The Trap

I knew it was the wrong thing to do before I did it. I didn’t care that the other party’s loss would be my gain. It was an opportunity too good to pass up. In reality, it was too good to be true.

For months I had wanted to buy a set of ellipse drafting templates, but they were expensive. I had checked several sources and they wall wanted over a hundred dollars for the set. That was what attracted me to zDocto on the Web, as they listed just what I wanted for about 40% less money.

While on the site, I shopped for other drafting tools, and all the prices seemed exceptionally good. Soon I had an order of half a dozen items, and went to the checkout page. Looking at the totals I noticed a ”Quantity Discount” that reduced the total to $99. That surprised me, but I thought ”Okay. I’ll take that.”

Then I noticed an item in my shopping cart that I had not selected. Hmm, I thought, I must have clicked something by mistake. When I deleted it the Quantity Discount decreased, and the total was still $99. Could it be that a larger order would bestow a larger discount?

I started to shop aggressively, exploring several categories of items on the website. Some of the deals were incredible. There were professional audio components for mere pennies on the dollar that other vendors were charging. I started adding items and kept checking my shopping cart total, and no matter how many items I added, the Quantity Discount grew to keep the total at $99.

At that point I should have smelled the rat, but I was so thrilled at finding these great deals I wasn’t thinking critically. I even considered that there was something wrong with the website, that it was stuck somehow on that total, but thought ”Well, they will have to honor it, and their loss will be my gain.” My greed blinded me.

I clicked the ”place order” button and authorized the payment through PayPal. On the confirmation message from PayPal, I noticed something strange: the payee was a totally different business name, completely unrelated to my order, something to do with kitchen products. A cold feeling crept down my spine and settled into my stomach. Nothing added up.

The Lure

The lure to the trap in which I was now certainly caught had been a combination of errors in my thinking. I believed in the ”finder’s keepers” luck of a windfall. I then constructed a fantasy where my desires were fulfilled for little expense, even to the point of absurdity. I believed I had somehow outsmarted the website and could take advantage of a fortuitous circumstance

Nobody would have to know of my ”deal that bordered on a steal” due to the anonymity of the Web. The money moved invisibly and the products would appear in cardboard boxes at my door. If indeed I was a thief, then I would be invisible as well. Even if questioned I could claim ignorance of any unfairness in the deal.


I had entered a dream state where causation didn’t matter. As long as the deals kept flowing, the dream persisted. My powers of critical thinking and logic didn’t penetrate below the superficial fact of the quantity discount and the grand total. After all, the math seemed correct.

My self deception put me in the winning position in a zero-sum game, where my winning required the opponent to lose. My selfish side took control of me and discarded any qualms of fairness or regret for the merchant’s predicament. I felt a sense of power.

In reality, the website held the power, and was by this point pulling the strings that made me point and click. I was the puppet, dutifully falling for one ”great” buy after another. No doubt the puppet master knew my weaknesses, and supplied the appropriate triggers.


I didn’t consider myself a dishonest person. My parents had drilled their moral code into me as a child, although I had been caught shoplifting and had received a lecture from my Dad. My mother was the epitome of virtue, but stopped making me go to Sunday School when she caught me playing cards with the other students under the table.

Perhaps I felt I was above common morals due to my ”superior” intelligence, which in my opinion gave me a certain degree of privilege. That somehow entitled me to getting something for nothing, gaining at others’ expense. After all, brains had made human beings the dominant species on the planet, or so I thought.

I felt justified in self-serving behavior as a matter of survival of the fittest, and considered it only natural to seize whatever opportunity came my way. Phrases like ”He who hesitates is lost” convinced me that one had to beat others to the prize, through quick and decisive action. What I didn’t realize was that the website and its creator had seized my consciousness.

Parasites, predators, and perverts

Just what kind of person lures unsuspecting victims into their clutches? No doubt they are parasites, living off others’ gullibility and mindless instincts for self preservation. They manipulate tools of civilization to infect their hosts and feed off their life energy. They don’t intend to kill their host, and may attempt to remain undetected as long as possible.

Other more nefarious operators may be more explicit in their attacks, becoming downright murderous, seeking to totally devastate their opponent. Still others may enjoy inflicting pain and misery upon their victims, in a dark attempt to fill some psychological void in themselves. Some seek to disrupt the social order through political and economic interference and manipulation, perhaps justifying their actions for some higher ideological purpose.


