Friday, December 31, 2010

Winding Down But One More Year

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, driving a four-in-hand of Cleveland Bays in a dressage test at Windsor Castle in May, 1980 (Photograph by Anne Wakefield-Leck)

No complex resolutions this year, but a few straight-forward ones!
by Charlie Leck

I'm keeping my new year's resolution simple this year and pretty straight-forward and realistic.

First, I’m going to be steadfast about working out all through the coming year. I’ve been working out three times a week with a personal trainer on cardio, weight-lifting and stretching exercises. It’s done wonders for me. I’m going to keep it up!

Second, I’m going to get those hundreds and hundreds of slides in that storage closet in the basement converted to digital photographs and put on disks so the kids can each have them if they want.

Third, I’m going to finish writing a book that I’ve farted around with for the last 5 years. It won't be published, but I’ll know I wrote it as I want it to be written.

I’ve started on the 35mm slide conversion project already. That’s where that photo of me in Calais came from on my blog a couple of days ago (Waiting in Calais). This project deals with photographs from about 30 to 35 years ago and it certainly brings back memories. I won’t over-burden you with presentations of these old photographs, but you’ll occasionally need to reminisce with me here about a few of them.

Anne went on a trip as a spectator in 1980 to the Royal Windsor Horse Show in England. I can tell by the number of photographs she took of Prince Philip that she was infatuated with him, his horses and his driving. The Prince, along with Philip Hoffman of the United States, basically invented the horse-sport of combined driving. I thought the world of Mr. Hoffman and cherish yet the memories I have of my few encounters and drives with him (but that is a story for another day).

My point here is that this trip my wife took to England back then basically changed our lives and, as a result, took us to many incredible places to meet some of the most wonderful people we’ve ever known.

Combined driving is a three day driving event that examines the coordinated skills of driver and horses in three very different tests. It begins with each driver performing a dressage test. The competitors are grouped in single, pair and four-in-hand entries. The dressage portion of the competition is very demanding and requires hours upon hours of drilling and training of both the driver and the horses. I began dabbling (and that is all) in this sport after my wife came home with her exciting photographs. I was never patient enough to spend the required hours learning to be successful at a dressage test. I entered events for the thrill of the second day of the competition. At that I was willing to spend some time practicing.

The cross-country marathon event includes the maneuvering into, through and out of a set of obstacles or hazards on a drive of some distance over a set course through the open countryside. It’s really exciting and fun. Here you can see a four of well trained horses entering one of the obstacles that happens to include water. You can see the marathon vehicle tilting on the side of the bank as they enter, and notice that the driver and his grooms all lean (spike) to the high side to keep the carriage from tilting. On this course the driver and horses will encounter five or six obstacles of varying types and levels of difficulty. Scoring is done by keeping time on each team while it is in those hazards. Outside the hazards, and over the long course, there are sections that must be driven at a walk only and others at a trot. Inside the hazards the driver and horses may go at any speed or gait they wish.

To the left is a photograph of the Swiss team driving through the same water hazard. Notice the gentleman to the left of the driver. He's a referee and it's his job to make sure no violations of the rules occur during the long drive over the cross country course, either while inside the hazards or outside them. I won't go into that long list of rules for you here because I think I might be pushing you all quickly toward the breaking point. The Swiss, Dutch, Germans, Poles and Swedes really have this sport down and always excel at it.

Unquestionably, driving these courses was one of the most exciting and enjoyable sporting adventures in which I ever participated; however, over time, we came to realize how exceptionally hard the sport was on our horses, both in terms of injuring them physically but also in sometimes ruining them mentally. It became an easy decision, once we realized this, to give up participating.

Now, top competitors at the highest levels often go through quite a few horses in the course of a season in trying to keep a single group of four together.

Our steel marathon carriages, or cross-country vehicles, sit now unused and I am no longer such an ardent admirer of the sport. It’s gotten so much more demanding than it was back when Prince Philip and Mr. Hoffman drew up the rules and procedures. I do, however, enjoy watching the dressage competitions on the first day and the stadium or "cones driving" that takes place on the third day of the event. The photo to the left shows one of the competitors driving “the cones” on the third day of the driving competition (that’s Windsor Castle in the background). It's a skill I never had the patience to develop. It takes soft, but strong hands and a great deal of calmness on the part of both the horses and the driver. It's one of the amazing things about the sport that the same horses must come back and do this very delicate bit of driving a day after being driven so wildly over the cross-country course.

Windsor is an extraordinary show and happening and, after Anne brought the photographs home in 1980, I was motivated to join her on a couple of other trips across the pond to see the big show. Great fun!

There are many wonderful exhibits to watch in addition to the four-in-hand driving. The draft horses in the United Kingdom are deeply loved and big crowds gather to watch them perform (as these two big fellows are as they pull a "trade wagon") in an arena in Windsor Park. Spend a week at this fantastic horse show and you'll see ponies of every sort, jumping and hunting horses, trotters pulling sulkies and road carts and, of course, the Queen's incredible Horse Guard (below/left) that always completely wows the crowds.

The Royal Windsor Horse Show is a national treasure in England. The crowds are amazing. There are dozens and dozens of shopping stands and many pavilions for dining. The Queen is easily spotted scurrying about from place to place. She's a real horse-lover and she wants to see as much as she possibly can. She's not surrounded by guards and she can be seen driving her own Land Rover from one part of the grounds to another and sometimes her Corgis are tagging along with her. I do believe that the week of the show is a great week for her.

Now all of this has come about because of a lovely gift that I found under the tree on Christmas morning. My wife gave me a powerful slide-scanner by the German company, SilverFast. It's a beauty and it's helping me move all these photos (gathered over many years) from slides to digital format. It will certainly help me keep one of my three resolutions for 2011.

