Book review: Tom Hennen, “Darkness Sticks to Everything.”

Ahhhhhhhh . . . . . . . poetry.  It’s a little like rounding the dark corner of an alley in a beautiful big city and suddenly smelling old dusty bums in shabby clothes who failed to make it to the urinal in time.  A disappointment to be sure.  We want football and beer and tailgates with reality TV.  Instead, a poem suggests bean curd shaped like a hotdog.  Nothing to do with what is real.

Or is it everything to do with what is real?

“The old house went down the basement stairs                                                                       And didn’t come back up.”

Did you see it?  Come on.  Plastered across Iowa are foundations of old farm houses with only a basement stairwell remaining filled with junk.  Did the words twist around your brain in a way that evoked an image?  That awakened another time?  That made you feel?

“The swamp has become a supermarket overnight.                                                              A heron with no business sense                                                                                   Vanishes.”

As you chew on the words, slowly, carefully, did you smile?  Or did you feel something else?

“Old women bend their heads                                                                                              To earth                                                                                                                             While they zigzag                                                                                                                  An inch or so                                                                                                                      Above their grief.”

Oh my.  At halftime, over the chips and beer, read Tom Hennen’s book of poetry: “Darkness Sticks to Everything,” Copper Canyon Press, May 4, 2013.  And please pass that bean curd that is shaped like little smokies.

Shouldn’t we pay for them to plug in their coffeepots?

“Listen.  This is not complicated.  Just turn on some music.  Any music.  And listen.”

Mmmm . . . this is different.

“Close your eyes while you’re listening to this music.  This is a contest for yourself.  You can let your mind think whatever it wants.  You don’t have to be at school anymore.  You can go wherever you want.  Maybe you think about colors.  Maybe you’re thinking about lunch.  That’s okay.  Write down three things you’re feeling.”

The teacher with the dreadlocks gives a small encouraging smile.

Nels Davig Dovre is certainly not old and wizened.  In fact, his unlined, fine-featured face makes you think of youthful rules like “be sure to bring the car home before ten,” and “don’t forget to clean your room.” That would be a mistake.  Look again.  He may actually be the guy who influences your kid’s life.

ImagePiano, cello, guitar, electric bass, euphonium, voice, even cow bells.   Nels Davig Dovre has studied them all.  And that’s a guitar he built himself.  Fortunately for us, he was afraid a music degree in college may not be enough by itself.

“I decided I needed to get an education degree so that I could get a job.  But I didn’t imagine myself being a teacher until my second day student teaching.  After the second day, I felt wide awake, that really turned my brain on.”

And a teacher he became.  He’s been the music teacher for three years at Madison Elementary School, preschool through fifth grade, a feeder school to North High School.  He hums with the excitement of it.

“Songs are written by people who had feelings.  It is a lot to do with sharing.  It is all about connection.  I want the students to feel this.  I want them to use music to make their life richer.  In whatever way that suits them.  I’m going to teach them as many tools as they’re capable of learning in these six years I am their teacher.”


Nels Davig Dovre also has a band.  GoodcaT.  They play gigs around the Midwest — showcasing his own songs and music.

“The kids know I’m in a band.  It’s kind of great.  They see me play with really talented musicians and I have less behavior problems  — they think I know what I’m doing [he laughs].  But really in every class I teach there are usually about three or four students who are better than I am.  They learn it quicker.   They blow me out of the water.”

And this year, Nels Davig Dovre is even more enthused about teaching.

“Our school is part of Turnaround Arts.   One of the segments is about integrating the arts into the traditional classroom.  I teach strategies to teachers using music.  I co-teach this entire year.  It is amazing.”

“Excited”?  “Enthused”?  “Thrilled with his job”?  “Happy to see the kids”?  They “blow him out of the water”?

What is his problem?

“Did you know if I teach thirty students a song, five of them will remember that song fifty years from now?  That’s pretty cool.”

You and I hustle to work, drive to school, do the laundry, prepare the meals, sell the shoes, win the case — and then we gently close their bedroom doors at the end of the day.  Exhausted.  We fret and worry about love and money and the last ten pounds.  But who is taking the hand of our child from first light until deep into the afternoon?  Who speaks to our child of feelings and music and dreams?  Shouldn’t these teachers be sitting at the VIP table?  Shouldn’t their names be spoken with respect and gratitude and honor?  Shouldn’t we all rise when they walk in the room?

And, by the way, shouldn’t we pay for them to plug in their coffeepots?

GoodcaT has an album out.  So, I gave it to my disc jockey friend DJ Andy, who has a program with APCS Radio on Tuesday evenings.  DJ Andy gave it a spin.

Image 1

“I would qualify the cd as a mix of folk and alternative pop music. When I hear the violin it reminds me of Irish (Celtic) Folk Music.  But sometimes I hear a pop sound especially in number two of the cd.  Although it isn’t my kind of music, I have to say that the compositions are excellent. I was never bored listening to it and my wife loved it.  So they did a fine job. There is a circuit for it in Holland. So when they have the crazy idea to come to Holland, there are some clubs who would like their music.”

