Ralph and Rhonda

We went dirt biking yesterday—really and truly sliding through diarrhea-like mud and flying down steep and curvy hills, all while dodging stumps, roots, and rocks. The dogs thought our new hobby grand: lots of inviting mud puddles, water to drink whenever they pleased, and a speed suited to canine legs. We discovered the trail entirely by accident while biking logging roads. Someone had even installed ramps on the curves, so bikes could round them really fast. Not that Peggy and I rounded them really fast. No, not us. We walked them really slow, because we don’t have mud tires on our bikes. We have all-terrain tires, and all-terrain tires are not really meant for ALL terrains, and they turn to squirrels in mud. One minute they’re gliding along nicely, and the next minute they’re either lying down for a nap, or sliding sideways to the direction of travel.

We discussed these traits—Peggy and I—and we determined that we did not like them. They are thrilling traits, to be sure, but we agreed that it is better to have at least some idea of what one’s bike is about to do. Although nothing in life is guaranteed, even a vague notion about ones future is superior to no notion at all.

Because Peggy’s new bike is on order, she was on her Raleigh commuter with its two-inch tires. Having christened my new bike Rhonda, I determined that Peggy’s bike needed a name too, so I named him Ralph. Peggy liked the name Ralph, pointing out that since we had B names for out last four pets—Bonnie, Baxter, Becky, Buster, it is only fitting that we have R names for our bikes. That way, we can tell our dogs from our bicycles without looking at their undersides. Inspired and uplifted (although more the former than the latter) by her sentiment, I named my other bike—the one that was home in the garage—Ramon; and Peggy named her other bike—the one that is on order—Rufus. I thought Rufus was too bookish a name for a mud bike. I thought Rufus sounded more like a sedentary pipe smoker in loungewear, and I generously offered to donate the name Ramon to her for her bike, but she was obstinate as usual. On my gloomier days, I suspect that the woman lacks good sense as evidenced by the fact that she so often disagrees with me.

Ralph cost $400, yet he performed better on mud than Rhonda who cost $1,700. I was naturally perplexed—and even a little put out—by this, and I began thrashing around in my mind for a comforting explanation. Ralph is heavier by ten pounds, I told myself, so maybe his greater weight made for greater stability. That sounded plausible, but I could hardly stop with one theory lest it turn out to be wrong, and leave me with no theory at all.

My next theory was that Ralph’s 26-inch diameter wheels are more stable than Rhonda’s 20-inch wheels. I didn’t like that theory much, because I could see no upside to it if it were true. The next thing that came to mind was that Ralph is a boy, and Rhonda is a girl. No that couldn’t be it, not in our enlightened age. If women firepersons are the equal of men firepersons, then women bicycles should be equally equal to men bicycles.

This left me with but one possibility: Peggy is a better biker than I, at least in the mud. I liked this explanation best of all, because it was the only one subject to change. When a person has spent a lot of money for a bike, and said bike does not perform as well as another bike that costs a quarter as much, any explanation that excuses the bike is preferable to any explanation that blames the bike.

Thoughts of hunting and war

Carl is a Masonic brother with whom I feel a kinship. Our grandparents were from Southern Appalachia. We were raised in the Church of Christ. We never leave home unarmed. Tonight, I discovered another commonality when we somehow started talking about World War II. Carl knew a lot more about it than I, but it wasn’t the subject that was the common bond, but our feelings about the subject. Carl was only seven when the war ended, but he grew up listening to the stories of veterans, and as he related some of these stories, he began to cry. I assumed that this would prompt him to change the subject, but he stayed squarely on World War II, and with each anecdote, he cried some more. I too cry about World War II, but only when I am watching documentaries, and only in the company of Peggy. To cry in the company of other men (we were in the proxmity of many men) would mortify me. Yet, I thought well of Carl for doing that which I would not. Mine is a strange world, and it gets stranger all the time.

For example, Carl is a bow-hunter. I’m appalled by sport killing, and I’m especially appalled by killing with inefficient weapons. So, how do I reconcile Carl’s compassion for the suffering of soldiers with his callousness toward the suffering of animals? I cannot. It is like the respect I have for his tears, although I would be ashamed if they were my tears. To be human is to live in contradiction.

