Avoiding hurt by anticipating it

I just called a repair shop to make an appointment for the van. When I got off the phone, I checked with another shop, and learned that I could get the van in there sooner. When I called the lady back to cancel, her demeanor changed from caring to hostile.

This was no big deal, but it came on the heels of an email to Gwen (my mentor in my Wicca group) being returned because she blocked my address. Gwen had said she wanted to correspond regardless of my status with the group. I don’t know whether to interpret her action as coming from fear or contempt, or why she would feel either. Maat, the teacher, said she would refund the $20 I paid for supplies, and that I could expect a check the first part of last week. It is now the first part of this week, and it still hasn’t come. I had thought that—despite everything—these were people of integrity.

I have yet to learn enough about people that I can divine which ones are flaky or two-faced. I have often longed for some formula. For example, it would help a great deal if Democrats were invariably lying bastards and Republicans upright and consistent. Or if religious people were ethical and atheists untrustworthy. But alas, treachery and dishonesty extend equally across boundaries of gender, intelligence, education, wealth, geography, politics, and religion. That said, I have made a few useful observations.

People who are certain that Truth is on their side are unreachable when they err, as are people who blame others for their own bad behavior.

People in cohesive groups reinforce each other’s evil.

People who are lecherous, greedy, or addicted to drugs, alcohol, romance, or gambling, can be expected to put their addiction above everything else.

People who are under a physical or emotional strain are more likely to compromise their ethics.

People usually behave in the present as they have in the past, so I cannot expect them to treat me honorably if I know them to have shafted others.

People who give ethics a lot of thought are no more trustworthy than those who do not. A great deal of thought can pave the way for a great deal of rationalization.

The legal profession attracts people who enjoy finding clever ways to sidestep the consequences of evil acts, their own or others.

There is seldom a connection between legality and morality.

People who seek power over others (as through politics) are usually more interested in dominance than in service.

Those who are not invested in a person, group, neighborhood, etc. cannot be expected to act as though they are.

People who see themselves as victims can be expected to show treachery toward those whom they regard as oppressors, and few are content with getting even.

I can never trust anyone whose sacred cow I have slaughtered through evidence or rational argument. Not only will they pretend that the cow is alive, they will never forgive me for attacking it.

Unfortunately, many of the traits I mentioned are not readily identifiable, and people are capable of surprises no matter how reasonable the criteria I use to define them. I think that, when all else fails and I am treated shabbily by someone I thought I could trust, it is better to not take it personally. Maat did not say she would refund my money and then not do so because of who I am, but because of who she is. The same is true of Gwen who promised to write, but then blocked my e-mail. Seldom (if ever) does a person’s behavior toward me stand in isolation from the way they live the rest of their lives.

Footnote: Maat refunded my money after I wrote to her again asking for it.

Dog stew

Last week was a week of mishaps. One night, my bike bounced away from the edge of a steel plate in a construction zone. I hadn’t even seen the plate when the bike veered to the right. Not knowing what had happened, I turned to the left only to bounce off the plate a second time. By now, I was wobbling badly, and putting all my energy into staying upright. The next thing I saw was a rapidly approaching curb. The bike had clearly decided to end our corroboration, and it stopped abruptly at the curb’s edge, throwing me over the handlebars. I hit the ground, bounced into the air, rolled three times, and found myself dizzy but unhurt in a grove of oak trees. While I was rolling, I sensed that my lower body was turning at a different speed than my upper, and I had the thought that, if I had not been taking yoga, I would have to be carried away on a backboard. It’s funny how much time a person has to think when he’s bouncing.

Friday, we camped in the coast range. I awakened before Peggy, and thought I would hike the short distance to the top of Saddle Mountain by way of an abandoned trail. When the trail gave out, I bushwhacked, but the undergrowth was so thick that I gave up my summit attempt for fear of hurting my knee. I missed hitting the trail on the way back, so—the area qualifying as a rain forest—I spent the next ninety minutes struggling through five foot high salal and briers. The brush was so thick that the dogs couldn’t walk below it or upon it, and they cried in frustration as they writhed through it. I knew they could guide me back to the trail if they only knew what I wanted, but they did not, so it was one of those situations in which dogs could be helpful in theory but are in reality worse than useless (like when you lock yourself out of your car on a hot day, and your dog stares at you curiously as you tell him to lift the little knob with his teeth).

