Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Rove Held in Contempt

House Judiciary Committee votes to hold Rove in Contempt… I recommend you follow this issue closely; for we may finally get to see how a Democratic Republic really works!
by Charlie Leck

The news is breaking as I write this. It's important news that you should follow closely. Perhaps the American system really does work. We'll watch for the next several days to see how it goes. There's plenty of places to go get an analysis of this historic event. Of course, I'll be glued to the New York Times. The Huffington Post already has an analysis up. AlterNet will be all over it and so will Slate.

I'll just add one other thing. I called into my wife, who was sitting at her desk working, and told her the news. Her response? "Now there's a sociopath for you!" She is, as she most often is, correct.

Bragging Up Minnesota Again

Minnesota Health Department cracks the salmonella case!
by Charlie Leck

The U.S. government fiddled and faddled with the mystery of the nationwide salmonella outbreak for months – lots of false starts and abandoned theories and no satisfactory results. In stepped the Minnesota Department of Health, which is nationally known for its success in solving bio-mysteries, and they nailed the culprit within two weeks. [See reports on the Salmonella Blog and on redOrbit.] Take a look at a story in our local newspaper and you'll find out just how they did it.

Doctor Ruth Lynfield is the state's epidemiologist and she led the team that cracked the case. Her colleagues, Rich Danila and Doctor Kirk Smith get credit along with her. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture also contributed significantly to solving the case.

"Minnesota, hats off to thee!"

Minnesota, hats off to thee,
To thy colors true we shall ever be...
Firm and strong, united are we.
Rah, rah, rah, for Ski-U-Mah,
Rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah,
Rah for the U of M.

"The sound of the University Band striking up the Minnesota Rouser has inspired generations of Minnesotans to leap to their feet and join in rhythmic applause, vocalizing those spirited words, Minnesota, Hats Off to Thee!..." [taken from U of MN Music website]

The New University of Minnesota Football Stadium
will indeed be a 'state of the art' facility
I drove through the University of Minnesota campus on an afternoon last week and found a parking place (miracle of miracles), so I could walk over and take a look at the progress on the construction of the new football stadium. Wow! This is gonna be one incredible place! I can't wait. Though smaller than many, I think it's going to be the finest collegiate football stadium in America. Take a look at this video that takes you on a mind-boggling tour.

The incredible UofMN Marching Band will have a new home in the stadium – full women's and men's lockerroom facilities, rehearsal area and offices.

The facility for the football team is spectacular – as it must be now in the day of such competitive recruiting practices.

Sight-lines for spectators will be better than any collegiate stadium in the country. For the big-buck people there will be extraordinary club rooms, lounges and private suites.

Most importantly, football is coming home to the University's campus again – right where it belongs. The buzz of excitement one year from now is going to be incredible. It will all begin with a game against Air Force – home again, on campus and in the open air!

"Minnesota, hats off to thee!"

If you've gotten this far, how about a salute to Nebraska
(home of Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett)
If you like comedy, especially classic comedy, you've got to read Dick Cavett's blog for this week. Marvelous!

Come back now, y'all hear?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Carl Van Vechten

Photographing Famous People
by Charlie Leck

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at Yale, houses some incredible items. There was a time when it was virtually impossible for us, peons, to spend time browsing the collection. First, it took an expensive trip to New Haven and then it took quite some finagling to get a pass to work within the library itself. Now, it’s possible to visit The Beinecke on-line
. I’ve made the on-line trip a number of times and I always come away feeling like I spent my time in a valuable way. So, I thought, why the heck shouldn’t I recommend it to my readers. It takes a little work to figure out the institution’s search engine, but I did it in a few minutes and found myself ranging through their wonderful collection of digital images. I found much to admire and I am constantly discovering images that make me gasp.

I could give you dozens of examples, but I suggest you go on in, if this is the kind of thing that interests you, and look around. Just type in photographers in the ‘digital image’ search engine and hundreds and hundreds of possibilities will be afforded you. This is the way I discovered Carl Van Vechten. I bookmarked the site and I go back in regularly to enjoy his photographs of famous and nearly-famous people.

I’ve thought, as I examine portrait photographs of famous people, like Willa Cather (below), that this would have been a wonderful job to have. Yet, it takes a real talent to do it well and to capture, in a photograph, something more than just the external image of someone. Van Vechten had a way of putting on to his ‘canvass’ something of the soul and spirit of these people.

Have fun in this extraordinary library at Yale.
Margaret Walker:
"A writer whose accomplishments exceed her reputation, Margaret Walker made significant contributions to American literature and to the study of African-American culture and history. Throughout her long career as a writer, educator, and scholar, Walker received many awards and accolades for her creative and critical writing, including the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and numerous honorary degrees. Her poetry and fiction influenced and inspired such writers as Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni. Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of a Methodist minister and a music teacher. The family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, when both her parents joined the faculty of New Orleans University, now known as Dillard University. Walker’s mother and father encouraged her to keep a journal and to read widely in both European literary classics and contemporary American literature. Her reading included the work of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other Harlem Renaissance writers flourishing at the time.

"As a young woman, Walker had the opportunity to meet Langston Hughes when he visited New Orleans on a reading tour. Hughes recognized her talent and encouraged
Walker, who was enrolled at the time in New Orleans University, to seek greater educational opportunities at a northern university. On his advice, Walker went to Chicago to study at Northwestern University. After graduation, she worked with the Works Progress Administration Writer’s Project where she met other Chicago writers, including Richard Wright, who would later write Native Son. "In the 1930s, Walker went to graduate school at the University of Iowa where she completed her first collection of poems. After entering the manuscript in the Yale Younger Poets competition twice, she submitted the collection a third time and won; Stephen Vincent Benét selected her book, For My People (1942), for publication by Yale University Press. Though some were surprised that the prestigious award should go to a young, African-American woman (the New York Times headline announcing the award read 'Negro Girl Wins Yale Poetry Prize'1 ), Benét praised the poems. 'They are set for voice and the blues,' he wrote, 'they could be sung as easily as spoken, and first and last, they are a part of the earth.'2

"In addition to poetry, Walker wrote a novel, Jubilee. Called 'The reverse side of Gone with the Wind,'3 Jubilee is based on Walker’s great grandmother’s life. The story follows a slave girl from her childhood on a southern plantation, through the Civil War, to her life as a free woman during Reconstruction. Jubilee was praised for its historical accuracy as well as its high literary quality. Walker presents such a carefully researched and historically accurate picture of the lives of southern slaves that the novel has been taught in American history classes. Because of her commitment to the understanding and study of African-American history and culture, Walker founded the Institute for the Study of Black History, Life and Culture of Black People. The institute is located at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, where Walker was on the faculty from 1949 until her retirement in the 1970s. Walker served as director of the Institute and donated her own archive there to create the Margaret Walker Alexander National Resource Center." [Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University]

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Tim Pawlenty: A Complete Political Hack

Tim Pawlenty is not just a bad governor, but he is a
ruinous one who will walk out on a job poorly done.
by Charlie Leck

Senator McCain, you can have him!
We don’t want him! He’s too cheap for us!
He’s too cheap! He’s too cheap!
He’s too cheap for us!
It looks very much like John McCain is going to choose the Governor of the State of Minnesota to be his running mate. Senator, you can have him!

I took to calling him ‘Governor Poorlenty’ last year. It never caught on. Someone liked ‘Governor Pukelenty’ better. No taste!

A friend dropped me an email, expressing his apprehensions about Pawlenty:
“This guy Pawlenty is a creep. With McCain’s age and cancer history, this would be a very bad vice-president. Read the current article carefully in City Pages. This is the real Pawlenty. I’ve known this guy for years and he is a bad guy.”
So, I read the City Pages story about Governor Pawlenty. Yup! Sure enough! He’s a really bad dude. But, I knew that before delving into the story. I wrote about it here many months ago. Pawlenty took one of the finest states in the nation – a state that nearly always finished first or second in every measurement category one could imagine – and absolutely ruined it. Now in those ratings, we finish only mediocre and sometime worse.

