At the checkout counter

Winter sits heavy in Des Moines, Iowa. Grey skies, bare trees, and a cold wind blowing across the Urbandale Hy Vee parking lot and down my sweater, turning those last few steps into a run to the finish line. I make it through the front doors just as the sun sets over the concrete. A winner of sorts.

And since everyone gets a prize, I look at the pastries displayed in the case at the front. In the upper right corner are creme-filed long johns. The fulfillment of my greatest wish. Creme-filed long johns are God’s life raft during the dark days of winter.

I’ll take a dozen.

It has been a long day. Twice I sat in cars that wouldn’t start in the cold. When the first car refused to start, I confidently jumped out, grabbed the cables, popped the hood, and looked very smart as I examined what I thought was the battery. After my son told me I was looking at the radiator, I hooked up the cables to the other battery-looking thing and jumped the car. It actually started. A Christmas miracle. Although, when I tried to drive, it died. I jumped it again. It started again. I tried to drive it again. It died again. After careful thought, I decided that when I need to go somewhere, I can start this car, but then actually drive another car. Pretty clever, right?

The other car was my mother-in-law’s hybrid car. It also didn’t start. So, when I opened the hood, I was not surprised to see a lot of plastic containers. And nothing else. My lord, they not only forgot the battery, they forgot the entire engine. Apparently, it runs on pixie dust. I shut the hood.

Which is why I am buying creme-filled long johns and seriously contemplating leaving town. Everyone else has left town for Mexico or the Caribbean or Hawaii. Warm climates to warm the toes on cold Iowa days. Why not? A time-honored tradition of retirees, college students, and post-election depressed Democrats.

But these trips all require a plane ride. I’ve done a lot of plane rides in the last year and I refuse to get on another plane without someone stepping up to answer the obvious questions — Is that kid sitting next to me able to put on my oxygen mask in case of an emergency? If they worry about de-icing the plane before take-off, what about the ice when we are flying through winter clouds? What if the pilot sneezes? Do the seat cushions really float? Do I need to stay awake to keep the pilot awake? Are emergency doors just painted on?

So, for various good reasons, I’m staying in Iowa this winter.

I eventually make my way up to the Hy Vee cashier. She smiles. I have a cart full of groceries and, of course, a dozen creme-filled long johns.

“Hi. Did you find everything all right?” Kris McCarthy says.

I’m slightly embarrassed by my overflowing cart and apologize for slowing her lane down.

McCarthy gives a laugh and then her face settles into her permanent smile lines.

“I love it when people come with full carts. It gives me a chance to talk and get to know people. You know. A chance to visit.”

Whaaat????  A chance to visit?

McCarthy explains: “The bigger the order, the more time you have with a customer. You get to know them. I see a lot of faces that come through every week. Some I get to know by name. I even have a set of Tuesday morning regulars. And there’s also people I see every day.”

Is she kidding?

“I love it. I can build a relationship. It’s a lot of fun. My customers will wait in my line for me. They could easily go in the lane next to me, but they will wait a couple of extra minutes to say hello to me. They know I’ll take care of them. If you take the time, people remember. This makes it great.”

Build relationships at the checkout counter? Why not.

Brene Brown, a professor out of Texas, writes about her observations and studies of people dealing with shame. Yup, she’s a shame researcher of all things, and as a result of thousands of interviews she has a lot to say. One of her primary observations running through several of her books is that the good life requires connection and belonging.

“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”


So, for all you snowbirds lying out on the beaches getting roasted during the dog days of Iowa winter, realize that on Douglas Avenue, for no charge and no plane ride, there can be found connection and belonging. You might have an unlimited bar with little umbrella drinks, I have Kris McCarthy, the Hy Vee checkout woman, taking care of all of us.

And let’s not forget the power of creme-filled long johns.




David or Pinocchio?

The loud and angry Italian couple leaned into each other as they faced off like professional wrestlers getting ready for the big, slingshot-catapult, missile-dropkick finale to their match. Waving their arms and posturing on the narrow, crowded street, they left little room for us to politely walk around the drama. And, of course, not understanding the language allowed us a breezy freedom of interpreting the action. Is he that lout who frequently cheats on his wife and was caught this morning sneaking home with freshly smudged lipstick on his white shirt ? Or is this just the daily discussion about who’s picking up little Angelo from school?

