George and Bessie

I helped with IOOF degree work at Junction City last week where I again saw Ed, the black man of whom I am fond. As fifteen of us dressed for the ceremony, Ed looked out from his long robe with its pointed hood and mask and said in his best redneck voice, “Let’s burn ‘em all out!” I was the only one to laugh, the others being too shocked.

There is a very old and feisty woman at the Junction City lodge named Bessie (the only female member) and a slightly younger and soft-spoken man named George. George nursed his invalid wife for years and, after her passing, found himself with little to do. Seeing that Bessie was so palsied she could take no better care of herself than a baby, he began caring for her as tenderly and intimately as he had for his wife. As I watched him gently grasp her wrist and guide her hand toward her mouth so she could eat a doughnut, I wondered if male tenderness exceeds that of women, or if it is simply the more remarkable for being the less expected.

Symbol Rock

Peggy and I hiked up 4,081-foot HeHe Mountain (an Indian word for “home of good spirits”) this weekend and might have scrambled up Symbol Rock (used by the Indians for ceremonial vigils) as well if my knee were better. Peggy did climb a short distance, but pronounced the stones too loose and the moss too slippery. From the safety of the bottom, I felt sure I could find a better route, but resisted the temptation. This was harder than it sounds because, even before I got home and looked up the Indian history, I had all but convinced myself that Symbol Rock had the power to heal my knee. It soars hundreds of feet in curved, six-sided columns, and could scarcely be more impressive if it was the throne of God.

After driving several snowless miles at the 3,500-foot elevation on our way to HeHe, we thought we might be able to return home by a different road, but were stopped at 3,000 feet by snow that was deeper than our bumper and stretched as far as we could see. We have often observed snow depth anomalies that defy explanation in terms of slope, drift, exposure, or available sunlight, suggesting that some areas simply get heavier snow than do other areas in the same vicinity.

At 1,500 feet, numerous plants that had been leafless where we had just been were laden with flowers and/or greenery, while other plants that had not existed at all were likewise leafed and flowered. Dogwoods bloomed overhead while coltsfoot, violets, trillium, monkey flowers, manzanita, skunk cabbage, and wood sorrel colored the ground below.

The woods are so wondrous as to seem like a dream. As always, we picked up other people’s beer cans and shotgun shells, but even these looked as if they had been touched by magic just from over-wintering in the forest. Nature might exist everywhere, but is harder to appreciate where it has been paved over.

Masonry 101

People are generally confused about the levels and organizations within Masonry. My father, for example, thought that an uncle who was a 32nd degree Mason had reached the pinnacle of the order. He had reached the pinnacle of the Scottish Rite (except for the 33nd degree which is rewarded for meritorious service), but not all Masons go into the Scottish rite.

I went through the York rite, which itself contains three lodges (the Royal Arch, the Cryptic, and the Commandery); but many Masons never go beyond the basic unit of Masonry—the Blue Lodge. The Blue Lodge only has three degrees, but, unlike the York Rite and the Scottish Rite in which the candidate simply has to take certain oaths, the Blue Lodge degrees must be earned through extensive memorization. Since the material to be memorized is unwritten except for the first letter of every word, candidates work with tutors. I gave back the proficiencies of my three degrees in the short space of two months. In the wording of Masonry, I was “initiated an Entered Apprentice, passed to a Fellowcraft, and raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason.

Most people know that Shriners are Masons, but are unaware of the relationship. The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine is not a lodge but a recreational and philanthropic organization that exists in some Masonic jurisdictions (grand lodges) and is banned in others.

The various grand lodges hold the highest authority within Masonry. Some countries have one; others have many. The U.S. averages one per state. If a grand lodge should stray too far from the accepted tenets of Masonry, it will be shunned, and other grand lodges will start a new grand lodge within its jurisdiction. No member of a shunned lodge is accepted as a Mason except within his own grand lodge.

In this country, the Prince Hall Lodge was a Negro grand lodge that was unrecognized by most if not all of the traditionally white lodges. Shortly after I became a Mason, the Idaho Grand Lodge recognized Prince Hall. Oregon did not, and this created hard feelings between them.

