Friday, January 28, 2011

25 Years Ago Today

We were sitting in an airport when it happened...
by Charlie Leck

Anne and I were sitting in a coffee shop at the airport in Columbia, South Carolina, on a morning exactly 25 years ago today. We were waiting to board our flight to Minneapolis. We both had sections of a newspaper in our hands and hot cups of coffee at the ready. Over our heads somewhere a television was making sounds in which we had no interest.

Suddenly – and I’ll never forget either the feeling or the moment – a strange sense of urgency and horror came out of the noisy TV and we both had to look up.

The space shuttle, Challenger, had blow up in the sky, very shortly after its launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The TV announcer seemed confused and he spoke of fuel tanks that appeared to have broken away from the craft and then exploded. You could hear confusion and uncertainty in his voice, but he didn’t want to misspeak and lapse incorrectly into the sensational. Yet, all of us, staring at the TV in the waiting area of that airport in Columbia, knew exactly what had happened. It was as if someone had plunged a dagger in our spirits.

There had been days of wonderful reports about the first civilian – a school teacher named Christa McAauliffe -- going into space with the astronauts aboard Challenger.

In an instant, our nation was thrown into mourning and grief. I’ll never forget the day or the feel of despair and hopelessness. It’s one of those moments that get engraved deeply on our united minds.

Horse and Sleigh

The Carriage Association of America and the American Driving Society
by Charlie Leck

I'm at an unusual sort of conference this weekend as our state and the city of St. Paul plays host to a Winter Conference of the Carriage Association of America.

For those of you who haven't already left this blog, I'll go on very, very briefly. The number of those in America -- or the world, for that matter -- who collect antique horse drawn vehicles and sleighs is relatively very small. So, one has to assume that the interest in a blog about such is also miniscule.
I just have to boast for a second or two and express my gratitude for those locals who have worked so hard to host a conference of those who love horse drawn sleighs and sleighing. The conference they've organized here in St. Paul has opened with a bang and the beauty of all the displays and the organizational efforts of all the volunteers have really both surprised and completely pleased me.
We have here a wonderful display of newly restored horse-drawn sleighs that is truly eye-popping. I'll run photos of this display as soon as I can get to my photographic equipment.
In addition, there are displays of spectacular sleighing blankets, foot warmers, miniature or model sleighs, wonderful pleasure carriages and commercial carriages and all kinds of little and big accessories that go along with this unusual,, but wonderful hobby.
On Saturday and Sunday there will be sleighing in a couple of the parks of St. Paul and spectators will get to see these sleighs in action with horses pulling them through the beautiful Minnesota snow.
I'll explain all this very unusual gathering in a blog on Monday. In the meantime, I want to react to the international uprisings and nascent revolutions that appear to be taking place in the Islamic and Arabic world. I'll do that tomorrow morning.
From Charlie Leck, in St. Paul (Woodbury), Minnesota

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Speech

As my old lady would have said: “The man certainly has the gift of gab!”
by Charlie Leck

President Barack Obama is a gifted speaker. I can’t imagine anyone doubts it. I was amazed last night at his communicative skills. Half the joint had its hackles up as they listened. The other half wondered how he’d keep hope alive for progressives in this country.

Well, he did a right fine job, as a good farming friend of mine would say. “He did a right fine job!”

Who could disagree with the President’s broad strokes and his basic goal? He wants America to win the future. He quoted Bobby Kennedy in saying that “the future is about achievement.”

Then, in a carefully organized and logical speech, he went on to lay out a plan for how we get to a better future in a highly competitive world.

Spark the imagination of people!
We make our living through innovation the President explained. He used the space race of the 60s as an example – we came from nowhere to clearly win that race and establish ourselves as the world’s leader in space technology. We can do it again, the President insisted, if….

The if is, of course, the big dark hole in the speech… It’s what the two parties will now begin to argue about.

It seems that no one could argue about the President’s education goals. He wants America back in first place in educating its citizens so we can win the future. He wants good teachers rewarded and he wants us to “stop making excuses for bad ones!” He called out to America’s talented young people to become teachers. “Your country needs you!”

America, he said, has fallen to ninth place in college degrees awarded to its students. Some of that has to do with the high cost of a college education. He said that Congress must make a higher education within the reach of every American. He proclaimed his goal, and hopefully Congress will join him, to make American number one again in the number of college degrees earned by its students by the end of this decade!

This won’t be cheap. Will a highly divided Congress figure it out?

And, he wants to rebuild America in many different ways beyond rebuilding its education system. He wants our infrastructure rebuilt. He wants us to have the best transportation system in the world. He wants high speed rail and high speed Internet to tie the country completely together.

This won’t be cheap. Will a highly divided Congress be willing to make the investment?

The President wants to get rid of “rigged tax codes” and make paying our taxes simple and clear to everyone. He wants to lower corporate tax rates so that our companies can find ways to sell more products around the world.

The President declared that we cannot permanently extend tax cuts for the wealthy. A few Democrats applauded him. Otherwise, there was a grim silence in the chamber.

How will a divided Congress figure out a way to do deal with tax reform?

The President was strong about Health Care. He conceded that weaknesses in last year’s bill should be corrected, but the repeal of the law would cost the nation billions of dollars. He was firm about not going back to the day’s when preexisting conditions prevented one from getting insurance. The President made a major concession to conservatives when he said there must be reform in medical malpractice laws to eliminate frivolous law suits.