Wendy Anderson and Arne Carlson shake their heads in dismay. Hubert Humphrey is rolling over in his grave. Governor Goofy is spinning wildly in his.

Paw-Lenty took a state that was legendary and made it ordinary.

I congratulate all those simpletons who elected him to office. You got what you deserve.

Now he seeks the Vice Presidency of the United States. If elected and tragedy lands him in the big, oval office, he’ll make George W. Bush look like a piker.

For my opening, I snitched a tune from the old, old days and put new words to it. I’ll close that way as well, with an even older tune.
All our bridges falling down, Falling down…
All our bridges falling down
Thanks to Pawlenty

Took our school apart he did,
Apart he did, apart he did,
Took our schools apart he did
Thank you Pawlenty

Left our seniors on their own
On their own, on their own,
Lef t our seniors on their own,
Thank you Pawlenty

All our towns are falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
All our towns are falling down,
Thanks to Pawlenty

And our roads have gone to hell,
Gone to hell, gone to hell,
All our roads have gone to hell,
Dear Gov Pawlenty

Screwed our farmers really good,
Really good, really good,
Screwed our farmers really good,
Did old Pawlenty

Now we have to build it up,
Build it up, build it up,
Now we have to build it up,
After Pawlenty

He left our state a tattered mess,
Tattered mess, tattered mess,
He left our state an awful mess
Did dumb Pawlenty

We have bridges we must build,
We must build, we must build
Bridges, highways and new rail
Nixed by Pawlenty

Now we merrily say goodbye,
Say goodbye, say goobye
Merrily now we say goodbye,
To Tim Pawlenty

Off you go with John McCain,
John McCain, John McCain,
Off you go with John McCain,
Just what you wanted

Hope you get your bottom kicked,
Bottom kicked, bottom kicked
Hope you get your bottom kicked
By Barack Obama

Friday, July 25, 2008

I Support the Troops

Who supports the troops? I do, so why doesn’t George W. Bush and his administration?
by Charlie Leck

I hate the War in Iraq! I hated it from day-zero and I hate it now. It was born in America on a wave of lies and a political strategy of deception. The American people, trusting their government, gave their consent. Had they known the truth they would never have allowed this gruesome tragedy.

Yet, hate the war as I do, I support the American troops with all my heart and every fiber of my being. Too bad George W. Bush doesn’t support the troops with all his might. If he did, he would do something about the sorry state of care that wounded and injured veterans are receiving here at home.

Pay attention to the testimony before a hearing of the House Armed Service Committee, which is trying to get to the bottom of the story about the failures of the Army Medical Action Plan. As the NY Times, put it in an editorial: “That’s the plan to prevent the kind of systematic neglect and mistreatment exposed by The Washington Post last year at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.”

The Army made significant and praise-worthy promises in the aftermath of that scandal. Investigation have founded that they aren’t living up to those promises.

Everyone of us – those who have opposed the war and those who have supported it – should be united on this issue! Everyone of us – whether we support the candidacy of Senator John McCain or that of Senator Barack Obama – should be united on this issue.

Those men who have gone to war for America and given their all and come home with serious, and sometimes devastating injuries, deserve the best care that can be provided.

This administration failed to support the troops properly on the battlefield by providing them with inferior protective equipment. This fact is one of the great embarrassments of this war.

Americans everywhere must stand up and tell “all of Washington” that we won’t take from them anything but an absolute guaranty that the American troops will be well cared for when they come home injured or damaged in any manner.

Congress should establish a system that would safeguard that guaranty – a safeguard so strong and secure that no soldier will fall through the cracks.

The cost of the war has been enormous, even staggering, and has torn our economy to shreds; however, the war’s great cost has only just begun. Now comes the expensive part as we try to heal the wounded and damaged troops who come limping home.

So far we have failed miserably in this endeavor. Many troops are far down on the waiting list, trying to get into understaffed medical facilities. The projections are that this number will increase dramatically in the coming months. The testimony before the House has been sad and frightening – and shameful!

Do you support the troops? Do you REALLY support the troops? Liberals, Neo-Cons, Left-Wingers, Right-Wingers, Conservatives and Progressives, make America proud by uniting in this one cause. Tell Washington that the fallen will be honored and the injured will be respected and cared for completely and without exception.

I support the troops! Do you? Tell your Congressmen immediately.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama's Voice

Read Jim Klobuchar Writes
by Charlie Leck
For years, Jim Klobuchar was my reason for picking up the newspaper. He was a highly acclaimed writer for the Minneapolis Star. Lordsy, what a writer -- funny, sad, tragic, compellling, truthful, searing! He won plenty of awards and deserved them. I was one of his biggest fans.

Retired, he doesn't write much any more. He's such an active man that he's too busy for steady blogging, so he blogs irregularly, but I watch it closely to see when there is a new posting. There's one today, and I urge you to go to it -- To Mobilize America, Can Obama's Voice Recall Kennedy's? I hope you'll to read it. (Just to remind you, Jim is the father of our state's U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar.)

Cooking is a Gas!

Time over the stove is great – now
if I just didn’t have to clean up my mess!
by Charlie Leck

A reader wrote to ask where my love for cooking came from and when it began.

I loved to watch my mother cook. She was so intense about it. There was no pantry full of pasta sauces by Paul Newman’s famous company, with 40 different flavor combinations from which to choose. No, a great pasta sauce was an all-day process, done with love and great care. She began her peeling and chopping early in the morning. The herbs and spices were as fresh as possible. The onions and mushrooms were picked out carefully in the produce section of our local grocery store.

I can hear my brothers chuckling as they read that line. There was no local grocery store. We lived in such a little, hick town, in the farmlands of central New Jersey, that there were few resources for the creative cook. We had a fine, talented and creative butcher, but groceries and produce were another matter. The A&P in Netcong was nearly 10 miles away – a pretty long trip in those days.

How I enjoyed, as a little kid, going on those shopping trips with her. When she shopped for a leg of lamb, it had to be the left hind leg, of course, because “lambs always lie down on their right sides” my mother would tell the astounded butcher. These days, I live with lambs all around me, baaing early in the morning like an invading army. I take notice of how they rest. With apologies to my mother, there’s no consistency – left side – right side.

She knew the produce manager in the big supermarket personally. She often asked for some of the produce that may have been removed from the shelves that morning because it was “too” ripe. Most produce was never ripe enough for her. Peaches, tomatoes, avocados, artichokes – the better stuff was probably removed from the shelves that morning and was only waiting for someone like my mother to ask for it.

By afternoon, our home-business – house-general store-luncheonette-soda fountain – was filled with the incredible aromas of my mother’s pasta sauce that was cooking gently and slowly on a low flame in our kitchen. Fresh, totally home-made bread would be baking in the oven.

Businessmen arriving home from their day’s work in the city, miles away, would stop in for the afternoon paper (yup, we had them in those days) or a quart of milk (in a bottle with real cream floating on top) and they’d catch a whiff of the simmering sauce and the baking dough!“Oh, my,” they’d say with a broad smile, “any room at the table for a guest tonight?”

How often I think of my mother’s skills in the kitchen? Is it a hyperbolic memory of every child? Was mother really not that great a cook at all?

I can only say I’ve never had a Yankee Pot Roast again, since the last one mother prepared for us that could come close to hers. I can say the same of those left legs of lamb; and the lapin allemande; the baked ham with that black, black, thick gravy; the fried chicken that drove us all wild with anticipation; the borscht soup served with thick, heavily crusted slices of home-made white bread; the roasted duck served with stuffed, baked apples; the pot pies with perfectly browned, bosomy crust; and the red, rare, thick slices of prime rib and mashed potatoes and the most delectable gravy you ever tasted. There were many other meals that I didn’t care for so much, but which Father loved with ecstasy – the kidney pies, the big, white, milky looking hunks of fresh, baked cod with boiled red potatoes, and also the liver and onions. I keep searching for the perfect split pea soup, like Mother’s, but I simply can’t find it. It was so thick one’s spoon would stand up in it. It had flavors that left you floating in delight. How she did it, I’ll never figure out. Her lentil soup and all her various stews were just as good.

