Tuesday, December 5, 2023

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Joe's Neighborhood



The cardboard box is tucked under the eaves in the attic. Spiderwebs and insulation cling to the top. Old baby beds and suitcases and containers of long-abused toys surround it. Stale, warm air drifts down from the rafters. I breathe slowly. 

Dusting off the flaps, I open it to see old diaries, all ones I wrote more than 50 years ago. And all with pretty much the same observations about myself and pretty much the same solutions to those observations. Year after year after year. I bore even myself.

DIARY ENTRY – NOV. 14, 1978 

“My acne seems to be a physical manifestation of my inner weakness. My response to the acne is to make it worse. I’ve got to grow up and become sure within myself. There must be a way to achieve this area of manhood. First, let’s try following my moral standards. Try honesty — try courage — try love — try humor.”

OK, “acne is a physical manifestation of inner weakness”? This kid is a mess. The craziness of shame and guilt is on full display in these lines. But then it gets worse. The “cure” for this “physical manifestation” is apparently honesty, courage, love and humor. Who knew that the tremendous market for acne treatments is missing these four key ingredients?

I wrote these lines in late fall many years ago. My 49-year-old father had recently died after a three-year illness. I took to the road to figure it all out. I was at that moment in Ibiza, Spain, long before Ibiza became the “Party Capital of the World.” 

Ibiza was isolated and undeveloped, and very few people lived on the island. I had gotten there from Iowa by hitchhiking to New York, flying to Luxembourg, bicycling into France, taking Eurail to Barcelona, and ferrying to Ibiza. I had little money. I was dead lonely. And I was debating whether to go work in a kibbutz in Israel. 

This was not a high point.

DIARY ENTRY – NOV. 12, 1978

“I feel in myself an insecurity. It is present at all times but mostly when I’m with people in dialogue. When I’m alone, traveling in a foreign land, the insecurity is gone. Rationally, I cannot justify such a fear: how can one fear inadequacies within oneself in relation to another when we are all going to die.” 

I can’t believe I didn’t have friends! Who talks like this? I especially appreciate that all the overblown blather ends with (surprise, surprise) a nod toward death. Please, put this kid out of his misery. 

In Ibiza, I’m staying up the stairs in an adobe building in a small room with windows on two sides. No window screens. Very un-Iowan. I buy fresh yogurt from a woman with her cart in the square, which I mix with uncooked oatmeal for most meals to save money, of course. And during the day, I wander the long, undeveloped beaches. For what? An answer to an unasked question, I suspect. 

So I pass my days in an island paradise until I don’t. And, finally, I come home. 

So, dude, 33 years later you do return to Europe. This time to The Hague, Netherlands, where your wife goes off for long days to prosecute war criminals and you are left alone again in a foreign country. Hah. Can you believe this? And you will be in The Hague off and on for nine years. Yup, get your head around that.

And, again, you start your time in The Hague with your days lonely, searching for meaning, trying to figure out how to live the moral life. Same old, same old. Except this time the existential crisis is over a latte in a coffee shop, not over a bowl of uncooked oatmeal. And there is that small difference of now having a wife who loves you, a career full of good things, three kids you generally like, innumerable cats and dogs you can’t stand, and one fish — all safely under your metaphysical belt. But you are still a mess.

Until you write.  

And you write and write. And you begin to share your writing with others. And you write and write some more. And suddenly, at the prodding of your wife, you have a column in CITYVIEW. Now it’s off to the races. 

You interview people and write about their lives. You go to museums and write about art. You sit on the edge of canals and write about people living in boats on the canal. You write about Pilgrims in Leiden, Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, a witch living in The Hague. And this writing doesn’t stop in Europe. My goodness. 


“Today is Thanksgiving back home. I miss it. I know I’m probably making it mean more in my memories than it meant in actuality, but what else do I have but the past?” 

There I was, stuck in memories of mashed potatoes and bread stuffing and young man angst, not knowing the answer was no further than the end of my pen.

So the diaries go back in the cardboard box, which I seal tight with fresh tape. I carry the box up to the attic and put it again under the eaves next to the old baby beds. Straightening my back, I brush off my hands. Stale, warm air drifts down from the rafters. I breathe slowly. ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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