In search of Mother’s Day

“Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.” William Makepeace Thackeray.

Mother’s Day cards in the card aisle at the grocery store are something to behold. Funny. Sincere. Loving. You can choose any flavor. You just sign your name at the bottom and pop it in the mail. Listen, it’s better than nothing, right?

Well, not according to Anna Jarvis.

Anna Jarvis is the woman who spent years trying to get government recognition for Mother’s Day, then spent even more years trying to stop what it became. No kidding. Anna Jarvis was so bent out of shape about the commercialization of the holiday that she was willing the spend the last half of her life fighting against florists and card makers and others she thought took improper advantage of this special day. According to Katherine Antolini, author and historianJarvis was even charged with disorderly conduct for trying to bust up a charity sale of . . . you guessed it . . . Mother’s Day carnations. Not exactly a Hallmark moment for Jarvis.

So where does that leave us with Mother’s Day and its true meaning?

Certainly, the notion that everyone has a mother is somehow comforting in these times where we are busy identifying who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Since we all have a mother, it makes  it harder to really believe that someone is a member of an alien species if they have a different religion, or a different shade of skin, or dare to want to use a bathroom not designated on their hall pass. Of course they’re not aliens. See, they have a mother. Put them with the “in” group.

And then, of course, there is that crazy mother/child bond. Before I married, my wife told me an apocryphal story passed down in her family. It was the story of a great-grandfather, who was described by one and all as a no-account drunk who spent up the family money and was a hard man. The great-grandmother eventually bore him 11 children. One day the house caught on fire. Great-grandmother miraculously rescued all of her 11 children. Great-grandfather died in the blaze while sitting in his favorite chair in the living room. How unfortunate.

“Did that really happen?” I asked my bride-to-be.

“She was later tried and found innocent of murder,” she responded, innocently enough.

The bond between a mother and her children is so powerful that even the National Parks have warning signs posted about the increased danger of seeing a mother with her little ones. This isn’t a mystery.

But there is more. Mary Cassatt was an American painter around the time of the impressionists. She became famous for her paintings of mothers and children. Her art could capture a small moment between a mother and her child that is nothing special — but totally special, loaded with love, connection, and belonging. The gifts of a mother.

Nicolle and Her Mother c. 1900; Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center; Photo Credit: Rich Sanders, Des Moines.

So, I thought I would go look for Nicolle and her Mother at the Des Moines Art Center. I wandered and wandered through our world-class museum and could not find a single dark-haired, blue-eyed mom holding Nicolle.

Come to find out that she is in storage. Bummer.

Turning a corner, however, I found another family portrait at the Art Center.

Rosie and her mother (and friends) c. 2017; Chef’s Palette — Des Moines Art Center Cafe; Photo credit: Joe.

Rosie Punelli recently opened Chef’s Palette in the Art Center. A homecoming of sorts having worked for Lisa LaValle in this same spot for many years. But now it is all hers.

“I get here about 7:30 after I get my two kids to school. Then I start doing prep for the day, baking cake and things like that. I’m ready to open at 11.”

And open she does to the wonderful smells of soups and pastries and today’s special — chicken and sausage gumbo.

“I brought my mom, Jeannie, to help me. And this is Charletta. She is one of my best friends. And her niece, Kira, works in the kitchen. Charletta is like my kids’ other mother. This is a family operation.”

No kidding.

Professional service, high-class food, and one of the best locations in Des Moines. It’s an easy sell. But there’s something else going on here.

“I want the customer to enjoy the experience. That’s why I’m here. I want people to walk away happy — to enjoy the atmosphere and the food. Some people come in, they’re hungry, and a little bit grouchy, but by the time they leave they’re satisfied. That’s what I want.”

And . . . .

“We are one big family. I depend big time on my crew. I couldn’t do it without them.  I couldn’t do it without Charletta or my mom or without Kira. They all help me so much. It’s a dream.”

Love, connection, and belonging. Mary Cassatt could not have drawn this portrait any better.

So where is Mother’s Day and its true meaning? Is it in our shared humanity? Is it in the fierce bond between a mother and her children? Or is it in the spirit of love, connection, and belonging?

Got me. I’m a struggling dad.

By the way, would you mind passing me another slice of Rosie’s homemade lemon-ricotta cheesecake?





Bob Harvey

Bob Harvey died the other day. Most of you wouldn’t know him. He was an agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation during most of my years as a prosecutor. A quiet man. Usually buried away deep in the bowels of the DCI building, in isolation, where he did his best work. A pro.

Firearms is what he did. He could tell you anything you wanted to know about a gun involved in a murder. Trigger pull strength. Markings the gun left on the shells. Operational ability. Where the gun came from. What shells it could fire. Bullet identification. And on and on and on.

