About blogging

I have 262 followers. Some are dead; some have deleted their blogs; some haven’t posted in years; many if not most never left a comment on my blog. Here’s the thing about blogging. You could post nothing but underexposed and out of focus pictures of driftwood, yet you could still have 800 followers and sixty laudatory comments per post if you did nothing all day but leave flattering comments on other people’s blogs. I used to receive 25-40 comments per post, but I became overwhelmed by guilt because I felt obligated to visit everyone who left a comment, and I couldn’t do it, at least not without spending my days on the Internet, so I all but stopped, and, no surprise, most people stopped visiting me.

The most recent person I know who gave up blogging was Jane Gaston. She hadn’t posted in nearly a year when she returned for two months. Last week, out of the blue, she deleted her blog. Back when awards were popular, Jane gave me several, and she often told me what a great writer I am. Now, she’s gone, and I have no way to contact her and no reason to think she wants to be contacted. I took our friendship personally, but it ended impersonally with a post that basically said: It’s been fun, but I’m outta here; bye. That was her right, of course, but it sure hurts when someone up and disappears. Just so you’ll know, I plan to be here, as the saying goes: " 'Til death does us part."

About the picture. Yep, that's where I write, and, nope, I didn't straighten things up before I took the picture (which is why the mouse is off-center on its pad, and the file cabinet isn't closed all the way). I bought the little rabbit for a friend, but liked it so much that I kept it. The paint-by-number painting was in my family when I was born; no one remembered who did it or when it was done. As a boy, I often lay in bed pretending that I lived in that painting. The small photo is of Peggy, and the gold-rimmed plague above it reads:

I love Snow 100 million, billion, trillion, times over. I love him sooooooooooooooooo much. He is the best man, and I love him. 



Given that she hates to write, I think you'll agree that Peggy does pretty well when she has the urge.

Peggy: sixty years worth, ten years at a time

1952. That's Peggy's sister on the right. Dianne was (and is) timid, whereas Peggy was (and is) tomboyish. You might have guessed this from their body language.

1962. As I was looking at this photo trying to think of what to say about it, I had the thought: "I could just eat this little girl," but I realized it might be interpreted sexually when what I meant was that that I want to use my body to build a fort that would protect her from all the sad things that have since happened in her life, many of them caused by me. Even that doesn't capture what I feel when I look at this picture, but it's the best I can do. The sweetness, alertness, kindness, shyness, playfulness, innocence, tomboyishness, and femininity in her face is, well, when we talk about the sacred, I feel like saying, "But I feel the sacred all the time. Looking at this picture is one of those times."

1972. By now, we had been married six months, but hadn't known one another a year. This photo was taken on a canoe trip on the Pearl River near Jackson, Mississippi. I'm sure I put Peggy up to the pose because she was too shy to do such things naturally, and our relationship was still new, after all, despite the fact that we were married.

1982. We were building a shed at our home in Mississippi, and Peggy appears to be having an amiable interlude with a nail--either that or she's asking it not to bend when she drives it into the oak lathing. She insisted on the un-carpenter-like apparel and wouldn't wear anything on her feet but sandals. One day, we were splitting wood, and she dropped a large piece of post oak on her foot and broke it--the foot, of course. Silly me, I thought this meant a speedy trip to the hospital, but Peggy said, "I'm not going with my hair dirty," so I held her erect while she showered.

1992. Peggy was on figure skating teams in Oregon and in Minnesota. She then got into downhill skiing, and it and mountain climbing became her passions. I tried skating. skiing, and mountain climbing, but didn't care for them.

2002. Even I have summited the mountain in the photo, but it's a little one that you can scramble up. You've got to be willing to work hard and risk death to get up the ones that are technically challenging and prone to bad weather. Peggy couldn't get enough of them, so I became her support person, going on training hikes with her and keeping camp at trailheads. Mostly, though, she and a half dozen men (few women climb) would go off and leave me home, and that was fine with me. The red thing in her hands is an ice axe. It's good for probing for crevasses, climbing steep snow or ice, and self-arresting when you fall (you will fall).

2002. Those are cross country skis. Peggy and I did this together a fair amount, and we also snowshoed a little, but she found them boring compared to the excitement of downhill skiing, so she was forever going off with another carload of men to Hoodoo Ski Area or Willamette Pass. I don't like snow, so I don't miss cross country skiing much, but I would still like to go occasionally. Mostly, when we were going, we would simply drive to where the road was closed by snow and take a day trip from there. We have snow camped, and we have also skied to fire towers and spent the night in them. This photo was taken on a day trip, You can tell because the pad is too short for lying down (it's for sitting on), and the pack is too small for carrying everything we would need to camp. Bonnie was five in the photo. She's now 14 1/2 and blind. She still likes to play fetch.