And, oh yes, how could I forget? There are also donkey or jackass classes to be taken in at Windsor. Three or four arenas have events going on constantly throughout the day. In the evening there are musical shows put on in the main arena and they usually have a horse theme to them. And, they usually conclude with fireworks.

Well, this was certainly a blog of a different sort (as in "horse of a different color") and I apologize to those of you who were bored stiff. To you, and to everyone, I present my wishes that you have a very happy, happy new year.


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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I Found a New and Incredible Blog

Go take a look at OLD PICTURE OF THE DAY and see if you can appreciate the amount of work it must take to produce it!
by Charlie Leck

I won’t go on and on here. I’m just going to send you to a blog so you can, perhaps, have the same experience I had. I found it incredible and wondered how anyone could be so devoted to a blog and do that much work.

It’s produced by a fellow in west Texas who calls himself PJM. Every day he presents quite extraordinary old photographs. Usually he adds a paragraph or two of explanation, insight or thoughts that were spurred by the images. Other times he goes on with page after page of historical explanation and insight.

The day’s blogs seem always well done. PJM writes well and he’s interesting.

Visiting this blog every day, as I nearly always do, is not a bad way to spend a few minutes of your time.

As an example, the photograph in the heading is from one of my favorite on-line galleries of old photos: The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at Yale University. Imagine being able to take this photo and understand the context and innuendo behind its title: “What is it I want, John Henry?” Such an explanation is what PJM does for you every day.

Go ahead and try it – you just might like it: OLD PICTURE OF THE DAY!


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A review of True Grit

A review of True Grit by Stanley Fish makes for great reading
by Charlie Leck

I guess there’s some controversy about the Cohen Brothers’ remake of the movie, True Grit. Frankly, I haven’t seen it, though I certainly will – because I admire the movie making skills of these guys even though I often come out of a viewing shaking my head and wondering about them.

Well, I’ll tell you, I just read a New York Times review of the movie by Stanley Fish. What a piece of writing!

Don’t miss the movie and, certainly, don’t miss this review of it!


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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Waiting in Calais

It was time, and I knew it!
by Charlie Leck

I came across an old and forgotten photograph yesterday and it stirred memories. I've shared it with you in the heading here. Nearly 35 years later, it looks odd, I suppose, but it marked me as I was in a time during which I was moving from one personal era to another. The rumbles in America were over and the nation was seeking its balance again and so was I.

In the 60s I'd been torn apart along with many others in the nation. I was a very moderate guy when it all began, living a restrained and modest life. However, it became difficult to continue living that way in America in the 60s. One had to be pretty blind to do it. Racial injustice was on the front page of every newspaper, nearly every day. America inched into a war in Vietnam that had no purpose and you had to be blind to truth and ignorant of reality to support it. It was an unjust and uncalled for war and I believe history supports that evaluation.

The question for me became simple, but framing the answer was difficult: Do I sit on the sidelines and pretend I don't see the injustices or do I stand and speak the truth and add my voice to the protests? I generally tried to do the former for the first few years of the decade, but the truth of the nation's condition tore at my insides. My coming-out was in 1964 with a summer trip to Mississippi, about which I've written a great deal on this blog, beginning with a piece called Remembering the Sixties.

From '64 to '74, I tried to live two lives – holding a conventional job in order to make a living and support a family, while, at the same time, finding ways to protest and oppose America's pursuit of an unjust war and the nation’s far too slow reformation of its racial attitudes. I was, at heart, in union with those radicals who took to the streets over both issues even while I donned a coat and tie of respectability and went to work every day.

I've written a long work on the 60s, trying to describe and define it for my grandchildren and their children. In it, I explain that the 60s began, for me, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was a mind altering and personally devastating event. It changed my personality and my attitudes. As well, for me, the 60s came to end on that day in May, 1970, when National Guardsmen opened fire on protesting students at Kent State University and killed several and wounded a number of others. I began to look at my dual life – the inner radical and outer moderate-worker – and realized it wouldn't and couldn’t hold together. The killings at Kent State caused my brain to vomit. Mere functioning became difficult for me.

Most historians date the beginning of the 60s with the beginning of forced integration of southern schools in 1956. They see the end of the period coinciding with America’s withdraw from Vietnam in 1975. So, then, the 60s become a period in history of nearly 20 years rather than just a decade.

The assassinations, in 1968, of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. had torn at my mind and seemed to demand something of me. From 1968 to 1978 I had a pretty lost and troubled soul. The period altered lots of things for me and, in early January of 1978, led me to move to France, where I had originally intended to take up permanent residence. However, just before I left America’s shores I fell in love with the most incredible person in the world and that encounter seemed to both bring me back to reality and to something of an even keel. For me, personally, the 60s came to an end when she came to Paris in May to bring me home.

Most of this probably just raises questions for you – if you care at all! In fact, most of you have probably stopped reading before you arrived at this paragraph and just moved on. For others, who do care, I’m working on answering those questions with a full description of what the 60s did to so many of us and to our nation. This coming year is it! I have promised myself and committed myself to completing it in the next 11 months. If and when I do, I’ll certainly announce it here.

My mind is, of course, settled these days. I can look at those years with some sense of perspective now.

One of the best and most important books I’ve read about this period is Mark Kurlansky’s book about 1968 (which ends up being also about the years that led up to 1968 and a few of the years that followed it): 1968: The Year that Rocked the World [Ballantine Books, NY, 2004 (ISBN 0-345-45581-9)]. The conclusion of his Introduction in that book nags at me:

“Working on this book reminded me that there was a time when people spoke their minds and were not afraid to offend – and that since then, too many truths have been buried.”