And Bob’s opinion was unerringly the opinion the jury or the judge found true. Once I even dragged him out of retirement because a national gun expert said Bob’s work in an old murder case was wrong. I was stunned and worried. I shouldn’t have been. After Bob reviewed the national expert’s work, he carefully explained to me how the expert made a crucial mistake in his analysis. And, at the end of the day, the national expert agreed. No kidding. Listen, Bob knew his stuff better than the next guy. It’s just who he was.

But, frankly, smarts are never enough, and Bob brought more to the table. He brought credibility. When he spoke, the jury listened, the bad guy listened, and I listened. Why? Because he was never invested in the result. He was a scientist. It was never about winning for him. Ever. It was about getting the facts right. Period.

But Bob did care. He cared about the process. And he cared about all of us, even though personally I was a bit player in his life. He came across as the father we wish we had. Over the years, he would listen to my crazy questions and concerns, and patiently and clearly explain the facts. I would bring Bob into a grand jury to testify, where I would be rattled and on edge and dancing with out-of-control witnesses, and Bob would sit at the witness stand, smile, and calmly tell us about this shell casing coming from that gun, his deep voice resonating around the room like dark chocolate melting on your tongue. Warm and rich and comforting. And we all settled down and examined the facts. Not a bad trick.

Whenever Bob and I finished a case, he’d ask me: “How did I do, Joe?” And I was always surprised because he didn’t realize what a star he was. He genuinely didn’t get it. Everyone else did. The juries did. The judges did. I certainly did.

So, one last time, . . .

“Bob, you did great.”

May he rest in peace.


What does democracy look like?

Bundled against the cold, with a pink pussy hat, pink gloves, and pink scarf, the woman looks over the crowd of 26,000 gathered at the foot of the Iowa State Capitol. She raises the bullhorn to her mouth and calls out to the crowd:


Wow. Not really a chant to storm a building, or tip over a car, or topple a dictatorship. Who chants about democracy? Who incites a crowd about . . . yes . . . togetherness?

And the crowd calls back to the woman with the bullhorn:


My oh my. Loud. Festive. Excited. Determined. Exhilarating.

Back when I was a young prosecutor consumed by kids, soccer practices, and PTO meetings, my assignment to cover weekend court in Polk County was an international flight to another planet. Don’t get me wrong, weekend court itself was simple enough. It was just a way for a judge to make sure an arrest was based on probable cause, to set bond, and to appoint a lawyer if necessary. No, what was exotic were the folks arrested. There were prostitutes selling themselves for a hungry fix, trespassers trying to get off the street and out of the cold by breaking into downtown businesses, thieves desperately cleaning the shelves of baby diapers and canned goods, drunk drivers in from the suburbs smelling of sweat and booze and urine, and the remnants of Saturday night bar fights looking battered and bruised. All paraded in front of the judge who forwarded them on to the next stage of the judicial process, or dispensed justice and left them to their punishment or their freedom. It was quick and it was final. It was another world.

Society was just beginning to demand domestic abuse laws. But it had not happened yet. We saw men in court who were arrested for battering their wives, but only to have the charges dropped when the wife, for all sorts of real reasons (kids, money, fear), testified that she now remembered that she fell against the stove in the kitchen. Of course, the assault took place in the bedroom. We had few tools to stop this cycle. We were frustrated and worried for the victims and we waited for the escalation of violence and maybe even death. Not a pretty picture.

It was an early Sunday morning. The drunks stood before the judge, pled guilty, and were sent back out into the world. The prostitutes, thin and wasted from drugs, were given bond and a new court date.

I stood at the front of the room below the judge’s bench, handing him the charges for each arrested person.

Next appeared a large, burly man.

“Assault,” the preliminary complaint says. The victim? His wife.

“How do you plead?”

He is smug and sure as he stands before the judge and pleads “not guilty.” He knows his wife. These assault charges will never stand. It is easy to guess that this is not the first beating she received at his hands. Nor will it be the last.

The courtroom is on the second floor of the Des Moines Police Department. The public is allowed to sit in the back, but access is controlled by locked doors, and there are plenty of Des Moines police and Polk County deputies throughout the room.

The accused man stands before the court in handcuffs. He smirks at me as I’m working off to the side, then he turns, bored and surly, to the judge.

There is a rustle from the back of the room. Unbeknownst to everyone, the wife is in the courtroom. The black and blue bruises on her face are just beginning to appear. Her shirt is askew and her hair uncombed. She comes out of the chairs in the back, past the two officers, then sprints to the front of the room.

We all watch, frozen in amazement. Not quite believing what we are seeing. A thin woman rushing toward us.

Her husband is facing the judge and doesn’t see her running at him with curled fists and determination. She swings her arm like a baseball bat, cracking him as hard as she can on the side of the head.

