirtless outside the store at Jordan Creek, the center of the universe is wherever your perfectly sculpted abs land.  But it’s not true.  Des Moines is home central.  The rest of the world is OUT THERE.  The rest of the world is populated by PEOPLE-NOT-FROM-DES MOINES.  The rest of the world is covered by BBC World News, while the Boone News-Republican is pushing the edges of any sane person’s geographical comfort zone.

You need some proof that Des Moines is the center of the universe?  Let me tell you a story.

In 1992 a war erupted in a place I couldn’t even have identified on a map: the Socialist Republic of Boznia and Herzegovina.  This tiny country was born out of the split-up of Yugoslovia in 1991.  It was populated by Muslims Bosnians, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats.  Things turned south almost immediately between these groups, with the countries of Croatia and Serbia making the mess tragically worse.  Horrible things happened.  The words bandied about are “ethnic cleansing,” “mass rape,” “concentration camps,” and “genocide.”  Not pretty words.

A particularly gruesome part of this puzzle was the massacre at Srebernica in July of 1995.  More than 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed.  The killers were primarily Bosnian Serbs and paramilitary units from Serbia.  By the way, Srebernica was a safe area under UN protection during this massacre. That didn’t go so well, did it?

Here is a small excerpt from the summary of the trial judgment in one case:

“The prisoners were forced to surrender their property, which included identity cards, wallets, watches, and food. They were kept in cramped conditions and received some water, although hardly any food. Members of Bosnian Serb Forces did not ask or record names. . . .  Some [of the prisoners] were blindfolded and their hands were tied, and at one detention site they were given a final cup of water. Then they were transported to nearby locations, and shot. This scene played out at a field in Orahovac, a dam at Petkovci, a gravel pit at Kozluk and a farm in Pilica. In addition, hundreds were killed inside the Pilica Cultural Centre, an execution for which there are no known survivors. . . .    Loaders and excavators were either already at the sites at the time of the executions or arrived soon thereafter to bury the dead in mass graves.”

In a guilty plea in another case, a soldier admitted to being part of a firing squad at the farm in Pilica.  He and seven other solders executed Bosnian Muslims from 10 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon.  Ten victims at a time were unloaded from the buses and shot.  He estimates that he personally killed 70 people.  Men and boys from 17 to 60 years of age.

Believe it or not, a couple of victims survived.  Two survivors told a UN investigator of giving all their money to their guards (they were told they could buy their freedom), being placed on buses, taken to a farm field, and then shot.  These two faked death among the corpses.  And then miraculously fled before the excavators bulldozed their bodies.  Yup, you heard me correctly — they were actually buried alive under loved ones.  It is unimaginable.

Over 8000 murdered at Srebernica in total.


The guy running the show for the Bosnian Serbs was a sweetheart named Radovan Karadzic.  Karadzic is presently being prosecuted for various things, including the Srebernica massacre, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.  And my wife is helping in this prosecution.

Okay, you got it?

My wife spent a week helping prepare a Serb witness for trial on behalf of the prosecution.  The witness needed a translator for the preparation.  A cultured, elegant woman working for the Tribunal as a translator was assigned to the job.  As you can imagine, a conversation about the execution of 8000 people is not a particularly light-hearted topic.  Grim transcript after grim transcript were reviewed with the witness for two days.  At a break, my wife began to talk to the translator.  Slowly this led to further conversations.  The translator was a professional, who was serious and talented and correctly cautious.   And, by the way, from Serbia.  She gradually shared parts of her life with my wife.  Her job, her family, her life in Belgrade.

Eventually, the translator asks my wife where she was from.

“From the United States,” says my wife.

“Where in the United States?”  The translator pushes.

“Iowa,” my wife says.

And then out of the gloom of facts surrounding this horrible massacre, in the midst of all this senseless death, the translator says: “You must come from Des Moines.  Somebody had to.”

Whaaaat?  My wife is dumfounded.

This woman sees my wife’s confusion and smiles.  “You know.  Bill Bryson.”

Lo and behold, the opening two lines of Bill Bryson’s 1989 book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America: ”I come from Des Moines.  Somebody had to.”

So, there you have it.  From the far reaches of Serbia and The Hague.  Proof.  Des Moines is the center of the universe.

By the way, wandering around Delft the other day, I saw a mother and daughter holding hands while biking.  That’s how a story should end.












February requiem for your January vows

New Year’s vows are tricky for most of us.  Particularly after that first failed month down the rocky road of virtue and clean living.  You probably know what I’m talking about.  Vows made over holiday turkey and stuffing are long gone by the time the grey clamminess  of February oatmeal ferrets out the truth.  Sure, we can reasonably argue how our hope to be a better person ran afoul of bad people, bad astrology, and bad weather.   But, the cold, raw, February wind smacking us upside the head puts a quick end to that nonsense.  Here’s the bottom line — January got the best of us.  End of story.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for New Year’s vows.  I’d love to be a better person.  But for a vow to really work, I’ve read that you have to be ready, willing, and able to change.  You have to be motivated.  Most of us aren’t.

My friend, Bill Roach, an indoor cycling instructor at the YMCA in Waukee and the YMCA Healthy Living Center in Clive, teaches special January biking classes that acknowledge this motivational problem of “change. ”  He tries to help you slip the idea of your new vow into your subconscious while you’re pedaling like a maniac.  The current wisdom is that the seed of change in the subconscious mind will grow into a blossom of actual change in your conscious mind.  Clever.  But what else is Bill slipping into your subconscious mind?  Have you thought about that?  Let me ask you a question: Do you feel you want to bark like a dog when someone says the word “meatloaf”?  See, something else to think about as you’re “hill climbing” in one of Bill’s class.

