Dead climber

They found one of the Hood climbers yesterday. He was dead. The young wife of one of the other men said it was impossible that her husband would die because he had promised to be home for Christmas, and because God wouldn’t allow it. I feel deeply for that woman because she has a lot of sad things to learn about life, and a celebratory season is an especially bad time to start learning them. I suspect that, for as long as she lives, joyful bells will never again chime in her heart at Christmas.

Party greed

I went to the Eugene Mineral Club Christmas party today. Someone on the board must like Chinese food because the party is held at the same Chinese restaurant each year. I’ve been to several seasonal celebrations lately, so I would have sat this one out except that my term as membership officer is up, and I was eager to turn my files over to the new guy.

This was my first time at a gift exchange where people whose names were drawn could either open a gift or take away someone else’s gift. If you did the latter, the person whose gift you took could either open a gift or take away yet another person’s gift (but not the one you took from them). Many of the gifts were handmade jewelry and lapidary that took hours to create. Some people really didn’t want to surrender such gifts to the person who wanted to take them, and the resultant tension was painful to watch. Everyone wanted to pass themselves off as good sports, yet several people palpably wanted to say, “Go to hell. I’m keeping my goddamn gift.”

A few gifts truly were white elephant gifts (which is what we had been told to bring). There were ugly coffee mugs, a hideous candleholder, an enormous—and used—cast iron Christmas tree stand that someone must have brought to the party to save themselves a trip to Good Will. People who got these gifts looked as if they were praying that someone would take them away, but they were, of course, stuck. I didn’t bring anything, so I refused to take anything.

What I did do was to become very depressed. Here were people, many of whom were up in years, desperate to hang onto trinkets that would soon be ripped from their hands by death even if someone else didn’t take them. The ugliness of greed and the imminence of destruction overwhelmed me. I felt as if we had come together to whistle in the face of doom. All of life seemed hollow, and mass suicide struck me as a more appropriate response to the human condition than Chinese food and a gift exchange. Life is either too serious to take lightly, or too insignificant to take seriously; and I can’t decide which. I just know that neither is any good.


I’ve been working out at the Downtown Athletic Club this week on a free pass. The DAC is a rich man’s club, and I had misgivings about going there. I was raised very strongly to believe that, on the one hand, there were rich people and, on the other hand, there was everyone else; and that what was on the first hand was better. My parents taught me this without beating around the bush about it, but I also got it at school where everyone—teachers included—deferred to the rich kids.

I thought about this when I got that free pass, and I worried that I would stand out poorly (I guess that was almost a pun). But one truth was that I had used up my free pass to the poor man’s gym (Oakway), and another truth was that I quite enjoy Jacuzzis, saunas, steam rooms, and swimming pools; especially when they’re free.

My father—and probably my mother—would not have known what a sauna or a Jacuzzi was. They might have heard the words at some point, but the words would have meant nothing to them. I even get them mixed up a little because some people call a Jacuzzi a spa or else a hot tub. I’ve settled on calling it a Jacuzzi, so I won’t have to think about which word to use.

I was quite curious what the DAC would be like, i.e. what does the rich man’s gym have that the poor man’s gym lacks. Well, it has a lot, so much in fact that it would take me a while to list it all. Their website ( lists a lot of it, but doesn’t really do the place justice. Mostly, I was curious about how I would get on with all the rich people since I haven’t known a lot of rich people and haven’t liked the ones I did know. My father’s boss was rich, and I hated that man because he was a deacon at the First Baptist Church, but he didn’t extend his Christian principals to his employees. Like a lot of Southern Baptists, he considered tithing as a ticket to heaven that excused greed in other areas. But the worst rich people I’ve known were the ones who inherited their money because they grew up thinking they were entitled to it, and that having it made them better than everyone else.

You might say I went to the DAC with a bad attitude, but I also went with a curious attitude. Right off, I learned a lot that I didn’t know about rich people. Some of it I would have known had I thought about it, but I actually spend almost no time thinking about rich people. To begin with, rich men and poor men look remarkably alike when they’re naked. Rich or poor, the young ones look like gods, and the old ones look like dried figs.

Upon making this observation, I started trying to think of a way to tell naked rich people from naked poor people, and I thought that maybe I could do it by listening to what they talked about. What I discovered is that the people at the DAC aren’t as friendly as the people at Oakway, so they don’t talk as much. I can’t say for sure that this is true of all of them, but I can say that it is generally true. Yet, some of them do talk, and I do listen. So far, they’ve mostly kvetched. For example, a couple of them were bummed about hearing cell phones going off in the locker room; and others complained about how slick the drive is from the South Hills, the part of town where the rich people live. I agreed with them about the cell phones, but I thought the other was an odd complaint because the streets coming out of the South Hills are at a thirty degree angle, and that part of town gets a lot of ice—things they would have known when they moved there.

The first person who I spoke to at the DAC who didn’t work there was Peter DeFazio. I didn’t know at first that he was Peter DeFazio because he was looking the other way. What happened was that my woman tour guide had told me that there was a way to get from the men’s locker room to the pool without having to go through the main hallway. She couldn’t very well take me into the men’s locker room to show me where the door was, so once I changed into my swimsuit, I started looking for it. The locker room is huge, and I walked around it twice without finding the door, so I asked this fellow who was getting dressed to point me in the direction of the pool. He turned around, and damned if it wasn’t United States Congressman, Peter DeFazio.

DeFazio campaigns on being a man of the people. He refuses pay raises, dresses ordinary, and drives a 1963 Dodge Dart. As soon as I saw him in the DAC, I felt like I’d been had. Like maybe the Dodge is just a prop, and maybe he turns down pay raises because he’s so stinking rich that the extra money wouldn’t mean anything. I mean here’s a man who is in D.C. much of the year, yet he has a membership at the DAC! Well, maybe someone gave it to him for all I know, but seeing him there made me wonder what he is really like, and it reminded me that no one can be taken at face value. All these years, I wondered when I would see DeFazio riding around town in his Dodge, and now I doubt that I will. I had really believed in him, you might say, and now I’m reminded that even I—with all my cynicism—can be taken.

But back to what I’ve learned about rich people…. Another interesting aspect of rich people is that they lose their keys a lot. I know this because I lose my keys a lot, so when I went to the desk to ask if anyone had seen the key to my padlock, the woman pulled out a box and started going through it while I described my key as best I could remember it. I couldn’t see the box because of a counter that was in the way, so I kept talking, and she kept looking, and I thought that, golly, this is taking a lot of time—what is wrong with this picture? Right away I knew, so I leaned way over so I could see what was in the box, and it was LOADED with keys, and there was my old rusty padlock key right on top. As I walked away, I wondered why she hadn’t put the box up where we could both go through it. All I could think was that rich people don’t like looking for their keys—they had rather pay someone to do it even if it takes longer.

The people who work at the DAC are all very nice. I get greeted coming, and I receive warm wishes going. There are also a lot of employees. There has to be because rich people use as many towels in a day as most of the people in Ecuador use in a year. They need two for the steam room, two more for the sauna, one for the pool, one for the shower, one for the Jacuzzi, one when they shave, and so forth. I really have a hard time making myself use more than two towels, and I only use that many so I will have one to sit on and one to lean back on when I am in the sauna or the steam room.

I like to look out through the windows when I am in those rooms. I watch naked guys use the urinals, which isn’t really all that interesting except maybe to a gay man, but when there’s nothing else to look at, I look at whatever is moving. I also watch loads of towels being wheeled away, and tall stacks of neatly folded towels being put in their place. I suspect that there are employees at the DAC who do nothing but stock towels.

I would join the DAC if it didn’t cost so much. For my purposes the poor man’s gym would serve as well, and it is a lot friendlier; but the DAC is closer to home. It is no more than fifteen blocks away, whereas the Oakway is too far away to count all the blocks. I would have to bike clean across the Willamette to get there, and while I can make the trip in about fifteen minutes, it is farther than I enjoy biking in the dark and the rain, and alongside one of Eugene’s busiest and noisiest streets at that.

Tonight, as I sat all alone in the sauna, I thought about how I could offset the cost of joining the DAC, and all I could come up with was stealing towels and reselling them, or else breaking into lockers. I wouldn’t really do either of these things, but my mind runs to crime quite readily when I am looking for a solution to a problem. This trait is so strong in me that I have trouble believing that everyone isn’t this way, although I know that Peggy isn’t, and that she is sorry I am.

But to return yet again to things I’ve learned about rich people…rich people are damn good swimmers. I had never paid much attention to people swimming, but when I was in the Jacuzzi yesterday, some young men were in the pool, and as I watched their powerful and confident strokes, I thought to myself that here is beauty. Rich women are good swimmers too, but women swimmers are like women in a lot of sports in that they can be good, even great, but they can never develop the raw power of a man. Women look their best walking or standing (or lying). Men look their best when they are engaged in athletics. I say this even though I suspect that women probably make better distance swimmers than men because women float better.

