Any work is better than no work at all

I’m trying to tie up loose ends before my operation next week. Yesterday, I spent four hours installing a recessed light in the laundry room and still didn’t finish because:

1) Most of the work must be done from the attic, and there is so little clearance that I can barely squeeze into the space.

2) The part of the ceiling I needed to reach from the attic was beneath a sheet of plywood which was screwed to the joists, and over which eighteen electric cables were stapled.

3) Both of the cables that serviced the old light were too short to reach the wiring box on the new light, so I replaced one back to the main breaker box, and re-routed the other.

4) The new light will not completely fill the hole left by the old light, so I will have to patch it with sheetrock compound.

5) When I got everything else done, I discovered that the canister for the new light was too tall to fit beneath the plywood, so I had to return to the store and replace it with a shorter one that costs three times as much.

I reflected as I worked that even frustrating work is better than no work. I can look back at such a day, learn from it, congratulate myself on what I did right, and be thankful that I have the knowledge and the physical ability to do the job. I can also respect the fact that I never make an ass of myself by cursing God and throwing things the way my father did. I would rate me as an overall good workman. It’s not things that I screw-up and lose patience with, it’s people.

Hard time

I worked flooring the attic today. My left elbow never healed from a fall in 2003, and has increasingly come to limit how much I can crawl. I asked the orthopedist who is to operate on my knee if he could fix the elbow too. He said he could remove the injured bursa, but didn’t seem to want to, and gave me a foam support pad. I had already been using a pad that I made from a knee brace and a sponge, and his pad proved just as inadequate.

I have some carpentry, painting, roofing, and landscaping projects to do, but am holding off until better weather. For now, I’m catching up on paperwork, and the lack of exercise is getting me down. I take walks with the dogs when the rain lets up, but the best I can say for walking around town is that it’s better than not walking at all.

More flooding is predicted, and I am wondering what I will look like when I finally explode from the tedium of being mostly housebound. I’ve read of prisoners being isolated in a small cell for 23 hours a day only to be allowed to pace back and forth across a small enclosed yard the other hour, and I’ve wondered how they can face the rest of their lives with no hope for better days. At least, I know that summer will come, and that I can move to a drier climate else when I can’t bear the rains any longer.

There were several arrests here last week of so-called eco-terrorists (eco-vandals is more like it). All are in their early twenties—some of them women—and all are facing 42-plus years in prison. I think about what it must be like for someone who loves the outdoors to be looking at being locked up in a cage for twice as long as they have lived. Judges often sentence idealists to far longer prison terms than they do murderers and rapists, it being a graver matter to threaten the government or a corporation than to assault ordinary citizens.

The use of money

I just finished the first editing of my journal for 2003. The text came to 151 pages and the editing to thirty hours. I used to do three or more editings per journal year, but I can no longer endure so much work for so little benefit. I will go over 2003 once more, and call it good.

I have also been, at Peggy’s request, totaling our assets. She didn’t say why she wanted this done, but it seemed like a good idea. If I wasn’t agreeably surprised by the amount, I wasn’t disagreeably surprised either. After all, I have earned no appreciable income for three decades; Peggy only works 28 hours a week; our investment savvy is mediocre; and we haven’t received any large inheritances.

We have probably benefited as much from what we haven’t spent as from what we have saved. We drive a thirteen-year-old van that we bought used; we have never paid interest on a credit card; and our discretionary spending is modest. Peggy spends a good bit on her buttons, but we have come to peace with this by me putting an equal amount into my savings. She also eats out three times a month, but rarely spends more than $12.

Yet, we have never denied ourselves anything that we really wanted, and we buy quality merchandise. Sacred Heart supplies Peggy’s work clothes, and our closets are stocked with jeans and t-shirts that we bought on clearance. Our few dressy items came from Goodwill, and our most expensive clothes are the ones we wear in the woods.

We live in a modest—but attractive and well-maintained—house, but only paid labor costs on the furnace, fireplace insert, and windows; the rest of the work being done by me—and sometimes us.