2002. If the slope below her was as steep as she's making out, I doubt that Peggy would be holding her cap in her hand, yet she did go on rope climbs that people have been dying on for decades. Like many of Oregon's Cascades, this particular mountain has a bad reputation for "rotten rock," meaning rock that either comes off when you pull or push on it, or else falls on your head for no reason other than that your luck was bad. People have climbed Everest only to die in Oregon because mountain climbers aren't interested in safe mountains. I didn't like for Peggy to climb dangerous mountains, but it was in her blood, and I've never imagined that I had the right to tell her what she could or couldn't do (I subscribed to Ms Magazine for her when it appeared in the early '70s, but I was the only one who read it). I would be at a loss how to handle a subservient woman. On the one hand, it sounds sexy, but I don't know if I could respect her. I want influence, not control.

2012. Sad to say, but Peggy no longer engages in any strenuous activity, probably because of arthritis more than anything. She just took up drinking coffee, so in the photo she is having her daily brew of 3 parts vanilla soy milk to one part strong coffee. We try to find campsites with a good view and that (except for the road we drove in on) are so closed in by terrain or vegetation that we can let Bonnie roam freely. The thought of losing a 14 year old blind dog in the wilderness is simply too horrible to contemplate. You can see that we camped directly on the road, confident in the improbability of anyone coming.

Despite the fact that Peggy is the breadwinner in our family and has enjoyed a lot of traditionally male activities; she is all woman. And despite the fact that my bedroom is pink, I cry more easily than she, and my father was a transexual; I am all man. We have always given one another the freedom, and even the encouragement, to transcend traditional gender roles. Perhaps, this was made easier by the fact that we have always known who we are.

Brother Stewart and the unpardonable sin

I was delivering newspapers on my bike one afternoon while throwing a hissy fit at God. I was twelve years old, and my first doubt had occurred a year earlier. A hundred more had joined it, but my focus at the moment was God’s inexplicable failure—inexplicable if he existed—to keep his Biblical promises; for example, “whatsoever you shall ask in my name, that will I do.” It was the first time I used profanity during a prayer, and I was laying it on thick as I railed at God for his interminable silence in the face of my desperate entreaties for a reason to believe. I still remember the very spot upon which I felt the horrific fear that I had probably, not more than a minute past, committed the unpardonable sina sin that, oddly enough, the Bible mentions but doesn’t define. I was so burdened with fear for the next three years that I was sometimes on the verge of panic, which was why I finally drove out to talk with Brother Stewart. When he seemed sleepy and distracted and made no attempt to draw me out, I let pass my one shame-laden attempt to share my angst. I never blamed him for this because he was too good a man to blame for anything.

Why would a preacher become an atheist?

The usual scenario is that a Biblically naive young person goes away to seminary with an interest in religion and a devotion to God. For the first time, he (usually) studies the Bible from a critical perspective. Doubts are born, but he prays for faith and does his best to push them away. Two decades later, he has been a minister for 18 years, and his doubts have multiplied. At long last he is forced to admit, at least to himself, that he has become that vilest of filth, that most loathsome of vermin, that veritable dung of Satan: an atheist.

Unfortunately, his job requires him to worship a specific triune deity, and the same church that endorses his paycheck owns his house. His parents, his wife, and his children, are probably religious. He has no training in anything but religion, and his every friend is committed to religion. If you were that person, what would you do? I think I would leave, and/or shoot myself, and/or go crazy. I might even build a new and deeply rewarding life based on rationality. Some do.

The men in the 1967 photo are Church of Christ preachers who had come together for a county-wide revival in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Three of the six were from the area, and I knew them well. I was 18 at the time, and had been struggling to keep my faith since I was eleven, yet I still envisioned preachers as residing in that rarefied realm referred to as "Men of God." I was so enamored by the group shown that if someone at the revival had dropped dead, I was certain that the combined prayers of these six men could bring him back.

Buford Stewart is second from right. When his little country church offered him a raise, he turned it down because he wanted to embrace God's ideal of voluntary poverty. I slept with him--platonically--when he took me along on a revival to Kentucky. The man on the far right is Norman Miller who took me to Indiana on another revival. They loved me, but if they were still alive and ran into me today, their version of the "God of love" would command that they turn me over to him for the everlasting agony that, in their view, I would so richly deserve.*

*"And whoever shall not...hear your words, when you depart out of that house...shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment..." Matthew 10:14-15. 

