Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

An unpredicted storm

As storm after March storm rumbles through the area, people inevitably blame the weather forecasters for both the weather that comes and that which doesn't. 


So much just depends. It depends whether the storm tracks north or tacks south. It depends whether the moist air from the south hits the cold air from the north. 


It depends upon the jet stream. It depends upon the time of year. It depends whether this storm behaves like the average storm predicted by the computer models or whether, due to the phase of the moon, it takes an odd twist. 


For the months of March and April, it seems that the forecasters tack a 50-degree reading up on the end of the extended forecast just to tantalize the winter-sick masses. 


There it stays for weeks, that 50 degree reading seven days from now, the cruel carrot on a stick that continually eludes our grasp. 


But as imperfect as weather forecasting will always be, it still improves every year. And even if the storm doesn't hit, people are warned that it might. 


Fewer and fewer people remember the deadly, unpredicted blizzard in March 1941, but the stories remain. 


A beautiful Saturday afternoon encouraged farm families to take their usual Saturday expedition to town for shopping and entertainment. 


As some headed home early in the evening, the storm hit with the thunder of an approaching freight train. 


With awesome suddenness, winds in excess of eighty miles-per-hour drove heavy, stinging snowfall which reduced visibility to absolutely nothing.


Temperatures plunged from above freezing to below zero. 


Hundreds were stranded in stalled cars. Businesses stayed open all night for people who hadn't yet left for home. It was impossible to navigate from building to building, even in towns. Some buildings were pushed off their foundations.


Most of those who left their vehicles were doomed. Several were found dead in farm yards, only a few feet from a safe place they didn't know was within their reach. 


According to one historian, the cause of death for most was not exposure to the cold but rather suffocation from the high winds saturated with gritty snow. They died because they couldn't breathe. 


Even those who stayed in their cars suffered frostbite and some fatalities. 


Eighty people died in the blizzard and hundreds more barely escaped to tell about it. 


The blizzard was made more deadly because it was utterly unpredicted. Perhaps a few people stayed home because Grandpa's arthritic knee was barking. Maybe some noticed the cows acting funny, or analyzed the clucking of the chickens, or the nervousness of the dog, and knew to stay put. 


But without radar and modern forecasting techniques, people had no solid way to know that their Saturday night trip to town would turn into a nightmare.  


And those with the responsibility to predict the storm at the time were asleep at the wheel. In Chicago. 


Yes, the Weather Service office responsible for predicting storms in our area was based in Chicago. The tragedy forced the opening of local offices which could respond more quickly. 


Dangerous blizzards have occurred since. But none packed the deadly punch of the great blizzard of 1941. 


Assignment for the week: Find an old-timer and ask them where they were when the Blizzard of March 1941 hit. If they were over ten years old, I'll bet they'll remember every detail. 


My great-aunt Olive was stuck in a one-room schoolhouse, responsible for a couple of dozen students and alums who had come for a Saturday night party. 


The porous schoolhouse walls didn't do much to keep out the cold wind. So, Olive had the older students bring in blankets from their cars. They built a tent around the stove. 


All night they sang songs and played games in their blanket fort, while Olive tried to make sure the place didn't go up in flames due to a chimney fire.


Due to the party, they had plenty of food, mostly sweets. "We had a great time!" one of her students says today. 


The school had no phone. Parents had no clue where their children were. And nobody could go out to search. 


A neighboring farmer rescued the gang with a sleigh the next morning and the bunch sat out the remainder of the blizzard in a nice farm home with home-cooked food. 


A big adventure, yes, but one that thankfully, with our improved if imperfect weather forecasting system, would never happen today. 

 

 

Are books doomed?

Are books going the way of the horse and buggy? 

Traditionalists may scoff, but the future of printed and bound books doesn't look good. 


After all, when you can carry 1,500 of your favorite books around in a hand-held device, why bother with the real thing? 


Electronic books are not only more portable, but they cost a fraction of the real thing. 


Old-timers may demand the books with pages and a cover, but kids know better. And the kids, with the aid of their computers, are taking over the world. 


The giant retailers of books, Borders and Barnes and Noble, are going broke fast. 


Some would say bankruptcy serves the big stores right for driving the little booksellers out of business. 


But if the big stores fail, the little bookstores aren't going to make a comeback any sooner than independent gas stations that check your oil and scrub your windshield. 