The dogs run-up several hundred dollars a year in food and vet bills, but they also save us money by making it impossible for us to fly places together (we won’t leave them, and we don’t trust the airlines to transport them).
Medical care is another significant expense. I seem to need outpatient surgery for one thing or another every three years or so, and Peggy gets allergy shots.

We never travel far in our van, and we camp for free. We don’t even drive around town unless we really need to. Instead, I bike; Peggy walks; and we combine errands when we do use the van.

Peggy flies to Mississippi once a year, but stays with family, and travels on a free ticket that we get by charging almost everything to an airlines credit card. I do most of our shopping at discount stores and on the Internet, and micromanage every penny. I am an inveterate comparison shopper, and have never been one to say that something only costs five dollars.

If Peggy and I were very different in our financial philosophies, our marriage would probably have foundered (the importance of sexual compatibility being miniscule compared to financial compatibility). She does not squeeze a penny quite so tightly, or wail so loudly when it is gone; but she is loathe to owe money, and, aside from her buttons and allergy shots, has no significant personal expenditures.

Unless the item purchased is a no-brainer like a refrigerator or a hot water heater, we seldom buy any new electrical device without thinking long and hard about it. For example, I have been wanting a DVD recorder, but am debating whether to buy one now, or to wait until they come down in price. If I were to mention my desire to Peggy, she would encourage me to buy it now by saying the one thing that drives me damn near crazy: “It won’t break us. We have ____ dollars in the bank.” I can but respond, “We didn’t get ____ dollars in the bank by spending money like there was no tomorrow.”

It is a tiresome skit that has been performed more than CATS. Peggy feels badly that I don’t treat myself more, although I don’t see treating myself as the issue, but rather how to treat myself prudently. Otherwise, I feel weak, impulsive, and stupid. Spending money frivolously is so at odds with my value system that I wouldn’t do it if I were a billionaire. I would give the money to charity first, although x-rays have shown an absence of philanthropic bones.

I don’t hold my friends to my standards, although I have often been surprised to observe that the ones with the least money typically spend more on luxuries than I feel that I can afford. I silently wonder if they contemplate how many hours of their life they are exchanging for things that surely don’t bring great or lasting pleasure. Perhaps, it is not the item itself that is the motivating factor, but the feeling of deprivation they would experience if they did not buy it. As Peggy sometimes says when she is tempted: “I am worth it.”

This is not a sentiment that I relate to, because I see every purchase as a case of either/or. Either I spend money on _____, or I put it in the bank, or I spend it on _____. The decision has nothing to do with self-worth, but with the allocation of resources. I am also very aware of the cumulative effect of small expenditures. Three dollars spent on coffee each workday comes to $15 a week or $750 a year (allowing for a two week vacation). Such small but frequent purchases can add years to one’s work life. Likewise, small but frequent investments can add years to one’s retirement.

I do sometimes buy gifts for Peggy. Just today, I spent $26 for a set of eight ski movies. Such durable item purchases come as no great surprise to her, but if I were to suggest that we go on a luxury cruise, she would think I was having a breakdown.

Despite my frugality, I have never set a budget, recorded our expenditures, or tallied our assets. I couldn’t even offer a reasonable guess about how much we spend on groceries, electricity, or anything else. I consider budgets as only important to people who are hard-pressed or else trying to bring their spending under control.

Beyond the necessities and a few well-chosen luxuries, the greatest importance of money to me is that it affords a certain amount of freedom and security. There are millions of people in this country who can’t see their way to ever retire; people who lose teeth because they can’t afford crowns; people who have to work hard and long, not to get ahead, but to break even. If I were them, I would feel caged, and would take desperate measures.

The average American owes ten thousand dollars in credit card debt and is three paychecks away from being homeless. Yet, rare is the person in America who does not own luxuries that only the wealthiest possess in most countries. Everyday, we are hit with hundreds of enticements to spend money, but never a one to save it.

Flooding, tension over Peggy's cold

The local sewage plant flooded this week, making it necessary to dump raw sewage into the Willamette. All of the major rivers—and most of the minor ones—have topped their banks. The Amazon is higher than I have ever seen it, and the TV news described it as at capacity. Despite an optimistic forecast for the next several days, heavy rain awakened me this morning.

