Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

November 01, 2003

A subtle time of year

Just drove to town and back, and was reminded of how much I enjoy the scenery this time of year. At times it is dreary, at other times it is rich and subtle.

Some favorite things: the black silhouette of the oak against the sunset...the thickets of swamp willow, fringed with orange, touched with frost...the lone cottonwoods rising like a geyser out of the prairie...the last few leaves clinging to clumps of underbrush...the orange berries hanging like Christmas ornaments on the mountain ash...the slender white trunks of the aspen forming gentle parallel lines...the dead grasses in the ditches and swamps, their colors not yet worn to gray by winter...the slowly fading green of the lawns...a subtle golden hue mixed with the green of the needles on pine and spruce...

What a nice time of year for a drive at sunset. It seems that the beauty of this time of year is easier to appreciate, compared to the overwhelming greens of summer and the sometimes gaudy colors of early autumn.


Off to the Pumpkin Patch...

Brother Joe and I are headed down to Twin Valley tonight to their Pumpkin Patch community celebration in the fire hall. We will switch off playing piano for a while during the dinner, and then sing a couple of tunes during the variety show. It is a fundraiser for the nursing home. They serve hundreds, and most stay for the show, which can verge on the outrageous. A full report will be posted here tomorrow.


The fun of good firewood

I keep a little woodstove burning in my basement which keeps the upstairs floor cozy warm, and heats the whole house until just before sunrise, when the furnace kicks in. I don't get up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire like my Dad does. Add a few years, and I probably will.

Dad has cut enough fire wood to supply his house and mine for years. It is stacked on pallets inside the Morton building at the nursery. Every couple of weeks during the winter, I drive in there with my pickup and load up.

We have an abundant supply of ash firewood, thanks to the beaver, who dammed up a ditch on our property, which raised the water level of a swamp, which drowned the surrounding green ash. There they stand, ankle deep in water, dried, ripe for the sawing as soon as the ice is thick enough.

Ash is the ideal firewood. Oak sometimes slows to a smolder; aspen burns too fast, elm is impossible to split and box elder is too wet. But ash splits with one stroke. It starts easy, even if its a little green. It burns slow. It stores well.


October 31, 2003

Book arrives, stares at me from the next room...

Dick Richards of Richard's Publishing in Gonvick dropped off 3907 copies of my new book last evening. There they sit, about 50 boxes in the middle of the floor of the nursery sales room. I can't imagine selling that many at this point.

It is always a pleasure to do business with Dick and his crew. Larger printers have a bureaucracy that is sometimes difficult to penetrate. With the last printer I used, you had to go through a sales rep in a fancy office, who went through somebody else, who went through another person, and good grief, you never knew what was going to come out the other end. But Dick's company has all the modern printing equipment with a small town touch. They let me go up there and watch the stuff come off the press to see if I like the colors, and that is fun. I know the guys in the back. I always like to know the guys in the back! Businesses which don't let you meet the guys in the back bother me.

Dick's roving sales representative is James Hanson. James proofs the Gonvick paper, owned by Richards, and he proofed my book as well. He's sells advertising and printing for Richards. Even more importantly, for me, he gets me to stick to deadlines by innocently asking me "So, when are you going to have that ready, then?" I grumble and moan and say stop by next Monday. Sunday night, I get busy, and by Monday morning I have things ready when James rolls in the yard. If James wasn't so attentive, I wouldn't get these books out at all.

I should also mention Sue Eck. She works as a typesetter for Richards, but her talents go far beyond that. She formatted my book, and designed the cover. She's a real pro. When we are tweaking things near the end of a project, I go up to Gonvick and sit down next to Sue and we try some different things, and usually we get it figured out in five minutes. With a larger printer, when you are working back and forth through a sales rep, the same process would take a week or more.

In matters of business, I am prejudiced towards the small! It is a pleasure to work with the great bunch up in Gonvick.


Instant Wealth

The Lunch Ladies of Holdingford (sounds like a novel) won $95 million in the Powerball lottery this week, a victory for barely-over-minimum-wage lunch ladies everywhere!

Now I will be eagerly awaiting the follow up report one year from now on what they did with their winnings, and how it has affected their lives.

There seems to be no greater test of character than a sudden windfall of unearned wealth. It seems to ruin the lives of many people so bequeathed, if previous follow up stories on lottery winners are any indication.

