Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

September 11, 2004

A cool, clear night

What a beautiful day it was today! Pure fall. Spent it at the nursery. A few people came through to view the gardens, which are still looking pretty good.

Got the brainstorm to go to Itasca for supper at Douglas Lodge. I like to do that at least once per summer, and that once hadn't happened yet this year. So, Mom, Dad, brother Joe and friend Lance and I jumped in the Mom and Dad's minivan and headed east.

Itasca is starting to turn colors. The lodge was so full that we couldn't get a table by the window. The food was pretty good. Wild rice meatloaf. They do know how to charge.

Nice trip home at sunset. By the time we got to the house, the stars were out. I got out the binoculars and looked around. Saw three satellites in a couple of minutes. Found Andromeda right away. Saw other star clusters which were spectacular, but which I couldn't identify. Saw five planes, more than usual.

This is the most alive time of year! All day, from morning to night, is vivid and crisp. The apples are ripening. The leaves are turning. The tractors are grinding away in the fields. School is in session. The days are orderly and filled with productive activity.

Speaking of which, Dad and I went out to set down the stakes for the house. Although I had staked out a rough square, I wanted to set it in stone before we...set it in stone. Still waiting for them to pour the foundation.

Twins 3, Tigers 2. Missed the game due to the trip to Itasca. Good thing, Lohse would have screwed up if I would have watched.



September 10, 2004

The absent minded...instructor

After World History class today, which went fairly well, a few students stayed after with questions. When they were taken care of, I erased the board, gathered my things and went back to the office. Ah, Friday!

I checked my email, neatened up the office, packed up my two brief cases (it takes two to carry the huge course books), and ambled towards my pickup, pleased that the week was over.

Then I got to thinking: One girl had said she was going to talk to me about her paper topic today, and I didn't recall seeing her. Then I thought, you know, I don't recall seeing anybody in my government class. Then I realized--I hadn't yet taught the government class.

I turned around, ran back to the classroom, and there were my 25 government students, patiently awaiting the arrival of their teacher. Wow, that was a close one.

I attribute it to the antihistamines. They have me spaced out. I feel calm and pretty all right with the world, but totally spaced out. It isn't a bad feeling, as long as I manage to get where I am going.

Came home and took a three hour nap.

I DECIDED to face it head on with the students today: This World History class is very difficult. The textbook is dense with information, but none of it is very organized--mainly because we are covering early civilizations, and although we know what sort of pottery they made, we don't know any of their dramas or wars or any of the stories of their daily life. So, you can say that the Olmec of Central America managed to build a huge civilization without the use of the wheel--and that is quite interesting--but you can't really talk about any of the political dramas leading up to the building of the civilization. We know nothing about those things.

So, I told the students that their job is to tackle the textbook with the help of the study guides I prepared, attempting to glean out the information that is interesting, memorable and significant, and by doing so, polish their reading skills.

Really, what is most interesting are the biases of the history book. We are biased towards past civilizations which built big cities--because we can find evidence about those civilizations. In between those ancient cities were many cultures--in fact the world has been covered with such cultures for thousands of years--which left no historic record, but which were probably, for all intents and purposes, just as functional as the cities which left behind ruins.

Today, we went over the Persian empire and its two most notable kings, Cyrus and Darius. Cyrus appears in the Bible. He allowed the Jews to leave Babylon and go back to Palestine.

The Persian empire was huge, and it was well-administered. However, after a few hundred years and about twenty kings, it eventually broke down. After the empire broke down, the history book ended all talk of that era with one sentence. There were, in the ruins of the Persian empire, probably dozens of kingdoms, each with a very interesting story, but either we don't have that story, or it is not viewed as a story of much consequence.

One student asked how I would classify the governments of these early civilizations. Good question. "Were they communist?" he said.

Well, what I came up with was the following: The hunter-gatherer tribes were probably quite communal--no owning of property, not much hierarchy, shared everything, and so on. They were probably Marx's ideal, although Marx hoped that that ideal could be applied to industrial civilization. However, when civilizations arose, they were always monarchical.

Our history books cling to any hint that these early societies had a smidgen of democracy to them. Great note is taken of Hammurabi's Code, which is the first evidence of a written law which was meant to circumvent capricious punishments by those in charge. Cyrus wrote a manifesto which contains some notion of human rights. The Greeks eventually experimented with forms of democracy. However, although the history books make much of these exceptions, as a rule, early civilization was unmitigated monarchy.