No matter the reason, these are two people not at their best on this chilly morning in Florence, Italy. We’ve all been there, by the way, whether in Florence or Des Moines. It’s why we have New Year’s resolutions. We have to try to be better in the future because our behavior in the past is sometimes nothing to write home about. As my mom would periodically say to me, “You’re better than this.”

I’m good with that mantra. In fact, I love self-help programs that claim they will make me better. Get Thin. Get Happy. Lose Your Belly. Lower Anxiety. Brighten Your Teeth. Defeat Aging. Save Your Marriage. Yup, I love a clear path to perfection. Whatever can possibly be put into a program with multiple steps, I’m doing it. 30 Days to Better Spelling? Sign me up.

Until yesterday.

I was walking in the Accademia Gallery Museum in Florence, doing the normal tourist stuff, when I turned the corner and saw the worst thing possible for a guy with a self-help fetish.


Whaaaaat? Gigantic arms — muscled legs — rippled stomach — smooth skin — good hair. Michelangelo’s David in all his glory. No wonder he’s forgotten his pants as he heads out the door to slay Goliath. Lord, if I looked like that, I’d forget my pants too. Give me a break.

David is unbelievably . . . horribly . . . frighteningly . . . perfect!

What was Michelangelo thinking? This is disaster for all of us. Who could possibly be David? The last time I had  smooth skin was when I was two. Where are my stomach muscles even located? How can I have good hair when I have no hair? And, I’m sorry, I’m just getting older. My future is not the slaying of enemy giants but the promise of green jello  salad served cafeteria style.


I’m done . . . . . . . .

Okay, okay, breathe. There’s got to be another option.

Let’s see, besides Michelangelo’s David, there is a second example that comes out of Florence, Italy.

“As soon as he reached home, Geppetto took his tools and began to cut and shape the wood into a Marionette. ‘What shall I call him?’ he said to himself. ‘I think I’ll call him PINOCCHIO.’” The Adventures of Pinocchio, Annotated, Carlo Collodi. 

Yup, that would be our guy. Interestingly enough, that same Pinocchio was dead by the end of Chapter 15 for being such a bad boy. Yup, Pinocchio was so far from perfection — such a rotten kid — Collodi killed him off in the original story. Thankfully, the editor of the newspaper in Rome, where the story was serialized back in the day, asked Collodi to resurrect the puppet and do another 20 chapters. And, lo and behold, in Chapter 16, Pinocchio is saved by “The Lovely Maiden with Azure Hair,” and has many more adventures before turning into a real boy. Not bad.


And you have to love the life lessons in Collodi’s Pinocchio story:

  1. Don’t tell lies;
  2. Take your medicine when you are sick;
  3. There is no such thing as a Field of Wonders that will suddenly make you rich;
  4. Don’t believe everything you hear;
  5. Don’t take things that don’t belong to you;
  6. Don’t be too proud to work;
  7. It’s never too late to learn;
  8. Choose your friends carefully;
  9. We are in this world to help each other; and
  10. There is always hope for someone with a kind heart.

And if you do all of this you might turn human. Maybe.

Okay, isn’t Pinocchio our guy? Forget the six-pack abs. Forget the perfect hair. Forget being a hero. Isn’t it enough of a program to work on not turning into a donkey by the end of the day?

Back in Florence, the couple stopped yelling at each other as we watched. And, as is not uncommon in Florence, a passionate embrace followed. Leaning into each other with all their problems and scars and messiness. Wonderfully trying to be human.

That’s enough for 2017.





New wine into old bottles

The young girl stands pressed against the window watching the events down the block. The waist-to-ceiling, bumped-out, bay window, one floor up, is the perfect view. And there she stands — ironed white shirt, black hair pulled back at the neck, hands pressed flat against the window — too old for all the excitement, too young not to be excited.

And, of course, down the block is excitement. Kids are yelling and dressed in silly costumes. Parents are hunched against the cold and trying to carve out a piece of the curb for their family to stand. Music blares. Pictures are taken. Feathered caps adjusted. It’s a bedlam of anticipation.

Sinterklaas is coming.


Yup, Sinterklaas just landed in the harbor on the boat from Spain. No North Pole here. And Sinterklaas comes with his black-faced helpers, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). And it is the Zwarte Piet that are beloved, as they dance and sing and take care of the slightly befuddled Sinterklaas. Every child wants to be a Zwarte Piet.

Yes, it is holiday time in Holland.