Professional athletes are one example of people who find themselves instantly wealthy, often before they are ready for it. The multi-million dollar contract makes many of them sullen, egotistical, and unmotivated. Sometimes a star young athlete will recover in a year or two; other times the newly-rich athletes disappear for good, unable to motivate themselves to keep their skills honed after they have been handed financial security.

Only two of the lunch ladies quit upon learning of their winnings. Perhaps others will quit later. Sudden windfalls remove the financial necessity of work, but they do nothing to remove the psychological need to be productively occupied. Some winners realize this and keep on working, at least until they figure out what else to do with their lives. Others quit right away, only to find themselves at a loss.

We all crave instant wealth. We can't imagine, until it happens, that winning the lottery would bring anything but unmitigated happiness. But a sudden windfall removes the tension, the drama of making one's own way in the world. It could well be that very tension which makes life interesting. I know that if I were to be handed millions, I would be thrown into a crisis: Why work any more? Why not sleep in all the time? Why not spend the rest of your life spending?

The answers to those questions would probably lead me back to the same work I did before. It is good work, and having good work is one of life's biggest blessings--a bigger blessing than money, by far.


October 30, 2003

The Country Drug

According the US Department of Health and Human Services, eighth graders in rural areas are twice as likely to have used methamphetamines than eighth graders in urban areas. The disparity between urban and rural students is less startling with other illicit drugs such as cocaine and alcohol, but with every illegal drug listed in the survey, rural eighth graders used more than their urban counterparts. I don't suppose anybody in the country has yet sent their child to an inner city school to get them away from drugs, but these statistics indicate it might not be a bad idea.

Northwestern Minnesota is just as bad, maybe worse, than anywhere else. The district court proceedings in today's Fertile Journal list several cases in Polk County which involved meth. Social services workers in rural North Dakota report not just that they have many cases involving meth, but that a majority of their cases somehow involve the drug, according to my memory of a newspaper report last spring.

The meth problem can seem abstract and far away, but a month ago, I ran into an acquaintance who I knew had battled meth addiction in the past. When I saw him, I was shocked. He looked skeletal, hollow-eyed, wasted away. Apparently he is using the drug again. Very sad. It appears as though it is killing him, and not very slowly.

Meth is peculiarly diabolical. Unlike other drugs, meth creates a craving which doesn't go away, even if you have been free from the drug for many, many years. In addition, the paranoid state of mind caused by meth makes its users quite dangerous, especially if cornered or threatened.

Meth is comprised of entirely legal chemicals. Cold medicines, toilet bowl cleaners, anhydrous ammonia. That raises the interesting question: At what point the possession of the components of the drug become illegal? I mean, if somebody has about 200 tablets of Sudafed and a case of toilet bowl cleaner, you know darn well what they're going to do with it, but how do you write a law, or should you write a law, to make possession of the immoderate amounts of the otherwise legal components illegal?

I think our drug laws are silly. Alcohol is legal, even though it kills thousands per year, both innocent people on the roads, as well as addicts--while marjiuana is illegal, which, as far as I can tell, only makes people stupid, unproductive and intolerably convinced that their every muddled thought is of lasting profoundity.

I would like to be libertarian on the matter--just let people do their stupid things (as long as they aren't hurting anybody) and suffer the consquences, which are severe enough without throwing them in jail for hurting themselves--but this meth thing seems more pernicious.

Kids should be shown the effects of meth up close and personal. They should be scared stiff of the stuff. Have them meet an addict. Have them meet a dozen addicts! Show them a blown-up meth lab. Show them the neglected kids. Telling young people something is naughty, illegal and wrong is inviting them to try it when they have a chance. Showing them that it is destructive, however, might get through. Might.


Serenity Quest

My correspondent BW used the above title for the email I quote in the last entry below. I find it apt, and more positive than talking about depression or winter blues. Serenity is what is missing from modern life. Modern American culture does little to encourage or value it. There is no training for it in schools (and let's keep it that way--I would hate to see what the education bureaucracy would come up with if two quarters of "serenity training" became a requirement), and modern religion, as well as traditional psychology, do little to deal with the nuts and bolts of achieving a greater calm. Perhaps these deficiencies explain the recent burst of interest in Buddhist thought in this country (just look at the "Eastern Religion" section at Barnes and Noble for evidence). Eastern meditation is all about achieving calm, a state the frenzied modern mind craves.

