Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Magna Cum Laude

The kid graduates with great praise!
by Charlie Leck [30 May 2007]

I’ve just finished a long drive from Syracuse to Chicago. It gave me plenty of time for reflection. Though such a drive gets hairy occasionally, it is a great opportunity to gather one’s thoughts and work through some things. I used the time behind the wheel for just that.

My head was still ringing with the extraordinary praise lavished upon our youngest daughter by one of her professors at Colgate University. It’s the kind of reminiscence in which parents revel.

“She’s one of the best students I’ve ever taught,” he said. “She’s right there with the very best!”

Naturally, I puffed up and out a bit. I think I also stuttered and stammered some.

“I told her, and I was very sincere about it, that I think she would make a good academic – that she should get a PhD and teach in this field. She’d make a wonderful teacher at this level.”

I looked at my daughter as the professor spoke. Her glance was riveted to her feet. My wife was gleaming with pride. I tried to figure out what to say. I sputtered out the usual words of appreciation. The professor looked at me skeptically.

“I really mean it,” he said. “It is unusual to find a student who grasps this subject as she has. She would do well in graduate school.”

Was he thinking I was an impediment to such a goal? There would be no road block from me. This is the third of our children who I think should have gone on to get a PhD. It’s a daunting goal, however, and it is easy to recoil from the obvious amount of difficult work involved. This daughter has decided to commit two years of her life to Teach for America. Do you know about TFA? I didn’t until our daughter announced she was a candidate for the program. When I learned more and found out how few applicants are accepted, I became plenty proud and boasted to everyone I knew. If you don’t know about Teach for America and the fantastic accomplishments of this program, go to its web site and begin to inform yourself.

When this delightful kid was awarded her degree “with great praise” on commencement day, I was awfully proud. “Magna cum laude and with honors in liberal arts!” I guess it wouldn’t have mattered if she had been introduced without those words; yet, they made me feel awfully proud and terribly happy for her.

She’s truly grown up now. This child, who we’ve treated as our baby for all her life because she is our youngest, is now all grown up and striding out into life on her own.

Great going kiddo! You deserve all the wonderful and rich praise. We’re very proud of you. So are your brothers and sisters.

Momma and I looked at each other! There was a huge question in her eyes. What now? Are we truly, irrevocably empty-nesters? We’ve raised our kids – and there you are! What you see is what you get! They are each so beautiful in his or her own way – each so wonderful and so capable of making special contributions to this needy world in which we live. (Four out of six are raving liberals – and that ain’t bad! How about that Jon? Doug? Rick? ) Each of them – all six – is so beautiful and so extraordinarily special. Now there are grandkids who will grow and grow and we shall watch them with great happiness as we get older and older. It is so odd, isn’t it?

On Memorial Day Weekend, we went to visit Grandpa Wakefield’s grave site and then to another cemetery to find Great Grandfather Wakefield and Aunts Dorothy and Genevive. Mother started musing about where she wanted to be buried and wondered if grandkids would come and stand near her as we stood near her father and grandfather this day. It is clear that we have crossed over. I’m peaceful about it and prepared. And, I’m very, very proud. I want to brag about all our kids, but I won’t bore you with that.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Peking to Paris

A little jaunt across China, Mongolia, Russia and Northern Europe
by Anne Wakefield-Leck
[revised on Saturday, 26 May 2007]

On Sunday (the 27th of May) our son-in-law, Warner Bruntjen, begins an automobile drive from the capitol city of China, that will take him to Moscow and finally, after five weeks and 8,000 miles, to a finish-line in Paris. He will be driving a 1919 Essex. The drive will begin at 8:30 A.M., which will be 7:30 P.M. (our time) on Saturday, May 26.

A very interesting web page, Peking to Paris – Driving the Impossible, explains the event and its history. It will also very carefully track the competitors in this “great race.”

Warner is number 12 on the list of competitors. The idea and dream for the race began a number of years ago with his father, Worth Bruntjen, and Worth's friend, Andrew Fulton. Warner wanted to fulfill that dream even though Worth died so unexpectedly nearly two years ago. Warner will leave a bit of Worth's ashes here and there along the journey. Worth’s other son, Eric, will be at the starting line to see Warner off. [See Charlie’s blog about Erck Bruntjen’s Book, A Hot Blue Sea, archived in the April file on this site.]

This effort in China is a beautiful tribute to a father by his two sons.

This extraordinary event is a celebration of the original drive that took place 100 years ago. As the official web site explains…

“We are celebrating the remarkable achievements exactly of 100 years ago with a timed re-enactment motor-rally. It became an epic challenge between a Prince and
a Pauper – Prince Borghese had the best funded entry and carefully researched the conditions of setting out on a journey where the first 5,000 miles saw no roads, at all, so, no maps and no garages. His chief rival was a fair-ground worker who until he read news of the race in a Paris newspaper, Le Matin, picked up blowing in the wind, he had never even sat in a motor-car, so had no idea how to drive one.