How will a divided Congress deal with health care?

When the President declared that Social Security must be strengthened and not eliminated… well, what is the line about the proverbial fart in church? Yes, you could have heard one. I think I did hear one.

The President wants America to live within its means. He wants to reform government as a means to save billions of dollars. He’ll provide Congress with his plan to do so. It will mean eliminating many agencies and merging others in order to make a more efficient and less expensive means of governing. He wants a 21st century government!

How will a divided Congress manage to cooperate on government reform?

The President declared he will veto any law that comes to him from Congress containing even one ear mark. At first there was stunned silence and then everyone slowly rose in applause. How could they not?

In 21st Century America, “America’s moral example must always shine.” And we must remember that “America’s Muslims are a part of our American family.” Polite applause!

We’ve kept our commitment in Iraq and now it is time to go and let that nation determine its own future. We are keeping our commitment in Afghanistan, but the time is near for that nation to govern itself and for us to go. Our troops will begin coming home in July.

Our military is fabulous, but it must learn to live on less and that process has begun.

As for our returning veterans, the President declared that we have a debt to them. “Let us serve them as well as they have served us!”

He showed his pleasure that gays can now serve openly in the military. Now that this has happened, he said, it is time for all college campuses to open their doors again to military recruiters.

Though we all have political differences, the President said and then asked: “Who would trade places with anyone in any other nation in the world?”

“God bless America!”

The game is on!

Oh yes, Michele Bachmann thought it was a terrible speech!

Alessandra Stanley description of Congresswoman Bachmann’s rebuttal is perfectly written.

“It wasn’t just what she said, though she used words like ‘explosion’ and ‘exploded’ and ‘Obamacare’ a lot. It was the way Ms. Bachmann spoke, smiling and gesturing with an intensity that almost cracked the screen. ‘Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama’s health care bill,’ Ms. Bachmann said, as she stood in front of a huge chart of unemployment figures.”

Michele Bachmann, again last night, showed herself to be an ass!


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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

“My Love is Great!”

“My love is great! It is greater than my anger!”
by Charlie Leck

I’ve heard some of history’s greatest preachers. I’m not talking about Billy Graham and the like. I’m talking about really great preachers who made sense and said important and relevant things to people hungry to hear the word in a sensible, intelligent way (such as William Sloan Coffin).

So, now I send you to listen to a little girl. I need to guess her age. Probably 9 or 10. Listen to her tell the story of Jonah. It’s never been told better and you will not be sorry for the 7 or 8 minutes you give her.

Don’t give up on her early. Give her room! Give her the entire time and you will likely stand up and cheer as I did.

Jesus gathered the little children around him and then said to those who were nearby: “Of such is the Kingdom of God!”


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Monday, January 24, 2011

Terror in a Russian Airport

How will Russia’s highest level authorities react and respond to the terrorist attack?
by Charlie Leck

The attack at Russia’s Domodedovo Airport was horrible and an abhorrent example of maniacal terrorism in the world today. It could have happened here just as well; and we should remember this as we think of the torment the people of Russia must be feeling. As of the current count, it appears that more than 30 are dead and nearly 200 were injured.

The airport is Russia’s busiest and serves the capital city and the heart of Russia. That nation clearly doesn’t have the kind of first responders we do in all of our major cities. The region was clearly unprepared for so devastating a fiasco. Airport baggage carts were used to remove many of the injured and dead.

Now, Russia is not the United States when appraised in other ways either. Leadership and decision making is much more powerful at the top and less concerned with consultation with any other branches of government. This fact will make it interesting to see how Russian authorities respond to the attack and what new security measures they will take in the future. From an international news reader’s vantage point, that will make for interesting scrutiny.

My guess is that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will use the catastrophe to grab for more power and he will demonstrate tough and rapid responses to the Russian public, especially if it is learned that the attack was orchestrated by Muslim fanatics in his own nation – from the north Caucasus region on Russia’s south border.

To see the great difference between a democratic nation with centuries under its belt and an infant one trying to make its way along under this difficult form of government, keep your eye on the news out of Russia.


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Sunday, January 23, 2011

All the News that Fits (or The Newspaper Reader)

I lifted the title for this blog off the news page of our own web site – Native Oaks Farm and Sheepy Hollow at Native Oaks Farm.
by Charlie Leck

State of the Union Speech
I read a couple of pieces this week that question the significance or importance of the annual state of the union speech. Some years I find myself with the same attitude, but not this year. There are a whole bunch of reasons that make this year’s speech an important one.

Let’s observe behavior! Following the awful moments in Tucson, we are suppose to be moving into a period of greater political tolerance, understanding and cooperation. Let’s watch how divided, or how respectful, the houses of Congress are as they gather and listen to the President. Let’s watch, too, just how far toward the center the President tries to move. [Read the Washington Post story about the upcoming speech here!]

Oh, no! Not Glenn Beck again!
I’ve kept no secret about my dislike of and disdain for the malodorous talking-head, Glenn Beck. He’s a slimy kind of guy who arouses hatred in people and seems to enjoy doing it. He scares me! Recently he’s been after a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), criticizing the woman he portrays as a hopeless liberal and essentially blaming her for our nation’s economic woes. Beck characterizes her as a national enemy!

