Monday, December 31, 2012

Cancel that Post

For the first time ever, I had the good sense to not post a blog!
by Charlie Leck

I finished an 11 or 12 paragraph post yesterday, complete with quotations from the lyrics of two songs I like, and then I gave it a careful proof reading. How the good sense came over me to not post the blog I’ll never know. It’s not like me. I’ve put up here a dozen or so blogs that should never have seen the light of day.

This abandoned blog was one of those to which you would have reacted: “Who cares?”

So, there is a hole here this morning and, perhaps, a hole is better than a whole bunch of sentimental claptrap (empty, meaningless and insincere words; or words meant solely to win praise or to impress the public). Yet, I seek to fill the whole with something…

I’s word of the day today is compotation.—an act or instance of drinking or tippling together! “An hour of compotation with you would be warmly welcomed.” Or, as St. Paul wrote in one of his epistles: “I look forward to joining with you again in true affection!”

The Minnesota Vikings’ NFL football team ended its regular season yesterday – and in grand fashion. They beat the Green Bay Packers and our super-hero, Adrienne Peterson, rushed for 199 yards in the game and ended the season with 2,097 yards (just 9 yards short of the all-time record).

Happy New Year
If you’ve gotten this far, you may receive here my very sincere wish for a happy coming new year. I hope that 2013 is a spectacular year for you.

This is my final post for 2012 and post number 1715 since I began blogging in 2007. See you next year!

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Year with Rilke

My intention is to spend all of 2013, beginning on 1 January, with Rainer Maria Rilke.
by Charlie Leck

In a blog a few days ago, I listed the books that I received for Christmas this year and into which I’m very excited about jumping. One little item that Santa gave me, I forgot to mention. It’s a clever little book edited and translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows called: A Year with Rilke (Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke).

Macy and Barrows laid the book out with daily readings taken from Rilke’s letters, journals, prose and poetry. The entries begin on January 1 and run throughout the year. They look to be no more than a page each day and often a lot less than a page. I have not read much Rilke and I have always felt left out when some of my more literary and well-read friends talk about his work or quote him. Here’s my chance to get to know the fellow, at least, a little better than I currently do. In anticipation of enjoying my introduction to Rilke (1875-1926), I’ve also ordered (from my favorite on-line used book dealer, ABE (American Book Exchange), a copy of Letters to a Young Poet, and that ought to be here in a week or so. It’s supposed to be his most influential work and it’s much beloved by writers. It was also translated by Macy and Barrows.

The pair that presented this book to us also translated Rilke’s most respected and admired work, The Book of Hours. It was published when he was only in his twenties.

If we surrendered
to Earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
      [Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours]

Reading the authors’ short introduction to their little book gives me some hope that I am going to like this Rilke guy and that I will find some philosophical and theological kinship with him.

Often when I imagine you
your wholeness cascades into many shapes.
You run like a herd of luminous deer
and I am dark, I am forest.

You are a wheel at which I stand,
whose dark spokes sometimes catch me up,
revolve me nearer to the center.
      [Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours]

Who? What is God?
It is a question with which I struggle more and more in these aging, aching days. Rilke writes of God as the Unsayable and the Invisible. He is the Coming One. Rilke is acquainted with the world’s religions and he can bring to his poetry stories from Greek mythology, or the Bible, or from Budda and Mohammed to help us understand the God he is defining.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us
then walks with us silently out of the night.
                    [Rainer Maria Rilke, Love Poems to God]

Thus, I begin. I am entering another adventure with great excitement. The Earth is blanketed in white here in Minnesota and large (half dollar sized) flakes of snow are falling now and a strong wind blows them hither and yon. In this light of mid-morning the stars are invisible, but our loved-ones long gone are there, looking down upon us even in our most private moments. There is no embarrassment among those out there with the stars; and neither is there judgment. They are free of such things.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Misérables

We saw Les Misérables yesterday and I thought it was wonderful – two and a half hours of delightful entertainment and gripping emotion.
by Charlie Leck