I’m afraid that my own swimming is not up to DAC standards because the only stroke I’m confident in is the dog paddle, and no one but me does it. I figure I’m as good as a lot of dogs at dog paddling (my hands and feet being broader than their paws), but my breaststroke is bastardized and inefficient, and I worry that my sidestroke is a tad off too. As for that other stroke, the one that people first picture when they think about swimming—the crawl, I think it is—I don’t even attempt that because it wears me out, and I splash so much that someone might try to rescue me.

The pools (yes, there are two) are in the basement, and people on the upper levels can look down at me, and people on the sidewalk can look in. If I worried all that much about how I look swimming, I wouldn’t swim at all, but I don’t worry, so I swim a lot. I’ll start out with ten minutes in the Jacuzzi, ten minutes in the pool, ten minutes in the steam room, ten more minutes in the pool, and then ten minutes in the sauna. After all this, I feel like I’ve been kicked in the head, but in a good way. It’s amazing how much difference even a little bit of the right activities can make. I leave the DAC as mellow as if I had gotten a massage.

I mentioned to Peggy that one of the things I don’t like about gyms is that I come into such close contact with other people’s bodies, partly because a lot of nude people take turns sitting on the same surfaces (sometimes on towels, sometimes not). She was greatly surprised that men use the sauna and steam room—and walk around the locker room—naked. She thought they wrapped towels around themselves. “That’s just in the movies,” I told her, “and it’s no more real than women in the movies who step out of the shower with towels wrapped around themselves.” At least it has been my experience that men who go to gyms are not men who are shy about their bodies. Maybe women are different. Rich or poor, I’ve never heard men talk about their issues with their bodies. They might not like the way they look, but they don’t obsess about it.

Rich teenagers who come to the DAC often look like sullen street people. They pull the look off so well that I would think they were sullen street people if I saw them on the street. I wouldn’t be surprised but what they spend hundreds of dollars for pants with holes in the knees; and it strikes me as a very degrading, disgusting, degenerate, and dissolute situation when rich people go around faking poverty. They get away with it in this country because the standard of living is high, but if I were some Third World guy who was barely able to keep clothes on my back, and one of these DAC people got off the plane looking like me, I’d want to kill him. He would be worse than men who have never ridden a horse but dress like cowboys. Frigging be what you look like. At least have that much integrity. I hate affect. It’s impossible for most of us to avoid engaging in it from time to time, but I still hate it.

I feel a little of that kind of fakeness just going to the DAC. I suspect that a lot of DAC members actually have less real money than I do, and I know that if I got it into my head that I wanted to join, I could do so without the expense being a hardship. Joining the DAC would simply mean that I had less money to put into savings each month—it would not mean that I couldn’t afford something else, or that I was sliding deeper into credit card debt. But I wouldn’t fit. I would be a pretender. I’ve heard guys at Oakway Gym grouse about how the cost has gone up to $35 a month. The DAC costs something like five times that much plus $750 just to join.

Joining the DAC is not just a matter of money but of lifestyle. It’s real slate on the floor, real ceramic tile in the bathrooms, and real cherry on the walls. There’s nothing wrong with these things if you’re willing to pay for them, but I’m a pine, formica, and linoleum guy. That’s what I’m used to, and that’s what I’m happy with.

I’ve been tongue-in-cheek in a lot of what I’ve said about the DAC—sort of a taking a position of reverse snobbery—but I don’t really have anything against it. In fact, if I valued having money less, I really would join because it’s the closest gym to where I live, and it’s also the least crowded. I might even make friends there if I went enough.

Casualties of winter

“The National Weather Service in Portland has issued a Blizzard Warning for the Cascades…winds of 40 to 60…gusts of 75 to 95. Gusts reaching 100 to 130 on peaks and ridges. Snow accumulations of a foot or more...whiteout conditions occurring frequently. Do not travel. If you must travel...have a winter survival kit with you. If you get stranded...stay with your vehicle.”

Relatives of the lost climbers have flown in from all over the country, but I believe the search will soon be called off. No matter how much relatives might want it to continue, the risk to the searchers must be weighed against the odds that poorly equipped climbers who have been at 11,000’ for eight days are alive. So far this winter, an eight-year old boy was lost (and never found) at Crater Lake; two snowmobilers were lost near Mt. Bachelor (both were found but one died); and a family was lost in their car (the woman and two children were rescued, but the father died).

There could be other exposure-related deaths that I am unaware of since the newsworthiness of a story depends upon how long the drama continues and how appealing the victims are. For example, the prominent parents and their two baby girls received national attention, whereas the male snowmobilers were hardly mentioned even locally.

Lost on Hood

I went to bed last night thinking about the three climbers (two Texans and a New Yorker) who have been stranded on Mt. Hood for a week. One of the three was injured at 11,000 feet, and the other two dug him a snow cave, called for help on a cell phone, and started down the mountain to guide rescuers. None have been heard from since, and seventy mile per hour winds and whiteout conditions have made the mountain unsafe for searchers.

I have read almost every book the Eugene library has about mountaineering accidents. Just last night, while the local news was focused on the Hood climbers, I finished a story about a man who spent two nights alone on Denali with compound fractures to both ankles. Despite being cold, he was forced to stuff his legs into a snow-filled backpack to stop the bleeding. He sat on an eighteen-inch ledge, not knowing if help would reach him before he died. The dense cloud cover finally cleared enough for a helicopter to lower a rescuer by a 200-foot rope.

Many climbers have lost all their fingers and toes to frostbite, if not their hands and feet as well. Yet, many of these people go back and re-climb the very mountain that nearly killed them. Climbing is a strange passion, and one which I might have known nothing had Peggy not caught the bug.

She is now reading a book (Angels in the Wilderness by Amy Racina) by a woman who broke both legs while hiking alone in a remote region of the High Sierras. Even as Amy lay on the granite looking at her bones protruding from her flesh, one of the thoughts that crossed her mind was how sad she would be if she never got to make another such trip.

I become junior deacon

I decided at the last minute tonight to attend my Masonic Lodge. My ambivalence about Masonry is such that the last minute is usually when I decide to attend. As I biked, I rejoiced in the thought that the officers for the coming year had been installed over the weekend, so at least I wouldn’t get corralled into being one of them. Upon arrival, I learned that the incoming master had arrived so late to the installation that it was called off and was to be held tonight instead.

I furthermore learned that he wanted me to serve as junior deacon. The primary duties are to say a few memorized lines and to bar the entry of anyone who isn’t qualified. I said I would accept the position only if I wasn’t required to wear a tux. The master said he wouldn’t insist on it, but the senior deacon lost no time in sorting through dead men’s clothing in search of one that would fit me.

I am happy for my new position. It will be my first Masonic office since I served as secretary in 1995.

One moral, one not so moral

Peggy put down .25 hours of overtime on her time card last week. Payroll read it as 25 hours and paid her accordingly. Peggy, being Peggy, reported the mistake. Lowell, being Lowell, grieved over the $1,600 loss.

Peggy regards ethical standards as almost inviolable. Certainly, she would lie to a murderer about where she had hidden his gun, but in ordinary life her behavior is consistent. Last week, she was so sure that a clerk at Kinkos had undercharged her by a few pennies that she left me waiting outside with our bikes (in the cold dark night) while she went back to double-check (that’s right, she had already checked once). Even if there had been an undercharge, I doubt that Kinkos would have come out ahead paying the clerk to correct it; but the issue for Peggy had less to do with Kinko’s profit as with her morality. My morality is so disappointing to Peggy that she can scarcely believe I am as bad as I say I am.

Letter from the Chair

From the desk of the Chair
Dept of Psych, Sociology, Anthropology, and Dendrology
Mississippi A&M
Rareback, MS

Dear Mr. Thomas:

Please accept my apologies for not getting back to you sooner. Our department recently received a $950,000 government grant to determine whether farmers whose farms are foreclosed undergo a period of career re-evaluation; and I have been doing field research in Honolulu.

I am sorry within reasonable bounds that some of your friends were upset by their low scores on The Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College Test of Intelligence, Personality, and Sexual Desirability, and I hope I will not sound callous when I say that, as a psychologist, I am but little interested in people’s feelings. However, I am extremely interested in the reputation of myself and my department, and I take their suggestion that the test lacked credibility with the same gravity that I take death threats to my seven children.

They must surely be aware that Mississippi A&M is an acknowledged leader in psychological research throughout the tri-county area, especially among dairymen. And as you doubtlessly know, our 1958 study, Drawbacks of Breeding Roosters for Monogamy, won wide acclaim among the 1,200 readers of Coxcomb County Poultry Tracks, and I have no doubt but what we have been praised from time to time elsewhere as well.