No matter.  Maybe this is the year to take a sabbatical from renewing your January vows in February.  Maybe this February is the time to embrace the real you, the you in the mirror, the you inside your Spanx.   Yup, maybe it’s even high time to make friends with your belly.  That softly rounded sensuous curve deserves a little respect.  A little love.  He or she may be your closest friend.  And is undisputibly in your corner through thick and thin.

To expedite this love fest, I’d like to introduce you to my new best buddy — the lowly “oliebollen.”  Literally, “oil balls” in Dutch.  The translation says it all.  These wondrous delights are the Lamborghini of deep-fried donut holes.  The size of a tennis ball, they have a chewy dumpling consistency that doesn’t look like much, but after eating one, you’ll want to lie down on a bench, wipe your brow, and perhaps have a little swoon.  Delightfully satisfying.


Oliebollen is a traditional Dutch pastry served around the New Year’s holidays.  They’ve been in existence forever.  The going theory is that oliebollen is eaten to thwart a German goddess who appears around New Year’s Eve and tries to cut open your belly while you sleep.  If you eat oliebollen, you’re in luck:  the goddess’s sword will slide off your newly-created fat.  How awesome is that justification.  Disembowelment or dessert?  Listen, it’s a personal choice each of you have to make.

Linnie Vermolen runs an oliebollen stand.  This stand is so popular that the line stretches clear to the next street on New Year’s Eve day.

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Linnie and his family have run this same stand in the same place for a long time.  “This was for my father and mother, I think now twenty-five years here.”  Linnie says with a broad smile.

His cousin, Gerda, working beside him, chimes in that the entire business is a family affair: “His mother works, his sister works, and I am here.”

Image 2They laughingly tell me, “Our English is not so good.  What do you think?”  They then talk about the ingredients in oliebollen, how kids love to put their faces up against the glass front and pick out the exact oliebollen they have been eyeballing for 20 minutes, how the dough rises in two separate bowls with one containing raisins, how good this location is for business, where Linnie works in the off season, how they put on the powdered sugar, and on and on and on.

Don’t they get tired working long hours in the stand?

“I am 63.  Linnie is 46.  Linnie is like a young dog.  We have much fun.  Sometimes we have very hard working.  But we get to talk and have fun.”  Gerda smiles broadly as she speaks.

But don’t your feet get tired?

“We don’t work, we dance always.”  And Gerda dances around in circles with Linnie.

Okay, what further information do you need?  Perhaps it is time to set aside those New Year’s vows and all the associated guilt, eat oliebollen and dance with Gerda and Linnie.   And love your belly.  If you can do this, consider yourself invited to the February requiem for those January vows.  May they rest in peace.













A visit to a coffee shop

Red Light districts and “coffee shops” that sell marijuana is what most folks know of the Netherlands.  That’s too bad.  Don’t get me wrong, vice sells.   But illicit drugs and anonymous sex, even if we include rock and roll, seems a little unambitious for a bucket list of things you want to do before you die.  Okay, if you’re the mayor of Toronto in a “drunken stupor,” maybe it would be enough.

Truly, Holland is a magical place for all sorts of reasons besides magic mushrooms.  But it seems the naughty kid always gets the attention.  My friend, the wonderful Dutch mom Harriet Priester, who is not a fan of marijuana or alcohol, says with a shrug of tolerance, “But the coffee shops are also Holland.”  So, in pursuit of all things “Dutch,” off to the coffee shops I go.

I soon stumble across a problem — coffee shops are barred from advertising, which makes the owners and employees skittish about an interview for an international newspaper like Des Moines’ Cityview (apparently they heard about the deliveries in Altoona).   Harriet’s two adult sons, however, step up and offer to help.  Out the door we go for an adventure.

The coffee shop where the boys take me is nearly kitty-corner to the Noordeinde Palace in The Hague, the working palace of the king of the Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander.  Of course.  Where else would you put a drug den?  The location reflects the Dutch Government’s tolerance of “soft drugs.”  The Netherlands decided long ago that the way to control the use of marijuana is to regulate it.  The argument is that by legislating the location, the amount, and the type of drug available, users won’t be pulled into harder drugs, personal safety will increase, and the location won’t become a nuisance to the public.  Like its tolerance of prostitution, the Netherlands has decided to go the route of education, regulation, and treatment, rather than criminalization.  Interesting.

Creamers is like every coffee shop I see in my wanderings around The Hague.  Large windows open to the street.  Bright interior.  No skulking dark corners.  One more shop on a street of clothing stores, bakeries, and butcher shops.

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Suzanne, the barmaid, is serving beverages in the section where the public gathers to drink pop, beer, or tea, and, yes, smoke marijuana.  She sees that I’m wide-eyed as I look around the room.   Laughingly, she pours me a beer and chats me up.  Yup, I’m a little discombobulated.  Part of me is drinking a beer, smiling, and looking for patrons to interview; the other part of me is waiting for the Des Moines Police to come busting through the door so we can decide who to charge and with what crime.  Is Suzanne an aider and abettor to Delivery of a Controlled Substance or merely an innocent bystander?  Should I start writing search warrants for the bicycles outside?  Lord, why is everyone sitting so nonchalantly when they should be running for the doors and jumping out windows?  It is a  topsy-turvy world and I’m having a hard time finding my balance.