We’re talking here about an elderly lady and the radical plan Beck is criticizing was published nearly 45 years ago. Is Beck crazy, or what? He knows he has a volatile audience; and yet he does this kind of stuff regularly. Thanks to Beck, the poor woman is receiving death threats from the crazies who follow this radical right winger. [Read the NY Times story about Beck and Professor Piven here!]

Greatest Classical Composers
I mildly enjoy symphonic music – especially when it’s that of the great classical composers. Give me some wonderful Beethoven, Bach or Mozart and I’m okay with it. Keep me away from some of the contemporary monotonal composers. I can’t stand them.

The music writer, Anthony Tommasini, at the NY Times, has recently published a piece in which he selects the top 10 classical composers in history and shows you how he did it. You can see video and also listen to some of the marvelous pieces these guys wrote. Here’s a video that introduces Tommasini’s project.

You can almost guess the names that make the list – even if you’re not an aficionado of classical music: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner and Bartok. [Here’s the NY Times report on the project!]

Do you really understand why we’re involved in wars in the Middle East?
We’re a broke nation, out of money and our credit is not so good any more. Who do we blame it on? The poor, the homeless, the elderly, the unemployed? Immigrants – legal and illegal? All of them? It’s their fault. If you listen to right-wingers, like Michele Bachmann, that’s who we’ve got to blame.

Then I read the numbers about how much we’ve spent in our two on-going, unceasing, no-end-in-sight wars and it is absolutely staggering. It’s now approaching four trillion dollars. Right! Four trillion!

Now that doesn’t even count the cost of heart-ache! The fathers, sons, daughters and lovers that have been lost or so seriously injured that their lives are essentially derailed, count up to even greater expenses. We’ll be caring for seriously wounded and maimed soldiers for decades to come.

That’s the kind of reaction I have when I read front-pages stories, like the one in this morning’s local newspaper, about more local troops going off to the wars. The Minnesota National Guard will send in excess of 2,400 more troops off to the wars during this year. Damn! How many of those boys and girls will be seriously injured? How many may not come home? [You can read the story about the deployment here!]

Michele Bachmann is running for President! Really!
You want to watch and listen to a politician who should never, ever, ever be a candidate? [Watch these You Tube videos of her speech in Iowa, kicking off her campaign.] Oh, my! Watch Bachmann in what appears to be a trance on election night in November, in which she keeps answering every single question with the same, same answer. [Click here to watch the You Tube video!]

Is global warming real? You bet your biffy!
It’s been a cold winter in our nation – from Minnesota to Georgia! It causes the ordinary guy and the idiots in politics to claim it as evidence that global warming in a myth. That’s dangerous! Read this extraordinary story, For Many Species, No Escape as Temperature Rises, from the science section of the NY Times.

Talk about danger!
Here’s a story in the Los Angeles Times by Julia Damianova. Oh, my! Talks with Iran about nuclear disarmament have ended in failure.

The central question, to which Iran has answered in the affirmative, is: Does each and every nation have the absolute right to develop nuclear technology?

The European Union’s foreign policy chief said that Iran’s unwavering position was "crushing."

The popular opinion about where this is all going to lead may be correct; that is, Israel is not going to stand for this because it poses such a direct threat to its own safety. What does that mean? Perhaps it means a direct and sharp military attack by the Israeli air forces! This wouldn’t be good for any of us.

Even the strong, wealthy Arab states are worried about this one and have pleaded with Iran to be sensible.

Two stories for the serious newspaper reader!
Now, here are two stories by NY Times reporters that will take some time to read, but one is very important and the other is odd, surprising and intriguing.

First, is Mark Lander’s Diplomatic Memo: Trying to Break the Logjam, Scholar Floats an Idea for a Palestinian Map. Everyone’s pretty exhausted by the complexity of the question of Israel and the Palestinians. Seems like most experts have given up.

David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, considered a pro-Israeli think tank, rolled out a newly created, color-coded map of what Israel might look like by going back to a pre-1967 version of the nation of Israel. He is trying to show how a new Palestinian state might be created even though hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers live there.

Makovsky doesn’t like the idea of giving up. He thinks there are still things to talk about and still fresh ideas. If this is a world problem that sticks in your brain as unsolvable, you might want to read Mr. Lander’s piece.

Second, just for the strangeness of it, a page one, top of the page article in today’s NY Times really fascinated me. It’s about a private C.I.A. in America, run by a former agency operative who, though 78, runs his own, private intelligence agency to gather information in Afghanistan and in the mountains of Pakistan. He’s after secrets about the Taliban, its militant fighters and also about the ruling classes in Kabul. Duane R. Clarridge runs his private spying operation out of San Diego and funds the work through money raised from “like-minded private donors.” The reporter, MarkMazzetti, calls it "Free Market Espionage." [If you are as fascinated as I, you can read it here!]

Late Letter Names – some thoughts from Freakonomics that might freak you out!
Why not close with some interesting humor – and some strange facts? If your last name starts with a Z you may have trouble competing against guys who have last names that begin with A… really! [Read all about it here!]

And that’s all the news that fits!