I can, however, do what psychologists do best, which is to offer your friends an implausibly positive interpretation to an irredeemably bad situation. To whit: the maximum test score was, as you will recall, 100, and some of your friends made as low as 30. They can interpret this in either of two ways. The neurotic way is to feel badly that they scored piss-poor in all three areas covered by the examination (intelligence, personality, and sexual desirability). The healthy alternative is to console themselves with the thought that they just might have scored extremely high in one category and piss-poor in the other two (the questions not being identified as to category). It is a case of whether the glass is all empty or merely two-thirds empty.

For example, of the three categories covered, your friends might decide that only one is of any great importance in their lives. Let’s say, for sake of illustration, that a given friend has little use for intelligence and personality, but holds sexual desirability in high esteem. He could, as well as not, imagine that he scored 100 in that category and zero in the other two. Of course, he could not know with certainty that this (or any other category) was the category he excelled in, but what would be the harm of imagining it?

It is not inconceivable that the simple belief that he is a sexual magnet might increase his desirability to members of the opposite sex (or the same sex—or even another domesticated species, as is sometimes the case in farm country). This is what we psychologists call the placebo effect, although in this instance it might better qualify as the libido effect.

The only other way in which your friends might find consolation is in the knowledge that their poor showing will be of little if any importance after they have passed from this life. On the other hand, if we really are reincarnated, and what we are in this life determines our status in the next life, they could be in big trouble. Fortunately, I can offer a positive interpretation for this scenario as well, but you will first need to contact my office with your insurance information.

Stu D. Prunus, L.P.N.

A valid test

The Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College Test of Intelligence, Personality, and Sexual Desirability

Directions: Answer all questions with either a yes or a no. Do not answer the same question more than once to inflate your score.

1) Do you question whether talking films were really an improvement?

2) Do you go to bed at night anticipating your morning coffee?

3) Do you laugh so hard that you cry over things that other people don’t find funny?

4) If you were your dog, would you want the person who you are to be your master?

5) Do you identify equally with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza?

6) Do you make up songs and sing them to your dog? If you don’t have a dog, do you make up songs and sing them to other people’s dogs?

7) Do you plan to give generously to charity, but only after you’re dead?

8) Is your wife glad she doesn’t understand you because she worries what it would say about her if she did?

9) Did you develop an inferiority complex because your shrink didn’t treat you for free for the privilege of writing you up in a professional journal?

10) Did you spend some of your happiest moments working in tight places like attics and crawlspaces, places that scare the bejesus out of almost everyone you know?

11) Is your idea of a really good time digging holes in your backyard in the hope of uncovering Atlantis, or at least a mastodon fossil or an arrowhead?

12) When you are through digging holes in your backyard, do you clean and oil your shovel and tuck it in for the night?

Score eight and one third points for each yes answer. Score zero for each no answer. A score of 100 means that you are smarter than God and more personable, desirable and moral than anyone else in the whole world. A score of less than 100 means that you are a hopeless twit. Put your answer in the blank following this paragraph, replacing the answer of the person who sent you the test. Only send the test to the person who sent it to you and to other people who you think are as smart, attractive, and personable as yourself. Otherwise, you risk being the subject of bitter envy. If you don’t believe that this is a valid test, you clearly scored less than 100.

My score:100

Baxter stays over

Baxter had to stay at the vet’s last night following surgery for bladder stones. We thought we could provide better care of him at home, but the vet wanted to keep him drugged, IV’d, and catheterized. Bonnie not only didn’t miss him; she seemed happy he was gone. If the situation were reversed, Baxter would have spent the evening sad and dismayed. He’s a cuddler, and would snuggle up to Bonnie if she would let him, but she gets up and walks away. Her callous disloyalty angers me, but I can hardly hash out issues with a dog. Instead, I spent a lot of time last night playing ball with her. I also gave her an empty gallon jug. She gleefully attacked it until it was barely recognizable.

Bedtime came, and I fantasized spending the night in the vet’s parking lot so as to be near Baxter. Peggy automatically got out his chicken flavor toothpaste. Baxter loves having his teeth brushed. He thinks its some kind of weird treat, so he goes into the bathroom ahead of us each night, and licks as much toothpaste as he can from the brush.

The legalities of healthcare

Peggy said that her recent fetal monitoring workshop (like all her workshops nowadays) focused heavily on avoiding lawsuits or at least making your behavior look good in the event of a lawsuit. I suppose the general public thinks that this fear of being sued keeps healthcare providers on their toes, but the truth is that working in a climate of fear creates an emotional distance between providers and their patients and hinders proper care in other ways as well. In Peggy’s specialty, for example, it results in a lot of unnecessary C-sections because doctors want to look like they did everything possible for their patients even though much of what is possible is also hazardous. C-sections, after all, are major surgery.

I suspect that some of the fear that nurses and doctors carry with them everyday (especially after they’ve been sued a time or two) partially accounts for the dehumanizing quality of modern medicine. Only those who have been sued can imagine what a nightmare it is, for only they have been through hundreds of hours of depositions, trial rehearsals, and testimony, that endlessly rehashes a few moments of time that were heartrending even if no one was in the wrong. And it can go on for years, destroying your reputation and costing you everything you own.

Going to court is like going to war in that right and wrong are irrelevant. Courts are about public relations; courts are places where the only thing that matters is how much money you have to spend on the cleverest lawyers and the most credentialed witnesses. To make things worse, really bad people have an invulnerability that really good people lack because really bad people have no ideals to lose. Really bad people never had the faith that, if you do your best, others will respect you for it and you will come out okay. Really bad people can remain unmoved in the presence of a baby that will never live a normal day; whereas really good people feel sickened and guilt-ridden even when they know it wasn’t their fault.

Medicine, regular and otherwise

Peggy and I spent Thanksgiving on the coast with Bob and Mary Pat. I was thrilled to discover that one of their other guests was a doctor because I had never socialized with anyone of higher rank than a postal worker. And even he was a retired postal worker, a fact that made me lose all interest in him just as if he had been a retired president whose only claim to fame was that he used to have the power to annihilate the world.

Since the other doctors I have seen asked for a list of medications, I began going over mine, but he changed the subject. Nonplussed, I didn’t speak to him anymore, and I folded my arms and turned my back every time he spoke to me. Only later did I reflect that he might have been a gynecologist or a pediatrician. I didn’t think of this sooner because whenever I have gone to a doctor, he or she was the right kind of doctor 100% of the time, so I naturally assumed that this would always be the case.

No matter. My regard for doctors has dropped appreciably over time. I still regard them more highly than lawyers but, like lawyers, they are often clueless, disrespectful, impatient, and more interested in my money than my welfare. Years ago, there was a public outcry for doctors to provide holistic care, but specialized medicine is where the biggest money is, so that is where most doctors have gone. No one has a doctor anymore. He has one his nose, one for his knee, and one for each of the other parts that are bothering him. If this is not good enough, if the patient also wants a doctor that cares about him, he will need yet another doctor, yet his psychiatrist will no more look at him as a whole person than will his podiatrist.

Instead of doctors, we have ever more specialized technicians. This would not be so bad if the technicians were at least effective, but it is still true that most people who go to a doctor either get better, get worse, or stay the same; and that the percentages of each are not greatly different than if they had stayed home.

With such thoughts in mind, I researched alternative therapies for my arthritis. When I met an Ayurvedist socially, I looked up his alma mater and several other colleges of Ayurveda on the Internet. I found that there is no governmentally required certification, that diplomas are issued after months instead of years, and that Ayurvedic instructors typically boast of being “skilled” in things like astrology, numerology, and homeopathy. The same is true of most alternative schools. People who consider scientific research to be unrelated or even inimical to truth scare me even more than regular doctors do.

Baxter is to have surgery tomorrow for bladder stones. I never take a dog to a vet but what I wish he or she could doctor me too. Vets take the time for a thorough examination; they act like they actually give a rip; they are not pretentious; their charges are reasonable; they provide estimates; they call you back if they are unavailable when you call them; and they take the time to explain what is wrong and what can be done to fix it. What’s more, no dog has a different vet for every part of his body, yet I see no reason to think that their care is inferior because of it. In fact, I rarely take a dog to a vet but what the vet helps the dogs; whereas I rarely take myself to a doctor but what I come away the same or worse, but in any case poorer.


My Manly-Man Cracker Recipe

9 cups flour (I combine a mixture of whole grain flours with a half-cup of ground flaxseed)

1/2 tsp salt

Appx 3/4-cup oil (less oil = stickier dough)

1/2-cup honey (more or less according to taste)

2+ cups warm water (warm water mixes better). Add slowly, and vary the amount as necessary. You want a dough that is uniformly moist but not so wet that it sticks to everything.

This is a big recipe and can be halved. It takes about 2 1/2 hours to make.

There aren’t too many ways to ruin a batch of crackers (1 burning them, 2 making the dough so wet that it sticks to everything, 3 making the dough so dry that it is crumbly), so feel free to experiment with the ingredients, and remember that the first two problems are correctable.

