Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve

After all the hoopla, twas a beautiful Christmas Eve. Wrapped presents in the morning and afternoon. My wrapping methods are questionable, and the results are kittywhumpus, but it's all in the dumpster now.

Sister Tracie arrived from the Twin Cities just as I pulled into Mom and Dad's garage from picking up Aunt Olla at the Fertile Hilton. So, we had a nice group.

Mom and Joe cooked an opulent meal. Fancy pork chops. Wild rice. Baked potatoes. Squash. Fancy salad. Brocolli and cauliflower in cream. Mom's top notch pumpkin pie.

We never do much for Christmas gift giving, but everybody goes away happy with some nice surprises. This year we went nuts with food. I paid a visit to the Hutterite colony Thursday, so gave Dad and Mom some of the pickins from there. Smoked chicken, sauerkraut, summer sausage, etc.

Aunt Olla said the evening was just perfect. But then again she spent part of supper telling us what a blast the Great Depression was. I am not kidding, she said she had more fun during those years than at any other time in her life. No hunger. Once she remembers they were wishing they could have a pork roast instead of summer sausage, but then she thought a bit and realized that was probably because they hadn't butchered in a while.

Her older brother Roy took the 1929 crash hard. He had made good money for the family the year before on potatoes. The 1929 crop was just as good, but the October crash came and nobody had any money to buy potatoes and the crop went to waste. Roy had already laid the groundwork for a Delco light plant in the basement, but without the proceeds from the potatoes, that plan was put on permanent hold.

Olla brought out some historical items, including a note my Grandmother wrote her in 1977 after Grandma and Grandpa's 45th anniversary celebration. It was in Grandma's perfect and beautiful cursive handwriting. It reminded me that somewhere in my boxes is Grandma's practice book from when she learned cursive. I should frame some of those pages. They qualify as art.

Dad is into music on his computer now. Joe got him a new set of wireless headphones for Christmas, and he sits at his computer with them on rating his songs with a star system, tuning out the world.

Lance and Tracie spent time chatting about the website Lance has designed and built for himself over the past two days. Tracie is learning web design and Lance is one of these people for whom computers were as big a part of growing up as riding bicycle. It is amazing to see something so difficult come so easy for somebody with no formal training.

About 9 p.m., Olla decided it was time for bed. I took her into the Fertile Hilton and set up the gift I gave her--a remote phone she can take over to her recliner--and left. The nursing home was quiet. A couple of families were winding up holiday visits, but most of the residents were asleep. The aides looked like they were about to fall asleep as well. The halls were well decorated with garland. The nursing home had a homey feel, not a bad place to end up. As Olla says, it's "one step short of heaven."


December 23, 2005

Twins improvements

Terry Ryan has finished putting the 2006 team in place, and I think he did a pretty good job. This should be a fun team to watch. Of course, last year at this time I figured the Twins would be very improved from the year previous. I was quite wrong. Their pitching stayed solid, but their hitting went south.

The biggest deal is that Terry Ryan improved the team's hitting without giving up any of the Twins vaunted pitching--with the exception of J. C. Romero, who they wanted to get rid of due to his erratic streak.

Position by position:

Catcher: Solid. Joe Mauer is on his way to stardom. Backup Mike Redmond is solid, both defensively and at the plate.

Third base: Tony Batista, brought in from Japan, hits home runs and bats in runs. Only cranky blogger Aaron Gleeman thinks the signing was a big mistake. His arguments are good, but I still Batista was an excellent signing.

Shortstop: Could be a weak spot if Jason Bartlett doesn't improve. I like his backup, Juan Castro, an awful lot. In the old days, when teams didn't care if they got any hitting out of their shortstop, Castro would play every day on the strength of his wonderful defense.

Second base: Solid. Luis Castillo is a great addition. The former Marlins second baseman was a favorite of manager Jack McKeon, who said his only complaint was that Castillo was too hard on himself sometimes.

First base: Morneau has solidified his defense. He has so much talent with the bat that I am assuming he will come around from a season which disappointed many, but which really wasn't so bad for early in a career. One winter ago, Morneau was sick with chicken pox, appendicitis and other ailments all winter.

Left field: Shannon Stewart had a bad season. I suspect he will rebound.