A town around here that is building a library faced some tough decisions: Are massive shelves of books even needed? What is the library for if not to store masses of books? Why maintain stacks of printed matter when it all can be found electronically on the internet? 


Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia which is updated literally seconds after something in the world changes, contains almost five times the information as the legendary Encyclopedia Britannica. 


Is the information as good? Who knows. Some of it is, some of it isn't. 


The same could be said of any printed book. Information looks more convincing in book form, but that doesn't make it more true. 


If there is controversy over Wikipedia's content, the adversaries debate the matter right in front of you on your computer screen. 


Books seem like the final word, but that's just because doubts, debates and questions don't automatically appear in the margins of everybody's copy in real time.


The arguments for books are starting to look like the arguments for horse and buggy. 


Yep, there's nothing like snuggling up with a good book. 


Tell that to the kids as they snuggle up with their iPad and bask in its glow.


Books have mystical value. Each one feels different. Each one smells different. They come in different sizes. There is aesthetic pleasure to be found in a beautiful book. 


And horses are prettier than cars. Little good that did the horses. 


What about the joy of walking the stacks in a big university library and seeing all of the books on one topic in one place? 


People don't miss horse barns like they thought they would, either. 


What about the fun of running across a book by happenstance that you never would have found if you had been looking? 


The Internet contains all kinds of information that you don't need and wouldn't have found if you weren't idle and curious. There is so much information online that if you don't write down what you are looking for when you sit down at the computer, you'll forget and find something more interesting and an hour will go by before you realize it. 


Sort of like getting lost in a library. 


It doesn't look good for the future of books, real books with pages and covers, books that smell better as they get older, books that gather dust until you discover one during a blizzard and read the whole thing and realize that you had an old friend you didn't know you had staring at you from the shelf for the past twenty years.


Electronic books are antiseptic. They don't engage the senses. They don't become your friends. 


The same could be said for cars. Although some people grow attached to their particular hunk of metal, it is nothing like owning a horse that you can pet and talk to and feed and train. 


And yet cars won. 


Efficiency drives progress, and it is clear that electronic books, which don't use up forests, which don't require shipping via UPS, which can come spewing into your living room within seconds after you place the order, are the wave of the future simply because they save time and money. 


Efficiency is a cold and ruthless dictator. One by one, efficiency has robbed us of the small pleasures of life, pleasures like horses and steam engines and cars that you can fix yourself. 


Now, efficiency is going to rob us of the companionship of a good book. 


It is enough to give one a little case of Amish-envy. 








 




 

Is college worth it?

 While president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson asked a group of alumni a provocative question: Would Abraham Lincoln have been a better president if he had been college-educated? 


Wilson answered his own question with a resounding "no."


Since Wilson's time, a college education has become a minimum requirement for many jobs, even if the skills required by those jobs have nothing to do with a person's coursework. 


Last week, I talked to a parent who is forking out $40,000 per year for her child's education. 


Many middle-class families rely on student loans, which come easily. The lenders have no problem allowing young borrowers to run up debt of excess of $100,000 without regard for how the resulting diploma in Film Studies will help the graduate pay the money back. 


Because lenders have numerous guarantees that they won't lose their money, they hand out student loans like candy. 


But the assumption that college is worth sinking deep into debt is outdated and naive. 


For every student who enters college with a defined purpose and a sense of pride in learning, there are four, maybe more, who are there to discover themselves and have fun. 


When I went to college, I was there to discover myself and have fun. Killjoys who asked me what I was going to do with my degree, when I finally finished it, struck me as boring snots. 


Tuition was so cheap at the time that I could putter around without running up a big tab!


In reality, puttering around wasn't that fun. I would have been better off postponing college until I knew what wanted out of it. 


Today, I wonder how much more I would have gotten from the college experience if I had entered when I was ready, worked at it, read the texts on time, attended the classes even if attendance wasn't required, taken an active interest in the topics and put the professors to the test. 


I would have become one of those despised "older than average" students whose diligence so annoys traditional undergraduates. 


Today, the obscene cost of tuition and textbooks makes college a luxury which the lazy, unfocused or immature student cannot afford. 


Higher education is big business. The students are the consumer. If they can be conned into putting down top dollar for the privilege of sleeping until noon and missing three classes per day, so be it. 


Yes, students are put on probation and warned and sometimes kicked out for bad grades. But boy, you have to really screw up to get to that point. 