She was fully Bohemian. Her mother and father and all her grandparents were Bohunks. Her cooking leaned toward the cuisine that is so identified with that part of the world. For instance, she made the best kolache I’ve ever eaten – bar none – better even than those I’ve tried in the Czech communities around Minnesota. Unlike the ones out here, my mother’s were in a triangle shape and flipped closed. The crust was lighter and flakier, somewhat like a croissant from Paris, than the crust I’ve encountered here.

My father was thoroughly German and that fact motivated my mother to adventure in that direction for some of her recipes as well. Her hassenpfeffer (deutsches kaninchen) was outstanding.

The ethnic influence remains with me now. Today I’m preparing a Grand Borscht – thoroughly Russian, but adopted with pleasure by both the German and Slavic parts of the world. It’s cooking right now, boiling slowly on the stove-top and it smells the way heaven must smell.

“A little too much vinegar,” my wife said, when she tasted the borscht. Tastes vary! To me, the sour flavor was pungent, but just about perfect.

Fully retired now, I turned to cooking because my wife works awfully hard all day long and deserves to just be able to crash when she returns home. She says, stroking my ego, that the food in her home is better than that of any restaurant in the region. High praise! She’s a sweetheart and loves me, however, so I don’t take it completely literally.

My problem is that I can’t stand the pressure of doing a dinner party. Cooking for more than two and getting several courses all to finish on time, and getting them to the table at the appropriate time, is too much for me. Cooking for two is something else completely and I love it.

I have an advantage over my mother. She didn’t have the resources so near her that I have. One of our kids is teaching me about Asian supermarkets and the extraordinary new flavors that are available there. Mix and match some of them with plain old American cooking and you can come up with an extraordinary essence. I grilled some bratwurst the other night that I had rubbed with Japanese miso paste. Oh my, the diners who bit into them couldn’t believe how incredible they tasted. Miso paste works great on barbequed spare ribs, too. I use miso paste and Japanese fermented black beans in lots of my cooking now. I sautéed some uncooked, large shrimp with those beans a few weeks ago and it was sensational. Bak Choy, which has become a regular feature in dining at our house now, was in the pan with the shrimp, along with some minced garlic. Wow! It was great! Hoisin sauce creeps into lots of my cooking as well. Now I’m venturing south of the border and I’m trying out South American and Mexican flavors and dining ideas. Mix and match and you can create some wonderfully unique and interesting meals. Soon I’m going to venture into some of the Mexican markets that are springing up all over town.

Last night I did short ribs, using an extraordinarily simple recipe from Mark Bittman. The key to it, and Bittman was correct about this, is in the browning. Brown them properly and the rest is easy. Another successful idea is the way Bittman skewers lamb and fresh, whole figs on rosemary stems and grills them outside [watch this very short video]. I tried this last week and it was a big hit.

Bittman has really influenced me. His scheme is to cook wonderful meals with a minimum amount of work. His video podcasts are wonderful and so is his cookbook, How to Cook Everything.Check out Bittman’s blog. I go to it regularly.

I also go to the dining section of the New York Times at least once a week and review everything that has been published that week and watch nearly all the videos. Today there is a wonderful story about how so many people are almost cultishly devoted to the in-season tomato. These beauties will be showing up at market stands and farmers’ markets almost any day now and I can’t wait. The great tomato, in season, is nature’s most perfect and wonderful food as far as I am concerned. A friend of ours has a farm near here, called Two Pony Farm, where she produces the most wonderful organic, heirloom tomatoes – better, I tell you, than steak.

Today’s edition of the Times also has a story about the return of the lost Jersey tomato. It is very worth reading. The story has a photograph of an enormous tomato sandwich. Do one of those correctly and it is heavenly eating.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Splendid Table web site and blog on National Public Radio is extraordinary. I check this one out at least once a week, too, and I’m on their email list for notification about special recipes.

My copy of THE 150 HEALTHIEST FOODS ON EARTH arrived and I’ve torn through it. I read nearly 100 pages of it this morning, stumbling over a lot of the scientific terminology (methylhydroxychalcone polymer), and I’m finding it a very valuable book. You can find out plenty about it on its author’s, Jonny Bowden’s, web site. I bought the book on the American Book Exchange (ABE), where I buy most of my books, and got it (including shipping) for under $15 (brand new). I can’t tell you how delighted I was to see coffee on the list and to learn there are substantial benefits in drinking a few cups each day. I just paused to have a sip from my pleasant mug of Sumatra blend. If I’m disappointed with the book, it has to do with my own unreasonable expectations. I’d been led to believe that Bowden was going to provide tips on how to use some of these herbs, spices, vegetables and foods. He rarely does that, but one more step into a few cookbooks won’t be that difficult for me. I’ve set a goal to try to use most of these foods in my daily cooking and in our snacking. For instance, I’ve learned that pumpkins seeds are actually very good for you, providing beta-sitosteral for lowering cholesterol and some help with prostate problems as well (perhaps reducing the number of trips to the bathroom at night).
“Pumpkin seeds are a rich source of minerals, especially magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus. Interestingly, the roasted kind have far more protein, at least according to the USDA food database. (They also have a lot more calories.) The roasted kind also have way more magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as more zinc, fiber, and cancer-fighting selenium. Both have a nice amount of manganese, an important trace mineral that’s essential for growth, reproduction, wound healing, peak brain function, and the proper metabolism of sugars, insulin, and cholesterol. Ultimately, both the raw (dried) and the roasted are nutrient dense.”
That's just to give you a little taste of the book. Below are a list of some of the web pages I regularly look at when searching for a recipe or trying to find out about some food.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

This is Real

San Francisco voters will decide if sewage plant
will be named after George W. Bush
by Charlie Leck

Can you believe this one? San Francisco voters will likely get to vote this November on whether or not to name a sewage treatment plant after George W. Bush. The group hatching the plan said that this would be ""an appropriate honor for a truly unique president." Read about it in the NY Times.

By the way, there are environmental groups upset by this issue, claiming this would be an insult to environmentally important facilities.

Also, one commenter on The Stranger blog said something quite significant:

"I like the idea of the sewage treatment plant... but, it doesn't really work symbolically. Sewage treatment plants take something shitty and make it okay. George W. Bush took something okay ('Merica) and made it pretty shitty.

Who is the Real Norm Coleman?

Al Franken wrote some nasty jokes!
Is there anything naughty we should know about Senator Coleman?
Is the press doing its job?
by Charlie Leck

Where is the press on Senator Norm Coleman? Is Minnesota just too Minnesota-Nice? There are rotten, smutty rumors that have been circulating for years about Norm Coleman. Have any reporters ever looked into these things? It certainly was easy for them to hop on the dirty jokes of Al Franken. How about more attention to Coleman?

Is the rumor Garrison Keillor mentioned in 2002 about the Senator true? [Garrison Keillor's 2002 blast at Coleman: Empty Victory for a Hollow Man]

"Norm got a free ride from the press. St. Paul is a small town and anybody who hangs around the St. Paul Grill knows about Norm's habits. Everyone knows that his family situation is, shall we say, very interesting, but nobody bothered to ask about it, least of all the religious people in the Republican Party. They made their peace with hypocrisy long ago. So this false knight made his way as an all-purpose feel-good candidate, standing for vaguely Republican values, supporting the president."

Let's just say I've heard the rumor repeated many times by people who would seem to know – people who know the night scene and the party life of St. Paul.

I'll tell you what! How about a really nice feel-good story about Senator Coleman's family life – you know, the kids and mom and dad, sitting around the fire place reading something like the Bible together, while the family dog rubs up against Norm's leg.

There are thousands of Minnesota readers out here who want to know the Senator better as a family man. What do we get? Nothing! Nothing at all.

What is the extent of Coleman's political/business relationship with Jeff Larson? That's another interesting question. What do we get from the press? Nothing!