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Cassoulet avec agneau haché and True Grit

Took in a movie last night and then a dinner at our favorite restaurant!
by Charlie Leck

This is a busy time of the year for my wife and it’s difficult to get a date with her. As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to spend any time with her at all, but, when she got up yesterday morning, I left a note for her in the kitchen that explained the particulars in the most romantic way possible:

“Dear, I going to the 5:10 showing of True Grit this afternoon and then I’m going over to Terra Waconia for dinner about 7:00 to 7:15. If you wanna come along, be ready to leave the house at 4:45 on the dot! All my love!”

Well, she pushed it right to the edge, but she stood ready at the designated time and not looking anything at all like a sheep farmer.

Hot damn! A date with my wife at last. And, what a wonderful date it was and how delightful to sit down in a dark theatre and put my arm around her again.

It’s cold in Minnesota right now. It was about 16 degrees below zero at show time last night and we had to park a couple blocks from the theater. It was a crisp walk, but, I’ll tell you, it was completely worth it.

Here’s what I’ve got to say about True Grit (the movie)!
What a splendid way to spend an evening and what a powerful piece of film making! Before heading out, I wonder how what had been said in the New York Times about this movie as “a comic-serious tale” could possibly make sense. After sitting spell-bound for nearly two hours, I understood. This is one of the best pieces of movie production, direction and camera work that I’ve ever seen.

If you haven’t seen this film and want a tease, go to this site to see some trailers.

The leads in this film are extraordinary – maybe that has to do with extraordinary directing and editing – I don’t know – but I’ll tell you Heidi Steinfeld, Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges are as good as it gets. If there’s an academy award for casting, the casting director of this film gets it hands down. The acting throughout the film story is remarkable.

The film opens with a quotation from Proverbs powerfully displayed on the screen: “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” Oh, my!

I listened to the audio version of the book during this past week and I found the film captured it very well.

Going back to see a film a second and third time is not anything I’ve ever done, but I’ll go see this one a few times. And, when it comes out on Blue-Ray I’m gonna buy it!

Mary Pols in Time Magazine said, in comparing it to the former film: “In all ways, the Coens’ TRUE GRIT is a classier, truer version of the tale.”

Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers just said: “Saddle up!”

In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis said: “That old-time American religion of vengeance runs like a river through ‘TRUE GRIT,’ a comic-serious tale about some nasty, brutish times.”

And then dinner at Terra Waconia!
My wife and I have both declared it boldly and unconditionally: Terra-Waconia is our favorite restaurant. The chef, who we’ve gotten to know well, is a master at presenting tantalizing flavors in every one of his dishes.

It was crowded last night – and that’s good to see – but we still had a lovely, little table for two that was close enough to the kitchen that we got a good look at every plate that was brought out for the enthusiastic diners. Oh, how I wish I’d brought my camera along

On our way home last night I declared that I often go into restaurants with big menus and have a difficult time finding anything that really excites me. At Terra-Waconia, with its very small menu, there are always several things I want and I need to struggle over my choices.

Last night, my date chose the cassoulet that was prepared with a base of ground lamb and it was tongue-tantalizingly wonderful. I opened up with mussels served in a very smoky tasting butter sauce and then went for the duck confit (canard confit). Terrific! Perfect! Something to write home about!

Great date!
What a lovely time I had – time to talk and laugh and look the old girl right in the eye, and tell her again that I love her.

Time to read the papers!
Now it’s time to read the newspapers and get back to you later with some gut feelings about today’s news.


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Saturday, January 22, 2011

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

My work with these old, old slides and turning them into acceptable photographs may be your undoing!
by Charlie Leck

Each day that I spend time with these old photographs, restoring them and cataloging them, brings back a flood of memories. And that leads to a memoir or two. I'll be brief and tomorrow I'll turn to the Sunday newspapers, as I often do.

My wife has been a horsewoman all her life -- well, from the age of 3 or so. How totally comfortable she is around horses and how those big creatures seem to respect her (and her them, indeed). While we were courting, she really wanted me to learn to ride. I'd had very little experience with horses before then. When I was a kid, a buddy, Alan Lum, had a couple of cutting horses at his house and I went riding with him a couple of times -- out through the honeysuckle north of the ball field and then out into the open farm fields. I managed to hang on all right.

Anne wanted more of me. She hoped that I learn to jump and handle a horse at full gallop. She wanted to take up fox hunting again and wanted me as a companion. She hired a trainer to work with me and her big thoroughbred, Dark Bronze (that's he and I in the photo above). The big guy seemed to accept me and like me well enough. We got along handsomely and he took care of me.

My trainer was very patient and took me on as a beginner. I tried diligently to do as he told me and I progressed nicely. Sometime in the Spring of '79 I was ready for my first horse show and Anne entered me in some classes for novice jumpers. I practiced for hours on the couple of days before the show. It never seemed to go very well in practice and it didn't go very well in my first couple of classes either. However, in the third and last class of the day something clicked and Bronze was in great stride and form and seemed, all by himself, to pick the right spots in front of every jump. When I came down to the last line the big fella and I got over the next to the last jump perfectly and headed for the last one. As I approached it, I knew we'd done well and I had visions of our first blue ribbon together -- and I could just about taste it. Somehow I forgot about riding the jump and Bronze got in a bad spot and sensed he couldn't take it. He tried to come to a dead stop, but he couldn't and plowed straight into the rails and I went flying past him and landed right square on top of a bunch of timber. Disqualified!