“Five cars set out from Peking, four made it to Paris to a tumultuous welcome and world-wide fame – they had set out to prove that man and machine could now go anywhere, they hoped it would make borders between countries redundant. They had left Peking with no passports – these had been confiscated by Chinese authorities who suspected they were spies, and had no interest in seeing the success of the motor-car having just invested in shares in the trans-Siberian railway.”

We will be extremely regular visitors to the web site to see how the drive is going for Warner. Warner has begun his blog about the event. The first entry was made on Saturday, the 26th. If you want to follow along at the blog and in the travel journel (photos and all) go to...

We are appending the comments that Charlie made about Worth Bruntjen at his memorial service 1 September 2005.

Remembering Worth Bruntjen
by Charlie Leck, [1 September 2005]

Somewhere, someplace Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “Music is evidence enough as to the existence of God.”

Worth Bruntjen liked that.

It’s the kind of stuff I shared with him, and about which I chatted with him, late into the nights when we were close friends back in the early 80s.

It was his “German wine period” as I like to think about it. He was promoting and serving fine, white, fermented German grape in those days. We lived close to each other – back there in the Hunter Drive days. In the evenings, before a fire, when the ladies were outside skating with the children or trying to ski behind the silly hind-end of some horse named Bigger or Bronzie, Worth and I would pretend we had an intellectual side – a pretense much enhanced by the wine – and we chatted up Kirkegaard and Barth and Tillich.

I’d conned a Theological School out of a graduate degree back a decade before that and Worth had spent a year at Lutheran college in Texas, trying to find out if believing in God could be a strong enough weapon to combat communism – remembering his German heritage and hating the heavy handedness of the Soviets.

They were extraordinary evenings back then and, following them, I would sometimes lie in bed at night wondering in awe at the versatility and expansiveness of Worth’s mind. He was one of the wiz-kids then and riding high in Twin Cities financial circles. It was like discovering gold to find that he could also make sense of the Old Testament, and Bultman, and the Petrine Epistles, and the Book of Revelation.

He struggled with the concept of God and he loved the struggle. He liked what Paul Tillich was writing in those days about God only being known through a relationship with Him. Relationship, to Worth, was a very personal, human thing. You didn’t have relationships with boulders and clouds – you related to other beings. It was in those encounters that you experienced God – that is, if there was a God to experience!

And how Worth loved relating! No? He was a people person. He thrived on close encounters of the human kind. He saw each person as a mystery to be probed and understood. He could listen as well as any person I’ve ever known. As he listened, you could just see ideas and responses growing inside him, trying to crawl out of him, virtually bubbling over and pushing up the lid of containment. However, he would contain himself and wait patiently to explode with his replies – his disagreements – his agreements – his refinements.

He liked, too, what Kierkegaard wrote about the ethical life – about how impossible it was to do the purely ethical, good thing – how each choice we made had at the very end of it some unethical repercussion that finally hurt someone somewhere. Simple answers by simply religious people about what was right and wrong were frightening to him.

God could not be understood anthropomorphically. At least Worth didn’t think so. It was dangerous to make God into our own image – that, he thought, was turning around the intention of understanding that we were created in God’s image. … Not a subtle difference to Worth!

Concepts of God were too small for Worth – too finite, too simple, too silly.

God is so grand – so massive – so expansive – so mighty – so complex – so terrible and so beautiful – that we as humans cannot get our arms or our minds around it. We simply accept God’s existence because the works of Brahms and Beethoven are so incredible.

He’d say it and raise the glass of golden Liebfraumilch. His mouth would be broad with its smile, showing lots of teeth – and his eyes would be dancing in that delightful way we all saw so many times – teasing and charming us and daring us to think more deeply, more precisely.

Ah, they were golden moments. They were so beautiful – as beautiful as Mozart – and in them, somehow, I knew that the mysterious and incomprehensible God was present.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Thunderbolt Kid

What a lovely, delightful story…as read by the author
by Charlie Leck

It says on the box: “From one of the most beloved and bestselling authors in the English language,…”

Really? Bill Bryson? Never heard of him! My son in law was a bit surprised because he knows I read a great deal. He, however, is a librarian by training and trade and he’s more in contact with the broad range of authors.

So, I’m sorry. I should have known about him and I certainly should have read him sooner than this – if I may be permitted to call it reading. Jim, the son-in-law in question here, loaned me the unabridged audio book version of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, to take a long on the drive from Chicago to Buffalo, New York.

What a delightful drive! It was over before I knew it and, when I pulled into the parking lot of the Fairfield Inn, just outside of Buffalo, I still felt fresh and vigorous. Other than two stops for gasoline, I had driven straight through. The last of the six CDs was in the player just as I arrived at the spot where I would sojourn for an evening. Before going into the lobby to collect my room key and some instructions to my room, I sat in the car and listened to the author read the last chapter. His strong, very eloquent voice was crackling with nostalgia. He was summing up and relating, as best he knew, where each of the real-life characters in his book had gone. I was thoroughly interested in knowing. I had enjoyed meeting them and wished I could hear more about their lives. Bryson had lost track with many of them, but it was astonishing that one of them, quite by accident and coincidence, ended being his literary agent. I like Bryson parents, too, as he described them. His late father was an outstanding, award-winning sports writer for the Des Moines Register – a truly first rate newspaper (at least it was back in the 1950s). I’m going to dig up some of the things he wrote, so that I can get to know him better. Bryson’s mom gets some serious ‘jerking around’ in this book, but I still found her an “award winning” kind of person and I’d like to know her too.