Oh, by the way, APCS Radio?  Amsterdam Power Classic Station .  And one other thing, DJ Andy, otherwise known as Andre Klunder, has a day job — teacher at a high school in The Hague.

Just listen.  This is not complicated.






And the rain keeps falling

The rain is coming down so hard there is nowhere for it to go but up.  Water washes over the roads and creates small ponds at intersections making you hesitate about driving without a life jacket.  Will your car actually float?  Is this a good time to find out?  The flash of lightning and crack of thunder give an edge to the whole scene as the windshield wipers hopelessly push the water one way and then the other.  It could be the end of the world, you think gloomily, as you strain to see through the dark and rain.  Or, it could be a late summer storm in Iowa.  It’s too early to tell.

Way past midnight I stand beneath the awning at a gas station on the west side.   The rain is unrelenting.  The wind sends the rain underneath the metal overhang and sprays across my face as I look out into the empty night.  My middle son stands next to me.  A bit embarrassed.  And next to him is his car.  Locked.  The only set of keys resting carefully on the passenger front seat.  Safe and secure from both car thieves and my son.  His call brought me out of bed, and we wait together for the locksmith to appear.  Both of us looking out into the dark and rain.  Waiting together.

Earlier that day, I went to the Federal Building downtown with that same son.  As we hustled through the rain, I glimpsed a man sitting alone inside the bus stop out front.  Bent in.  Hands clasped.  Hood up.  Looking cold and wet.  When we left the building an hour later, the man was still there.  Not a muscle had moved.   A pillar of salt.

Image 2I suddenly recognize him as I hurry past.  The elongated contraption resting against the bus stop should have been my clue.  Only one person strings their household together with such ingenuity.  Of course, it is Jerry.  Huddled out of the rain.  Alone.

Image 1

Gerald Raymond Collette.  Living on the streets since 1992.  It was two years  ago when I last saw him digging through trash in the alley behind Court Avenue.  Back then he told me he had “no friends, no family.”  His attempts to rejoin the world failed because of “ethics, morals, and values.”  He preferred the street, he told me back then.

And now?

“I’m still living down by the river.  I’m feeling safe.   I’ve been concerned about my health.  I got a different health care provider.  He did the Anawim application, food stamps, a safe phone.  We’re going to be looking at an apartment.  I’ve checked with them twice this week.  Maybe tomorrow.”

Jerry is clear and articulate.  Someone you’d talk to at the bar on Saturday night or after church on Sunday.  He recognizes me from two years ago. Back then he told me he didn’t want to be around people, a fact of which I remind him.

“See, that’s the thing.  You misunderstood me.  I don’t want to live in the same room with people, that gets kind of nasty, but I’m all right to live with people.  I just need a cubicle of my own.  I like to socialize with people.  I just want my own space.”

Jerry looks at me intently.  He wants to set the record straight.  He doesn’t want to be portrayed as some type of eccentric loner.  He’s on the edge of the sandbox — he knows — but he’s not outside alone in the grass.  Howard Hughes he isn’t.

“I’m trying to get off the street.  But I’m permanently barred for life at the homeless shelter because of infractions of the rules.  Hopefully this new thing will get me an apartment.  I ran out of food stamps about a week ago.  I’m short every month.  I’m trying to make it work.  It ain’t working yet.”


So, Jerry sits.  Waiting for the rain to stop.  Not overly wishful, certainly.  And clearly used to disappointment.  Most things haven’t turned out for him.  No matter.  He sits quietly and waits patiently.  Expecting the worst and hoping for the best.  A solitary figure rooted to his wet bench.

It is after midnight and the rain is coming down only harder.  It has rained on and off for over twenty-four hours now.  My son and I stand together, looking out on the deluge, waiting for the locksmith to come and rescue us from this bleak spot.  Time passes.  But in that time, we are able to squeeze in a little anger, a dollop of joy, a lot of humor, and a helping of love.  All the normal stuff of relationships.  Nothing unusual. Just the cost and reward of living.  When we have exhausted ourselves, we look out on the wet dark, lost in the elements.  Waiting together.  Fortunate.

And the rain keeps falling.





The demise of shame

Shame is the first to leave the room when the years come calling.  No kidding.  And this is after shame seemed like such a steady companion.  A trustworthy sidekick.  There it was, lurking in the corners when you messed up in the workplace, or in relationships, or with your kids.  Shame was a deep well upon which to draw the oomph needed to go just a little further, work just a little harder, coach youth soccer while unfortunately encouraging them all to score a “basket”  — that kind of stuff.  No more.  Shame has died a senior death.  Good riddance, I say.

How do I know shame is dead?  Easy.  I drove to Denver.  Well, more correctly, I was driven to Denver.  By my adult son.  To be driven somewhere is an inherently shameful experience.   Why don’t you drive yourself?  Are you not yet adult enough to accept the I-80 responsibility test?  And, by the way, who is supposed to stretch out their right arm to catch the front-seat passenger when the car stops too suddenly?  Apparently not me.  I’m being driven.  See…it does have the odor of shame all over it.

