Walking Away…With No Regrets

It was quite a shock, no, it was akin to witnessing an underdog punching out a champion with a TKO so hard, it’s still unfathomable to explain.

On Sunday afternoon, Mars Cafe, the indelible risk-taking and fun-loving coffee shop that anchored the revitalization of the Drake University business neighborhood, announced that August 18th will be their final day of operation.

Larry and Jennifer James (Metromix/Des Moines Register)

For the locals in Des Moines, it feels like a death-blow to the psyche of everything local.  For six years, Mars Cafe carved an identity that made customers fiercely loyal, a refuge for students at Drake to study, and first dates were held.

It also fostered something special:  a creative community that launched many ideas from inside the cool, relaxed interactive place on University Avenue.

Companies like BitMethod and Dwolla not only asked Mars Cafe to take a chance on some of their ideas, but in true Mars Cafe style, the owners and the staff of Mars bounced off ideas to both companies and to many others.

How many places would take a chance to help create new ways to make financial transactions easier without all of the hassle of fees, waiting times, and other red tape stuff that our current financial systems are still mired in?

How many places would allow musical groups from different genres to perform there and support them?

How many places would have one of their owners or employees dress up like Yuri Gargarin in an astronaut suit and dance with the crowd on a summer night?

And how many places would inspire a hack blogger to come up with topics to write about with clarity and prose?

Mars Cafe, that’s who.

The decision to close up shop may have been difficult, but then again I’m not in Larry James’ shoes.  Larry, his wife Jennifer, brother Phil and his wife Nicole, opened Mars Cafe in 2006.  I’ve known all four for a few years before taking the plunge to open a place that spearheaded the clarion call that “Dogtown” (sorry Cusack, but that’s what the locals still affectionately call the neighborhood) is a “cool place to hang out” at.

While the majority are sad and offering suggestions on how to keep Mars going, I gained a sense of peace with Mars closing.  And it’s alright.  After all, Larry’s reasons were simple:  with his full-time career in law and his family growing up in front of his eyes, it was a good time to do it.  It wasn’t a failure by any means.  The James’ took a risk, ran with it, and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

What no other way than to go out on top.  And that’s what they are doing.  Leaving while they are still the best and at the height of their popularity.

Mars is not alone.  Being There Coffee in Altoona is closing, Baby Boomers said farewell not too long ago, and Metropolitan Properties will dissolve, but not after Jodi Beavers and Leslie Gearhart can look back at their accomplishments in what they did to save several historical properties and make them livable again.

For me, a certain guy who was born in Corning, Iowa comes to mind as I write this.  On May 22, 1992, Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for the final time.  A year earlier, he announced that he was stepping down, to the mass dismay of Americans.

Viewers and fans kept asking why would Johnny walk away from an empire:  the #1 show on late night and overall on television, worldwide fame, among other things.

Carson’s reasoning was simple:  he achieved everything he wanted.  It was time to move on.

Who could blame Johnny?  Who could blame Larry, Jodi, Leslie, and the others?

If you can walk away from doing something, with a smile and no regrets, then you know you were successful.

What a hell of a ride, Mars Cafe.


The “Other” List: What I Love About Des Moines

Juice has come out with a list called “50 Things We Love About Des Moines”.  I’m not a “list” person by any means.  There are far too many things about living here in Iowa I love, and about Des Moines, since I’m a resident here.

This is going to be Des Moines-centric, so for you fellow readers out in Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa, you have been warned.

With that said, I have no opposition or issues with the list.  It’s a good list.  But, as my eccentric nature of independence, there are a few things not on the list that I love about living in the Des Moines area.

Looking for tickets for the State Wrestling Tournament next week? Good luck.

1.  State Tournaments  Did you know that high school state tournament season begins the next week with state wrestling?  Des Moines has a pep in its step when teams and fans from across the state arrive to Wells Fargo Arena for wrestling and girls and boys basketball action.

2.  First Saturday of Farmers Market The first Saturday in May has become an unofficial holiday as the start of the Downtown Farmers Market kicks off.  20,000+ people, with babies, dogs, and shopping bags looking for the freshest goods available.