Who would have thought that a tale about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, could have been so interesting? So “vivid, nostalgic, and utterly hilarious…” – this “memoir of growing up in the 1950s…” as it says on the box.

Well, Bryson is no longer unknown to me. I’ll start searching for some of his other books. I think I’ll with his third book, I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” and work my way along chronologically with his others. His first two books were travel related and I think I’ll let those go until later. I guess I don’t have to tell you that I like his work. I think he’s terrific and I’ll hear his voice in my mind as I read those other books of his. That will be nice because it is a very pleasant and happy voice. This is one very humorous man – in a dry, sly sense and not in a back-slapping, knee-banging sort of way. It’s the kind of humor I enjoy most. There’s kind of a dare in it. Go ahead! See if you can get the joke. The teller doesn’t give it away with laughter – maybe just with a lifted eye-brow, which is pretty difficult to see on an audio CD or in a book. And, Bryson’s essayist form of writing is my favorite also. He appears to be a master of essay and one can tell that each sentence was considered and crafted carefully so another could be built up it. Indeed! I do like his work. I like the way he writes. I like his style of humor. I like him as a person.

Bryson’s life is a bit of a silly joke, really. He couldn’t handle high school very well. He tried collegiate life at Drake University and couldn’t really hack it. Yet, in 2006, Bryson was named “an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” in recognition of his significant literary contributions. Really! No joke!

I recommend Bill Bryson to you. If you haven’t read him before, I urge you to start by listening to him read this memoir. I think you’ll also enjoy his voice and the passion in it as he remembers his young, wonderful friends and their days together in Iowa.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Lamb Again

It just so happens I had rack of lamb again
by Charlie Leck [15 May 2007]

Dined with my daughter, Cynthia, at the Hamilton Inn tonight. The inn is in Hamilton, New York, the home of Colgate University, but out in the country a bit. The specialities du jour included mussels maraneire for a starter and a rack of lamb for an entrée. I was unable to resist.

This little blog is an appendage to what I posted here yesterday, in which I wrote about my love for dining on lamb, rated some spots for good lamb in the area where we live, and concluded with a review of the wonderful rack of lamb from the Bernards Inn in New Jersey.

Now I’m told the Hamilton Inn is one of the fine restaurants in the area. They get only a B or B+ from me. The sommelier spilled the wine on opening it and didn’t try to wipe it up from the base of my glass at all; nor did he offer any sort of grunt or apology. Our waitress was genuine and tried, but she was really quite unprofessional. The lamb was good, but not great. Someone failed seasoning 101 when they went to chef school. All of the incredible delectableness of the rack in New Jersey was missing in this rack in New York. The inn provides a lovely setting, however, and it was very comfortable and everything was unhurried and quiet – a perfect place for a productive conversation with one’s grown-up daughter. The setting gets an A for sure.

Just keep scrolling down to read the earlier blog about dining on lamb and, at the end of that blog, you’ll find my restaurant review of my smashing and accidental success in New Jersey.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Dining on Lamb

The Greeks get this right; but the English and Scots aren’t bad!
by Charlie Leck

I am surprised at the number of people I meet who don’t dine on lamb at all – ever! Most of them haven’t even tried. They just assume the flavor is going to be far too unconventional and they just pass. In my childhood home, lamb was a regular item on the dinner rota. Leg of lamb was the favorite of everyone in the house; though my mother was equally adept at preparing chops and shanks. I have six or seven really fantastic food memories from my childhood years and half of them involve lamb of some sort. My oldest brother fought like a dog for dibs on the leg bone after our dinner meat was carved from it. He delighted in carving away from it any of the meat that father might have missed and then, holding it in his big hands, gnawing ever little scrap from it. That leg of lamb was always served with thick, luscious gravy and mashed potatoes. Mint jelly was always served on the side. Some kind of green vegetable, which never interested me, was also always included.

I thought no one in the world would ever be able to prepare a leg of lamb to match that of my mother. My wife, however, passed my mother as if the old girl was standing still. Dear Anne had learned a recipe from some true Greeks and I and most of our children count it as our favorite dinner of all. To this day I call the recipe Leg of Lamb Niforopulos (Greek Style). It’s not a complex recipe and it seems like anyone could prepare it, but Anne has a special knack of making the end result just perfect. The recipe is available in printable format on my wife’s web site:

I’m always pleased when I find a restaurant that can prepare lamb to perfection, or near to that anyway. In my home town area, I’ve never had finer lamb than at Vincent’s in downtown Minneapolis (the corner of 11th and Nicollet Avenue). Be prepared to pay for the pleasure of dining at this extraordinary restaurant and call ahead to check on the menu for the evening or check it out on-line.
I have even pre-ordered to make sure what I want will still be available when I get there. I am sometimes disappointed that Vincent serves New Zealand lamb, rather than a locally produced product, but I can never fault the results.