Professors with high standards face pressure from above to fill the seats in their classrooms. Believe me, most students don't gravitate towards a challenge. 


To keep the money flowing, many general education requirements, classes meant to broaden a student's perspective, have degenerated into rote-memorization multiple-choice farces. 


Most significant of all, there is often little connection between the degrees granted and an actual job. 


Many people think demanding a connection between education and a future vocation is a crime against learning for the sake of learning. 


But in this day and age, getting one's money’s worth out of an education as vital to one's future financial health as discipline with a credit card.


Buyer beware: the powers that be will let you destroy your financial future if you let them! The higher education waters swarm with sharks. 


So, what can be done? 


Nobody has asked me, but if I were giving out education loans, I would require a written statement of educational purpose and a detailed plan of action from each student. And it better be good. 


Second, vocational schools which teach trades like truck driving, nursing, carpentry, dental hygiene, legal clerking, should not be separated from four-year colleges and universities. 


It should be possible to get a truck driving certificate at the same time you are studying English literature. You've got to make a living somehow. 


At the same time, required humanities classes should be challenging. A good grade in sociology should be more than evidence that you have a pulse. 


Abe Lincoln didn't go to college. But he perfected the then-important craft of hewing logs as a youth, studied the profession of law as a way to make a living, and broadened his mind all the while by reading more than most professors. 


Lincoln's education was a balance of street smarts, professional ambition and intellectual curiosity. 


And it worked. 

Clean slate

 

Last week, I sat down for a comforting dinner of baked chicken, escalloped potatoes and delicious bread pudding at a senior center over 100 miles from home. 


I didn't know anybody in the room, so I made conversation by asking people where they were from, what they did, and so on. 


A jolly man at my table was full of jokes and humor. When he found out where I was from, he said, "I used to teach school in your area."


I played county attorney, pelting the man with questions about what he taught and what years he was in our neighborhood. 


After he shifted a bit, he said, "Well, I really don't know."  


He went on to explain that he was badly hurt in an accident which wiped out all memory of his past. 


"My education?" he said without a hint of complaint. "Gone!"


I didn't know what to ask next. The utter tragedy of losing your past, of having to memorize by rote your own history as if you were studying for a test, sent me into a whirl of thought. 


To think how the man not only recovered, but seemed to be incredibly well-adjusted.


We sat in silence, cleaned off our chicken bones and savored the bread pudding.


The next day, the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, wiping out entire towns and cities.


A particular video, six minutes long, made a vivid impact. 


The amateur footage, shot first from street level and later from levels on a steep hillside as the cameraman sought higher ground, showed a trickle roll up a calm neighborhood street like water spilt out of a pail. Within a minute, the trickle became a torrent. 


Soon, cars and trucks on the street were swept away. 


The water kept rising. It broke through store windows and roared into the buildings. 


Finally, the buildings themselves began to float away, power lines snapping as they departed. Some buildings crumbled into clouds of dust, others passed by intact. 


It is one thing to hear about cities wiped out. It is another to actually see a neighborhood with its shops, restaurants and apartment buildings disappear in slow motion over a mere six minutes. 


Aerial images of the Japan tragedy show entire cities wiped off the map. Before and after photos make it obvious that countless similar neighborhoods, home to hundreds of thousands of people, have been reduced to so many thousand acres of mud. 


Somewhere back in elementary school, we read a story of a Japanese village wiped out by a tsunami. That story stuck in my head, and the word tsunami still conjures up childhood fears of obliteration, even though our nearest coast is 1700 miles distant.  


Now that I have seen a tsunami in motion, the terrifying picture is complete. 


Huge natural disasters prompt a variety of responses, ranging from the unsympathetic, "You wonder why they built there knowing that could happen?" to a despairing, "how could a loving God allow such tragedy?"


This time, my thoughts were shaped by the man who had his mental landscape wiped clean by an accident. Everything he knew was gone. 


In the video, villagers on a hillside in Japan watched their entire known lives disappear. 


We have natural disasters in the Midwest, from fires to floods to tornadoes and windstorms. 


Those disasters change the lives of those they touch, and change the look of the towns they strike for good. 


But rarely is an entire area wiped utterly clean. 


The deaths and injuries in Japan are tragic enough. But what strikes me is the courage that is going to be required of the survivors to rebuild an existence. 