If all I knew of Carl was that he killed animals with arrows, I would think very poorly of him. It is only because I know him as a sensitive and complicated man that I don’t feel inclined to condemn him for hunting but to seek to understand him. This is a hopeless task, because there is nothing he could say that I have not heard, or that would change my mind. There comes a point at which further comprehension of another person’s experience would require that I abandon my own. This point marks the difference between intellectual understanding and emotional understanding.

I can accept Carl as a worthwhile person who has a cruel hobby only because I have seen other sides of him, but it is often hard to see other sides of people. It is often hard to even want to see other sides of people. In lodge tonight, for example, I muddled my way through the ritual, not because I didn’t know it, but because I was so distraught over a war protest in Portland last weekend. People at that protest burned an American flag and an effigy of an American soldier. One man even defecated upon a flag.

I am so upset by this that I am considering ending my support of the antiwar effort on an organized level. I deplore, detest, and despise the Portland protestors so intensely that I actually could (not that I actually would) shoot them on sight. If anything, I hate them more than I would hate them if I were not actively opposed to the war. They defile my idealism, and they show me something about myself.

What they show me is how easy it is to turn my desire to oppose the war in the spirit of peace completely upon its head. I am so intent upon love and goodwill that every fiber of my being wants to annihilate these people for their hatefulness. They make me as they are, or rather they elicit a part of me that is like a part of them.

How am I to deal with such feelings? That is what I struggled with during lodge. I was so focused that I literally forgot what lodge I was in, and performed a segment of the Odd Fellow ritual. After my talk with Carl, I thought about how wonderful it would be if I could see these flag burners as I see him—as complex people who sometimes act badly for, what are to them, good reasons. This is easier said than done, because I don’t know them. I only imagine them. I imagine how empowering it must feel to don black hoods, and to make a statement so powerful that it reaches millions. They don’t feel the evil they do, because they are too intoxicated by their power.

They are like the American soldiers who, having seen their comrades killed by the very people they were trying to help, massacred two-dozen Iraqis. Maybe they will feel badly someday, or maybe they won’t, but, in the moment, they saw themselves as the worms that had turned; and it felt good. I suspect that these demonstrators also regard themselves as people who have no power; as people who can neither tolerate the status quo nor change it; as people who believe that almost no one knows or even cares about the pain they feel over the direction their country has taken.

I can relate, but no matter how hard it is to be constructive, anything less makes a person into what he hates. I suspect that I am able to see this from a more mature and thoughtful perspective than that of the demonstrators in Portland, yet I am finding it nearly impossible to heed my own best thinking.

Indian plums, John Denver, and a bike named Rhonda

Yesterday, Peggy and I took my new bike to the woods. I was going to bike alongside her as she walked, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t go slow enough uphill to match her pace, and it was no fun braking all the way downhill. We decided that she needs to get a bike, and that we need to revamp the van so we can both camp in it and carry bikes in it. We might even need a bike trailer for the dogs—if not now, in a year or two.

I tried my bike on hills and in loose gravel. It climbed as lithely as a mountain goat and descended as stolidly as an army tank. I decided that it wasn’t a bike after all, but a mythological being come to life. I had never seen anything like it. I had never known there was anything like it. The only hills that I was unable to climb were so steep that the bike threatened to somersault backwards. It was limited by me, not me by it. If it were a woman, it would have already gone off to find someone younger and more exciting. If I called it a slut, I would mean the word as a compliment—it is cherry red. The only thing it can’t do on its wide tires is to roll really fast, but I didn’t buy it to roll really fast. I bought it to climb like a mountain goat and to descend like an army tank. I think I’ll name it Rhonda.

The day was sunny, the temperature around seventy. It was my first trip to the woods in many months. After my surgery, I pretty much stopped going, because I didn’t know what to do once I got there. Going was just too sad, and I felt just too bad that my limitation was weighing on Peggy. She didn’t complain, but I knew how I would feel if I were her. Hiking has been too much a part of our life for too many years.

So, yesterday was my first time out of town in a long time, and the day was perfect. There were new leaves and new flowers. One book described the Indian plum this way, “It’s flowers smell like a cross between cat urine and watermelon.” Tell me, is that a good odor smell or a bad odor? Regardless, it a very alive odor.