The press has looked at Al Franken's early life very carefully. How about a look at Norm Coleman's early life? Norm was big into the leftist life style before he arrived in St. Paul. How about a good story on that? How he met his wife? Where they were married? The kids? What do they like to do together?

All we're asking for is "fair and balanced news." The local papers, owned by massive, profit driven corporations, just don't get it and they don't care to get it! Our only hope is the alternative press.

How about this? No more free rides! Let's get an honest, fair look at the personal and family life of Senator Norm Coleman.

While we wait for the press, here's a couple of fun things to look at…

Read the marvelous 2005 rantings of George Galloway, Member of Parliament (UK) about Norm Coleman. Galloway called Coleman a "lickspittle senator" (whatever that means – I need to look it up).
[the American Heritage Dictionary defines a "lickspittle" as "a fawning underling… a toady" (whatever a toady is)]

Open Congress will show you where Coleman's campaign money is coming from (largest contributors are commercial real estate). The site also reviews the Senator's voting record. You'll discover the voting record has been a complete, unaltered support of the President of the U.S., George W. Bush.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Fine Mess He Left Us With

Robert Scheer writes of
"the real legacy of Ronald Reagan"

by Charlie Leck

Back in February I wrote of my surprise that Ronald Reagan was regarded so highly as a President by so many. I tried to introduce my readers to the real Ronald Reagan.

Now, in a column by Robert Scheer (Truthdig), we see how many of the policies and philosophies of Ronald Reagan have left us with a lot of the economic problems we have today – certainly with the big mess in which our banks find themselves. You'll also read a lot about Phil Gramm, one of the co-chairs of John McCain's presidential campaign. Former Senator Gramm carries some responsibility himself for this big muddle.

"McCain campaign co-chair Phil Gramm is right: We have 'become a nation of whiners.' But who is whining more than the bankers that former Sen. Gramm's financial deregulation legislation benefited? The very bankers who now expect a government bailout, such as those at UBS Investment Bank, where Gramm found lucrative employment.

"As chair of the powerful Senate Banking Committee, Gramm engineered passage of legislation that effectively ended the major regulatory restraints applied to the financial industry in response to the Great Depression. The purpose of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act -- co-authored by Gramm, passed in 1999 by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton -- was to liberate the banks, stockbrokers and insurance companies from restraints imposed on their activities more than seven decades ago. It was legislation that the financial community, which contributed heavily to Gramm's campaigns in the previous five years, desperately wanted and obviously has abused. So why now bail these institutions out?"

[read the entire Scheer column on AlterNet]

Sunday, July 20, 2008

You Can’t Beat Beets

Oh, beets and good grocery baggers
are so very important in life, I think… to me at least!
by Charlie Leck

I strolled slowly through the produce aisles of my favorite grocery store, looking for something exciting to serve with the tuna steaks I planned for dinner that night. I would serve baked potato halves and I needed something with color for the plate. The asparagus looked good, but I'd been serving it an awful lot lately. My eyes fell upon some scrumptious looking fresh beets, still on their stems and greens. I decided to go with those. I'm a beet lover and my wife is okay with them if I take the time to do something special with them.

The prettiest, sweetest young lady was bagging that day at the check-out counter that I happened to pick. She was filled with wittiness and chatter and her eyes sparkled and seemed to be laughing and smiling when I looked into them. Oh, my! A crush like this is unmistakable. Why she's younger than my youngest daughter. Get hold of yourself, you silly old man.

"Beets?" She shouted out with a smile. "They always look so good, but I haven't the faintest idea how to cook them."

"Just peel and steam," the cashier said a bit sarcastically. It was clear she was tired of all the intense attention the bagger at her station was getting and drawing away from her.

"Well," I said, "that's one way."

"But, beets are very versatile," I continued, "and you can do lots of wonderful things with them. I like to steam them just a bit and then sauté or roast them with lots of seasoning possibilities."

The bagger was listening very intently and I liked that. So, I told her about Johnny Bowden's book, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, and about how I was trying to find some of them so I could experiment and learn how to make them all in delicious ways."

The cashier had to interrupt me, in order to ask for money. Some other customers were lined up behind me and they clearly were hoping the bagger would speed it up a bit. I thought she was doing just a perfectly wonderful job and there was, indeed, no reason to hurry.

I had only two relatively small bags when she finished and I was prepared to grab hold of them and hustle out to the parking lot and my car. It was a hot and humid day and I'd need to get the air-conditioning going to keep the beet greens nice and fresh looking.

"I'll help you to the car with these," the bagger offered kindly. I thought about refusing her offer, but what the heck!

"I'm vegan," she announced over her shoulder as she strolled attractively in front of me. "I love talking to gentlemen who can talk about vegetables."

"Oh," I replied, "I love talking about vegetables."

I tried to sound very enthusiastic as I puffed, trying to keep up with her lithe, young legs. My implanted, artificial hip was resisting the pace I was trying to keep and I was damning its unwillingness.

"I'm trying to figure out swiss chard," I called ahead to her.

She turned to look back at me and saw the gap between us, so she stopped and waited for me as I pointed in the direction of my car.

"What about swiss chard?" she asked.

"The book says it's remarkably good for us, but I've never cooked it. I can't even find it. I've never seen it here."

"Oh, silly," she smiled, "you need to go to a better store. The Wedge, on Lyndale Avenue is wonderful for things like that. You'll find it there, and it is wonderful! I could teach you how to cook it."

"Well, well," I stuttered, "it seems like a ways to go for one little vegetable."

"No, no," she said, as she settled in next to me and in stride now, "they have all kinds of wonderful things there you won't be able to resist."

We were at the car now and I opened the door for her and she put the two bags on the back seat so gingerly and neatly. Her smile was still as crisp and pretty as it had been in the store and her eyes still sparkled. This was a first class bagger. I fished in my pocket for a few bucks.

"I'll tell you about swiss chard," she said very engagingly. She leaned a hip against my car and looked up at me. It was only then that I realized how short she was and that she had dimples that were adorable.

"You must make sure it's fresh," she began, while waving her hand so cutely, "and make sure you rinse it very thoroughly. Then cut away the toughest part of the stalk and save it for your compost pile, or there are some other recipes that could make use of them. Again, I could teach you about those. Now then, chop up the leaves into strips of, oh, about an inch or so."

I found myself wishing I had a little tape-recorder or, at least, a pen and paper. I also knew I should get the car started because of that tuna fish and the nice fresh beet greens; nevertheless, I raised an arm and leaned against the top of the rear door that was hanging open; you know, the way Robert Redford might. She was smiling and going on about the chard.

"Put some good olive oil – probably extra virgin, you know – in a saucepan and heat it up on medium. Add some slices of garlic and I like to put some red peppers in with the garlic. Sauté those for a minute or two and then add the chopped swiss chard leaves and let them cook for 5 minutes or so. You could add a little water or a drop of Madera would add a nice flavor. After five minutes, sauté everything together a little bit and add some crunchy sea salt. Cover it up and let it cook another five minutes. Add a little butter for the last five minutes if you want. I wouldn't, but most people like to do that. Slide it into a serving dish and you're set to go."

She made an adorable little sliding motion with her hands, as if she was moving chard from a hot pan into a lovely, delicate serving dish.

"Sounds absolutely wonderful," I said, smiling as widely as I could, though somewhat self-consciously because of the aging look of my teeth. "It almost makes me want to jump in my car and drive into the city now to get some."

"Oh, call first," she said with a dainty chuckle, "and make sure they have some on hand. I don't want you to be baddy-mad at me." She winked and said she'd better get back in the store before she got fired.

"Wait," I stammered, struggling to pull the dollar bills loose from my billfold. I saw the five-spot then and tugged it out instead. I handed it to her.

"Thanks so much," I said.

"Oh, my goodness," she cooed so enthusiastically as she took the currency. "You are just the sweetest man ever."

She turned and ran so gracefully between the cars and back toward the store. A few cars away, she suddenly stopped and turned back and saw me looking at her. I was so embarrassed. She chuckled knowingly.

