Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

October 25, 2003

Winter Blues Warning in Effect

Fortified by 10 mg. of the antidepressant Lexipro each day, I am feeling pretty good. But at least three people I have spoken with over the past week report that they are struggling with the old black dog, depression. It is that time of year!

I’ll be on antidepressants the rest of my life. I went off them two winters ago, thinking I felt pretty darn good. Mistake. The next year was of a very low quality--although I kept telling myself I was fine--and it culminated in a crash when I got back from Arizona last winter. At that point, I was unable to sleep, too distracted to work, unable to be calm in anyway, and sobbed most every morning for no apparent reason. It would have been laughable if it weren’t so miserable, for there was nothing stressful happening in my life to justify such agitation and sadness. It went on for two weeks, during which time I would have much rather had the stomach flu.

The antidepressants kicked in about two weeks after I started them, and things have been getting better ever since. However, once you get low like that, I think it takes many months to truly pull up. It is like you dive off the high board into a pool: you keep expecting to break the surface, but it turns out you went deeper than you realized!

I think anti-depressants should be handed out like candy, thank you very much. Look how many people wear eyeglasses or contacts! A depressed outlook is as debilitating as blurred vision. Yet people, many of them wearing glasses, fight and kick and scream to avoid treating the problem of depression.

People with bad vision merely run into things, but depressed people pollute the entire atmosphere around them--especially if they are still of the opinion that their perceptions while depressed are real. Yes, people are talking about me behind my back! Yes, I made a fool of myself at that party! The evidence is in: I am an imposter and a failure! And, all these happy people are hopelessly and sadly deluded! If only they could see things like I do, they’d know how stupid they look.

To maintain sanity, I avoid people in such a state as compassionately as I can.


Good Old Days

Stopped by the offices of the Fertile Journal yesterday on an errand, and Twyla, their reporter, happened to be in. She had several huge volumes of old newspapers up from the morgue--newspaper jargon for the place where all previous issues are stored, and she showed me some old stories of interest, stories, she noted, which if published today would give great offense and would likely result in lawsuits.

A particularly sad story appeared of a Crookston girl, "in a delicate condition" due to her father's sexual abuse, who didn't dare report the abuse to her mother for fear of being sent away to reform school, which her mother had threatened before when she didn't wash the dishes right. A doctor discovered her pregnancy when she was taken to him, by her father, for having poison ivy from head to toe.

The next week, a follow up. "Crookston Girl's Story of Her Road to Ruin." When the law questioned her about her father, it came out that she had been kidnapped earlier, sedated, but not completely, by ether, and gang raped by a railroad crew which passed through town--and, as with the later incidents with her father, had not told anybody for fear of being beaten or sent to reform school.

The authorities said there was little hope of catching the guilty parties in the railroad crew case, as they had since moved on to other towns. It was clear that they intended to make no attempt. Although the girl was depicted as a pitiful victim, the implication was that her character was permanently sullied.

A few pages over, the case of a "very good looking girl" in southern Minnesota who had eloped with a full-blooded Winnebago Indian. The authorities warned that they were likely to be seeking a marriage license, and asked that everybody in such offices be on alert.

It is easy to think things are going downhill in the world, but for women and children at the mercy of abusive males--would anybody want to go back? Even twenty years?

As for the reporting by the newspaper, there was a humanity to the writing, a sympathy not allowed by today's style manuals. Whether or not such crimes should be reported in such detail in the local newspaper, we needn't decide. However, from a historian's point of view, such vivid writing and frank reporting makes the old papers much more valuable in the attempt to understand how things were.




October Dusting

Awoke this morning to a dusting of snow, the first of the season, the logical result, I suppose, of the strong, brisk winds yesterday afternoon. Tonight, as if on cue, we turn our clocks back one hour. Seems odd, since the sun sets at a little past six as it is. Tomorrow, after the change, sunset will come at a little past five, and winter will be here.


October 24, 2003

Aunt Olla's OK

Last night, my 92-year-old Aunt Olive called just after supper. Ten minutes before, I had finished off some meatballs she had given me a month ago which were in my freezer, so we marveled over that coincidence, since she doesn’t call that often.