In the next couple of weeks, Sinterklaas will travel all over the Netherlands on his white horse and with his large book where it is written who has been good and who has been bad. Parades, festivities, holiday markets will be held every weekend. Then, on December 5th, the night before Saint Nicholas Day, small gifts will be set out for the good children — with an accompanying poem, believe it or not. All courtesy of the Zwarte Piet, of course, who deliver these goodies by way of the chimney.

Ah, at last, Sinterklaas is coming down the street.


Bands are playing. People are yelling. Horses are high-stepping. And children and adults, with hats and feathers and outlandish costumes, are dancing and singing and throwing small, round, gingerbread cookies to the crowd. A crowd predominantly made up of parents and costumed kids with small burlap sacks outstretched for treats. A joy-filled scene of holiday good cheer as Sinterklaas rides off down the street followed by men looking like Revolutionary War heroes. What a parade.


And the young girl standing in the window with her forlorn gaze? Just watching.

I turn from the curb on which I was standing and suddenly a Zwarte Piet jumps in front of me. I recognize the friendly face of the woman who works at the vegetable shop. Suddenly, other Zwarte Piet appear next to her. They are a mischievous group, laughing and giving me an orange. And then off they go to continue their march in the parade.

A frolicking, grand time.

Sort of.

More than several years ago, concerns arose as to the Zwarte Piet. The large painted red lips, the curly-haired wigs, the black faces — all were a reminder to some of the days of slavery and racism. A few Dutch children of color spoke of the difficulty they had during this holiday. And slowly the movement against Zwarte Piet grew. Rainbow Piet was introduced. Soot-covered Piet, fresh from going down the chimneys, started to appear. Black Sinterklaas and white Piet began to interchange.

But there is a strong push-back. Geert Wilders, the Donald Trump of the Netherlands, has proposed a national law that Zwarte Piet must remain totally black for Sinterklaas festivities. He claims the law will protect the Dutch culture. New wine into old bottles, I’m afraid. Sadly for traditionalists, the present time does not so easily pour into a gilded past.

Many of my Dutch friends, while definitely not supporting Wilders (or Trump), see Zwarte Piet as part of their tradition and without racial overtones. The brouhaha, they claim, is one more example where the notoriously tolerant Dutch open the doors of their culture only to be told they have to change their culture. This is the problem of a tolerant people accepting those who are intolerant, they claim. Do whatever you want — smoke marijuana, go to the Red Light District, be who you choose to be — but don’t tread on me.

Ah, but I know the writing is on the wall. The more the caricatures are identified as racist, the more the tolerant Dutch will be unable to embrace those childhood images without feeling intolerant. And that will be unacceptable in this land that prides itself on tolerance. As one Dutch friend stated: “At first I thought Zwarte Piet was just part of our tradition, but now I think, if it is hurting someone we should change.” Yup, Rainbow Piet is here to stay.

Just like America, really. The illegal immigrant working in our factories is already as American as we are. Our women doctors and women police officers and women plumbers will at some point implode misogyny. The hidden and not-so-hidden racism that plagues our culture at every level cannot survive the melting pot of our very foundation. Sorry. No matter how much we want to still use the old wine bottles, it’s too late, folks, the bottles are going to burst just like they did with same-sex marriage. You can’t put new wine into old bottles no matter who is elected president.

So the parade continues.

And the young girl in the window?

Just watching.










Homeward bound

“This afternoon we’re going to bring the boat back to where we live. There it is going to stay. Home for the winter.” Leonie Persoon.

The water gently brushes against the brick walls holding back the sand and dirt and leaning houses. Blue skies and high clouds dot the reflection on the surface. Autumn leaves drift slowly past in mottled clumps. Boats, tied to the side, softly clang against their neighbor. Out in the middle, swans and ducks preen their feathers and idly paddle their too-large feet. And high above, the church bells call to the believers.

And us? We are adrift on a canal in Holland.

“The most important thing in The Hague are the bridges. It’s going to be nose on your knees. But we will manage it.”

So, we all put our noses on our knees and drift under the bridge, not daring to look up until Leonie Persoon, our guide, gives us the high sign.


“One young man, with maybe a little too much drink, stood up just before a bridge to grab a flower from the flower box to give to me . . .  Fortunately, he recovered by the end of the boat tour.”

Leonie Persoon gives a soft laugh. At the situation. At herself. At her husband driving the boat in the stern. At the silliness of a lovely gesture that went awry.