But all around us are everyday people who don't seem to need books to screw their head on straight. For instance, a lady from town who told me she couldn't sleep for years after her husband's death put her night-time energies into making quilts--dozens and dozens of them--for poor children in Third World countries. She said it kept her from going crazy, and I know darn well she hasn't read a book since high school. Others talk, in homey terms unpolluted by self-help jargon (because they've never read that stuff) of the little things they do to maintain sanity, to stop worrying, to feel better. These people and the methods they develop interest me.

For I am of the opinion that, although we value education highly, there is no correllation between those who are educated and those who are serene, or even sane. In fact, the opposite might be true: The more educated you are, the more restless your mind, and not necessarily in a productive way. People who seem simple and guileless often have a genius for living that might be the envy of those who read book after book, who constantly strive, or who follow current affairs with a restless passion.


Winter Blues, cont.

I am always interested in the methods people use to maintain sanity when hit by depression, and its evil twin, anxiety. The post below about the Winter Blues brought a wonderful response from reader BW:

Living in the moment was a survival tool I just stumbled upon during a long night almost 40 years ago when I sat all night with the phone on my lap and my finger in the Operator hole so I could dial immediately if the panic hit again (no 911 at that time).  I discovered during those long hours that if I let my mind rest for even a moment in the past (the rear view mirror), the panic seemed to swallow me.  Same thing if I thought about the future (the windshield).  The only solution was to stick to the present--I remember counting things in my field of vision: the ceiling tiles, the planks in the paneling, anything countable.  Just like The Count on Sesame Street.  By morning I was quite calm and decided to continue with "the moment".  Over a period of weeks I became very calm and I decided that this was a pretty good way to live...


Only later, BW goes on, while watching a Catholic priest and a Buddhist monk visit on a television show, did she realize the similarity between the technique she developed on her own and meditation techniques which go back millenia, techniques which calm the mind by focusing it on the present rather than on dread of the future, or ruminations over the past.

In the long term, it seems, it can be beneficial to be hit by times which are really dark, when one is forced to take action, and to develop new ways of dealing with life's ups and downs. BW says it better:

Over the years I've come to think of my dark times as a place where I will get special gifts.  I have always come away from them with something renewed within or an insight that I don't think would have come any other way. I've found something worth keeping in many of the Eastern religions. I have also found deeper meaning in the Bible--things I had simply read before but had not really connected with in any profound or meaningful way. 


Thus, sharp pain can push one out of a rut and into something better. As such, it is a gift. It is low-level numbness that is the enemy--where one gets comfortable functioning beneath one's ability. Yet, you don't wish pain on anybody--and I won't be volunteering to undergo any myself, either!

For good measure, BW adds the following nugget:
 
One thing that really gets me down is dealing with mean, ignorant, selfish people. Several years ago I recalled Grandma telling me when I was a hyper- critical teenager, "You're cheating yourself when you just see the bad in people.  In every human being there is an Angel, a Genius and a Clown--if you keep looking at people as problems, you'll miss them when they come out."  I have found this to be true whenever I have sense enough to just listen to people when they get to rambling.  Sometimes it takes some waiting, but those three characters are there in everybody.


I don't often have the patience for listening to people's rambling, particularly when there is business to tend to, but when I have taken the time to hear people out, especially people who would, by conventional measures, seem to hold no promise--a stuttering hobo at a bus station, a person with Down's syndrome, even somebody in the early stages of Alzheimer's--I have found rich insights, a deep sense of humor--and nuggets of wisdom you would never hear from somebody fully engaged in the rat race.

Thanks, BW.


October 29, 2003

A lull, and I sure hope it's temporary

After hauling the mailing promoting Off the Farm to the post office, it hit me that there is nothing more I can do. Four thousand copies of the book are on their way from the printer. Forty thousand fliers are waiting at newspaper offices, to be inserted next week. Now it is just to wait and see if the thing sells! I calculated today that I need to sell 1,700 of them to break even. Advertising costs as much as the printing, but you have to do it. I think I have made worse investments, but any lull in activity allows doubts to creep in...