The soft drugs are sold at a small counter to the left, where the marquee announces the current products and prices.  Wow.  Haze weed and skunk weed.  There’s a difference?

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The marijuana is displayed in plastic containers at the counter.  I ask to see inside one of the containers.   It looks suspiciously similar to green raccoon poop.  Perhaps this brand of marijuana is like the rumored rare coffee beans that monkeys pass through their intestines for coffee connoisseurs.  Are there marijuana connoisseurs?  Of course there are.

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It’s 2:30 in the afternoon.  Business is moderate.  Customers appear to range in age from 18 to 60.  Thigs, Jake, and Quentin are quietly sitting in a booth smoking marijuana and drinking tea.

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“We just finished school and had some spare time.  And it is more common to smoke weed at 2:30 than have a beer.  You’re still capable to do anything.  If you have a beer eventually you end up on the ground.  You can’t do homework.”

And do you think smoking weed helps you?

“Marijuana is not bad for you, but it is not good for you.  It is smoking a cigarette.  It badly affects your health in the same way.”

Maciek sits up at the bar.  He is drinking a beer and smoking a joint.

ImageMaciek is from Poland and has been in Holland for ten years.  A friendly guy, he tells of his handy-man job and his ability to do electrical, plumbing, carpentry, the works.  Do I have need of a handy-man?

He gets out the fixings for another marijuana cigarette.  Rolling paper, tobacco, marijuana.  And spends quite a bit of time laying out the tobacco, then putting the marijuana on top, and finally, he rolls the paper.  I am fascinated.  He kindly offers me the finished product.  For free.  When I decline, his feelings are hurt.  So, I buy him a beer.  We are friends once again.

My two tour guides, Luc and Rik, patiently sit with me and translate when necessary.  They have smoothed the way.  I ask the brothers what they think about the coffee shops.  Both preach tolerance of marijuana, but personally do not imbibe.  By the way, they also rarely, if ever, drink alcohol.


To them, “to smoke weed is not a big deal.”  They echo the government statement that legalization may save customers from being around harder drugs.  But for these two trained power lifters, the bottom line is health.  “It is simply healthier to not drink alcohol or smoke.”  So they don’t.  Period.  And out the door we go, leaving behind the drugs, booze, and rock and roll.

But let me tell you a story before you flip back to the picture of the weed.

In the middle of the 1980’s, I successfully convicted a somewhat notorious drug dealer in Des Moines.  After the jury returned the verdict, the then-county attorney allowed me to give an interview with the press.  Flush with my victory, I recall making a statement about how the jury’s actions would take a major bite out of the drug scene in Des Moines.  I may have even said that the defendant’s conviction would make Des Moines a safer town and that we were doing our part in the War on Drugs.  And, if I remember correctly, the next day’s paper even referred to the downfall of a “Drug Kingpin.”  Wow.  What success. What a victory.  The world was safe once again.

Here we are.  Nearly 30 years later.  Drug and alcohol problems are all solved.  Isn’t it wonderful?

And there you have it.  My visit to a coffee shop.














Dancing with 10,000 of my closest friends

Swimming seems an activity that evokes an older time, perhaps even a better time, a time of gentle ease.  Swimming belongs in a Norman Rockwell painting.  There you are, floating on your back in a small pond bordered by Iowa prairie grass, with two dragonflies and a single grasshopper perched gently on the bent tips of the cattails edging the water; and in the distance is a cornfield standing tall against a shimmering blue sky with a lazy cloud drifting slowly past.  Rockwell, of course, would have positioned a “no swimming” sign that you happen to splash with the merest flutter of a kick, as you slip quietly and peacefully through the cool blue-green, gliding without friction, free from the pull of all earth’s desires.  Paradise.

There is just one very small personal hiccup with this rosy picture — swimming terrifies me.  Let me assure you, I’ve tried to swim.  In fact, I’ve swum thousands of laps.  Unfortunately, they were mostly to the bottom of the pool and then back to the surface and then down to the bottom again.  An exercise closely resembling drowning.  Sure, I’ve had years of swim lessons.   But come Graduation Day, I’m the one grabbing the wet end of the hook held by the swim instructor to fish out those unsuccessful students who disappear into the deep-end with no hope of resurfacing before the end of class.  Swimming has not produced my best moments.

Which is why my taking the traditional plunge into the North Sea on New Year’s Day with 10,000 of my closest Dutch friends seems a tad problematic.

Let’s just set aside the drowning issue for a moment and talk about a few other minor concerns with this venture.  First, this ocean is not called the North Sea because gentle hot springs hidden under the waves cause you to giggle self-consciously as your swim trunks bubble up around your waist.  Sorry.  It’s called the North Sea because it is best-suited for military landings.


Like this celebration the Dutch held the other day to commemorate the landing of William of Orange in 1813.  Clearly, the Lazy River at Adventureland this is not.

And then there is the small problem of the water being slightly chilly this time of year.   Look at all these swimmers in the North Sea.


Now, look again.  They all are in wet suits.  A wet suit make sense in the North Sea.  A wet suit is designed so that you don’t freeze to death in the water. Why are these swimmers all wearing wet suits?  They don’t want to die in the North Sea.  This is not subtle.