In between, however, in the vast regions which were peopled but were without civilization, hunters and gatherers still did their hunting and gathering. They likely had some sort of tribal leader, but were otherwise quite communal.

History books make judgements, labeling some developments "progress," when in fact, I am not entirely sure such changes represented anything but a movement towards what we have today. Easy to call that progress, but it's pretty self-centered.

PROGRESS? One student came in and showed me the bill for the world history text: $110! I couldn't believe it. I told him that was a crime. No book is worth that much. Somebody's making to many bucks on this deal.


September 09, 2004

New feather pillow

My old feather pillow finally exploded. I think it was over forty years old. The fabric was stained. It smelled. And it was emitting feathers everywhere every time I merely moved it. I had to vacuum up the feathers every other day just from moving the pillow around while making the bed. Yet, I was too stubborn to throw it out. I think it was like a security blanket or something.

As I thought about it, I realized I was existing under a couple of false assumptions. Number one, that feather pillows were no longer available because--they ran out of geese? I don't know what I was thinking there. The second assumption was that if I were ever to find a new feather pillow, it would be so expensive that I wouldn't be able to afford tuition.

Took me a while to realize that they probably have plenty of geese. And later I caught on that I am no longer in college. So, I went out looking for a feather pillow at Wal-mart. Found one way at the end of the pillow aisle. It cost nine dollars. Came home, threw the old pillow out, put the new one in a case--and wondered why I hadn't done that fifteen years ago.

Can you tell I am stoned on antihistamines?

One the same trip to Walmart, I picked up a new shirt. I need dress shirts for teaching. I usually only dress up for funerals! Now I have to look nice three days per week. Uff da. So, I picked out one, and then another, forgetting my rule that the first shirt is will probably work out, the second one I will never wear. Always put the second one back. By the time I remembered the rule, I was in the shampoo section, 1/2 mile away. Yet, I went back and put the shirt away, saving about six dollars.

Six dollars! When I was in high school, shirts cost twenty dollars. Now, thanks to the wonders of Walmart, they cost six.







September 08, 2004

Santana, again

Twins beat Baltimore 9-0. Johan Santana continued his streak of dominance, pitching seven shutout innings with nine strikeouts. Because the Twins scored seven runs in the second inning, it really wasn't much of a ballgame. But I watched every pitch.

Partly because allergy season finally hit today, and I was groggy. Usually, the ragweed pollen lets loose on August 20. This year it took until September 8. And here I was thinking that it just wouldn't happen this season.

That means two choices: Either drug myself into a stupor with anti-histamines, or put up with nasal tickles and runs all day.

I choose drugs.

That means, I feel a bit zoned. The sleep you get on anti-histamines is sort of agitated, and the waking hours are a bit dazed.

COMPLAIN, complain. Got an email from a weblog reader in Bagdhad, a soldier from this area, today. He said their compound was hit by nine shells this morning.

I'll take the allergies, thanks.

He entitled his email GREETINGS FROM THE SANDBOX.

Well, greetings from the ice box to the sand box!

The soldiers over there are facing some pretty sobering resistance, and some pretty good odds that they will be injured in some way. By my calculation, there is about a one-in-twelve chance that they will get hurt--and we're over here running an election while not even talking about how we're going to finish up the job and bring the boys (and girls) home. That should be the main focus of the campaign.

That it's not is John Kerry's fault. His campaign is showing some signs of waking up and getting tougher, but it's probably not enough soon enough to compete with Bush. This election could be a real slugfest, a real knock-down-dragout battle--these guys are complete opposites, and it would be fun to see them duke it out in a more direct, tit-for-tat way, mano-a-mano, instead of all this stuff from third sources.

Bush issued another malopropism today. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it on tape just now. He said, "We've got a crisis in this country! Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYN's aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country!"

What could he have possibly meant by that one? I got the transcript off of slate.com; I am not sure where you can get the video, but it is online.

TAUGHT three classes today. Attempted to get the Protestant Reformation across in 15 minutes to the American History class. It is probably necessary, I figured, to know why all of those splinter religious groups were so eager to get to the New World. Well, first you have to know why they formed. But to know that, you have to understand the corruption of the church at that time. And to know that, you have to know...and so on. If you start going backwards in time establishing causes, you never get to the event advertised. You end up in the Roman Empire somewhere.