Given the predatory nature of people, how do we protect ourselves, while still maintaining an open and free society? Catching and punishing cyber criminals proves difficult, one reason for its prevalence. While buyer protection programs offer some relief for consumers, clearly our primary prevention strategies lie with ourselves.

In my case, the Buddhist practice of compassion may have saved me. I knew the deal was skewed in my favor, possibly due to a website malfunction. Had I been thinking of the vendor, I would not have attempted to take advantage of the situation. Perhaps I would have tried to contact them to clarify the issue.

I could establish rules for myself, such as checking out retailers before ordering from them for the first time. This has been my practice in the past, but the prospect of a great deal clouded my judgment. Now I know those self-imposed rules are there for my protection, to disregard at my own peril.

One such rule could be to always seek a fair exchange of payment for a service or product. This underscores the reciprocal nature of commerce and encourages social rather than predatory behavior. Buyer and seller are on an equal basis, with each to gain from the transaction. It is not a zero-sum game, but one where everyone wins.

Waiting for several hours or days before making a purchase could also provide time for desires to abate. Patience could restore a calm state of mind from which normal critical thinking and logic could re-emerge. Reflection on my needs and the shopping experience could dispel the fantasy world of the puppeteer and give my executive mind a chance to inhibit impulsive action.


In the event that we fall prey to our own weakness and the predatory hunt of the criminal mind, our most important redress is to forgive both parties in the unfortunate exchange. We forgive ourselves for our ignorance, negligence, and impure motivations of self-gain at the expense of others. We acknowledge that we are fallible and do not meet every challenge adequately. We after all are using archaic emotions and instincts to navigate a modern world nothing like what our ancestors experienced.

To forgive the perpetrator requires a degree of understanding of their motives and predicament. They are human beings as well, subject to the same emotions and desires as mine. In their case they have given up hope for a just and moral society, and show as little respect for their own integrity as for their victim’s right to a full and satisfying life.

Forgiving opens the mind to greater awareness of the proclivities for anti-social behavior in all humans. Given that humanity’s greatest survival asset was the ability to form cohesive groups, which magnified the potential for securing food and shelter, we must recognize the destructive conflict within all of us between individual and group priorities. Behaviors such as theft, aggression, and deception plague us to the core and threaten our very existence.

Finally, we can replace feelings of righteousness, condemnation, and regret with conviction to act more maturely and responsibly. Letting go of the past lets us return our attention to the present, and helps us bolster our determination to create the future that we want, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. We can resolve to live our vision of our best selves in a benign and productive world.

wood stove installed in RV

Three months ago the prospect of wind, cold temperatures, and snow filled me with dread, but today, with my wood/coal stove easily keeping the temperature inside my RV above 70 degrees, the 30 something degree winds outside, with a forecast of up to three inches of snow, doesn’t bother me. In fact, it gives me a certain degree of satisfaction. With at least a month’s worth of firewood stacked and covered, and two piles of raw wood covered and ready for cutting into stove lengths, my heating needs seem secured, at least until the subzero weather, when it will be time to switch to coal. What a change from previous winters, when the average daytime temperature inside the RV was 50 degrees, with nighttime temperatures dipping into the low forties and high thirties!

Part of my satisfaction stems from the hard work in September, refurbishing the stove and installing it in the RV. First the space for the stove needed clearing, using the compartment taken up with the refrigerator and propane furnace. After those were gone, the walls, floor, and ceiling needed concrete backer board to take the heat due to minimal clearance. Then the chimney needed to go through the roof and be braced against the fierce winds to come. That required special adapters and pipe, and considerable expense.

The stove itself was rusty and stiff, having been stored outdoors for almost fifteen years. After stripping the stove down to the metal frame, I went to work on the rust with my grinder, wire brush, and sander, and then applied high temperature paint with my spray gun and compressor . Once I cleaned the brass trim with cerium oxide abrasive and reassembled the stove, it looked as good as new. Then the problem was getting it into the RV. My wheeled hand truck, ratchet straps, and handyman jack helped me get it up the steps and into the compartment, after carefully setting up each maneuver and applying more brains than muscle to the puzzle.

All my preparation and measurements paid off as the stove slipped into place and the chimney bolted on. While installing the flashing and support struts for the chimney, my close inspection of the roof revealed pinholes in the aluminum sheet metal roofing, the source of a mysterious leak that had plagued me for several years. A coat of black, tarry mastic over that whole section of the roof fixed the leak, and just in time, too, as a storm moved in that evening.