Leonie’s husband, Jan, built this flat-bottomed boat just this year. He is in his 50’s and lost his job to downsizing. “He was fired,” his wife says bluntly with smiling eyes. Boats and restoring boats had always been their hobby. So, why not? Build a boat and start tours. And that’s what they did.

“What you also saw in the 19th century were fake windows. Like on this property. You need to pay window tax in those days. That’s why you make fake windows. You build a big house because you thought you were unbelievable rich and then you realize, oh my gosh, the taxes are going to cost me a lot of money. And then you cover a few windows.”

An irreverent tour. Laced with commentary on architects, nuns, the foolishness of dreams, poverty, the Dutch king and queen, the royal stables, city planners, and on and on. No punches pulled and heavily sprinkled with colorful history.

“It was a little bit weird that an architect got permission to build that house in the 70’s. No idea why. It is unbelievable ugly.”

“Well, over there used to live a famous spy. She came from the north of the Netherlands and came to live here before World War I. Married a guy from The Hague, which gave her access to high society. Already in those days, she divorced and went off to Paris and started a career as an exotic dancer. She was gorgeous, famous, and rich. She ended up being executed in 1917 because she was accused of being a spy by the French. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Mata Hari?”

“You know, even in this posh area, there’s a coffeeshop. If you want to smoke, not a big deal. We are still the Netherlands. You all know that you can’t order any coffee there, right?”


And so the tour went, on this unusually dry day in autumn, as we travelled from connecting canal to connecting canal, past the train station, around schools and museums, next to a restaurant that lowered meals in a basket to the passing boats, and into the downtown.


So, Leonie, do you ever have bad tour groups?

“The stag party is our hardest. The English or Dutch guys are very rowdy. We are not always pleased by that. But we hate it to have restrictions. I hate restrictions. Eventually, I like the guys as well with the stupid stories and their drunk and their laughing. I was young also once. We try to manage it.”

And can you manage working together with your husband every day?

“The good thing is that we already know each other for 32 years. So we were young teenagers when we met. It was a test on our relation when we built the boat, but now we know in 30 years how it works.”

And she smiled as her husband steered us straight.


Do you have a hard time getting away from the work?

“Of course, and I also have another job on top of this. I love that job too. But what we say is no talk about work in the bedroom.”

Then Leonie and Jan Persoon drop us all at the side of the canal and they head out-of-town to put the boat away for the winter. The season over. Last trip of the year. Time to come home.

And it is time to come home, folks. No matter how strange the politics and the world has turned, it is still home. The cold rains of winter have arrived here in Holland. My wife’s work with the prosecution of the last major criminal to come out of the Bosnian War is days from completion. Sinterklaas has already determined who of us gets the candy and who gets a whack from the chimney sweep’s broom. And, yes, even the holiday olibollen stands (“Oil spheres!” Really?) have opened on Frederik Hendriklaan selling their fist-sized chewy donuts that dramatically shorten your life in the best possible way. The signs are all there — it’s time to bring the boat home to Iowa.

So we will.











Lessons from a street musician

The street musician sings softly into the late afternoon wind. Eyes shaded, head down, mouth tight against the mic, he is lost to the music. Which is a good thing, because no one else is. Not a soul is around. Everyone has gone home. Only the musician remains, singing softly.


Except for me.

Because, of course, the music seems to have a life all its own. It is pulled by the wind across the concrete sidewalk, brushing up against the Rembrandts and Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum, pinging over to the painted irises in the Van Gogh Museum, then jumping a ride with a skateboarder weaving in and out of the benches on the Museumplein, until the music jumps off, bouncing lazily across the grass to land with a plop at my feet.

Of all things.

“She dare hold her dreams for too long, till all the present is gone, forgetting to see what is right at her feet.” Mark Wilkinson, Searching.

But I ignore the song, like we all frequently do, I have a tram to catch. I’ve had a long day walking the canals of Amsterdam. I’m tired, a little grumpy, and ready to go home.

“It was a Thursday night in June when he first came to you, with eyes that spoke of carnivals and streams.” Mark Wilkinson, Josephine.

Lord, but I do admire the courage of this guy. He couldn’t be more exposed, out there singing to no one. And, really, what can he say to explain the lack of an audience? “Oh, you wanted a clown act not a musician?” It doesn’t matter in any case. The world just walks past. No excuses even requested. Worse than rejection.

