Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

October 27, 2006

Speech stuff

The seminar for teachers was held in the cavernous St. Cloud Civic Center. I gave the same presentation as at the other teachers' seminars to which I have spoken this fall. However, this time instead of tight quarters, the room was huge. The teachers sat at the same tables where they had eaten. And they were spread quite far apart.

I think for those reasons my talk never really gathered any momentum. I said the same things, but there wasn't that sense of having the people with me that I had at the previous two seminars. In fact, I think the talk was better organized this time, but not as effective due to the largeness of the room.

The arrangement of the room makes a big difference. When people sit in rows of chairs they are always much, much more responsive than people sitting at tables. There isn't even a comparison. Tables are necessarily spread apart, and you aren't able to make eye contact with the entire room without walking around. That hurts, too. Some of the people were facing the other way, which is fatal.

On the positive side, it was awfully fun singing over the huge sound system in the massive Civic Center. The piano came across well--probably the best piano I have played on recently at a performance. Some of them have been abysmal. So, the singing and playing was a lot of fun, but the speech felt a little flat.

The St. Cloud Civic Center is on the bank of the Mississippi. It is a huge structure, completely devoid of charm or warmth, but impressive nonetheless.

Uncovered meat

A Muslim cleric in Australia is in trouble for his comments which argued that if women remained at home under their veils, rape would not be a problem.

He was referring to a case in Australia where a group of Muslim men were convicted for rape and sentenced to 65 years in prison. The cleric maintained it was not the fault of the men; rather, it was the fault of women for running around uncovered like little floosies. When you leave meat uncovered, the cleric argued, the cats will come. That's not the fault of the cats, it is the fault of the person who left the meat out.

Of course, that comment provoked outrage and calls to deport the cleric back to Egypt.

The notion that men have no responsibility for their sexual behavior is one which prevailed not so long ago in this country. In my class on Wednesday, the topic turned to the place of women in 19th century America. As a part of the discussion, I brought up a rape case which occurred in my hometown early last century.

A railroad crew gang raped a 14-year-old girl, the paper reported. The crew moved on to another town before the incident became public. The town constable didn't persue them because he said identifying them would be difficult. What's more, it was the little floosie who was at fault, wasn't it? You can't blame men for taking what's offered them, can you?

So, the girl was put in a reform school and the paper published a follow-up article about her "road to ruin." The possibility that the rape was something done to her was never brought up. It was assumed that she provoked the men. No proof was offered.

There are some underlying assumptions to this age-old outlook which still exist.

One assumption is that men are not responsible. They are basically animals obeying their animal instincts, and many people kind of like them that way. Morality is the job of women. Nineteenth century moral literature is filled with this theme.

Therefore, if men transgress, it must have been a woman provoking them. If they were violent and used force, that still doesn't excuse the woman from ultimate responsibility. It is the woman's job to be morally pure. It is the man's job to be virile and strong. The woman is to gently steer the man towards morality by wearing skirts down to her ankles, or by staying at home under her veil.

If a male leader in the community transgresses, he is to be forgiven at all costs. We cannot afford to bring him down just because he succumbed to his virility. We must put him back on his pedestal and appeal to the victim to not make waves. She should realize this reality and keep her mouth shut. That is what men are like. Get used to it. But don't call the man to account, for that will undermine the whole principle of male dominance and weaken the group.

Although nobody dares say these things out loud anymore, I think the underlying ideology is still common. You see it more often when religious leaders stray. Cover it up. Keep it quiet. That's just the way men are. But don't risk the reputation of the entire group by exposing things to the light of day.

My students were appalled by the status of women in our recent history. For instance, as recently as the 1930s, a woman's testimony in court was viewed as less reliable than that of a man. It was nearly impossible for the wife of an abusive husband to get a divorce. In one case near home, I know the woman was granted a divorce only after her husband's own father volunteered to testify that his son treated his wife horribly. Now, there's a man!

One student asked what I think is the salient question: Is there actually more abuse today, or is it just more public? I would argue that things were much, much worse back then because the men knew that they could get by with it. The stories which filter down are not good.

October 26, 2006

St. Cloud

I am motivating teachers again tomorrow, this time in St. Cloud. It was a nice drive down on Highway 10. I don't believe I have ever stayed in St. Cloud before.

Downtown St. Cloud is active. I was pleasantly surprised to find a Sawatdee Thai restaurant. Surprised, until I got inside and realized I had been there sometime before.