Peggy napped while I threw a stick into Winberry Creek for Bonnie. She quickly learned to swim at a trajectory that would intersect the stick. I was surprised by how fast she learned this, because the concept of gravity is a challenge for her. For example, she will take her tennis ball to the top of a set of steps and roll it down for me to fetch. Only sometimes when she drops the ball, the ball won’t roll. When this happens, she stares at it as if to say, “I have done my part, ball, and now it is time for you to do yours.”

I could tell that Bonnie needs the woods too. A blue heeler is too near the wild to be a town dog. In town, Bonnie is only half alive, but in the woods, she’s 1 1/2 times alive. It’s magical to see a creature become so alive that she can’t contain it all. It’s as if she has crossed some boundary. We usually think of a creature—or a human—as being either alive or dead, but maybe that’s a little like thinking of something as either healthy or unhealthy. Maybe nothing IS. Maybe everything exists on a continuum.

Peggy and I had been playing a CD by John Denver about his love for water, and sunshine, and mountains. I looked at the water, and the sunshine, and the mountains; and for the first time, I felt the full depth of my sadness over losing these things, and I could not contain it. I have gone to the woods since my earliest remembrances, and I saw that I must go back, no matter what. I cannot imagine how people survive without the woods. How can they not experience a void? For most of our history, our species has lived intimately with nature, and even when people don’t know they need that intimacy, I suspect they suffer from the lack of it.

John Denver died at 53, and this makes his songs the more poignant. I understand death about as well as Bonnie understands gravity. Phil (my friend who is dying of cancer) was at lodge this week, much to everyone’s surprise. He arrived late, and walked across the room slow and stooped, like an old, old man. Even those who can no longer hear well could hear Phil breathing, because he breathed like a man who had run a marathon. The lodge grew very quiet as we watched him walk to his seat. I told myself to memorize how he looked, because I knew I would never see him cross that room again.”

Death is one of those things that all the money in the world, and all the militaries in the world, and all of everything else that is powerful in the world, can neither prevent nor reverse. Even if all the powerful of the world tried as hard as they could at the same time, they wouldn’t be able to force so much as an amoeba to live—or bring it back to life. Such thoughts put our power in perspective.

The question then becomes how I should feel about us, given our limitations. Sometimes, it’s easy to take the route of the people at the anti-war rally this morning, and hate the weakness that I see all around me, but, again, hatred is not useful except that it makes killing easier. And even though killing is necessary sometimes, I’m not sure that hatred is a good thing even then. If I’m being attacked by a bear, will it help to hate the bear that I am about to shoot? I actually doubt that there is any situation in which hatred does more good than it does harm.

Two events

I attended two predictable events today. First, a large peace rally. Unlike the small ones, it had speakers, booths, and hard feelings. On one sign a picture of President Bush was covered by a swastika; in another, he was shown alongside Nazi war criminals. I saw posters screaming, “We are Fucked,” and “Fuck the USA.” “One World Socialism” was touted alongside other liberal causes. Many people had tattoos, piercings, dreadlocks, and freakishly colored hair. After the speakers were done, longhaired men stood in a circle drumming.

I saw only one person who held a pro-war sign. I asked him if he was a veteran. “Special forces,” he said. I shook his hand and thanked him for his service. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he assumed that I too was a veteran, and he wouldn’t speak to me when he learned otherwise. He shouted at the news media; he accused me of blocking his sign; his lips twisted with rage. I moved on. Reuben, a rat-terrier appeared. I don’t know his owner’s name—although she often brings him to my house to play with Baxter—so I call her Mrs. Reuben. Reuben the dog was distressed. “This is his first demonstration,” Mrs. Reuben explained.

What is the good of all this hatred, I wondered. Really, who does it reach? What is the benefit of saying by implication, “I’m for peace, and if you don’t agree with me, I’d just as soon shit on your grave.” As least this was the sentiment that I heard screaming at me from many of the signs and many of the faces. I thought of the French Revolution, and I surmised that, like Robespierre, these people lacked the ability, or even the will, to do anything but destroy.

I saw nothing that I didn’t expect, yet it still depressed me, utterly depressed me, because, as I thought, if so many of the people who are for peace are filled with hatred, where is there room for hope? Where is the rosy glow before the dawn? There is none. It’s all darkness, darkness, and more darkness. I went not to support but to observe, and I had wrongly thought that this would protect me from being so strongly affected.