But, who cares, shame is no more.  And, as the passenger, it opens the opportunity to give sage advice to your son about how he should live his life.  Unfortunately, that door apparently swings both ways and that kid, whose diaper you changed just yesterday, will try to give you sage advice about your life.  Yikes.  Slam that door.  This isn’t about shame, this is about self-preservation.

Which brings us to a moral quandary concerning the essence of shame.   If your son does handstand pushups against the U-Haul while you’re trying to figure out how to climb down from the cab without hurting yourself, should you knock one of his arms loose when you finally crawl out of the truck?  My strict ethics only allow such an act if it is accidental.  Accidental certainly includes a small glancing nudge from an old guy.  Where’s the shame in that?

ImageSomewhere in the heart of Nebraska, my left hip became welded into my spine and I suggested a stop at a fast food joint.  We parked our rig at the back of the building.   But before the engine was off, the manager came running out.  Upset.   And properly so.  We had apparently driven across a recently asphalted piece of parking lot.  The manager and I stared at the wheel tracks through his new asphalt.  Neither of us said a word.

The manager sighed, “I’m not going to kick your butt or anything.”

I equally sighed, “That is good news.  And, at the least, you should wait until we pay for our food.”

We both stared at the tracks a little longer knowing that our days of kicking butt were long gone, if they ever existed.  So instead I asked him for a picture.  Duh, shame is six feet deep.

Image 1

Which brings us to Denver.  There we had to unload my son and his truck full of office and household items.  A new beginning for him.  Denver sits at the foot of the Rockies on the edge of dry dusty land.  An unlikely metropolis growing out of ungrowable soil.  Beautiful and harsh.

Image 1

But everyone forgot to tell me that you have to be under thirty-five to live in Denver.  Really?   Or that you had to either get a cowboy hat or a hipster mohawk to be a resident.  I didn’t know this.  Or that we only had an hour slot for the elevator to unload our U-Haul in this adult apartment complex.  Was this apartment complex really a dorm room?  No matter.  The roar of the freeways ringing the city provided a techno backbeat for all these happy residents.  They vibrated with joy.  Even my son beamed at his new home.

A day later, as I sat alone on my backpack in the Denver airport waiting for my flight back to Des Moines, I thought again of shame.  The tear trickling down my cheek spurred this reflection.  Self-pity for sure.  Our children, our friends, our partners and spouses, all ebb and flow in and out of our lives.  Impermanence and loss.  Vanity of vanities.  You get the drift.

And then I remembered the sight from the night before, as my son and I lay exhausted on the hood of a car drinking Gatorade and staring at the sky.  A sunset to die for.

Image 2

And the tear trickling down my cheek?  There’s no shame in that, right?  And if there is, what are you going to do?  Kick my butt?   May shame rest in peace.













How did you spend your summer vacation?

The blank white paper sitting on the laminate desk glares back unhopefully.  Of course, the early morning fluorescent light doesn’t help.  Nor the scratching sound of other pens.  Your classmates busily write of north woods adventures, trips to Okoboji, the awesome water park ride at Adventureland.  Perhaps if you turn the paper at an angle it will look more inviting?  Nope.  My goodness, is Billy drawing a picture of the Big Bull at the Iowa State Fair?  Mmmm . . . what did I do this summer?  What did I do all these past weeks?  How did I spend my summer vacation?

If you were Carla Dawson, this is simple — YOU GOT ARRESTED.

Carla Dawson is fierce.  Not a subtle point.  And all of you who had her as a teacher at North High School know this.  She glares, she scowls, she stomps her feet.  Don’t be fooled, however, by her wrath.  Underneath the scary glower, the disapproving frown, the hard look, there’s the joy — bursting out for all to see.  Sure, her determination is a little daunting, but she is merely giving you a corrective.  A gentle push in a better direction.  She is all about loving you up, but that does not rule out a crack up the side of your head.  Deserved, for sure.

Image 5 “My friend Windy told me the Methodist Church was having a rally about the deportation of people with no criminal history.  I decided to go to the rally.  I went to DC with the intent to get arrested as an act of civil disobedience.”

That sounds good on paper.  Go off to Washington D.C.  Protest the deportation of illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in this country for years and years.  Stand up for the 57,000 undocumented children seized at our border.  Walk the walk for your beliefs.  Heck, you get to practice the time-honored American tradition of civil disobedience, a tradition as old as the Boston Tea Party.  Demonstrating against  the immigration policy is a chance to follow Thoreau’s directive in “Civil Disobedience” —  “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”   Awesome.

Ah, but there is a rub.  You do have to get arrested.  By the police.  With handcuffs.  Not so fun.

“We stayed with one of the leaders in United Methodist.  They were so nice to us.  Thursday morning we went to United Methodist headquarters in DC and they had a civil disobedience training.  And they told us what our charges would be, the fine, have your ID. If the officer taps you on the shoulder, don’t jerk back.  Answer questions politely.  They just went over some rules for people who hadn’t been arrested before.  And then we proceeded to go on the subway to the park across from the White House.  There was a rally there.  A lot of people.  We lined up in four lines for people who were going to be arrested.  They then had a prayer over us.”