All locally grown.

I'm looking forward to renting out a B-cycle this spring.

3. B-Cycle The B-Cycle is on its way to becoming the new way to tour the city, without burning gas in the car.  The city-owned bicycle rental program is one of the best ideas to take advantage of the great bike trails in the Des Moines area.

4. Manhattan Deli  No bells, no whistles, and no splash.  Just simply walk up, order, and then sink your teeth into a local sub sandwich delight.  PGA golfer, Cedar Rapids native and Drake grad Zach Johnson has a sandwich named after him.  It’s the only sub sandwich I order when I go there.  Oh, cash and checks only.  No debit or credit cards.

5. Americana’s “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner” Americana Restaurant’s “Bombshell Brunch” is the place to be on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but if you are not a morning person, schedule a trip for Monday nights for “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner.”  Endless amounts of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and cornbread is all waiting there to be dined on as you decompress from the start of the work week.

Des Moines skyline.

6.  A view from the Capital Head to the Capital, park your car (no meters), get out of car, and walk around.  Take in the view of downtown.  Get some fresh air, albeit cold wintry air.

7. East Village There was no such thing as East Village when I moved here from college in 1998.  Slowly and quietly, the area between the Capital and the Des Moines River downtown has become the model of success for local shops.  From Vitae to the Kitchen Collage, The Village Bean to eden, East Village is the original local success story of entrepreneurship and realizing big dreams.  Which leads me to…

Your mission for 2012: get to know Christian Renaud (left) and Tej Dehwan. They run Startup City Des Moines.

8.  The Silicon Sixth If you haven’t heard of Silicon Sixth Avenue, make 2012 the year to learn about it and the people involved.  Dwolla is located on the Sixth, so is Startup City Des Moines, ShareWhere, and the Des Moines hub of Silicon Prairie News.  The Silicon Valley isn’t the only place where new ventures and technology are being created.

9.  Mars Cafe The Drake Neighborhood got a jolt of caffeine when Mars Cafe opened.  Similar to East Village, Dogtown, as the locals affectionally call it, is another great example of neighborhoods being revitalized and attracting visitors and patrons alike.

10. Home Sweet Home Many people in my age group couldn’t wait to get out of Iowa after college.  I never had an inclination to leave.  Why?  I’m happy here in Iowa.  Des Moines has always been a city where if the right people, the right time, and the right opportunities fall into place, it could be a great place to live.  The verdict:  it is the right place for me.

The Meaning and Purpose of An Award

I don’t believe in self-promotion by any means.  Okay, the picture above would contradict that, but follow me here.  If done too much, it makes you sound like a narcissistic hog:  walking around with its nose stuck up in the air, covered in mud. 

However, when something comes along that is very important and you get recognized for it, you feel proud. 

Last week was one of the moments, when I received an award for community service from the Young Professionals Connection, which is a young professional organization under the Greater Des Moines Partnership

The story, to me, isn’t how I received the award, or the acceptance speech, but the story of how this award was created. 

The Ashley Okland Community Service Award was created this year by YPC to honor the memory of an individual whose time here on this crazy place we call Earth ended too early, senselessly and unspeakable. 

Friday, April 8, 2011 appeared to be a normal day around town.  I was hanging out at Scooter’s Coffeehouse (now closed) in West Des Moines.  An acquaintance of mine, Liz Nelson, posted on Facebook that she had an extra ticket to a Civic Music Association concert at Drake University that evening and the first person who sent her a message, would get it. 

Not wanting to pass up a chance, I let Liz know I would take it and attend the performance.  About 3 minutes later, a twitter post came across my laptop that there was a shooting in West Des Moines at a model home.  I casually glanced at it and went back to work, waiting for more information to come out. 

Ten minutes later, it was posted that an Iowa Realty real estate agent was shot and was transported to the hospital.  At first thought, I selfishly was hoping that who ever it was will pull through. 

I headed home, got dressed, and headed to Drake University for the concert at Sheslow Auditorium. 