The very best gourmet lamb dinner on which I ever dined was at a little inn right in downtown Bernardsville, New Jersey. At the end of this essay I will reproduce a review of this experience that I wrote in another place back in March of this year.

Returning to the local scene, I have had smashing lamb at Nancy’s Landing in Waconia. It’s a little restaurant supervised by Chef Paul, who formerly operated Chez Paul, a very popular and successful restaurant in Minneapolis. Again, the menu at this restaurant changes frequently and one needs to check on it before deciding to dine there on any given evening (952-442-4954). Sunday brunch at Nancy’s Landing is spectacular – our very favorite – and the menu revolves around nationality groupings. The English brunch is one of our favorites and it almost always includes lamb. Renee and Steve have a great review of this restaurant on their web site:

There’s a Greek restaurant in the suburban community of Golden Valley, called Santorini’s that is quite good. I’ve had a number of lamb dishes there and I’ve always been satisfied; however, I wish they would use a bit less salt. Service is excellent and cheerful and the setting is informal and Mediterranean. You can always count on a number of lamb items. The place is busy on weekends and it’s a good idea to have a reservation (952-546-6722). You can find a number of on-line reviews of this Greek establishment.

One of our kids, who lives in Minneapolis, is really up on the local eateries. She claims that the very best gyro sandwich in town is at King Falafel on the corner of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue. hearing this from her, I had to go try it out to see if she was correct. Almost! King Falafel, a walk-in, buffet, fast food sort of place, definitely contains the biggest helping of lamb anywhere in town and it is probably the tastiest. I was more than disappointed with the pita bread, however, because it was very thick, soft and gummy. I like my pita bread on the thin and crisp side, the way that Christos serves it. This restaurant maintains a web site, but it is rather inadequate and incomplete: Now, it we could take King Falafel’s ingredients and put it inside some of Christos’ pita bread we would have a truly award winning gyro.

Among Asian restaurants, the best lamb I ever had was at the Tea Garden in Golden Valley (763-544-3422), quite near Santorini’s. The Mongolian lamb they serve there is really top shelf and I order it nearly every time we dine there. This very, very good Chinese restaurant is right across the parking lot from the Willow Creek Theaters and that makes it convenient to do a movie and dinner – or the other way round.

Then, I’ll personally take credit for the best rib chops around. I love to grill these little babies and I get them off a very hot fire quite quickly, while they are still nice and rare, because they will continue to cook for some minutes after you remove them. I marinate them only lightly before the grilling with a little olive oil, pepper, salt and garlic. What a wonderful summer treat when these chops are served with a cold pasta salad and, perhaps, a side of fruit and a wedge of pita bread.

If you want to find some really great lamb recipes, I suggest again that you go to Anne’s web site and look at the links she has to the best lamb recipes to be found on the Internet. Some of them, like the American Lamb Council, Epicurious and the Home Cookin’ section of About.Com are really wonderful.

I’m open to hearing about other wonderful lamb dishes in restaurants in Minneapolis or Saint Paul. Let me hear your suggestions.

My review of the restaurant in New Jersey follows…What a Rack!I enjoyed the sumptuousness of it!by Charlie Leck (1 March 2007)
Yesterday, I tried the rack of lamb at The Bernards Inn. I don’t consider myself a capable dining critic; however, I do know a thing or two about good lamb preparation. I believe that I can judge the quality of a lamb entrée about as well as any man on earth. Well, perhaps that’s a bit large as boasts go, but here at Sheepy Hollow at Native Oaks Farm we do know more about lamb than the average bear! Whatever! I’m going to give five stars («««««) to the rack of lamb Chef Corey Heyer prepared for me yesterday at this lovely inn on the main drag in Bernardsville, New Jersey. It is difficult to beat perfect; and this luncheon was simply nothing less than that.

It cannot be disputed that the setting (ambiance) in which a meal is served has a great deal to do with the attitude of any diner. That certainly got me off on the correct foot yesterday. After three draining and tiring days, I had slept in late at a Marriott establishment 10 miles or so from Bernardsville.

I had now acquired an unexpected day to myself in a part of the country in which I had grown up as a boy, so I decided to attempt the trip home again. I drove through the old hometown and found myself unpleased by the turns it had taken. I tried to drive by my old high school in which I’d had a few hours of pleasantness as an adolescent. No luck! The roads, highways and streets were all so changed and different up there in Succasunna (take note that this community uses exactly two of each of the letters in its name to spell it out and that’s the trick that always helps me get it right) that I simply couldn’t find the building. I drove through a couple of other towns in which I spent time as a youth, looking for landmarks that might joggle memories. It didn’t go well. It’s been nearly 50 years. You really can’t go home again – especially after that many years! So, I headed back to the hotel in Baskingridge, passing through Bernardsville on the way. It was in this town, named after the gentle Saint Bernard, that I realized I was very hungry. I hadn’t bothered with any breakfast and it was well into the lunch hour. Parking was difficult in this crowded little town and I spotted the inn’s parking lot first. A sign announced that parking was only for patrons of the inn, so I committed myself to dining there because it was the only available parking.