The human spirit is amazing! How unconquerable it can be in certain people and under special circumstances! Isn’t that what Hugo’s wonderful story is about

On any authority’s list of the world’s greatest novels, one would find Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. I had to read it both in high school and college (and I've reread it as an adult, when I could appreciate it more fully). The book caused tumultuous excitement in France when it was released in 1862. Hugo was in exile when the first printings were released. Napoleon III had sent him away for criticizing his rule. The great French writer used the novel and the character of Jean Valjean to describe and criticize the corruption that had crept into every aspect of French life.

The novel is a work of well over 1,000 pages in almost every edition and, of course, the play (now made cinema) can not cover all the aspects of French history that Hugo touched on in his epic account. Yet, one sees enough to get the idea; and what one sees is glorious in its color and emotion. It is a grand love story on so many levels; yet it is first the story of corrupted government and human cruelty – both conquered by powerful love.

Unless you hate musicals, you musn’t miss Les Misérables on a big screen.

The extraordinary movies of 2012 only begin with Lincoln!
I’ve seen some powerful film productions lately. 2012 may be a historic year for very high quality and meaningful movies (I saw Anna Karenina just the other day). Zero Dark Thirty has been released in New York City and Los Angeles and I cannot wait for it to get here. Skyfall, with the brilliant Daniel Craig as James Bond, was also on my schedule last week. Quite exciting for the James Bond fan. Craig was thoroughly remarkable as an aging Bond (and I am a Dame Judith Dench fan and she played M with distinction). And Lincoln, which I wrote about two weeks ago, is the most exciting and remarkable of them all.

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Hey! Hey! LBJ…

President Lyndon Baines Johnson had grown accustomed to success in office. He was rather a giant in a number of ways. But the anti-war protesters of ’68, of which I was one, brought him down. He took his great wealth and stole away to his estate in Texas.
by Charlie Leck

I’ve begun the five volume (four of them, so far, published) biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson by Robert Caro It’s brilliant stuff that is remarkably well written. Though it’s accurate and historical and carefully documented, it reads in a very suspenseful and tantalizing way. In other words, it’s a page-turner. It’s gripping and deeply interesting. Though there are four or five thousand pages to read, I just keep plugging along, turning page after page in great anticipation and with total interest. My dear wife gave me these volumes for Christmas and I cannot thank her enough. Wow! These are incredible books. Caro is a brilliant writer.

We think of LBJ as one of our most successful presidents because of his ability to move Congress into action; however, LBJ’s great failure was Vietnam. He made terrible and foolish mistakes there even after the time he became aware there was no possibility of victory. The following comes from the introduction to Volume II of his biography (Means of Ascent):

“When Lyndon Johnson became President, the number of American troops – advisers, not combatants – in Vietnam was 16,000… And during his campaign, in 1964, for election to the presidency in his own right, Lyndon Johnson had pledged not to widen the war… Not a month after he took the oath of office following that campaign, the bombers were going north – in a program, “operation Rolling Thunder,” that would be enlarged and enlarged, and enlarged again, with Johnson personally selecting many of the bombing targets. And in April, 1965, the President sent American boys – 40,000 of them – ten thousand miles away, into a land war in the jungles of Asia.

“…By July, 1965, there were 175,000 men in Vietnam; by August, 219,000; by December, 1966, 385,000. By the time Lyndon Johnson left the presidency, 549,000 American troops were mired in a hopeless jungle war. By the end of 1966, more Americans had died in Vietnam than had been in Vietnam when Johnson became President…

When he returned to Texas after his presidency, Lyndon Johnson simply didn’t know how it had happened and how it had happened so quickly. Many of his friends and Congressional colleagues recalling him tell them that the war was impossible to win; yet he kept sending young men there to die.

