Tuesday, April 22, 2014

No Real Menu at Lunch – iPads Only


I took a fellow senior to lunch at the new Byerly’s Kitchen yesterday. His name is also Charlie. He’s actually more senior than I by about 12 years. We have lunch together nearly every Monday.
by Charlie Leck
Now imagine this… This new restaurant doesn’t have normal waiters and/or waitresses. They have iPads. I’m used to them. Charlie is not. He was flabbergasted, but we worked our way through the menu. I ordered a Chardonnay for Charlie and a hot-tea for me. We each ordered seared tenderloin tips with glazed vegetables. It was served with sautéed shitake mushrooms, mashed potatoes and some nice fresh vegetables – all covered in a delectable gravy sauce. Our lovely luncheon dish showed up, but not the wine or coffee. I had to get up and go to the bar to talk about the wine order. It hadn’t gone through. My tea, I was told, would be brought over by a coffee shop in another part of the building. We complained that we didn’t get a roll or piece of bread with our lovely stew. That, we were told, would have to come from the bakery in another part of the establishment. The restaurant was not allowed to compete with them. Hot, black coffee showed up instead of my tea. I was worn down by this time and didn’t complain. The elder Charlie shook his head sadly at where the world had arrived and proclaimed that we shouldn’t eat here again.
“I like a menu,” he said, “One for you and one for me! And I like a real person to wait on us, so he can ask if we’d like a roll or a piece of bread with that. And butter?”
I mentioned that one day we’d probably fly to Europe on planes with no pilots. We’ll fly in drones that would be piloted from a central airline headquarters and drinks and snacks would be brought to us by electronic tables that slid up and down the aisles; and we’d each have our own individual iPads with a selection of dozens of movies or games to keep us occupied as we flew. He looked at me quizzically.
“What happens in emergencies?”
“Won’t be any!”
Charlie shook his head and mumbled something about being glad he was as old as he was.
He called to a young lady who was clearing tables nearby.
“Can’t I get a waitress over here?”
She shrugged and shook her head at him, embarrassed.
Charlie was agitated. He shook his head.
“Right across the street, at The Muni, they’ve got waitresses and menus for God’s sake!” He was talking about the Wayzata municipal bar and restaurant just across the way.
I was okay with this fancy place, but I was irritated that I couldn’t even order a piece of bread or a roll to sop up that wonderful gravy left-over in my bowl. I looked at it longingly. Honest to God! They told me I’d have to get up and walk over to the little grocery section on the same level and buy the bread I wanted from the bakery. Now that was a little too much for me.
“Yup,” I said, “and they’ve got bread at The Muni, too. Suppose, if you order a hamburger here, you have to walk over to the bakery to order the bun?”
“Let’s not come here again,” Charlie said, shaking his head.
“Like us on Facebook,” it said on our receipt. I decided I wouldn’t. The place was busy. The bar was well occupied. People seemed to be having a good time. The big, wood-fired pizza oven was roaring. Diners wouldn’t need to tip a server. The prices were good. Yet, you couldn’t get a damned single piece of bread.
“I’m sorry,” the manager told me.
“Healthier, I guess,” I replied to the nervous young lady, “if I don’t eat bread and butter.”
“We’re not coming here again,” Charlie said to her.
“I’m sorry,” she shrugged and her expression indicated that it might be best!
  


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Saturday, April 19, 2014

What Are You Reading?