Anything that requires a “prayer over us,” is generally a red flag for me.  If divine intervention is needed, perhaps it is wise to take a pass.  Right?  Not for Carla Dawson.

“The police moved the bystanders away from us.  They put a barricade around us.  The police officer asked us to please disperse and leave.  And they did this again.  The third time they told us we’d be arrested.  Then, they started taking us to a tent area, one by one.  They put handcuffs on us one by one.  I was the 67th person arrested.”

Carla Dawson is no youngster.  She’s been around.  Had some hard life.   Raised kids.  Worked long hours.  And trust me, had more than her fair share of heartbreak and heartache.  But she patiently waited in line to do what she saw as her duty.  Sixty-six people went before her.  And then it was her turn.

“It was the easiest arrest I’ve ever had in my life.  They handcuff you.  Take your ID.  Then they take your picture.  They take you to the bus.  I said to the young man, who was like six foot six, ‘Young man, you’re going to have to help me get up this first step into the bus.’  Because I couldn’t use my hands you see, they were cuffed.  We were taken to a police station.  Went through a maze of ropes.  They took the handcuffs off.  I gave my fifty dollars.  They fingerprinted me.  And said I’m free to go.”

“Listen, I felt called to stand up.  I don’t believe in what’s happening in our country to immigrants.”  Period.

Image 7

“I’m no hero, Joe, I’m a human being.”

The blank white paper still sits on the wooden laminate desk in the early morning fluorescent light.  Billy has completed his drawing of the Big Bull.  The other kids are starting to fidget, not yet attuned to the rigors of the classroom.  It’s time to put something down.  What to do?  What’s the right thing to do?

So, how did you spend your summer vacation?


The train station interviews

Maybe buildings aren’t just brick and mortar and wood and stone and paint and tile.  Perhaps they absorb all the life that scuffs their floors, and gives voice off their walls, and pushes at their revolving doors.  Sort of like that crumpled shirt on the bedroom floor that smells of the food and wine and laughter from the night before.  Is it possible that other people’s hopes and dreams and sadnesses are left like baggage in the front foyer — waiting for your entrance?  Maybe a building is more than just a building.


The Germans bombed the town into dust in 1940.  That had to be a nightmare.  The city heart was flattened.  And the old train station was no exception.  Rubble is what remained.  But out of those ashes grew an amazingly modern structure, a bare chested Abercrombie & Fitch model, ready to prance — Rotterdam Centraal Train Station.

Image 10

The young building is happy to brag.  Why shouldn’t it?  The vibrating interior feels more like you are going to a club rather than going on a trip.   The station boasts of connections to all of Europe, a high speed rail that gets you to Paris in two and half hours, and even the omnipresent Starbucks (two of them).  It’s all here.  But this place is about the party.  When you look up, the building flexes its shiny muscles, and grins its rakish smile, and shows just enough flesh to entice when you walk through the concourse.  The chrome, the lights, the action — it beckons with youth.

Image 8

Meanwhile, the trains silently roll in and out.  Every couple of minutes the whistle of the conductor sounds, you hear a swoosh, and another train pulls quickly but quietly out of the station.  And the revelers with the hats and horns move on only to be replaced by the next group arriving in streamers and balloons.  An ebb and a flow choreographed by conductors’ whistles.  The Rotterdam Centraal party dance.


This old station was certainly not trendy Rotterdam.  Not by a long shot.  My wife and I first discovered her when we hopped off for a short layover on our way to another adventure.  Heads down, backpacks tight, checking the departure board a little hurriedly for our next connection, we happened to look up.  That’s when the old gal smiled down upon us.  We paused.  She smiled again.  My goodness.  Was that a raised eyebrow she gave us or a wink?  And so went our formal introduction to the grande dame of Belgium — the Antwerp Train Station.


Dropping our packs, heads swiveling upwards, we tried to take her in.   The stateliness of her posture, the intricate lace filigree around her neck, the muted colors of the brick and stone that draped her frame, froze us.  She was an aged beauty that was dressed and perfumed and bejeweled with time pieces — ready to go to the theater, or the opening, or the gala.  And we were allowed to be the escort.  Why would you ever leave her to get on a train?  Grab your hat and topcoat.  Long flowing dresses and slightly askew black bowties await.  Step onto the red carpet.


No tram or subway travels to this lonely station.  The small Iowa town surrounding this Amtrak stop clings precariously to the edge of I-35, as cars and semis and busses roar up and down between Minneapolis, Des Moines, and Kansas City.  This interstate world has no time for romance.  But no matter.  Romance still sits with the low slung brick building just off main street.  Prairie style.  Freewheeling scrappiness in the middle of America.  A survivor of hard times.

Image 4

Not too long ago, the town of Osceola purchased the building and rehabbed the outside.  The old fighter now shines with a new roof and repaired windows, rebuilt chimney and fresh mortar.   But like all good gunslingers, the station still only gives you two choices.  You can go east or you can go west.  Good or evil.   And, of course, all points in-between.