Superbly designed functionality

The steel “sanitary tee” shown to your left carried the waste from my house's kitchen sink and clothes washer for 57 years. I am so struck by its beauty and its importance to the history of this house that I’m going to keep it somewhere, if only in the crawlspace. There is simply nothing more gorgeous than superbly designed functionality, especially in an object that has been on the job for generations. As I sit gazing at my tee, I think of the plumber who installed it, what a different world he inhabited in 1955, and what a different trade he practiced.

There were no plastic plumbing pipes back then, only steel and copper for water; steel, cast iron, and concrete for waste. Much of the steel pipe had to be cut and threaded at the jobsite. I sometimes helped my father do this. The cast iron fittings weren’t threaded, and had to be sealed with oakum that was first driven into the joint and then covered with molten lead poured from a dipper. I sometimes helped my father do this as well. I didn't realize that I was seeing the end of an era.

Today, I laboriously removed lead and oakum from where a steel pipe entered such a fitting. I then put a rubber seal onto the end of a new ABS plastic pipe, inserted the new pipe into the fitting, drove the seal snug with a hammer, and voilà, I was done.  The old ways and old materials are sometimes beautiful, but the new ones are usually better, and so it is that I cast my vote for the new even while remembering the old with respect and affection. After all, the fitting in the photo served the people who lived in this house for a lot of years.

“…superbly designed functionality...” One argument against the existence of a divine creator is that we ourselves are so poorly designed that we start falling apart as soon as we reach physical maturity. If the eye—as many claim—is so superbly engineered that only a super smart deity could have created it, why are we all wearing glasses?

Back to work

I’ve spent weeks preparing for two plumbing jobs under the house. In olden times, I would have taken measurements, bought my materials, and set to work, all on the same day. Now that I’m in pain and out of shape, I’ve been planning every detail with the goal of making the jobs as easy as possible, mostly through breaking them down into manageable portions, and trying to minimize how much I will have to crawl around under the house on any given occasion. 

I’m now through with my planning, purchasing, and pipe preparation, and I’m just waiting for good weather to crawl under there, lie on my back in dripping sewage, and remove three 1 ½ ” galvanized drain pipes with a circular saw that will be running inches from my face and burning my scalp with sparks. Oh, the joy! I love hard and dirty projects as much as I love going camping with Peggy. They make me feel like a man. They give me a chance to use my skill and my intelligence to accomplish something that I can stand back and look at with pride for as long as I live in this house, which might very well be until I die.

Peggy has pleaded with me repeatedly to hire a plumber, but the job might suck either way. If I hire someone, I’ll feel that much worse about myself; I’ll miss out on work I enjoy; and we’ll be out hundreds of dollars. If I don’t hire someone, I risk causing myself weeks of pain. Peggy doesn’t understand how important such work is to me because to her it just looks like something hard and filthy that's best left to someone else, no matter what shape one is in. To me, it's what I need if I’m to find value in being alive.

I wrote the above a few days ago, and did one of the jobs yesterday. I spent five hours straight under the house because I had the clothes washer and kitchen sink disconnected (during my next project, the whole house will be disconnected), making it necessary to see the job through. I could have crawled out to take breaks, of course, but I wanted to spare my joints, and I could best do that by not by crawling anymore than necessary. I’m excited to report that I had a good night last night. I was awfully sore, but my joints were no worse for wear. I’ve been slowly getting better for a couple of months now, and the work I did yesterday far exceeds anything I’ve taken on for years, joint-wise. I am becoming guardedly hopeful.

Both photos are from yesterday. I'm not through hanging pipe in the top picture, but I am through replacing it. Peggy took the second picture when the job was done.

Why I am not an agnostic

The short answer is that I consider the possibility of the existence of a supernatural deity to be zilch. I could be wrong about this, but I could also be wrong about Bigfoot, although I very much doubt it. This leads me to ask what percentage of certainty a person needs to call himself a theist, an agnostic or an atheist. Would 51% do? 

I don't recall spending any time as an agnostic on my way to atheism. Until age 11, I was a believer, and I remained a believer even after I came to hold the God of the Bible in contempt. I proceeded to atheism in my mid-twenties because I found it harder to envision God as a weakling or an asshole (all supernatural versions of God paint him as one or the other) than to renounce his existence.

Emotionally, I would still like to believe that I am immortal, protected, guided, and that my life has an ordained purpose, but intellectually, I no longer try because I’ve examined all the supposed evidence and found it fanciful. Only a personal experience would touch my unbelief in the least, although I wouldn’t necessarily accept that as valid. After all, I’m capable of hallucinating, so if I were to hear or see an entity that my investigations had determined to be imaginary, my impulse would be to doubt the experience rather than to doubt my investigations.