"You know what?" she called back to me, "You should have chosen a fish other than that tuna. That's listed as over-fished and endangered by the Blue Ocean Institute, you know." She waved vigorously and then turned again and hurried away.

I wanted to call out to her, to say something clever, but my mouth went dry, and my knees began to act up, and I began one of my little coughing fits. I coughed so hard that my back began to ache. The humidity began to fog over my glasses. I pushed the car door closed and then turned and cracked an elbow on the side-view mirror of the car next to mine. I cursed.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Catch 22

The catch is a permanent military presence in Iraq!
by Charlie Leck

I recently had occasion to reread Catch-22,* Joseph Heller's remarkable novel published in 1961. I first read it in 1963 and thought it funny then. Reading it now, in the light of George W. Bush's presidency, Dick Chaney's vice presidency and the careers of guys like Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales, the story didn't seem quite so outrageously comical and fictitious. As a matter of fact, it's down-right frightening.

There's an account of the squadron psychiatrist, Doctor Sanderson, summing up a diagnostic session he had with Yossarian, the leading protagonist in the novel. The doctor says the following about Yossarian:

"You're antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Slums depress you. Greed depresses you. Crime depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn't surprise me if you're a manic-depressive!"

"Yes, sir. Perhaps I am."

"Don't try to deny it."

"I'm not denying it, sir," said Yossarian, pleased with the miraculous rapport that finally existed between them. "I agree with all you've said."

"Then you admit you're crazy, do you?"

"Crazy?" Yossarian was shocked. "What are you talking about? Why am I crazy? You're the one who's crazy?"

That section of dialog, you see, makes me feel like it might be a conversation between me and George-W or any of those officials of his that I mentioned above. Someone here is crazier than a hoot-owl and I don't think it's me.

Am I paranoid for thinking I've been lied to (by this administration)?

Crazy for thinking I've been cheated (by Chaney and Rumsfeld)?

Unbalanced because I've been deceived (by Rove and Gonzales)?

Folks, we've been dealing with a bunch of crazies for the last 7½ years who have tried to make us think we're nuts. I'll admit, they almost pulled it off.

Now, please understand that John McCain is as crazy as or crazier than the lot of them; and if you want to put the inmates in charge of the asylum again for another four years, you are, as Yossarian said, "the one who's crazy."

The truth now becomes clear
The news has broken that our President has agreed to a time-table to get out of Iraq after all. This is the President who has said time and time again that no time-tables would be set – the same thing that John McCain has been shouting from the roof tops. Now we learn, as a condition to withdrawing our troops from Iraq and giving up our occupation of that land, the President is negotiating for military bases and a permanent military presence in that nation, and thus in the Middle East.

[Read Noam Chomsky's very thorough essay about the Bush/Cheney plan from day one -- oil fields and military basis in Iraq.]

"The demand could hardly be more intense. Iraq contains perhaps the second-largest oil reserves in the world, which are, furthermore, very cheap to extract: no permafrost or tar sands or deep-sea drilling. For U.S. planners, it is imperative that Iraq remain under U.S. control, to the extent possible, as an obedient client state that will also house major U.S. military bases, right at the heart of the world's major energy reserves." [Chomsky]

No wonder John McCain was talking about a hundred years in Iraq for U.S. troops. Now McCain is trying to say that this is no time-table, because he has been staunchly opposing any time-table; yet, Iraq President Jalal Talabani is clearly calling it a "time-table for withdrawal."

We're all such dupes. This has been the end-goal from the beginning. This is what the Bush Administration, under the careful guidance of Chaney and Rumsfeld, wanted from the beginning. They wanted a base in the Middle East from which our military can respond to problems and from which they can strike quickly anywhere in that region. Bingo!

The will and desires of the American public be damned! The lunatics are running the asylum now. The news will come hot and heavy out of Iraq in the next few days, announcing the end of the occupation and an agreement about a systematic withdrawal of American troops. There will not be much said about the new military base.

And what can the American people do about it? What say to we have? That's the Catch-22.

*Heller, Joseph: Catch-22: [Simon and Schuster, New York, 1961]
My wife, Anne, made an interesting point yesterday about this book and its introduction of a vocabulary concept – a synonym for the "ultimate dilemma" -- into our language in such a permanent, enduring way that many people use the expression now without knowing anything about its connection to Joseph Heller and Yossarian!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Freakonomics Revisited

Why was there such a dramatic drop in violent crime
in the early 1990s in America?
by Charlie Leck

One of the most enjoyable books I've read in the last year is Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The two guys maintain a very unusual blog that I enjoy and with which I keep up regularly. In their book they grappled with weird and strange questions of economics and showed how the laws of economics could be applied to such bizarre situations.

  • What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?

  • Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?

  • How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real estate agents?

  • Where have all the criminals gone?

The chapter on the declining crime rate in America in the 1990s is particularly interesting and, if their logic is correct, it says we could be in for a soaring rise in the America crime rate if a certain very vocal and activist group gets its way. If it does, in about 17 years you should check the locks on your doors, make sure the security system is working, but, for heaven's sake, don't start packing heat. Here' how their thinking goes.

  • In the 15 years prior to 1990 the violent crime rate in American had risen 80 percent.

  • In the early 90s the crime rate dropped so dramatically that it stunned observers
    who expected the rate to keep rising

  • It continued to drop until it reached the level of 40 years earlier

Where, so suddenly did all those criminals go?
That became the question of the day. The experts (criminologists, sociologists, urban sociologists, psychologists and media pundits) began providing answers like the following (most popular are listed first):

  • New police strategies

  • Better use of prisons

  • Changes in the drug market

  • Aging population

  • Tougher gun control laws

  • Strong economy

  • Increased number of law enforcement officers

  • Others (more capital punishment, concealed weapon laws, gun by-back programs, etc)

Dubner and Levitt decided to apply the laws of economics to the question in order to secure a rational, sensible answer. Dubner wrote the following about Levitt:

"As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions…. Many people… might not recognize Levitt's work as economics at all. But he has merely distilled the so-called dismal science to its most primal aim: explaining how people get what they want… He figures a way to measure an effect that veteran economists had declared unmeasurable. His abiding interests – though he says he has never trafficked in them himself – are cheating, corruption and crime."

The question above, about the early 1990s, is just such an "interesting" question. Levitt (and Dubner, a writer) began to apply the "dismal science" of economics to the question. Chapter Four in their book carefully explains how, by using these rules of economics, they could dismiss any of the answers listed above. What then?

It wasn't Rudy
In New York City, an awful lot of people were crediting the newly elected mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and his personally chosen police commissioner, William Bratton, for the dramatic decreases in New York City's violent crime. We certainly heard Giuliani echoing the claim enough times in the recent Republican Party presidential primary campaign.

The facts, however, show that crime had already begun to dramatically decrease in New York City before Giuliani became Mayor and before he appointed Bratton. Giuliani came to office in 1994. Between 1990 and the end of 1993, the rate had already dropped by almost 20 percent. In addition, the attentive observer would have recognized that the crime rates were dropping all over the United States and even in urban areas where police departments were employing the status quo – even in Los Angeles, which bore the reputation of having an awful police department.

One by one, Levitt and Dubner dispatch all the possible causes, from our list above, for the drop in crime. Their logic is impeccable and it is difficult to disagree with them – impossible as far as I am concerned.

What then?
Perhaps the question should be: "When then?" Leavitt and Dubner date it. The change began on 22 January 1973 – seventeen years before the statistical start of the drop in the violent crime rate.

What? How? Why? Huh!
On that January day in 1973 the United States Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Roe v. Wade, that abortion is legal under certain circumstances in the United States of America. Minnesotan, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the opinion for the majority and it included the following reasoning, which is quoted by Dubner and Levitt:

"The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent… Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and other wise, to care for it."

Could it be possible?
Levitt and Dubner's explanation and rationale are difficult to dismiss. I urge you to read the entire chapter. The children who were most likely to become criminals – the unwanted, improperly attended and unloved – were no longer on the streets – or, their number was greatly decreased.