Alexa King, a Facebook friend and a very good artist (we have the work by her (Hackney Horse), pictured above, in our home) has asked me to post, on my wall profile, the books I’ve read.
by Charlie Leck
Wow! I certainly can’t list all the books I’ve read. My goodness, I’m 73 years old now! Maybe if I just hit the highlights.
I have a hard time figuring out which are the best books I’ve ever read, but I don’t mind reporting on “the most important books” I’ve read – in so much as they’ve had a major impact on my life and who I am, and they sort of took me in various directions. This might sound strange, but books do that.
And I don’t mind talking about the books that just brought me enormous satisfaction and enjoyment.
That way I don’t get drawn into literary arguments about “the best books” and questions about how I can list this one ahead of that one. It’s not what I do! I’ll tell you about books that moved me and books that pleased me and books that impacted me and the way I live.
For example, when I read Hemingway’s book, A Moveable Feast, it really stuck with me and I had to see Paris and understand that city the way Hemingway did. I got to see and understand Paris when I stayed there for a few months (though not the way Hemingway did). Hemingway’s novel and short stories intrigued me and I enjoyed his very direct writing style: The Sun Also Rises; For Whom the Bell Tolls; and Old Man and the Sea are three of the best books I’ve ever read.
After reading Vonnegut’s remarkable novel, Slaughterhouse Five, I began rethinking patriotism, war and human justice. I could say that The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, impacted me the same way!
King’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail, published eventually as a book, made me more alert to racism and racial injustice and set me on a path I might not have otherwise taken. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, from his time of incarceration by the Nazis, Letters & Papers from Prison, were remarkable and deeply impactful on me and my life. There was something about the moral necessity and vital importance about peaceful protest that became central in my life. His earlier work, The Cost of Discipleship, burned its way into my mind and soul. How could one not protest an evil war – an unjust war?
So then, in that vein also, I have at hand right now a first edition of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I’ve read it a half-dozen times. I cannot tell you how important the book was when it first came out. The nation had still not healed from the wounds of the Viet Nam War and the protests that surrounded it. The book helped me heal.
Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite writers. I hope everyone has read Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I returned to it a few times, to reread it and make sure it was really as good as I imagined. It’s even better each new time I read it. And the same is true for The Mayor of Casterbridge. Oh, my! What wonderful books! They both taught me something remarkable about the English language: It could be beautiful.
Love in the Time of Cholera, a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is a brilliant work and I count it among the greatest books I’ve ever read (even in translation).
Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano introduced me to tintinnabulation and to Popocatepétel. The book burrowed itself inside me and compelled me to read it again and again until I figured I understood it as well as I ever would.
Below, in this list of special books I’ve read, I’ll list the authors only where I think it might be necessary…
Moby Dick
The Brothers Karamazov
To Kill a Mockingbird
(Harper Lee)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Even Cowgirls get the Blues
(Tom Robbins)
Home
(Marilynne Robinson)
Humboldt’s Gift
The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
(Robert Persig)
The Catcher in the Rye
Deliverance
(James Dickey)
My Antonia (Willa Cather)
Goodbye Columbus
(Philip Roth)
The Great Gatsby
Reverence for Life
(Albert Schweitzer)
Lord Jim
Catch 22
(Joseph Heller)
The Sound and the Fury (William Falkner)
The Diary of Ann Frank
Far from the Madding Crowd
A Separate Peace
(John Knowles)
The Grapes of Wrath
Of Mice and Men
Rabbit Run
Les Miserables
Five Years Before the Mast
(Richard Henry Dana)
Fathers and Sons
(Turgenev)
Red Badge of Courage
(Steven Crane)
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Breakfast of Champions
The Scarlet Letter
(Nathaniel Hawthorne)
Ragtime
(E.L. Doctorow)
The Art of Fielding
(Chad Harbach)
Doctor Zhivago
(BorisPasternak)
God With Us
(Joseph Harotunian)