In some countries, the hands of God-worshippers are dripping in blood. In the U.S., the Christian community generally stops at insults, threats, and social, economic, and legal discrimination, but vandalism and physical violence also occur (I was rapped on the head for not standing for prayer while on jury duty). Given Christianity’s bloody past and its widespread meanness even today, I believe that the only difference between the dominant face of Christianity in America and that of Islam in the Middle East is that America’s laws provide significant protection for a diversity of believers and nonbelievers. Unfortunately, this protection must be endlessly safeguarded by lawsuits against those who would make America a theocracy. As I see it, there are three kinds of Christians: those who are clueness regarding religious oppression, those who carry out the oppression, and those whose silence implies that they consent to the oppression. Because it would be a small step from making Christianity our state religion to enacting restrictive laws against unpopular forms of Christianity, I’m at a loss to understand the certainty on the part of believers that a Christianized America would only present a problem for non-Christians.

The sign in the photo (from the Freedom from Religion Foundation website) was one of four erected at taxpayer expense by the city officials of Sylvania, Alabama. Government-sponsored, Christian-specific displays and observances are commonplace in America despite the fact that they violate the law. If any Christians object to them, they do a good job of letting nonbelievers take the heat for speaking out.

A welcome outing

The pain has let up enough lately that Peggy and I took a two-night camping trip to the nearby Willamette National Forest, a tract of land the size of New Jersey. We had planned to stay in the vicinity of Elephant Rock, but one lane of the road had fallen off the mountainside a mile from our destination (the road is shown in the first photo—note the horsetails growing in the nearly vertical slide area), so we walked to it instead. That night, as always, we slept in the van on an abandoned logging road. The next day, we set out for Windy Pass, but snow turned us back at 4,100 feet (1,250 meters), so we decided to drive to the top of a small mountain for the night. Near the summit, a crosswise section of the road had sunk considerably (photo two—the gray area at the top of the photo is where the sinkhole reappears), and Peggy had to hit the brakes hard to keep from running into it.

We are accustomed to deteriorating roadways along with other backcountry travel hazards. For example, I frequently have to clear the road of rocks, and I carry a bucksaw and loppers for fallen trees and branches. Yet, our most common challenge is that the downhill side of a road will have slumped in preparation for collapsing altogether. Logging roads are often too narrow to avoid driving over slumps, so since Peggy prefers to drive (leaving me free to navigate and to remove obstacles), I will sometimes get out and guide her. If she’s worried that the road might collapse while she's on it, she’ll have the dog get out too. As she drove over one such slump on this trip, the van was so tilted that the rear wheels slid sideways. I would prefer that she be the one to get out when there's danger, but Peggy's unwilling to give up the driver’s seat unless there's much maneuvering to do. I tell her that I will never live down the embarrassment of headlines that say, "Local Man Saves Self, Allows Wife to Perish in Horrific Fall from Mountainside," but Peggy is nothing if not obstinate.
Our 3/4-ton van only has two-wheel drive, but it’s high off the ground and will take us down some hellacious roads if there’s not much mud or snow. We learned early on that it’s worthless in slippery conditions due the fact that there’s not enough weight on its backend to give it adequate traction. On one occasion, we made it most of the way up a long icy hill only to slide nearly to the bottom. As we slid, the van started to leave the roadway in the direction of a precipice making it necessary for me to jump out and push it sideways to keep it from going over. I don't know how much good I actually accomplished, but it was all I could do. Peggy kidded me about abandoning her and the dogs, but if the van had fallen, it would have taken me with it.

You might wonder why we drive such bad roads. It’s because we value solitude. On our recent trip, we didn’t see or hear anyone from the time we left the paved road on Wednesday until we regained it on Friday, yet we were never more than 35 miles (56 km), as the crow flies, from town. In fact, we could sometimes look back and see town with its metro area of 352,000. I spent most of my life in the country before I realized that I’m a city boy at heart. Even so, I need wilderness, and Oregon gives me that. Of course, in real wilderness, there are no roads, but my days of faring hard and liking it are over. In fact, we came back from this trip so sore and tired that I’m wondering how much longer we can continue to camp. It’ll be a sad day when we have to give that up.

All photos are from this trip, and were taken in the Old Cascades, a 40-million year old chain of igneous mountains that parallels the younger High Cascades, several volcanos of which are expected to erupt again (Mt. Saint Helens being a recent example). The columnar basalt rock formation and the waterfall in the bottom two photos are unnamed because such beauty is so commonplace in Oregon that it's considered unworthy of note. Waterfalls in particular often number several per mile, although most of them are seasonal. The flowers in front of the one pictured are coltsfoot.