It is the same courage that so impressed me in the man I met last week. He started from scratch and rebuilt a life. 


Most of our disasters bring communities together to fight, mourn, encourage and rebuild. 


But the people in Japan may never see their neighbors again, even if they survived. There is nowhere left to meet. There is nothing left to repair. 


After watching the video of the tsunami, I walked outside and was thankful for every tree. I looked across the farm and was thankful for every building, every junk pile, every sign that things are today just as they were yesterday. 


That little comfort, and my ability to remember the stories attached to the place, for a moment seemed like a rare luxury to be savored like a chubby raisin in a moist spoonful of bread pudding.

 

 










 

 

Spring training

During my last week in Arizona, I attended a spring training baseball game in Scottsdale. 

The game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, two teams about which I know nothing, was the first held in the brand new Salt River Fields at Talking Stick stadium.


Gone are the days when spring training games were played on bumpy fields surrounded by sparsely-populated wooden grandstands. 


The Salt River complex, which includes 13 full-sized baseball fields, cost over $100 million. The main stadium, which is the spring training home of both the Rockies and Diamondbacks, seats 11,000 fans. 


The stadium is a gem. You'd think it was a theme park. If you're bored with the game, you can shop for clothes. There is good food. There is a playground for the little kids. There is a batting cage for bigger kids. 


The outfield doesn't have grandstands. Instead, they built sloped lawns behind both the left and right-field fences. Thousands of people pay good money to spend four hours sitting on their own blanket.


The sky was cloudy and the air a bit cool by Arizona standards, yet the stadium was nearly full. For the many midwesterners in the audience, it was t-shirt weather. Everybody seemed satisfied to lounge around just to hear the crack of the bat and cheers of the crowd. 


Spring training games are meaningless. Although individual rookies try to make their mark, the teams don't play to win. Instead, they save their big players for the regular season and try out the new ones in fast-changing shifts. 


It used to be that you could get closer to the players in the spring, if that is your idea of a good time. But these days spring training is really just a scaled-back version of Target Field. Guards and fences everywhere. 


Spring training has become a big deal, enough of a big deal to justify a $100 million expenditure for a beautiful complex. 


Mind you, the owners didn't come up with the money. In this case, a Native American tribe and the local community built the place to draw people to their casino and resort. 


Today, spring training is all about money. The players, for the most part, don’t need six weeks of preparation. They train all year. 


But the owners love spring training. They have developed the theme-park idea because baseball in the south during March makes an ideal vacation for winter-addled northerners desperate to see green grass.


Die-hard fans love spring training because it gives them a chance to see the young prospects, most of whom will never see action in a major league ballpark. 


But most people in the stands seemed to be there just to spend an afternoon outside, gazing at the grass, eating, visiting, sipping drinks. 


And, it was exhilirating. It was February 26, I had to keep reminding myself, and I was watching fly balls sail over the fence into a colorful, cheering crowd. Don't pinch me, I might wake up!


Pitcher after young pitcher entered the game hoping to impress the brass by throwing the ball through a wall. One by one, they were humiliated by batters who know how to hit balls thrown hard enough to go through the wall. 


A young outfielder dropped an easy fly ball. A young umpire blew a couple of easy calls. 


It was obvious that despite the prices of tickets, food and drink, this was just practice. 


After the fourth inning, several dozen players left the stadium to get in their swings on the other twelve diamonds. 


The game went ten innings. If the score had been still tie after ten, it would have been called a tie. 


Ties don't happen in baseball, except for spring training. In spring training, it doesn't matter who wins or loses


Despite the game's lack of meaning, it contained several bang-bang double plays, a few home runs, a big crash at home plate and one controversial umpire's call that brought Rockies' manager Jim Tracy a few steps out of the dugout. 


Then, Tracy realized it was spring training. With a shrug of his shoulders, he slumped back down the dugout steps. 


No matter. The crowd went home happy. I know I did. 


I don't remember who won. But the beauty of the grass, the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd and the slap of the gloves was more than enough for me. 








 

Unions

 

Everybody has their horror story about unions. 


"Of course, he's union, so you can't get rid of him," is the usual punch line after a story about some guy who wouldn't lift a finger to fight a fire at work because fighting fire wasn't in his job description.


Even when 19th century workers organized to improve deadly work conditions in dimly-lit factories, install the forty-hour work week, get rid of child labor and institute other reforms we take for granted today, they faced public opposition.