Olla was telling me about a bread pudding she had made two days ago which was, in her estimation, although she admitted some bias, the best bread pudding she had ever made. Sadly, she did it without a recipe, just like Mama (my great-grandmother) used to do, so the chances of her ever duplicating the feat were slim.

In the middle of the bread pudding discussion, the phone buzzed violently, and wouldn’t stop. I hung up, and called Olla back. Busy. I waited a minute and called again. Still busy. Same result for ten minutes.

What is one to do? Did Olla fall? How was I do know? I couldn’t remember the name of any of the women in her apartment building, and Olla wouldn’t want to cause a stir anyway, so I decided I had better drive down there and see if she was okay.

Had to go to town for gas first, since it is 20 miles to Twin Valley and my gas gauge was on E. I wasn’t in any hurry because I was pretty sure Olla was fine and it was just the phone--but then I thought, I had better hustle, because if she actually fell, and I dawdled, I would feel terrible.

The whole way down, I called Olla’s number on the cell phone. It was always busy. When I got to the door and knocked, there was no answer. I went in to find Olla chatting away on the phone to cousin Illene. She was fine, and ready for bed, but of course you can’t drive that far and turn around and go home, so I asked her for a taste of the bread pudding.

Olla heated a big bowl of the pudding, put some rich cream over it, and we sat down for a visit. I told her I was reading David Copperfield, and she said that was the book her Papa had read aloud to Mama when they first got married, in an effort to improve Mama’s English. More reason for me to enjoy David Copperfield!

Olla told about the books on Papa’s shelf: many volumes of a series devoted to “character building,” many books by the reknowned 19th-century agnostic Robert Ingersoll, as well as books by the preacher Charles Spurgeon. Papa was an educated man, but impractical. He died young, when Olla was eight. Hard times hit just after, and Mama, who was a businesswoman, managed to save the farm. If Papa had lived, who knows.

Papa bought Olla and the girls some very expensive china dolls. After he died and hard times hit, Mama sold the dolls to pay bills. Except for the heads. The girls kept the doll heads, and that was the extent of their dolls after Papa died.

Lest I make Mama sound like a tyrant, I should mention that she has been revered by all the remaining children. She got them through the Depression. Her word was as good as gold at the bank, even during the worst of times. She was, by all accounts, a grand woman. She just saw no need for china dolls when food was scarce.

OLLA WENT ON TO TELL OF HER LATEST adventure with her friend Florence. Florence is an fiery 88-year-old, less than 100 lbs soaking wet, the scourge of Ada. You don’t mess with Florence or she’ll have you in court, or in front of the county commissioners. Or she’ll she’ll hang you out to dry in one of her letters to the Norman County Index, expletives deleted. When those same county commissioners finally evicted Florence from senior housing by midnight the first of the month, she wrote them a letter warning them that she intended to wrap her cane around the neck of anybody who tried to enter her apartment. Nobody showed. She moved in her own good time.

But Florence has a soft spot for Olla, and when she needs to escape from her controversial life in Ada, she and Olla go on one of their drives to “the woods.”

The woods, to Olla and Florence, is anything east of Highway 59. For those unfamiliar with local geography, Highway 59, which runs north and south, forms a dividing line between the prairie, where the roads are straight, and the lakes, where they run crooked. Olla and Florence, on their outings, head into the woods until they get very lost, and then find their way out. This takes them all day. It is their favorite pastime, one which often causes them to get home well after midnight, completely spent.

Florence mortifies Olla with her habits. If they need directions, she’ll honk at pedestrians until one comes over. If they get in a fender bender, which they have, Florence will threaten the cops.

This trip, they drove fifty miles south on Highway 59 before veering east on some county road. When they stopped to let Florence’s dog FuFu run a bit, they saw, up on a nearby hill, an old one-room schoolhouse.

The schoolhouse was brick, a rarity. The cornerstone said it was built in 1905. Florence and Olla walked in the tall grass around the building. Off to the side was a gnarled old apple tree. Olla imagined the kids looking out the window to see the apple tree bloom in spring, and then imagined them eating the apples in the fall. The schoolyard was full of ghosts, Olla said.

Florence went over to the tree and saw that the ground beneath it was covered with apples. She stirred around with her cane. Some of them looked good. So, they picked up enough for a pie.

