Category Archives: The Observer

A Diversion

I go to a club to workout.  I try to go everyday.  I met a guy there named Ben.  He’s well over six feet and has sort of folds of flesh hanging around his abdomen.  I expect he was really heavy at one time and lost a lot of weight.  He is also brown as berry all over.  You see this stuff in the locker room where people change their clothes.  He is retired now, formerly an engineer, and very smart.


Also he complains about something all the time.  He has been going to the club longer than anybody I know there, over 20 years, and all he can do is complain about the place.  You figure he would go somewhere else with all the complaints.  They were playing some sort of music over the speakers in the locker room, and he would go around with his hands over his ears complaining about the crap.  He complained so much they stopped playing the music.

He has his own house with a big front yard with grass and he started into talking about this war he had with the gophers.  He waged a war on them for years, using all the traditional devices—flooding, sticking flares in their holes, traps—but he couldn’t get rid of them.  There was one really big one that he came to recognize, that he just couldn’t get rid of.  The thing would come out of its hole and like taunt him, Ben said.

Being an engineer Ben eventually went high tech; he bought or built this device that stomped the ground. He thought maybe the vibrations of the stomper would drive out the gophers.  But all it did was leave a big hole where it stomped.  Then he hit on sound and bought a high frequency noise emitter that was supposed to produce a sound, inaudible to human beings, that drove gophers crazy.  The problem was that cats and sometimes dogs that would come into his yard and go nuts when they heard the sound.  Cats would just flip into the air he said and go into convulsions.  He didn’t like the cats and dogs coming into his yard—people should know better—but he didn’t like having to cart them out of the yard and put up with neighbor’s complaints either.  That could have been worse; the noise didn’t out right kill the animals.  Just flipped them out.

Over time, he managed to adjust the frequency of the noise emitter and he said it pretty much worked.  But he couldn’t get rid of that big fellow that taunted him.  I could tell he had a grudging respect for that recalcitrant gopher.  He had an Ahab and the Whale thing going with that gopher.  The big gopher had turned old and grey over the years of their fight, and the way Ben figured it, the old guy was now deaf and that’s why the sound didn’t disturb him.

Turns out Ben is brown as a berry because he has psoriasis.  He has a good thatch of grey hair, and said I wished I had his thick hair since mine is becoming all thin and stringy.  Oh, he said, that was nothing; it was really much thicker than that but he had to use some super powerful shampoo to keep the psoriasis off his scalp.  One of the ways people fight psoriasis is to get a lot of sun; thus the brown as a berry effect.


I have been hearing songs on the radio for a bit now from a CD called “The Road to Escondido” by JJ Cale, with Eric Clapton.  I figured it couldn’t be our Escondido, the one where Brother Steve lives, and near where the folks live.  But I was wrong.  JJ Cale lives in Valley Center which is exactly where the folks lived.  That was their address “Delridge, Valley Center, CA.”  I guess he titled his album the road to Escondido because it would’t sound as mysterious or something as the road to Valley Center.

Coca Cola Vigil



This is a picture of the candle light vigil at Virginia held in recognition of and to mourn the deaths of 32 Virginia Tech students massacred by a murderer.  If one is however unaware of this context and knows what one is looking at this might also be an advertisement for Coca Cola.  If one looks closely, one will see people holding candles in little red cups.  These are Coca Cola cups.  Visits to media sites as well as Flickr will confirm this.  Indeed peppered, throughout pictures of the mourners, one finds coca cola cups.

Perhaps significantly too in responses to pictures of this kind on Flickr one finds no mention of the cups.  Rather, repetitiously, “awesome shot,” “thanks for sharing,” “very moving.”

I didn’t notice this myself because I did not watch TV coverage of the event or look for coverage of it online.  But after class this last Thursday, a student came up and said, “Hey, I noticed something because of this class.”  We are discussing and writing about the consumer culture.  When he told me about the coca cola cups, I was outraged at the pure insensitivity and just plain vulgarity displayed by people mourning the deaths of comrades with candles in coca cola cups.  I can’t at the moment quite find the words to express my feelings about the inappropriateness of this particular product placement. 

I suppose there might be many reasons for this sordid vulgarity.  One was in a rush to mourn and perhaps lacking a cup in which to stick one’s candle, one takes a coca cola cup because it is handed to one, as free of charge.  Still, had a coca cola cup been handed to me on such an occasion, I would have thrown it to the ground and stomped on it.  I wouldn’t in any case have wanted my grief  associated with a sweet, sticky substance, that rots teeth and contributes to obesity.  Not to mention its association with the predatory capitalism of the Coke corporation.