I arrived on campus, met Liz, picked up my ticket and went inside for the performance.  A little after 9pm, there was a 15-minute intermission period.  I headed outside to check my Twitter feed and get caught up.  The reception in the auditorium was not very good.  I started to see several “RIP” tweets and other tweets with “shocked”, “horrible”, and “sad.”  I scroll down my timeline to find out more about who was the agent that was shot. 

The agent died.  The name of the victim:  Ashley Okland.  I started running through my all-too informative brain trying to picture her.  I did.  I ran into her a week before at Smokey Row.  We didn’t know each other very well, beyond the fact that she served on the YPC board and the both of us participated in several YPC functions. 

The cool evening wind I was feeling felt like an ice storm that blew in and froze time.  It was surreal and unsettling.  I was not in a state of shock.  I was angry.  Pissed off.  Only a coward would do this and run.  Only a cold-calculated individual would commit a heinous and unspeakable act.  

Ashley Okland

A couple of deep breaths and then a long drawn in breath and I exhaled.  I turned around and walked back inside for the second half of the concert.  Yeah, there was no way I could enjoy the rest of the evening.  I was worried about everyone else that knew her:  her family, friends, and colleagues.  It was not going to be easy for them.  

During the final portion of the concert, I knew what I needed to do:  write about it.  I knew what to write and what I needed to describe.  Not for myself, but to offer what small solace it could offer at a time of raw emotions that is neither neat and clean, but rather crestfallen and heartbroken.  I have always been able to shut off my emotions and write what I think and observe.  That night, I needed that ability more than ever to do it. 

Arriving home, I sat down and read as much as I could from the Des Moines Register and other sources online.  As the cursor blinked, I began writing.  In two hours, I wrote this piece that resonated with the YPC community here in Des Moines.  Out of all of the blog posts I have written over the past 6 years, this one was the most challenging and the one I didn’t want to write.  In fact, I hate re-reading it even to this day. 

But I re-read the post once a month as a reminder for myself that internally I will not have satisfaction or relief until the coward who pulled that trigger and cut down an innocent person is captured, tried by a jury of his or her peers, and learn their punishment for this crime. 

Flash forward, eight months to that day in April, I’m receiving congratulations from friends upon being bestowed the inaugural Ashley Okland Community Service Award.  I was selected due to the work I have done as a volunteer in several groups and in general.  I’m a volunteer veteran.  I’ve been lending my time to volunteering for roughly 6 years.  Ashley was just starting to hit her stride as a volunteer. 

Yes, most of you who are my friends will keep reminding me that I’m deserving of this award.  I can’t deny that.  I should embrace it. 

But this award isn’t about the winner of the award, for it is the person for which this award is named after.  We tend to forget the story and the value of what an award means when it’s named after someone, as a way to honor them, or remember them when they are no longer here. 

Let us not forget this reminder when we are recognized for the great things we do in our careers, jobs, and in the community, be it church, park, or school.  For every award, there is a reason and a purpose behind it. 

News and Sports Links – Drake Relays Edition

The Drake Relays are underway at Drake Stadium/Johnny Bright Field. They'll be plenty of Drake alums returning as this is the school's unofficial "Homecoming" weekend.

Mother Nature always have a way to throw a monkey wrench into Drake Relays week in Des Moines.  But if there is one thing she can’t do, and that is stop me from rolling some links today.

On your mark…get set…let’s go.

Despite the warnings, over 200 people were killed by the nearly 20 or so tornadoes flying all over the state. 

If you are planning on heading to the Saturday session of the Drake Relays, show some love to the athletes from the University of Alabama track team and the other schools from Alabama.  Several of them have lost homes, family members, friends, or all three in one of the worst storms that state, or the nation have seen in years. 

  • Big Omaha is coming up in two weeks and Danny Schreiber of Silicon Prairie News has the lowdown on who’s speaking, the panels, and the parties. 
  • A familiar voice in horse racing will not be on hand to call the Kentucky Derby next Saturday.  Tom Durkin, who has called the last 30 Triple Crown races and calls races for 3 tracks for the New York Racing Association, has decided to not renew his contract with NBC to call this year’s major horse races, citing stress. 