Center: Self-appointed team captain and spokesman Torii Hunter is back, unless the Red Sox make an offer to Ryan for Hunter that the Twins can't refuse. They might. They just lost Johnny Damon, and they're in the hunt for a superstar centerfielder to replace him. Hunter would quickly endear himself to the Fenway faithful. I hope he stays as much as I wish he would quit analyzing the team in the newspaper. That isn't his job.

Right: Jacque Jones is gone, and thank goodness. I am tired of seeing him flail at low inside curveballs. The only thing I'll miss about him is his toothy grin after he made it on base. His attitude was always great. Lew Ford, Micheal Cuddyer and Jason Kubel will fight for the job. Kubel could be a great one.

Designated hitter: Ryan signed Rondell White, a strong hitter who seems to have a Twins type attitude. I liken him to Chili Davis, who the Twins signed in 1991 and who helped them make it to the World Series.

Pitching: Solid, solid, solid. If Radke falters early on, they should trade him for a cow. They have two rookies ready to step into the rotation in Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker. Why they are hanging onto Kyle Lohse is anybody's guess. He's going to be overpaid next season-- $4 million for perpetual mediocrity and poutiness. Let an eager rookie take his place and gain experience for less than one-tenth the price.


Thai Orchid

While in Fargo finishing Christmas shopping (doing the whole works at once is closer to the truth), Lance and I went to the Thai Orchid, a new restaurant on First Avenue North in Moorhead.

The restaurant is in an old Hardee's which has been redone in a very tasteful way. Comfortable booths. Good lighting. Plenty of space, yet cozy.

And the food was tops. Thai food is so different from the Chinese food we get in this area. Thai is light, fresh, colorful, sensual. Its flavors are bold. Lots of peanut sauces. Succulent seafood. Crunchy noodles. Fresh spring rolls with cucumber and cilantro.

If you find yourself bored by the heavy greasiness of local Chinese buffets, Thai food will be a fresh form of Asian cusine.

If you don't like things hot, however, order it mild. Unlike some of the Asian restaurants in the area, the Thai Orchid hasn't toned down the heat to placate the lutefisk and lefse bunch.


Syre elevator



December 22, 2005

Dazed chickadee

Now that the chickadees and the nuthatches have discovered the bird feeder, there is a thump against the window about once per hour during the daylight. Some thumps are not direct hits, but others seem pretty violent. The finches didn't hit the window, but they haven't been around this morning. Apparently, the chickadees and nuthatches drove them off.

So, when I saw a chickadee sitting motionless in the snowbank, it took me a little while to realize that it was recovering from an encounter with the window. After about five minutes, I detected some movement, so the poor thing is alive. I wonder if it will learn.

I WALKED across the pond a couple of days ago from the house to the nursery. The direct route on the ice is about half the distance of taking the road.

On the way back, I took the same path--only to find that my boot tracks were filled with water. So, the ice mustn't be all that solid. I have been using the skid steer on the other end of the pond to haul firewood. Dad suspects there is a spring on the one end of the pond which keeps the ice weak. He's not very excited about my using the skid steer on the ice. So far, so good, however. There is some awfully nice firewood out there.

ALTHOUGH THE WEATHER is warm today--possibly above freezing--I still have some pangs to travel. One can play with the Northwest Airlines World Perks website all evening, teasing out the possibilities using one's World Perks miles, which for some reason I suddenly have in abundance. In fact, some of them are about to expire--the perfect excuse to take a trip of some sort.


Flu, continued

Have gotten a couple of more phone calls with information about the family which died of the flu near here. Apparently, it was either five or seven people who died. The son came home from World War I to find half of them dead, and the other half nearly so.

After they all died, the son found all kinds of money in the mattresses (the old man didn't trust banks) and went out and bought himself a Model T. He married a local girl. They moved to Moorhead where he was the janitor at Concordia College for decades.

Two people remember that somewhere around here there was a family which lost 11 of 12 in the flu. There is another one which lost 17 children over the years to infant mortality--one survived, the rest are buried on the farm. Not sure where that is. So, clearly, I had the numbers wrong for this particular farm, but somewhere around here is a farm where those numbers applied.

Also, the farm may have been occupied after the flu by another family, so my idea that the farm was emptied by the flu only to be never occupied again wasn't right.

So those darn facts keep getting in the way of a good story.

But that's the fun of studying history, teasing out the complexities.


December 21, 2005

Poor Saddam

Today, Saddam Hussein is claiming that Americans beat he while he was in their custody. This was in response to the claim by witnesses that his henchmen tortured villagers by pouring molten plastic on their skin and ripping it off.