I use a Kitchen-Aid mixer, and add the ingredients in the order given. Hands also work well for mixing the ingredients, but a spoon is a hard way to go. I flour the dough as I roll it out, and I cut it into squares to save time and trouble, but you can use a drinking glass to cut it into uniform rounds if you prefer. I sometimes roll sesame seeds into the top of the dough.

Poke holes in the rolled dough with a fork (I hold one in each hand); otherwise, the crackers will have air pockets. Bake at 325°, preferably on cookie sheets that have an air space in the middle (this kind of sheet helps prevent burning the crackers on bottom. I have been tempted to bake the crackers at a lower temperature (say 125°) to try to re-create the toughness of hardtack, but have never had the patience to watch them.

Flip the crackers once or twice during baking. Move the top cookie sheet to the bottom and the bottom cookie sheet to the top when you flip them. This will help prevent burning. I suppose it takes about 25 minutes to bake a batch, but I never time it. I do check on the crackers every three to five minutes—more often as they get closer to being done.

Thick crackers naturally take longer to bake than thin ones. Thick crackers tend toward chewiness; thin crackers toward brittleness. I remove some crackers from the cookie sheet ahead of others because the ones on the edge cook faster. Don’t wait until the crackers look really brown, or they will taste burned. Spread them on a countertop to cool and harden. I freeze them but have kept them for two months without any refrigeration (when traveling).

To Portland and back

Peggy had a workshop on fetal monitoring in Portland Wednesday, so we drove up on Tuesday and stayed in a motel. She had hundreds of pages to read in preparation but, as usual, procrastinated. If I postpone something important, it is only because something else is more important, and not because I decide to clean my closet for the first time in ten years.

She passed the test only to have to come home for a dental appointment the next day. Tests, dentists, and assigned readings are three of the four things Peggy hates most. Writing is the fourth, and her “Message from the President” for the Oregon State Button Society Newsletter is due today.

We left Portland after dark during heavy rains and winds gusts of 53 miles per hour. All ten lanes on I-5 looked like one big parking lot so we took side streets, but they were little better. When we finally got out of the city, another driver took umbrage with me over who was entitled to be in a certain lane, and he followed us until I pulled over so Peggy could pee in a jar that we carry. When he veered in behind us and jumped out of his car, I thought, “Isn’t this just perfect? The wind is howling, the ruts in the interstate have turned into rivers that thunder against the fender wells, Bonnie is shivering in terror, my night vision is so bad I can hardly see the road even on a good night, the windshield wipers are working their hearts out to no avail, we just spent two hours going twenty miles; and now some fool is going to shoot us.”

I hastily left him standing in the storm and just as hastily took the next exit. Wouldn’t you know it, there was nothing but trees at the next exit, but fortunately he either didn’t see me turn or decided that killing us wasn’t worth a bad case of pneumonia. I always take a gun camping, but this experience made me vow to take it to the city as well.

Some interesting facts that I picked up on our trip:

By the third trimester of pregnancy, the embryonic fluid is nearly one-third urine.

A fetus’ heartbeat can reach 500 beats per minute, but it is very, very bad when it does.

Nurses sometimes test fetus reactivity with an instrument called a vibro-acoustic stimulator. This is basically a mechanical voicebox that sends 85 decibels of racket directly into the fetus’ ears, scaring the fetus so badly that it makes every effort to leap from the mother’s abdomen. (I told some friends about the device, and they asked with shocked expressions why nurses would do such a thing. The truth being pretty mundane, I said, “Mostly they just do it around Christmas time when they’ve had too much to drink.”)

Earth days were twenty-one hours long during Cambrian times. Due to the friction of water on the ocean floor, the days have been slowing by.002 seconds per year. Eventually, the earth will stop rotating and the same side will face the sun all the time. If the sun is on my side, I would anticipate an increase in property values. If it is not, the entire year will be like an Oregon winter.

100,000 women were raped by the Russians during the invasion of Berlin. 10,000 of them died, mostly by suicide.

Hitler died at age 56, so I’ve beaten him at least—hooray! I’ve also beaten Dan Blocker (43), John Candy (43), David Janssen (48), Steve McQueen (50), Marty Feldman (49), Michael Landon (54), and Robert Urich (55), all of whom died of natural causes. Every person I beat puts me one ahead. Ahead of what, I don’t know, but it feels good.

If, instead of driving, we had flown home from Portland in the little Cessna we once owned, we would have needed to fly 53 miles per hour into the wind merely to stand still. At that speed, we could have landed without the wheels rolling.


I lost seven pounds in six days this week through fasting and a diet of raw fruits and vegetables. Two hours divided among a sauna, a steam room and a Jacuzzi yesterday didn’t hurt either. I look gaunt, but I sleep better when I weigh less, and I hope the loss will help my knee as well. Unfortunately, the short-term effect is that I feel cold, weak, and shaky.

I have a hard time going at something slowly. I overdid it at yoga and got tendonitis, so I figured that, well, I’ll look into spas and water exercises—you can’t hurt yourself at that. So, what do I do? I sweated so much that I couldn’t remember a good friend’s name. Hell, I couldn’t remember my own name. I actually signed my old name to a credit card receipt. “This is what senility will be like,” I thought. “I will end up arguing with nurses about what my name is, and they will be right.”

When a person changes his name, he doesn’t think about what a drag it will be when he’s so old that he forgets the past fifty years. States of being in which a person loses his concept of personal identity fascinate me endlessly because I think they must be close to what death is like. I simply cannot conceive of complete non-being.


Bob and Jean, a couple in their fifties, came over last night for the first time. They smelled of marijuana, but I made no mention of it, although I have not had any for fifteen years and would have liked some very much. Bob carried a cloth sack, and in that sack was a bottle of Wild Turkey. I drank my last strong liquor about the time I smoked my last marijuana. Delicious! Peggy tried it and squinched her face predictably. No more drank she, and none drank Jean who sulked the entire evening—something to do with Bob we assumed.

Bob said they had recently ended their friendship with another couple because the man drank too much. Here he noticed that the level of whiskey in my third glass had dropped by an inch, so he added another three. As Bob became ruddier, friendlier, and more enthusiastic about everything in the entire world, I wondered if his complaint had concerned the quantity the man drank or how he behaved under its influence. “Oh, man!” he exclaimed joyfully and repeatedly as Peggy showed him her button collection, and as he sidled from the far end of the couch to a position just short of my lap. I made the decision that I was not going to awaken with a hangover, so my infrequent sips became smaller as the evening progressed. After our guests left, I emptied the whiskey that remained in my glass into a jelly jar for later and grieved that Bob took the bottle.

I learned through my readings about the Himalayas that there are cultures that condone hard drinking but deplore acting drunk. This was news to me, my heaviest drinking having been done as a teenager in the company of other boys who believed that acting like fools was the raison d'etre of the drinking experience.

By the time I was in my twenties, my liver was showing enough wear that I rarely drank anything, but I numbered three alcoholics among my close friends. One was Lynn, a skinny, barrel-chested man who, according to his doctors, was already long overdue to die of emphysema. Lynn and his wife came over one night to play cards, and he brought along a fifth of whiskey. He emptied it by himself in the space of three hours without showing much effect. In fact, we were still playing cards when he dropped like a rock onto the floor. After he was loaded into his car and driven home, I thought to myself that here was a man who could hold his liquor. I admired him for that, having made a fool of myself on too many occasions.

Last night, I realized after my second sip of whiskey that a fellow like myself who is unaccustomed to drinking anything more than a small amount of weak wine could get drunk on Wild Turkey before he knew it. I resolved to avoid this but knew that, in any event, my days of using liquor as an excuse for acting like a fool were over.

The secret to slowing down

I’m not getting the trike. I’m just not. Too much ambivalence. Everyone thinks I should, and I know that a person needs to jump in there sometimes and take a chance on something, but I’m not doing it this time.

One of the things I really liked about the trike was that it was so relaxing. I get tense on my bike because I can’t seem to slow down. Every time I go somewhere, I wonder if this is going to be the time that I wreck. The trike won’t go fast. It’s like a car that wouldn’t go over 85 in its prime, and its prime was twenty years ago. By comparison, my bike is a zephyr, and how can you hobble a zephyr?

Easy. GEAR DOWN! So, I put my big gearshift in second and my little gearshift in third, and, voila, I have a two-wheeled trike. Now, I can cruise around in the rain (I love cruising around in the rain) and actually see the fall colors and actually hear the patter of raindrops on my helmet. Like with the pain, I need to relax around my bike. I’ve got to relax around my bike. It’s really time that I tried something different because I’m hurting worse and in more places all the time, and I can’t ignore the fact that this just really/might/probably/could mean that I’m doing something wrong, something that I have the power to change.