Baxter had trouble keeping up even at my tediously slow pace, and I knew that if I lost him, an inconvenience would become a tragedy. I protected my knee as best I could, but my feet were seldom on the ground, the brush being so thick that I was walking about a foot high except for those blessed occasions when I came upon a log that I could use as a bridge.

With the ridge to my right and the sun to my back, I anticipated hitting the road eventually, but the distance was surprisingly long and the going tediously slow. I knew that Peggy would be awake by now. I wondered how long she would wait before seeking help. I thought of the disappointment of our friends who we were supposed to meet for a picnic at Heceta Head, and of the news crews that would seek an interview when I was finally rescued. I couldn’t decide whether to grant a humorous interview, a grateful to my rescuers interview, or no interview. I decided that nothing I could say—or not say—would make me look like anything but a fool, so I hoped fervently that Peggy wouldn’t go for help no matter how long it took me to return to the van. I hoped she would look at the map (for a change) and see that there was a powerline to the north and roads to the east, south, and west; and would remember that the weather was warm enough for me to survive without provisions. I took frequent short breaks, focused on my breathing to remain calm, and ate salal berries and huckleberries. I regretted that I had no water for the dogs because they were struggling mightily, and I could not carry them.

When I finally hit the road, I felt as if the gates of heaven had opened, but when I reached our campsite, Peggy was gone. I began walking out the way we had come (we camped at the end of the road), and met her driving back. She had been looking for me. My legs were blood-streaked from scores of scratches, some six inches long. When our friends asked me what the hell had happened, I said that Peggy was a phenomenally passionate woman with phenomenally long toe-nails. “She can climb trees like a squirrel,” I offered. Their expressions indicated that they considered her story more plausible. All this happened two days ago, and my knee is a swollen, stiff, aching mess. Eight hours of yoga a week for a solid month, and I am as bad off as when I started.

On our drive into the woods, we listened to CDs I bought at a garage sale last week. I got Bob Marley, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix; stuff I had always wanted, but had never been able to find for 25¢ each. While I was listening to protest songs and acid rock as a young man, Peggy was tuning into Neil Diamond and Linda Ronstadt (How do people like us come together?).

“Was Jimi Hendrix black?” she asked. And then, “Was Jim Morrison in a band?” I told her about the joys of taking acid or smoking pot while listening to these guys, about how their music had been written by people on drugs for people on drugs, and how Hendrix and Morrison died from drugs. I said that their songs’ erratic lengths and variations made it even harder to keep track of time than the chemicals alone would have caused, so I wouldn’t know if the same song had been playing for three minutes or three hours. I would tell myself that it had to be three minutes because no song could last for three hours, yet my life prior to the song would seem unreal, like something out of a history book. And I wouldn’t just hear the music, I would taste it and see it. As I talked, she drove, and the sun flashed through the trees like a strobe light. The day was perfection. Foxy Lady, Hendrix sang, and I looked over to see Peggy ducking tree limbs that touched the windshield. “My old ladies high,” I thought, “and I am too.”

I cried during The Doors Spanish Caravan. “Are you crying because you’re sad that Morrison died young?” Peggy asked. “No, it’s not that. It’s the genius that it took to create such beauty that gets to me.” I considered it inevitable that these guys didn’t live to see thirty because they were cranked without crank. Some people are like tortoises, others like moths; and who is to say which can cram the most living into a lifetime?

When we got to our isolated and unofficial camping spot, we turned the music up, and opened the van’s doors. It seemed like a good time to party, and we had three beers and a bottle of wine to do it with. Half a beer later, we were asleep. The passage of two score and seventeen years has cost me my talent for dissipation, a talent that Peggy never had to begin with.