We went on to better things, but not in the show ring. That year I began to ride to the hounds, as I was told to call it. Anne had earned her colors as a young teacher in our fox hunting club -- younger than anyone else in the club had ever gotten them. Colors! That's ones bonafide, establishing one's self as prima member and they allow you to ride at the front of the pack. I began as a scrub, but worked especially hard. I constantly volunteered to
work on the hunt land -- cutting down weeks and brush, rebuilding jumps and trimming trails. Early in my second season, a hired helper and I built a dozen brand new coops (jumps) and put them in place as the Master of the Hounds (big chief) directed. The two of us also rebuilt a bridge across a small creek and I won some brown-nose points for that, too. At the end of that season I was presented my colors and it was one of the proudest moments of my life.

But, alas! A few too many falls and Bronze's retirement brought my hunting career to a quick close after a few years. I tried other horses, but it never worked because one had to ride them. With Bronze, I just climbed aboard and he took care of me. I counted my lucky stars that I'd survived in a dangerous sport and I happily hung up my hunt coat up and retired from the sport.

So, in working on these old 35mm slides, and digitizing them, I came across a few old photos of Dark Bronze and me. I'll admit it: they brought a few tears to my eyes. He was one special horse and a great buddy.


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Friday, January 21, 2011

Spin and the Potemkin Village

The DEADLY SPIN doctors are behind the attempt to kill a national health care plan! The health insurance industry’s portrayal of health care in America as the best in the world is nothing but a Potemkin Village.
by Charlie Leck

In his new and super-extraordinary book, DEADLY SPIN, Wendell Potter blows the lid off the spin doctors who want to kill America’s recently established public health care plan. Potter is formerly an insider in the American health care industry and is now turned whistle blower, exposing how the industry wanted to kill the health care plan signed into law last year by President Obama.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Potter’s book is extraordinary. I opened it yesterday, right after posting my 20 January 2011 blog. I read with a vengeance. I read at my desk, in the bathroom, on my bed (where I even drifted off to sleep for an hour) and in the kitchen (as I prepared the evening’s dinner). Before my wife came up from the farm to enjoy the stuffed peppers and big salad I laid out for her, I had finished the book; and, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t stop trembling.

I’ll tell you, and I beg you to tell your friends, that if you read only one book this year make sure it is DEADLY SPIN. Again, be sure to read DEADLY SPIN by Wendell Potter. You won’t be sorry.

And, as I recommended to you yesterday, be sure to listen to Kerri Miller interview Wendell Potter on Minnesota Public Radio on this past Wednesday.

Potter explains that all the vicious and outrageous lies about this legislation were carefully planted by the spin doctors (PR departments) within the medical insurance industry. He was part of that spin doctoring as the head of public relations for CIGNA Insurance for many years.

Take, for instance, the claim that Congresswoman Michele Bachmann likes to make – that “Obama health care is a government takeover of the health care system.” The exact string of words is a creation of spin doctors who knew it would work to terrorize American citizens who want no more intrusion of the government into their lives.

As Potter says, “People are more concerned with government intrusion into their lives than they are of big business intrusion.”

The PR departments (spin doctors) in these big health insurance companies clearly know this. Therefore, they know they can strike fear into the hearts of the public by just stringing a few words together: “…government takeover of heath care!”

These spin doctors, Potter explains, “discount facts and look for words that work!”

“Companies,” he says, “package for lobbyists, who package for politicians.”

Spin doctors created the bogus claim that there are “death panels” in the federal government’s health care plan. They knew that, repeated enough, the claim would be believed.

Potter explains how the industry’s public relations departments keep feeding the “trigger words” to the lobbyists, who get it to the politicians. Make the words scary and they’ll work even better.

The spin doctors create Potemkin’s Villages and then take lobbyists and politicians on tours of them.

Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin was part of the ruling corps behind Catherine the Great of Russia (Catherine II), who ruled there from 1762 to 1796. Catherine is famous in lore (likely ficticious) as the woman who enjoyed having horses mount her. She disposed of her husband, Peter III, within the first six months of his rule by convincing her then current boyfriend, Girory Orlov, to murder him. She then took another love, Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who she had appointed to various posts in the government. The legend goes that Potemkin had a series of attractive villages created along the riverbanks of the Crimea in 1787 where Catherine was to take a tour. They were nothing more than false fronts, but they were attractive and well done and, supposedly fooled silly Catherine into thinking all was well in her land – that the people were comfortable and prosperous. True? False? Who knows? Spin doctors at work.

The point is that the health insurance industry has erected a great Potemkin Village and it is fooling the fool hardy.

Read Potter’s book and see how he was a part of it; then learn how he had an awakening; and how he turned whistle blower.

His chapter (II) about Michael Moore’s documentary, Sicko, and how the industry attacked and discredited it, will show you in graphic terms how the public relations departments of these big health insurance companies work.

Potter reminds us of the thesis and theme of Vance Packard’s book of nearly 50 years ago, The Hidden Persuaders. The invisible art of persuasion is what we’re talking about here.

“Over the last several decades, through the skillful use of such tactics, the American health insurance industry has created a perception of its role and usefulness – its raison d’être – that obscures its real goal: profits.”