A new approach

I awoke this morning in pain and had the same thought that I have been coming to a lot lately. Namely that the secret of dealing with pain is to stay relaxed. Whether its physical pain or emotional pain, pain increases anxiety, and anxiety increases pain. If I can get off the roller coaster when the pain first hits, I can spare myself this frantic buildup of negativity. Just let the pain be. I can’t stop it anyway, so why make it worse?

Gotta relax…go lightly…roll with the punches…stop running from it…stop blaming myself for it…stop feeling sorry for myself because I’m not strong like my father…stop wanting it to go away so I can wake up normal…look for the good in it…let it make me better…say that it is what it is, and that I’m more than it…say yes to life and not just to feeling good.

NWS wit

The rains continue. I get weather warnings that flash at the bottom of my monitor and that won’t stop flashing until I click on them (like Baxter who won’t stop barking until I go to the door even if he is barking at someone on the other side of the street). I just got such a warning and while scanning the list of areas that are in danger of flooding, I found Willamette Pass. Willamette Pass is a mile high, is bare of snow, and has no streams. Either some wit at the National Weather Service thought it would be funny to add it to the list or I’m about to be under a mile of water.

A trike, possibly

I tried out a trike today, and came very near to buying it on the spot, but said I would get in touch tomorrow. My main concern is storage since it is 6’ long x 2’wide x 4’ high. Just getting it in and out of doors and gates would be a challenge.

Trikes are relaxing conveyances because you don’t have to balance them. They also attract friendly attention. Women on the bike path looked at me on my red trike and smiled, but it wasn’t the kind of smile a man in a red Ferrari would get. I suppose a man could rob a bank and make his getaway on a trike without the cops taking any notice. Riding a trike is like owning a small dog in that it’s hard to look ferocious. Rambo on a trike? The Terminator walking a Chihuahua? Maybe if I wore crossed cartridge-belts or did like Captain Kidd and stuck lighted matches under my hat (my helmet, actually). Another advantage to trikes over bikes is that if you stop and talk to someone, you have an instant seat instead of a useless object between your legs (the bike, I mean).


The day feels charged with anticipation. The weather radio confirms this with high wind warnings, high surf warnings, and flood alerts. Twelve inches of rain are predicted for the Coast Range, and some of Washington has already been declared a disaster area. I asked some elderly neighbors if our street had ever flooded. They said no, but the land across the street is barely lower, yet it is in a flood zone.

The dogs run alongside as I bike around the 60-acre fairgrounds once or twice a day. This gives me a little exercise, and it gives them a lot. We usually go after 5:00 when the dogcatcher gets off work, but I didn’t dare wait today. Everyone else had the same idea. We passed dogs, bikes, toddlers, a man in a wheelchair, another man pushing a grocery cart, and dozens of ordinary pedestrians—a veritable obstacle course of people, critters, and machinery. Carpenters were at work beneath the entrance to the Lane County Museum, glad for the roof, no doubt. The smell of sawdust and the sound of hammers made me nostalgic for my father. We had some good times together, going to new jobs every few days or weeks.

A carpenter/handyman need never starve. Last week, for example, the fitting that held the drainpipe to the kitchen sink corroded in half, spilling a sink full of dishwater into the cabinet. A journeyman plumber wouldn’t want to take such a small job, would need two days to get to it, and would charge a bundle. A handyman would do it for a pittance and stay for coffee. It’s like the difference between a doctor and a nurse practitioner.

Interesting numbers

A fellow comes across some interesting numbers while reviewing his insurance and investments. For example, my odds of living to age 85 are dead even (or maybe I should simply say 50/50), and I have a 10% chance of reaching 97. Being the kind of person who sees the glass as half empty, I plan to arrange my finances so I run out of money and groceries the night before my 85th birthday.

If I don’t die in my sleep that night, I will peruse the help wanted ads the next morning. If nothing works out, I will return to college on a scholarship and get a double major in livestock veterinary and girls’ volleyball coaching. Maybe at Oxford. Or else Vassar. Or even Oral Roberts. If the university of my choice gives me any flak about anything whatsoever, I’ll point out that I’m deaf, blind, dreadfully old, confined to a wheelchair, (which will all be more or less true by then), and I’ll also say that I’m half black, that my name was Lois before the operation, and that I plan to sue the hell out of them on 49 counts of discrimination.

To give another example of interesting numbers, the tax appraiser increased the value of our house by $61,513 this year over last. We should be able to sell out, buy a smaller house in a saner market with the extra money, and keep the $163,201 that the house was worth last year. Would I really take the money and run? Yes! By all means. I’d go farther south; get out of the damn rain. But then there’s Peggy to consider.

Peggy plans to spend the remainder of her life right here, and there is much to be said for that. The main thing to be said for it is that people who are prone to changing houses and employers are generally poorer than those who stay in the same house with the same employer. If not for that, I would be less agreeable. There’s nothing that increases my ageeability more than self-interest. Otherwise, I’m contrary on principal.

Stuff, lots and lots of stuff

Peggy and I got rid of some stuff this week. I parted with the last two boxes of my rock collection, and we both got rid of some dishes and cassette tapes. Maybe we’ll find more to get rid of when we clean house today. I like getting rid of stuff. I like it a lot. Sometimes, I wish that I could get something back, but all of life is a risk and to some extent a burden, and owning stuff is one of its biggest burdens.

I don’t mean to say that I’m anti-stuff because I think of my stuff as my friends, and I feel like a traitor when I let any of it go. But at the same time, it tortures me to keep it. For example, I would be lying in bed at night thinking about my rock collection, and it would feel like a heavy weight on my stomach. Still, like I said, it also hurts to let stuff go. In the case of the rocks, I had built my collection over years of exploration. This is why it works better for me to never own a lot of stuff to begin with.

My father couldn’t get enough stuff. He erected large buildings just to keep his stuff in. It was mostly junk—literally, as in broken toys from dumpsters. After mother died, he got really serious about his stuff collection, and it grew so much that he could only move through his house by way of passageways between piles of mildewed rags, magazines, and forty-year old electric bills.

I figured his stuff must have made him feel secure, as in, “the cold cruel world is howling out there, and me and my stuff are nestled snugly in here.” I’m the opposite. If there was a flood, I would want less stuff to sort through as I prepared to move to high ground. Or if there was an earthquake, I figure I would have less of a mess to clean up if I didn’t own so much. Such thoughts also dictate the kinds of stuff I want. Food, water, guns: good. Knick-knacks, furniture, rock collections: bad. Then too, just as I can’t love a lot of friends well, I can’t love a lot of stuff well. It’s the difference between the six trees in my yard and the thousands of trees in the forest; or the difference between the kid who gets five presents for Christmas and the kid who gets fifty presents for Christmas.

I observed the latter kind of kid opening presents. She could only enthuse so much, and she could only love so much, and she passed her limit with half her presents still unopened, and collapsed in tears. I wondered how this would affect her attitude toward stuff as she grew up. Would she buy more and more of it without ever feeling that she had enough; or would she turn away from stuff and toward drugs, overwork, or religion?

Peggy does stuff well. She owns a lot of it by my standards, but not so much that she can’t dust it all within an hour or two. When I complain about how much we own, she says that her friends comment on how empty our house seems (“Hey, Peggy, when are you going to start decorating, ha, ha, ha”). But if you took all the households in America and determined their average stuff content, this would not prove that the average household had chosen well. The common way is not necessarily the best way, and, even when it is the best way for most, it isn’t the best way for all.

Then there is the environment to consider. All our stuff was a part of nature until we reshaped it. Few people seem to have an ethical problem with the amount of stuff that gets reshaped, or to wonder if our desire for the created doesn’t imply a rejection of the natural—as if we live against the earth rather than with it. We even take the earth’s bounty and remake it into Disney-like copies of nature—things like cuddly grizzly bears and fluffy cobras.

I think about how the U.S. population has doubled in just 38 years, and how our stuff has probably quadrupled in that amount of time, and I think to myself: “My god, how much is enough? Will we keep going until there is nothing left that we can remake into something that, in most cases, we don’t actually need?” I have known couples who bought new houses because they needed more room for their furniture. Such houses are farther out of town and require a longer commute and a later retirement. I detect both superficiality and immorality in this, but if I said as much, they might reasonably retort, “Who are you to tell us how to live?” Well, who is anyone to tell anyone how to live (or any number of people to tell any one person how to live)? The absence of an acceptable answer causes many problems.

Peggy and I can’t even settle the issue in our two-person household. I feel lost in our 1,451 square foot house with its two baths, three bedrooms, and double garage, while Peggy considers it smallish. I reflect upon how little most of the people in the world own (most of them being in the Third World and lacking the means to own much), and I am embarrassed by how lavishly we live. Peggy regrets their poverty but doesn’t consider it related to us.

For me, it’s not just the size of our house, but the amount of energy it takes to sustain our lifestyle. My countrymen wouldn’t be dying in the Middle East right now if not for our overuse of energy, and this makes every ounce of petroleum burned into an ethical decision. For example, food that is flown-in requires more petroleum than food that is trucked-in, and therefore increases the number of people who must die. I think it would be possible to come up with a life-to-gallon ratio, something like 1/60th of a life for every 500,000 barrels of oil.

