• Happiness in Italy

    • Posted on Jun 11, 2017

    Today's (5-11) Waterloo Courier column.  We toured Italy mostly with the Gary Kelley "Story of Os" group from May 18 to May 30--Florence, San Gimignano, Rappllo, Lake Como--and continue to admire Italy and Italians.           

    Photos are from May 27, at one of the "Cinque Terra" resort towns on the Ligurian sea--a portion of the Mediterranean.  Jammed with tourists but still worth visiting.


               My wife Angeleita and I just returned from Italy, our fourth visit.  We still felt like strangers in boot-land, but now we’re getting comfortable with getting around, ordering meals, and avoiding seeming like stereotypical Americans, though that was a challenge. 

                Side note:  Italians immediately identify Americans: Brand name tennis/walking shoes.  Laughing, joking, nonstop talking.  Bright colors.  Baseball hats and team t-shirts, or souvenir hats and slogan t-shirts. In a hurry. Obsessed with shopping.

                All these details shout “American.”  Not ugly, just obvious. 

                But I digress. This trip, I was struck mostly by happiness.   Not ours so much as Italians’.  From our cooking class teacher to shopkeepers, waiters, street musicians, and wine sellers, mostly they embodied contentment, and it wasn’t faking for tourists. Not all Italians all the time, but enough to notice. 

                Some did complain about their economy, their government, threats of terrorism, even (when asked) our own President, since they suffered through Silvio Berlusconi, a similar buffoon.  And though Italy as a country sits lower on the World Happiness Report than America, Italians we met seemed well-connected to joy. 

                Indeed, Italians seem better at happiness than Americans. How can that be?

                After four visits, an answer emerges. 

                It begins with leisure.  Italians take more leisure time, and spend much of it relaxing and eating with friends.  And not just eating, but savoring great home-prepared pastas and salads and desserts and gelatos—these people know their way around kitchens. And wine, of course. Wine, friends, and food go together seamlessly, and for hours.

                The Italian afternoon siesta is legendary, and most shops shutter from around 12:30-4:00 weekdays, tourist shoppers be damned.  Might as well take long lunches.  

                Americans work hard, even when traveling, and always have places to go, so our lunches were short. Our waiters had to be chased down to bring checks. Italians watched us run off with wonder. 

                Then there’s Italian history.  Italians are surrounded by centuries upon centuries of history.  Their buildings, streets, and landscapes tell them they’ve been here through Neroes, Caligulas, Caesars, Borgias, Medicis, Savoys, Mussolinis, Berlusconis—for well over two thousand years.

                They’re confident that life goes on, so they enjoy being as much as doing.

                And beauty.  There’s so much beauty in Italy, from landscapes to public art to architecture, that you spend whole days gaping in wonder.  We ooohed and ahhhed like children. 

                Of course there’s Renaissance art in Florence which leaves humans all but breathless, as do the rolling hills and vistas of Tuscany, the ancient, cavernous cathedrals in every city that Italians rightly showcase.  If you’re not happy among all that beauty, you’re a hard case.

                Americans, in contrast, live in a young and still experimental country, so we feel obliged to advertise our goodness and rightness. We get tiresome, I’m afraid, as we protest life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness a bit too much.  We certainly didn’t invent the pursuit of happiness.  

                From my recent Italian travel experience, Americans might pursue happiness, but Italians find it. 







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  • Lunch with a Leader: JON CREWS

    • Posted on Apr 07, 2017
    Jon Crews, Cedar Falls' longest serving mayor (15 terms) died yesterday.  Last April 23, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier published my extensive lunchtime conversation with Jon.  Seems timely to republish it now.  


                “Steady as she goes” may not work as a campaign slogan, but it surely worked for Jon Crews as mayor of Cedar Falls for over thirty years.

                Crews began his mayorship in 1974 when he was 24, and ended last summer when he withdrew from the campaign.  

                He had won fifteen two-year elections, most of them easily. He left the position twice for a total of 14 years, then returned for 16 more years.   “I successfully succeeded my successors,” as he put it.   We met over lunch, and I found him down to earth, funny, honest, self-aware, and moving on without a trace of bitterness.  