Another matter about which there is much confusion is the letter G that appears in the middle of the primary Masonic symbol, a compass laid atop a square. Most assume that the G stands for God, but it also stands for geometry, which makes more sense when the setting is considered. Masonry uses architectural tools as metaphors for building a good life.

Finally, there is the question of why Masonry is officially known as Freemasonry. The reason is that the medieval guilds from which Masonry sprang were originally for working masons only. When they began taking in members who were not working masons, they referred to them as freemasons.

I was honored tonight to have my name mentioned as a possible candidate for junior warden next year. This would put me on track for being "worshipful master" in two years. Twice, I was "noble grand" of my Odd Fellows Lodge, but since few Odd Fellows memorize their offices (I was one who did), the demands are lower. I returned to Masonry because I wanted to have much expected of me. I doubt that I could ever love it as much as the IOOF, yet it offers a striving for perfection that they have abandoned.

As membership drops, many lodges lower their standards. This seldom gains them a significant influx of fresh blood, while it does degrade much of what they stand for. For example, when I was on the IOOF officers’ installation team recently, I visited lodges in which the members looked like bums and acted as if they had never seen the inside of a lodge hall. It was this experience that led me back to Masonry.

The uncertainty of mathematics

I was the doorman for a funeral at lodge this week. When various people began showing up with flowers, I assumed they were for the funeral. I let them in, and they headed off downstairs. This puzzled me because the funeral was upstairs. I soon learned that the Eugene Orchid Society was meeting in the basement. I (jokingly) began asking people if the bereaved might not borrow their flowers for a while.

I only slept two hours last night because of sharp pains in my leg. I spent the rest of the night reading from two of my books about mathematicians, and am wondering if their authors presented the most extreme cases or if great mathematicians really do tend to be superstitious and prone to mental collapse and suicide. They also appear to have an inordinate fear of aging due to the fact that mathematicians hit their peak early. As in the case of the orchid fanciers at the funeral, I am seeing the opposite of what I expected, having assumed that people whose lives were characterized by clarity in one area would be more likely to possess clarity in other areas.

Another troubling outcome of my reading is that mathematics is not the bastion of certainty that I thought it to be. If I were asked to name a great mathematician, the first name that would come to mind would be Bertrand Russell, the co-author of Principia Mathematica, a three-volume work that, for decades, was believed to have put mathematical thought on a firm foundation. Yet, he later wrote:

“I wanted certainty in the kind of way in which people want religious faith….. But I was continually reminded of the fable about the elephant and the tortoise. Having constructed an elephant on which the material could rest, I found the elephant tottering, and proceeded to construct a tortoise to keep the elephant from falling. But the tortoise was no more secure than the elephant, and after some twenty years of very arduous toil, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing more that I could do in the way of making mathematical knowledge indubitable.”

My limited exposure to math didn’t prepare me for this. I didn’t even know about irrational numbers. I was told that pi was an approximation that could not be carried out to the last decimal point, although I never asked why, and had no idea how many such numbers there are. For example, if a square measures one foot on each side, the length of a line drawn diagonally across that square will equal the square root of two. Only there is no square root of two, at least not one that can be brought to a final decimal point. When a student of Pythagoras discovered this, Pythagoras had the man killed. He apparently needed truth to be more than it was.


I went to the library for more books on mathematics today, and was annoyed to find someone standing in front of my section. He was thirtyish, olive skinned, well dressed, and had a heavy accent. His name was Alberto, and he said he was from El Salvador. He spoke with a child’s enthusiasm about his love for learning, and we discussed the various books he was perusing. After awhile, I shook his hand and went to run another errand.

As I rode, I couldn’t get Alberto out of my mind, and the thought came to me that maybe he was a gift—or at least a lesson—from the universe. I was tempted to go back, but since I don’t believe in a purposeful universe, I refrained, albeit it with the thought that I would always regret my decision.

After my final errand I did return to the library. It was my way of making a token effort to cooperate with a universe that I don’t believe requires cooperation. I found Alberto in the language section. He said he was interested in Greek because he had seen Greek writing on campus, and didn’t know what it meant. I said that the writing had probably been on the front of fraternities and sororities. He had not heard of such things and asked many questions.