Sawatdee has restaurants in Minneapolis as well. I always order Thai catfish. It was plenty good. Thai food is more vivid, both in color and taste, than the Chinese food we get up here.

So, I am in a hotel room surfing both the web and the cable channels at the same time. The World Series is on. I find myself pulling for the Tigers.

Highway 10 was lined with campaign signs. I must have passed through three Congressional districts if the signs are any indicator. In St. Cloud, Pete is running for sheriff. The signs say: "Vote Pete!"

I question the value of campaign signs. They are less offensive than political ads on television, but more ugly. Are they really necessary?

James Madison once referred to "the black arts by which elections are won." Black arts, indeed. Things haven't gotten any better. They also haven't gotten much worse, if they have at all.

We just went over the election of 1828 in history class. John Quincy Adams lost to Andrew Jackson. Adams' supporters charged Jackson with adultery, murder and all manner of other misdeeds. Jackson supporters suggested that "strange perversions" were occuring late at night in the Adams White House. Plus, Adams was accused of playing billiards, an upper class diversion. On that count he was guilty. As for the strange perversions, Adams was too much of a prude to be that colorful.

Jackson won. At his inauguration, 10,000 people showed up. They got so drunk and rowdy at the White House reception that the new president had to escape through a window. The carpets were destroyed. The mob left only when somebody had the brains to move the whiskey punch out onto the White House lawn.

Jackson, like Teddy Roosevelt decades later, let children have the run of the White House to the extent that it was sometimes difficult to carry on official conversations. No word if there were goats in the hallways, as there were during Roosevelt's administration.

October 25, 2006


Aunt Olla asked if I would stop by the Fertile Hilton today to pick up some excess fish that she had on hand from a trip to the casino with her niece Monica on Monday. Seems they got the wrong order at the restaurant and to make up for it, the nice ladies there fixed her up with more fish than she could handle.

Olla wishes to emphasize that they just went there to eat. Not one thin dime went in a slot machine.

I had to teach first and then attend a meeting, so by the time I got to the Hilton, Olla was pretty worried. As usual, the fish wasn't the only item on the agenda.

Olla had the ladies bring a coffee pot and cookies down to the room in preparation for my arrival and the business meeting she had planned between the two of us.

The business? On the bed were spread out all of Olla's antiques. I don't know where she'd been storing them, but there they were, spread out on the bed as if they were on auction. I finally figured out what was going on. On our trip last week I had tried to explain the concept of Ebay to Olla. She was intrigued. Apparently, she decided to divest her things. That is, the things she didn't sell at her rummage sale.

Well, I don't know how to run Ebay, so I am a poor one to auction off Olla's necklaces, silver spoons, lipstick cases and watches. But she insists that she wants me to try to find out what these things are worth.

Many of the items you would think might have some sentimental value to her. For example, there is a heart locket that was given to Olla by a boyfriend I never heard of that she had during World War II. He served in France. He also sent her a silver bracelet from Paris. The locket was a cute little thing. It had a prop on the heart, indicating that the man was a pilot.

I asked Olla if she didn't have some sentimental attachment to these items. No way, none whatsoever, she wants to see what they can fetch on Ebay.

I think Olla has been watching the Antiques Roadshow too much. In any case, she has Ebay fever. I am not sure how to proceed.

Founding Fathers

Conservative columnist George Will weighs in with a much-needed historical reality check.

October 24, 2006

Neshek, again

Another reason to like Twins relief pitcher Pat Neshek. Let's bid this item up!

Human Nutrition Research Lab

Today, I availed myself of a long-standing invitation from Jerry Combs, director of the United States Agriculture Department's Human Nutrition Research Laboratory in Grand Forks. Dr. Combs is a customer at the nursery and has frequently invited me to take a tour of his institution as I was adding up the pots of plants he and his wife purchased.

I got a grand tour. Quite a place. Well over one-hundred employees. The Grand Forks facility is one of six laboratories in the United States. This particular lab works on the effects of various nutrients on cancer, amongst many other things.

Originally the lab concentrated upon effect of trace elements like zinc, boron or iron in the diet. However, you don't put a lid on scientists who have ideas, so there are many things going on, including Dr. Combs' own research.

While at Cornell University, Dr. Combs discovered that selenium can lower risk for cancer. That discovery earned him appearances on CNN and other channels. He was attracted to North Dakota because it has some high selenium soils in the west. In fact, two slices of bread made from wheat taken from western North Dakota provide the amount of selenium prove to prevent cancer.

