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.