Such was the dilemma suffered by one of my favorite profs in graduate school, Professor Howard. I should say, it was the dilemma of anybody who took his courses without knowing what they were getting into. He started his American Revolution class in the Roman era--you had to back that far to get to the bottom of it, he felt--and we ended the class fifty years before the first shots of the Revolution were fired!

Nonetheless, the class was an absolute delight. And, to be fair, Professor Howard had warned us the first day of class that "we won't be firing a shot!"

I have been giving daily quizzes on 3x5 cards. I am encouraging the students to view the quizzes as a daily correspondence with me rather than as something to dread. In other words, if you don't know the answer for the quiz, you'd better learn it by tomorrow. If you do, all is forgotten.

Today, I asked them to report on their paper topics, which I distributed to them last Friday, on their quiz cards. Some were able to grasp the significance of their topic right away. Others clearly need some hints. The quizzes will enable me to sort that out more quickly.

I do like the students at UMC. Most are quite innocent of historical knowledge. That means they haven't heard all the chestnuts before, the cute statistics and incidents that historians love to use to spice up their lectures.

I did fall into the trap today of bemoaning to another faculty member how little the students know. Actually, their lack of knowledge doesn't offend me one bit, but it is so tempting to moan and groan.

But I think back: Did I care at age 19 or 21? No! And I know darn well these kids will all be functioning members of society ten years from now. We are just slow to learn in this country, slow to develop. Thank goodness we have that luxury.

Twelve years ago, I taught a political science class, the most recent class I had taught before teaching again this fall. There was a 16-year-old girl in the class who was taking the "post-secondary option" of finishing high school while going to college. She made some remark the first day of class which was so ditzy it was cute--and I used the remark as evidence of how little students know these days.

Well, now she's a lawyer and a very expensive one at that.









September 07, 2004

House progress

Looks like the cement man will come this week to start on the slab. It has been delayed due to wet weather. I hope the rain holds off. After that, the carpenters come and then we're off and running. Until the first delays!

The family of swans on the swamp near the house site is more active. Dad actually saw one of the parents take off the other day, the first time all summer anybody has seen one of them fly. The signets, five of them, are testing their wings. Perhaps the parents are trying to get them to fly.

The rain of the past few days was really hard on the flowers. I jumped in the Fertile nursing home van today as they went around the gardens--just to make sure they didn't get stuck somewhere--and it was sort of sad to see some of the flower beds in serious decline. Dad ripped one out today, scraped away the soil and planted grass. Apparently, he already has other plans for that spot for next year.

After Labor Day, we click into fall mode at the nursery. We have to replace the plastic on a couple of greenhouses. Some of the wood structure underneath will need rebuilding, too, as it gets rotten after about twenty years. You hope to do a little each year so that it doesn't all collapse at once.

Had lunch at the Depot in Winger today. Good meatballs and gravy. Just what I needed, a hearty meal.

IT IS AMAZING how much time and energy you can pour into classes. I have been enjoying it completely, so the hours go by fast. Even so, I have to constantly remind myself that these kids, and they are mostly kids, have no background and for the most part, very little interest, in history.

I gave a quiz on the reading they had done the other day--just a single question, and only one person got it right out of 52! Ouch. I wasn't too upset. The question probably was a bit obscure. They'll know it for the test, I am sure.

Reading the text, I found many instances of the text referring to people which it hadn't explained. For instance, it said something like, "William and Mary were more amenable to the needs of the colonists," without explaining in any way shape or form who William and Mary were. Good grief. English history is confusing enough without throwing it at the students cold.

TWINS 3 ORIOLES 1--Radke pitches a gem. Nathan saves. Radke doesn't get the win because the Twins took the lead only after he left. Once again, Radke doesn't get credit for a victory even though he pitched brilliantly.

The win-loss statistic in baseball is completely flawed--a pitcher has to leave the game when his team has a lead it never relinquishes in order to get the win. If you leave in a 1-1 tie, as Radke did tonight after seven innings, and your team gets runs later, the pitcher lucky enough to be in the game when the runs scored gets the win. In this case, it was J. C. Romero, who pitched one inning to Radke's seven.