Commentary glut

I can't imagine that there has ever been so much daily commentary on the news and everything else as there is today. In addition to all the cable TV news shows and talk radio shows, there are hundreds of thousands of weblogs like this one devoted to every sort of interest, every political view. If you know what you are doing, you can start your own daily newspaper, available to the entire world instantly, and for free, both to the publisher and the reader--in a matter of ten minutes!

Old style commentators in major magazines and newspapers have not only new competition, but find themselves dogged by thousands of instant online critics who bring with them a big audience. If they put out an article which doesn't have all its facts straight, it will be a matter of a few hours before the internet hounds howl. Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times are favorite targets of bloggers nationally, and Doug Grow of the Minneapolis Star Tribune catches a lot of hell from bloggers in Minnesota, as do his bosses at the paper.

This is all good. The ability to publish for a wide audience has never been more widespread. Long live the First Amendment. The glut of commentary does mean, however, that one can get swept up in it all--whether or not you write. One can vicariously follow the daily debates, the to's and fro's--and never get anything else done!

Sometimes I get nostalgic for the time when the Fargo Forum would come in the mailbox every day and actually contain something I hadn't heard or read many times already. If news were food...more of us would be grotesquely obese than already are.


Grandpa columns

The columns I write about my grandfather always get good response. It seems that just mentioning him in a column insures that people will remember it, even those who never met Grandpa, or who know nothing about him.

I spent twenty years as a sort of right-hand man to Grandpa after he turned over the reins of the nursery to Mom and Dad. People loved Grandpa for his enthusiasm, friendliness and genius. I define genius here as "creative originality." He had that! To his family, however, he was often a difficult enigma.

Grandpa seems like a good topic for a book. His eccentricities were endless, and he dominated every scene he walked into. In fact, I have tried writing one about him under the working title The Grandpa Years, but the thing hasn't gelled yet. Of course, it is up to a writer to make it gel through sheer effort. If I have learned anything about writing it is that effort is more important than inspiration! But its nice to have a little inspiration, too. So, I will wait for the call of the Muse a while longer before attempting to summon it.


Fall work

After the trees drop their leaves, there is a little blizzard of fall work at the nursery. The most important job is the digging of trees before the ground freezes. With the raw, wet weather, that job becomes miserable, and takes on added urgency. We will spend the winter sorting the trees in cold storage. If we don't get the trees out of the ground, however, digging will have to wait until spring when we have no time to sort! So, Joe, Dad and Ken are slipping and sliding through the mud out there--and I suppose if worse comes to worse, I could go out there, too.

Four thousand copies of my third book, Off the Farm, are due here on the truck either today or tomorrow. So, I am devoting my time to marketing them by direct mail, by inserts into the papers in which my column appears, and eventually through about 10 area drug stores. We are sending out 8,000 fliers today by bulk mail. To mail in bulk, you have to have the letters sorted right, so Cindy has been trying to interpret the mass of regulations on that matter from the Post Office.

Then, I hope, comes the fun part--getting orders in the mail, and mailing out books. When you publish your own book, you assume all of the risk. You also make more--if it sells. The last two books sold about 4,000 copies each, but you never know.

On November 8, we will have a book signing here at the nursery. Dot has been dolling up the gift shop so people can browse for Christmas gifts as well. Coffee, cookies, cider and door prizes, a typical open house.


October 28, 2003

Round Robin

My father's siblings have, for as long as I remember, had a Round Robin. As a child, it would have been impossible to imagine that any family did not have a Round Robin! When the Robin came in the mail, it was a good day. If we went a long time without getting the Robin, somebody might call around to see who was holding it up.

The Round Robin is a circular letter which works its way from sibling to sibling. It contains a letter from each. When it comes to you, you take out your old letter and put in a new one.

What I find curious is--although all the uncles and aunts are now on email, and correspond quite frequently that way, the Robin has survived, and goes around at about the same speed it always has--even faster! What that says to me is that, although we are in constant touch, by phone or electronic means, people still enjoy letters.

As a member of a lower generation, I am not in the Robin's circulation, and neither are the other cousins. My Aunt Beth decided a while back that the cousins might like to read up on the goings on in the family. When the Robin reaches her, she copies it off and mails it to the cousins. I think there are 18 of them total. Seeing the fat Robin envelope is almost as much fun now as it was when I was a child--when long distance was costly, and email nonexistent. It helps that the Bergeson family is a varied and fascinating bunch.