There were also cops on bicycles and motorcycles, and, a block away, a white van that had Department of Homeland Security on the sides. Brawny, crew-cut men stood near the van. They are all caricatures, I thought—the demonstrators, the cops, the feds…. It’s like a movie set.

I then biked to my mineral club’s meeting and picnic. The new president is only interested in lapidary, and every meeting is devoted to it. This event was supposed to last five hours, but I only stayed an hour and a half—just long enough to eat and socialize before the rock saws and polishers were brought out. People didn’t understand why I was leaving. They wondered (or so I thought) if I was mad. I went out of my way to be nice so as to reassure them.

Two mineral club people had asked me over lunch if I was new to the group. I said that no, I served as the membership officer last year (I didn’t add that I had given oral reports at every meeting). Such is the impression I have made on the Eugene Mineral Club. For two years, I’ve been simultaneously inside and outside. It’s this lapidary thing that pushes me away. So then, why do I go? I go partly for the scant geological knowledge that I receive, and partly because I feel sorry for a club that is dying. I can neither help them nor abandon them.

Bikes versus cars

The common morality in regard to the automobile is based upon obeying the law, and this makes it easy for people to dismiss their own driving as having little impact upon pollution or our dependence upon foreign oil. I even know a great many motorists who hate bicyclists, because, as they claim, bicyclists use the roads without paying a gas tax. Most road funds come from other taxes, but even if this were not true, shouldn’t bicyclists be given a break for the harm they don’t do? They don’t stink up the air; they don’t contribute to global warming; they don’t make noise; they don’t leak oil; they don’t wear out the pavement; they don’t increase our dependence upon the Middle East; and they almost never kill people. None of these factors are relevant in the minds of people who hate bicyclists. I think that if they were honest, they would have to admit that they mostly hate bikes because bikes are not the common mode of transport (they’re damned near un-American to hear some people tell it), and because they slow traffic.

I just returned from the supermarket. I was obliged to bike on a busy street for part of the trip, and his gave me two choices: I could ride in the right-hand traffic lane, or I could ride where people park. The traffic lane had been paved repeatedly since the parking area had been paved, so the pavement in the parking area was rough, cracked, and potholed. It also contained an occasional parked car along with such roadside obstacles as rocks, broken bottles, and sand from street deicing. But the traffic lane was filled with motorists who wouldn’t hesitate to honk, curse, and pass without changing lanes. When a motorist is in a hurry, and something that is slow and small blocks his way, the impulse is to show the offender who owns the road. This means that dozens of times per mile, two and three ton hunks of steel piloted by drivers of varying abilities and degrees of sobriety pass within twelve inches of my handlebars at forty miles per hour.

Since most motorists exercise considerable caution when passing that close to a stationary car in a parking lot, I must conclude that they place little value upon my life as a bicyclist, although I’m sure they would be extremely sorry—for themselves at least—if they were hauled into court for killing me. Unfortunately, juries are composed largely of drivers who could just as easily be on trial themselves, and are therefore eager to pardon their brethren.

Cars hit bikes so frequently in Eugene that such accidents aren’t mentioned by the press unless someone was killed or the motorist fled. There was an incident last weekend in which a man in a Jeep Cherokee hit a woman on a bike (and in a bike lane), jumped from his SUV, cursed her as she lay on the pavement, got back into his SUV, crushed her bicycle, and fled the scene. The very idea that someone of driving age would choose to ride a bicycle when she could be driving a car absolutely infuriates a some people even in this city that is known for being bicycle friendly.

Pedestrians are treated some better if only because they are in the road less. But let one try crossing the road. (Two blocks from where the bicyclist was hit by the Jeep, a pedestrian was killed by a hit-and-run driver the previous weekend.) Eugene recently installed a great many pedestrian/bicycle crosswalks, yet not more than one out of fifty cars will actually allow a pedestrian to cross. I see person after person waiting in the crosswalk, not until a car yields to him, but until no more cars are coming. I’m not so timid. No privileged class gives up privileges until forced.

Don's car is broken into

Don, one of my Masonic brothers, discovered after lodge tonight that his new Toyota station wagon had been broken into and a leather briefcase stolen. I listened in astonishment as he went through his car and listed the items that were not stolen—his cell phone, his .45, his other leather briefcase, his set of electrical tools, and his billfold with cash and credit cards. “That thief was really dumb to leave all this!” he exclaimed. I bit my lip.