The young man who sold me the music was leaving for South Korea the next day to teach English. I wouldn’t have had the guts when I was his age. He said I should try it, that it would be easy for me to get a job in any part of the world because all I needed was to be a white man with a bachelor’s degree. “What’s your degree in?” I asked. “Romance languages and literature,” he answered. “Kinda funny isn’t it, learning all that Italian and Spanish, and then going off to live in South Korea?” He explained that South Korea was only his first stop, that his resume had received 125 hits from all around the world. At one extreme, Dubai offered $38,000 a year plus room, board, and airfare. At the other, Colombia offered spending money and a roof over his head.

“Well, you know, I’ve got a wife and dogs,” I said. “Your wife can work too,” he enthused, “but the dogs might pose a problem. They like dog soup in South Korea,” he mused, and I pictured being served a mysterious stew that turned out be marinated chunks of Baxter floating alongside shallots and potatoes.

I'm asked to leave class

I am no longer a student of Wicca, my teacher having given me the choice of apologizing to the class for being aggressive, argumentative, and intimidating; submitting future newsgroup postings to her for pre-approval; or leaving. I saved the three newsgroup threads that precipitated her action. Thread 1, consists of a single posting, in which I critique a selection entitled Another View of Wicca from our required reading list.

From the reading: “...a group which does not recognize the Goddess as primary deity is not practicing The Ancient Art. Indeed, they, generally, know very little about Witchcraft…”

Me: Wicca is no less sexist than patriarchal religions in its perception that one gender is more closely aligned to the deity than the other. It is meaningless to offer that men and women are equal while at the same time arguing that the dominant God is female, and that this makes one gender of humanity better qualified for leadership.

From the reading: “Patriarchal systems teach that there are a privileged few who manipulate the masses, and we are led to believe that our own self worth is direct proportion to the power we hold over others.”

Me: If rule by men is necessarily bad, is rule by women necessarily good, and is the failure of men genetic or societal? Furthermore, how was it determined that bad governance is a male problem rather than a human problem?

From the reading: “This mind set [patriarchal] leads to the view of fellow humans as being both competitors that must be ‘beaten’ and as potential slaves. “

Me: Such positions are like religious faith in that they are beyond question. For example, when I pointed out that some warring monarchs and slaveholders were women, the answer was that they had been indoctrinated by the patriarchy. Men can only thrive in such liberated environments by denouncing their gender: “I am male; males are responsible for war, enslavement, and despoiling the earth; but I can ameliorate my inferiority by becoming more like a woman.”

From the reading: “With personal power, the need to dominate others subsides along with feelings of powerlessness.”

Me: This assumption is based upon the belief that the need for power arises from low self-esteem, yet psychological tests of bullies have shown that they have high self-esteem and feel entitled to dominate. A seemingly obvious conclusion can still be in error in the absence of supporting evidence.

Thread 2, in which I reply to someone who stated that there are two ways to view the world, the scientific and the occultist, and that the latter is closer to childlike wonder. As he put it, children view snow as magic; scientifically astute adults view it simply as snow. That such statements consistently appeared and went unchallenged by anyone but me indicated to me that I could not be a Wiccan on the basis of a shared wonder and reverence for nature and the seasons because even these aspects of Wicca are underlain by a worldview that I find alien and disturbing. I therefore anticipated leaving the group before my next assignment was due.

Me: Your position reminds me of Whitman’s poem “The Learned Astronomer,” in which he expressed the view that describing the heavens scientifically robs them of their majesty. I would offer a few thoughts.

First, scientists become scientists because they love the aspect of nature that they are studying, whereas mystics might revere the macro but are largely unaware—and in many cases uninterested—in the micro. For example, a Druid might possess a great admiration for oak trees, but have no clue how they make food or compete with other species. Astrologers cast horoscopes, but I have been unable to interest any of them in identifying the constellations in the night sky.

When I began studying plants, my father ridiculed me on the basis that I didn’t need to know the names of trees to appreciate them. Yet, after we took a walk, he could not remember a single specific tree whereas I—through my familiarity with them as individual species—could fondly recall a multitude.