This week, Beth's copies of the Robin arrived on my desk before the actual Robin made it into Mom and Dad's mailbox. For some reason, having early access to the Robin's contents gave me an illicit sense of triumph.


Show and Tell

This weblog is a throwback to childhood for me. I recall coming home from elementary school and telling endless stories about my day, giving long character sketches about my teachers, friends, the janitors, the bus driver, everybody. Sometimes Mom and Dad were the victims. At other times, I spent the evening over at Grandma and Grandpa's house, boring them to tears, I am sure. Coming home from college was no different--hours and hours of stories about every professor, every friend I found interesting.

I don't have as much opportunity these days to spin random, pointless yarns--an audience for a 39-year-old with too much to say is hard to come by. But now I have this weblog! Welcome to my daily ramble!


A Raw Day

The past two days have been foul in northwestern Minnesota. Near-freezing temperatures, snow, slush, and a raw, wet wind. This morning, I drove to Thief River Falls to speak to a Kiwanis group. Fortunately, the highway is still warm enough that it readily melts off the snow and slush. Driving was no problem. My voice, however, which is also raw from a cold, was very much a problem! They found a microphone for me, and it went fine.

I believe the group was called the Golden Key Kiwanis. It was mostly retired men, about 40 of them. All of them to whom I spoke were both interesting and interested. The man who introduced me did so by saying that the last time I spoke to them, I had suggested that he hang a 5 foot piece of hose in his maple tree to scare off the sapsuckers. It worked. (The birds think it's a snake.) I have since switched doctrines. I now suggest hanging metallic streamers, which seem to work as well. I had forgotten the hose method, most likely because I hate snakes and often jump at the sight of a coiled hose out of the corner of my eye.

With such a group, there is usually more to be learned than taught. I learned that Chestnut crabapples, my favorite, will keep for months in the fridge in a plastic bag which has a little water inside. I learned that seed source is very important on Scotch pine--not all are equally hardy. I also learned that during the war (WWII) and shortly after there was a plant near Thief River which manufactured lifejackets made out of cattails harvested locally. The baler from that plant is displayed in a museum in Warren, MN. Not something to plan one's vacation around, but interesting nonetheless.


October 27, 2003

The following column....

I wrestled a bit with this week's column. I won't be a bit surprised if some of the newspapers might consider it advertising and refuse to run it. Oh well.

But, there is much that is beautiful in our area. I just don't think many people see it! I always appreciate when somebody wakes me up to an aesthetic pleasure I have not previously noticed. I notice the red berries on the Red Splendor. I haven't always. Others notice other things.

Wildlife photographer Bruce Flaig moved into our area a couple of years ago. I am thankful to him for waking me up to the great variety of birds in our area. This morning, I heard a new bird call--a sort of cooing--I had not heard before, and at the same time noticed a little mahogany brown bird with a white stripe flit around on the bark of the oak in my front yard--almost as if it were some sort of woodpecker. It never sat still long enough for me to get a good view of it. But I wouldn't have noticed the bird call or the little brown bird at all if I had never been exposed to Bruce's enthusiasm for the birds we have right here.

I have appreciated art more since I have realized that the artist's role is to awaken the senses of his audience. Last year, after seeing the paintings in Europe of flat farmland painted by the Flemish masters 100s of years ago, I can home with a different view of our flat farmland here in Minnesota. They found something beautiful in it, why can't I?

The world is full of beautiful things I still do not appreciate. For example, I haven't yet been able to endure opera. Perhaps some day I will. I don't like Beethoven. I don't like raw oysters on the half-shell.

But I have come to enjoy the weeds in the ditch, after long wishing they were mowed, and prime rib dipped in raw horseradish has become a recent unlikely favorite.

If we let our interests calcify into prejudices we die an early death. The enthusiasm of others for things we don't understand must have some foundation. We might attempt to discover the charm they see in their hobbies and interests before showing disdain. There is much buried treasure yet unearthed, and clues abound.


October 26, 2003

Reminders of Grandpa (this week's newspaper column)

I admit bias, but for me the scenery of this often dreary time of year is brightened considerably by the bright red berries which hang on the flowering crab trees planted liberally around the region. My enjoyment is enhanced because each of the trees loaded with the colorful fruit is a reminder of my late grandfather, Melvin Bergeson.