No, Don is not dumb. Don is an optimist. As he put it, “I knew something like this could happen, but I never thought it would.” By comparison, I assume that “something like this” is practically guaranteed to happen, but that I can minimize the damage by preparing for it. I had not even left my bicycle outside during lodge, but had taken it indoors and locked it, and before lodge, I had been searching the Internet for ways to beef up my window security despite the two keyed locks and protective film that I already have on every window.

During lodge, I had listened in awe as Don spoke untold—and unwritten—pages of Masonic ritual flawlessly. Dumb he isn’t, except in a selective sort of way.

Lodge ritual is both sacred and something that is not to be taken too seriously. As with church liturgy, it is more beautiful when performed well, but it must also have heart. Otherwise, computers could be programmed to speak the words, and the people could sit back and listen. There are two parts to an ordinary meeting. There is the ritual part, and there is the business part, and the former is as beautiful as the latter is mundane. I thrive on the former. It lifts me out of myself. I speak and perform in an altered state. I simultaneously experience reverence and laughter. I feel connected with something that stretches around the world and through the centuries.

Don told us tonight that he recently met the Masonic Grand Master of Iran. If the man lived in Iran, he would be killed, so the temporary headquarters of the Iranian Grand Lodge is in Los Angeles. In this day of diminishing freedoms and privacies in my own country, I can at least be grateful that my situation is not so bad as what people in most times and places have suffered.

Six hours in a parking lot

I spent six hours today standing in a parking lot collecting signatures to force the county income tax onto the November ballot—the same income tax that was defeated on last November’s ballot. One hundred volunteers collected signatures in eight locations. My location had a steady stream of voters despite the fact that the Register Guard and at least one local television station reported that the commissioners were “probably” going to do away with the tax anyway. When I asked people why, having heard this, they still came—thirty miles in some cases—they all said that they don’t trust the commissioners or the media. Many people appear to place a negative truth correlation upon what they are told by the powerful. A local TV station sent people to the wrong location for our rally last week, and the Register Guard sent them to the wrong location for my signature station today—in a paid ad, no less. Accidents? Even if they were, they would suggest that the media is untrustworthy.

I asked one of the three men who started the petition how it came about. He said that he and the other two work together, and that they often threaten to take action against one government outrage or another, but that, until now, their threats had fizzled. This time, one of them donated $10,000 for legal fees and advertising, and they all took off from work to support the effort.

The volunteers at my station thanked everyone who signed. Many of those we thanked pointed out that it was we who were doing all the work, but we didn’t see it that way. As one volunteer said, “We could stand behind these tables all day, but if people didn’t care enough to show up, we would be wasting our time.”

A perfect fit bike, fun with my internist

T’was a big day. I got my new bike out of the shop after leaving it overnight for its second fitting adjustment. I paid $100 extra for a “custom designed perfect fit” only to discover that the only way I could get it was to go home and measure everything about my old bike, and have the custom design team redo the new one to match it.

I’m reminded of a woman who told me that she had a contractor come out to see about replacing her patio door. The man failed to notice that the door was closed, and he walked into it and broke it. His replaced it with a new door of her choosing, entirely at his expense. Obviously pleased with her sagacity the woman assured me that she would “never hire that klutz again.” I concluded from this that she was a hard and silly woman indeed, because it is not the perfect workman who is to be cherished but the workman who is willing to keep plugging away until the job is right.

Another reason it’s a big day…. The results of my follow-up blood-work were in, so I went to the doc to talk about why it was screwed up. He said I have low testosterone. He added that the problem is easily and cheaply remediable with shots, and so he shotted me. I feel better already, like a bull rather than a steer (as he put it). Come to think of it, I felt like a bull anyway, and was astounded that my testosterone was low, so maybe I’m aroused by my new bicycle rather than my new testosterone.