At this point in her story, Olla struggled to her feet, went to the kitchen, and brought back a bowl of the beautiful orange apples. We sliced one up. It was a little mealy, but sweet.

Picking up those apples did in both Olla and Florence. The next day, Olla hurt in places she’d never hurt before, and Florence was practically bedridden. But tomorrow, Olla reports, they are going back on the road to scour the second hand stores for a hutch.









October 23, 2003

Elena's Place

A tree delivery this morning gave me an excuse to have a noon meal at Elena's Place, a restaurant in Erskine. Elena is part of the Russian Orthodox Old Believer sect, of which 100 families have settled in the Erskine area over the past five years.

Who around here would have thought, ten years ago, that Erskine, MN would ever have a Russian restaurant?

Elena fed me well. Russian food reminds me a bit of what I ate in Poland. Salads consist mainly of cabbage and vinegar. The vegetables are well stewed. The bread is a bit tough, but when you dip it in the red borscht, it softens nicely. The beef perogi also benefited from dipping in the borscht.

Elena worked on her books as I ate, while Russian music played on the boom box. She later said that the music was of Russian Orthodox Old Believers in Poland. I did not know that there were many Russian Orthodox of any sort in Poland, but Elena said they dispersed all over the world before, during and after World War II, "fleeing their own country," as she put it.

After I finished the main meal, Elena gave me an almond dessert on the house. It was very sweet. Equally sweet was the conversation with Elena about her life. She was born in China. Her Old Believer sect had fled there from Siberia in 1905. Her family moved to Brazil when she was three years old, after Mao consolidated his power in China. They moved with the help of the American Consulate in Bejiing. Many of them later moved to Portland, OR. Five years ago, a group moved to the Erskine area.

At first, Elena said, she had troubles in Minnesota--but now, she said, it is home. She likes the quiet, and after a week of visiting Portland, she's ready to come back.

Over 7,000 Old Believer families remain in Portland, Elena said. They are reproducing at a fast rate. "There are two or three weddings every Sunday," she said, adding, "you could become an alcoholic!" The Old Believer weddings last one week, at least for the bride and her party, and two days, Sunday and Monday, for the remaining guests. There is much drinking, and a lot of good food.

Elena showed me pictures of her family including one of her youngest son, who was married in Erskine last year. He was 16 at the time, and his wife, also from an Old Believer family, was 14. They now have a baby. I found the pictures of the two teenagers, he looking every bit the responsible father in work clothes, and she looking demur in traditional Orthodox garb, extraordinary.

Elena's daughter Marina reads my column, she said, and would like it very much if I would sign her book. I signed a little book which was full of greetings from other restaurant visitors. I purchased four cans of Latvian smoked sardines, which my father thinks are pretty darn good, and headed back to work--reminded that things around here aren't as bland as they might look.


Another Dying Country Institution

Last night, I spoke to the Mahnomen/Becker County Homemaker's fall gathering. There must have been 70 women there, most older, and a good time was had by all. At the close, however, the chairwoman of the event made it clear that the fall gathering probably wouldn't happen next year due to budget cuts affecting the University Extension Service.

Homemaker's clubs are sponsored by the Extension service, and the County Extension agents (or educators, as they recently came to be called) are going extinct. Nobody can come up with very good arguments for their continued existence, but like any tradition, people are sad to see it go away.

So, one more opportunity to get together, drink coffee, eat bars, egg salad sandwiches, pickles and Cheese Whiz open face sandwiches--gone by the board.


October 21, 2003

Nostalgia for the Victorians

Reading Dickens brings me once again to the nineteenth century, my favorite of them all. I think I would like to have been a good Victorian. The Victorians had manners. They valued honor. They used the language to its fullest extent. And they had a rich talent for love and friendship.

It was manners, rules and prudishness which allowed friendship to flourish during the Victorian era, I would argue. In the wrong hands, the Victorian manners calcified into a humorless and onerous code of conduct--but in well-meaning and nimble hands, those same strictures cleared away the social confusion, and gave people a means to express their love and friendship for each other without as much threat of being misread, or misused, or misled. Thus, the beautiful letters and beautiful literature of Victorian friendship, which modern scholars are prone to oversexualize in over-footnoted articles entitled "Homoerotic Themes in Dickens," or "Lincoln's Gay Friendships," or other equally dismal misapplications of sterile modern sensibility to a more gracious and subtle time.