The writers pose the question that all of their doubters and critics raise: "How, then, can we tell if the abortion-crime link is a case causality rather than simply correlation?"

Think about this! There were five states in the nation where this amazing statistical drop in the crime rate began at least two years earlier than 1990. In New York, for instance, the drop beginning in 1988 was staggering. Why? Because New York had legalized abortion two years earlier than the Supreme Court legalized it in 1973. The same was true in each of the other four states – California, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. All five states, each of which had made abortion legal at least 2 years earlier than 1973, saw dramatics drops in their violent crime rates at least two years earlier than the rest of the nation.

The next step in this economic trail led Levitt to look at the comparison of rates of decreases in abortion with the rates of decrease in crime. Voila! A virtual match! He also found that there is a similar link in the statistics in Australia and Canada between their legalizing of abortion and the drop in the crime rate some 17 years later.

"To discover that abortion was one of the greatest crime-lowering factors in American history is, needless to say, jarring. It feels less Darwinian than Swiftian; it calls to mind a long-ago dart attributed to G. K. Chesterton: when there aren't enough hats to go around, the problem isn't solved by lopping off some heads. The crime drop was, in the language of economists, an 'unintended benefit' of legalized abortion. But one need not oppose abortion on moral or religious grounds to feel shaken by the notion of a private sadness being converted into a public good."

Does it freak you out? Do you disbelieve it? That's Freakonomics! I'd like to read your comments.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Improving Minority Education

If you've come looking for my three (3) blogs on improving minority education. They can be found at the following:
    1. The Problem of Minority Education (3 July 2008)
    2. Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire (5 July 2008)
    3. Schools that Work (14 July 2008)
Or look to the Archive List at the left.

What? What? Aaay, What?

John McCain says: "I know how to win wars!"
by Charlie Leck

Tuesday night, while preparing dinner (a cabbage, walnut, anchovy fettucinne), I heard John McCain's voice coming from the TV out in the living room.

"I know how to win wars," John McCain said. I dropped the knife with which I was chopping the cabbage and tore out into the living room

"What?" I shouted at the TV.

There he was, nervous and spasmy as hell, trying to make a decent speech at a so-called "Town Hall Meeting" just across the border in Wisconsin. He nodded his head vociferously. His hands trembled and there was a twitch in the corner of his mouth. His eyes drifted off somewhere. All signs of someone in over his head!

"Yes," he repeated with emphasis, "I know how to win wars!"

"You stupid, idiotic jerk," I yelled at his visage on the wide screen of our Samsung HDTV. "What war did you ever win, you stupid son-of-a-bitch? Why should we believe you know how to win a f----ing war?"

The house was empty. There wasn't even a dog lying around to hear my explosion – my ranting and raving. I guess we really should get another dog! I needed to be heard!

But wouldn't you explode as well? I mean, after all, John McCain hasn't won any wars. I mean, what war have we won in the last half century? Like, are you counting Granada – that one day wonder battle dreamed up by Ronald Regan? We actually lost a number of men from friendly fire in that little, ill-planned catastrophe. Or, dude, are you thinking of our invasion of Panama to drag their drug-lord military dictator, Manuel Noriega, into a Miami prison? I guess you could count the Gulf War under first President Bush as a victory. Anyway, it was carefully calculated and conservative and it stuck to a simple, achievable mission. That President Bush gets great credit for good management and iron-fisted control of the military in that war.

John McCain, what are you talking about? Are you too heavily medicated? You weren't around for the second Great War. You weren't in Korea. What war did you ever f---ing win? It wasn't Vietnam, my friend (as McCain so sickeningly and constantly says – my friend, my friends, my friends). We got our butt kicked in Vietnam and every historian worth his ballpoint pen knows it; however, what did John McCain have to do with it?

Take a careful look at John McCain! Listen to him carefully. He is basically a loser in everything – except we'll give him great credit for being a heroic, patriotic prisoner of war. John McCain can not lead and he can not communicate. How in the hell is he ever going to win a war? All you need do is watch John McCain carefully during a speech or "town-hall chat" and you'll see that he is in over his head.

How can John McCain say he knows how to win wars? How? How? How?

Thank goodness I didn't throw a pot or pan through the big, old screen on my lovely, new TV.

Now I've got to get back to a sensational dinner I am trying to prepare for my wife – fettuccini pasta with shredded cabbage and sautéed walnuts and anchovy in a roasted tomato-garlic sauce. I'll serve it with dried plums (prunes) wrapped in prosciutto.* I think it's going to be fabulous, but what do I know? – I haven't been going around winning wars like a crazy Senator I know.

*You want the recipe? Send me an email (or a comment) and leave your email for me and I'll send it to you. I will not post your email address in the comment area.

My new cooking efforts have all been inspired by the New York Times article about the Eleven Best Foods You Aren't Eating. The list included cabbage and I'm trying to think of new, exciting ways to serve this difficult item. Let me know if you've got ideas. It also included prunes, sardines, beets, turmeric, frozen blueberries, canned pumpkin, swiss chard, cinnamon, pomegranate juice, and pumpkin seeds.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Down a Dark Alley

If you had to go down it, which of these candidates
would you prefer to have with you in this dark alley?

by Charlie Leck

See a second blog following this one about Crostini Grille, in Monticello, Minnesota!

Well, Jesse Ventura surprised all of Minnesota last night by announcing, live on Larry King, that he will NOT run for the U.S. Senate. Whoopee! I'm relieved.

Jesse, just last week, had established a new standard for picking a U.S. Senator. He asked us to envision a really dark alley and then ask ourselves with which of the candidates would we want to go down that long alley.

How to answer the question? I'm really not sure! And, I ask myself if that is really the essential question or just more of the stupid ramblings of the village idiot.

I took the photograph in the heading of this blog a long time ago. It was somewhere in Europe and, I think, somewhere in Italy. I don't remember and I am not the most precise DAM guy – that's Digital Asset Management. I remember a lovely, little taverna was at the far end of it. I had to darken this photograph and add shadows to get the affect I wanted. Let's say the photograph was taken in Naples (which may be correct) and that il café was delightful and the walk through il vicola was pleasant and charming. Now I have some clarity in mind as I answer the question.

The three candidates from which I have to choose are the incumbent Senator, Norm Coleman; the other major party challenger, former comedian Al Franken, and a recently announced primary challenger to Franken, Priscilla Lord Farris. Farris has some legitimacy and would make a fine Senator. And, I wouldn't mind at all going down that dark alley with her to have a beer at il traverna. No one is going to own this woman. She has a quick mind and is sensible on all the issues. She comes from an outstanding Minnesota family whose life-style has to be admired and whose reputation is beyond reproach. She is a very serious primary candidate. Can she beat Coleman? I don't really know. I don't know if Franken can pull it off either; however, as Jesse Ventura said on the King show last night, how anyone can be trailing Coleman in the polls is rather unbelievable. Well, once in a while, Jesse gets it right and he's right on that one.

The important thing at the moment is that the infamous bozo, Jesse Ventura, is out of the picture. Things keep getting easier all the time.

Our incumbent Senator is a weasel who would spend the entire time talking only about himself and I would get stuck with the check. He's an owned man and his soul belongs to the company store. He was as cozy as one could be with the current occupant of the White House until it became politically disadvantageous to be so chummy with him. Let there be no mistakes, however, and the other two candidates should shout it out, loud and clear: "Norm Coleman is a Bush-Chaney man." They owned him for the last six years. Coleman is very much a chameleon. He can change parties, positions, friends and loyalties faster than one of those little creatures can change colors. Coleman did nothing creative as a legislator and whatever he did was first cleared and approved in the White House. Of the three, he's the most awful choice for me. No, I wouldn't walk down this alley, with that man, to get to this little place of refreshment. He is a piece of turd and is a joke in the U.S. Senate. I know that's strong, but it's the truth. Anyone who would vote for him doesn't care about the truth. He's wretchedly impolite and boorish. If you think Bill Clinton had a questionable, nasty side to his life, you better take a closer look at Norm Coleman.