The moment I entered the delightfully decorated establishment, I knew I had stumbled upon a decent choice. There was plenty of space in the dining room and I asked for a small table that I saw over in a well-lit corner. I knew I’d be able to read a bit of a delightful book I had brought along on my day’s journey (What a Party by Terry McAuliffe).

A wonderful wait staff attended to me. I asked for some sparkling water and hot tea. Both were served elegantly and promptly. Some bread followed. We just don’t understand bread in the Midwest. They’re far ahead of us in the East. It was one of my first and strongest reminders of home. “Oh yes,” I thought, “this is the way bread is supposed to be.” A black bean soup, mentioned by my waiter, sounded terrific, so I ordered a cup. It came in a large bowl. Its texture was incredible and its flavor heated up my mouth gently. When I ordered the rack, and asked that it be cooked medium-rare, my waiter was obviously pleased. “Exactly as the chef recommends it, sir. Very good!”

I had plenty of time to enjoy my tea and another piece of that wonderful bread. My dinner was in loving preparation in a far away kitchen and it would take some time. McAuliffe’s book fascinated me and gave me plenty of laughs. How did he know that Vice President Richard Cheney must have been “in the bag” when he shot his hunting companion, Harry Whittington, in the face while on a hunting trip?

“Very simple. You hear all the time about people who shoot their business partners. You even hear about some people shooting their own wives. But let me be crystal clear. Folks, you never, ever, hear about a politician shooting one of their donors!”

The rack of lamb presented to me – no other way to say it, because it was presented with a flourish and you could sense the waiter’s pride – was absolutely beautiful. It was split for me and attractively arranged on a small bed of lightly cooked spinach. A very brown sauce and tiny bits of carrot delicately decorated the plate. A small, bright white serving of mashed potatoes lingered to the side. I had previously noted that no salt or peppershakers were provided on the table and I knew exactly why. A good chef wants you to try his presentations the way he prepares them for you. If he’s done it properly you’ll not likely ask for anything else in the way of seasoning. That evening I would not have dreamed of changing one little iota of the flavor of that meat, vegetable or sauce. They were splendid. The lamb was incredibly lean; yet it was as tender and as juicy as meat can be. A very light and delicate flavor streamed from it. I tried to guess what small, but carefully chosen amounts of seasonings the chef might have used. A touch of garlic for sure and a very light amount of salt. What else? I couldn’t guess! I enjoyed the entire meal in small, small bites, trying to stretch it out, allowing the flavors to linger longer on my palate. That’s unusual for me. I do it only over meals that are spectacular. I wished that I had ordered an extravagant wine to go with this quite unexpected banquet. It was too late now. And why interfere at all with the flavors that were beguiling me?

Oh, had I had my camera along... what a wonderful photograph that plate would have made. I shall remember the vision of it and the tantalizing mixture of flavors for a long, long time. They mesmerized me then and I will be obsessed by them for a long time into the future.

I have had many wonderful meals in my life. I’ve had a much shorter list of dining experiences that I would call truly great. Yesterday, at The Bernards Inn, I added another to that diminutive list.

The Bernards Inn ( or 908-766-0002)is on Route 202 in Bernardsville, New Jersey.

Mother’s wonderful dinners included…Yankee Pot RoastBaked Ham with deep, dark black gravyVery thick Split Pea Soup or Lentil SouthLeg of LambLamb Shanks or Loin Lamb ChopsSpaghetti sauce (cooked all day) and deep, dark red!Hassenpfeffer (German style rabbit)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Middle of the Road

Its occupants have shifted somewhat!
by Charlie Leck [12 May 2007]

An old friend is dismayed that he can’t get me to accompany him in the middle of the road. I want to tell him that it’s a dangerous place because of the intense traffic; however, I have to admit I am now more in the middle of the road than he is. He doesn’t understand that. Times have shifted our relative positions.

Those who were formerly a bit left, or further left, have now been shifted toward the center just solely based on national opinion polls. Those to the right, who used to occupy the center, have now been shifted further to the right, over on to the shoulder of the road actually.

The current, hard-core middle-of-the-roader is the guy who opposes the war and thinks the Bush administration is a bit daft. Way over 50% of Americans no longer trust their President and they believe he will bend the truth to serve his policies. This 50+ percent of the people are now the ones clogging up the middle of the road. The people out there in the center also want to know why so many favors have been bestowed on the incredibly wealthy during the last six years. They want to know why health care costs have risen so dramatically in the last half-dozen years and why the profits of drug companies and health provider companies have risen so astronomically. They want to know why our national budget deficits are so out of control. And why are quality of life indicators sinking. Why is education so costly and why are education results so bad? Why is the middle class so neglected? Why does poverty persist? Why are so many people losing their homes to the mortgage lending scoundrels? And most of all, we in the middle of the road want to know why someone isn’t doing something about this awful, miserable and stupid war.