In retirement, Johnson found it difficult to escape the memories or flee from the sounds of the protesters in every part of America – protestors who had shouted to him while he was in office: “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”

This president, who had accomplished so much for civil rights – who had launched the War on Poverty – had lost all his credibility and standing over his foolish decisions regarding the unwinnable and unnecessary war in Vietnam.

I’ll keep you posted on this immense biography as I work my way through it.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Books for Christmas

There are all kinds of things the family can give me as gifts for the holiday that will make me happy, but nothing more than a carefully chosen book.
by Charlie Leck

I got an awful lot of wonderful Christmas gifts and I’m filled with gratitude. Among the things I got – things like sweaters, a new Bose sound system (Bluetooth), a charging base for my iPhone and iPad, Oregon wine, a Starbucks card – were a stack of new books. Amazing, wonderful books!

Having gone to bed terribly early because of the way Christmas exhausts me, I awoke in the middle of the night and started thinking about my new books. I climbed the stairs to my wonderful tree-house study and hauled the big pile of books with me. You’ll hear about these volumes as time passes because I’ll be writing about them here on this blog.

The first of the books I cracked, however, in the early, dark morning hours of today was Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (a novel). I’m about a third of the way through the book and I know already that it’s a winner and has to be one 2012’s finest works. This is a danged good writer. More about it later this week…

Here’s how I was blessed with additional books this Christmas…

All four volumes of Robert A. Caro’s biographical works about Lyndon Baines Johnson. I’m very excited about reading them. (I've already read the Introduction to Means of Ascent (Ends and Means) and it was wonderful. Caro is currently at work on the fifth and final volume in this biography.
A biography of the life of Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. Cohen work has meant a lot to me over the years and especially in my young and desperate times.
 Interventions, by Richard Russo – a boxed set of four small cloth volumes including three short stories and a novella. It's no secret here, because I've told you a number of times, that Russo is my favorite contemporary writer. So this little treasure gets me pumped.
 Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon – a novel that won the National Book Award. I know nothing about this, but the person who gave it to me certainly knows how to pick books worth reading.
 On Par, the Everyday Golfer’s Survival Guide by Bill Pennington. It sounds wonderful and I think I’m going to like it.
 Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, is a massively big book that I really know nothing about, but as I read the back-cover comments it sounds as if it’s going to be wonderful. It’s over 1,000 pages, so let’s hope the glowing comments about the work are correct. I’ll let you know.
 1775, by Kevin Phillips, was on my Christmas wish list. It’s won high, high praise as a historical work that highlights the pivotal year in the birth of America.

And, now, to sit back and read awhile!

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Minnesota Nice

    I hope you have a simply wonderful day
     and a very happy and joy-filled new year!
                                         [Charlie Leck]

“It’s a gift to be simple! It’s a gift to be free. It’s a gift to come down where you ought to be. And when we find ourselves in the place just right, we’ll be in the valley of love and delight!”
by Charlie Leck

“When true simplicity is gained,
  To bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed,
  To turn, turn, will be our delight,
  Till by turning, turning we come round right.”
                                                [An old Shaker tune]

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard visitors to Minnesota say the following: “It’s true! There really is a Minnesota nice!”

Well, yes! It is basically true. Minnesotans take pride in the little saying. By and large – or for the most part – Minnesotans try to act kindly toward each other and especially toward visitors. Believe me, there are exceptions! And sometimes they are blatant and embarrassing exceptions!

If you’re reading this from some other state and you come on up here to visit Minnesota, you will sense it. You’ll sense it at the airport, where people seem to be calmer and not so hurried and willing to allow a passenger who is late for a plane to move to the front of the line. People are calm in the long lines that lead to the security scanners and very often you’ll begin a real conversation with the people near you in line. You’ll learn about a perfect stranger's dear Aunt Tilly and the gout she has developed. Now, I can sense that most of you are saying: “Who wants to know?” And that is exactly my point. Minnesotans do!

I wouldn’t have dared write this little blog about Minnesota Nice until this morning. Now there is some documented support and I can have the courage of a lion about the matter.