I am reading a book by a man who became obsessed with reducing the number of his belongings and the size of his dwellings.

“I started hanging out with rock climbers, dirt bags, and train hopping hobos of all kinds who dwelt in ragged tents for most of the year. Then for a short, albeit uncomfortable time, I went so far as to have only a bivy bag for shelter, which consists of nothing but more than a tough nylon sack that protects your sleeping bag from the elements.

“Then one humid night as I lay sweating under the stars on Catalina Island off the coast of southern California, I asked myself, ‘When will this all stop? When I’m wandering completely naked and alone with absolutely nothing to call my own?’” from Radical Simplicity by Dan Price

Dan’s wife left him when he moved into a teepee, but Peggy and I have stuck it out by agreeing thatneither of us can have what we want. This has also prevented us from exploring enough options to know what we want. I can but wonder where I would be if left to my own devices. Am I more like a flower that was prevented from opening, or more like an animal that was saved from falling into a hole and starving to death? Thoreau said this about the matter:

“No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles.”

But then Thoreau had neither wife, dogs, nor even a parlor fern, although he did have a rock collection.

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”

He didn’t say whether the window was open.

I’ve never had such clarity. Whether for good or evil, I have never even approached it. My every bite, my every thought, and my every step are weighed down with ambivalence. If I were of a superstitious bent, I might speculate that this is why Thoreau completed his life’s journey at age forty-four while I burden onward upon failing knees at fifty-seven. I would not be the first to suggest that they are best who die soonest.

Baxter has a bad morning. Peggy does too.

Baxter awakened this morning with a limp. I thought his foot might have gone to sleep, but Peggy said she had never heard of this happening to a dog. I touched him all over without finding any swollen or painful spots. Then I did range of motion tests, still without result. Peggy sat at a distance looking pale. She said she must have rolled over on him in her sleep and dislocated his hip.

My next guess was that he might have strained a muscle. Peggy’s next guess was that he had distemper. She asked me to describe distemper. I said I didn’t know anything about it, but I thought it might resemble the flu. She said she couldn’t bear it if Baxter died. I pointed out that he was alert and hungry. She countered that he was trembling, moaning, and stiff. I reminded her that just watching a cat cross the street from a block away causes Baxter to tremble and moan. I suggested that we take him outdoors to see if he felt better after he limbered up. Peggy said he was cold, like he was dying. I said he felt fine to me. I took him outside, and he was soon normal.

Peggy has worked in ERs, ICUs, CCUs, ante-partum, and labor and delivery. For years, she was the only night shift RN in a 105-bed hospital. I have seen her be the calmest, most caring, and most competent nurse in the world at the scene of bloody accidents, and I have read the accolades of her peers. If she freaked out at work the way she does every time one of her dogs sneezes, she would be like the nurses in old movies who screamed and threw trays of food into the air every time they walked in on a dead man.

What is practical?

I have been unhappy this week. Peggy and I argued before her departure, and it left a cloud over my head. Then there is the ever-present arthritis…. I bought a book about chronic pain, but have not opened it because I am too infatuated with Isaac Singer. I wouldn’t believe that anyone could write so well if I had not read it with my own eyes.

I had never given Judaism much thought, having been taught as a child that it was the Old Testament minus the New and therefore but half a religion. If Singer’s Judaism is representative, it has a great deal more depth than that. In fact, it has a great deal more depth than Christianity as I have known Christianity through four churches and three years of college courses. I subjected myself to all this because I was looking for something other than superficial answers to deep questions. I was finally forced to conclude that Christianity is a religion without depth, a religion that admonishes one to believe as a child believes, and whatever good one can say about children, they are not creatures of discernment but credulity.

Jews, as Singer presents them, don’t put stock in unthinking faith. For them, religion doesn’t mean acceptance but struggle, and their behavior toward God (as compared to Christian behavior toward God) reminds me of the way the way the British treat their prime minister versus the way we Americans treat our president. The White House Press Corps approaches the president briefly and deferentially—as if they don’t want to lose the credentials that enabled them to get close enough to approach him.

By contrast, I have seen Tony Blair being questioned by Parliament, and was astounded both by the length of the proceedings and by the bluntness of the queries. The British don’t soft-pedal around their leaders as if to avoid awakening them, and neither do the Jews soft-pedal around God. If anything, they don’t seem to think he’s doing that great a job and, although he remains silent before their inquiries, at least they don’t mistake gullibility for piety.

Last night, I read “The Boy Knows the Truth.” It is about a rabbi who remained physically robust even as he grew on in years. He was prone to depression, and so overcome with sexual lust that he couldn’t find peace even in the midst of his prayers. He saw himself as unworthy to even be a rabbi, but his son was too unstable to replace him, so he did the best he could—which was great by the standards of all who knew him.

His wife was a frail hypochondriac who was repulsed by sex and interpreted her husband’s lust as proof of his impiety. She heaped contempt upon him for decades, and he responded with patience and humility, his enforced chastity causing him to be all the more careful to avoid being alone with other women. Finally, his wife became truly ill (unbeknownst to him) and, on her deathbed, asked that he swear to not remarry. Enraged, he ran to his room and prayed that she would die so that he might at last find someone with whom he could share love and pleasure. She died that very night and in the morning, “The sun emerged like a bloody head from a womb,” and he was too remorseful to carry on. He pronounced himself wicked in body and soul and stayed alone in his room for weeks, his lamp never going out. I quote with one italicized appendum by myself:

“If this was the aim of creation, cursed be creation,” Rabbi Gabriel declared. Actually, the Almighty never answered Job’s questions. All he did was boast about His wisdom and His might.

He fell asleep, and, in a dream, his departed wife appeared to him in beauty and splendor. Even her veil and gown seemed to glow with their own radiance, and her saw her as both perfect matter and perfect spirit.

Rabbi Gabriel began to cry, and he woke up trembling. His bed trembled with him. The sun had risen and a fiery chariot sailed in the sky from the west to the east…

Rabbi Gabriel got up, washed his hands, dressed, and went out into the courtyard on the way to the study house. “Where else can I go?” he said to himself. “To a tavern, to a house of ill repute?” He had awakened with a new vigor and with a hunger for learning. A cheder boy was walking toward him, his face white, his sidelocks disheveled. He carried a Pentateuch, and a paper bag of food. Rabbi Gabriel stopped him. “Do you want to earn two groschen?” he asked.

“Yes, Rabbi.”

“What should a Jew do who has lost the world to come?”

The boy seemed to ponder, “Be a Jew.”

“Even though he has lost the world to come?”


“And study Torah?”


“Since he is lost, why Torah?”

“It’s good.”

“It’s good, eh? As good as candy?”

The boy hesitated for a moment. “Yes.”

“Well, you earned the two groschen.” Rabbi Gabriel put his hand into his right pocket where he kept money for charity, and gave two groschen to the boy. He bent down to him, pinched his cheek, and kissed his forehead. “You are cleverer than all of them. Go and buy yourself some sweets.”

“The boy grabbed the coin and began to run, his sidelocks flying, his fringed garment blowing in the wind. Rabbi Gabriel went straight to the yeshiva. He was afraid that all the students had left, but fourteen or fifteen still remained. They had come to study at sunrise, which was the custom in Klintow. When they saw the rabbi, they arose in awe. The rabbi shouted, “The boy knows the truth!”

And he began to lecture on the section where he had left off weeks ago.

There are those who seek God as obsequiously as a poor man curries the favor of his benefactor, and there are those who seek God because nothing else is conceivable. The former cannot ask hard questions—cannot even entertain hard questions—because they dare not cause offense. Even Jesus, “the meek and lowly,” was angered by persistent questioners and downright infuriated by doubters. How can piety exist in a mind that is dulled by dogma, yet if one dares not question, of what can a religion consist but dogma?

It is a very odd thing—given how deeply and touched I have often been by it—that I almost never read fiction because fiction is impractical. Instead, I read about how to do things like wire a house or run a drain line, although sometimes I will indulge in a wilderness survival story (the knowledge I gain could prove practical) or, at most, a work about health or philosophy. Yet, there is that which comes from the human mind that is greater than practicality because practicality is, after all, a matter of matter rather than of spirit.

There is a depth that is excruciating not because it is sad, but because it is beautiful. All things must possess this depth to those who are awake. Because such people experience the entire universe as a temporary manifestation of an eternal and unified reality, they would make little distinction between the National Enquirer and the writings of Isaac Singer.

However, I would be most surprised if such people really exist because I well know how grievously limited we are by our senses, by our physical needs, by our brief lifespans, and by our brains themselves. A few moments without air, a few days without water, a few splinters under our fingernails, or even a little too much or too little of some hormone, and our every virtue vanishes. Our frailty is so extreme that I know little of good to say about us. Not that I speak with certainty. Quite the reverse.