Later, he told me of the prejudice he experiences in Eugene because of his accent, and I told him that I have experienced the same. We talked until the library closed. Alberto had just finished a cup of coffee, and I asked if I could buy him another. He said he was supposed to go meet someone, but would call to see if the person could meet us instead. The line was busy, so he offered that we might have coffee another time.

I have known people who believe that every event carries a lesson. Such people often see individual objects, events, and creatures as facets of one inseparable entity, and they say that the lessons we encounter come from the wisdom of that entity and are meant to awaken us to our true nature. For those who persist in this belief, it is a source of comfort, but I have not known anyone who was so convinced that he approached life impartially.

I picked up a library book at random today. A certain page was marked, and I opened to it and read:

“On a cold indescribable day,
When it does not want to become dark and not bright,
The eyes neither want to open nor shut
And familiar sights don’t remind you of your old familiarity with the world…”

This describes life in the Willamette Valley since last fall, and the thought hit me that maybe the universe didn’t bring me to the library to meet Alberto, but to read this poem. But if the universe is, in reality, an indistinguishable whole, and all lessons exist within that universe, then are not all lessons likewise indistinguishable in terms of priority? I continued:

“Where does the last contradiction survive?
Where is the sight to revive you?
But all questions have become rhetorical,
routine memories of real questions…

from Nonsense and Happiness
by Peter Handke

One problem with seeing the universe as a series of benevolently taught lessons is that I can never know for sure what the lesson is. I can tell myself that, like an onion, the lessons contain layers within layers, but I find no comfort in guesswork. What I do find is reproof for my need that there be more to life than there seems to be. Could this be the lesson?

Those who believe in the oneness of the universe and in the illusion of separateness, say that how we interpret things makes no ultimate difference because we all came from a unified whole and we will all return to it. This is true, I believe, yet if that whole lacks awareness—and I see no reason to think otherwise—what is the difference?

I have no choice but to murder my surgeon

I returned to the surgeon today for a checkup. When he advised another surgery, I did what any reasonable person would have done: I stabbed him in the neck with a forty-gauge needle. I didn’t know it would kill him, but I got lucky with my fourth blow. His tears, gurgles, and bloody froth haunted me all the way out of the building.

Now for the truth. After being advised that I needed to have the bursa on the back of my knee removed and being told that this surgery would be a bigger deal than my last surgery; I asked if he would cooperate in getting my records to another orthopedist for a second opinion, and he said he would. I signed a consent form, asked for a copy, and said I would pick up the chart when it was ready.

When I left his office, I biked to the library where I checked out books on algebra and geometry. I was especially intrigued by Euclid in the Rainforest—Discovering Universal Truths in Logic and Math; because I would like to think there is at least something that is solid, something that is true at all times and in all places. Then, I went to the empty IOOF hall and pigged out on leftover cake. I skipped the insides and went straight for the icing, scooping it up with barbequed potato chips.

I looked in at the lodge room briefly, a beautiful and aromatic room that I love so much that I would have joined the lodge for it alone. Another room that I love is the concrete block bathroom in the basement. It has speckled walls along with windings and turns that make me feel far from all that is bad in the world. I sometimes imagine taking a chair there and using it for a reading room.

Feeling some better, I went home and worked in the yard while Josh hit Bonnie’s tennis ball to her with a golf club. He’s a motor mouth, but I was glad for the company.

Comments about our appearance in the newspaper

Some comments regarding the appearance Peggy and I made in the newspaper.

“I was looking at the paper when I thought to myself, ‘I know those dogs.’ Then I saw you.”

“Don’t give up your day job to become a model.”

“My wife was reading the paper, and she asked, “Isn’t this the man who you said visited your lodge?”

“I noticed that your dogs were leashed. I didn’t know your dogs had leashes.”

“I agree with you. When I see a VW van with a sticker that says Stumps Don’t Lie, I know I’m about to breathe oil.”

Most of the people we know have mentioned the article, and this comes as a surprise to us because we don’t get the paper. In fact, we still haven’t seen the article except on the Internet, and we can but hope that our printed photo wasn’t as big as it was bad. I do not have a beer belly. I do not wear pants that are two sizes too large. Peggy’s bangs are not plastered to the top of her head. Baxter’s black fur does not make him look like a black hole, although Bonnie really was hunkering down to poop—I can but hope that people thought she was curtsying.