You know, I’m leaving a lot of books out. I’m sitting here in my library, just trying to look around and see what’s here and what was important to me. I haven’t mentioned a single one of Richard Russo’s books and I consider him the best of the contemporary novelists. His book of short stories is also wonderful. John Grisham is a current phenomenon and rock star in the mystery writing world. He’s also done a couple of non-mysteries that I found extraordinary. His book, Painted House, was remarkable and held me spell-bound through the entire reading. Another small novel, Skipping Christmas (made into a movie, “The Kranks”) was well done. He also wrote another non-fiction work called The Innocent Man that was captivating and incredibly well researched. Grisham, without question, is a wonder – not of literature but of story-telling. I’ve read all his major mysteries – more than a dozen works.
I shouldn’t leave out a lot of books that captured me; and some called me back to them over and over again… like…
1968: The Year that Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky
Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Poems of Dylan Thomas
e.e. cummings Collected Poems
Hard Times by Studs Terkel
Godfather by Mario Puzo
Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
North and South by John Jakes
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (talk about a book you can’t put down)
All Politics is Local by Tip O’Neill
The Super of the Lamb by Father Robert Farrar Capon
Burr by Gore Vidal
I can’t tell you all the books I’ve read, Alexa, because I just can’t remember them all. The first full book I remember was one about Abe Lincoln and the Log Cabin he built. When I was a teenager, my mother was very ill and she loved it when I sat by her bed and read novels to her – her books that had come in from the book of the month club. I particularly remember one of them called By Love Possessed.
I think I’ve read all the mysteries of the British women, Anne Perry and M.C. Beaton. I’ve read all of Vonnegut and all of John Updike (though it got tedious at times). I’ve also read all of Garrison Keillor’s novels and some of his non-fiction work as well. I’ve read all of Pat Conroy’s work, all of Daniel Silva and all of Saul Bellow. I didn’t care for Clancy after The Hunt for Red October, which was a spectacular novel. I never developed a liking for Vince Flynn (though most of my friends think I’m crazy). I loved Mark Twain. I couldn’t get through any James Joyce. I read all of Hemingway (including his short stories) and all of F. Scott F’s novels. I’ve read a few novels by Evelyn Waugh and all of Eudora Welty’s short stories. I didn’t like Oscar Wilde and gave up on him before finishing any one of his books. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron is sensational. I have a very rare piece of fiction that Styron wrote when he was a student at Princeton. He turned it in as a paper and got an A+. He later published it in a very small number as Christmas gifts to family and friends. I’ve got one and it is signed by the author. I’m very proud of it.
Right now I’m going through an Alice Munro craving and I’m reading all her short stories, though I’ve a long way yet to go. She’s wonderful. There are a lot of good women writing fiction these days. (They are writing wonderful stuff.)
I just finished a mystery by a girl I dated once as a teenager (K.T. Roberts). It’s called The Last Witness. I reviewed it on Amazon and gave it 4-stars (though maybe a half-star came because she let me kiss her sweetly at the end of that date). She has a new work coming out any day called Deadly Obsession. I’ll read it. A couple of New York City detectives are the central figures in this novel and they also were in the one I just read – and they are in love (of course)!
Oh, Lord, here on my right is a copy of The Outpost by Jake Tapper. It’s a must and important read. And what about Steve Coll’s work on the bin Laden family? Or Carol Bly’s stories in My Lord Bag of Rice?
What can I say, Alexa? I can’t go on and on!
The current LBJ biographies by Robert Caro are extraordinary!
I liked Bill Clinton’s autobiography, My Life.
All of David McCullough’s biographies are wonderful (as is Americans in Paris).
Orhan Pamuk’s novel, My Name is Red, is both mysterious and marvelous.
Cheryl Stayed’s novel, Torch, is exceptional!
And then there’s Alan Furst. Daniel Silva wrote brilliantly about him somewhere and that introduced me to him. I think he and le Carré are the best of the spy novelists, though I have not read Eric Ambler or Graham Greene. Furst has six marvelous novels that I know of and they were each wonderful – Kingdom of Shadows, Dark Star, The Polish Officer, Dark Voyage, The World at Night and Red Gold.
You see what I mean? It never ends and I haven’t even begun to look at the classics section of my library, or my golf section (P. G. Wodehouse wrote amazing short stories about golf) and I’ve read Golf in the Kingdom (Michael Murphy) a half dozen times.
STOP! And that is a command! STOP ALREADY