It’s time, I know it, to do some digging around!


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Monday, December 27, 2010

Extraordinary Reporting

Really excellent and intriguing newspaper writing still ranks high on my list of favorite things...
by Charlie Leck

I sat transfixed yesterday by an article on the front page of this Sunday’s New York Times. I read it through with great admiration for the good, crisp writing. When I finished it, I went back to the top and read it again, trying to understand it all and not wanting to miss anything important.

The headline: “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours: Missed Signals. Indecision. Failed Defenses. Acts of Valor.” [You can read the article, view a slide show and watch a video all on the New York Times on-line site!]

The reporters on the piece were David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul. The final writing was done by Barstow. I’ll think they'll receive awards for their work.

“Nearly 400 feet long, the Horizon had formidable and redundant defenses against even the worst blowout. It was equipped to divert surging oil and gas safely away from the rig. It had devices to qickly seal off a well blowout or to break free from it. It had systems to prevent gas from exploding and sophisticated alarms that would quickly warn the crew at the slightest trace of gas. The crew itself routinely practiced responding to alarms, fires and blowouts, and it was blessed with experienced leaders who clearly care about safety.

“On paper, experts and investigators agree, the Deepwater Horizon should have weathered this blowout.

“This is the story of how and why it didn’t.”
[New York Times, Sunday, 26 December 2010: David Barstow]

In the year ahead, we are going to hear a great deal of the federal government’s case that brings criminal charges against more than one company and against a number of individuals. The entire story is shocking and heartbreaking, but also compelling. I really recommend this New York Times piece to you and I urge you to follow this story closely in the coming months.

The Deepwater Horizon was an extreme environmental disaster. Officials of the industry are trying to gloss it over and suggest that it was successfully cleaned up and that damage was minimal. If you go beneath the surface of their claims, you discover that they are not only mistaken, but that they are also lying. Yet, beyond the environmental disaster, the calamity cost good men – husbands and fathers – their lives.

Someone should pay for the environmental damage – and, someone should pay for these crimes!


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Friday, December 24, 2010

All Awaits Santa's Arrival

Saint Nickolas soon will be here! Our 2010 Christmas Tree is ready!

Though there are no little children nestled in bed, the stockings are hung with great care in hopes that Saint Nickolas soon will be here!
by Charlie Leck

All is ready on this peaceful Christmas Eve in Minnesota. To all of you, my faithful readers, I wish you, so sincerely, a very happy Christmas Day (whether or not you celebrate it). It is a big occasion in our household. I expect it is I who makes it so. Christmas morning, when I was a child, was always a big deal to me. I've told the story here before about my sleepless nights as I lay in bed wide-awake, waiting and listening for the sound of jingling bells and the laughter of old Saint Nick. As hard as I fought it, sleep always finally came and I would only awaken when I heard the calling voice of my father from down at the bottom of the stairs.

"Santa has been here! It's okay to come down now!"

My sweet, now departed sister, ten years older than I, as the eldest of the children, always led the procession down the stairway that opened into our kitchen. My two brothers followed after her according to their ages and I, the youngest, came last. From the landing and the final two steps that led into the kitchen, I could see on into the living room where the big, lighted Christmas tree stood. The spread of gifts beneath it always took my breath away.

My mother would be standing near the tree, dressed in a long, fluffy bathrobe and cozy slippers. The smile across her face was enormous and only at her signal would my sister and brothers open a pathway through which I was given a full view of the wonders that Santa had wrought. I would run into the living room and, in great glee, slide on my knees up to the pile of gifts stuffed beneath the tree. I wondered, almost in agony, about which gift to open first. I believe the largest one alway won out.

I've never been able to duplicate that Christmas sensation for my children, even though I've tried very diligently to do so.

And now, there are no children here and there is little eye-popping wonder in the eyes of our mature, childless kids when they arrive from their own homes for a very late morning brunch and, eventually, for the opening of the gifts.

"Oh, hum!"

There is no going home again, indeed! Yet know this: The excitement when I rise on Christmas morning is still there. Even though I did every bit of the decorating of the tree and put every gift in its place beneath it, I still rise and go to the living room and feel a 65+ year old sense of surprising thrill as I look upon the wondrous tree and the pile of gifts that I insist must be enormous.

"Oh, Christmas Tree! Oh, Christmas Tree, much pleasure doth thou bring me!"


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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Santa Struggling

I’ve got it straight from Santa that he’s struggling this year and things may be a little different around here..
by Charlie Leck

For starters, Santa told me he is finished with landing on rooftops and sliding down chimneys.

“That business,” Santa told me, with no shaking belly laugh, “of coming down chimneys has gotten just too damned difficult. Have you ever seen all these energy savings devices they clutter these chimneys up with these days? And have you noticed the way they build roofs on these houses today? Take yours, for instance. Where in the hell, on that rooftop, am I supposed to land a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer?”

And Santa, like a lot of old guys, is suffering mightily with aching hips and knees. He argued vehemently that homes all ought to be more handicap accessible. He was particularly angry about the challenges posed for him at our house.

“Look,” he said, grabbing my arm and pulling me over to our decorated Christmas tree, “look where you hung the danged stockings.”

He pointed to the windows behind the Christmas tree. There hung six empty and waiting stockings for the children and mom and dad. Surrounding the Christmas tree was a pile of carefully wrapped gifts that was about two feet deep.

“How is an old fella supposed to climb over that pile of gifts to get to those stockings and work in that confined space to get them filled up with Christmas cheer? Why, that’s more difficult than getting down your confounded chimney with that little foot by a foot, fire-proof and insulated pipe you’ve got running through it.”