Ah, but it is the inside that changes your heart.  Warm wooden benches, the old barred windows, the checkered floor.  Your crazy life is not allowed inside the station doors.  Bring a book.  Time will stop.  The train will be late.  Your other world will vanish.  Perhaps you should tip your gunslinger cap up, sit back, and learn to whittle.  Or maybe just curl into the wood and feel what it feels to wait, like thousands before you on that very bench, with no control whatsoever.  Doing the opposite of killing time.

Image 11

And as you’re sitting there, consider this, maybe a building is more than just a building.




Included in the price of the ticket

“Don’t stare,” our mothers instructed, as they pulled one arm away from whatever caught our fancy.  This parental technique, always hopeful and always coming from a good place, was always a disaster since our remaining limbs and extended necks then swiveled in the other direction, away from our fast-walking, arm-yanking mothers, and our eyes were now riveted on the forbidden subject as we were dragged away, backpedaling.  Hearing “don’t stare” from our mothers was like hearing the guy with the starter pistol yell “on your marks, get set, . . . STARE!”  Not exactly the result our parents intended.

Which is why I love the Iowa State Fair.

The State Fair provides an open license to stare.  No Iowa-nice here.  You pay your money at the front gates, you buy anything you want on a stick, you stand amazed before a really large pig, and, yes, today only, you can stare.  Unlimited staring.  That’s the deal.

But I notice a lack of structure in this art of staring.  There’s no framework in which to compete against others, to measure our self worth, to develop a grading system.  Sure, you throw a cow pie ten yards, and you know your place in the world.  Whereas if you stare at a young dad wiping cotton candy out of his hair, laughingly smeared there by the child astride his shoulders, what exactly is that worth?

Well, I have a proposal.   In lieu of rules, regulations, administrative standards, appointment of political cronies, and questions about transparency, how about seeing if you can find any of the following scenes at the State Fair.  And, guess what? They all have worth.


The relationship between a parent and child has so many bad moments, especially in the melt-down nature of the Fair, it’s easy to see an unloving scene in the dog days of August.  But can you see a loving scene?  Here’s an example.  I don’t know these folks.  I saw them the other day in a restaurant in The Hague.  That’s his mom.  When I asked for a picture, she leaned in, placed her hand gently on his chest, and smiled.  She didn’t say a word.  But, I will swear that every bone in her body said, “this baby boy means more to me than life.” And, by the way, “this baby boy” needs to take that kind of love to the bank.  Forever.



An honest look can be hard to find in all the swaggering and posing we do through life.  The State Fair is no exception, as we put on our East Side T-shirt in our new, north Ankeny ranch.

A sure bet for honesty can be found in the total absorption of a child in a wondrous event.  Mouth agape.  Maybe even drooling.  They don’t care.  It is a pure moment.  Uncluttered with lies.  Oh, and bonus if you can catch an adult similarly engaged.  A flyover by the Dutch Air Force caught these boys, young and old, in a rare moment of candor.

Image 3


Humility is not a prized commodity in today’s world.  So you might be driven into the livestock barns to find this one among the winners and losers of a recent competition.  But nothing humbles like poverty.  How we see it, who we blame, our own responsibly — it is just too daunting to contemplate for very long.  That alone is humbling.

Here’s one for you, a father and two sons in Paris a couple of weeks ago.  They’re living in a telephone booth.  Work that around in your mouth.  Were they hustling us?  Maybe.  A humbling moment?  Under any version.

Image 4


All sorts of bedlam can be seen at the Fair.  Kids running.  Parents shouting.  Rides whirling.  Music blaring.  Where is there peace in this uproar?

I saw her yesterday on the North Sea.   She was pushing her walker on the boardwalk, surrounded by a typical August beach scene — surfers, kite flyers, shouting parents and children, zippy skateboarders, and hordes of teenagers.   She was dressed to the nines.  White jacket, white skirt, pressed blouse, loosely tied scarf.  Smiling.  She made her way to a bench.  Slowly got situated.  And sat.  And watched.  Quietly.  Peace amongst confusion.


So, stare away.  I’m certainly going to.  And if you see an old bald guy staring impolitely on the Grand Concourse catwalk in the waning days of the State Fair, please smile.  That would be me.  Don’t worry, assure your mom staring is included in the price of the ticket.


Perhaps it is time to draw attention

Quiet is the only sound to be heard in this old neighborhood.  Until a distant bird starts to chirp.  Softly.  Ah, and there’s the ever-present squawk of a seagull.  Demanding attention.  Irritating.  No different than that scolding squirrel in your own backyard.  Tossing the husk of an acorn at your head.   Speaking out in the silence.

The brick house sits placidly on the south side of the street. The address is large and clear on the outside — Brugsestraat 74.  Scheveningen is the town.  Just a poor fishing village back in the day.  Herring was how people made their living.  Small attached apartments still line block after block.  But here is this lovely home in this lovely neighborhood off the market street of Stevinstraat.  A dream home tucked out of harms way.  Safe and secure.