Knowledge of something in no way subtracts from an appreciation of its majesty and even its mystery. Indeed, each answer opens up a multitude of additional questions to those who love an aspect of nature for itself. As for appreciating snow, you are doubtless aware that there are scientists who focus on one or more aspects of snow. Why, if science is the enemy of passion and mystery, do you think this is so?

Thread 3, in which I respond to the Thought for the Day with humor and excite an unexpected response.

Thought for the Day: “Magic lives in curves, not angles.”

Me: But the trouble with round houses is that it’s hard to find a place to hang a picture. Plus, every time you lean a ladder against an outside wall, it slides over sideways just when you get to the top of it.

Response 1: “Who said magic lives in houses? Or needs ladders? Or walls, for that matter?”

Response 2 (the teacher): “Hobbits live in round houses.”

Me: By whose standard is the curvaceous more magical than the angular, and with what device did they measure? If the circle is more magical than the triangle, I have lived in ignorance of the fact for a great many years; but I have no doubt lived in ignorance of many things.

Response 1: “Early folks equated nature with magick and there are few naturally occurring angles.”

Response 2: (the teacher): “Nothing in nature is straight.”

Me: Basalt columns are typically hexagonal due to the cooling process, and I would be surprised if someone should see them soaring into the sky, and pronounce them inferior to the pillow basalt that forms around oceanic fissures. Honey bees—which are surely a magical race—make their homes in six-sided chambers, and snowflakes look to have been drawn with a protractor, yet who is to argue that their symmetry makes them less magical than water in its droplet form?

The curvaceous is more representative of the feminine than of the masculine, and so I ask: if magic lives in curves, what then lives in angles?

Response (the teacher): “As always, no one is arguing that curves are better than straight lines.”

I don’t know what she meant by “always,” but when she next wrote, she labeled my faults as she saw them; said that she was being deluged by complaints about me from other students (some of whom were afraid of me); and told me that I needed to apologize to the class, etc.

I have never had my faults enumerated by anyone who took the time to ask if I wanted to hear them, or who did not regard themselves as my superior if not my victim. Perhaps, my Wicca teacher thought that her position entitled her to take liberties despite the fact that I had just told her, “You can expect no better of me than you have already gotten.” In any event, I responded with a single sentence stating that I would drop my name from the class roster as soon as I copied some of my postings. I did not remind her that she had asked me to stay in the class only five days earlier when I suggested that it was time for me to leave; or that she had claimed to welcome disagreement; or that she told me that Wicca requires no specific beliefs, only to later say that it requires “a leap of faith.”

I suppose that if ten liberals and one conservative (or vice versa) were placed in a group for the purpose of studying and discussing politics, that the conservative would be charged with causing disharmony, and that there would be good reason for the charge despite his efforts to display tact and respect. If the liberals were ignorant of history, government, world affairs, and the reasons for their positions; had chosen their views on the basis of emotion and in opposition to rationality; and had joined the group to have their beliefs bolstered rather than challenged; the break would come sooner rather than later. I lasted six weeks in Wicca, although I had seen the writing on the wall for half that time. I tried to do as the teacher suggested, which was to take what I could use and leave the rest, but neither of us understood that we operated upon antagonistic foundations. Water is not fire; darkness is not light; and a belief in the occult is not a higher form of science. As a materialist, I simply don’t share common ground with one who sees the material plane as a veneer that masks the far more interesting world of spirits.

I don’t know whether to respect myself for my bravery in undertaking a study that I had grave misgivings about from the outset or to consider myself asinine for the same reason. I knew there was no chance whatever that I would embrace astrology or Tarot because these things contradict science. It is one thing to believe something that I do not know the sense of or something about which there is a rational basis for disagreement, but quite another to embrace something that is absurd. The theologian Kierkegaard who coined the term “leap of faith” did not just hold that proof has its limits. He argued that belief based upon proof was ignoble. As Jesus said to Thomas, “You only believe because you have seen, but blessed are they who believe that which they have not seen.”