Santa made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t climbing over piles of gifts any longer and he expected the front door to be left unlocked if he was to pay us a visit.

“And, I want a clear landing space out there on your driveway with at least a 100 feet strip of straight driveway to taxi on.”

“You fellas can figure out how to make iPads, for heaven’s sake, and you ought to be able to figure out a way to make life easier on Santa. Why, in this day and age, I shouldn’t be using reindeer to get around the world when it is so easy to deliver gifts electronically. I think more boys and girls ought to be asking for things I could just as easily download to them. If I could do that, don’t you know, then I could just spend the evening slipping from place to place for the treats you all leave out for me. Oh, I suppose I could haul an occasional gift along with me – you know, something that just won’t down load on a computer – like a toilet plunger or the like.”

The little, rotund guy got a laugh out of that one and his eyes sparkled as he laughed uproariously.

“Ho, ho, ho!”

He limped toward my liquor cabinet and found a bottle of 12 year old scotch.

“Oh, my,” he said, smacking his lips.

I moved to the refrigerator as quickly as I could, so I could dig out a few ice cubes for the old guy.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve got a hip that’s just killing me. I wanted one of your Minnesota doctors to replace it with one of those whiz-bang titanium things they’ve got these days; but he told me the hip wasn’t bad enough yet – that I just didn’t show enough arthritis. ‘Medicare would never approve it,’ he says to me and then he gives me a shot of something right in the side of the hip for what he says is just bursitis that I’ve got in there. ‘Live with it,’ he says to me with a flick of his hand as he zooms out the door; and then he looks back at me and says: ‘Oh, yes, and a merry, merry Christmas to one and to all!’”

“Well,” Santa said with a stern look on his face and a shake of his head, “if I have to live with it than so do all you little boys and girls. No more stockings hung with care. I’m going to fill ‘em up and just set them down on a chair or even under the tree with that disgusting pile of gifts.”

Santa took a big gulp of the scotch and then looked at his magnificent Tag-Heuer watch and jumped to his feet.

“Hey, look at the time! I’ve got to fly!”


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A New Obama

I no sooner than write a scathing blog about Obama’s lack of skill in working legislation through Congress, when (boom!) he turns around and looks like a master in working the START Treaty through the Senate.
by Charlie Leck

START is the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. It is our agreement with the Russians about the number of nuclear weapons, and launchers for those weapons, that we may each hold on to. Yesterday, the Senate ratified the treaty in spite of Republican leadership’s desire to hold it over for the next Congress. A number of Republicans broke rank to support this treat.

It must definitely be considered a victory for President Obama.

In my last blog I wrote about the President’s ineptness in working with the national legislative bodies and that “Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell” had passed in spite of the President’s failures. The White House is trying to spin it quite differently and credit Obama with a major victory in getting this legislation passed. Forget it, Dude! I’m not buying it.

I received a pot-load of email from readers condemning that blog. My readership sure gets irked by any criticism of the President. Lighten up folks and try to think about it objectively. This is a President who has had difficulty with his congressional relations. It’s possible the blame could lay with Rob Emmanuel, Obama’s departed Chief of Staff, who has gone off to run for Mayor of Chicago. He was well known for his gruff and tough approach to negotiations. Now Obama has several aides working Congress, including a couple of woman (I’ll write about here soon) who have a much softer and gentler approach.

However, I’ll tip my hat to President Obama over the Senate’s ratification of START. This was a victory and it may also be a sign, and a good one, that the President and the Congress may well be able to work together for the good of the country; though I do admit that the next Congress will be a more difficult one than this one.

Kudos to the President.


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Monday, December 20, 2010


In spite of, and not because of, President Obama, “Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell!” will end…
by Charlie Leck

There must be reasons why our current president is so inept when it comes to maneuvering legislation through the Congress. Like no president in my life time, he has been unable to find managers among the nation’s Senators and Representatives who will carry his water for him. Most of his campaign promises (including the health care reform with a public option he promised) have made no headway whatsoever in Congress.

This is odd.

Presidents like Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy, even facing minority controlled legislative bodies, were able to move bills through the House and Senate. So were Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Bush. Lyndon Johnson was an absolute master at it.

Now, in spite of himself, one of President Obama’s campaign promises will, thankfully, be fulfilled. The military’s policy of “don’t ask – don’t tell” will come to an end. Gay and Lesbian members of the military will soon be able to serve openly. No longer will they be forced to live out lies while they serve. Hooray!

Credit for getting the bill through Congress will go to Independent Joe Lieberman (CT) and Republican Susan Collins (ME).

Lieberman is clearly a progressive and Collins is an extremely moderate Republican. They both comes from states that supported the action.

The President was prepared to wait for the next session of Congress – a much more Republican and much more conservative Congress – to take action on this bill. It was difficult to understand his reasoning.

Well, it happened on his watch and he will likely try to take credit for it when the next nominating convention comes around. Astute observers will know that this is not true.


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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Visiting with the Dead

My sister, Jean, of blessed memory has been gone for a couple of years now and I wonder if she is trying to pay us visits!
by Charlie Leck

I’m not a believer in ghosts. Not at all! I’ve written about that here before and it got several comments out of readers who did (sort of) believe in them. My sister, dear Jean of blessed memory, believed in them. She became agitated when I told her the idea was impossible and defied the laws of science. She claimed that she had seen ghosts and knew that the spirits of the dead were always nearby – and that I was wrong, science or no science!

If some sort of earthly life after death were at all possible, I wouldn’t put it past my departed sister to try to prove it to me.