“I don’t know a victory from loss anymore.” Mark Wilkinson, All I want is a war.

But, my goodness, he’s good.

I stop, retrace my steps, and listen. He pulls me in with his heart-breaking chords. Then his soft voice lifts and dives and laments and exults. He plays as if hundreds are listening, when no one is listening. I watch in awe.


So I buy a CD from the guy and go home.

Later that night I’m thinking about the musician on the street corner playing to no one and decide to e-mail him.

I’ll be darned, he responds.

“These days my audience has grown a fair bit, so I don’t really need to keep playing on the street, but the truth is, it’s still a great way for me to get in front of a new audience and grow my fan base. Not only that, it’s a great way to practice, see how new songs go down and get a feel for how your material is received by an audience that generally doesn’t know you.”

“Fan base”? Please. I feel nothing but badly for this guy. NO ONE WAS LISTENING, BUDDY. I was there. You should have packed it up, gone home, called it a day, had a cold beer.

Mark Wilkinson, the musician, says more . . . .

“My songs come from different sources of inspiration. Some are deeply personal and drawn from life experience and some are more observational or fictional. I like lots of different styles of music but the stuff that hits me the hardest is music that carries emotional weight. I strive to write songs that mean something to me, songs that have a piece of my personality in there somewhere.”

Oh my lord, this guy is a true believer. He performs on a street corner to no audience because he loves to create music. How amazingly courageous and how sadly defeating. He reminds me of my oldest boy, Patrick, playing soccer when he was little. At his first game, he was so excited that he was dancing with joy out on the field, chasing the ball wherever it went, shrieking with delight. And then, miracles of miracles, he scored a goal. He ran over to me for a hug, laughing, thrilled, and amazed at his prowess. Then back out to the game he went.

Of course . . . the goal he scored was for the other side. See? Both amazing and sadly defeating.

I decide to go to one of Wilkinson’s shows in Amsterdam just so someone will be there for this poor guy.

I pull up his website.

Look at this, he has several shows around Holland, and then off to New York City and Nashville. I’d better get my ticket.


What? I must have the wrong guy.


Mark Wilkinson, the guy giving a performance for no one but me, has sold out shows across Amsterdam.

I’m flabbergasted. He had an audience already in the bag when I saw him. I was so wrong about what was going on. This WAS about singing aloud his emotional songs, regardless of an audience. This WAS about leaving pieces of his personality on the playing field, even though no one was watching. This WAS about joyfully creating. Pure and simple.

Or was it? This embrace of creative spirit just for joy’s sake could all be coincidental, a fluke, the gods fooling around. Okay, what if I choose clowns rather than a musician on that empty square in Amsterdam?

Well, here’s a whole group of clowns at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. With umbrellas.


Trust me, Parisians give them not a second look as the clowns prance and sing and march. Not an audience to be found except for a few curious tourists and the miscellaneous enraptured child. They are on their own.

But the faces of the clowns amidst all this rejection? Filled with joy.

There you go.






George Arvidson

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

And the years passed.

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

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

“How’s your wife?” he asked.

What? He doesn’t even know my wife.

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s your wife?”

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

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

“How’s your wife?”

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

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

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

I want to think so.

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

He stopped next to my chair.

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

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

And then George left.

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


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

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

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

May his soul rest in peace.










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

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

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


Suddenly, Monique says firmly, “Enough!”

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

No kidding.

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

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

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


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

And over and over. Thousands of pictures.

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


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

See what I’m talking about, folks?

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


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

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

What’s my point?

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

And it is enough. Trust me.

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












A Thanksgiving story: the Pilgrims and same-sex marriage


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


A deadpan stare, daring me to laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

And this is where it gets weird.

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

Okay. Interesting. But why is this important?

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

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

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

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

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

No kidding.

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


Great! Awesome! Unbelievable!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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






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

“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” Donald Trump, announcing his candidacy on June 16th, 2015.

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

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

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

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

As for the stork . . . .

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

So where are the storks?


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

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

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

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







“I am Iowa”?

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

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

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

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

I sit on the canal bench and sip my cappuccino.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tag along.


Heder comes out of the Anne Frank House.

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

We sit quietly. Heder stares off over the canal.

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

She takes a breath, thinking.

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

Ayla Heder sighs.

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


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

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

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

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

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

So, “I am Iowa”? You tell me.