At that time, people said unions were unAmerican, communistic, socialistic, even unbiblical.


If you don't like your working conditions, went the mantra, you can just quit. 


But before we hate unions as a matter of general principle, we should remember the horrific conditions early unions fought to improve. 


It is also good to look at the arguments which were used against unions at a time when they asked for nothing more than enough wages for decent food and safe enough working conditions so workers didn't die young.


The labor market should be completely free just like the market in goods, went one argument. Unions poison the relationship between workers and management went another. 


Why do anti-union arguments have such power today, even when one can't argue with vital role unions performed earlier our history? 


Because unions and management got fat and happy and screwed it all up! 


General Motors, United Airlines and other huge businesses gave away crazy union contracts that did not allow for downturns in the economy. 


Buried in those contracts were crazy rules which pretty much outlawed efficiency and sanctified laziness.


An obnoxious mind-set arose in some of these unions: Our entire goal as workers is to make more while doing less. 


Good workers, instead of striving for excellence, innovating on the job and trying to save money, were pressured by their peers to slow down, do less and not come up with any disruptive ideas, however much good those ideas might do the company. 


Management, meanwhile, had plenty of cash and assumed that the river of money would always run full. So, they gave away the store in negotiations. 


Crazy pension plans! Total job security! Fewer hours! 


It didn't work. Many companies have gone broke due to inflexible and unwisely generous union contracts doled out during good times. 


Other companies have been hobbled by silly rules and work slowdowns. 


Compare Northwest Airlines with Southwest Airlines: Fifteen years ago, Northwest had pouty, overpaid workers who would refuse to fly if the light bulb in the restroom burnt out. They were on a "slowdown."


Southwest Airlines, meanwhile, had fun-loving employees who seemed to enjoy their job, even though they were paid less. Perhaps their happiness arose because their stock options were going up. 


Northwest Airlines disappeared. Southwest is making money. 


Public opinion, which was often pro-union from the Depression forward, turned against unions in the 1980s as juicy stories of huge hourly wages and crazy work rules spread. Ronald Reagan told those stories, cracked PATCO and became an anti-union hero.


But let's not go overboard here. 


Collective bargaining has a vital role. We can see it under our nose in our small towns, if we bother to look. 


When he assembled the painful budget which addresses the $6 billion shortfall, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton had to decide where to cut.


His decision pitted the interests of the local school against the interests of the nursing home down the street. 


Teachers are organized. Pretty tough to impose cuts on them. As Wisconsin has proven, teachers can really raise a ruckus!


Most nursing home workers are not organized. 


Surprise, surprise, nursing homes got the axe. Many face an 8% cut. 


Because of past cuts to nursing homes, there is nowhere else to slash the budget. New cuts fall directly on the workers. They will lose wages and benefits. And they have no way to fight it.


It is cruel to say "If you don't like it, quit" to the wonderful people who provide basic care to our loved ones because we’re too lazy to do it ourselves. These people are already on the edge. 


It's all about power. If you're organized, you have at least a little power. You can get on the evening news. You can stir debate. You can mob the capitol. 


But if you're unorganized, you're going to get the shaft. 


And nobody will even hear about it. 















 

 

A most unusual president

Last Monday, we celebrated President's Day. It caused me to reflect upon some of the characters we've elected to lead us over the years. 

One character in particular was really over-the-top. 


An enthusiastic fist-fighter, he took on all comers in bare-knuckles boxing matches, many of them staged by notorious gamblers. He won every match, sometimes defeating two opponents at a time.


His professional renown arose from his abilities as a bare-knuckled lawyer who could get cold-blooded murderers off scot-free, either on a technicality, or by asking the jury, "Well, he done it, but wouldn't you have done it, too?"


A non-churchgoing agnostic, he once ran against a preacher for political office. As a campaign gimmick, he attended one of the preacher's services and sat near the front.


The preacher, sensing an opening, addressed his opponent during the sermon with the question: "Sir, do you plan to go to heaven?"


The man responded, "No sir, but I do plan to go to Congress."


While in the state legislature, a bill came up which required a yes or no vote. He wanted to vote neither way, as both options would hurt him in the upcoming election. But voting "present" wasn't an option. And the doors were locked.


So, he crawled out a window in the House chambers. 