Of course, I have absolutely no sympathy for Saddam. Part of me hopes he's had his toenails ripped off.

But here comes the torture question again: If the military had a strict ban on torture and beatings in place and had observed it throughout the Iraq war, the world would laugh off Saddam's claim and the ravings of a madman. No more. The administration's permissiveness towards torture has handed Saddam credibility he doesn't deserve.

The torture policy has squandered what has traditionally been our greatest asset: The view, not just amongst ourselves, but amongst the peoples of the world, that Americans abide by the rule of law even when it seems counterproductive to do so.

In other news, it is apparent that even if the president broke the law by not getting warrants for domestic wiretapping, there won't be sufficient public outcry to do anything about it. Personally, I think his refusal to take a simple step which would have rendered the actions legal shows a contempt for the rule of law, but it seems people are comfortable with this sort of thing in the face of the terrorist menace.

That is where the real problem is: As long as people are convinced that we are on the brink of the next great terrorist attack, they'll continue to look the other way when leaders ignore the law--as long as they can justify it by saying they were protecting the public.


December 20, 2005

Chickadees and nuthatches

For the first three weeks I have been feeding the birds, my only customers were the goldfinches. They are cute little things with a preference for thistle seed.

This morning, I heard banging on the window. The finches never hit the window, so I assumed something new had arrived. Turns out both chickadees and nuthatches found the sunflower seeds this morning--and the nuthatches aren't real bright about the window thing.

The nuthatches also seem dedicated to the proposition that if another nuthatch gets a seed, that is a seed that I won't get. So the first task when a nuthatch arrives is to drive off the other nuthatch.

In one case, the other nuthatch flew off to a distant branch, only to have the other follow it and drive it away from the branch, as if there were no other branches.

Perhaps they are a mating couple and are going through the bickering ritual, who knows.

The nice thing about the chickadees is that I can hear them through the window.

I think I am going to look into an external microphone and internal speaker so I can hear what is going on out there.


Snooping

President Bush has been staunchly defending his wiretapping "program," which involved illegal tapping of the phones of American citizens by the NSA, a secret spy agency which is supposed to limit its snooping to outside the borders of the country.

The real puzzle here is why Bush chose to ignore the normal procedure set up by Congress--which is hardly restrictive. You can wiretap and then get a warrant retroactively up to 72 hours later and still be within the law. But Bush chose to ignore that stipulation and go it on his own, once again saying "trust me."

The whole issue here is oversight--in a democracy, in theory at least, the power of the executive should never be unchecked. However, the whole notion of oversight seems to irk Bush to no end.

Up to 500 people were spied on at a time--with possibly thousands spied on over the course of the past five years.

Last night, it came out that Bush called in the editor and the publisher of the New York Times to try to get the story about the snooping stopped. They weren't convinced that national security issues were at stake--although they had already, for some unknown reason, sat on the story for about a year.

This morning's columns are predictable--the left is pounding Bush, the right is defending him--with the exception of conservative George Will, who gently suggests that Bush is out on a limb on this one. Conservatives, Will argues, have usually been the ones in favor of limited government authority to snoop.

The bugaboo of national security is always the wedge used to erode freedom of speech. Richard Nixon made a fast transition from interpreting national security to mean his own political fortunes. I do not believe Bush has done the same, and I doubt that political opponents have made it on the spy list.

However, there is a larger issue at stake: the rule of law. The law in this case is plain as day. Is the executive free to ignore it when he pleases?

I think a lot of people who are comfortable with Bush exercising such power would get queasy if the same power were in the hands of Bill Clinton.


December 19, 2005

A shot in the cold

Decided to turn on every light in the house, bundle up, and go outside with a tripod and try to capture the house at sunset. This time of year can be beautiful if one catches it at the right time of day, and in the right light.


A dissident

A former Soviet dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, now living in England, cannot believe that there is even a debate whether or not to torture in a civilized democracy. In this article, he gives the best arguments yet why torture should not be allowed.

If anything bothers me more than the fact that my taxpayer dollars are going for torture, it is the fact that so very few people in this country are outraged. Have people been convinced that these people, some of whom have been innocent of wrongdoing, are so completely "the other" that they don't deserve human treatment? Can't they see themselves in this situation?