Finally, did I tell you that 10,000 folks are expected to show up for this little dip on New Year’s Day?  That’s a lot of people.  And after this theoretical dunk in the ocean, how exactly do we get our wet clothes off and our dry clothes on?   Will there be 10,000 changing rooms with small space heaters placed next to little tables holding cups of hot cocoa with marshmallows?  I’m thinking not.  Yup, 10,000 naked people on a cold, wind-swept, North Sea beach are going to be dancing on one leg trying to get their underwear on.  This might not be my brightest idea.

But, there you are.  The Dutch begin the New Year by a dip in the ocean.  It heralds a fresh start.  A new beginning.  Time to buck up and welcome the future.  What are you going to do?

So we all pay our three euro, don our orange stocking cap that is given to every entrant, along with a large tin can of split-pea soup (why not?) inside an orange bag with the sponsor’s logo, and wait patiently to strip down to our speedos and bikinis and run into the ocean.  I make my way to the middle of the crowd where I’m sure it’s nice and toasty.   Well, I slightly miscalculate.  The North Sea wind instantly freezes me, somewhat like the flash freeze they use on the spinach you buy at Hy Vee out of the freezer compartment.  As a result, I stand woodenly for 45 minutes.  Not moving.  Frozen spinach on the shelf.

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Time passes slowly.  But, after three line dances and lots of stomping to techno music interlaced with polka tunes, a roar goes up, and everyone around me starts running.  I try to run, but I’m still frozen solid to the ground.   I eventually loosen up, make it to the water, dive into a wave, don’t drown, turn around, grin with delight, and raise my fists high above the spray.  This euphoria lasts about a quarter of a second.  Then I discover a small problem — I don’t have a clue where I left my dry clothes.

Do you see them anywhere?

Sure, there are 10,000 bundles of dry clothes on the beach.  That’s a fact.  I can see them.  They are all in the conveniently provided orange bags.  My clothes are also in an orange bag.  Just like every bag.  I’m a little cold.  And dripping wet.  And getting colder.  And the wind is blowing harder.  The edge of panic starts to seep into my damp brain.

By the way, I told this story to my Dutch friend.  Her grandfather was a fisherman.  Her father was a fisherman.  And her son is a fisherman.  They have all gone into the North Sea for weeks on end to make a living.  They all make it correctly home.

“Joe, you should have talked to me.  We are all taught from young about finding our way back.  You must make a line with your eye back up the shore to some mark on the land.  You follow that line to your clothes.”

Of course you follow the line.  Everyone knows that.

In the meantime, I wandered the beach like a soggy puppy.  Whimpering in a heroic sort of way.  As I contemplated taking someone else’s orange bag (how easily we turn to crime), suddenly, there was my bag.  I nearly cried with joy as I danced naked on one leg trying to get my underwear on.

So . . . what do I think?

I think this is what Norman Rockwell would have painted had he been around for this foolishness.  Not some nostalgic ideal.  But, a dance with 10,000 of my closest naked friends, crying with relief, trying to put on their underwear.  And, of course, Rockwell’s ever-present “no swimming” sign would be just visible at the corner of the painting — up on a sand dune with wet swim trunks hanging off one edge of the sign.

Now that would be a New Year’s Day picture.




















Crazy but not that crazy

The fire blazes nearly seven-stories high as the North Sea wind whips the flames from one side of the structure to the other.  The crowd of a couple thousand ebbs and flows around the giant wick as techno music throbs to the beat of the burning light show.  And at the base, Christmas trees burst into flames scenting the area with the fine smell of cedar.  Ah, but there is a wildness in the air — in the dark and the smoke and the flame — a hunger that makes your skin thirsty.  For what?  Anything is possible at this gigantic campfire.


How did we possibly get here?

Let’s start with the notion of a little healthy competition.  We all love a little healthy competition.  But, the idea that a  “little healthy competition” might prevent anarchy and violence?  Now that is a new one to me.  Would that mean that the athletic games between Iowa and Iowa State are actually needed to prevent a mob of Eastern Iowans from coming down Interstate 80 and sacking Ames?  Got me.  But let me tell you a tale.

Once upon a time there was a city sitting in one of the most populous areas of Europe.  I mean a ton of people.  People were squeezed tight in this city.  So tight that if you parked your car in the middle of one of the narrow streets, you blocked access by hundreds of people to their front doors.  Tight.

Within this city are many distinct neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods are orderly, clean, and quiet.  In fact, your neighbor to the left, right, or above, will knock on your door without hesitation if you’re listening to Grey’s Anatomy just a bit too loud.  And, heaven forbid you talk in more than a whisper after 11 at night.  It is time to settle down and be respectful.  So if you plan to have a fight with your wife, please watch the clock.

Ah, but once a year, the kettle releases a bit of steam.  It originally began quite innocently.  On New Year’s Eve, neighborhoods started shooting off fireworks and lighting bonfires made from discarded Christmas trees and wood pallets.  Then neighborhoods started competing with other neighborhoods for the biggest and best bonfires.  Then neighborhoods started stealing Christmas trees and wooden pallets from other neighborhoods  – you can see this is going south quickly —  and, unsurprisingly, these thefts caused a bit of animosity.  Fights broke out.  Serious fights.  People were hurt and the cops were overwhelmed with complaints.

The City stepped in.  There’s going to be a competition.  There will be designated spots on the beach where neighborhoods can construct their bonfires.  Two spots eventually.  From December 27th to New Year’s Eve, neighborhoods will compete to see who can build the biggest torch.