He didn't drink, but not out of conviction. He knew that alcohol would only exacerbate his considerable mental health problems. He avoided the bottle with iron-clad discipline, knowing he would gain a leg up on his more bibulous political opponents. 


Often suicidal, friends took turns watching him through the night during his down moods to make sure he didn't hurt himself. 


His marriage was a mess, and the mess sometimes spilled into public view. 


Once, he showed up at work wearing a large bandage. His loony wife had clunked him over the head with chunk of firewood before breakfast. 


While reviewing 15,000 troops in solemn silence, his wife rode up in a carriage and loudly accused him of having an affair with the wife of a general standing nearby. 


Without embarrassment, he let her carry on until her venom was spent and casually resumed the reviewal without explanation. 


His wife loved to shop. Washington wasn't good enough for her, so she shopped in New York, running up bills which ran into the thousands of dollars.


Her husband let her shop and paid the bills with only a mumble of complaint, even though her shopping used up most of their fortune by the end of his tenure in office. 


Perhaps he didn't mind that she was gone. After all, while she was away, he often shared a bed in the White House with his favorite body guard, whoever it was at the moment. 


His peccadilloes were the subject of gossip amongst the socialites in Washington, but the press of the time never broke the story. Perhaps they didn't know how.


He told dirty jokes at the most inappropriate times, jokes so crude they would curl the hair of people even today. 


He laughed his squeaky laugh at the wrong times, sometimes when surrounded by tragedy. 


He was at times so hated by members of his own political party that they nicknamed him "the Baboon." Indeed, he was ugly enough that the nickname sort of fit. 


He was regarded as a social outcast, a hick with a thin, high-pitched voice who was prone to talking like a backwoods farmer when the situation seemed to require more finesse. 


Although he relished the role of hick, if you put a pen in his hand he could write like no other president we have ever elected. 


However, his elegant writing was usually designed to conceal more of his beliefs and intentions than it revealed.


Every speech he gave, every proclamation he issued was scoured by his allies and opponents for lawyerly loopholes. They were everywhere, and he didn't hesitate to crawl through them when the situation changed. 


Knowing how loath the press was to in-depth research, he became a master at issuing grand, sensational proclamations which contained fine print down the page that canceled out what the document seemed to say up top. 


Despite it all, he was a genius, a towering intellect, a sensitive leader and a masterful grand strategist, the greatest but most complicated president we have ever elected. 


His name was Abraham Lincoln, and in this day and age he would be laughed out of the presidential race long before the first primary. 










 





 

Joshua Bell

World-class violinist Joshua Bell played at Centennial Hall just a few blocks down the street in Tucson last weekend. 

Bell doesn't just play a mean fiddle. He is also a savvy marketer. His record company splashes his telegenic face all over his albums, which have sold millions and won many Grammys. 


As for his fiddle, Bell plays an old used violin he picked up at a sale last year. 


The fiddle, a 298-year-old Stradivarius, was priced at $4 million.

 

Bell offered a reported $3.8 million. 

 

It was late in the day and time to close up, so the owners said sure. 


To raise a few bucks for the purchase, Bell traded in his former Stradivarius for $2 million. 


I mean, if you can pick up a new fiddle for only $1.8 million, you've gotta do it. 


Of course, a Stradivarius violin is no ordinary instrument. Artists swear by the brand just as wine-tasters swear by certain vintages. 


But as often happens with taste tests which pit expensive wine against $4-per-bottle swill, in sophisticated sound tests violin experts have repeatedly failed to separate the 300-year-old creations of Antonio Stradivari from cheaper, more recent instruments.


Yet, the myth of the Stradivarius violins remains strong. 


Bell played in Tucson before an audience of 2,500. The Stradivarius was not hooked to a microphone. Yet, seated where we were deep in the balcony, we could hear every note clear as a bell, even as the last note of a soft piece faded to nothing. 


Like any good musician, Bell held the crowd in his hand. When he ended a quiet song with a note that slowly dissolved into the ether, even listeners in the last stages of pneumonia, croop, tuberculosis and other deadly respiratory maladies managed to hold their silence for a precious few seconds before the hall erupted in applause. 


And miracle of miracles, the two women behind us who came to the concert for no other reason but to gab stopped whispering when Bell demanded their attention by quieting his legendary instrument way up on stage.


Not everybody got it. The man off to the left who crinkled candy wrappers during the Schubert piece disappeared before the Brahms. I assume the ushers had him shot. 