I will miss him behind the microphone calling the Kentucky, Preakness, and the Belmont.  The rumor is that Larry Collmus could replace Durkin.  Collmus gained notoriety last year for this memorable call: 

That’s it for now.  Have a great weekend. 

Sportsmanship Isn’t Just for Sports

Dr. P.M. Forni spoke Thursday night at Drake University about civility. Too bad some of you missed it. You could have learned a few things about self-restraint and handling your emotions.

Thursday night, I sat in on a lecture by Dr. P.M. Forni about civility as part of the “Better Together Iowa” series, hosted by Drake University, Character Counts in Iowa, IPTV, and Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, among several sponsors. 

I won’t get into the intellectual discussion of what Forni said and what I dissected.  I found another way to describe it. 

Pee-Wee football, high school, colleges, and the NHL shake hands after the game has ended.

By using sports again. 

A time honored tradition in American sports is the handshake at the end of the games by both teams.  There is always a losing team and a winning team.  Losing sucks, but at the end of the competition, if your opponent played a better game, made fewer mistakes, and did the little things, they deserve to win, in spite of a clock operator screwing up, a referee with a “gotcha agenda”, and other silly innate distractions. 

From Little League to college, we are taught to be civil and show good sportsmanship as kids. 

It’s when we become adults that we stop acting like kids, and start acting like blood-thristy sharks.  Lack of self-restraint, becoming defensive, shouting someone down for having a different opinion, and always (always) trying to get the last word in every argument. 

Unlike Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy shows class and civility regardless if he won or lost a game. Many of us are sore losers and want to take it out on others. That causes violence.

You don’t have to win every argument, and get pissed when you lose.  Being a sore loser is just as bad in real life as it is in sports.  As much as we love sports and advocate sportsmanship, not using those same principles in our non-sports daily life is cheating ourselves.

Everyone is Not the Same

The President returned to Des Moines Tuesday night for a visit and to circle the wagons. (Eric Thayer/New York Times)

On Wednesday, President Obama will speak to a crowd about the pressing issue of the struggles of the middle class.  The early reports were that he was going to speak at a home.  The Des Moines Register reported and confirmed Tuesday night that the home Obama will speak at is the residence of Sandy Hatfield-Clubb and her husband Jeff.  Clubb is the athletic director at Drake University.

Drake Athletic Director Sandy Hatfield Clubb. (Drake University)

State Representative Janet Petersen selected Clubb and her family because she thinks the Clubbs are the epitome of an Iowa family — “they’re both working, they’ve got kids at home, they have busy lives.”

Let me preface this:  there is no doubt in my mind that the Clubbs are good individuals, work hard, and do the right things. This is not about them.  It’s the selection of Clubb’s family to host the President at this “invite-only” gathering that I have mixed feelings about.

State Representative Janet Petersen

I feel that Petersen and the White House could have selected another family, a middle-class family who is struggling to keep up and survive in this current climate of economic uncertainty and upheaval.  An acquaintance of mine inquired why I would suggest another family and not the Clubbs.


Sandy Hatfield-Clubb is no ordinary middle-class person.  As Drake’s athletic director, she’s a high-profile local celebrity.  Everyone knows who she is.  The perception to the majority of residents in Des Moines is that she’s doing well at her job, she’s highly recognizable, and doesn’t appear to be a struggling middle-class American.

The President, candidates, and pundits can talk about saving the middle class, but it’s apparent that the middle class is on the cusp of being extinct.  You have the upper middle class and the lower middle class and the wedge that is driven between the two is hard not to ignore.  The middle represents the two directions where this nation is heading towards:  lower and upper class. Poor and rich.

The Prez will be picking up some Baby Boomer cookies along the way.

To Representative Petersen, the Clubbs are the “epitome” of an Iowa family.  To me, the Clubbs do not “exactly” represent the middle class, only part of it.