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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dealing with Russia Harshly


Growth in the Russian economy in the first quarter of the year has taken a major hit and experts blame it on international pressure over Croatia and the Ukraine.
by Charlie Leck
There are ways besides war or military confrontation.
Senator McCain, take note!
The Russian Economic Minister, Alexei Ulyukayev, addressed the Russian parliament with the news that growth in the economy of the nation fell below one percent, which is less than a third of his earlier predictions of growth. He made it clear what caused the shortage – “the acute international situation of the past two months.”
Ulyukayev told the ministers that the situation had caused a “serious capital flight.” The ruble has lost 9 percent of its value against the dollar in the first three months of 2014.
There is growing fear in Russia that America and the European Union might escalate sanctions against President Vladimir Putin and the Russian nation and that might instigate an even more serious economic downturn.
Let’s hope all the major columnists in America and Europe keep calling for the screws to be tightened against the Russian bear until it removes the military units it has put on the Ukrainian border.

UPDATE 17 April 2014
Talks are due to open in Geneva today (Thursday, 17 April 2014) between European and American interests about further actions against Russia. Secretary of State, John Kerry, will be involved in the talks, as will Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and the top foreign ministers from the European Union. One EU official predicted what would happen if Russia doesn't begin to relent in Ukraine: "The costs are going to go up for Russia!"



Update: 18 April 2014 (Geneva)
It appears that conversations and negotiations yesterday, yielded some results. Russia claims it will cooperate in getting pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine to return government sites to their “rightful owners.” A signed agreement actually came out of the day’s negotiating work and, as a result, if there is compliance, further planned sanctions against Russia will be postponed. Frankly, those of you who read this will be skeptical, but so are the U.S. and European negotiators. Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that no one left the Geneva sessions “with a sense that the job is done because of words on a paper.” We need now to see if Russia will comply. The last several days have actually produced some incidents of gunfire between Russian military forces and Ukrainian troops.





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Representative Steve Smith’s Lonely, Unnecessary Death


He couldn’t confront the monster called Alcoholism and most of his family and friends exhausted every effort to get him to face it. He died alone and lonely; and I weep for him and the family he couldn’t hold close.
by Charlie Leck
Former MN Representative (our former representative in the State House of Representatives) died recently, losing a fierce and ugly battle with alcoholism. The story in MinnPost is brilliantly written and very sad. If you knew Steve, an old fashioned Republican and proud of it, you should read it. He died, probably a month ago in a small apartment he had in the community of Mound. Once brilliant and bright and handsome, he had shriveled into an old and weak man, beaten down by one of the worst diseases known to man. He was on a bed in his simple apartment, wrapped in blankets. The heat to the unit had been turned off and the scene conjures up terrible feelings of lonely hopelessness. He had been dead for some time when he was found.
I never voted for him, but I admired him for the hard earned victories he won in every election cycle up to his defeat in a party primary in 2012. In that campaign he was beaten by a tough, rough Tea Party opponent and by the habit he couldn’t kick. There wasn’t much fight left in him.
He was certainly a moderate Republican and we (the Democrats in the district) were able to live with him; and we were also able to negotiate with him and, sometimes, arrive at compromise positions. I always thought of him as a good man. He was clearly well spoken and well read.
The story of his death is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. I won’t write more. The story is there for those with the courage to read it.



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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Homeless Jesus