That is a report from the middle of the road, my friends. .

Monday, May 7, 2007

If Only There Were But Three Stooges

Or, observe the circular firing squad!
by Charlie Leck

Writing with as much wisdom, logic and perception as any writer in America right now, Frank Rich is a pleasure to read. In addition to his solid intelligence, he is a darned good word-smith. He’s a New York Times columnist and those of you who have him available in your local newspapers, and don’t boycott his employer because you think that newspaper is far too liberal, ought to read him regularly. I find him infuriating sometimes because he holds opinions contrary to mine. If you think he leans left, I think you are wrong. The man is a true moderate.

If I were someone trying to understand what is really happening in Washington politics and in this administration and its foreign policy, Rich is the writer I would read. When he says something, he almost always backs it up with clear evidence and/or supporting documentation.

This Sunday morning I followed my usual procedure of sitting for an hour or so with the Internet version of the New York Times. It’s a pleasure I have to pay for since most of the on-line Times is restricted to their paying subscribers. It’s a treat I consider well worth it and I rise very early in the morning so I will have plenty of quiet time to work my way through this massive publication.

Rich wanted to call his column “The Three Stooges;” however he couldn’t limit the number of idiots within the administration to just three.

Bremer, Paul
Bush, George W. (President)
Cheney, Richard (Vice President)
Feith, Douglas
Franks, Tommy (General)
Rice, Condoleezza
Rumsfeld, Donald
Tennant, George
Wolfowitz, Paul

Rich calls it a “circular firing squad of the war’s enablers.” I can’t tell if he includes Condi Rice, our esteemed Secretary of State, in this circle of goof-balls. His standard seems to be that these guys all finally figured out that the war in Iraq was a great, catastrophic mistake, but they are too spineless to admit it. He points out that the only member of the inner circle to show such courage was Matthew Dowd, a Dick Cheny aide, “who in March expressed remorse for furthering a war he now deems a mistake.” For his admission, Dowd was characterized by the administration as a mental case who couldn’t stand the pressure of war.

Somehow Colin Powell escapes inclusion in the circle of fools. There’s no doubt that Powell was so admired, as both a General and as Secretary of State, that we all want to believe he was simply used by the idiots to make a case for this war. Rich, however, saves a poignant, deserving comment about Powell

“Nonetheless, Mr. Powell should summon the guts to do so [take some responsibility for the mistakes that led to this war]. Until there is accountability for the major architects and perpetrators of the Iraq war, the quagmire will deepen. A tragedy of this scale demands a full accounting, not to mention a catharsis.”

Rich mines deeply in this column. He includes references and citations to everything he says.

The columnist saves his heavy guns for Condoleezza Rice. She tries to escape the truth of her involvement in promoting this war as just and necessary. She can’t. There are too many statements of record out there. In January this year, Rice was promising us that "over the next two to three months" Iraq will move forward on several significant fronts, including approving an oil revenue-sharing law; reversing the de-Baathificaion laws;... and reforming the country's constitution." Uh? What? None of these has been achieved or is close to being achieved 4 months later. As National Security Advisor, Rice helped sell this war and she needs to be held responsible as much as anyone.

And only this past week did President Bush continue the appeal that the war was against "the perpetrators of our 9/11 disaster." There is hardly anyone left in America foolish enough to believe that canard.

“The decision we face in Iraq,” Mr. Bush said Wednesday, “is not whether we ought to take sides in a civil war, it’s whether we stay in the fight against the same international terrorist network that attacked us on 9/11.”

"Such statements about the present in Iraq are no less deceptive — and no less damaging to our national interest — than the lies about uranium and Qaeda- 9/11 connections told in 2002-3. This country needs facts, not fiction, to make its decisions about the endgame of the war, just as it needed (but didn’t get) facts when we went to war in the first place. To settle for less is to make the same tragic error twice."

I find it amazing – utterly astonishing – that members of the administration don’t understand that they have a responsibility to present a full accounting to Congress, and thus to the American people, of the steps that led up to this war. Instead, they continue to stonewall and utter nonsense about “Separation of Powers.”

As Rich wrote:
“If former or incumbent national security advisers like Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski could testify before Congress without defiling the Constitution, so can she.”
In another column in the Sunday New York Times, a guest columnist, George Prochnik, wrote:

“Near the conclusion of “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud wrote, 'One thing only do I know for certain and that is that man’s judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness — that, accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.' Be afraid of the leader who refuses to look in the mirror, Freud argued — or, he might have added, the one who says he won’t 'go on the couch' to reflect upon earlier policy decisions, as President Bush memorably declared in 2004.”
That, my friends, says it all about these incredible stooges.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Cinco de Mayo gets BIG in America

This is NOT your father’s America
by Charlie Leck
I write this on Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican national holiday. What’s the big deal? There will be hundreds of major celebrations all over America – that’s what the big deal is. The festivities will commemorate the victory of the Mexican army over an occupational French force in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. There was dancing in the streets then and, throughout Mexico and the United States, there will be dancing in the streets today. It is not Mexico’s Independence Day as many of us think. That’s the Dieciseis de Septiembre. Get in straight, hombre, because the shades and nuances of holidays in America are changing and that ain’t all bad!