Last year my strategy was to leave all of this behind and spend the winter in California. Then, all my efforts centered around getting my vehicle ready and packing. This year it was different. Upon my return from seven months away, the soft June breeze and gently shaking aspen leaves whispered something in my ear, and made me realize how beautiful it was in Wyoming, and how lucky I was to have my own place here. Slowly, over the next few months, my resolve to stay the winter gained strength, and my thoughts turned to what needed my attention before the cold weather arrived.

The skirting on the RV was rotten and had holes that admitted cold air and mice, which resulted in frozen pipes and a mouse infestation inside the living compartment. The door on the engine compartment in front had rotted away and needed new plywood backing. Tackling these tasks, which had developed over years of neglect, reawakened a sense of stewardship in me, a feeling deeper than just fear of cold and snow. The RV needed some long overdue attention, and in return would give me a secure place to live.

Looking back, it seems strange that my own situation had degraded so much. Perhaps it had to do with quitting my job, losing my business, my marriage, my family, and moving out of the rental house and into the RV, all in the space of four years. That would be enough to send most people into shock and grief. On top of that, my mother became the center of a family feud over her being put in a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s Disease. Only after her death did family members start talking to each other again.

From the disarray on my acreage in Story, which was mine after buying my ex-wife’s share, you would say something was wrong with the person living there. You would be right, but you would only be guessing from the surface appearance. The deeper reality was more complex. My job as an adjunct instructor at the local community college consumed all of my time and energy. In addition to that, my sister from California asked me to fix the bathroom wall in her rental apartment in Sheridan, and that project expanded into a total remodel, with new plumbing, wiring, heating, bathroom fixtures and tile, and kitchen counter top. Even the walls needed extensive repairs before painting, and we installed new windows everywhere.

You couldn’t call me lazy, because between the teaching and remodeling, there wasn’t a spare minute. No wonder my own place suffered from neglect. Even that excuse doesn’t reach the core of the problem, though. My dreams of building a home for my family shattered, all my internal motivation vanished. Only the external motivations of the teaching job and my sister’s apartment had the power to put me to work. Left to my own predicament, my inner well seemed dry.

What changed me? What fount recharged my resources? What made me fall in love with my place in Story again? Was it my seven month absence in California last year? Was it my winter camping experience in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico four years before? Was it the end my job with the college and starting Social Security benefits? Probably yes, to all of those things.

Who can tell exactly when grief ends and you decide to start living again? Instead of punishing myself for all the mistakes that led to overwhelming losses, bundling up in a frigid environment, and denying myself a future, deciding to change my environment, through the hard work of installing a stove and cutting wood, gave me permission to feel good again, about my place and about myself. Staying in Wyoming and opening my eyes to all the interrupted projects on my place used to provoke feelings of failure, but now those projects offer the promise of many hours of problem solving and satisfaction in the years ahead.

What better gift could a single man ask for in retirement? With no debt and simple needs, my income covers my expenses and will even pay for modest building supplies. Even though my muscles complain after a hard day of work outdoors, the promise of rest and leisure gives me a chance to recover and plan for the next engagement. Even my limitations of old and unreliable vehicles seems to reinforce my future on my place in Story, since it is too risky and expensive to go anywhere far away.

Nobody knows how long they have to live, and my diagnosis of cardiovascular disease twenty-five years ago suggests that my end could suddenly manifest from heart attack or stroke. Even that has worked in my favor, though, forcing me to change my lifestyle and diet, and exercise regularly. As a result, my outward appearance isn’t typical of a sixty-six year old man. Maybe there is enough strength left in my muscles, enough determination left in my mind, and enough time in my circulatory system, to realize some of my dreams.

Could it be that the threats of winter, and of death, give us new vitality and motivation to live? If so, those threats become gifts in disguise. We can use our predicament, whatever its nature, to help us discover what it is to be human, to experience grief from loss and satisfaction from accomplishment. After all, it is the ability to reflect upon our lives, and to grapple with reality and change it to our advantage, that makes us so different from other animals, and so successful.

Penrose Park

Wyoming has been wonderful this summer, but here in the high plains of Laramie there are signs of fall in the air.  Actually, the sign was on the ground this morning.  On my way to my rebounder in the backyard of the apartment building there were frost-rimmed leaves on some of the broad leafed plants in the lawn.  It was a pretty sight, but somewhat chilling, in a double sense.  Like a true snowbird, my thoughts turned to escape for when the truly cold weather arrives, along with the snow and ice.  Of course, Laramie is fairly high in elevation, over 7000 feet, so the rest of the state, and Story in particular, probably won't see frost for another 3 or 4 weeks.