I just ordered a miniature of this bronze sculpture because I was so surprised and pleased by the story I read about it. The full size sculpture is about 9 feet wide and about 3 feet high. It was done by Timothy Schmalz, a Canadian sculptor and a devout Christian.
by Charlie Leck
One of these sculptures was placed on the grounds of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina. It draws lots of attention and quite a few police calls about the homeless person asleep on the park bench near the church. Oh, my!
Some people have been curious enough to approach the work of art. Only the feet, with puncture wounds, gives away the sculptor’s intent and the reason he calls it Homeless Jesus.
David Buck, the priest at the church, explained that the work was placed there as a memorial for Kate McIntyre, one of his parishioners with a special love for public art. He said, “It gives authenticity to our church… and we need to be reminded ourselves that our faith expresses itself in active concern for the marginalized in society.”
Most people seem to appreciate the statue, but some are unnerved by it.
It captures exactly my feelings about Jesus and I’ve written here a number of times about this attitude – as I did in a blog I called Meeting a Really Big Celebrity. Here’s a portion of that 10 November  2007 blog…
“I was in Toronto, staying at the lovely, old York Hotel (now part of the Fairmont chain of international hotels). The blimeys wanted $14 per day for a hookup to the Internet. Well, blast them. That’s un-American! My trusty laptop and I took ourselves just around the corner to one of the Tim Horton express coffee shops. They provide free wireless connections. I found myself a nice comfortable spot, right up in the front of the shop, where I could look out at York Street and I turned on my computer and got connected to the miraculous wireless service. What a world!
“Just then, I saw him. There he was, directly across from me – not twenty feet away. He sat on a little plastic box that he had wedged in between a couple of newspaper vending machines, giving himself some protection from the wind. He was pretty haggard looking and his clothes were extremely untidy. The soles of his heavy shoes were worn very thin. He had several days of stubble on his face.
“It was Jesus all right. Those were his eyes. They were dark and set deep in his face. They sparkled with a remarkable radiance and they were filled with love and compassion. It was Jesus. There was no question about that.
“Jesus sat there with his feet crossed. On his lap he held a large, old paper coffee cup. As each person walked by on the street he greeted them kindly, with a proper hello or a wish for a good day. Occasionally some person, who had also clearly recognized who this remarkable man was, would slip a coin into his paper cup. Jesus would thank them kindly.
“It seemed to me that Jesus was settled in for the long haul. I went about reading my email and sending back replies. I then took a quick peek at the New York Times and ran my eyes along the headlines. Suddenly I saw that Jesus was moving away. I panicked. I hadn’t had a chance to greet him, to touch him, nor to ask him for his autograph. I pushed back from my workspace so quickly and loudly that I startled some of the folks taking coffee behind me. I rushed to the door and out to the street. Jesus was down the block, looking into the small hole in the center of a manhole cover. Steam was rising from it.
“‘Hey, you,’ I called to him. I ‘got closer to him and had to repeat myself loudly. He was in the street and in danger of being struck by the Friday morning traffic. He looked away from the manhole cover and locked on to my eyes. He looked so filled with joy and peace. He made me feel so quieted and untroubled. I had a two dollar Canadian coin in my hand and I held it out, luring him out of the street. When he stepped on to the curb, I reached out and slipped it into his cup.
“‘Thank you,” he said so very softly. “I thought there was a fire. The smoke was rising from beneath the street and I smelled something burning. I was sure it was a fire and it frightened me. I thought perhaps the earth was on fire.’
“Jesus tilted his head to one side and looked at me, wondering why I was so generous and had chased him down the street. Didn’t I realize that he could not have been harmed? I wanted to ask for his autograph, but the bit about the earth being on fire unnerved me.
“‘I’m going back to my station,’ he said. ‘Excuse me.’
“Back inside the warm, cozy sandwich shop, I slid back in front of my computer and looked outside at the fellow. He was again between the newspaper boxes. His collar was turned up and he was observing the Friday rush, streaming by him with little or no concern about who he was or his particular needs.
“A Sunday School teacher had once warned me, long, long ago, that this day would come. I had encountered Jesus in the flesh.
“‘You will meet him,’ Mrs. Beiser had said, ‘and he will be in the least and most unexpected of people. He will be cold and hungry and in need. Give generously to him.’”
I’ve never thought of owning any kind of art work around the house that depicted Jesus, but I was intrigued with owning a miniature of this one by Schmalz, so I could put it here in my library. So, I tracked down his web site and looked into it. He offered a version that was only 10 inches wide (the original is 7 feet wide). It seemed perfect for me, so I had him ship me one. I really look forward to its arrival.
If Evelyn Beiser was still alive, I would have had one shipped to her as well.
You can listen to a National Public Radio (14 April 2014) account about the statue on Weekend Edition Sunday. It’s pretty interesting.
http://www.sculpturebytps.com/miniature-sculptures/christian-collection/small-religious-statues-homeless-jesus-2/
The Pope himself owns a miniature of the statue (Schmalz flew to Rome to give him one) and the Holy Father is seeking to have a full sized one installed on the Via della Conciliazione. It only awaits City Council approval.
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Monday, April 14, 2014