This is not your father’s America. Not by a long shot.

I grew up in a small, rural town on the east coast. Except for a few Jewish folks, and tiny Roman Catholic gathering and one “Negro” family, there were only white, anglo-saxon, protestant faces everywhere. And that seemed pretty comfortable to us. There were two black young men in town, six or seven years older than I, and they were good friends with my brothers. I’m not making this up! Their names were Whimpy and Ollie. I adored and idolized them. Whimpy was a big, tall guy with broad shoulders and he was strong as an ox. He wasn’t all that athletic, however, and he was generally a hanger-on on the baseball team, but a strong, reliable tight-end on the football team. Ollie was a smaller, sleeker guy and he could run like the wind. He was a fine, fine half-back.

I heard my old man use the “N” word a few times. Even back then we knew damned well that the word was negative and bordered on the obscene. One of my brothers kicked my ass when he heard me say it one time. He threatened to kick-ass on a group of older, white, bigger guys one time when they said something of the sort about his buddy, Whimpy. I’ve never forgotten that. It was one of those life-experiences that stick and make a difference in the way you think and act and comport yourself.

That was a pretty sterile, bland world I grew up in. I never heard anything about “drugs” in our little town. There was some petty dislike of a nationality group here or there. My father often spoke of the “wapps” and the “spicks” and the “japs.” Again, those labels had a hard sounding edge to them. I didn’t like the words and contracted with myself never to use them.

This isn’t my father’s world I live in now. I wonder what he’d think. The shades of color are changing and so are the sounds. I live in a pretty small, rural community on the far edge of suburbia. Yesterday I was at our city hall. A lady was trying to get an explanation from her husband about something I had said. She didn’t understand English and I couldn’t speak Spanish. She looked at me with a kind smile and warm, friendly eyes. I nodded a welcome and smiled back at her. A few feet away, a fellow I’d guess to be from Somalia was watching our non-verbal communications. I nodded to him and smiled. He waved in a friendly, cheery way.

From there I made my way into the city to run an errand for my wife. I stopped at the Falafel King to grab some lunch. One of our kids had told me this joint had the best Gyro sandwich in town. (I’ll review it another time.) I sat at a corner table and observed the sights and sounds. There were so many different shades of color and there was a choppy, guttural speech on one side of me and a lilting, musical kind of language on the other. One couple saw me staring. I smiled at them and nodded in as friendly a way as I could. They smiled back.

The world is flat! Thomas Friedberg is correct. A son in law will drive from Bejjing to Paris this summer. We’re off to New York next week for our youngest kid’s graduation from college. Nearly all her siblings will be there and we’ll get to see our grandchildren for a few days. Then, in June, we’ll fly to Montana for one of our kid’s 4oth birthday party. She lives in Minneapolis. The party is in Montana. Go figure! Nearly all our friends have traveled through Africa and Asian now. Many of them have been through all of Central and South America. Go figure!

We can go one of two ways with this “flat world” business. We can resist and fight it, hating it and crying about it and begging someone to close the borders. Or, we can embrace it and celebrate it.

Kick the tires! You might find it pretty neat. It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile, but I think we’ve got the making of a pretty good model here. I’m hopeful for my grandchildren. I’m hoping they will live in a more open, friendlier, more accepting world than the one their grandpa knew.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Listening to the Military

I, uh, think I heard you. What’d you say again?
by Charlie Leck

Two days ago the President of the United States used his veto power for only the second time of his nearly 7 years in office. That may be a record.

He vetoed the bill passed by the Senate and the House that would have set a time-table on bringing our troops home from Iraq. In doing so, the President said that it was important to listen to the recommendation of the commanders in the field rather than imposing the will of politicians on those leaders.

The President is not much of a listener and he has a lousy memory. It was not so long ago that President Bush was advised by his military commanders that his “surge” policy would not work; so, the President got rid of those guys and installed new commanders.

Just who do we listen to, Mr. President?

I wish you’d listen to me, sir. Let’s end this debacle – this war begun with untruths and half-truths – this war that should never have begun – this war that has killed untold thousands of innocent victims and thousands of our own soldiers – this war of utter stupidity – and bring home our troops. That, sir, is the way to support the troops. Get them home! You told us four years ago that you had accomplished your mission, sir. Since then we’ve lost over 3,000 American military personnel.

Appended on 4 May 2007:
A Newshouse News Service column today by David Sarasohn was of the same theme as what I wrote above and also posed the same argument that "the surge" is a plan of a civilian administration and not a military strategy. Sarasohn wrote: "Yet the surge plan was devised in Washington... by civilians, guided not by military necessity but by calculations of how many additional troops could possibly be available... Petraeus was then brought in to try to make it work."