At its best, Victorian prudishness arose from a sense of what was a decent and proper, rather than from the threat of hellfire--the crude, medieval force behind what little prudishness remains today.

And manners--what ever happened to them?


David Copperfield

My preference is for history. I can read fiction, but only if I suspect the events depicted have a firm basis in fact. My friend Lyla, knowing my debilitation in this area, is adept at suggesting fiction which might suck me in due to its historical content. She suggested Shakespeare’s Richard II last winter, and sure enough, I finished it, the first Shakespeare play I have read since college. Last week she suggested Dickens’ David Copperfield, and I have been entranced by it.

The copy I am reading has been musting away on my mother’s bookshelf for thirty years. The pages are yellow and brittle. The binding of the paperback crunches when you open the book. I suspect that pages will be falling out by the time I get done with it.

At the various times when I came home to spend days, weeks or months in my parents basement, David Copperfield and other classics stared at me from the shelf, an indictment, it seemed to me, of an education which never once forced me to read Dickens or anything else of substance, for that matter.

But what fun to discover David Copperfield at the recommendation of Lyla rather through the requirements of a class. Once you get into the novel and the characters come alive, reading the book becomes a refuge rather the sort of dismal intellectual duty reading such works was in college.

Gosh, I remember how I plowed through the pages in college, so proud to finish thirty pages in a sitting. If I went 20 pages without looking at the page numbers, it was a major victory. It took a while after graduate school to realize that if I was counting pages, I probably shouldn’t be reading what I was reading. I no longer needed to read anything. For the first time since sixth grade, when I wandered the elementary library at Fertile-Beltrami school and read what struck my fancy, I was free to enjoy reading and read what I pleased, if I pleased!




What's this weblog going to be about?

I write a weekly column for a handful of newspapers in northwestern Minnesota. All too often it is the only writing I do in a week. It seems I need an audience, even an imagined one, to motivate myself to write. And so, I hope to make daily entries into this weblog as a way of putting thoughts on paper on a daily basis. If anybody cares to read the entries, so much the better.

The weblogs which gain popularity seem to be concerned with daily political affairs. The energy these webloggers put into dissecting every last shred of political commentary which comes their way amazes me. I have no such ambitions. In the rare instance when I have been able to insulate myself from the daily news for days or weeks on end, I have found myself better off, not worse. To avoid becoming consumed by the output of the American Media Machine, I hope to avoid comment on anything which appears on the nightly news.

I love baseball, and am always tempted to write at length about it. However, the failure of the Cubs and Red Sox, as well as the earlier failure of my favorite, the Twins, will probably keep me off that topic for a while!

What's left? We'll see.


October 20, 2003

Harvest

Harvest, for us, means digging up the trees and shrubs, shaking the dirt off their roots, and putting them into the cold storage building for winter. You want to wait as long as you can to begin digging trees without waiting so long that the ground freezes without you getting everything out. As a rule, we start October 20th.

So, this morning, four of us performed the undercutting ritual. The undercutter is a large steel U blade attached to two wooden beams, and pulled by two tractors, while two people sit on the beams to help sink the blade into the ground. The undercutter loosens the trees so they are easy to lift out with the loader.

I provided dead weight, along with brother. The tractors travel about 1 mile per hour. The process takes about 4 hours, and then the U blade is put back in the weeds until it is pulled out a year from now for another four hours of duty.

Our farm is full of such gadgets. Conveyors we use for one task, which takes about a day. A scraper we use once every three years, at most. It warms my heart every time one of those old machines is pulled out from the grass, greased up, and put back to work.



October 19, 2003

This week's newspaper column:

Most farmsteads are lit up at night by a fluorescent yard light. When I moved to mine, it had no such light, and I have seen no reason to put one up. I really don’t care to have my yard bathed in an eerie blue glow.

The biggest benefit of a dark yard is the clear view one gets of the night sky. Several times this summer and fall I have stepped outside at night only to be startled by the sight of the Milky Way, the northern lights, and the glowing red dot that is Mars.

Stopping to look at the stars for a while always improves my outlook. I wonder why I don’t do it more often.

Human pastimes range from the wholesome–those which make one feel better about life and one’s place in it–to the unwholesome, those which distract us from our problems, but make us anxious or numb.