As I pointed out to the group, the problem with beliefs that lack a rational foundation is that there are no parameters. Telekinesis, alien abductions, reading the future with Tarot cards, and the Virgin Mary’s recent appearance in a drip on the floor of a chocolate factory, have an equal basis. None can be proved or disproved. They are accepted as truth based upon what some call faith, but what I call wishful thinking. Of course I was unwelcome in a Wicca class, and my outspokenness only served to clarify my position sooner.

Bandon burns

I sat across from Idell Panter, a woman whom I hardly know, at the IOOF picnic today. For no apparent reason, she told me at length about the Bandon Fire of 1936. She was nine and had a bad case of the flu when the call came to evacuate. Two horses burned to death before her eyes. Chickens wouldn’t abandon their roosts because it was the middle of the night, and cows died in their barns, too frightened to run.

An elderly man said he had rather die in his bed than to lose everything he had ever known. Houses exploded into flames before the fire even reached them. Two lumber schooners took some people to safety five miles from shore; others ran to the beach and were trapped between the fire and the incoming tide.

When Idell finished her account, we went on to talk of mundane things, and I was left to wonder why she had shared the nightmare with me. I know someone else who survived the Bandon Fire. He and his family literally walked away carrying what little their arms could hold, but Idell’s story was long and detailed and told with haunted eyes at a party, just as the Ancient Mariner had told his tale to guests at a wedding feast.

In the background, musicians played gospel hymns, their shirts, hats, and guitar straps emblazoned with American eagles and American flags. A strong wind blew dust from nearby mint fields, and sycamore shadows leaped frantically upon the blue tarp overhead. Nearby, lodge brothers who traveled the Oregon Trail lay under marble stones into which were carved the customary three links, one for Friendship, one for Love, and one for Truth.

At fifty-seven, I can have all the feelings that I once sought from LSD without even trying. Reality pours upon me like the surf, and burns me like the fires of Bandon. We finished yoga last week with a meditation in which we were asked to picture ourselves filled with light, but I saw flames of red and orange, an orb of fire with me at its center. It licked and tickled, and I loved what it brought me.

The bandleader at today’s picnic was also a carpenter, rancher, preacher, and body builder named Bret Evans. He was so tall that his head was partially hidden behind the tarp that protected the musicians from the afternoon sun. He reminded me of Chuck Conners, and I imagined that if Bret were ever condemned to hell, he would simply kick the gates down and force his way into heaven’s choir.

I never become accustomed to the fact that time is the greatest force of all, and that neither the strongest nor the most beautiful can withstand it for long. In fifty years, Bret Evans will be dirt, yet how can anything ever really be lost? Today happened, and its reality can never be diminished.

Cyber ritual

I attended my second Wicca cyber ritual on Tuesday.

“Let all who wish to meet with our Lady and Lord this night, enter now at the Eastern Gate.
Wild enchantresses of the night, ancient lords of mystery; fill our cups with joyous light.
Be here—we call to thee!
From all places whence came ye, come in peace, and blessed ye be.
Black spirits and white, red spirits and gray; hearken to the rune, I say....
We stand between the worlds, beyond the bounds of time. A place where joy and sorrow, night and day, birth and death, meet as one.”
reproduced by permission of the
high-priestess of JaguarMoon

Why are church services such prosaic affairs compared to Wicca? Criticize the archaic language if you will, and I’ll admit its similarity to Bewitched!, but at least Wicca attempts to create a place of beauty that is removed from everyday life. What is church but two songs, a prayer, a sermon, an offering, two more songs, and a benediction? Or, if you’re a Catholic, a tattered ritual containing language as mundane as a conversation in a supermarket. From the Latin that no one could understand, Catholicism has devolved to the level of special ed.

I have a lodge picnic tomorrow; I’m a week behind in my Wicca homework; and I’m temporarily without a patio roof or a sidewalk to my storage shed. There is a large hole in the front yard from my work on Friday when the sewer main stopped-up, and several other jobs and a coming vacation compete for my time. My knee still hurts, but not to the point that I am handicapped, and my energy level has risen so sharply that I amaze myself by how many hours I can work each day. I almost entertain the hope that I will someday be whole again.