A strange arousal, perhaps, but surely not a bad arousal. Better a bike than a farm animal, I always say, if for no other reason than that bikes don’t kick or transmit hoof-and-mouth disease. Besides, I don’t know where I would keep a farm animal, although, come to think of it, Bonnie is a herd dog, so she would probably enjoy having something to herd—something other than Baxter who just lies on his back and looks despondent when she tries to herd him. But, on the other hand, there’s Peggy to consider. If your spouse told you, “Look, I’ve absolutely, positively got to have a romantic relationship with either a bicycle or a farm animal—you choose;” what would you say—“Get a cow, honey. I’ve been wanting to try my hand at cheese-making.” I don’t think so.

So, Bonnie votes for a farm animal, whereas Peggy would no doubt prefer a bicycle—if I had enough testosterone to ask her—but Peggy can give me infinitely more grief when she’s frustrated. Easy choice, no? Wife—ten. Dog—zilch.

Now for some doctor jokes, or rather jokes told to me by my doctor.

“Why do men have holes in the ends of their penises? So their brains can get oxygen.”

How are bulls able to screw three times a day? They get a different cow each time.”

“Yeah, men are different,” I said. “With women, sex is mostly a function of what’s upstairs. They’re defective that way.”

“You’re right,” he said sadly, as we gave one another a manly hug. “Too bad we don’t know how to fix them.”

“Well, maybe you can work on it after you learn how to cure the common cold,” I offered.

“Yeah, maybe we can,” he answered, but, with a notable lack of optimism.

Another demonstration with Peg

I had a good birthday. Shirley gave me daffodils and chocolates; Walt gave me comb honey from his hive; Peggy’s parents gave me their usual $25; others sent cards; and I got word that my new bike was ready. I didn’t pick it up until Saturday (my birthday being on Thursday), because I wanted to take my first ride without getting rained on. This bike “feels” the pavement more than my other one, and the vibration puts my hands to sleep. I took it back today for some modifications, but the problem wasn’t eliminated, and I anticipate it being even worse when I go off-road. I can get my money back within thirty days, but I am loathe to ask for it. Although I went to lengths to make a prudent decision before I ordered, I obviously failed to go far enough, and for that I feel badly. On the other hand, I’m not about to eat $1,700. My hope is that further handlebar adjustments will remedy the problem.

While I was at the bike store today, an elderly couple arrived to pick up their new bikes. I spoke with them for a long while, and the man said he and his wife have been tandem enthusiasts for years, but that Parkinson’s has made it unsafe for him, forcing them to return to “beginners’ bikes” as he scornfully called a regular bicycle. I know nothing about tandems, but thought he looked ready for a trike. I considered saying as much, but since he was already indignant about his “beginner’s bike,” I bit my lip. I felt sorry for his wife who quietly endured his bitterness, and I felt disgusted with him for ruining what might have been a joyous occasion. Later, I realized that his unhappiness might not have been entirely a result of selfishness. He might have also felt remorse that his failing body had deprived his wife of something she loved. I know the feeling since I can no longer hike with Peggy.

I went to the monthly neighborhood peace vigil last night. We had fourteen this time, which was about double last month. I also went to the federal building today to stand with Peg. She was in the twelfth day of a two-week fast, and confessed to feeling sickly. I caught her at her second of three demonstrations today. The first was a sit-in at Congressman DeFazio’s office. She said that people were arrested, but that she was not among them. “We take turns,” she explained. Since no mention of these arrests ever occurs on the news, I don’t know what the point is.

I have observed that the spiritually oriented protestors (like Peg, who is a Quaker) act on the basis of what feels right rather than on what seems pragmatic. This causes me wonder if the point of their protests is more to feel good than to do good. Since I am out there with them, I am forced to ask myself the same question, and I can but offer that I support them because their dedication makes me ashamed to do otherwise, and because of my hope that, together, we can inspire others to join us until our numbers become great enough to end the war. If nothing else, our efforts might bring more thoughtfulness and compassion into the lives of those who see us. For this reason, I would never knowingly demonstrate with anyone who planned to use harsh words or destructive behavior. To paraphrase a Quaker admonition: When you work to end war, be sure that you are free of the spirit that causes war.

Right after her daily stint at the federal building, Peg crossed the street to protest with “Women in Black.” True to their name, they all wore black. I biked home, sick as always from exhaust fumes. I asked Peg if the exhaust doesn’t bother her, especially in her weakened condition. She said, “I worry about it, and many people have had to stop coming because of it, but I always think about how much worse the people in Iraq are suffering.”