The One Percent and SCOTUS

I’m depressed and mad as hell over the recent decision by the Supreme Court. I didn’t think they could deliver a bigger blow than the Citizen United decision, but they sure did. POW – right in the kisser!
by Charlie Leck
As Evan Mackinder, of the Sunlight Foundation, said [recently]…
“Don’t look now, but the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) just delivered another major blow to our campaign finance system. The court’s ruling this morning in McCutcheon v. FEC strikes down strict limits on the amount of campaign cash wealthy donors can contribute to federal campaigns each election. Their ruling effectively ties a big bow around Congress and delivers it to the one percent.”
 This is really desperately unfair. Think about it. It allows the minority greater strength in elections than the majority. Everything in America right now seems to be moving toward the construction of plutocracy.  Somehow we need to get this message to the ordinary American citizen and mobilize him to make things equal again. It will require an enormous effort.
I'm in!

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Obama’s Rating as President


Will his current battle with Vladimir Putin be the measuring stick of Obama’s presidency?
by Charlie Leck
Barack Obama has been a reasonably good president. He was a better president while Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State. In the arena of foreign affairs, Obama made very good decisions in Libya and Syria. That was, you will remember, while he had Mrs. Clinton blocking for him on every play. The situation with Russia in the Ukraine has been much more difficult for him and he gives the appearance of wandering and waffling – though, perhaps, that is only appearance.
Vladimir Putin, of Russia, appears to be out to prove something – and that is that the United States, under its current leadership, is chicken-shit. Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are, of course, not at all frightened off by Putin, but they are aware of instability in his background. If not for his deceptions, Putin would not even be the current President of Russia. Obama and Kerry are aware that they are dealing with an imbalanced international power. Behind every Putin decision there lurks danger.
I don’t think George W. Bush would have dealt with Putin much differently than President Obama is. With Ronald Reagan things may have gone differently and we may have been put out on a narrow ledge with no room to turn around.
Putin is acting as if he knows he has the United States in a particularly bad place. This is a nation that spent so much on a series of wars in the Middle East – nearly to the point of bankruptcy and economic depression – that it wants a rest from “all that stuff.”
Obama is counting on international diplomacy. The problem is that Vladimir Putin is not very diplomatic and is not charmed by discretion.
It very much appears that Putin wants to move against the Ukraine and make it, again, a part of the Russian sphere – but this time removing its national independence and rolling it into the bigger piece of pie that is Russia.
Russian military action is imminent.
Obama remains patient. His detractors are furious. Yet, Obama must continue to remember that we elected him in the belief that he would be a leader who would look toward peace and peaceful measures in dangerous situations just as long as peaceful reactions and measures remained at all possible.
This may be Obama’s Waterloo and this may forever be the measure of his presidency; yet, he must remain true to who he is and to the people who elected him because of who he is. Military action must be – must be – the very last reaction to the idiocy of Vladimir Putin.
Putin deserves a spanking – this is true – but it does not have to be one dispensed by the American military. We need to join with international allies who will, together, punish Putin economically and make his nation suffer so much that they will say goodbye forever to their current President. It begins with cutting off the importation of any Russian products into the United States and Canada (and, hopefully, Mexico). The next step might be to ban all travel to Russia during this period of disagreement.
If our allies are not willing to join us in acting against Russia, there is no way we should take up the battle alone.



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