One of my daughters sent along a message a few days ago.

I should tell you about a great dream I had--so real.
I was at a family gathering, kind of a party. In an oversized chair sat Aunt Jean--a little younger with darker and more hair, a bit of make-up, and a bright, bold top. I was so surprised to see her. When I went to give her a hug, I actually crawled on her lap. I squeezed and hugged her as hard as I could. Then I woke up with the sense that someone was hugging me too. I was crying--real tears. Jim was on his side of the bed with his back to me, so I couldn't help but feel that Aunt Jean visited me. It was amazing.”

Well, all I can say is: “I wonder!”

I’ll try to be alert around this season of the year that she loved so very much. She came up from Texas and spent her last Christmas on earth with us here in our Minnesota home. She brought a teenage grandchild with her because she wanted the girl to experience a northern Christmas. She had hoped it would be a white, white Christmas; however, when her plane landed the earth laid uncovered and wintry brown.

However, on Christmas Eve, as we sat at the dining room table, the snow was falling heavily and all the land and the trees were covered with a lovely, white blanket. My dear sister couldn’t stop smiling. She believed God was giving her a special and very blessed holy day. She had been to an afternoon mass.

“I prayed for this at church today,” she told us as she looked out the windows at the wondrous, white world. She was beaming with pride. “I knew it would snow. I knew it!”

In my entire life, I have never seen such a glow of happiness and thankfulness.

She loved coming to Minnesota to visit us. For some reason, she liked coming during the winter so she could see the stark differentness from the Texas winters. It reminded her of winters at our home in New Jersey when we were young. The photo in the heading is from her 2003 visit. She was also here in 1991 when we were moving into our newly constructed home on Halloween Day. The moving vans came with all our furniture and it began to snow as the men began unloading. They hadn’t gotten half our things out when they realized how hard it was snowing and that they might have trouble maneuvering back down our long, zigzag, up and down driveway. They retreated and promised to return with the rest of our furniture another day. Dearest Jean stood in our kitchen, looking out the window and listening to the radio warnings about a very serious winter storm. Well, we broke all the records for such an early snow. More than 31 inches fell and we were to be isolated for two or three days before plows could get through to us and get our driveway opened up. Though she had been frightened at first, the old girl reveled in the absolute beauty and wonder of the whiteness that surrounded us. She had stories to tell to her friends, when she got back to Texas, that they were never going to believe. She urged me to take photograph after photograph for her.

Now, as this Christmas approaches, the land here is covered with a heavy blanket of clean, bright, white snow. I believe, if my sister was going to visit anywhere on earth at this time of year, it would be here, in Minnesota and in our home. I’ll try to stay open to the possibilities. I’ve never missed anyone as much as I miss her. I think of her nearly every day.

“Come on, dear Jean Madeline – come and see all the beautiful snow that God has spread upon the earth!”


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Friday, December 17, 2010

Sunlight… Wonderful Sunlight

Photo by Ibrahim Lujaz (from and used with permission.

If you might want to give me a Christmas gift, here’s an idea for you!
by Charlie Leck

Okay, you haven’t really been burning up the wires, trying to figure out what it is I’d appreciate as a Christmas gift, but I’ll give you an idea anyway.

Give me a little sunlight… really!

I’m being really clever this morning. Don’t you think so? There's a really worthy organization called the Sunlight Foundation that would profit greatly if you would make a donation of even just a few bucks. Sunlight is coming down to the wire on a matching grant of $500,000 that requires they come up with 1,500 small, individual donors by the end of the year. They still have about 150 to go.

I’m unabashedly asking you to go to the Sunlight Foundation web site, click on the donation button and make even a very small donation to help the organization make its goal. I’ll consider it a Christmas gift if you do and I’ll really appreciate it.

Here’s what Sunlight does for us…

You want to make government more transparent?
Sunlight helps us see better – to better see into government and to understand exactly what it is government is doing that they might not like us to understand. Like, do you want to find out who is behind all the big money in politics? Sunlight lets you see! You wanna clear pic of how government is really spending our money? Okay, go to Clear Spending and Sunlight will allow you to look inside and get just that info! How about finding out who the really big lobbyists are in Washington? Throw a little Sunlight on it! I’ve only brushed the surface, friends – really! You’ll be able to see how extensive the Sunshine is, and how much light they shed on things, if you take a look at their web site.

Honest to god, this is an important foundation doing work that is important to both of us – to you and to me! I really want to see them get this very well deserved grant. You can help by giving them a little bit of dough – just a little even!

And you’ll make me a happy man and I’ll be all smiles on Christmas morning. Please, give to the Sunlight Foundation.


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Thursday, December 16, 2010

An Easy Turn it is Not

How many criminals and ne’er-do-goods do we read about (or hear from) who have seen the light and turned to faith?
by Charlie Leck

I often wonder what it is they mean!
These folks who’ve wasted so much of their lives in selfish and even narcissistic living, who eventually run up against a wall of nothingness and hopelessness, and then turn to “faith” or “God” in their moment of crisis, kind of drive me crazy!

One can only sit back upon hearing from such a person, about their new found faith, and ask: Really? Oh, my!

Prisons are filled with such people! So are families! And so are nations!

I’ve heard from such a fellow recently. He’s not been kind and generous with love, friendship and helpfulness in his life. I guess if I wanted to define narcissism, I would tell you about him – a full personification of the word. Amour-propre, the French call it (an expression that translates as pride, but is much more abundant in its meaning than that – more a deep pride and self-love).