Now, what if I were to walk down that alley, to that little, delightful spot with Al Franken? Oh, my! It wouldn't be so bad. Al's a whistler. It would be like going past the graveyard, you know. And, he's a generous fellow and would at least make sure we were dutch treat. He might even pick up the check. I've sent some money into his campaign committee and I'll likely send some more if he survives his primary challenge. He'd tell me a few good, clean jokes as we sipped on our beers and he might even get up and do a stand-up routine for the other diners and drinkers.

In Minnesota, Norm Coleman must go. Ms. Farris and Mr. Franken, let's see a very distinguished primary campaign!


Crostine Grille in Monticello will feature
Sheepy Hollow racks of lamb on Monday night

Well, this is a very big deal! A lovely, little restaurant, Crostini Grill, in Monticello, Minnesota – straight out I-94, northwest of Minneapolis – does a quarterly wine dinner and closes reservations at 40 people. They always fill up and the evening is well known in the area. All Minnesota menu items are featured. Monday night, 21 July, the dinner will include an entrée of rack of lamb from Sheepy Hollow at Native Oaks Farm. Sorry, no more reservations are available. We couldn't even get in! We are anxious, though, to hear the reviews.

Take a look at the menu:

Minnesota Wild Rice Stuffed Mushrooms
Summer's Ratatouille
Fresh Trout
with Riesling butter sauce
Cranberry & Pecan glazed Rack of Lamb
Rhubarb-Berry Strudel
Give the Crostini Grill a try some time. I'm going to.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Schools that Work in Minority Education

Elbow grease, my mother says, is the solution!
by Charlie Leck

This blog was updated at 9:00 AM on Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The question under consideration: How do we improve the education of minority children and seriously decrease the gap in educational achievement between white and minority students in America?

This is the third and final part of a series of blogs on this question and its potential answer.

1. The Problem of Minority Education (3 July 2008)
2. Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire (5 July 2008)

You'll hear no thunder as you read through these thoughts I have on the subject. There will be no great opening of the skies. Answers to tough problems are rarely popular and likeable.

My mother taught me, when I was a little kid, that I wouldn't like the answer to tough questions. She called it "elbow grease." All the time, "elbow grease!"

"How am I ever going to get this pan clean?" I held up the charred pan in which the duck had been roasted.

"Use a little elbow grease," she would say.

"How will I ever get this paper typed before Tuesday?"

"Elbow grease!"

It was her way of saying, hard work – or work at it! Just, for heaven's sake, stop whining about it and do it!"

She was a tough hombre, that old lady of mine. It was a useless exercise for me to come home from school and complain about a teacher or two. She would only smirk at me. Work harder! Try harder! Put more effort into it.

It was she who taught me to read, though I would gladly have forgone the lessons. She was seriously ill during my high school years. She had slipped from being a giant of a woman, with the big and muscular body of a beautiful Bohemian farmer's wife, to a frail, skinny and bony old lady who was actually only approaching her fifties. She would have to spend most of her hours supine. She liked to stretch out on the sofa in our living room as much as she could, rather than in her bedroom. That way, she could have contact with her family and interact with them as the day went on.

When I would try to watch a little telly, she would object.

"Read to me," she would plead! She loved books so and her books of the month tended to pile up, unread, because she had not the strength to hold them anymore or the eyes to read them very well.

I would sit next to her sofa, on a straight back chair and read to her as long as I could. Sometimes, if the book was really good, I would lose myself in it and go on and on for her. She loved it.

As I look back on it now, it seems that it was mostly popular trash, things like By Love Possessed, written by James Cozzens; The Silver Chalice by Thomas Costain; and The Far Country by Nevil Shute.

Somewhere during that period, Hemingway's extraordinary book, The Old Man and the Sea, was published and my mother and I read it together in a day. It was the first time she ever urged me to read with more feeling, to get into the story and feel it. I remember that she cried when old Santiago attempted to beat back the sharks, in a fruitless effort to protect his enormous fish from them. The sentences were all neat and clean. The story was simple, but true. Its heroes were an ordinary old man and a great fish.

When the last sentence was read to her, I even read the dust jacket to her because we were both unprepared to put the book down.

"One cannot hope to explain why the reading of this book is so profound an experience. Developed to its own perfect length, it can be read in an evening. At the end you have known a hero, an old man who embodies the essential nobility in human striving; you have known another veritable hero, a giant fish who is the embodiment of what is noble in animate nature; for three days you have known another presence, vast, pervading, but inanimate, the world of the Gulf Stream. You have lived a tragedy, but a tragedy which, at the last, emerges without grief into beauty. And you are likely to feel that you have been changed by what you have read."

Yes, changed! Forever changed! From then on, when I held a book in hand, I felt I possessed something enormously important. It was this massive effort on the part of one who was trying to express both self and life, and the meaning of both. Books became forever my friends and I only felt comfortable when I was surrounded by them, as I am at this moment.

One of the last books I read to her was John O'Hara novel of 1958, From the Terrace. It was massive and it took us so long to get through it. At its end, she was disappointed and so was I. It hadn't seemed very special to me and almost too simple and romantic. She told me he was a wonderful writer and very important. She urged me to read Appointment in Samarra, so that I would understand how good he was. It was a number of years before I did, long after my mother died. I remembered her as I put the book down and I whispered to her that she had been correct. O'Hara could certainly write.

"When Caroline Walker fell in love with Julian English she was a little tired of him. That was in the summer of 1926, one of the most unimportant years in the history of the United States, and the year in which Caroline Walker was sure her life had reached a pinnacle of uselessness." [John O'Hara: Appointment in Samarra]

It was also in these years in the fifties, when I was struggling in school with any subject that wasn't about literature, writing, drama, speech or history, that a dearly loved cousin explained to me that any subject could be conquered if we could read well. She told me I read so well that I could go beyond and around any teacher to discover the secrets behind science and math. Reading well, she explained, is the great key that unlocks the entire world to us. "A math problem is nothing more than careful reading! And, that is true with chemistry and physics as well."

By luck, I had learned to read well and to love books with a passion. Learning came easily.

So, what does this lengthy introduction mean? What has it to do with improving minority education?
I read an interesting essay last night by Mitch Pearlstein. He is the founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. The home page of the organization's web site has a photo of a lovely, hopeful young girl, sitting before a large book. Her face is resting upon her hands that are spread out on the book. The caption, scrolled across the photograph asks us: "Remember when you were young and you believed anything was possible?" The caption also provides the answer: "You were right!"

To the child who reads well, anything is possible! That's what Pearlstein was getting at in the column I read last night.

"No matter how weak some schools might be.
No matter how policymakers might have fallen down on the job.
No matter how some superintendents might legitimately claim underfunding.
No matter how stultifying bureaucratic constraints might be.
No matter how many families might be in turmoil.
No matter any of it. There simply is no reason many more young people can't work harder at their studies than they do."

There's that interesting idea again – work harder! Remember how it was expressed by Thomas Sowell in parts one and two of this series?

"The biggest secret is that there are no secrets, unless work is a secret."

"Elbow grease," my mother is shouting from the grave. "Work harder!"

Pearlstein goes on to say:

"So here's a modest proposal I'm entirely literal about. When school resumes in
September, everyone who isn't a K-12 student should stifle their brilliant
reform ideas for a month. The same applies to their complaints about one
education-related problem or another. Instead, I would urge students to use the
time and spotlight to imagine how they might achieve at higher academic levels
completely on their own. Parents and teachers can help get discussions started,
but then they have to butt out."

"Read an extra book… every few months," Pearlstein blurts out! "Do some homework over weekends. Use the Internet a bit more for academic pursuits and a bit less for game playing."

The way to solve the achievement gap in education is to encourage students to work harder – even if only a little harder – like one more book every few months or 30 minutes of diligent academic pursuit over the weekend.

How do we convince students? As I said in part two of this series, we need teachers who will "teach like their hair is on fire."