Radke only has 10 wins on the season. He should have about sixteen or seventeen. He has been one of the best pitchers in the league this season. Everybody in baseball knows that wins aren't a good guage of a pitcher's year, but nonetheless, you had better have the Ws in your column or you won't get the Cy Young award at the end of the year. Also, Radke is a free agent. If he had 16 wins instead of 10 this year, he would probably land several more million on the market next winter.



September 06, 2004

Change-up

Twins pitchers Johan Santana and Brad Radke are known in the trade as change-up artists. That is, the change-up is the pitch they use to get batters out. There aren't many good change-up pitchers. When a great one comes along, they are the most fun of any sort of pitcher to watch.

Every pitcher has a fastball of some sort. Fastballs usually don't have much break, and they come in as fast as the pitcher can throw. No energy is spent spinning the ball to give it a break. The hope is that the ball goes so fast that the batter can't catch up to it. However, major league hitters are so good that they always will catch up to the fastball if it is thrown often enough for them to time it properly.

Once the batters have timed your fastball, you had better have something else in your arsenal or you're going to get bombed. Most pitchers throw some sort of curve. The curve fools the hitter by bending, sometimes two or three feet. A good curve will head straight for the batter's head, causing his knees to buckle, only to break into the strike zone before the batter has a chance to recover his composure. Bert Blyleven had a curve which started well behind the batter's head before breaking into the strike zone.

But there is another sort of deceit possible for pitchers, and that is the changing of speeds. Here is where the change-up comes in. Change-up pitchers have the following strategy: Every pitch I throw should look identical to the batter. My arm speed will be the same. The arm angle will be the same. The grimace on my face will be the same--however, due to the many different ways I grip the ball, no two pitches will come in at the same speed.

So, Santana will throw two 94 mph fastballs. The batter thinks, okay, I know how hard he throws, I am ready for the third. Instead, Santana will throw a pitch which looks exactly like a fastball, but which sort of dies out half-way to the plate, "as if it has a parachute on it," as one batter said about Santana's change-up. The batter starts his swing, only to have the ball die before it reaches the plate. Curve-ball pitchers make people duck and run, change-up pitchers make batters lunge towards the ball.

So, Santana throws three change-ups, the batter gets used to those, the count is 3-2, and then he throws a pitch which looks like the last three but which roars across the plate at 94 mph and is into the catcher's glove before the batter can even flinch.
Strike three.

Sounds easy, but it isn't. Pitchers with a good change-up are rare. It is very difficult to throw a pitch with the same motion each time and have it come in at different speeds. Doing so requires complete physical discipline. Throwing change-ups requires that one grip the ball is an odd way, and throwing it for strikes isn't easy.

Most great fastball pitchers never bother to develop a change-up. They're used to blowing batters away, and they sort of view change-up pitchers as effete. I often wonder what Nolan Ryan might have done if he had developed a change-up. Instead he relied on a hard curve and a harder fastball--he threw everything hard, with a monumental grunt each pitch.

I find it interesting that change-up pitchers usually learn the pitch from a particular tutor. Frank Viola learned his from Johnny Podres, who threw change-ups for the Dodgers in the 1950s. The pitch turned Viola's career around. Santana learned his from Mike Cuellar, an old Cuban pitcher who befuddled batters with his off-speed stuff with Baltimore for years. By the end of his career, Cuellar had three speeds to his pitches: Slow, slower and slowest. Cuellar, now a minor league instructor for the Twins, forced Santana to throw the pitch over and over until he could throw it for a strike in any situation.

Radke's change-up is so good that he doesn't even use a curve. He has only two pitches. Very seldom does a major league pitcher get by on only two pitches. Radke has managed. However, it means that his margin for error is less. If he doesn't have the change-up one particular night, he'll get pounded.

One common denominator with change-up pitchers--they make it look easy. Because they have to have the same motion for each pitch they throw, they often develop a very relaxed pitching motion. Radke's pitching style is the prototype for change-up pitchers--he looks like he's playing catch on a lazy summer afternoon. You really have to be in the batter's box to realize how hard it is to hit against Radke. Viola was the same way. When he was on, he made batters look foolish without breaking a sweat.


September 05, 2004

Column

I always do a word count on a column before sending it out. I shoot for 650 words. If I end up with more, I shave some off. If I end up with fewer, I flesh out a paragraph or two.

Well, tonight the word count came to 666. Given the topic, I decided to leave it.