This fellow hasn’t had much time for other people in his life. It’s easy to see the symptoms of that when one is in his presence. He has difficulty in conversations and therefore simply chooses to dominate them. He can’t perform the simple act of sitting back, crossing his legs and listening thoughtfully and generously (and lovingly) to what someone else has to say. No one in a gathering with him can say much more than a sentence or two before he grabs the topic or idea and then runs with it as his own oratorical presentation that might last several minutes. Most times such orations are about himself or about his own experiences; and they, most times, include references to far-away, exotic and expensive places or occurrences. When he goes off on one of these unreserved tales, I can see the eyes of his listeners roll to the top of their heads and more than one person usually blushes with embarrassment (if not anger).

I wonder sometimes, as I listen to him, if he has a friend in the world. I don’t mean hangers-on, acquaintances and jerks who want to take advantage of him! I mean friends – others who care about him and cherish moments in his presence – and people who look to him for love and advice.

But the big question always becomes for me this: Who is this God they’ve suddenly turned to?
The fellow I have in mind hasn’t led a very meritorious life. Quite the contrary, he has been so consumed with interest in the materialistic life that he hasn’t had much time to think of grace, goodness, kindness and spiritualism. Such concepts, I imagine, are totally luminal to him even though, many years ago, he was surrounded by such kind and giving people in his life. In other words – words of harsh truth – he grew up to be a snob! Driven by such strong desires for wealth and an easy, consumptive life, he, of course, began to dabble in corruption and malfeasance.

Even after being caught, exposed and incarcerated, he still had notoriously fictional explanations for his unacceptable and inappropriate behavior. One would think that viewing one’s self in such a state would be a humbling and jarring experience.

Narcissism is, however, a disease of great depth, defined often in erotic terms of self-affection and admiration of one’s own physical and mental attributes. It is an infantile stage that virtually all human beings go through and out of which most pass. Those who get seriously stuck in such stages of self-centeredness and egocentrism are, indeed, psychologically ill.

Narcissus (from the Greek, Νάρκισσος) was a great hunter in Greek mythology who hailed from the region of Thespiae. He was famous for his great and glamorous beauty. The key that we may discover in looking at the myth of Narcissus is that he disdained all who loved and admired him. I vaguely remember, from a Greek mythology class, a description of the divine punishment that was levied upon Narcissus. He was to spend eternity gazing at his own reflection, so captured by it that he could not drag himself away from such beauty.

What a turn it must be from such self-involvement to a relationship with God!
Whatever one believes of God, one has to sense that the great IT must be the exact opposite of narcissism. No? I find it terribly difficult to define for people that which I believe God is. Yet, when I contemplate such self-involvement and self-love, it seems an easy stride to the opposite of it; and that is other-involvement and love of others; yet not to the abandonment of care and respect for one’s self. Somewhere here, in such thinking, we are moving close to a depiction of God that may be accurate.

I remember a remarkable professor I had in graduate school, drawing the defining triangle on the black board and I have always carried this chalked imagine in my mind.

God is not something distant and removed from us. Rather, God is in us or with us. When you understand that, you can truly experience God in a real, relevant and meaningful way. The trick is not to anthropomorphize God. “God is Love,” the epistles try to explain to us. And my diminutive professor drew arrows in all sorts of circling directions and appealed to us to understand that God was to be discovered in the act of loving others as much as we love ourselves and, in so doing, by loving God fully. One can not understand God without such love and respect for both our neighbors (the others in our life) and for our self as part of the great circle of love that leads to God.

Encountering God is earth-shaking! It is reformative and liberating.

One hears from plenty of people who have encountered God. For me, it is not difficult to measure or evaluate that claim. Some time spent with a person who makes such a claim will, to me, reveal the truth of it. How other-centered is the person? Does he have a healthy, rather than consuming, love for himself; and does he sincerely love other people? Such a test I can impose upon those rapscallions who claim to have finally encountered God and been saved by God.

No eternal punishment, it seems to be, would be more cruel and painful, as being condemned for eternity to contemplate only one’s self.

Please understand, I am not claiming here to have discovered
the nature of God. Read more between the lines than that.
I am certain I know what God is not. I am not so certain about
what God is. It helps me in such discourse never to use the
pronouns to refer to God – no “him” or “her,” you see.


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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bachmann in the Senate is an Ugly Thought

It’s obscene really; that is, to imagine Michele Bachmann as a United States Senator. What’s the nation coming to?
by Charlie Leck

It is absolutely no fun to rise in the morning, spread out the newspaper and then read something over one’s first spoonful of Cheerios that completely turns ones stomach. Yuk!

Headline: State Republicans want Bachman v. Klobuchar in 2012
Oh my! Those of you who aren’t from Minnesota probably won’t get the same woozy feeling in your stomach that we’re getting up here. It’s bad enough having the crazy, floozy Michele Bachman in the House of Representative. Can you imagine her in the distinguished, deliberative body of the United States Senate?

Our current senior U.S. Senator will have to run for reelection in November 2012. She’s done a fantastic job and makes most of Minnesota proud. If she wants it, she’ll be the single and hands-down choice of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party up here. On first blush it would seem that she would be unbeatable.

Klobuchar has done a fantastic job. She understands the process and she knows how to negotiate and make progress with fellow Senators on both sides of the aisle. She's a reasonable and rational person. Though you'd certainly have to call her a progressive, she is by no means a wild-eyed leftist. She has an opportunity to establish herself as one of the really great U.S. Senators in America. She's so effective in debates and discussions of issues, that one would normally say there is no way Bachmann could dream of beating her.

