Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

September 30, 2005

Human Services Conference

Today, I entertained for a conference of human services workers in Thief River Falls. The situation was good--social workers have a pretty good sense of humor. I played and sang.

My piano playing was off. I haven't screwed up Maple Leaf Rag in years, but I managed today. Several times I found myself looking at my hands now knowing where I was. That's the sort of thing you can't do anything about but plow forward and try to forget what happened a second or two ago.

I think it is biological. There are times of the year when the adrenaline mix is just right and you can do anything and there are times of the year when I can't face the public without much trepidation. When that time hits, you just have to put your head down and burrow forward.

The more preparation the merrier, of course. Preparation can overcome many things. But once you go down the anxiety path during a performance, it is really difficult to reign things in and get back on track. There is the danger that everything will fall apart and all that you thought you knew will disappear, leaving you high and dry in front of 150 people.

I sang a George Jones song which I thought appropriate for the human services field: "These Days I Barely Get By." Then I rewrote the song imagining what country music would be like with everybody on anti-depressants: "These Days Everything's Fine." That went over pretty good. They asked for an encore and then gave me a nice standing ovation at the end, so I was very happy how it went even if there were times I was simply in the wrong key. The basic I, IV, V chord combinations just didn't click today.

Tomorrow, I play and sing for some Lutherans in Crookston.


When people start worrying about an inheritance before it happens, nothing but evil can result. Families stop speaking to each other. A bunch of people spend time fantasizing about the great day when their loved one finally croaks. They start thinking they deserve the free money because of childhood hardships, or some other imagined injustice they should have long gotten over.

Their thinking about the person with the money becomes tainted by self-interest. Care decisions with preservation of the nest egg as the priority rather than what is best for the older person.

And, to be fair, some people with money use their inheritance as a weapon to buy some sick form of substitute love. That's not only sad, it is evil.

The hope for free money pollutes the character, often beyond repair. It fosters a dependent, child-like mind-set that prevents people from actually going out and creating something positive. Instead, they wait passively for their dreamboat full of cash to come into port. So they buy lottery tickets. Or, they try to keep invalid Grandma out of the nursing home so her cash doesn't go away. Or they lobby rich relatives with insincere caring.

Not so surprisingly, the same people who are anti-tax, anti-government are the most eager to get the most free stuff from the government possible. They figure free nursing home care is their right, and they should get to keep their money, too!

Warren Buffett, the mega-billionaire, says that to preserve character, there should be a 100% estate tax.

I have another solution: Hide your wealth from your offspring so that if there is an inheritance, it comes as a complete surprise. Or, better yet, spend every dime. Give it away to charity. Give it to the casino. But get rid of it without your offspring knowing.

They have no right to it, and it might just ruin them.

September 29, 2005

Chilly, long day

It didn't freeze last night, although it was mighty cold and froze in other parts of the state. The flowers were still standing tall at noon today here, and it appears that we're out of the woods for a while as it is supposed to warm up.

I called Aunt Olla after realizing that yesterday was her 94th birthday--and I forgot. I knew she was going to celebrate with her reflexologist, so I didn't plan anything. I could have called, though, although that would have been out of character. I rarely remember birthdays until it is too late.

Well, Olla answered with a horse voice. I asked, "how is the 94-year-old?"


"Hung over?" I said.

"Oh, you got it."

Of course, she wasn't literally hung over, but Edna and she did spend the evening in Fargo at a fancy restaurant--the best meal Olla has ever had, she said (It is sort of a Bergeson family joke to say that the most recent good meal was "the best meal I have ever had." It is in reference to old Uncle Roy, who used to back away from the table after eating a piece of pie and with equal sincerity every day say, "you know, I think that was the best piece of pie I have ever eaten.") I am sure it was a late night. I didn't ask when she got in, as it is really none of my business.

Anyway, it was a combination birthday/farewell supper, as Olla is moving into the home on Monday. I think it is a good thing because she's starting to have trouble walking. Edna has rubbed Olla's feet for years, and Olla really enjoys her company. But Edna won't be able to come up to the home.

Olla was embarrassed that she couldn't walk better--she figured half the restaurant was staring at the cripple struggling to the table, but I assured her that nobody would think less of her for it, especially her dear friends the public.

THE funeral today went fine. It was a typical, dignified Lutheran affair. This was a different synod, they worked from the old hymnal, which I liked. The B below middle C was taped down when I got there, so I never did get to hear how bad it really sounded. It was not a problem to get along without. I screwed up one phrase, as I usually do, but whatever.