Too many options

My Masonic lodge visited the Junction City lodge this week. I sat beside Brother Belvin Terry who is dying from prostate cancer. He told this to each of the visitors in turn, and I listened to their reactions. One said that death comes to all. Another pointed out that he had at least exceeded the average lifespan. A third advised that he would get well if he took care of himself. When Brother Terry disagreed, the speaker tried again to reassure him, almost angrily this time. The next day, I asked the lodge’s secretary if Brother Terry would welcome a visit. I will call him soon.

I just got up to pour myself some coffee, but had forgotten to put the carafe on the warmer when I started the drip and had to clean up a large puddle. It was not the worst experience of my life—at least there’s that to be said for it.

Today, I bought a book about retirement planning, and later wondered what kind of books I would buy if I only had a few months to live. What if I knew I had seen my last Christmas, and that Peggy would be a widow when the daffodils next bloom?

My one certainty is that I would make the aftermath as easy for her as possible. I would take care of things like getting the den re-roofed and finding people to do some of the chores I now do. I would teach her more about the computer, and I would get rid of many of my personal items. But, beyond all that, how would we spend the time I had left? Would we sell the house? Would we travel?

I only know that I would not want to drain our savings on medical care if my odds of surviving were poor. Peggy long ago stopped loving her job, so how then could I leave her broke? Yet, if she were the one who was ill, would I count the cost? I would like to say that I would trade everything for even a miniscule chance that she would live; and I think this is what I would say—if it were only about money. But it’s also about doctors, drugs, hospitals, and the other irksome details of fighting a battle that you will almost certainly lose.

The trouble with living is that I cannot escape the feeling that I am responsible for something without knowing what that something is. I don’t mean responsible in the sense of fulfilling an ordained purpose but rather in fulfilling an obligation to myself. I seem to have done so little compared to what I might have done. I say this, yet when I ask myself what it is that I would do differently, I don’t know. I have a feeling of having failed, but without an awareness of what would constitute success.

I never cease to be amazed by the number of people I never heard of that are listed in the Britannica. One might be a Frenchman whose paintings were once popular but have not stood the test of time; another an Englishman who wrote forty books that are out of print. What made these people’s lives worth remembering? What makes any life worth remembering, and what does it matter whether I’m remembered? I will readily admit that a man can lead an extraordinarily virtuous life and still be quickly and utterly forgotten, so what then do I really want? By what measure might I pronounce my life worthwhile?

Many of the people who appear in the Britannica are remembered for the harm they did. Hannibal took a vow as a child to conquer Rome. By the time he committed suicide, hundreds of thousands had been killed or ruined because of him, yet Rome still stood. Others don’t strike me so much as evil as worthless. The major accomplishment of Madonna, for example, seems to be that she set new lows for tackiness by a female performer. Thanks to her, Britney Spears can sink even lower, but unlike the Hannibals and Napoleons, such people are the symptom rather than the cause of societal suffering.

If I were dying, perhaps, I would not find it worthwhile to think about such things. It is in this sense that I envy the dying. Like people in a burning house, they are forced to rely on instinct in deciding what to pick up and what to put down.

Not too many months ago, a local man robbed a bank and then sat quietly in the lobby awaiting arrest. I can imagine that such a one simply lost his ability to deal with having so many options. Every minute of every day, I choose to do one thing at the expense of not doing an unimaginable number of other things. It is a dreadful responsibility to have untold options without knowing which ones are best or if any of them are best.

It might be argued that the question is a matter of personal preference. For example, one person becomes a carpenter, another a dental hygienist. Both fill important functions, but the rub is that not everyone is suited to be a carpenter or a hygienist. This is true even among those who are carpenters and hygienists. I have always envied people who love their jobs so much that they would work for free: they have an assuredness about their place in the universe that I have never enjoyed. I see my life rather as a succession of uncertainties and miscalculations, and this appears to be the common lot. I just worry about it more than most people.