The summer has been busy with handyman work and maintenance tasks.  There were numerous small tasks to complete on my sister Sylvia's rental properties in Sheridan to get them ready for external painting and new renters.  There was repair work to be done on my RV parked on my property in Story.  My car needed new tires after the long road trip to Arizona and New Mexico.  Also, my friend Janell in Laramie had several remodeling, repair, and cleaning tasks that could use my help.  My telescope system needed some attention, too.

It all started when my music instructor invited me to present my final composition to him and a fellow student in early May.  Leaving Laramie that morning (the 11th) gave me just enough time to drive to Sheridan, although it turns out the meeting was one half hour later than expected, and the other student didn't show up (spaced it out, he said later).  After my presentation, which a few onlookers from another class watched along with the instructor, Chris Erickson, another class presented their music technology capstone projects, and the instructor for that class invited me to stay and evaluate the presentations.  That was fun, as there were some interesting ideas for recording engineering, band promotion, and recording educational videos.  The last project was closest to my current interests, as that is one of my goals for the observatory and data collection that has become so important to me.

Ever since my sister Shirley had told me a few weeks before about the tree trunk that had fallen on my RV roof, visions of a crumpled roof had occupied my imagination.  Upon returning to Story the RV looked remarkably good from the outside, considering the size of the trunk that had broken off a dead pine tree next to the RV and had fallen perhaps 20 feet before impact.  Inside was a different story, though.  Water had seeped in despite Shirley and Jim's efforts to patch the roof, and many items on my drafting board and underneath on the breakfast nook seating area were saturated.  That included many of my music books (boo-hoo).  There was nothing to do but haul out the wet and moldy stuff and dump it on the rock pile beside my front door.  (Remember, my place in Story is still a construction site, with big excavation pits and thousands of cobblestones piled in various places.)

Even my old digital camera (Sony CyberShot) got soaked.  Luck was with me, though, as it still powered up and worked once allowed to dry out.  Funny, that camera would have been handy for my trip to Arizona, since my cell phone camera pictures only look good on a small screen or in a website blog (like this one).  In my rush to leave Story in January, that camera among other items got left behind.  Oh, well.

It took several days to unpack and acclimate myself to Story again.  Of course one of my first destinations was the Public Library, where everyone greeted me after my winter absence.  It was good to ride my bicycle up the Fish Hatchery Road again, and resume my schedule of spending Sunday afternoons with my sister Shirley.  We also took another quick day trip together, along with her husband Jim, to Bozeman Montana for a memorial gathering dedicated to my late Aunt Nora.  That was a pleasant drive in the spring greenery and it was fun to meet some of my cousins and aunts again, having seen them perhaps nine months earlier at the Jenkins-Allen family reunion in Buffalo the summer before.

Work commenced on my sister Sylvia's rental properties in Sheridan, and both my pickup and car provided transportation for the 18 mile commute from my place in Story.  The truck started right up after sitting for over 9 months, thanks to my having it hooked up to a battery maintainer all winter (along with the Volkswagen Rabbit parked next to it).  After many interesting conversations with Erin Adams, the property manager for Sylvia's rentals, we got the house and apartment buildings ready for the painter, who started his crew on the job in early June.  My role was just to provide support, since Erin was handling the contract.  We provided feedback to the roofers that were repairing some of the siding that was damaged due to splashback from dormer and porch roofs, and evaluated the new roofing on the apartment.  Everything was on track and proceeded smoothly.

Sylvia arrived for a short visit in late June and we had several long visits, which helped us clarify our feelings about the apartment renovation job that was now complete.  Sylvia validated all my hard work on that project by saying she thought it was money well spent, and it was best to do things the right way.  She seemed in good health after her three year teaching adventure in Saudi Arabia, and was glad to be done with that and was looking forward to retirement.  Of course, there were new concerns associated with making that transition, not the least of which was how she would adjust to a reduced income.