Although Bell's playing was impeccable, not all the music was riveting. 


It is a hard and fast rule: On PBS, the best programming airs during fund drive week. 


So, too, with classical concerts: the best music is played during the encore and not a minute before. 


The music of Schubert and Brahms could put a four-year-old high on Fruit Loops and Mountain Dew to sleep in five minutes. Yet, rambling pieces by the two Germans dragged on for nearly an hour. 


No amount of beautiful Stradivarius tone can make 19th-century German music bearable for that long. 


But then, Bell played a sorrowful piece by the great Norwegian Edward Grieg and a sweet little ditty by the famous Finnish composer Sibelius. Finally, he ended with a haunting charmer by the best of all of the 19th-century romantic composers, Frederic Chopin of Poland. 


Did the Stradivarius violin produce $3.8 million worth of sound? 


Well, it was pretty good. Without electronic assistance, the violin's clear sound reached every corner of the large auditorium. 


That is the test of a high-quality instrument. With the proper combination of wood, oils and age, some instruments just seem to project a pure and clear sound greater distances than others. 


Same for the piano which accompanied Bell: Steinways are known to make themselves heard far and wide, even when their keys are barely tapped. 


Football fans, when pressed (and sober), will admit that those who actually care about the game get a better look on TV than they do from the upper deck on the 10-yard line. 


The same goes for music. With modern studios and good stereos, attending a classical concert really has nothing to recommend it over listening to a CD. 


No crinkling Mars bars wrappers or gasps for oxygen on a studio recording!


But every now and then, it is good to see a world class musician at work in person and know that their music isn't simply the creation of electronic mixers. 


And you have to admit there's something novel about hearing a 298-year-old used fiddle picked up from the bargain bin.






 

A lesson from Uncle Burnett

My great-uncle Burnett Bergeson passed away in Reno, NV last week at the ripe old age of 95.

A member of the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1954-1962, Uncle Burnett was an DFLer in the Hubert Humphery-Orville Freeman tradition. 


Uncle Burnett later worked under Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman in the USDA during the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. 


It was only after Hubert Humphery lost the election to Richard Nixon in 1968, thus ending Uncle Burnett's political career, that he was around home enough for a kid like me to get to know him a little. 


Uncle Burnett was addicted to big ideas. He never stopped thinking, dreaming, ruminating. His wheels always turned, and they didn't bother with anything small. 


Like my Grandpa, his brother, Uncle Burnett didn’t mess with petty niceties like saying hello, goodbye or discussing the weather. You knew the phone call was over when you heard a click. 


As for the start of conversation, you sort of merged into whatever Uncle Burnett was dreaming about at the moment. It wasn't always obvious, but it was always interesting. 


And when he drove home the final point, Uncle Burnett always ended up about three inches from your nose. 


A few years back, I flew out to Reno to surprise Uncle Burnett and Aunt Adeline on their 60th wedding anniversary. 


I had a little trouble finding the house until I saw Uncle Burnett pacing behind one of the homes on the street. The party had just started, but he had already escaped the small talk for some fresh air.


I walked around the side of the house and said, "Hello, Uncle!"


It had been four years since I had last seen him. 


But did Uncle Burnett say hello? Did he say what in the world are you doing here? Did he shake my hand and say, good grief, great to see you? 


Nope. Uncle Burnett jabbed his finger into my chest and said, "Eric, it was a mistake to try to save the 160-acre family farm. A mistake!"


Uncle Burnett was out in the back yard refighting the battles of the Agriculture Department in the early-1960s. 


"You're never going to fight bigger tractors!" he said. “When the machinery gets bigger, the people can farm more land. The farms will grow as long as the tractors get bigger. It is a mistake to fight it!"


I didn't argue. We had a good discussion about agriculture policy. I eventually went inside to eat and exchange more customary pleasantries. 


A few years earlier, before Uncle Burnett moved with Aunt Adeline to Reno to be near his children, I had gone to work as a page at the Minnesota House of Representatives, Uncle Burnett's old haunt. 


When I came home from St. Paul, I was full of stories. There was nobody I wanted to tell them to more than Uncle Burnett. 


But when I saw him, Uncle Burnett was agitated. He had a lecture in him and he was going to deliver it. 


Out into the yard he went. I followed. "Never, never, antagonize anybody unless you have to," he said. 