An appliance repairman called and woke us up this morning despite being asked twice to call later in the day. When Peggy complained, he said he preferred to call when it was convenient for him. As soon as she hung up, I called him back and got an answering machine. I then called the store where we bought the appliance, and asked for the owner. I knew better than to speak to him when enraged, but I indulged myself.

I have never seen my anger from the outside, but it must look pretty bad because, from the inside, it feels very much like my father behaved. He would tremble; his voice would quiver; and he would spare no measure of abusive language. I differ from him in that I rarely speak until I calm down, and I apologize when I do.

I can count three apologies that I have made in ten years, and one that I wish I had made (I cursed a stranger over who was next in line for a urinal). The total number of instances was small, but the size of my anger was big. If displays of extreme anger worked, they would at least have that to recommend them, but I doubt that anger ever works in the long term. Even if it gets a person what he wants on the outside, it corrodes him on the inside. Then there are its unseen consequences. For example, my foremost memory of my father is of a scary individual with whom I could never relax because I couldn’t predict all of the many things that would push him over the edge. He was lucky that he never got into a mortal scrape, and the same can be said for me.

I drove to the store today and apologized to the owner. He accepted, but I know he will think of me as one who bears watching.

Om Mani Padme Hum

I walked over to the gem show at the fairgrounds today, but was only tempted by two items. One was a ring that was inscribed Om Mani Padme Hum, a Sanskrit prayer for compassion; the other a fossilized trilobite. I have always identified with creatures like trilobites and pillbugs that vacillate between being fully open and fully closed. I hit both extremes just this week. When my house was egged, and I couldn’t get the city to move yet another camper, I contemplated covering my living room window with Plexiglas and buying a motion detector for the yard. Then I spent time with Zula, and my heart reopened. Ironically, the measures I take to stay safe make me more fearful. Go figure.

It is thundering, and Bonnie is panting in terror under my desk. I can smell her hot breath, and it and the sound of her breathing is driving me crazy. I am trying to keep my heart open, so I can’t bring myself to make her move as I would normally do. Yet, she is not to be comforted, and I am feeling increasingly annoyed and powerless. I am prepared to (a) help her or (b) run her out of the room, but I don’t know how to just be with her. I ask myself what would LOVE do, and I’m not sure because my love for Bonnie does not seem compatible with my love for myself at the moment.

I called Mabel yesterday to tell her I was sorry about Zula’s passing. She said she went to Zula’s apartment the day before Zula died, and found her sitting in her recliner with her eyes closed and her hands folded. When Mabel touched Zula’s forehead to see if she was still alive, Zula smiled broadly and said, “I’m still here.” The next day, Mabel found Zula in the same position, only this time her forehead was cold and her body stiff. “You’re not here today, my dear friend,” Mabel said. Om Mani Padme Hum.

The following is my paraphrase of an old story, the origin of which is unknown to me.

A monk spent years concentrating on a particular mantra, and finally gained enough insight to teach other monks. His success was such that he soon concluded that there was nothing more he needed to learn; but upon hearing of an elderly hermit, he went to meet him.

The hermit lived on an island in a lake, so the monk hired a boatman to take him there. As the monk and the hermit drank tea together, the monk inquired about his spiritual practice. The hermit said he had no spiritual practice, except for a mantra which he constantly repeated. The monk was pleased to learn that the hermit was using the same mantra as himself, but when the hermit spoke it aloud, the monk was horrified!

“What’s wrong?” asked the hermit.

“I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid you’ve wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!”

“That is terrible. How should I say it?”

The monk shared the correct pronunciation, and the old hermit asked to be left alone so he could start practicing. On his return across the lake the monk was pondering the sad fate of the hermit.

“I’m so glad I came along. At least he will have a little time to practice the mantra correctly before he dies.” Just then, the boatman looked quite shocked, and the monk turned to see the hermit standing on the water beside him.

“Excuse me, please. I hate to bother you, but I’ve forgotten the correct pronunciation. Would you repeat it for me?”

“You obviously don’t need it,” stammered the monk; but the old man persisted until he relented.

When the monk last saw him, the old hermit was saying the mantra very slowly as he walked back across the lake.

The thunder has passed, and Bonnie is at peace.