I must submit that I have strong opinions about any number of things, yet in my saner moments I am utterly unable to determine whether I am right about even one of them. I literally suspect that there is no propaganda machine that is half so efficient and ruthless as my brain. If I could but rip it out and throw it away, I might then be able to think as one who had just awakened from a dream in which he was insane. If there is any certain truth for me—and, I believe, for any of us—it can only lie in death, although I do not expect death to consist of other than extinction.

I love Isaac Singer because Isaac Singer writes about me. This raises the question of whether I want to read about me. Perhaps, I will turn to Camus…a writer who comes close but not too close, a sideswipe rather than a direct hit.

Register, Deregister, Register, Deregister, Register

Peggy is visiting relatives in North Carolina, and I am relishing my freedom. Two nights ago, I sorrowfully reached the end of Babbitt, and am now reading the short stories of Isaac Singer. Today, I did various carpentry projects, and sharp shooting pains up and down the outside of my left leg are my punishment. Nothing I do agrees with my knee, although some things disagree a great deal more than others.

I also registered to vote today, two hours before the deadline. It was an ugly choice. I registered the first time because I was twenty-one, and it was a rite of passage. I deregistered twenty-five years later because I had given up on the system. Democrat or Republican, it made no difference to me. More than that, their platforms contain contradictions. Take the phenomenal increase and the even more phenomenal birth rates of illegal aliens, for example. The Democrats favor the creation and enlargement of social programs that attract illegals, yet the Democrats also claim to be the party of the environment. How do they harmonize unchecked population growth and environmental protection? They ignore it.

The Republicans make much of supporting law and order, yet the Republicans also support cheap labor. This prevents them from actually stopping the flow of people who are breaking the law by crossing our borders. Both parties are thus limited to token and self-canceling measures in the face of problems that require substantive action.

For reasons unremembered, I registered again a few years after I deregistered. Maybe there was some ballot measure that I was worked up about—probably a tax hike—since I never get excited about any of the candidates. Then I deregistered a second time because I got tired of being called to jury duty. I served on civil juries, criminal juries, a regular grand jury, a grand jury that heard nothing but child abuse cases for six months, state juries, city juries, and juries in three states. Every two years another jury summons would arrive, and every time I served, I went away feeling that my time had been wasted by a system that has little to do with justice and a lot to do with pandering to scum and enriching lawyers. I knew that if I deregistered, the courts could still find me on the DMV role, but I would have reduced my exposure.

Anyway, after tossing the matter around in my head, I biked over to the voter registration office today and filled out their form. The woman clerk looked at me nervously. After I got home and chanced to pass a mirror, I noticed that I was wearing old and dirty clothes, and remembered that I hadn’t bathed, shaved, or combed my hair for three days. I suspected that my appearance had frightened her, although, in all honesty, I looked no worse than most of the people on downtown sidewalks. Maybe it was my mirrored sunglasses—or maybe it was just her. I wasn’t asked for I.D. I could have snuck in from Mexico yesterday for all anyone cared.

Why did I register? Mostly to vote against a county income tax. Since voters have voted against tax hikes for years, somebody down at the court house got the bright idea that maybe what we need is a whole new kind of tax. Right. I will also vote on some of the voter-sponsored initiatives, although those in power are usually able to ignore the will of the people. For example, a proposal for the West Eugene Parkway passed three times, yet environmentalists on the city council stalled the project until federal money was no longer available.

Then there are the ballot initiatives that are backed by the government. Voters passed a seatbelt law that contained absolutely no penalty. I didn’t quite believe the government’s promise that it only wanted to encourage seatbelt use, rather than coerce it. Sure enough, billboards all over the state soon proclaimed, “Click-it or Ticket.” Trust government? Ever? About anything? Well, if they threaten me, they are more likely to be telling the truth than if they say something I want to hear. For example, I believe them when they say they will confiscate my property at gunpoint if I don’t pay their taxes; but I don’t for a moment believe that they’re going to operate efficiently, reduce corruption, or make the streets safer.

I feel dirty just by registering because my name on the voters’ list implies that I have faith in the good will of government. Sure, government does a lot of good but, at a profound level, government is based upon coercion and, at a practical level, upon greed, lying, and manipulation. Its ratio of evil to good is considerable and ever causes me to question the extent to which I wish to ally myself with it.

Besides, I am embarrassed by my government. I don’t know much about other governments, and I wouldn’t be surprised but what some of them are even worse. The difference is that, for the most part nowadays, they keep their evil at home, whereas we somehow have the idea that it is our place to force ourselves upon the affairs of the world. How much grief could we avoid, and how much money could we save if we would only leave the rest of the planet alone!

What to do about Bob

Mary Pat and Bob drove over from the coast today, she to attend a club meeting with Peggy, and him to spend time with me. I took him to the natural history museum and to a bookstore. After four hours, we returned home to reunite with Peggy and Mary Pat, but they weren’t back yet, so Bob and I visited. I’m not much on sitting and talking, but he didn’t want to do anything, and the conversation did pass enjoyably enough except for two problems. One was that I hadn’t slept well the night before, and had drunk six cups of triple strength coffee in order to maintain my scintillating social presence. The other was that Bob weighs over 400 pounds, and I was afraid he would break the furniture. He always sits in my most expensive chair, only he’s too wide to fit so he perches on the edge while I wring my hands—metaphorically speaking. Then, when he goes to the bathroom, I worry that he will break the toilet, so I examine both toilet and chair as soon as he leaves.

I feel bad about being so fearful and petty, but feeling bad about how I feel does not change how I feel. Along with my mundane concerns, I also worry about Bob’s health. “How much longer can he last?” I ask myself. “Poor guy can hardly walk…” I know of nothing other than his weight that I might criticize Bob for, yet that alone keeps me from being as close to him as I would like. I see no point in talking to him about it because what could I say? “Bob, you need to lose weight”? “Bob, would you mind sitting on a packing crate when you visit, and going to a service station to take a dump?”

Yeah, it’s pretty bad to wish that someone I care about would go home because I’m worried about a chair and a toilet. “Stop being so fussy, fussy, fussy,” I tell myself. “He doesn’t break his own toilet, so he must know how to go easy on them.” But then I respond, “Well, I guess he doesn’t break his own toilet; for all I know he might break it all the time …It’s not like he is going to say, ‘Damn, Lowell, broke my frigging toilet again—fourth time this month.’”

Like a lot of men, Bob’s not the most intuitive guy in the world. I also think he’s reasonably thick-skinned, but Mary Pat knows that something’s not right with me when they’re here. God knows, I try to hide it, but she’s sharp enough to notice, and I’m sharp enough to know that she notices. This means that I feel the need to do something reassuring to make her doubt her perception. For example, Bob told me today that he likes Stellar Jays, so I found some Stellar Jay pictures on the net after he left and mailed them to him. I might have done this anyway because I like Bob, and I also liked the idea of commemorating what was mostly a good day…I probably even like Bob more because I feel so guilty about my fears that I have to like him in order to feel better about myself.

The day after I last saw her (two months ago), Mary Pat came down with viral meningitis and almost died. Everyone worries about Bob dying because he’s so fat, and then what happens but Mary Pat drops flatter than a pancake and lingers at the doorway of death for days. You just never can know, and that’s the only thing you can know.


I bought a bike light today. Of my seven wrecks in the past fifteen years, two were caused by hitting obstacles in the dark. Of the others, excessive speed caused one; inadequate speed caused two; and dogs caused two.

Ninety percent of bike fatalities are male, and a wreck every two years is more than I can walk away from indefinitely, especially now that I get hurt more easily and don’t heal worth a damn. My problem is that I like to go fast. If I can cross an intersection a hair’s breadth ahead of a speeding car, I’ll do it. If I can take a minute off my cross-town time by tearing through unlit parking lots and alleys, I’ll go for it. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly compelled to speed, but I would feel like a namby-pamby if I slowed down.

Eugene is a great city for maniac bikers because cops mostly ignore you unless you actually collide with them. I hear of people getting $250 tickets for running stop signs, and I know someone who got a ticket for failing to yield the right of way to the car that hit her; yet I rarely see a bike stop for a red-light if nothing is coming; and I regularly see them tearing down pedestrian filled sidewalks, speeding the wrong way on one way streets, passing cars between lanes of traffic; and behaving in other ways that are as reckless as they are obnoxious.

Eugene is also one of the country’s most bike friendly cities in that is has numerous bike lanes, bike racks, bike cages, bike thoroughfares, and bike awareness. When I moved here, I was freaked out by all the bikes because they were smaller than anything I was used to looking for. They seldom had lights; came out of nowhere; never gave signals; and behaved erratically. Now, I am very careful to watch for bicyclists because I know that a large percentage of them are idiots. Consequently, a large percentage of motorists regard them with contempt.