Tongue River cave passage
Passage into Tongue River cave

My promise to return to Laramie kept being put off for various reasons.  The discovery that my astronomy camera didn't work when testing the new observatory control computer my son Jason built for me, way back in May before returning to Story, required me to send it back to the manufacturer for repair.  It turned out to be a fried component in the USB circuit, probably caused by a bad ground connection.  It must have been disconnected improperly in April when the system was being disassembled, as it worked fine during the last observing run.  Of course, the manufacturer said that wouldn't have happened with the supplied power supply.  Having rigged up my own power system from my batteries, there was no room to argue and it cost $300 to get it fixed, plus the $60 to ship it out to Missouri and another $35 to ship it back.  So my attempt to save power by eliminating the inverter and using buck converters to obtain the proper voltages cost me almost $400 in the end.  That was lesson number one in the School of Hard Knocks.

The other lesson turned out to be the tires on my car.  They had been making noise for several years, ever since my starting to use it to haul my tools into Sheridan for the apartment renovation job, but the tire store said they couldn't detect any abnormal wear and thought the noise was coming from a bent wheel.  That didn't sound too serious and my plan was to drive the car with the existing wheels until the tires needed to be replaced, and then buy new wheels and tires simultaneously.  Well, that day came on the last day of the apartment job, just before my anticipated return to Laramie.  Coming up Tunnel Hill not more than a half mile from my driveway the car started vibrating, and turning into my driveway a quick look confirmed that the left rear tire was flat and ruined from driving on it.

Upon closer inspection of the wheels and tires, after purchasing a floor jack to lift the car safely, showed both rear tires were completely worn out, with the steel belts showing on the inside edges.  Evidently my loading the car down with tools and telescope gear took its toll on the tires.  The extra weight must have changed the camber on the axles to splay the wheels outward on the bottom, causing the insides of the tires to wear prematurely.  No way will that happen to my new tires!  From now on the car will only haul people and their luggage, and not be handled like a lumber wagon.

It turned out that my new wheels and tires, ordered online from Discount Tire Direct (a set of luscious Vox Torino aluminum wheels and Pirelli P4 FourSeasons Plus tires) were delayed, plus the centering rings they sent were the wrong size, so there was nothing to do but wait.  Ah, but there was something to do: take a hiking trip with my daughter Keely to Penrose Park, and visit Tongue River cave.  Both of those adventures were great fun, and it was wonderful to spend time with Keely before her flight to San Francisco and the beginning of her graduate studies in chemistry at UCSF.

Keely is a great outdoor adventurer, and we had a good hike up to our camp spot at Gin Creek (with water so clear it looks like gin, or that the cow punchers that used to camp there always brought gin, who knows).  Upon arriving at the camp site, about five miles and a couple thousand feet in elevation from Story, we decided to hike another five miles with minimal packs to Penrose Park, a high alpine meadow about three miles long and one mile wide, with spectacular views of Penrose Peak, Black Tooth, and Cloud Peak toward the west.  On our way up Long Draw, we saw a herd of elk, which ran up the draw beside us for perhaps half a mile.  We even got to see a calf nursing from its mother!  At Penrose Park, the skies were alternately sunny and cloudy, with afternoon thundershowers brewing.  We stayed maybe a half hour, taking panoramas with our phone cameras, and headed back just as the rain started to sweep across the park.  Luckily, there wasn't any close lightning, and we both had our rain gear, so we were fine walking back.  The biggest challenge for me was to keep my legs from cramping, which required me to keep moving.

Upon  returning from our camping trip, we stopped at my sister Shirley's house for a wonderful afternoon meal and an evening of conversation.  About a week later Keely suggested we visit Tongue River cave, having only seen the beginning part years before when she and Jason, my nephew Tom Pearce, and I made a spur of the moment excursion there.  That time we ran out of time, since Jason had a music lesson in town to attend, and we didn't have proper lights or protective clothing anyway.  This time we were better prepared, with coveralls, gloves, hard hats, and helmet lights.  It also required a permit, which Keely procured online.  We drove my truck to the canyon and began our hike into the cave at around 1 PM, exploring the nearly one mile underground route down into the Rain Room, the Bat Crawl, the Mouse Hole (a tiny squeeze where the wind blows past you), the Subway Tunnel, the Corkscrew (a 3/4 twist that takes you down into the Boulder Room) and all the way back to the underground river and the Falls.  By the time we got back out it was early evening.  We spent a good five hours in there, with a few 5 to 10 minute breaks for utter silence and darkness.  The rest of the time we were climbing, crawling, and walking in the 55 degree cave environment.

Self portrait inside Tongue River cave
Keely and Ray at the underground river inside Tongue River cave

Keely left for San Francisco a few days later, and my truck packed with tools and my telescope took me to Laramie.  Check back later for a continuation of my adventures with Janell and her son Adrian, and my good friend Suzanne.