And that’s what happened.

“The fights were years ago in The Hague.  They were small fights.  We were stealing Christmas trees from each other.  And pallets from each other.  And hitting each other.  But now it is all legal.”  Danny patiently explains.  He is in his fourth day of building this gigantic pyre overlooking the North Sea.

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Danny is supporting the Duindorp neighborhood.  The pyre on the other side of the harbor is being built by the Scheveningen neighborhood.   Both are scrappy, blue-collar enclaves historically made up of hard-working fishing families.  Tough folks to this day.

“This is tradition.  I did it since I was 12-13.  It started with small fires in the square.  Then we moved up and became a little bit bigger.  But we became too big.  So the mayor told us to go to the beach.  Now it is tradition.  The 27th of December, we start with building on the beach.  On the other side of the harbor, they build.  There is a competition as to who is going to be a largest one.  Last year we won.  We had 1200 of these pallets.”  Danny smiles at me with pride.

“We all have jobs.  Most of the people take off the job.  It is from builders to office people. Everybody, the whole neighborhood, it is a tradition every year.  Ours is a real neighborhood. Everybody knows each other.  You can let your child out and your neighbor will take care of them.  Everybody takes care of each other.  Once a year, it is a five-day party.  No sleep.  No rest.  No work.”


Danny’s friend, Ron, joins us.  He is laughing and talking rapid Dutch.  He doesn’t know that I don’t understand a word.  He is talking to me as if I might be a potential volunteer to climb the tower with a wood pallet on my back.  At that very moment, I stumble off the teetering wood pallet I’m perched on.  Clearly, I’m not a promising candidate.  Ron changes his tact.

“This is the most fun tomorrow night.  It is the largest bonfire in the world.  Not the tallest one, but the largest one.”  Ron invites me to the neighborhood party that accompanies the blaze.

But isn’t this crazy dangerous to build?

Ron looks at me no longer smiling:  “It is really dangerous.  The pallet will catch the wind and fly far down the beach.  It is really dangerous.  But a crane will come and help tomorrow.  Although if the crane turns wrong, the wind will catch it and tip it over.”

Oh my . . .  and after the fire, what will you do?

“For the first three days we sleep, and then we get to our normal work again.”  Danny and Ron, neighborhood friends, smile with exhaustion.

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As they are walking away, Ron tells me I need to go see the 10,000 people run into the North Sea on New Year’s Day at noon.  I ask him if he plans to go swim with them.

“We are crazy, but not that crazy.”  And they each grab a pallet, laughing loudly, as they head towards the wooden mountain, side by side.







A gold ball ornament

Rain is falling in sheets from the North Sea today.  It’s a cold rain.  So cold that hail periodically bursts down from the heavens in a slushy mix sending ice pellets bouncing across the cobblestones.  Shoppers are walking with heads down and umbrellas collapsed inward by the wind.   They are all moving with a purpose.  They walk the straight-line of a coyote across a snowy Iowa farm field — no meandering dog path of window shopping for them today.

Sitting with a cup of hot wine in a warm cafe is how to best appreciate this day.  My wife and I are drinking gluhwein.   It is a traditional mulled wine in Holland that warms your hands and your cold insides and casts life in a rosy glow.  The streets outside the cafe window are dark and wet and puddled.

A group is gathering on the other side of the street.  They are tucked under a shop awning to get out of the cold rain.  It is hard to see through the small smattering of umbrellas what is happening on the other side.


As we approach, there is singing.  It’s a chorus.  A beautiful chorus lead by a fur-hatted conductor.  They are singing us all home on this cold blustery evening with English Christmas carols.  A small scene out of a Charles Dickens story perhaps.

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Suddenly, I feel a nudge.  I’m bumped by a young boy standing no taller than my waist with his father in tow.  The father looks kindly at me and begins an entire spiel in Dutch.  At the end of the speech, the boy holds out a gold ball ornament.

I have not a clue as to what is expected of me and don’t understand a word the father said.  My go-to response in Holland is to smile stupidly and mumble in pidgin Dutch that I only speak English.  Of course I might actually be asking how to find turnips.  Unclear.

Without even a tired sigh, the young father begins all over again in English.  “We are collecting for the Gouden Kerst.”  He goes on to explain that this is a local group that tries to fulfill the wishes of folks that need help.  Out of thousands of requests, they are able to address a few needs.  He points to a Dutch bike with the long wooden basket in front.  “We were able to convert one of those last year so that a young woman with bad legs could pedal with her hands.  That is an example.”  This guy, his son, the chorus and its director, are all volunteers.  I look at them as the rain drips off their cold faces.  The father looks back with the same kind smile. 

“Would you like to buy an ornament?” he says.

Okay, let’s just pause here for a moment.  Charitable giving is complicated.  Sure, we all want to do it.  Who doesn’t’?  A chance to help someone less fortunate, someone in need.  To bring good cheer to those whose lives are just a little bleak, a little dreary.  And, truly, the bang for the buck seems absurdly disproportionate — if you only save enough soup-can labels, you can pull some poor family from debtors prison.  Really, how can you possibly refuse?

But then there’s the rub.  Why are these people in debtor’s prison?  Maybe they defrauded someone?  Maybe they were foolish?  Maybe they didn’t work as hard as you?  Heaven knows you’ve earned your way!  What’s their problem?  And on top of it all, how can the pittance that you provide possibly make any difference?  The need is so great.  So many people, so many organizations, and even your lame brother is asking you to give.  They will take your last nickel.  And then where will you be?  Yup, in debtor’s prison.  Nobody wants that.  See?  Complicated.