Why was the public option provision, which was so important within the promises that President Obama made during his campaign, pulled from the final version of the legislation that passed? If such legislation was going to be passed, the industry wanted to make sure that it was mandated that people had to buy their insurance from the industry. They did just that and forced Obama to renege on his promises of a public option.

Potter tells the whole story and he provides a blue print for doing it differently.

This is some book! Please read DEADLY SPIN by Wendell Potter
[2010, Bloomsbury Press, New York (ISBN-13: 978-1-60819-281-6)]


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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mules, True Grit and Things

Listening to the lies coming out of the mouths of windy politicians in the U.S. House of Representatives these days is simply too much. For relief, I need to write of happy memories and some good news of the day or I’ll bust.

by Charlie Leck

Right up front here, let me apologize for all the errors -- typos and grammatical -- that were in yesterday's blog. That's embarrassing! I should have a proof reader. I'll try to be more careful in the future.

Then let me say that I've started an extraordinary book called DEADLY SPIN by Wendell Potter. It is why I am so convinced that the Republicans are currently just acting as factotum lackeys for the health and health insurance industries in their attempt to repeal the health care plan that was passed last year by the Congress. I'll write more about this in the next couple of days, but if you are curious now, listen to this conversation with Mr. Potter in an interview with Kerri Miller.
Now, let's get to some more enjoyable topics. You know, there's nothing more pleasurable for solid people than watching others who are enjoying themselves enormously. I know, I'm happiest in life when I see my wife or our children really having fun to the hilt -- as my wife did so completely when she was at the Bishop Mule Days in 1979...

The slide restoration project continues.
The photograph above is one of the restored slides I've been telling you about. We were out in the Sierra Mountains of California -- Mammoth Mountains-- west of Reno, Nevada, in 1979. Anne, of all things immaginable, wanted to go to the Bishop Mule Days in the small town of Bishop. We flew to Reno, rented an awfully nice sports car (it was wonderful being young) and took the spectacular drive through the mountains to the small town of Bishop. Driving a daring and breathtaking car through these mountains, as a young man, is really enjoyable. There seem to be mountain lakes everywhere and the small towns through which you pass are precious and filled with small art and craft shops and terrific places to have lunch. I purchased a wonderful photograph during this trip that I've always had hanging in our bedroom area -- and I think of this very nice excursion every time I look at it.

Bishop Mule Days
Once we got to Bishop, down in a valley, surrounded by the mountains, I took photographs and Anne had a ball. She's been a mule woman from a time before I met her. She owned, when I came into her life, a wonderful mule named Molly. I'm sure I'll come across photographs of Molly during this slide project and I'll be proud to publish them here. These days, Reba, is Anne's current mule and I have posted photographs of her on this blog in the past.

A full dose of Mule Days is really only for mule lovers. I hung on as best I could just by observing the happiness in Anne's eyes and the way she was enjoying it all -- the parade, wandering through the stabling area and then watching the various classes and exhibits in the arena. When we meandered around back there, in the stabling and grooming area, once those mule guys realized Anne was a mule woman, why those fellas just couldn't stop talking to her.

I guess the biggest kick I got out of Mule Days was watching a twenty-mule-team in action, having heard so often about such a team in Borax commercials when I was a kid. Ever try hunting down Borax Soap products in modern groceries store? I have; and with some eventual success, but it took some doing.

True Grit -- the novel!
Probably because of the current Cohen Brothers movie, I've been hearing a lot of raving about True Grit, the novel by Charles Portis, on Minnesota Public Radio lately, so I decided to pick up an audio version of it at the book store. I knew I was to spend a lot of time this week in the car, so it seemed a perfect idea. Turns out it was!

The unabridged novel, published in 1968, was read in a spectacular way by Donna Tartt who, it turns out, had grown up as a child with a grandmother and mother who both adored the novel. She explains that in a very good essay at the conclusion of the novel itself.

I had no idea the book was so highly regarded by literary scholars and that many people rate it way up on the list of America's best all-time works of fiction. If you like to do audio-books, I highly recommend this one to you. As a matter of fact, I'll send it along, at no charge, to the first person who sends me an email that says they'd like to have it (my email address is at the end of this blog).

I wrote here some time ago that I had picked up a copy of an old Tom Robbins book at a neighborhood book sale in Minneapolis for a buck or so. I read it months ago but I've never written here about it. Robbins is an extraordinary writer and I think of him as a more fathomable James Joyce.

In that book by Robbins, Switters, the book’s protagonist, commented in the fictional account that he once wrote a long (hours long) essay just on the first sentence from FINNEGANS WAKE. It was months ago that I read that comment, but it’s stuck with me and so, this morning, I pulled down my unread copy of the Joyce book and began…

One could consider it quite mysterious that James Joyce begins the story in the middle of a sentence; that is, unless once knows about Joyce and his idiosyncratic nature. It’s quite characteristic of this “stream of consciousness” writer to do something like this...

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”
[James Joyce; Finnegans Wake (opening sentence)

I guess we also need to remember that James Joyce was an Irishman; and that explains a few things as well.

How I remember the pain and agony of getting through ULYSSES – and remembering that causes me not to want to read this book any further than the 18 pages I got through this morning. I’ve a big stack of other books – both fiction and nonfiction – that I want to read through and that I'll enjoy.

In the meantime, though, here are some notes that Switters might have included in his fictional lecture about this opening sentence.