Escalloped potatoes, bread and butter pickles, cole slaw, fresh buns and cake downstairs afterwards, as well as a delightful touch: the son-in-law of the deceased read a story he had written. I usually get embarrassed when people do that sort of thing, but he pulled it off very well. It was quite touching.

The congregational singing was quite good. Good old hymns, sung in harmony with an old upright piano.

I got busy visiting after the service so didn't go to the graveyard--and ended up sitting with a row of widows in the basement while we waited for lunch. One had been worried that I couldn't play and sing at the same time and was relieved when I was done. The other said that piano is just too loud, why don't they use the organ?

Then I was filled in on the latest scandal in town: The junior class has decided to move the prom thirty miles away to a hotel ballroom in Crookston. Well, the seniors are furious and there was a meeting with 35 parents and they just aren't going to put up with this. The superintendent knows about it now, so maybe he'll put a stop to it.

I think there was some hope that I would devote a column to the issue. Of course, if anything, I would advocate canceling the whole stupid, overpriced, wasteful, elitist, dinklefritz affair. If there's anything more stupid than a high school prom, I'd like to hear about it.

Some light moments in a day that was otherwise dominated by sadness: In addition to the funeral, three people died in town last night. Lillian, who worked at the drug store so long that she attained iconic status, was one. Even when I talked to her at the nursing home, the sound of her voice brought back the smell of the candy counter.

September 28, 2005


The next three days are going to be busy--tomorrow, I sing for a funeral in town. One song, "One Day at a Time," I have never sung before. The other, "Just as I Am," I know pretty well.

I enjoy singing at funerals. People appreciate it, and you have a chance to do something meaningful for people who you otherwise might only say hi to on the street. I never get too worried about how it will go because people's minds are on other things--the last thing they are worried about is the soloist.

I downloaded Judy Collins singing the tune, which was written by Kris Kristofferson, so I have a good idea how it goes. The trouble is, I found out today that the B below middle C on the piano in the church is terrifically out of tune. It would be okay if the note didn't sound, but when it sounds loud and bad, that can be a problem--especially when the song is in the key of B. Uff da.

So, I have been trying to play the song without hitting that note. It shouldn't be too hard. The pianist from the church who called to see if I needed accompaniment said she has thought of taping the note down so it doesn't inadvertently sound. I might bring some duct tape rather than trust my ability to avoid a sour note with is sounded roughly 95 times during the song.

The next day, I am providing entertainment for a conference of human services employees in Thief River Falls. They will have been there all day, it is a Friday, and I am the last program, so the probable dynamic is that they all want to get home. I have done such a program at the end of a conference before--to many yawns and looks of "why are we sitting through this?

So, I have been working up a program with is short and pithy--mainly singing and playing. I won't try to say anything profound.

The next morning, I entertain a group of senior citizens at a Lutheran Church in Crookston. That should be easier--I can do a routine I have done before. Even so, I should probably think about it a little more. It is those performances you take for granted that can come up and bite you unawares. Suddenly, after assuring yourself that you are doing what you have done many times before, you find yourself in front of an audience with nothing coherent to say. What an awful, lost feeling.

During the spring, when I speak and perform several times per week as the nursery gets in gear, I can dash off performances and speeches no sweat. But I have found that in the off-season--after long weeks without contact with the public--performances don't go as well.

Once I agreed to do about five Christmas programs. They were torture before, during and after. I worried in advance, I stumbled through the performance, and then I felt stupid for even taking it on.

Instead of wising up and not taking engagements during the fall, I have accepted about six or seven for this fall. I realize now that I have to prepare more in the off-season, so perhaps they will go well.

I get some truly off-beat speaking requests. My policy is that every one of them is a unique challenge that will help me figure out the many mysteries of public speaking. So, I take them all--unless they are truly uncomfortable, or unless I get the feeling that they have called me only because they have heard I don't charge very much.

More wood cutting

A great day for cutting wood. Today, I went over to the farm of friends Garth and Colleen to cut up a couple of oak trees that had fallen. Got two pickup loads out of there with more to go.

Fallen oak make me nervous. I am still learning which branches to cut first to avoid the dreaded unpredicted twist of a large limb. Usually if you are perceptive as you finish your cut you can sense where things are going to fall, or if there is undue pressure somewhere you can back away and reassess the situation. But you can't cover every base.

The biggest hazard, it seems, comes from the branches. If you don't trim them all off first, one of them can whip around and slap you silly.

