One day in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower

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


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

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

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

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

Yikes.  Those are some enemies.

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

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

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

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

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

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





Lifting to failure — Part 1

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

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

“Sorry, it was no lift.”

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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






The Frog King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

And the Dutch women fall over each other laughing.

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

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

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

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







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

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

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

But first things first.

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


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

And Judith Leyster?

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

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

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

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

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

And what about Karime Reveiz Westrum?

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

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

As she should.

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

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

The End.

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

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

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

And with your business?

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

Did your new baby turn everything upside down?

“No, she turned everything right side up.”

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And your art?

Karime Reveiz Westrum smiles.

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

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

Why not?








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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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