  • First, it’s not really an opening sentence at all; for it is a continuation of the very last sentence of the book
  • Riverrun could be either a noun and/or a verb phrase
  • Adam and Eve is a church, or a Franciscan Abbey, in Dublin
  • Is James talking about Adam and Eve’s Church? Or is he referring to Adam and Eve past?
  • Commodius vicus of recirculation is an interesting phrase! Remember that a commode, when flushed circulates the water (in a circular fashion) as it disposes of it! Or is he referring to the scholarly notation CV, or curriculum vitae and therefore possibly to “the course of life and/or history?”

So, the mysterious first sentence is no more understandable when it is read as a complete sentence by appending it to the last sentence of the book….

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."

Perhaps now you understand why I have no intention to waste an extraordinary number of hours of the brief number I’ve probably got left in life on reading FINNEGANS WAKE. Thank you very much!

This blog is as close as I am ever going to come to Joycian writing!


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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sacerdotal, Priestly Scumbags

The liars keep lying and spreading their offal around to the naïve, gullible, predisposed suckers who will pay them heed!
by Charlie Leck

I used the above sub-title in a blog I wrote a week or so ago that had to do with the lies and outright bull shit spread around by the radical right of American politics. It seemed appropriate for today’s theme about malodorous clergy who take advantage of those who think fundamental religious practices are the way to salvation.

Ole Anthony, a Minnesota native, is a central party in this blog and has become somewhat of a hero to me because he appears to be a bounty hunter out to get corrupt and self-serving clergymen. Now, understand, Ole is no angel himself. He’s got a bit of a checkered past and has certainly told some tall tales about himself along the way. I’ll discount all of that and concentrate only on Ole’s work in recent years that make me so fascinated with what he’s doing.

I learned about Ole in a newspaper column by Joe Tevlin that appeared in our local paper up here in the Northern Midwest: Mac Hammond named in report on preachers who prosper.

“When Ole Anthony was 6 years old, his minister asked his mother not to bring him to catechism class anymore because he was ‘an evil child’ who asked too many questions," Anthony recalls.

“As founder of the Trinity Foundation in Dallas, Anthony still asks questions.

“His nonprofit helps the homeless, and after seeing many homeless come to him because they gave all their money to preachers, Anthony got mad. Then he got a detective's license and hired several more detectives. For years, they have cultivated informants inside prosperity gospel churches, dug through garbage cans to find financial statements and provided information to the IRS and other agencies, including Grassley's task force, something that riles pastors.

"‘I have recently been promoted from the antichrist to Satan incarnate,’ Anthony said with a laugh. ‘It's sad.’

“Anthony believes some of these TV preachers deceive their flocks about how their contributions are used. He points to Copeland's claim to be a billionaire (his house is so large a bridge connects two wings, according to the Grassley report).”

The Grassley report refers to a document released by U.S. Senator Charles Grassley “on televangelists of the prosperity gospel” who rake in phenomenal amounts of wealth that is often given to them by people who can’t afford to do so.

Much of Senator Grassley report highlights a Texas preacher (surprise, surprise, surprise), Kenneth Copeland, who has accumulated a mind boggling amount of personal wealth – oil fields, a power plant, his own airport and a half dozen or more private planes, cattle ranches and a mansion so big it has a bridge that connects its two major wings. Not bad for a lowly preacher of the gospel.

The sad thing is that there are a lot of such preachers in the country who, on close examination, are nothing but scoundrels or wolves in sheep’s clothing, taking money from the gullible.

I say that anyone capable of exposing them has got my support, and Ole Anthony appears to be one of those kinds of guys.

He was born up her in Minnesota in 1938. He currently is the head of the Trinity Foundation, which Ole set up in Dallas in 1972. The foundation’s primary focus is on investigating televangelists who are phonies and fundamentally, if not legally, crooks. Ole is not adverse to “dumpster diving” in his search for evidence and he makes good use of information often obtained from former employees of these ministries who grow disgusted with what is happening within these phony churches. The foundation has a large collection of videos of these evangelists prompting their audiences to give and give during their television homilies. The foundation publishes a satirical and humorous magazine called The Wittenburg Door.

Oh, my! Spend 15 or 20 minutes with The Wittenburg Door and you’ll learn a thing or two.

Joe Tevlin’s piece in our local paper reveals we’ve got a pretty wealthy local evangelist who is a piker compared to the Texas preacher, Copeland; but, nevertheless, our own Mac Hammond, of the Living Word Christian Church, set up, naturally, in one of our poorer communities, is personally worth plenty of big, big bucks. This local pastor refers to Kenneth Copeland as “a mentor.”

Kenneth Copeland is on the board of Mac Hammond’s church here in the Twin Cities.

Tevlin says he interviewed Hammond several years ago and the preacher claimed to have already been a successful businessman…

“…but court records of an IRS debt clearly indicate Hammond was broke, and that his wealth, at the very least, grew concurrently with his church. He has (or had) two planes, extravagant cars and million-dollar homes in Florida, and doesn’t appear to apologize.

“They are proof, he says, that God provides for those who believe.”

As for Ole Anthony, Tevlin quotes him as saying: “There has been more fraud in the name of God in American than anything else.”

Amen, brother, amen; and again, I say, amen!