Carla Dawson, now a teacher at North High School, worked many years for the Catholic Worker House over on 7th Street.  She cleaned, cooked, and mothered all who dropped in for help.  A loud, aggressive, kind, huge-hearted woman, she had (and has) everyone’s number.  Including mine.

As she was handing out vegetables to a long line of people one Saturday morning several years ago, I  talked to her of my confusion about charity and good deeds and giving money to street people.  I presented a brilliant argument about how any amounts given just go to drugs and booze, that we were just funding more of the problem, and that maybe people need to hit rock bottom to change.  “Clearly,” I summed up with a flourish, “giving money to folks on the street is a bad idea.”


Carla looked at me with her typical half-smile that said she might be looking at the biggest dope she had ever seen.

“Weeg, just give them a dollar.  You can do a dollar.  Don’t be stupid.”  And she handed out another handful of red peppers to the tired young mother coming through the line.  End of discussion.

So, a gold ball ornament from this little boy and his father waiting in the rain on this wet street in Holland?










Skating like a Rooster

Skating is a terrifying activity wrapped in a bow-tied package of exhilaration.  Certainly, there is all that floating and gliding and whooshing-air-past-rosy-cheeks stuff.   A giddy time to be sure.   But, if you look in the dark corner at the edge of your vision, off to the far right, you see a spectacular spray of shaved ice, flailing arms, flying mittens, and then hear the muffled thump of a coat-padded body hitting the surface with a remarkable lack of grace. Of course, you tell yourself that such a fall will never happen to you.  You are young and virile and inordinately good-looking.  But, trust me, if you skate long enough, you will fall.  Count on it.

This winter, I’m deep in the world of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates.  You remember the story set in Holland during the 19th century, where Hans single-handedly saves his sister, mother, father, a doctor, and miscellaneous friends through his relentlessly selfless actions.  Yup, it’s one of those stories you want to read with a glass of wine and not too much self-reflection.  But the backdrop of the story is skating.  Without a doubt, skating is truly a big deal in this neck of the woods.  Every town in the Netherlands has its own manufactured ice skating rink as the locals wait for a hard freeze of the canals.  The Hague is no exception.


And once there is a freeze, everyone is on the canals.  In fact, if it gets really cold, they have a 124-mile marathon through 11 cities in the northern province of Friesland.  16,000 skaters show up for that little skating event.

While wandering around Delft the other day, I actually thought I saw Hans Brinker.  Of course, he was no longer that young idealistic boy of the 1865 story.  Now, he’s a little seasoned.


“I am 80 years in March.  I say I am 80 now because 80 is nicer than 79.  I was born in a small village before the war.”   Koos Rozenburg gives me a wide smile.  Cautious, but wide.

Rozenburg was six years old when World War II  started for the Netherlands.  In 1940, Rotterdam was bombed into nothing, forcing the Netherlands to capitulate.  Rozenburg lived in a small village between The Hague and Rotterdam.  He remembers the bombs, the brown paper covering the windows, and the starvation.  Their family was fortunate because his dad ran a laundry where he had stockpiled coal in anticipation of war.   “My father would change coal with the farmers for cheese and butter and milk.  We survived the war. We were lucky.”

After the war, Rozenburg was taken out of school at the age of 14 and worked in his father’s laundry.  He eventually  started his own laundry.  But his true love as a young man was cycling.

“I was a cycle racer when I was 18.  It went in a good way.  Then I saw a lovely girl, my wife.   And my mother said you cannot earn your money in cycle racing that way.  It was forbidden to pay money to the racers.  Some years later that was another thing.  In my time, I was very energetic, but you never get enough money for the future.”

So, he gave up racing and focused on his laundry.  Oh, yes, and collecting skates.

“We earn our money in the laundry.  But I was always collecting painted tiles and old skates.  I remember the day we were ten years married, had small children, the house was so full, my wife said please let me sell something for it is too much.   When the last of our children were married and goes out, I stopped the washing, and then we started this small shop here 30 years ago.”  So, Rozenburg now sells old ice skates in his corner shop on a canal in Delft.


As I wandered around the shop, I saw a well-tuned road bike tucked into a window well.  Raising my eyebrows,  Rozenberg gave a true wide smile.  “I come every day by bike.  Every morning I make 40 kilometers [nearly 25 miles] before I come.  It is the long way.   At night, I return the shortest way because my wife wants me home before seven for dinner.”


“I have happy life.  Every morning — here we are again.  Go with cycling.  And see what’s happening in Delft.  Some days I sell nothing.  It doesn’t matter.”

But what about winter?

“It becomes to be colder.  Every day I go.  It is a changeable universe.  So close to the sea, we never know.  Every day we are still here, I take the bike and I’m going.  In Dutch we say, ‘we sullen zien way er gebeurt.’   It means, ‘we’ll see what happens.’  It’s always a surprise.”

But you’re 80 years old?

“I don’t think to stop here.  One day I will feel it is not possible.  I’m feeling now every day.  I’m still here.  It is just fine.  Like a Rooster.”

The Brenton Skating Plaza in downtown Des Moines shines this holiday season.  It is delightfully enticing as you watch the skaters from the safety of your car where you are warm and cosy.