                While deciding to retire, “I was worried about filling my days after so many years in City Hall,” he said, “but I’ve found plenty to do.”

                 Besides visiting six grandchildren from a blended marriage, he’s enthusiastic about two projects, both community-oriented.  He works locally with the “Senior Medicare Patrol,” which alerts seniors locally and nationwide to Medicare fraud and abuse.  He speaks to seniors and concerned groups about where such scams are found and how to thwart them.

                “Medicare fraud is a multi-billion dollar business, and can wreck seniors’ lives.” 

                He’s also helping develop a new de-stressing tool that involves electronic signals to help calm anxieties—which he believes show promise for helping vets with PTSD, as well as people on the autism spectrum and anxiety issues.    

                So Jon Crews still contributes to his community, and does so with energy and good will.

                He acknowledges that he was “ubiquitous” as mayor, a tag that describes his ongoing attendance at most community events, from art shows to jazz concerts to school plays to bicycle races.  “Even if we didn’t see you,” one citizen told him, “we knew you were there.”

                Crews’ leadership style amounts to “hiring good people and getting our of their

    way—I didn’t micromanage.”  And that means collaborating, cooperating, and compromising.  Not flashy, but refreshing in our current politically stalemated culture.        

                Using this approach, Crews saw the city develop a huge and successful industrial park, with 170 businesses.  It barely existed when Crews began.

                 Downtown Cedar Falls now vibrates with energy, with a Main Street that’s a model for similar cities. Eyesore buildings are being replaced, new restaurants are starting, old ones are remodeling condos are filling up along the riverfront.  All manner of small businesses fill the street and attract customers from across the Cedar Valley.    

                It’s how College Square used to look as Main Street went moribund. Now that’s reversed.  

                Crews recognizes that not everyone has been happy with his leadership, and cites the roundabout controversy as a current example.  “I tried to do the right thing rather than what’s popular.  All the data showed that roundabouts are safer and better for traffic flow.  So we listened to objectors, but found they couldn’t back up their complaints.  So we went ahead.” 

                He agreed it’s a mess on now, but street repairs are always disruptive, especially on major roads.  

                Of all his accomplishments, he cites a humble but important innovation: the one-person garbage pickup truck.  “Garbage pickups used to be the most dangerous job in the city.”  Now it’s safe and cheaper, thanks to his administration’s support for changing garbage pickup protocols.

                His low point?  The flood of 2008, which all but inundated parts of Cedar Falls, causing serious damage to neighborhoods and buildings.  

                However, it was not all dark.  “That flood and the cleanup did show the resiliency of the city.  We were back on our feet fairly quickly, with little lasting damage.”

                The city also re-zoned flooded areas so that fewer buildings now stand in harm’s way from inevitable Cedar River floods.   

                Another controversial area was “cross training” police and firefighters, so that both can be certified for policing and firefighting.  This doesn’t sit well with either group, but Crews supported it, and it still stands.   “Many firefighting jobs aren’t very specialized, so we thought it made sense to offer double duty.”

                What’s the purpose of city government? I asked, and he immediately answered,
    “the health and safety of its citizens, and prosperity, to the degree we can influence that.”   Overall, he’s satisfied with all three, but took little direct credit.  “The good people I hired and supported did their jobs well.  I always appreciated how good they were,” and that included a number of local volunteers, as well as Main Street Cedar Falls, a group that oversees downtown activities. 

                I wondered about Cedar Falls as a city without much racial diversity, and he agreed.  “Real estate costs more everywhere in Cedar Falls, and that may be part of it.”

    That’s an issue that deserves attention, I thought, and has been all but neglected.

                He mentioned two high points of his career: the day he started, when he realized that he actually had been elected mayor of a good-sized city.  That news made the Wall Street Journal---“above the fold,” he said proudly.

                And when he left office, his son organized a retirement party at City Hall that provided an overview of his career. “That’s a day I won’t forget.”  He felt a tide of gratitude that still makes him smile.

                Finally, he’s been surprised that he received so few angry or even complaining phone calls.  “One a year—that’s it.”  

                Collaborating, cooperating, compromising, few complaints.  I’d say Crews discovered the secret to good leadership, and implemented it.  

                Steady as she goes indeed.









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