Identifying which are which is no problem. Television, talk radio, movies, newspapers, the Internet, booze, even coffee, all agitate or make us numb. But when one reads a good book, tends a garden, rehearses music, cooks one’s own food or practices a craft, one can become calm.

Sounds easy. Yet, despite this obvious knowledge, how near impossible it is to cut down on the unwholesome activities in favor of the wholesome! It’s like pulling teeth to get myself away from the daily news and into something more beneficial. And I must have my coffee.

Alcoholics and drug addicts are often shamed, but they are only those unfortunate enough to have compulsions which have spun out of control, and upon which society frowns. If theirs is a moral failing, it is one which we all share.

In college, I had a classmate who was fighting drug addiction. He was bright, sensitive and talented, and was well on the way to becoming a pilot before the drug problem pushed him into the more forgiving field of English literature.

He told me something which stuck. His drug counselor had on the wall of his office an enormous poster of stars, nebula, and galaxies. Whenever a client came in overwhelmed by their problems and their miserable fate in life, he would point to the poster.

I didn’t understand the counselor’s motives at the time, but I do now. Contemplating the size and complexity of the universe can shrink one’s problems into insignificance, if one truly wants them shrunk.

Late this summer on a Saturday night, after somehow fighting off the urge to drive off somewhere for supper and mind-numbing entertainment, I absent-mindedly stepped outside and looked up.

The Milky Way glowed softly. Mars was bright red. One star out west shone bright blue. To get a better view, I ran inside and fetched my binoculars, as well as a star chart I picked up last winter in Arizona. Thus equipped, I laid down on the cement slab in front of my garage.

I am a rookie stargazer, so it took me an hour to identify the North Star, the Little Dipper, and a couple of the more obvious constellations. Next, I tried to find the Andromeda galaxy, the only object outside of our own galaxy visible to the naked eye.

I failed, despite my chart. Little did I realize, until I walked inside and saw that it was two o’clock, that I had spent three-and-a-half hours in the attempt. The cold of the concrete made my neck stiff for two days.

But it was worth it. Whatever worries were dominating my mind had shrunk to almost nothing. I was tired, but calm and content, a sure sign that one has been engaged in a beneficial pursuit.

It was a memorable evening, and it wouldn’t have happened if I had a yard light.


Cubs and Red Sox aftermath

It didn't take long for the dramatic losses by the Cubs and Red Sox to turn into legend. Garrison Keillor mentioned it on Prairie Home Companion last night, saying that this country doesn't need to read Sophocles, or King Lear--we have baseball. We have the Cubs and the Red Sox, with their tragic tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We have tragic heroes, like the Cubs fan Steve Bartman, who is being blamed for the collapse of his team after he went after a foul pop that might have been caught by Moises Alou. The next day, poor Bartman had his name and place of work published in the Chicago papers. His life will never be the same.

It wasn't Bartman who caused the Cubs collapse. They still had a 3-0 lead at that point. The Marlins scored 8 runs after the incident, but that was due to Cubs misplays and bad pitching more than Bartman's interference. But reason plays no role in legend, and Bartman forever will be known as the fan who sabotaged the Cubs chance for their first World Series since 1945.

Poor Grady Little, the Red Sox manager who inexplicably left a depleted Pedro Martinez in the game until Boston's 5-2 lead had evaporated. He had just as well resign. The Boston fans won't ever forgive him. They are a mean bunch. The Red Sox nation nurses their grievances as assiduously as any suppressed Eastern European ethnic group.

There is some lag time between the time a collapse happens and before the events gel into legend. For the goats, the burden can be too much. Donnie Moore, the Angels pitcher who gave up a home run to Boston CF Dave Henderson which prevented the Angels from reaching the World Series in 1986, never recovered. He committed suicide two years later. A few days after Henderson's homer, Bill Buckner let a grounder roll between his legs which allowed the Mets to win the World Series--his brilliant 21 year career was forgotten; he is only known to baseball history for that ground ball.

Baseball is unforgiving, but it also redeems. Aaron Boone was horrible in the playoffs--until he hit the home run which beat Boston. One swing wiped away two weeks of futility for Boone, and secured his place in Yankee lore. Yankee lore. There's way too much of it.