"You never know who you'll need and when you'll need them," he went on. 


The monologue continued back on the deck. 


Never, ever write off an opponent, Uncle Burnett preached. There will come a time when you need a culvert in Norman County and he'll need a culvert in Stearns County and you'll have to trade votes to get it done. 


"When that time comes, you'll wish you had been nice!" he said, ending the lecture three inches from my nose.


It took me a while to figure out what had triggered Uncle Burnett's speech.  


Turns out, I had written an article about the man I considered the worst representative in St. Paul. The politician in question was such a numbskull that when the entire House tried to pass a minor bill with his name on it just to be nice, he blew it and the bill failed. 


In the article, I had great fun at the hapless representative's expense.

 

Uncle Burnett didn't like it one bit. 


You never know, Uncle Burnett said. You might be down in St. Paul one day and you might need that man's vote to get something done. 


Why needlessly anger people whose help you might eventually need? 


It was a valuable lesson in civility and kindness, a good lesson to learn whether or not I'll ever need legislative approval for a culvert in Norman County. 


Taking a hike

Tucson is surrounded by four mountain ranges, one in each direction. The city is sandwiched between the two halves of beautiful Saguaro National Park.  


Coronado National Forest lies to the north of town. So does Catalina State Park. Countless outdoor recreation areas dot the city's perimeters. A little farther out are numerous wilderness areas accessible only by gravel road. 


Anybody who sits on their duff in Tucson and whines that there is nothing to do hasn't looked. 


The rattlesnakes hibernate from October through March, so there is no worry that you'll be bitten while on a hike during that time. 


The remaining animals, such as migratory song birds, javelina, coyotes, roadrunners and harmless little skinks, remain active. They spice up a hike with their presence. 


From downtown Tucson, it is about one-half an hour drive in any direction to a trailhead that will take you into the wilderness on foot. A few minutes from the parking lot, the silence of the desert sets in and you feel like you are alone with the sun. 


If there is a breeze, it whispers through the bristles on the saguaro much like the wind whistles through pine needles at higher elevations. 


The desert absorbs sound. You don't have to walk very far from a road before you can no longer hear the highway racket. Sounds of other hikers only carry where there are rock cliffs. 


The same holds true in the city itself, if you want to take an urban hike. Just a couple of blocks away from main thoroughfares it is as quiet as the countryside. A slow walk through the alleyways is particularly interesting, if you can stand the stares from people who expect you to start digging through their dumpster. 


A couple of days per week, the various jets from the Davis-Monthan air base fill up the area with sound from overhead. The occasional San Diego-bound airliner overhead breaks up the silent bliss. 


But overall, the hiking experience around Tucson is one of calm and quiet. 


I am not a heroic hiker. I don't go very far. I carry only a camera. I ignore the advice to bring water because water bottles and the packs which carry them are a nuisance. I just drink a bunch before I hit the trail. 


Going up, I walk slow. Real slow. I learned that trick from a mountain-climbing uncle who said if you go fast at the bottom you'll tucker out before you make it to the top. So I go slow. 


Even still, I never make it to the top. Why bother? My goal is to experience the quiet, the solitude and the scenery. No need to conquer a meaningless obstacle like the top of some hill and experience unnecessary discomfort in the process. 


If we ever have to defend our shores, I will march twenty miles to conquer the foe. But not until. 


As a prairie dweller, it makes me nervous to go ever deeper into a canyon in the mountains knowing that the only way out is the way you came in. 


On mountain trails, you can't just go to the end of the next mile and take a right as you can on the prairie. You can't call for somebody to come pick you up. You can't stop at a farmstead and use the phone or ask for a drink. 


With the knowledge that every step in means you have to take the same step back, I amble in for about an hour or two, sit around on a rock for a rest––and then bolt back down to the parking lot as if I were escaping a dangerous trap. 


That's when I get exercise. That's when my heart gets pumping. That's when my mind concentrates on the physical task of bouncing from rock to rock without slipping. 


Yep, it is always fun to head home, especially if it is all downhill.


After a twenty minute rush down the mountain, I plop puffing into the driver's seat, roll down the windows and bask in the breeze on the way back into the city.


As I hang my arm out the driver's side window and thump it to the radio, I sit at a stoplight, feel the warmth of the sun on my face and figure a hike in the desert is a pretty good way to spend a Sunday afternoon in January.