Night + bike + moon + Floyd

I just took my nightly bike ride, and passed a party from which the sounds of Pink Floyd reverberated for blocks. The Dark Side of the Moon harmonized well with the swollen orange gibbous that hung over the city. I rode by downtown nightspots that were so crowded that they spilled into the streets. Then, I passed through the fairgrounds where the county fair will open in two days. The rides, sideshows, and food booths are mostly ready, and the absence of people made the fifty-five acres look like a movie about the rapture. A guard yelled at me from his four-wheeled scooter. I could have outrun him, but turned around and said, “Hi, Sherwood.” “Oh, I didn’t know it was you,” he answered. “I just locked the gates, so let me know when you want out.”

Only birds know the speed and freedom of a man on a bicycle in downtown Eugene. From the street to the sidewalk and back again. Down alleys; over curbs; across parking lots; turning on a dime at any whim. All the while looking for a glimpse of the orange moon that hangs with equal comfort over city and woodland.

Screw 'em

I had my lawyer in Mississippi start foreclosure on my father’s house, but he chickened out after hearing from the buyer’s attorney in North Carolina that this might be in violation of her most recent bankruptcy agreement. When he told me of his decision, I magnanimously offered to pay his expenses. When he sent me a bill for $474.24, I hit the roof and wrote him the following:

"I called my lawyer in North Carolina. I didn't get to speak to him, but then I’ve never gotten to speak to him. His legal assistant said there was no reason for you to discontinue the bankruptcy. I thought about this, and wondered if your fears of going to jail were reasonable. It seemed to me that if anyone went to jail, it would be the bankruptcy attorney who advised you to proceed.

"Today, your bill came, and I was flabbergasted that you would drop my case in midstream to cover your ass in the event of an unlikely worst-case scenario, and then not just seek to cover your expenses but to make a generous profit for 0.00 hours worked (that’s what your bill said). It’s beyond me. You make money. Sheila ____’s lawyers makes money. My lawyer in North Carolina makes money. The judge makes money. The bankruptcy trustee makes money. All the support people who work for the lawyers and the courts and the bankruptcy trustees make money. Yet, I get screwed—regularly.

"Why regularly? Because courts and lawyers are disinclined to ever settle anything for keeps. After thirteen years of late mortgage payments, cancelled insurance policies, delinquent taxes, mean-spirited letters, foreclosures, and bankruptcies; I would think that the court would conclude that Sheila ____ is not, never has been, and probably never will be, a person who is inclined to pay her debts; but, no, they said that she only had to be no more than 30 days in arrears for six months, and, as long as she did that, I would be back to square one at the end of six months. It seemed like a pretty raw deal to me, but my lawyer—speaking through his assistant, of course—said it was the best I could get.

"Then, she was 30 days in arrears, repeatedly, but even that wasn’t enough. I still have to pay more lawyers and judges, yet most of them won’t speak to me. they won’t answer my letters, they won’t respond to my e-mails, and when they do write, they don’t give me the courtesy of addressing me as Dear Lowell or Dear Mr. Thomas, or even of signing their names because, truth be known, they’re not going to make a lot of money off my little problems, so they don’t see the need to show respect, or to keep me abreast of what they’re doing, or to act in a timely manner. I pay them what is to me a lot of money, yet I am repeatedly treated badly by the minions of a system that is created first, last, and always to make money, money, and more money for itself by insuring that justice is not served."

He wrote back offering to settle for his newspaper publication fee, but I was so mad that I had concluded it to be my ethical duty to stiff him and any other overcharging bastard who puts a title in front of his name and a line of letters separated by periods after it. For instance, my most recent orthopedist bill arrived today. She charged $784.50 for three injections plus $495.00 for administering them.

These were not office visits. These were occasions when I was squeezed in between office visits. She would run in, stick the needle in my knee, pull it out, hand it to an assistant, and leave. We’re talking under a minute, and for that she charged $165 a pop. A person working for minimum wage earns only a little more in a week. A journeyman carpenter or plumber makes it in two days, but his knees, back, and wrists are shot before he’s sixty. The inequities of recompense in our country are so outrageous that I don’t understand why there isn’t a revolution. How much worse do things have to get?