January 17th, 1942.  The search of the brick house by the Nazi SS must have been particularly chaotic.  The day was cold, below freezing.  Although not rainy, which is rare.  In all that sunshine, maybe a dozen thugs came through the door at Brugsestraat 74.  And for what?  I suspect they didn’t even know.  Pamphlets, for sure.  Perhaps a printing press.  Maybe they wanted to put hands on the wife and kids.  Roust them a little bit.  Haul someone in for questioning.  Create a little terror.  But the guy they really wanted wasn’t even there.  Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg was up the road in Amsterdam.  Preaching against them.  Well, they were soon going to put a stop to that.

“Of course . . . to speak out will run the risk that one will face persecution. But so what? There are times that Christians must endure such persecution if they want to save their souls and be true to their calling as believers in truth and justice.”   Such were the words of Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg, as translated into English by his late son Isaac.  The dead passing on the words of the dead.  That’s how it works.

Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst, a hair’s breadth from 90, remembers the sunshine, the happy faces, the good times, and the Rottenberg family.  She speaks of Sunday school classes with all six of the Rottenberg’s kids and visits to the Rottenberg home at Brugsestraat 74.  That’s her in the front row of the Sunday school class clasping her legs.  She says it is too long ago for her to recognize the Rottenbergs in the group.  But look at her back then.  A seventeen-year-old girl giving us a cool appraisal.  Is that a smile?

Image 1

Seventy-two years ago this picture was taken.  What did Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst know of the future any more than any of us?  As she leans in to show me this photograph on a hot day in mid-summer in her senior living apartment, there is an urge to reach into the picture, grab the young Elisabeth by the shoulders, and tell her to run before it is too late.  Tell her that her mother will die of cancer before the year is out.  Tell her that she will be alone, holding her father as he dies from starvation in the winter of 1945 during the last gasp of the German occupation.  Tell her that some of her friends in that photo will be executed by the Nazis.  Tell her to just unclasp those hands, spring up, and run until those white bobby socks are shreds of cloth.  Just go.

But to where?  Where do you go to escape your life?

Many years before this photograph, the young Alter Mendel Rottenberg was following in his father’s footsteps.   Born in Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland, in 1890, Alter Mendel came from a scholarly Jewish family, where his father taught the Talmud and Torah down the road in Krakow.  Both towns, by the way, just a short bus ride from Auschwitz.

When Alter Mendel turned 21, off he went to study with a famous Talmud teacher in Switzerland.  Instead, he became interested in Christianity.  He ended up at a mission in Rotterdam, where he was assured a job and could continue his studies in Christianity with another Jewish convert.  His father sent scholars to Rotterdam to bring him back to Judaism.  Alter Mendel refused to return to the faith of his father, and his father never talked to him again.

From there, Alter Mendel’s biography is short on facts and long on travels.  From Rotterdam, he studied theology around the world, ending up in Scheveningen by 1940.   During that time of travel, he published pamphlets and married and had six kids.  His was an itinerant scholar’s life, arguing to any who would listen about the need for a Jewish understanding within a framework of Christianity.  But by the time he returned to the Netherlands to continue his writing and preaching, he couldn’t have been more in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In 1942, Alter Mendel gave a sermon in which he said, “National Socialism is in conflict with the Bible.”  Yikes.   By German definition, a Jew, publicly preaching against the Nazis.   A double danger for sure.  The same year that Anne Frank, just up the road a little bit in Amsterdam, was hiding out in the secret annex.  Not good timing.

“The Nazis picked him up.  They put him in jail in Sheveningen.  Transported to Amersfoort.  Taken to Buchenwald, and he died in Mauthausen, the mines, in June of 1942.”  Jan Kleiweg de Zwaan translates this information to me by rote from the various church documents at Duinzichtkerk, where he is a member of the church board.  Kleiweg de Zwaan, 74 years old, is genteel and proper, with a soft voice and a busy demeanor.   It turns out he was the Dutch Ambassador in Belgrade in 1998 when things blew up with Kosovo and he had to quickly shut down the embassy.  And then, if that wasn’t trying enough, he became the Dutch Ambassador in Beirut.  I imagine the murder of Alter Mendel is one more injustice on a long list of injustices he has witnessed.

But the mines were particularly evil no matter how often you hear these stories.  Mauthausen was another Nazi invention where torture and death was disguised as work.  Made up of multiple camps in Austria, it was known for having its victims quarry rock with their bare hands and carry the rock up the sides of the pit.  When the victims were too ill or too weak to work any more, they were sent to the gas chamber or pushed off the edge of the quarry.  Simple and horrible.

So the Duinzichtkerk church commissioned a stained glass window to honor those members of the church murdered in the war.   And there is Alter Mendel, the guy looking at us with his chin in his hand.  A good man, according to Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst.  Always moving.  Always in a hurry.  A man on a mission.  A kind man.


“I was not aware that Mr. Rottenberg was arrested at the time.  Probably the family did not talk about it.  They did not want to draw attention.  After they were forced to move from Brugsestraat 74 [so the Germans could build their Atlantic wall], he was just not there any more.”

Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst, of course, had her own problems by this time — she was young, mother dead, father dying, and forced out of their own home in Scheveningen.  And she’s right.  It was not the time for anyone to draw attention.  It was time to keep your head low.  Time to survive.


And so Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg disappeared.  “He was just not there anymore.”  The end of the line.

Not quite.

Out of the sandy dunes of Sheveningen, across the Atlantic Ocean, over the East Coast through its big cities, into the Midwest and dropped down into Des Moines, landing at a far table in Centro Restaurant, there sits a man.  Paul Rottenberg.


Yes, our Paul Rottenberg of Gateway Market – Centro Restaurant – Django Restaurant -Zombie Burger fame.  Paul Rottenberg, son of Isaak Rottenberg, son of Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg.  The grandson of a man who said there comes a time you must speak to save your soul.  Paul Rottenberg’s existence is a reminder in our own strange times.  A reminder of past courage.  And a prompt for the future.

Look around.  Is that a squawking seagull?  Speaking out in the silence?  Perhaps it is time to draw attention.
















“Are you all right?”

Every four years she resurfaces.  Magically it seems.  Not a sighting for months and months, then “bang,” there she is on our TV screens.  Surprising us with her raw power, her vertical jump, her quick reflexes.  Suddenly we are rooting and cheering as if she’d never left.  Our long lost daughter returning, like four-year cicadas, after doing whatever it is she and they do in their off years.  Drinking cappuccinos and having pleasant conversation is always my hope.

So the timing caught me by surprise.

In the center of a large office complex on the south side of Amsterdam, where you could feel the vibration of young professionals buzzing with their busy lives, I was hopelessly lost.  All I could see were ties and jackets and pressed women’s suites scurrying with serious intent between the high buildings.  Clearly, they had important places to go and important things to do on this warm workday in July.

The strength coach for the Dutch beach volleyball women players, Rik Priester, had me in tow.  A fierce, large, block of a man, he parted the crowd.  Suddenly, out we came into a cleared square — converted into a sandy beach — volleyball net up, music blaring, and a sprinkling of business people taking lunch in the newly-created arena.  A game was in play.

The Dutch women looked strong, but who was that woman on the other side of the net — dominating, controlling, a force?

Image 3

Kerri Walsh Jennings!  2004.  2008.  2012.  Three-time Olympic gold medalist for the U.S.   A superstar we’ve all watched with awe.  And on this day, she lived up to her billing.  Effectively shutting down entire portions of the court.  And at the net?  She was almost playful in her swats, smashes, and gentle plants.  Although there to see the young Dutch women trained by Priester, it was hard not to smile and cheer her mastery and studied casualness.  Olympic champion indeed.

Image 5

With a little digging, I come to find out that the retirement of her old partner, Misty May-Treanor, apparently has not slowed her winning ways.  She joined up with April Ross, her opponent in the 2012 Olympic finals, and they’ve made a stir in the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour, winning multiple tournaments in 2013 and 2014.  Amsterdam was no exception, as they beat the Dutch team in two sets to move up the bracket to the next match.

So, there I was at the next match, this time in Scheveningen.  Walsh Jennings and Ross were the top seed and were facing a good German team.   The German’s were rattled.  The Americans quickly dispatched them in the first set.  No sweat.  Ah, but then life got a little complicated.  Trouble serving, trouble at the net, a few bad bounces, and, when the sand settled, the Germans advanced to the finals.  The American team went home.  The end.


Of course, that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.

Did you know Walsh Jennings is the mother of three kids?  The last one born a little over a year ago.  In fact, she was pregnant with her second kid at the time of the 2012 Olympics.  At 36 years old, she is a grand dame on the beach volleyball circuit.  When she won her first Olympic gold medal, most of the present crop of volleyball players were just finishing 8th grade.  Yup.  And she continues to play and continues to win.  Truly an accomplishment.  An inspiration to “leaned in” women everywhere — not by transforming from a caterpillar to a butterfly, by the way, but by transforming from a butterfly to a rock.  She isn’t about beautiful flight, she’s about stolid immutability.  Look at her picture.  She wants to be the last person standing at the age of 36 and 56 and 86.  It doesn’t matter to her.  Pay your money and slap on your bikini.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about either.

In this age where 298 people are shot out of the sky with a shrug, where 65 Palestinians and 12 Israelis died in the Gaza rubble the other day, where it is reported that the three-year death toll in Syria has now exceeded 160,000, and where 57,000 unaccompanied kids are detained at our borders, I saw something weird on the volleyball court.  As Walsh Jennings was struggling with her game, and the Americans were clearly going to lose, Walsh Jennings successfully smashed a ball so hard down the inside net into the chest of the German woman that the German was driven to her knees.  Literally.  The force made the back of my eyes sting.  Walsh Jennings’ response to this successful score?  Well, before her feet returned to earth from delivering the spike, her head swiveled in concern for the downed German player.  She landed and immediately reached out under the net to the woman, touched her gently, and asked, “Are you all right?”