There are lower middle-class families who are going through more trials and tribulations that the Clubbs.  One layoff, one missed mortgage, or one life-changing event, can turn a middle-class homestead into one of turmoil or breakup.  The middle class no longer is made up of nuclear families.  There are extended and combined middle class families (single-parent families, gay or lesbian families, interracial or interfaith, and even middle-class broken homes).

Not all of the middle class look like the Cleavers.

I should know.  I used to have that “nuclear” family until my parents divorced.  Growing up in a blue/white collar working middle class on the rough and economically-depressed east side of Waterloo can give you a different perspective on what the middle class should “look like.”

The point I’m making is that if the President wants to address the issues the middle class is facing and his quest to help them, why not visit a home of a middle class family that is not “perfect” and has issues that resemble the evolving majority of the middle class.

As Bill Bishop’s book “The Big Sort” pointed out, we fall back on finding people who live like us, look like us, think like us, and emulate us (homogeny).  Rep. Petersen could have found a family who wasn’t similar to her family or neighborhood and yet still be middle class.  By choosing Clubb and her family (who lives in Beaverdale along with Petersen and her family), it plays into the image of a “perfect” middle class family that all of America should resemble.

This is an example of what today's middle class looks like.

Not everyone has a two parent home with two kids, the pooch, and a two-car garage.  The Clubbs represent the old lasting image of the middle class that we, for some reason, want to hang on to.

And it’s wrong to portray that image to America because it’s not accurate and distorts the reality of what the middle class truly is today.

Deconstructing “The Big Sort”

Bill Bishop, author of "The Big Sort", will speak at Drake on Thursday night.

On Thursday night, Drake University will host writer Bill Bishop as part of Drake University’s “Better Together Iowa” series.  Everyone’s friend and broadcaster Paul Yeager and IPTV will tape the lecture as part of their Civility series.  It will air on September 24th.

Alexander Grugrich of Foundry Coworking, on a tweet to me, summed up Bishop’s book in one sentence:

“…society is pooling into homogeneous groups, (politics, religious, educated, etc) doesn’t say how to fix it.”

Bishop, in his column to the Des Moines Register on Sunday, points out a case study of how to cultivate civility that was conceived by University of Oklahoma president David Boren, a former U.S. Senator.

Boren’s theory was that it’s harder to demonize the people you live with. And he believed, along with the Founding Fathers, that a democracy’s great advantage was heterogeneity. When people with different ideas mixed, they were more likely to find the best solution – and society was less likely to be overwhelmed by faction or extremism.

-Bill Bishop, “About ‘those people’ you disagree with, Des Moines Register September 12, 2010

Boren’s theory of breaking up the homogeneous sects and building a 21st Century “melting pot” has been effective at Oklahoma.  But, in turn, there is a perception that people feel like they are being “forced” to listen and accept differentiating opinions and will do everything possible to distance themselves even greater by “selectively” segregating themselves with their own homogeneous sects.

Former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach discussed civility a while back. I wrote about his call for civility in June and is linked here on his picture.

When I went to college, I felt “liberated” to learn about different viewpoints and experiences, whereas back at home in Waterloo, the black community preached to “stick with your own”, distrust people who were not the same skin color as you were, and were solidly Democratic.  I discovered that regardless if I respectfully disagreed with someone’s opinion and my willingness to listen to their views, a sizable number of people will continue to demonize me for not “following the script” or agreeing with them.

It is a choice that people will make.  The major problem we have is that we “react” to what someone has said or done.  By reacting, we never get to the phase of understanding “why” an individual have an opposing view.

Maybe those are the people, regardless of political, gender, religious, and racial affiliation that need to be paired together in Boren’s experiment.  The fear is what if Boren’s experiment doesn’t produce the same results that it has at Oklahoma, and people start resorting to physical blows if they are “forced” to group up together?

Yes, I want civility, but as Alexander pointed out, we hope Bishop can provide some ideas and solutions on how we can foster civility around us as individuals, if groups and sects of “like-mindedness” refuse to “desegregate” socially and politically and “un-Sort” into a “heterogeneous” society willing to accept differences.