ImageBut really?  Come on.  Sure, those skate parties in high school were a few years ago.  And, yes, your hips aren’t all they used to be.   And don’t even start about those wobbly knees.  But . . . it is the beginning of a new year.  Who knows where life will take you?  What were Rozenburg’s words?  Oh yes, “We’ll see what happens.”  Well, then, maybe you should strap on the skates and go see what happens

By the way, when you are laying splayed on the ice after an earth-shaking tumble, and wonder why you ever did this, remember Koos Rozenburg, and tell those passing gawkers that you are skating like a Rooster.  So there.  That’ll ring in the new year.





Curse words, cancer, and the Pilgrims

“Bless me father, for I have sinned, it has been several decades since my last confession.”

Primarily out of laziness, and perhaps a lack of creativity, I had a fairly reliable list of sins I would confess to the priest at St. Mary’s Church in Iowa City.  I usually warmed the priest up with confessing to “talking back” to my mom and dad.  That was easy and would only require a minor punishment, a “Hail Mary” or two.  And then I would give a nod to lying as my second sin, which, of course, should have tipped the priest off as to my overall credibility.  Finally, I’d pull out my big gun-of-a-sin — cursing.  I would even give a specific number.  Seven.  Yup, I’m not lying.  Seven times I cursed.  I felt that was a good, round, biblical number.

As I grew older, got married, had children, cursing was nonexistent in my life.  It took becoming a teacher of law students and police officers before I discovered something wonderful — a well-placed curse could bring a class to full attention.  One simple profanity had the magical ability to focus the students’ minds into the present moment out of sheer shock.

Sure, it was a cheap trick.  Instead of honestly earning the students’ attention, I was willing to resort to gimmicks.   But who ever said teaching was honorable?  If I could have gotten away with turning one student into a pillar of salt during the first fifteen minutes, just as a gentle reminder for the others to listen up, there would have been a salt lick in each of my classes.  Duh.

What a surprise, then, to discover the truth about cursing.

It happened because I met Harriet Priester.  Harriet Priester is first and foremost a mother.  To be sure, she is also a business woman who works nearly every day at her family-owned gym in Holland.  Greeting folks at the front desk, providing towels, answering questions, she takes care of everything.  But what she really does is mother all of us who visit the gym — young, old, female, male, Dutch, or foreigners — we are all her children.

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Unfortunately for mothers everywhere, there is always a bad child in the bunch.

Harriet made the simple mistake of introducing me to two of her adult sons.  Since I am really a twelve year old who needs to be in permanent time-out, I asked her sons about Dutch swear words — specifically, what is the very worst word to say in Dutch?

Luc, the oldest son, looked around, leaned in, and softly whispered — “kanker.”  Harriet immediately turned a deep red and covered her mouth.  Rik, the youngest, looked away with a nervous snicker.  The room turned dead quiet.

Wow.  “Kanker.”  This is a great word.  It made a young man turn away, a mother blush, and it silenced a room.  Awesome.  What’s it mean?

Luc looked at me.  “Kanker.  You know.”  No, I didn’t.  “Kanker, kanker.”  Nope, I still didn’t know.  “Cancer,” Luc said.

Of course.

Luc explained that the worst swear words in Dutch (and The Hague, according to him, is known as the cursing capitol of Holland) are diseases, with kanker being the very worse.  It is so bad that a child will be grounded if he or she even says the word out loud.  Tied for second place is “tyfus” and “colera.”  No, kidding.

I was stunned!  So, the slang word for having sex is not a bad word in Holland, but to call someone a disease is a bad word.  Go figure.  This sounded like a topic that needed some type of doctoral thesis.  So, off I went up the road to the renowned university town of Leiden — a town not only full of smart people but of beautiful canals and twirling windmills.


My plan was to talk to the foremost expert on the Pilgrims.  Yup, those same Pilgrims who left Leiden on a boat called the Mayflower and may have influenced our “puritanical” American swear words.  Listen, it seemed reasonable to me at the time.

Dr. Jeremy Bangs, author of several seminal books on the Pilgrims and Director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, is a professorial man of a certain age.  Learned, proper, somberly dressed, he stood in a home built in 1365 to talk to us about the Pilgrims who stood where we were now standing, but in the 1600’s.  With slow, measured speech, and a hint in his tone that he may know more than you do on any subject, he is a  transfixing speaker.


Unfortunately, he was so erudite as he spoke about the Pilgrims’ commitment to the concept of separation of church and state, their influence on our notion of free will, and their tolerance of different religions, it didn’t seem the opportune time to raise my hand and ask what curse words the Pilgrims might have used while eating cranberry salad that first Thanksgiving.

So, I took the weak-man’s way out and I wrote him last night.  Within moments he wrote back. He thought there was one reference to cursing in the Pilgrims literature and would gladly check into it.  He then added:

“Other than your experience with the disease-related words, one of the more emphatic denunciations is to call someone a ‘klootzak.’  My children were born here and grew up bi-lingual. When we moved to Massachusetts in 1986, they had to get along with non-Dutch speaking friends. One day my son, twelve years old, came running into the house, breathlessly asking, ‘Papa, what’s “klootzak” in English?’  Looking up from whatever I was reading, I said, ‘scrotum.’ He rushed out the door, furiously yelling his loudest at some American kid, ‘Scrotum ! Scrotum ! You Scrotum !’”

Why, that darn Dr. Bangs is a jokester.  And if he’s a jokester, then those Pilgrims must have also been jokesters, and maybe even enjoyed a good curse word.  And if the Pilgrims enjoyed a good curse word, and every culture’s curse words are different, where’s the sin?  My research is done.

