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.

Deception

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.

Predisposition

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.

Prophylaxis

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.

Forgiveness

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.