It doesn’t help our image when large numbers of bikers get together and ride abreast down busy streets, purposely creating traffic jams. (Their goal is discourage the use of cars.) Last year, they delayed an ambulance, and this led to public outrage and the issuance of massive numbers of tickets at subsequent events. This in turn led to biker accusations of police unfairness, partiality, and even brutality; so the cops have again backed off.

Eugene is also one of the world’s capitols for bike theft. My last bike light was stolen without its mounting bracket. I had left it on my bike with the assumption that no one was likely to steal an easily detachable light from a practically non-detachable bracket. Since then, I’ve learned that it happens all the time. On another occasion, I had my front wheel stolen, and it’s not unusual to see securely locked bike frames from which every removable part has been taken.

If a business allows patrons to take their bikes indoors, I take my bike indoors; and if I were to buy a new bike, I would deface it to discourage thieves. As it is, I take comfort in the fact that my ten-year-old UniVega is not high on the crooks’ shopping list. It would still be stolen if I didn’t take pains to protect it, but at least I don’t have to take extreme measures. People with new and expensive bikes often use them for recreation only, and keep an old clunker for commuting around town.

Peggy got rid of her bike a decade ago after a wet grate caused it to slide out from under her. She wasn’t hurt much, but she was so shaken that she was still sobbing when she got home twenty minutes later. She felt even worse because, of the many witnesses to the accident, no one offered to help. She only bought a new bike this year because we can no longer hike together.

Peggy is not as good at judging the speed and distance of oncoming cars as I, and I’ve worried for years about her walking to work much less biking (the hospital is twenty blocks and several busy intersections distant). I’ve been pleased to observe that she shows good sense without excessive caution. My theory is that the years she has walked have greatly improved her ability to judge speed and distance.

Compassion is a crust of bread

Peggy, our neighbor Ellie, and I went to the Cascades yesterday where they hiked a loop trail over two little mountains (Aubrey and Heckletooth) while I finished reading Main Street. They returned exhausted, although Peggy had previously considered the hike easy, and Ellie is a martial artist who is eight years younger than Peggy. Peggy is simply in the worst shape she has ever been; as for Ellie, fitness in one sport seldom translates into fitness in another.

I hate sitting on the sidelines while Peggy does things that we used to do together. No matter that I always wanted to read more and hike less; I wanted to do it by choice. And I find it almost as hard to watch Peggy’s decline as to watch my own. I’ve seen her train vigorously for months for a single climb up a Hood or a Shasta, this despite her inability to adjust to altitude. Many times, she vomited her way to the tops of mountains that defeated people of greater ability. Now, I see her exhausted by an eight-mile hike below 4,000 feet, and I am astounded that age has come upon her so quickly.

Aging appeared so desirable when I was young. Thirteen, eighteen, and twenty-one, were occasions for pride. But then came thirty and the end of young adulthood. Forty was halfway to death. Fifty was halfway to antiquity. At 57, I can scarcely believe the things I could do five years ago that are now impossible. No diet, supplement, exercise, or attitude can erase the accumulated months and years. Yet, they passed so quickly. Age is like a runaway boxcar that is scarcely noticed when it leaves the yard, but how dizzying its speed and how sure its destruction when it drops into the darkness of the valley below.

I would be at yoga now, but I strained both shoulders two weeks ago, and they have deteriorated to the point that my hands and forearms tingle continuously. I tried to find ways to do yoga anyway, but I finally had to give it up. I thought to do a few simple stretching exercises at home, but even those made my shoulders worst. Now, sharp pains in my knee are keeping me awake at night.

My deterioration inspires me to look back at my life and wonder what it was all about; and to look ahead at my life, and wonder what it is all about. Self-pity is not admirable; yet it seems to me that the pretty pictures we paint in order to get through our lives are less than rational. Some believe in heaven, or at least in some Higher Power that put us on earth for a reason. Others believe that, just as the flap of a butterfly’s wing is said to have the power to create a typhoon, everything we do has the potential for inestimable importance. Finally, for those who lack such comforting beliefs—who can find no reason to think that life has any meaning other than the meaning we give it—there is the possibility of focusing upon more humble goals. We accumulate things, or live for our families, or donate to charity, but we know that our choices are made on the basis of an existence that is as paltry in wisdom as it is in length.

I have spent years working on a house that will someday be torn down, yet I work for what it means to me now. I exercise a body that will soon rot, yet I exercise it for the good I can get from it now. This is how I live, and sometimes it seems reasonably satisfying, and sometimes it seems empty. Sometimes, I must struggle to find a reason to get out of bed. I think that, well, when I deteriorate beyond the point that I am willing to tolerate, there is always suicide (I dwell on this daily). Then I remember Peggy, and I know I couldn’t voluntarily leave her. I also think of my dogs and, in their absence, of the dogs at the pound, and I think that, well, even if my life becomes of no value to myself, it could still be of value to them. So what if my time is short and my efforts paltry; surely a brief and paltry effort is better than no effort at all. I believe suicide can be a noble way to die, but not until the drain of my life on others exceeds the good that I can create.

Do I know that I am right about this? How could I in my brief life and with my limited knowledge? Yet, I can distinguish between consolation and despair, and if I can bring more of the former than of the latter, I will have my reward. The problem is that it is awfully hard sometimes to care about consolation. If I console an unwanted dog that is about to be euthanized (I have consoled—and destroyed—many such dogs), I will have done something, yet the dog will be no less dead, and will have no more memory of whether it lived in a castle or died in a pound. By such thoughts, good is enfeebled; and the only thing I can say in its defense is that, poor though it be, it is all I have. If a starving man is thrown a small crust of bread, will he not eat it? Even if it serves only to prolong his misery, he would be a rare man who could refuse it; and I would be less than admirable if I could withhold it.

Peggy joins S.C.U.M.

Today, I went for part (which was all I could survive) of an all day workshop at the Sikh kundalini yoga center. I knew almost nothing about kundalini, so I looked it beforehand in Wikipedia. I quote:

“Summary of Known Problems [resulting from kundalini]: Death, pseudo death, psychosis, pseudo psychosis, confusion, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, sadness, suicidal thoughts, urges to self-mutilate, homicidal urges, arrhythmia, exacerbation of prior or current mental illness, insomnia, inability to hold a job, inability to talk, inability to drive, sexual pains, temporary blindness, and headaches.”

I naturally wondered if I would survive the afternoon, but, “what the heck,” I said to myself, “it's free. Besides, what are the odds that I’ll have all these problems at once?”

I was the only male in a roomful of middle-aged women (the other men having presumably died or gone insane), all of whom sat comfortably on the floor with their legs in a lotus position while I propped myself torturously against the wall. We practiced exercises that seemed so fiendishly designed to destroy knees that, had I been paranoid, I would have thought the teachers knew I was coming and were out to get me. We—rather the rest of the class—sat with their knees bent so their feet were beneath their butts; they squatted with their heels touching one another; and then they returned to a lotus position. I had to stifle my laughter as I considered the absurdity of my utter ineptness at doing any of the things that everyone else could do so easily.

Not that the teachers were content with knee twisting exercises. We also stared at our noses, tightened our anal sphincters, drew energy through our navels, chanted the same four syllables interminably, touched our fingers to our thumbs in time with our chanting, and panted—all at the same time. I could soon see that kundalini yoga would indeed drive me stark raving mad, and that it wouldn’t take long either.

After three sessions, each of which was wilder than its predecessor, I left. I couldn’t believe that people actually do this stuff, yet my curiosity would have kept me there for the final hour if only I could have sat in a chair.

As I biked home, I reflected upon my inability to do a single exercise correctly as well as the absence of other men in the class, and I recalled the S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting-Up Men) Manifesto which was written in 1967 by Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who shot Andy Warhol. The following will give but a mild taste of her sentiments:

“The male is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes. In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion…. the male is unfit even for stud service…[he] is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.”

Since the part about snot and vomit was true enough, I asked Peggy--my resident nurse--whether the male Y gene really is simply an X gene with some parts missing. She said, “Picture a Y. What you’ve got is an X with only one leg right? This being undeniable, it necessarily follows that every Y that ever existed was a totally screwed-up, irredeemable mess. This is why the women in your yoga class could stand on one foot with their other limbs extended while you crashed to the floor. They were mighty towers of beauty and light; you were a three-legged dog in a hurricane.”

“Uh,” I interrupted. “I knew there were X genes and Y genes, but it never occurred to me that the genes really looked like Xs and Ys or that they had to spend their lives on their feet, as it were.”

“Well, sad to say, but now you know,” Peggy concluded. “This is knowledge that female nurses have always had, but that male doctors—even geneticists—have been protected from. Mine is, after all, a compassionate gender. That’s why we don’t start wars or beat people up like you stupid men.”

So it is that I will leave kundalini yoga to the gender that is better suited for it, and welcome to it they are. I had rather be strapped to a chair and forced to watch sitcoms from the 70s.