I've had a few responses to this post, claiming I am not supportive of the troops. Actually, that's not true. I support them more than most when I say let's get them out of harm's way. I don't buy the claim that it would be a disaster to pull them out -- a disaster to the troops and to the Iraqui people. I'm old enough to remember the same claim about Vietnam. It didn't prove true and Vietnam quickly settled into a productive peace time. So, will Iraq. They'll have some serious civil squabbles, but the whole situation will settle down and that nation will be better off without our interference.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Spring Time in Minnesota

It’s spring in Minnesota and that’s heavenly!
by Charlie Leck

A few days ago I was walking through the beautiful sculpture gardens in Minneapolis. It’s a spectacular place on a warm, sunny day – an urban paradise. As one walks through the park, one almost feels isolated from the bustling city just outside the tree line and the hedges. I say almost because one can still hear the whining buzz of tires on pavement as cars speed by on Dunwoody Boulevard and Hennepin Avenue and on the elevated freeway that curves around two sides of the park.

What a gorgeous place! I love it here. And, I am amazed that the park is so undisturbed when it’s so wide open to anyone who wants to walk in from the city’s streets. There’s no ugly security fence surrounding the boundaries of the park. Walk on in from almost any direction. Put your face right up to anyone of the sculptures and see the tiniest crevice or imperfection. Step back a few paces and take in the whole of it and shake your head in wonder at the creativity of the artist who gave birth to this piece and that.

Isn’t the humorous bronze sculpture by Barry Flanegan just delightful? A rabbit (hare) bounds over the top of a classically cast bronze bell. The lines are beautiful and the rabbit looks spry and graceful in relation to the static and very wise bell. One wonders about the association and relationship of the two forms, but the scent of spring in the air makes me suspect there is something here that has to do with fertility and creation. I’m sure there are all kinds of meanings I’m missing, but the work drew a smile across my face and elicited a giggle from me. That’s good enough!

My favorite piece is a bronze, marble and limestone sculpture by Judith Shea. She calls it ‘Without Words’ and it makes me wonder what it means and how she ever got the idea. I haven’t the faintest idea, but I love the quiet loneliness of the creation.

How exciting that such magnificent art can be wide open to the flow and to the insanity of the city. There is no graffiti here and no signs of vandalism. Perhaps the setting is just too cool and too special for anyone to deface it in any way. I hope that’s the reason. I remember one of Rodin’s works sitting on a quiet, lonely street corner in Paris. No signs of damage! No acts of disrespect. It was a nearly sacred place and the statue remained beautiful, free and solemn. I spent many sunny afternoons sitting near it, munching on a sandwich and sipping on an Orangina.

The beautiful bridge by Siah Armajani allows visitors to cross the busy and complex fusion of Lyndale and Hennepin Avenues and to go from Loring Park to this spectacular garden. Wheelock Whitney, a neighbor and friend, had the bridge built as a memorial to his late wife, Irene Hixon Whitney. What a wonderful lady she was. I wrote an essay about her back in the 80s and I’ll have to pull it out and post it here someday soon. The bridge is one of my favorite structures in the entire city. It is ultimately modern while it points, at the same time, back to the rich history of the city. It reminds us of the massive suspension bridges that crossed the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. Yet, the Armajani structure is light and delicate and lithe of spirit. The artist is best known for combining art with utilitarian public works. This may be his finest example. The colors create a strong contrast that speak of the busy city on one side and the reclusive, private setting on the other. I think of Irene every single time I look at this bridge.

I close out this little visit to the gardens with a walk through the small conservatory. I know I will find Frank Gehry’s massive work here and I am anxious to see it again. A few obviously homeless fellows are enjoying the quiet of the conservatory, sitting and resting and looking at the palm trees. One of them wears a button that pleads that we “keep libraries open.” Yes, for reasons that go beyond his, that’s a very good idea. They nod and politely offer a greeting. I nod back to them and make the turn into the big area where the fish is springing toward the sky, curving its massive body gracefully. It’s a combination of steel, wood, rubber, glass and Plexiglas. Its green color is magical. It is surrounded by palm trees and calamondin orange trees. I look for some way to take a meaningful photograph. It’s a complex problem and the art work is masterfully complex also. The crystalline magic of the conservatory seems to supply a perfect backdrop for this creation. Light comes from everywhere and reflects off the glass fish. I suppose it to be a giant carp out of the Mississippi, but what do I know about fish? The artist is also responsible for the controversial museum on the University of Minnesota campus – the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum. I circle the big fish, shaking my head in wonder.

My legs are beginning to crave a place to sit down and to rest. My car is less than a hundred yards away and it is time to drive on to a nice little coffee spot. I’ll sip on an expensive latte and run little pictures in my mind of the delightful things I’ve seen in the garden.

What a lovely spot in the spring! My old friend, Millard Ahlstrom, once told me that this is precisely what heaven is like – if that’s what you want heaven to be. I hope so. I loved Millard and I miss him. Perhaps we’ll sit together again someday in a big sculpture garden in the sky. I hope so. I’ll bet Millard is hanging around with Hubert right now, talking about Minnesota and their huge love for this place. I’ll tell you about Millard someday.