Yet, we have to remind ourselves about the insane and obscene decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court back in January (in a 5-4 split decision) in the case of Citizens United v the Federal Election Commission. No longer is it just a matter of the people deciding elections. The conservative controlled court has opened the process up to corporations, too; but I’ve written about that enough here. Now, however, a decision that may have seemed very esoteric at first glance is showing its very ugly, real and applicable side in America’s democratic election process.

With American corporations throwing their heavyweight money around, anything could happen.

What I’m saying here is that the crazy politician from the 6th Congressional District may now expand her power throughout the state thanks to the financial clout a number of corporations will wield here – including a giant like the Target Corporation – and they will likely fill her campaign coffers to over-flowing. She couldn’t spend all the money she raised in this past election for Congress. She has a two million dollar surplus with which to start a run for the Senate.

The Pandora’s Box that the Supreme Court opened is about to bite us all. Corporations will have more power in the 2012 Presidential election than will the people of the land. If you didn't get that, go back and read the sentence again. A lot of future elections will be decided by U.S. corporations.

And, if you think this is significant up here in my state of Minnesota, you all ought to start looking at your own states. If you’ve got the idea you might like to support a more progressive candidate, just bear in mind that the corporations in your area might be lining up against you and spending hundreds of millions on the campaign advertising of conservative opponents.

It’s a strange country we’re living in and the impossibilities of last year are now very much frightening possibilities thanks to our U.S. Supreme Court. After thinking about Michele Bachmann as our U.S. Senator, I feel like someone kicked me square in the testicles. Oh, my!


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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Red Sky in the Morning

I’ve already posted my day’s blog. It went up while it was still very dark outside. Now the sky is bright and beautiful and I need to write about it.
by Charlie Leck

The sky this morning is lusciously colorful as the sun begins to rise. It’s bright blue with splashes of very pink, wispy clouds. “Red sky in the morning – a sailor’s warning!”

Another storm is out there, lurking, waiting!

We’re still recovering from the snow over the weekend. Thousands of tons of snow will have to be removed from the city streets in Minneapolis. It’s been plowed into mountainous piles on the sides of the streets and especially at street corners. It’s difficult for automobiles to park tight against the curb, so they are almost always protruding into the inside lane of traffic. That slows everything to a crawl at the rush hours.

Snow removal budgets will be used up quickly this year and the cities and bigger suburbs will need to appeal for more money. No one is in the mood to spend more money right now. Politicians are adamant about it. Our little town boasts of decreasing taxes by 9 percent this year. I’ll anxiously watch to see if services drop off by about 9 percent also.

Just as fast as I’ve written these few paragraphs, the pinkness is gone from the sky and so is the brightness. Now it’s a dull, grayish blue; but, we’ve had our warning. Our plows and snowblowers and shovels are at the ready.


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Talent and Ability in the Presidency

Wasn't Bill Clinton funny last week in the joint press conference with President Obama from the White House? He was back in his element and I enjoyed seeing him there. And, he enjoyed it immensely.
by Charlie Leck

That joint press conference with the President and former President last week was just wonderful. I laughed with great vigor when the President explained that he had to leave, because Michelle was waiting, but encouraged former President Clinton to remain and go on as long as he wanted. And, as long as the press had a question, old Bill was ready to entertain us all with long-winded answers.

There was something extraordinary about this man as President. And, part of it was the scandals and gossip. He was a colorful and exciting President -- never dull and always ready for a legislative fight with Congress. Clinton knew how to jaw bone.

I don't think it's possible that history will give him a bad rating as a president. After all, look at the remarkable job he did with the economy. And, he knew how to massage and squeeze his legislative requests through both the House and the Senate.

Bill Clinton's great strength was that he was the consumate politician. He was a politician about 95 percent of the time and a diplomat and negotiator the remaining 5 percent. He showed us the importance of intimately understanding political leverage in order to get things done in Washington.

Sadly, our current Chief Executive doesn't have that ability and I think history will write the story just that way. President Obama is a good and kind man with a remarkable sense of humor. He also has a great dream for the nation. He just doesn't understand implementation.

I find myself constantly wondering how Hillary would have been as President. I was a strong supporter of her at first and then Obama charmed me over to his side.

Though Bill Clinton was valiant in defending the President, I think Mr. Obama made a grave mistake in caving too far to the GOP. Indeed, the Republicans had him over a barrel, but I believe Mr. Obama will be long remembered for this concession and it has established his legacy as a weak politician and legislator.


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Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Beautiful, Terrible Storm

I decorated the Christmas tree while the healthy crowd got to play outside in the snow, moving it away from the sidewalks around the house, the quarter-mile long driveway and the miles of roads down around the farm.
by Charlie Leck

This is but an update of yesterday's blog about the snownommi that came rolling into our part of Minnesota yesterday morning. It was a barn-burner of a storm -- the largest I've seen here in Minnesota in twenty years. We took a total of 20 inches at our home. Many places around this part of the state took more and some took less.

Fortunately, the winds were mild around here. Down in the very flat country of south and southwest Minnesota, they experienced severe blizzards and most of the highways and local roads were closed up tight.

My wife, and her crew of one, dug us out once yesterday, opening our long driveway and all the farm roads and paths out to the animals, but the snow just went on and on and everything needs to be redone today. Our farm worker was a trooper yesterday, giving up other plans to stay through the day to shovel and plow and blow away snow. He's going to do the same today.

The animals depend upon us, you know. They have shelters they can get into, but we've got to make sure the waterers are working and that there is a way to get feed out to them. It becomes the #1 job around a farm at times like this.

I took a photo yesterday of the deck on the west side of my study, to show you how much snow we were getting. Take a look at this morning's photo to see the difference. It wasn't our biggest storm in our nearly 50 years in Minnesota, but it was pretty significant.