Father Benda, I take back item three on my checklist.  Forget the seven times of cursing.  Thank goodness.  Surely that gets my heretical little toe out of purgatory.  Or not.











Flowers for you

Holiday shopping requires a certain level of maturity that I just don’t possess.  Let’s take Black Friday.  I’ve tried it.  My sister-in-law had everything all mapped out for us the year we headed out in the early morning to stand in line at the Target store at Merle Hay Mall.  All was good for the first hour as we sipped lattes and laughed with the fun-loving crowd.  But the tone changed as the sun rose and people realized they had to buy five gazillion gifts before they were allowed to go home.  We all got a little serious.  So when the crowd surged, I surged with it. Hence, my proud possession of two photo printers that never saw the light of day except to go to Goodwill.  I’m just thankful we didn’t start our Black Friday rounds at Toyota.

Then there’s this whole what-to-buy business.  I’m always a bit confused.  Is the amount I spend on a gift supposed to reflect how much I love someone?   Yikes — that’s complicated.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for buying love, but what if you don’t even know what your special someone wants as you embark on the inevitable purchase of a bathrobe from Sears.  Or is it a gold box from Josephs Jewelry?  See, confused already.  Perhaps Scrooge was doing Bob Cratchit a favor by keeping him late at work every night during the holiday season.  I mean, once you’ve had a turkey “twice the size of Tiny Tim,” how do you top that?

And let’s not forget the sheer quantity of gifts.  You need gifts for your overly-concerned mom, your scolding older sister, your melted-down kids, and your “do you want that promotion” boss.  Oh, and the secret Santa gift, you didn’t forget that, did you?

It’s just too much.

So, today only, I’m giving you a gift for which you need to do NOTHING.  Flowers from Holland.  Just for you.  They’re provided by my favorite Dutch florist, Corrine Kooper.

Kooper, 45 years old, has been in the flower business her whole life.  Her father used to have an open air stand in the big market downtown in The Hague.   Kooper’s old man would hawk flowers above the din of the market, shouting out his wares to all the passerby’s.  Shades of an old peddler.  Clearly, Kooper comes by the profession honestly.

Her flower shop is found on the colorful street of Frederik Hendriklaan.  The shop is narrow and cramped and spills out onto the sidewalk like an upended flower vase.


Three times a week new flowers arrive at the shop.  Yup, three times a week.   “The Dutch people always have flowers in our houses, always,” Kooper explains.  “So, it is necessary to continually have fresh flowers.”


“My father buys the flowers for me.  He goes three maybe four times in a week to the flower auction outside of The Hague.   My brother, who has his own flower shop, buys the flowers on his computer while he is in his pajamas at home with a cup of coffee.  My father says, ‘You are a lazy flower man.’  But it is the future.”

I ask for Kooper’s help in giving you a gift of flowers.

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“When you’re going to help a customer then you ask: ‘Can I help you?’  ‘Yes, I’m looking for a bouquet.’  ‘Is it for a lady or for a man?’  If it’s for a lady, then you’re going to say is it an older one, is it a young lady, these are the things we ask.  What is it for? Is it for a birthday? Is it for someone sick?  All these things you have to know.   This is what the customer needs.  You must get the conversation.  It is so important.”

So what if I want to give flowers to a young lady?

“Romance is for a gift for a young woman.  Red is the color of love.  Okay, the roses are always for this.  We need to put it in a nice paper.  We do a card.  You have to guide the customer in it.  Especially men don’t know the color combination.  You learn this in the years.”

And flowers for someone not feeling well?

“Bouquet to cheer them up, orange, yellow, bright flowers.  Someone very sick, never do white.  Soft pink colors for a lady.  Not too bright because at that moment it’s not too bright.  The future is not bright for that person.  So you have to pick out the softer colors.”

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And what about flowers for a couple married for a long time?

“Use white to show the wedding, and a little pink and little red to bring romance back,”  Kooper says knowingly.

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Kooper herself was twice disappointed in love.  “I’m very strong in the shop.  In a relationship, I’m very insecure.  I always pick the wrong man.  I do everything for the other one, and I expect it back.  It has not worked.  And that’s why you build a wall very high to protect yourself. . . .  If someone is coming with a big hammer to open up that wall, we’ll see.”

Today, however, Kooper worries about other problems.  She is a single mom taking care of her own teenage daughter.   Her daughter’s first hockey game is in an hour.  She wants to be there.  She also realizes her father is getting older.  “My dad is not having the life forever.  I have to learn the flower auction.”  And what will happen to her shop?  Maybe her daughter will continue in her footsteps?  “Maybe,”  Kooper says doubtfully.  And on top of it all, she is worried about the economy and anxiously hopes Christmas sales can give her shop a boost.

Kooper takes a deep breath and glances out of her shop at the flowing passersby on the sidewalk.

There is a big tree in the heart of Kooper’s street.  A couple of weeks ago, a violent storm blowing out of the North Sea ripped it clean from its roots.  The large upturned trunk and the tomblike dirt hole are all that remain from the triage performed by the City crews.   But, if you look closely next to the dirt hole and trunk, you will see bouquets of flowers.  Those flowers appeared the day after the storm.  For the tree, it seems.

Apparently, we all need flowers this time of year.


So, Corrine, we’d like a bouquet.  Your choice.  And make one for yourself while you’re at it.