It was right there in the newspaper this morning – there, under the Merry Christmas banner: “Yes, Virginia, Minnesota really is nice!

A recent study, called “Civic Life in America: Findings on the Civic Health of the Nation,” point to Minnesota and its special set of values. The Corporation for National and Community Service (NCOC) released the study this month. The study looked at volunteering, for example, and found, as it always does, that Minnesota is at the top. They looked at things like services to disabled or aged neighbors. They found it is common in Minnesota for one to regularly shovel the walk and the driveway for a neighbor who isn’t up to doing it. Little things like that, although the study points to many more indicators both like that and much more complex, are what make Minnesota nice.

Membership in civic clubs is higher in Minnesota than anywhere else in the nation. Volunteerism is higher here than anywhere else. And though it might not seem part of the bit, voting by registered voters is always higher here in Minnesota than in any other state – even as it was in this past election. New Hampshire and Vermont came close, but we still took home first prize for voter participation.

Another little something with which the study doesn’t deal, but I personally think is a real indicator, is the fact that Minnesota has been named the most Gay-Friendly state in the nation and Minneapolis was named the most accepting city in the nation of gay and lesbian people.

I cannot tell you how many times I (and I am not unusual) have stopped alongside the highway to help someone who had obviously run out of gas. I’d give him a ride to a gas station so he could purchase a container of gas; and then I’d run him back to his car. Dozens of times over the years I’ve helped someone like that or someone who had a flat and was physically unable to change it. It’s not just I! It’s common here. One takes pride in it as a Minnesotan.

I stopped at a food shelf this week to contribute a couple bags of canned goods and to leave a small check. I had to wait in line! And, I was glad there was a line. It was a good line, filled with friendly, smiling, laughing and conversant people.

“Shoot man! Isn’t this somethin’ though?”

“You betcha!”

We talk like that here in Minnesota when we’re talking to each other. “Don’tcha know?”

I slipped into the rear entrance of the Lutheran Church on Sunday. It’s a little church up here on the corner. We don’t go there, but I like the pastor and her involvement in community affairs and the sense of service she has. While the service was going on – the congregation was singing away – I knew I could slip in unseen. I put a little gift on the pastor’s desk – for her and her family. It was our way of saying thank you to her for being such a good neighbor and such a danged nice person.

It’s one of the things I love about my state. And, it’s not that we don’t have problems. We do! We haven’t really solved this racial justice thing yet and we haven't figured out how to make our schools work as they should. But, we are a kinder and gentler people and I often find myself counting on that.

We heard just yesterday of a woman who was going to be alone on Christmas Day. I ran into someone in a little shop who was on our guest list for Christmas dinner. We laughed and chatted together. She told me she was on her way to see her friend, Clare.

“Clare will be alone tomorrow,” my friend said, “so I want to go visit her today.”

“Alone,” I said. “Well invite her to the house for dinner. Pick her up and bring her along. There’s always room for another.”

That’s common stuff up here. When it’s cold like this, it’s always better to be closer together.

“You betcha, anyway there!”


Kevin Kling is one of those nice Minnesotans – one of the nicest of them all. A friend of mine told me about Kevin this week. I didn’t know that much about him. I hadn’t seen any of his documentaries or read any of his essays or stories. When I got filled up with information about Kevin it just made me feel better all over about myself and my state and my neighbors. He is a nationally known story-teller and he's the author of The Dog Says How and Holiday Inn and also Big Little Brother.

You can read a very special story by Kevin, which was also published in this morning’s edition of our local newspaper. It will make you feel grander about life and yourself. It’s my Christmas gift to all my friends and readers. It’s called: A Gift!

I hope all of you have a grand new year – a wonderful, wonderful 2013.