I’m not kidding.  In a loss that was going to cost her $72,000 (you heard me correctly), there was no anger, no yelling, no blaming the refs, and no sniping at her partner.  Instead, a little kindness — “Are you all right?”

And with the game lost, the crowd gone, the players in their enclosed tents out of the sun, I was nearly alone in the stands, thinking about what I’d seen, as Walsh Jennings, the loser, returned to the court and jogged over to each of the refs in the far corners, shook their hands, and thanked them for their time.  No TV cameras, no applause, no audience.  The refs stood humbled.  As did I.

“Are you all right?”  Not a bad question for this day and age.


















A sense of place

Look for Iowa farmers before planting.  You’ll see their pickups parked at an angle in the entrance to their fields, like they didn’t have enough time to park it straight what with all the traffic in the ditch.  Driver’s doors left wide open in the supposed rush.  And a short distance away, there they are, squatted on their heels, their ball cap tipped back just enough to see the  pale portion of their forehead, their eyes vaguely looking into the middle distance.  Perhaps they are meditating.  But if you look closely, they have a clod of dirt in one hand.  They are slowly crushing it.  Nostrils flared because they are smelling for that sharp odor of basement damp.  Fingers rolling the soil back and forth because they want to tease it down to a grain.  And all the while they are thinking and planning and measuring their own worth.

Well, folks, that farmer’s checking the soil for what your wine friends call terroir.  A French word that is supposed to capture that inexplicable part of the grape that is due to climate, earth, and plant.  It is distinct and it is individualistic.  So much so, that if your vineyards are on one side of a valley that gets more morning sun, and your neighbor has vineyards on the other side with more afternoon sun, the terroir will be different between the two.  No kidding.

But terroir is also used to describe a sense of place.  The uniqueness of place.   In the Netherlands, believe it or not, that terroir would include eating herring.  Yup, herring. Specifically, eating what the Dutch believe is the greatest of treats — “Hollandse Nieuwe,” or Holland’s new herring.  Raw.  Lightly scaled.  No head or guts.  But a tail to hold onto.  Maybe white onions on the side.  But for the purist, not even the white onions.  Just raw oily fish on a plate.  Yum?


“Once a year it is coming.  The moment just comes.  This is really Dutch.  When you’re in Holland you eat herring.  When you are in Spain you drink sangria, when you are in Italy you take pizza and pasta.  But, Joe, you will never be a real Dutchman just because you eat herring.  Just like I won’t be a real Italian because I eat pizza.”

A little educational, a little philosophical, and probably all malarkey, Denis Navarro smiles and laughs and ducks his head and races to the front of his restaurant and then quickly races to the back, joking, eyes scrunched small then suddenly sprung large, as if to make a small child laugh from the surprise — it all works for me.  I laugh.  Clearly, a carnival barker disguised as a restaurant owner.

Denis Navarro knows fish.  Raised in the Dutch fishing town of Scheveningen, owning restaurants since he was 21, and loving food, he speaks of fish almost in song.  And herring is clearly the chorus to his favorite tune.

“This is a good year.  It has to do with the fat.  The more fat, the better.  This herring we have is not salted.  This is the natural flavor.  The new herring cannot yet give birth to other fishes.  The head is going off, the skin is going off a little bit.  They cut them open, in one time they take it out.  It is the work of five seconds for a fisherman.  This is something special.  It is a delicacy.  Although this is a cheap delicacy.  You should not eat it with the bread.  You should eat three or four to be filled.”

The herring season is very short.  The boats go out in mid-May and by late June it’s all over.  The arrival of Holland’s new herring is celebrated every year on Flag Day in Scheveningen.  The fishing boats arrive in the harbor decked out with flags, and the first wooden basket of herring is handed over to the Queen, who then puts it up for charity.  Thousands upon thousands of people show up to eat the first catch, more than a few garbed in traditional Dutch costumes, and all buying herring right off the boats.


Even during normal times, Denis Navarro has his own fish man go down to the boats three time a week and pick fish for the restaurant.  Herring season, however, is special.

“People used to live off of herring.  It was their main income.  At that time it was something very different.  They used to go out for a half year to fish for herring.  Now they go three days before.  The charm is gone, but it is still good herring.  They catch them in the boats and directly freeze them in.  In the early days, they salted them to keep them good.  No need to do that anymore.  Fish is very delicate and more difficult to prepare.  Meat is easier.  For fish you have to have a good address.”

So, you ask, how does one eat this six-inch slimy critter?  Ah, Denis Navarro and his wife Nathalie demonstrate on a willing victim, my wife.

“You hold it by the tail, just so, now tip your head back, and then slide it down your throat.  Excellent!”

Image 4

And there you have it.  Holland New Herring.  The terroir of the Netherlands.

And Iowa terroir?  Duh.  You grab the top of the ear where the silk shows, pull the roasted husks down to the bottom, dip the golden kernels in butter, add a splash of salt, and bite.  Now you’ve had Iowa herring.  By the way, just because you eat this delicacy doesn’t make you an Iowan.  But, trust me, if you add a dash of Iowa State Fair, you can’t get any closer.