Grandpa introduced the Red Splendor Flowering Crab in 1948. Despite its name, the Red Splendor blooms pink in the spring. It is because of the color of the fruit in the fall, color which extends deep into winter because of the tree’s unusual habit of hanging onto its fruit, that Grandpa named the tree Red Splendor.

Grandpa didn’t breed the Red Splendor, nor did he even discover it. It was an employee of his named Norris Oftedahl who noticed a little tree in the field which was blooming its heart out one Depression-era May, even as the other trees in the row had died of winter kill. Norris suggested to Grandpa that the little sprig might be a genetic mutation worth preserving.

Grandpa watched the tree for many years. When he saw its unique fall and winter fruit display, he knew it was a winner, and gave it its name.

Grandpa raised several of the trees for customers and sent a good number to other nurseries for trial before he applied for a patent. As a result, the patent was denied on grounds that the tree was already in the public domain.

The Red Splendor took off in popularity, in large part because it didn’t drop its fruit on the sidewalk like the other flowering crabs. It was once considered by the University of Minnesota to be the best new plant ever introduced in the state.

Grandpa promoted the tree relentlessly. If while on the road he saw a spot in somebody’s yard which he thought needed a Red Splendor, he would knock on the door and overwhelm the unsuspecting home owner with a sales pitch which might include poetry, Bible verses, snippets of hymns, or a combination of all three. Few had the courage to resist.

It helped that Grandpa was deaf to the word no. He couldn’t imagine anybody not wanting a beautiful yard. More than once he planted trees for people who were pretty sure they had told him they weren’t interested.

It was Grandpa’s goal to see at least one street in every town in northwestern Minnesota lined with the Red Splendor. Judging from all the trees I see with glistening red berries in towns around here this time of year, he succeeded.

Grandpa continued to experiment with new varieties of trees during his retirement. In fact, he had so many on trial that the rest of us sort of rolled our eyes when he’d run in gushing about some poplar tree up by Grygla that was, to use his favorite word, “distinctive.”

But in the years since he died, several of those trees have taken off in popularity. Turns out, some of those trees he had us wading through swamps to swipe cuttings from were worthwhile.

None of Grandpa’s descendants inherited his sharp eye for good new trees, or his patience for the decades of waiting necessary before a new tree can be considered proven. Nor did we inherit his zeal for promoting tree planting with no regard for profit.

But Grandpa often said: “Beauty is wealth, plant lots of it and be rich.” If that’s true, he left behind an estate which pays annual dividends to anybody whose day is brightened by the glow of the bright Red Splendor berries in the late afternoon sun during this otherwise dismal time of year.


Marlins, Dickens

The baseball season ended with a whimper last night. The Yanks went down quietly. The young Marlins, led by their crusty old manager Jack McKeon, did what they had to and little more. It seems to me as if McKeon won with mirrors. The statistics compiled by individual Marlin players aren't impressive. But they went on a tear when McKeon came out of retirement in mid-May, and that streak didn't end until last night. Why would the 72-year-old McKeon come back to manage next season after such a delicious personal triumph?

I haven't been so caught up in a baseball season since I was in elementary school. The peak event of my year was a bus trip to 8 stadiums for 8 games in 9 days. Before and after that August trip, I followed the Twins on the satellite dish. Now that the season is over, I feel a bit drained, as if I have finished an epic novel.

In fact, I am nearing the end of an epic novel, David Copperfield. It was Dickens' favorite. It is breathtaking to see Dickens bring all of the interwoven plots to a conclusion. His novels are the literary equivalent of Bach fugues, so perfectly does he bring all of the voices and themes of the novel to a grand, final chord.

As I child, I read a few of the Bobbsey Twins books. I recall one in which a father who had been away at sea for two years is rescued from a storm--right at the foot of the Bobbsey Twins' seaside house. No scene in any of the books from my childhood is so poignant to me as the reunion of the children on shore with the father they had almost given up for dead.

David Copperfield reaches its climax with an attempted rescue in stormy seas as well, with far less happy results. Perhaps the writer of the Bobbsey Twins borrowed the scene from Dickens, knowing it was a winner.

In any case, David Copperfield has raised up feelings and memories from childhood like nothing else I have encountered in the past few years. As I approach the final pages, I feel a bit drained! I can't help but admire Dickens--but when it comes to pulling one's strings, he's shameless.