That's the sort of thing a person thinks about too much at night, but doesn't think about enough during the day. Of course, if we thought about all of the hazards we face each day, we wouldn't drive down the road.

LAST NIGHT, I got a bulk email from the Pipedreams program. It was a similar email which alerted me to the tour of Mexican pipe organs I took last winter. This email announced a series of organ concerts in New York City on the weekend of October 7th. That alone wouldn't be a big deal, but the concerts are in honor of the great organist Virgil Fox, who has been a hero of mine since Dad first bought me a recording of him when I was in eighth grade.

Fox was a dramatic performer. He once experimented with playing Bach for a rock audience at the Fillmore East, a place more reknowned for concerts by Jefferson Airplane and the like. The crowd loved it, and they loved him, and he continued to give such concerts until he died of cancer in 1982.

Fox played Bach with flair. He infuriated Bach scholars by taking unusual liberties with the great composer's music. Fox argued that Bach was a creative genius who used all of the resources at his disposal at the time--if Bach would have had a modern pipe organ, or electronic instruments, he would have used them.

The concerts in New York will feature performers who were students of Fox's--and who have continued, with lesser reknown, to play classical organ music with showmanship and flair. So, it is a pretty sure bet that there will be some great music.

So, I was tempted to go on and get some tickets and head to the big city. Thought about it a while and decided that this time I wasn't going to spend the money. I just got back from a trip and don't feel like traveling. And it is such good weather for cutting firewood.

Whoa, I am starting to sound like my Dad.


Lots of talk in the baseball world about whether Johan Santana deserves another Cy Young award. He has pitched well again this year, leading the league in strikeouts and tied for the lead in ERA (the average runs given up per game, regarded as the most accurate and fair measure of a pitcher's performance). However, Bartolo Colon of the Los Angeles Angels has a won/loss mark of 20-8, while Santana is 15-7. To get wins, your team has to score runs. A pitcher has no control over that. Yet, the win total has always been what the voters for the Cy Young award have used as their benchmark. The Twins haven't scored much for Santana or anybody else this year. Manager Ron Gardenhire says Santana shouldn't be penalized for his team's offensive woes.

I think Colon will get the award, and he'll deserve it. The win/loss statistic is not fair, but I think ERA is sometimes overrated, too. Some pitchers have a gift for racking up wins no matter how many or few runs they are given by their own team. If their team gets a 10-0 lead, they might give up four runs--which will inflate their ERA--but those might be four runs they wouldn't give up if their team only had a 1-0 lead. Some guys thrive on the adrenaline of a close game, and the win/loss statistic reflects that.

Okay, you non-baseball fans. You can tune back in now.

Prisoner abuse

This letter from a military officer once in charge of soldiers who were watching detainees in Iraq is about the clearest statement yet why we should not allow our soldiers to mistreat those in their custody, no matter how bad those prisoners may be. Now we see pictures the hapless Pvt. England in cuffs, ready to go to jail for crimes which had the approval of the highest commanders in the military chain of command. Her crime, apparently, was that she was caught and exposed in the world media. She is a merely a scapegoat. The responsibility goes way up the chain of command.

Treating prisoners reasonably well is a matter of honor; our country should be impeccable in this regard. Otherwise, our crusades to improve the world have no credibility.

September 26, 2005

Defiant amaranthus

Monarch on fountain grass

More gardens photos

I spent some time in the gardens this afternoon taking about seventy photos. Got home and realized the camera had no memory chip in it--so just to be stubborn, I went back and took them over. The sun was different the second time--perhaps better than the first.

Caught one of the skittish yellow butterflies on a heliotrope, a favorite of butterflies. A head of fountain grass is in the background.

This yellow datura reminds me of a Georgia O'Keefe painting, for some reason.

Same walk, different view

Here is one of Lance's photos from tonight's photo safari.

September 25, 2005

Photo safari

With the promise of a nice, fall sunset tonight, Lance and I took our digital cameras and walked through the woods using the trails Dad recently cleared. Here Lance does battle with his Nikon. After one year with the state-of-the-art Nikon digital, he still prefers his 1972 Minolta.

The early fall colors are vivid--the alder, shown here, is especially striking.

I believe these are native male alder seeds, from what I could find out on the internet.

Some unidentified weeds next to the dignified trunk of an aspen.

On the opposite side of the swamp from the house, an exploded cattail.

Finally, just at dusk, the gardens. The maple has turned early and stands out.