[Corrections made on 26 December 2012, 6:00 A.M. CST]

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Working on the Cure

(illustration will not post)

Sometimes the best thing I can write on my blog is a recommendation that you read something else. Today is one of those days. You absolutely must read this long NY Times Magazine article by Daniel Engber: Is the Cure for Cancer Inside You?
by Charlie Leck

Over this weekend, both my wife and I have read this most remarkable article from the NY Times Magazine. It was one of the most intriguing and dramatic things that I’ve read in a long, long time. And this is not fiction, folks! This is the real thing.

 It is the story of Dr. Ralph Steinman and his diligent, incessant drive toward a cure for cancer—a story of his own serious, losing battle with pancreatic cancer. It is an account of how he literally looked inside in search of a cure.

 I very much want you to go to this story and take the time to read it. I think you will be moved and inspired as we were and you will be left in awe before the courage and dedication of this dying man.

 Normally, I cannot read for very long about medical science. I begin to get lost in the language and the complexities. Engber does a remarkable job of writing and keeps this very intricate subject as clear and uncomplicated as he can, so the layman can delve into this and come away with a clear appreciation of what’s at work here.

 And, we’re talking here of the future of cancer
and its eventual cure. A cure is not something I believed in too emphatically. I thought the disease was far too multifarious. Well, it is convoluted and multifaceted, but it is not beyond the ability of the human mind to chase it down. That’s the glorious theme of this article.

But, that a doctor could look inside himself at his own cancer and rationally examine it and look for treatment possibilities is just a little bit mind blowing.

 Here is how the magazine article begins. I find it hard to believe that you will be able to resist reading the entire piece after reading the following…

“Claudia Steinman saw her husband’s BlackBerry blinking in the dark. It had gone untouched for several days, in a bowl beside his keys, the last thing on anybody’s mind. But about an hour before sunrise, she got up to get a glass of water and, while padding toward the kitchen, found an e-mail time-stamped early that morning — “Sent: Monday, Oct. 3, 2011, 5:23 a.m. Subject: Nobel Prize. Message: Dear Dr. Steinman, I have good news for you. The Nobel Assembly has today decided to award you the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2011.” Before she finished reading, Claudia was hollering at her daughter to wake up. “Dad got the Nobel!” she cried. Alexis, still half-asleep, told her she was crazy. Her father had been dead for three days.

“The Nobel Foundation doesn’t allow posthumous awards, so when news of Ralph Steinman’s death reached Stockholm a few hours later, a minor intrigue ensued over whether the committee would have to rescind the prize. It would not, in fact; but while newspapers stressed the medal mishap (“Nobel jury left red-faced by death of laureate”), they spent less time on the strange story behind the gaffe. That Steinman’s eligibility was even in question, that he’d been dead for just three days instead of, say, three years, was itself a minor miracle.

“In the spring of 2007,…”

You’ll thank me for putting you on to this story. You will indeed. So, I’ll just say now – rather than later – that you are entirely welcome.
My apologies about blog layouts!
My blogging service must be having
problems right now and service from
it has been very spotty and frustrating.
This is the first blog I've been able to get posted
in days and controlling it's layout (spacing et al)
has been extremely difficult. I have no
advanced idea how things will look.
I am working with them for a cure!


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I am Adam Lanza’s Mother

This is too important not to be read almost universally. If you haven’t read it, you must. You simply must!
by Charlie Leck

It’s very likely that you have already seen and read Liza Long’s remarkable, moving and beautiful essay, I am Adam Lanza’s Mother. It’s making the rounds on Facebook and other on-line sources. It is incredible! If you haven’t read it yet, you must. I have reprinted it below (it can be found in so many, many places that I can’t imagine it hasn’t been released for public domain purposes).

Quite simply, we must make sure that it is read by millions and millions of Americans and especially national and state lawmakers.

I’ll have some comments about the essay in my next blog.