There were rats in the basement. Lots of rats. But they are treated well. The government has guidelines, as you can imagine. In fact, there are even rules that when you do surgery on a rat, you have to have a separate prep room, surgery room and recovery room. It sounds silly, but makes sense from a research perspective.

The rat labs are spotless. Cleaning is frequent. In fact, the rat rooms are kept pressurized with filtered air to make sure that no contamination gets in through the cracks. The rats are being fed one nutrient or another, or perhaps being deprived of some vitamin in an attempt to find out what the presence or lack of a particular compound does.

But it isn't all rats. Upstairs are geneticists who study the effect of genetics on how food effects us--as well as how food effects the playing out of our genetic patterns.

For example, doctors have long advised people who fear getting high blood pressure to avoid salt. Turns out, only 15% of the population has the genes which make the body react to salt by raising blood pressure. So, for 85% of the population, the advice to avoid salt is hogwash.

Dr. Combs envisions a day not so far in the future when doctors will take a drop of your blood and by next Tuesday be able to tell you which foods you should avoid and which you should emphasize, as well informing you of many other risk factors. He introduced me to a researcher from China who is working on decoding genetic patterns related to nutrition.

The many labs were filled with sophisticated equipment. Gadgets which looked like copy machines cost $150,000. Dr. Combs emphasized that the entire government nutrition research budget is quite small, "less than Mars spends per year to advertise M & Ms."

But the most interesting gadget to my mind was deep in the basement. It was a chamber with walls of eight-inch thick steel taken from the hulls of a pre-World War II ship. The steel was lined with lead. Inside was a sort of X-ray machine.

The idea? To determine how long certain nutrients linger in the body, scientists make those nutrients slightly radioactive. The radioactivity is so slight that it amounts to 1/10,000th of the radiation in a modern X-ray. But to detect that slight a radioactive charge, all other cosmic rays must be eliminated.

It is sobering to think that the only thing that can keep our bodies from being pierced with radioactive rays all day and night is a foot of steel and lead.

Those are just a few of the things I learned on a fascinating three-hour visit to the Human Nutrition Research Lab.

October 23, 2006

World Series

The World Series thus far is garnering record low television ratings. I haven't watched an inning. My interest dried up when the Twins lost.

Kenny Rogers is in trouble for doctoring the ball. He probably is guilty. Anytime you get an old pitcher with a devastating sinker, he's probably doing something fishy.

Some of those old guys get by with what they can. Joe Neikro comes to mind. The crafty 45-year-old knuckleballer was busted in 1987 for having an emery board in his pocket which he said he used to file his nails.

Gaylord Perry was notorious. He even wrote a book while he was still pitching about how he "used to" doctor the ball with Vaseline, K-Y jelly, or slippery elm. He pitched into his mid-forties, still driving opposing managers nuts by hinting that he was cheating.

Twins TV commentator and former pitcher Bert Blyleven made the startling charge one broadcast two years ago that Nolan Ryan doctored the ball. Ryan had a 100-mph fastball. He didn't need to cheat. But his curveball had unusual bite.

Blyleven hinted that Ryan cut the ball with his belt buckle when he was in the stretch position.

The most infamous cheating scandal involved the legendary 1951 New York Giants. They won something like seventeen games in a row near the end of the season to force a playoff with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which they won on Bobby Thomson's famous home run.

Several Giant players now allege that they had people in the bullpen relaying the opposing catchers signs to the batters so they knew what was coming, a curve or a fastball.

Thomson himself denies that he knew what poor Ralph Branca was going to throw him. Branca himself doesn't care. "He hit what I threw," he says philosophically.

The Giants catcher at the time, Wes Westrum, was from Clearbrook, Minnesota. He went to his grave a couple of years ago without revealing whether the cheating went on.

Baseball is funny. Some cheating is acceptable. Stealing signs from third base coaches is fair game. For some reason, stealing catchers' signs is not, unless the runner on second base does it. Stealing bases, of course, is competely legitimate.

Batters who look back at the catcher to try to get the sign to the pitcher will get the next pitch in their ear, no questions asked. So, they don't do it.

Sandy Koufax, probably the greatest pitcher ever, gave away his pitches. Batters knew exactly what he was going to throw due to some tics he had which nobody to this day has revealed. Perhaps he stuck his tongue out when he was throwing a curve.

Trouble was, nobody could hit him even if they knew what was coming. When Mickey Mantle saw his first pitch from Koufax in a World Series game, he turned to the umpire and said, "How in the **** am I supposed to hit that?"