Ole, you go get these scumbags and expose them for what they are – liars, cheats, low-downs for whom Jesus would have no sense of pity. They are the Pharisees of our time, praying and shouting on the street corners for their own enrichment and not at all for the sake of the gospel. Gad, what offal they are!


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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rescuing Our 35mm Slides

This photograph came off a slide. It's a picture of our youngest
daughter's 5th grade class and many of their little kindergarten buddies.

This blog was rearranged, edited and reposted at 6:20 PM (CST) on 18 January 2011

The 3mm slide project is well under way, but what an effort it is.
by Charlie Leck

I knew it would be time consuming and difficult, but it was my number one new year’s resolution and so I’m tackling it with gusto. I’m trying to save all those 35mm photograph slides – hundreds of them – that are piled in one of our closets before they deteriorate any further. I didn’t realize, 40 years ago, when I was taking family photographs, and shots of my travels far and wide, that both my photographs and my 35mm slides would deteriorate so; however, chemical changes do damage both, causing the colors to change and a lot of their original brilliance and contrast to be lost. Even though they were boxed and kept in a dark closet, somehow specks of dust and dirt found their way to the surfaces of this Mylar base material on which the photographs were originally developed. Humidity, temperature and dust are all great enemies of slides.

So, I asked for and received for Christmas a marvelous Plustek (OpticFilm 7600) slide scanner. It’s a lovely piece of equipment, but its techniques and intricacies are not exactly easy to learn. The terrific photograph guru, Taz Talley, has a manual for the machine that sells for over $250 – nearly half the price of the machine. I worked my way along with the manufacturer’s manual, translated awkwardly from the original German, and I seem to be making progress. Each instance of success pleases me. I’m probably through about 350 of the slides right now.

Here are a few examples of my success… along with one before-and-after example… I've had a hard time getting them to line up properly, but you'll get the idea.


This is an enjoyable snap-shot of Anne's son, Jimmy, taken in 1982 when he would have been about 13. It was in terrible condition and nearly all the color was lost. Now it's digitized, corrected and its saved on disks and can be printed for our family albums. The disks, when I'm done with this project can be saved and copied so that all the children can have one of them.

This 1961 photograph of Anne, traveling in Europe when she was only 16. The slide had lost all of its color and was incredibly dirty. Between my new LaserSoft Imaging scanner from Germany and time on PhotoShop, we were able to restore it to respectable condition.

And this is a wonderful 1978 photograph of Anne that I took before we were married. We were visiting a cousin of mine who lived in Switzerland and her home was done in lots of rich and enjoyable colors. All those colors seemed to be lost in a slide that was covered with specks of dust and had lots of scratches. A run through the scanner brought back the colors and the machine can separate out dust and dirt from what is really on the slide film itself. I couldn't be happier about saving this delightful photograph of the young woman with whom I'd fallen in love.

It would have been disastrous to lose this photograph that Anne took in 1980 at the Royal Windsor Horse Show in Windsor, England. It is of Prince Philip driving a four-in-hand of his Cleveland Bay horses in a dressage test at the show.
When I first looked at this slide through a hand viewer, I was certain is was worthless and lost to us. My new scanner said it was still good to go. I corrected and saved over 200 slides from that horse show.

This snapshot means the world to us. Anne and Lisa have just finished doing a little skating during the winter of 1980. They are on a frozen pond in the front of the boyhood home of Warner Bruntjen and his parents. Who of us would have known then that Lisa and Warner would marry a number of years later? It would be a shame if this photograph had been lost to us.

And this is a terrific snap-shot of a legend in our lives, Bill Remley. Bill died in the past year and I wrote a blog here about him after his death. I searched so diligently for this very photograph to use on the blog and couldn't find it. Now it's turned up during my slide restoration project. I remember taking this photograph in 1982.

This slide was very badly scratched and faded. I was very excited to get it restored this well. It's of daughters, Erika and Jenny, with our dog, Seato. It was taken at our home on Lake Minnetonka in either 1978 or 1979. It looks like Seato must have just come up from a dip in the water.

And this is a funny 1980 picture of Anne's very first lambs, bought to be pets around our house on Hunter Drive. Now they've turned into an industry that keeps Anne working as hard and long as anyone possibly could. One of these black lambs was named "Hope" and the other was "Faith."

A 1980 photo of Lisa, preparing to ride in a local parade. The slide was in incredibly poor condition and I almost tossed it. Fortunately, I decided to give it one run through the scanner and then loaded it on PhotoShop. Neat!

Here's a before and after example of what I'm trying to explain here. This was the way this slide looked when I first loaded it into my new slide scanner. You can see that its color has deteriorated badly. That stuff at the top of the slide is dust, dirt and scratches. Had I not seen what my new scanner and some time in a software program called
Lightroom could do, I probably would have just tossed out this snap-shot that is very precious to us.

So, this is what that slide looked like when I saved it to a digital format... AND, you are looking at a very low resolution of the image, which this blog requires so that it isn't overwhelmed by massive, high-resolution images. I'm extremely proud that we have this shot of a pony we owned in the 80s that performed brilliantly at horse shows and competed fantastically against full-sized horses in open jumping competitions with his usual rider, Janie, who is pictured here with our pony, Angel.


Enough, I guess. I think you get an idea of the size of my project and the success that I'm having. For those of you with old slides that look desperately bad, don't lose hope. They can be saved and returned to the former rich look they once had.


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