Her husband falls.

She remains standing at the front of the room, breathing heavily.

Reluctantly, I charge her with assault. She pleads guilty. The judge orders a small fine. And, at the end of early morning court, she is released. Alone and vulnerable once again.

End of story.

So what’s the point of all this?

The thin woman floats around the edges of my memory on this day about women and women’s rights. Perhaps she is at home, isolated and alone, in fear. Or perhaps she is here with her sisters and her daughters and holding a sign saying — “I’m with her” — supported by 26,000 of her closest friends.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Ah, there they go again . . . .







Edit for the old lady in Dubuque

“THE NEW YORKER will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” H.W. Ross, Editor, prospectus for The New Yorker, 1925.

The white hair is carefully combed back to just below the ear, where it falls softly against her neck. A regal white. All the more dazzling when you realize her hair used to be hidden by the then-required habit of her religious order. Tucked away from a common sinner like myself. But not now. Not today, where it flows back from the breeze as the wheel chair scoots down the hall and into the communal dining room.

My 94-year-old aunt, Sister Marla, is having a rough spell. She lived a vibrant life helping people in hospitals in both Dubuque and Ames, but now she is back at her home in the convent in Dubuque. She’s been a nun for a gazillion years. A member of the Sisters of St. Francis. Their job, according to their website, is to follow a “vision of service and compassion to the most needy.”

“In our words and our actions we are challenged to treat all with respect and dignity, responding to the needs of our poor brothers and sisters, the destitute and the outcasts among us, finding a home among them.”

Hard to find the negative in that.

But here she is. Recovering from a fall to the floor. And her fellow Sisters are taking care of her now. So my 90-year-old mom and I head out on a car trip to see how she’s doing.

“Joe, watch out for the ice,” my mom advises, as we take off from the slick streets of Boone, Iowa. Even at 90, cautionary warnings are the meat and potatoes of any mother’s repertoire. Although, at 90, my mom has a bit of a devil-may-care attitude, which prompts a giggle rather than a scold as we slide on the slippery streets.

And the miles begin to drift behind us along with the ice and snow as we head east.

When I was much younger, I lived for a time with my grandfather who needed a little help. We whiled away our days talking of women, horse racing, and the price of corn. Surprisingly, my aunt, who lived nearby, decided I needed a piano. The rented piano was delivered one day into my grandfather’s tiny home that had no room for a piano. But there it sat, swallowing up the space. Then written music appeared. Elton John. Billy Joel. Popular music of the time. And I played. And I played.  And I played. A small joy, courtesy of Sister Marla.

My mom and I make it to Dubuque, although I can’t seem to find the convent among the hills. “Get thee to a nunnery” is a harder command to follow than I thought. Ah, at last.

Several smiling women come to greet us and take us to see my aunt.

Many years ago, my aunt set me up on a date. She chose a lovely young woman who worked with her at the hospital. The woman was a dietitian and her speciality was white sauce. Since gravy is my primary food group, it seemed to be a fortuitous match. In preparation for this all-important date, my aunt signed herself up for dance classes and took me along. Disco dancing. It was the rage, and my aunt was determined I learn.

And we did. We mastered the Hustle, the Bus Stop, and the Bump. She was certainly the better partner as we twirled and twisted with her one hand raised high and her stylish light-blue pantsuit spinning around the room. Saturday Night Fever indeed. And although my gravy credentials weren’t enough to forge a relationship with the young woman, I did do the Bump with a nun. That has to count at the end of the day.

Today she smiles as she sits in a wheelchair pulled up to the table. We are invited to stay for dinner. We laugh about the vagaries of life. I talk of my family and my travels. She speaks of her health and her plans for the future. Dessert is brought.

As my mom sits by her side, my aunt leans over to brush my mom’s hair back off her face with a well-practiced swoosh.

An ordinary scene played out in many families and many cultures over many centuries. An older sister taking care of her younger sister. And at 94 and 90? Why should it be any different?

Okay, what’s going on here?

Listen, when H.W. Ross wrote that The New Yorker was not for the old lady in Dubuque, he was trying to carve out a niche in the magazine world for a sophisticated big-city magazine. Big fashion, big food, big people. Not for the little old lady in tiny Dubuque.

But in this time of a larger-than-life president with “big big plans,” “huge plans,” does the small gesture of kindness still have value? Do the acts of renting a piano, taking dancing lessons, and brushing hair from another’s face have any measure in this twitter age defined by capturing reality in 140 characters?

“In our words and our actions we are challenged to treat all with respect and dignity.”


Perhaps the little old lady in Dubuque is exactly the person to whom we should be looking these days. Edit her out? No, I don’t think so. Let’s edit her in.

Now, how do I get out of this nunnery?









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.