When the weather improves, I will bury additional drain lines in the backyard to keep water from flowing under the house. So far, all I’ve had a chance to do was to drill holes in the bottom of a bucket, bury the bucket so that its top was even with the ground, and run a hundred foot hose from the bucket to the curb. When the rains come, the bucket fills, and I suck on the curb end of the hose to start the water siphoning. The hose sometimes runs for days with a flow rate of fifteen gallons an hour. I also bought a sump pump, but never hooked it up because I had doubts that it could handle the muddy water—a drill powered pump broke in seconds. I’m told that I need an effluent pump, but they are so powerful that I suspect they would burn out from cycling on and off. Mostly, I am hoping that the flooding will end, so I can delay taking serious measures until better weather.

Peggy went skiing yesterday. Her throat felt scratchy when she left, and she returned with a raging cold. As I sit writing, I can hear her coughing and sneezing two rooms away. I feel sorry for her, and worry that I will catch what she has. When she’s sick, she wants cuddling, but I don’t even want to be in the same room. This hurt her feelings, and causes me to feel guilty. I prefer guilt to a cold, but don’t really know if my efforts to avoid one make a difference.

When I have a cold, I want to be left alone, both by preference and to spare Peggy from catching it. This too creates awkwardness since she wants to comfort me, and feels rejected when I cringe.

Raynauds, knee surgery, foul weather

I purchased a pair of $80 mitts today. It was a painful sum to spend, but Raynaud’s Disease has so affected my hands that the least chill puts my fingers at risk of turning a waxy, corpse-like yellow and losing sensation. There is no remedy so far as I have discovered, and, once they are chilled, no way to restore them without an outside heat source. At home, I hold them under warm water; in the woods, I use chemical hand warmers.

I am scheduled for arthroscopic surgery on February 6, to repair torn menisci in my left knee. The back of the knee looks—and feels—as if it has a golf ball protruding through the skin, and I experience shooting pains that threaten my ability to walk. I can still hike ten miles on fairly steep terrain, but, beyond that, I fear the joint will collapse.

I am finding it time consuming to get the weather report (on my weather radio) lately, as I have to first listen to a long list of the latest advisories. On the same day, they might include flood warnings, high surf warnings, winter storm warnings, debris flow warnings, and high wind warnings. The news is filled with scenes of rockslide-covered roads, and houses teetering on collapsing hillsides.


Oh, but the tedium of winter. Another month, and spring will come; another three months, and the worst of the rains will be over. Already the days are lengthening perceptibly, and daffodils are pushing their heads through the mud. But, for now, my most exciting news is that I have been fortunate in my choice of reading material. I have read A Test of Will by Warren MacDonald, Storms of Silence by Joe Simpson, The Hill by Ed Hommer, and two books about Sir Ernest Shackleton. These are all accounts of dangerous adventures to exotic places. Two of the authors Ed Hommer and Warren MacDonald lost their legs, but both went on to perform other dangerous feats, and one of them, Ed Hommer, was killed on Mt. Rainer in 2002, a year after his book was published. Few people who persist in such things see their fiftieth birthday.

God knows have no wish to undertake my adventures. How frivolous to risk one’s life climbing a mountain or exploring the Antarctic. After years of study, I have concluded that such people are simply not suited for much else. I have only met two such adventurers—or rather heard them speak. One was hundred pound Araceli Segarra a Spanish woman who climbed Everest in 1996, a year when so many were killed that the living had to thread their way among the dead. She showed clips of herself performing feats that would give most people nightmares. The other was Will Steger, an Arctic explorer who had the wildest eyes that I have ever seen in a—presumably—sane human being. His gaze only fell on me briefly, but I will carry the memory forever.

The following is Shackleton’s help wanted ad for one of his four Antarctic expeditions. Five thousand men and three women applied. What demons must eat at a person’s soul that he would seek escape at such a cost?

“Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small Wages, Bitter Cold, Long Months of Complete Darkness, Constant Danger, Safe Return Doubtful…”