I, with my bad hip, wasn't very helpful. I stayed in and finished decorating the Christmas tree. Santa is somewhat disabled this year and he's way behind on Christmas shopping (so I hear). I have a feeling there will be a lot of little gifts under the tree this year -- tiny packages about the size of cash cards for the children's favorite shopping emporiums. Quite frankly, I think that will make all of them happier anyway.

All the local shopping malls closed up yesterday, as did many restaurants and theaters. State and county snow plows were pulled off the road because of the dangers they created for any fools who were daring enough to go out on the roads. As well, the Salvation Army pulled their bell-ringers off the streets for what they said was the first time ever. Quite ironically, one of the events canceled was a 20th anniversary celebration of Will Steger's International Transantarctica Expedition.

The roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome (aka Mall of America Field) failed under the heavy storm and collapsed. The Vikings and the New York Giants (NFL) were supposed to play a football game there today (now postponed until Monday night). You can read a story about that and about the other impacts of the storm on life up here -- and see some good photos -- by going to our local newspaper (The Sunday StarTrib). That paper's front-page story called it "a beautiful, terrible storm." And that it was, reminding us again of the power and glory of good, old Mother Nature.
"Across the Twin Cities, residents shoveled, ran snow blowers, got stuck, dug each other out, canceled Christmas shopping (even the Mall of America gave up and closed early) and gazed out exasperated but awestruck at the beautiful, terrible storm."
For those southerns among my readers, who've never seen anything like this, I point you to this little photo slideshow from our local newspaper, which you may find both fascinating and frightening.

Now, on the heels of the snow, comes the cold. Forecasters are calling for highs of 5 degrees today, with windchills down to 30 degrees below zero. Oh, my!

As we used to say all the time, with a giggle and some sense of pride, "Welcome to Minnesota!" At our age now, we don't say that with quite such glee anymore. This was, indeed a memorable storm and young people in Minnesota will be telling their grandchildren about it even as we old codgers always talk about the Halloween storm of '91.

At the very least, I think I can guaranty all Minnesotans a very white Christmas this year. Now, if Santa can only make his way through the snow, bad hip and all, and get gifts gathered up to put beneath our fully decorated and prepared Christmas Tree. Two weeks can make a big difference in Minnesota and I am predicting that Santa will make it and all the good little boys and girls of our family will be pleased as punch by the gifts he brings them even if they are in the form of little plastic cards. Mother will make a feast for us all again and we'll discover once more that the real joy of Christmas is not found in gifts but in the love we have for each other and in being together.

As for me, I'm about to turn to the internet to do a little shopping for my loved ones. It's a wondrous tool for a guy with a bad hip.

From beautiful, white and beaming Minnesota, we send out a wish to all of you scattered across the world: "God bless you, one and all!"


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Saturday, December 11, 2010

It Snowed and Snowed and Snowed


We've a little screened dining porch off our kitchen. Here's the way it looked this morning before daylight.

The weather forecasters up here like to be dramatic and they are often throwing out gruesome scares about tornadoes, flooding rains, fierce winds and mega snowstorms that never happen. Like Chicken Little, we don't pay much attention to them anymore!
by Charlie Leck

The weatherman started warning us sometime yesterday that a big one -- maybe resembling the blizzard of 1888 or the giant snow of Halloween in 1991 -- was on it's way. A few of my friends like to make fun of the forecasters (doomsdayers, they call them); yet, once in awhile they've got to get it right. They nailed this one.

I awakened long before daylight broke here and peered out the windows and had to open a door for the dog, who was desperate to get outside. The winds howled and blew cold snow inside and against my face and bathrobe. To the left you can see how the Christmas decorations on our front stoop looked when I pried open the door.

The dog was howling to get back in within 30 seconds.

I can hear, in my mind, readers in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and other southern states, wondering what the hell I'm still doing in Minnesota at my age and stage in life. Only sometimes I wonder that, too. This is one of those mornings.

There's hours and hours of work to do to clear the sidewalks and the long driveway out to the road and then the roads and trails around the farm. It's back-breaking work and exasperating with the way the winds are right now. Clear the snow away and then watch the wind blow it back in.

It's 19 degrees out there right now and the forecast is for a low of 7 degrees below zero tonight.

As I write this little and terribly unimportant blog, this is the way it looks on the deck outside my treetop study. The wind is really picking up. Anne is outside, trying to get the chains on one of the big tractors so she can start blowing snow off the roads. I'm useless to her right now. A week or so ago, my right hip just sort of gave up. I had the left one replaced approximately 6 years ago. I knew that the right one was going, but I didn't expect it to turn from minor to major so very quickly. One thing I can't image doing this morning is shoveling and plowing snow. I can barely sit down here at my desk without the pain savaging me. I moving toward the replacement surgery in January. I can't wait.

I've been on the phone, trying to get one of our workman over here to help out. He didn't sound enthused but said he's on his way. On his part, it's an act of employment preservation. He's got to do the work that I would normally do. I'll give him a bonus and make a smile come to his face.

A good friend is flying in this morning from Brazil. He's in the air right now. I wonder if the plane will be able to land or if it will need to divert. Welcome home to Minnesota! We're to have dinner with him tomorrow night. It's been set up I'm sure, so he can show off his tanned and darkened complexion.

In the meantime, I'll just think in envy of my brother down there in Florida and many of my golfing friends who've moved into their winter quarters in Florida, Arizona and Southern California. I've resisted such a winter residence because it seemed to me that the adventure of a Minnesota winter was not to be missed. This morning I'm beginning to wonder if I might not be crazy. A round of golf in Florida this morning sounds like a mighty fine way to spend a winter day.


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