I am Adam Lanza’s Mother
It’s time to talk about mental illness
by Liza Long (a blog on 15 December 2012 on The Blue Review)
Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.
“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.
“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”
“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”
“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”
I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.
A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.
That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.
We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.
At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.
Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30-1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18.
The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”
“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”
His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”
That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.
“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”
“You know where we are going,” I replied.
“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”
I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”
Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.
The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork—“Were there any difficulties with… at what age did your child… were there any problems with.. has your child ever experienced.. does your child have…”
At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.
For days, my son insisted that I was lying—that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”
By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.
On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”
And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.
I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.
According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.
When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”
I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.
With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.
No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”
I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.
God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.

(Originally published on The Blue Review.)
iza long is an author, musician, and erstwhile classicist. She is also a single mother of four bright, loved children, one of whom has special needs.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Birch Coulie

I happily wandered through a small book today (113 pps + notes) that I must recommend to you if the subject matter is up your alley. It is John Christgau’s book, Birch Coulie (The Epic Battle of the Dakota War).*
by Charlie Leck

I keep turning to books about the Dakota tribes and the tragic war of 1862 in order to try to better understand the natives who lived and thrived in Minnesota before we white people drove them out. My fascination began with the stories I heard and read about my wife’s paternal family’s arrival in Minnesota in 1856, after a journey across the country from eastern Ohio in a oxen-drawn covered wagon. One of the children in that traveling party, Warren, was a constant writer and teller of stories. He carefully documented those early years. Some of it had to do with the relations with the Native Americans in this region – just west of Minneapolis.

Christgau’s recently published book is extremely well written and carefully sourced. It reads somewhat like a thriller or adventure story and the incident that he covers really does come alive. One is drawn into one the great battles between the Dakota warriors and the Minnesota regiment of the U.S. Army assigned to protect white settlers. Mind you, it’s not a pretty story. There are heroes on both sides and wonderful descriptions of brave men and loyal women. Unless, however, one is deaf and blind to history, this is a story of great injustice and a last desperate act by a subjugated and defrauded people to correct their condition.

Here’s an example of some of the adventure and excitement that Christgau pumps into the telling of the historic story…

“While his horse drank, he checked the animal for wounds and spotted a red crease along the flank. Trickles of blood were flowing from the wound site. It was clearly the track of a bullet. But before Sheehand could investigate further, a shot sounded again. This time he heard the bullet strike his mount with a sickening thud. Sheehand prepared to find cover around the swamp. But the horse lifted his head and stepped sideways nervously, seemingly eager to get moving again.
“Sheehand vaulted into the saddle and urged his wounded horse into a gallop. He was shortly moving once more at full speed. Just north of Fort Ridgely, a high ridge ran squarely across the Abercrombie Road. As soon as Sheehan accomplished the ridge, he could make out the buildings and smoke of Fort Ridgely. He spurred his mount on to an even faster gallop, and in one last sprint to the finish line, he flew past the pickets guarding the post against ambush.
“Colonel Sibley, with a handful of his officers met Sheehan on the parade ground of Fort Ridgely. Sheehan quickly dismounted, but before anybody could lead the gritty mount to the fort stables for water and grain, the animal dropped dead.
“Then Sheehan presented Sibley with McPhail’s message. ‘I have met the Indians,’ McPhail had written. ‘They are too much for us. Send reinforcements.’”

This is an important story within Minnesota’s rich history. The story seems to have no biases. The desperation of both the white man and the Native American is fairly and clearly told. The enormous broken promises made to the Dakota people, that our nation refused to address and correct, lie at the heart of the story and that makes this difficult for a white man to read, even 150 years after the actual incident. The bravery and courage of the native dwellers here has often been incorrectly interpreted by writers at savagery. Christgau clearly helps us understand it as desperation.

It has taken more than a century for the smoke to clear. Now people can look more clearly at the moment and see that it was we who forced the hand of the people who had owned this land before we took it – that they had run out of options and they needed somehow to feed and shelter their women and children. Of course, they were angry and their attacks were brutal. Nonetheless, read from the distance of a century and a half, one sees that these were stories of great bravery by a proud and distinguished people

It is good for us – as descendents of the white settlers who came here – to read these candid stories and reflect on how things might have been done differently, more patiently and more fairly.