We need teachers who will commit themselves to work harder – to use some elbow grease – to convince students that they must work harder also. We need teachers who can convince students that just a little more work will achieve good results for them – and a lot more hard work will open up glorious doors of opportunity to them.

Teachers must convince students that it is fun to live comfortably – to have a good job – to live in a nice house – to go on exciting vacations – and to contribute positively to one's community.

And, we need teachers who can convince students that it is fun to learn – it is as exciting as any adventure in life.

I'm convinced after looking at this entire question, as thoroughly as is possible for me, that throwing money at it will not help. In many cases it has appeared to harm already bad situations.

And, we can whine all we want about uncooperative and disinterested parents. It is rather hellish to try to figure out how we can do something about that problem.

An editorial in the Minneapolis StarTribune last week dealt with what good schools have in common.

"Research has shown what many good schools have in common: strong leadership and clear direction. Dedicated educators who know students and families and have high expectations. Orderly, nurturing school environments. Sharp curriculum focus on knowledge skills and values. Involved parents and community.

How to convince students that learning is fun
It only makes sense to believe we can learn a great deal about how to train and teach minority students if we look at success stories. So, I set out searching for a couple examples of schools in the United States that are having success – or at least appear to be having success.

Let's begin right here at home, in Minnesota.

Stand Academy
A KIPP School will open here in Minnesota this fall. It will be called Stand Academy. Katherine Kersten' story about it, The Toughest School You'll Ever Love, appeared in local paper on 16 July 2008.

Stand academy will promote the kind of ideals of hard work, commitment, earning and investment that I wrote about above. It sounds very exciting and we need more experiments like this one.

Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA)
More than 50 percent of the children in this charter school are in poverty situations. Even so, TiZA had some of the highest scores in the state on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests in reading, writing and math. How come? Why? What is TiZA doing right? [Check out TiZA's web site!]

Instead of being suspicious of this school with a concentration of Asian, African and Middle East students, one should be filled with awe upon reading the school's mission and goals.

TiZA begins with its teachers. They seek out and train teachers who will excite students about learning and inspire students to work hard.

Now, there's lots to criticize and question about this school. Is it right that the school is so religious in its approach and still receives state funds? Are they teaching a kind of Islamic faith that rejects Christianity and Judaism?

My point here is that this school understands how to recruit teachers who will inspire students to learn and they are learning even though they are racially in a minority position and economically in poverty situations. It can be done. Can't we learn something from it?

Read this Minnesota Public Radio report on TiZA. It's the most objective report that you'll find.

The Preuss School, San Diego
Now, let's hop on out to California to look at the Preuss School, an extremely successful model. Granted, this is an ideal program in an ideal setting. It has magnificent tools at its disposal and it is generously funded. Nevertheless, it shows what can be done if the will is there.

"The Preuss School, located on the University of California San Diego (UCSD) campus in La Jolla, California, is a charter middle and high school dedicated to providing a rigorous college prep education for motivated low-income students who will become the first in their families to graduate from college. As part of UCSD, a major research institution, The Preuss School also serves as a model school to study and develop best practices in the preparation of low-income, urban students for college admission to be disseminated to improve public education. [Read more]"

If you read just the introductory paragraph above, you have to be excited and intrigued. If you clicked on "read more" and read in more depth, your corpuscles must have started dancing and prancing.

"The Preuss School's mission includes the development of strong character, healthy lifestyles, good judgment, ethical behavior and instilling a sense of service to one's home community. We believe that the family, neighborhood institutions and school all share responsibility for encouraging young people to develop as both scholars and citizens."

Okay, before we discuss how the Preuss School manages its success, let's take a peek at its 2007 graduating class as profiled by the school's web page.

  • One-hundred percent of the 2007 Preuss graduates will be attending two- and four-year colleges and universities. Two students will enroll in college by way of service in the Navy and Marines.
  • 96% of the graduating class of 2007 has been accepted to a 4 year college or university. The past three years it has been at 91%, a stellar number that we thought hard to surpass!

  • While 62% of the graduates of 2007 were accepted to a University of California campus, 32% have actually enrolled at a UC campus for the fall semester. Twelve students or 15% of our graduates will return to the UCSD campus in the fall as freshman students.

  • Eight students or 10% of the 2007 graduates will attend prestigious private universities such as Columbia, Colgate, Duke, Harvard, Vassar College, Woodbury, and the University of Southern California.

  • This class of 2006 has attracted $1.25 million in private scholarships and grants!

  • A record number of Preuss School students, five out of a graduating class of 78, have been designated as Gates – Millennium Scholars. They will be fully supported in college and graduate school as long as they maintain their grades and community service.

  • A relatively stable trend has been identified among our 2005, 2006 and 2007 graduates - on average, 40% have declared a major in engineering, science or a health-related field.

Okay, I'll admit it. Preuss starts with top-notch minority students. Remember, however, that they don't come out of situations where their parents and grandparents have shown academic success.

Here's the Preuss School's criteria for applicants – it shows clearly that the school starts off in a good position with their students.

The goal of The Preuss School at UCSD is to recruit and register the most promising youngsters who will enter the 6th , 7th , 8th , and 9th grades from the greater San Diego area who meet all of the following general criteria:

  1. All students must meet the federal school guidelines for economic support known as "Title One" or "Free or Reduced Lunch" subsidy.

  2. The parents or chief guardians are not graduates of a four-year college or university.

  3. Student applicants must demonstrate high motivation and family support as defined by the highly successful AVID program in San Diego schools.

There is no reason why there couldn't be a Preuss School in every state in the nation, with some states, like California, New York, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania having a number of such schools. Don't give me a jerking around about the cost. It's not a problem in Minnesota and it's not a problem in any of the states I mention above. There are big time funders and foundations in each of the states that would step up to the plate to bankroll a school like this.

Such schools could then become models for other schools in the community. Success begets success. A state just needs to show it is serious about educating minorities and in so doing we may discover one of the roots of the problem.

We must ask: Are states serious about the problem? Do community leaders really want to successfully educate minority students? Is there a threat to the established power structure? These are questions John Gibson raised in my last blog and they may be more real than I initially thought.

Teaching teachers to "teach like your hair is on fire!"
The education and training of teachers in America is not anything for us to brag about. Though there are exceptions, the education departments at our colleges and universities are probably the least praiseworthy of any departments on campus. This must change.

We must figure out how to teach teachers to inspire and motivate young people to work harder. The very clinical methods of instruction on how to teach have failed. They might work in situations where the students are already motivated by social circumstance and by their families, but this method won't work in schools where children are unmotivated, poor and hungry.

How do we develop more teachers like Rafe Esquith, about whom I dealt in the 2nd part of this series? Departments of Education in all the 50 states should be working on this question in cooperation with their state universities and colleges.

This is an interesting 2001 story from the New York Times, by Patrick J. McCloskey, called
"Schools that Work," pointing out that urban Catholic schools seem to succeed at a rate way above public school in educating poor and minority children.

Here's an interesting read: The full transcript of a 2005 PBS Program, Making Schools Work, with Hedrick Smith, in which some exciting examples are cited of schools that are succeeding with minority students.

Jay Mathews wrote this interesting story in a 2005 edition of The Washington Post about high schools in Washington, D.C. that were nominated by their readers as schools that work successfully with minority students and learning-disabled kids.

Here's the 2008 U.S. News and World Report list of the best high schools in America. You'll need to work your way through the list to find those that work with heavy minority and/or poverty students.

Newsweek's list of the 1,300 top high schools in America is interesting and worth browsing through, looking for those schools that succeed with minority and/or poverty students.

Here's a PDF of a report by Clink Bolick, Schools that Work for Minority Students.

A book, Making Schools Work for Underachieving Minority Students, edited by Josie G. Bain and Joan L. Herman, might be helpful. Like most specialty books of this type, it's very expensive and you probably should try to find it in a city, regional or university library. The cheapest one I found listed was at ABE (American Book Exchange) where there was a used copy for $24.95.