How long is it going to take to reestablish the reputation for decency America and its soldiers had during World War II? I am worried it is gone forever.

Bukovsky also makes the point that not only will there be a spate of lawsuits from those held in detention without cause, but there could be lawsuits from those who were asked to do the torture. Bukovsky knows from his 12 years in Soviet prisons that torturing ruins the torturer as surely as it ruins the tortured.

One more point: Where are America's religious leaders on this point? As far as I am concerned, a religion which allows its adherents to look the other way while their government engages in torture is a sham, especially if it is a religious organization which makes a habit of being involved in completely ridiculous public policy debates such as gay marriage. What sort of morality spawns such a perverse sense of priorities?


Correction

When I stopped by the Fertile Hilton to visit Aunt Olla on Friday, another old-timer flagged me down. He had a comment about my column on the flu.

Turns out he knew the neighbor family who died of the flu. My numbers were a little high. He said there could have been others nearby who died, too, so he wasn't sure. But the one survivor was the one who had gone away to fight the war. He came home to find his family gone. He married a cousin of the man in the nursing home and moved away for good.

This man also said he had long heard that there was a family buried on the nursery grounds. Well! I hadn't heard that one. And I haven't seen any ghosts. I asked him where I could go to research this, but he didn't know. I have no intentions of digging.

It was supper time at the Fertile Hilton, so I brought Olla down to her table, met some of her friends, and made the rounds. Had to say hi to Milton. He was seated next to Norman. They were talking baseball. Back when they had the old town team, Milton was a pitcher--a sidearmer with a screwball--and Norman played left field, "and a good left field at that," Milton added.


Windows



Here is the best shot I could get of the finches through the window. Windows muck up pictures. The finches love the thistle seed. The other bird feeder has sunflowers, but it only gets business if the thistle feeder is full. The real losers have to go down on the ground to get the fallen thistle seed.



Here is the window sill in the sunrise. There is a clarity to the sunshine when it is this cold.



When you try to take pictures through windows, there is always the risk of reflection. Or, you can try to work the reflection into the picture and make something more abstract.


December 18, 2005

One step forward, one back

President Bush agreed to the McCain amendment to ban torture of detainees by the United States armed forces. That is good news.

Then, the president admitted that he okayed wiretapping on American citizens by the National Security Agency. Spying on American citizens by agencies charged with foreign intelligence is specifically banned by law, and was throughout the Cold War, even at the height of the red scares in the 1950s.

That doesn't mean surveillance didn't happen. The FBI kept track of a lot of people under the ignomonious reign of J. Edgar Hoover. But the foreign intelligence people operate under different rules (read: very few) than the FBI, and it has always been considered dangerous for them to start aiming their efforts at our own citizens.

The theory behind Bush's action is that he is allowed to grant exceptions to the law when the national security is at stake. However, leaving it up to the president alone to determine what is a national security risk is a big risk in itself. You know darn well that Richard Nixon would have equated anything threatening to his own political fortunes to be a threat to the national security--his tapes have revealed as much. We can't trust subsequent chief executives to be any different.

The whole idea behind the checks and balances in the Constitution is that you never ever want major matters of principle to be dependent upon a decent person who holds a single office. The founding fathers assumed that a single person would always tend to slip towards interpreting the law in his own interest rather than the interests of the nation; that is why they put in checks and balances.

Bush gets pretty peeved with all this checks and balances stuff. His mantra is "trust me," and I have no doubt that he believes he is trustworthy. But his impatience with the mechanisms of the constitution may eventually get him in trouble.

One big difference in Bush now vs. Bush about three months ago: He is stepping forward and taking responsibility for the things that have gone on underneath him. He believes that his actions on wiretapping were necessary. His willingness to take responsibility will hasten the day when the matter comes to a head one way or another.

One interesting side note: At the Nuremburg trials after World War II, several Nazi lawyers who were responsible for interpreting international law to allow for the torture and execution of prisoners of war were found guilty of war crimes and hanged. There are some lawyers in the justice department who did some creative lawyering which concluded that freezing, beating, and waterboarding prisoners was not torture.

It is unlikely that such American officials will be tried in international court given American power. However, if Donald Rumsfeld and company were aware that their policy of permissiveness towards torture resulted in the deaths of well over 100 detainees in American custody, some of whom were later found innocent, their overseas travel plans after they leave office might be complicated by the need to avoid prosecution.