Christgau has made it possible for us to engage the story as if we were there in the moment – the very tense and dangerous moment.

At a Labor Day celebration in 1930, Robert K. Boyd, who had been just a “lowly enlisted man who hardly knew how to fire a musket,” had been invited to return to Birch Coulie to speak about the encounter. He had spent most of it in the hospital tent, trying to recover from several serious wounds. His remarks were intriguing, enigmatic and, sometimes wise. Among his comments were the following…

“I came to tell you of events that took place here a long time ago… [It was a story] older than history and always the same, when a poor, ignorant, defrauded, and downtrodden people rise up in their wrath.’”

I do not recommend books lightly; for you who are interested in the subject, I do recommend this one without hesitation. And, my copy is available for lending.

*Christgau, John: Birch Coulie, The Epic Battle of the Dakota War [University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2012]

[UPDATE] A number of Minnesota readers have asked that I explain where the Birch Coulee battle field is and how convenient it is to get there. It is very near Redwood Falls – east of there and just north of Morton, on County Road 2. It is probably 100 miles from downtown Minneapolis to the Birch Coulee Battlefield. It makes a wonderful and interesting trip in the summer or, especially, at the height of autumn. One can take in the Lower Sioux Agency Historical Site as well as the battlefield. The Upper Sioux Agency is near Granite Falls, also not too far away. In a day this past autumn, I visited all three sites and also drove up to Acton, where the violence first broke out, to visit the monument there. If you don’t want to hurry out there and back, there are good motels in Redwood Falls and there is the Jackpot Junction Casino in Morton, right on the Sioux reservation land there. I couldn’t stay in the hotel at the casino because smoking is not restricted. There is also a remarkably good golf course (Dacotah Ridge) run by the casino. It was designed by Rees Jones.
A bit south of Morton, down along the Minnesota River, following County Road 21, is Fort Ridgely State Park. It was from here that relief troops rushed to Birch Coulee to save the surrounded soldiers. From there, it is also only a short hop down U.S Hwy 21, along the Minnesota River, to New Ulm, where the largest Dakotah attacks against civilians in their homes took place.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

My Congressman and Gun Control

An Open Letter to My Congressman
by Charlie Leck

There follows an open letter to my Congressman. Won't you write to your Congressman also? Ask him/her to join in open debate about some kind of control of guns that are too powerful and can fire too many rounds of ammunition automatically.


Charles H. Leck

Erik Paulsen, Congressional Representative, 3rd District, Minnesota
U.S. House of Representatives
250 Prairie Center Dr.
Eden Prairie, MN 55344

Dear Congressman Paulsen:

I’m pretty rattled this weekend. The terrible murders of those small children in Connecticut just wrenches at my heart and guts. Sir, we’ve got to do something. This kind of thing is happening too often in America.

I know coming down on the side of strong gun control in America is difficult. I understand the complications that the Second Amendment to the Constitution create; yet, we must do something. The power and ability to repeat shooting that the gun this young killer held in his hands is incredibly frightening. Over and over and over he fired! Can’t we, at the very least, address that question?

Can’t we, at least, get a sensible and open debate about this matter going in the House? Can’t we ask every single Congressman and Congresswoman to look at this question with an open and aching heart and mind.

Sir, we cannot let this moment pass without a sensible and real discussion, at the very least. I hope and pray for action – for, at the very least, limitations on the power and automatic repeating nature of the guns that civilian Americans can possess. And, I hope we can get a better grip on the mental health of people who apply for gun permits.

I am well aware that there are constitutional issues involved here, but we must begin to debate together. We need to see where we can go to lessen the number of and severity of such incidents that have been happening lately in so many parts of the country.

Please, sir! Please! Call for open debates, at the very least. Call for open discussions about how much the Second Amendment really limits us from protecting society.


Yours very sincerely,

     SIGNED: Charles H. Leck

Charles H. Leck
Independence, Minnesota

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