But this reaction marks me I suppose as pretty old school.  I was not born and raised in the consumer culture as it flowered since about 1980.  The students I teach seem to find nothing wrong with acting as walking billboards for whatever clothes they are wearing or rock groups they support.  And they find nothing wrong, I guess, because acting as a walking billboard serves as an identity marker, as way of asserting one’s allegiance to a particular product and all the other unknown people who also pledge allegiance to this particular product.  Who knows but some students carrying those coca cola candles may have felt, albeit unconsciously, soothed by those cups and their associations with that sweet, sticky beverage that has marked so many happy and unhappy occasions.

Objectivity is Repression

The instructors for the ethics course were all devotees of “thought experiments.”  These were rather fanciful affairs designed, as far as I could see, mostly to throw students into confusion concerning thoughtexperimenttheir “moral intuitions.”  They involved trains going down tracks and people tied to the train tracks and someone standing by a lever and having to decide whether to switch the lever so that one or three people died, even if the one was your brother and so on and so forth.  They also involved people getting stuck in caves and having to drive over people to save people stuck in caves.

The questions these thought experiments are intended to evoke involve such matters as whether or not it is ever morally right to kill an innocent person even if killing that person might mean saving many lives.  Also involved, in the experiments I heard was the attempt to make the distinction between killing and letting die.  The amount of mayhem and mutiliation evoked–all spoken about in a very light hearted manner complete with stick like illustrations drawn on the black board–for the purposes of philosophic speculation was quite amazing.  The thought experiments, as one can see, along with discussions of capital punishment, abortion and euthenasia all involved, in one way or another, the topic of death. However, death, as an issue of some subjective importance to the individual, was never addressed.

For a number of years I also taught a writing class linked with a course international relations. At that time, the mid-80’s, the course concerned itself with US and Soviet relations.  A full three lectures were devoted to nuclear war and the possibility of nuclear disarmament.  The different forms of nuclear destruction, whether from air craft, submarines, or rockets, was quite amazing.  Additionally, rockets differed considerably in “throw weigh,” some had multiple war heads and some didn’t; some were in cased or hardened silos and others weren’t.  The discussion was very complete and designed to show that disarmament was probably impossible.  

Every time I sat through these lectures I got a headache.  Also amazingly, though I had heard the lecture three or four times, each time it seemed I had completely forgotten everything I had previously known about the subject.  I didn’t at first understand why my head felt all abuzz after these lectures; but one day it hit me that basically we had been discussing mass destruction, and the possible end of civilization as we knew it.  And once again death was never directly addressed as a matter of some possible significance to the individual.

I have long wondered what academics mean by “objectivity,” because as far as I could tell, especially in the social sciences and humanities, none of them remotely approach it.  Perhaps this is what they mean—talking about death, pain, misery, mutiliation all as if they had no relation to anybody in the lecture hall, as if it all were happening somewhere out there in a kind of giant thought experiment.  Talking about sticking or not sticking a needle of poison into somebody’s arm as a way of distinguishing between killing and letting die.

Personally, I don’t call this objectivity.  I call it repression, systemmatic and unconscious repression.  Boredom is an odd thing.  Sometimes it is a mask for anxiety; perhaps that’s why the ethics class seemed at times to drag on endlessly. Anxiety is timeless.


As part of my war to stay out of the draft, I tried to prove I was insane.  This was not that difficult, since I nearly was, but I needed documentation.  One could go to the LA draft board howling like crazed banshee and they would still take you.  So I took the Minnesota Multiphase Personality Profile, at that time the most used instrument for determining degrees of nuts-ness.

I have cheated on few tests, but I did on this one, not to pass it, but to make sure I failed. I answered yes to a few questions that I really didn’t believe.  I didn’t find the results entirely satisfactory.  They said a) I had massive reading defect b) I was malingering c) I was a danger to myself and others and then went on grimly for two single spaced pages explaining why.

I have a theory that about three quarters of the population is functionally insane and the rest holding on by the skin of their teeth.  Without the diverse forms of insanity society would cease to move; it is fueled however by diverse pathologies.  Sadists become Generals, and Police men, and Surgeons. 

I think everybody should be required to take the MMPP. But of course the test is set up to create a normal person; if every body who took the test turned out insane then the test would lack “scientific validity.”

As I remember the test had questions like:

Do you feel that people are watching you?  (Yes, of course, why do you ask?)

Do you cross the street rather than speak to a person you know.  (Why certainly, that’s what streets are made for).

Do you examine? Study? Or eat? Your feces after taking a dump. Or: all of the above.

Do you believe in the Second Coming of Christ?

Do you believe the End is “at hand,” “somewhat close by,” in the “distant future.”

I wonder if the MMPP people have dropped the question about the Second Coming? Or maybe they have changed its value from an indication of insanity to an indication of sanity.  Because if they haven’t a large portion of the population and of persons now running the government, have a) a massive reading defect b) are malingering or c) are a danger to themselves and others.